Archive for September, 2018

Corporate Harassment

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

People who are subjected to sexual harassment on the job are too often left to confront their abusers on their own. Those with means can hire high-powered legal help, as Gretchen Carlson did in her lawsuit against 21st Century Fox that resulted in a $20 million settlement. Other survivors of abuse may not get justice.

A new initiative by Fight for $15 is making the fight against workplace harassment a collective rather than an individual struggle. In a bold new initiative for the labor movement, the campaign recently organized work stoppages at McDonald’s fast-food outlets in ten cities to protest harassment and to highlight complaints filed earlier this year with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This will not be the first time the EEOC has heard reports about such practices at McDonald’s. In 2010, for example, the company had to pay $50,000 to settle allegations of harassment by an assistant store manager in New Jersey who was reported to have touched and spanked a teenage worker.

For years, the company failed to take adequate action to deal with repeated instances in which female workers were falsely accused of stealing customer property and strip-searched by managers in response to phone calls from individuals pretending to be law enforcement officers. In 2007 McDonald’s had to pay $6.1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a young worker in Kentucky who was also molested.

The decision of a state appeals court upholding the damage award noted that similar incidents had occurred more than 30 times at McDonald’s outlets. The ruling went on to say: “McDonald’s corporate legal department was fully aware of these hoaxes and had documented them. The evidence supports the reasonable conclusion that McDonald’s corporate management made a conscious decision not to train or warn store managers or employees about the calls.”

Corporate decisions not to take steps to protect workers were also behind many of the more than 275 cases documented in Violation Tracker in which corporations paid to settle sexual harassment allegations brought with the involvement of the EEOC. These cases together have yielded $132 million in penalties.

The tally goes back to 2000, but cases continue to the present. Among the most recent ones are the $3.75 million harassment settlement signed by Koch Foods involving poultry workers in Mississippi who also alleged racial and national origin discrimination as well as the $3.5 million settlement by outsourcing company Alorica in connection with allegations that a group of customer service representatives in California were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.

To supplement the EEOC actions I’m in the process of collecting data for Violation Tracker on class action and individual lawsuits brought by workers separate from the agency. These will cover harassment claims as well as cases involving discrimination by employers based on gender, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability and age discrimination. I’ve already tallied more than $1 billion in settlements and verdicts involving the largest corporations.

It’s great that the MeToo and the Fight for $15 movements are highlighting the continuing problems of harassment on the job. I look forward to the day when there will not be so many such cases to document.

 

Note: The latest update to Violation Tracker has just been posted.

The Persistence of Bank Misconduct

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

Ten years ago this month, the financial crisis erupted, and within a matter of weeks the banking landscape was transformed. Merrill Lynch was taken over by Bank of America. Lehman Brothers collapsed. AIG had to be bailed out by the federal government. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the last two independent investment houses, were forced to become bank holding companies subject to stricter regulation. JPMorgan Chase took over Washington Mutual. Congress was compelled to create the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

What were the consequences of the widespread misconduct that caused the meltdown? Lehman turned out to be the only major institution to suffer the fate of liquidation. No top executives at any banks faced personal criminal or civil charges. The federal government sold off its holdings in the companies that were bailed out.

The most significant penalty was financial. According to data collected for Violation Tracker, banks were hit with a total of $89 billion in penalties relating to the issuance and sale of the toxic securities at the center of the crisis. More than $40 billion in penalties were imposed in related mortgage abuse cases.

While by some measures these penalties are significant, they are far less than the amount of harm the banks caused to the economy and the financial well-being of homeowners, workers and others. What is even more frustrating is that the billions in payments seem to have failed in their main purpose: discouraging banks from engaging in similar bad acts in the future.

We don’t have to wait to see if this is true. Even while they were still resolving cases stemming from the financial crisis, large banks were starting to engage in more wrongdoing.

Exhibit A is Wells Fargo, which is now more notorious for its behavior subsequent to the meltdown. It will forever be known as the bank that created millions of bogus accounts to generate illicit fees from its customers. Earlier this year, Wells was fined a total of $1 billion by the Officer of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That came after the Federal Reserve took the unprecedented step of barring the bank from growing any larger until it cleaned up its business practices.

Bank of America has also been accused of harming its customers. In 2014 the CFPB ordered the bank to provide $727 million in relief to credit card holders charged for deceptive add-on services. BofA’s Merrill Lynch unit has in recent years been fined repeatedly by regulators for a variety of improper practices. In June, for example, the SEC penalized Merrill $42 million for falsely telling brokerage customers that it had executed millions of orders internally when it had actually farmed them out to other firms.

Citigroup faced its own allegations of illegal credit card practices, and in 2015 it was ordered by the CFPB to provide $700 million in relief to customers. This year, in an unusually aggressive enforcement action by the Trump-controlled CFPB, Citi was ordered to pay $335 million in restitution to 1.75 million credit card customers for failing to properly adjust interest rates.

These abuses may not jeopardize the entire economy like those of the early 2000s, but they show that the big banks remain ethically challenged.

DOJ is also Defying Trump on Foreign Bribery

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Millions of words have been published about Donald Trump’s feud with the Justice Department over the Mueller investigation. Little is being written about another way in which DOJ is thwarting the president’s will: the ongoing prosecution of foreign bribery.

Starting before he became a candidate for the White House, Trump has railed against the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the 1977 law that allows for both civil and criminal cases to be brought against officials that engage in bribery and related practices committed anywhere in the world as long as their company does business in or has securities trading in the United States. He continued to complain about FCPA’s supposed unfairness after taking office.

These complaints seem to have had little effect on DOJ or on the Securities and Exchange Commission, which enforces the civil side of the law. Data collected for Violation Tracker, including a forthcoming update, show that since Trump took office DOJ and SEC have announced more than a dozen case resolutions with total penalties of more than $1.5 billion.

Several of those resolutions have been announced during the past two months. In early July DOJ and SEC each announced cases with combined penalties of $76 million against Credit Suisse and one of its subsidiaries for improperly winning banking business by giving jobs to family members and friends of Chinese government officials. Just the other day, the SEC announced that the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi would pay $25 million to resolve allegations that its subsidiaries in Kazakhstan and the Middle East made corrupt payments to win business.

It is true that many of the cases announced under Trump have involved foreign companies. Others include Japan’s Panasonic, Sweden’s Telia, and Canada’s Kinross Gold. Yet the culprits have also included some U.S.-based companies. Last year, for example, Halliburton had to pay $29 million to resolve allegations relating to its actions in Angola. Earlier this year, Dun & Bradstreet paid $9 million in connection with two of its subsidiaries in China. Most recently, investment manager Legg Mason agreed to pay more than $34 million to settle allegations that one of its subsidiaries was involved in a scheme to bribe officials in Libya.

While DOJ and SEC seem to be carrying out their mission of investigating FCPA violations by a wide range of companies, it remains to be seen whether that includes the Trump Organization, which according to various media reports may have corrupt practices act liability in a variety of countries (see, for example, The New Yorker piece on Azerbaijan).

This may be another test of whether Trump – and his business interests – are exempt from the law, but for now it is good to see that Trump has not succeeded in undermining an important tool in prosecuting other corporate bad actors.