Archive for November, 2018

Abandoning Human Rights to Benefit Crooked Corporations

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

According to the grievance-based worldview of Donald Trump, the United States is constantly being cheated. He purports to be addressing this through his trade policies and his attitudes toward international organizations such as NATO. Yet he seems to be a lot less concerned about another kind of cheating: the ongoing fraud committed against the federal government by military contractors.

This is an old story yet it takes on new relevance amid the current controversies over the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government and ongoing American support for the brutal Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Trump’s main justification for refusing to take stronger action against the kingdom is his claim that it would jeopardize potential U.S. arms sales to the Saudis, the value of which Trump wildly inflates.

Trump usually frames this in terms of jobs, but it is actually more a matter of revenue and profits for major weapons producers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. It comes down to this: Trump is undermining the moral stature of the United States and giving a green light to despots who want to eradicate dissidents, all in the name of pumping up the cash flow of a handful of corporations.

Although he fancies himself a master dealmaker, it is unclear what Trump is receiving in return from these companies. In the past, Trump has made noise about the cost of some Lockheed and Boeing contracts but there was little follow-up. The big weapons producers are not now among the president’s favorite tweet targets.

There is every reason to believe that the big contractors are continuing their long-standing practices of charging excessive amounts for their weapons and then cheating on the terms of the contracts. Sometimes they get caught doing the latter and are made to pay penalties they can easily afford.

To take a recent example: in early November the Justice Department announced that Northrop Grumman had agreed to pay $27.45 million to resolve allegations that it overstated the number of hours its employees had worked on two battlefield communications contracts with the Air Force. This matter, like most of the cases brought against military contractors, was handled primarily under the False Claims Act, which allows for a civil settlement and monetary penalties but no criminal liability.

The Northrop case was unusual in that there was a parallel criminal investigation of one of the contracts, but the Justice Department reached an agreement with the company under which it forfeited an additional $4.2 million and no criminal charges were filed.

This was just the latest in a series of False Claims Act cases in which Northrop has paid out in excess of half a billion dollars in penalties for various contract frauds. It is far from unique in this regard. For example, as shown in Violation Tracker, Boeing has paid out $744 million in penalties in eight False Claims Act cases since 2000 and Lockheed has paid $125 million in 13 cases.

It is bad enough that President Trump is abandoning U.S. support for human rights; it is even worse that he is doing so to benefit a group of corporations that regularly cheat the government he heads.

Is There Still A Corporate Ulterior Motive Behind Criminal Justice Reform?

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Is it just a coincidence that Donald Trump has decided to embrace criminal justice reform just at the time he is more likely to become a defendant himself? He’s not the only party that may have mixed motives in supporting the legislation that is being hyped as an outstanding expression of bipartisanship.

One of the prime movers behind the initiative has been Koch Industries, whose owners Charles and David Koch are the epitome of partisanship. Their role on this issue was initially puzzling, given that the Kochs were not known for supporting anything that was remotely progressive.

Three years ago, the full story began to emerge.  The New York Times reported that one part of the reform being pushed by the Kochs and other business interests would require prosecutors to meet a more stringent standard in proving illicit intent, or “mens rea.” The Times stated that the Obama Justice Department was concerned that the change “would make it significantly harder to prosecute corporate polluters, producers of tainted food and other white-collar criminals.” PR Watch provided more detail on what the Kochs were up to.

In other words, what was made to look like a high-minded civic effort was also, at least in part, a move by corporations to shield themselves from prosecution. In the case of Koch Industries, the issue is far from a theoretical one. In Violation Tracker we document 275 cases in which the company has paid a total of $736 million for environmental, safety, employment and other offenses. One of these was a criminal case: In 2001 one of its subsidiaries pled guilty and paid $20 million to resolve allegations that it covered up Clean Air Act violations at an oil refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Mens rea “reform” is not part of the current criminal justice package, but the issue is far from dead. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton just published an op-ed in USA Today calling for it to be added to the bill. Since Cotton’s support may be essential to passage, he may get his wish – and presumably the Kochs would be happy with that outcome.

Cotton is not the only one who has been beating this drum. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley have introduced mens rea legislation that would apply not only to criminal actions but also to “regulatory offenses.”

During the confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh, Sen. Hatch brought up the issue of mens rea. He and the nominee both spoke enthusiastically on the need for “reform.” Here, as in much of the conservative discussion of the matter, proponents like to give the impression their concern is primarily with the rights of bank robbers and the like.

Yet it seems clear that the real intended beneficiaries are corporations and their executives supposedly being victimized by unjust regulations.

The issues surrounding criminal justice reform are complicated, but one thing is clear: it should not be used as a means of undermining the prosecution of corporate crime and misconduct.

Have Voters Killed the Crappy Coverage Comeback?

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

Democrats seized the House while Republicans increased their majority in the Senate, but the unambiguous and across-the-board winner in the election was regulation – specifically, regulation of the health insurance industry.

Rarely has the public sent such a clear message that it wanted government to rein in corporations and market forces in favor of consumer and public interest protections. The desire to retain provisions of the Affordable Care Act protecting those with pre-existing conditions was key to Democratic gains. Republicans responded by pretending they agreed with that principle, but few were fooled by this deception.

At the same time, voters in three deep red states – Idaho, Nebraska and Utah – approved ballot initiatives in favor of ACA Medicaid expansion. This amounted to an embrace not just of regulation but of out-and-out government-controlled health coverage.

All these results should put an end to the longstanding Republican crusade to repeal the ACA, but it remains to be seen whether there is also a termination of the Trump Administration’s effort to undermine the law through steps such as allowing wider sale of substandard policies.

One encouraging sign came even before the votes were counted. On November 2 a federal judge in Miami, acting at the request of the Federal Trade Commission, issued an order temporarily shutting down a Florida company called Simple Health Plans LLC, which along with related firms was selling policies the FTC called “predatory” and “worthless.”

The FTC complaint against the companies spells out a variety of deceptive practices meant to make customers think they were buying real coverage when in fact they were getting medical discount memberships of limited value.

It’s telling that one of the websites used by the firms is called Trumpcarequotes.com. Trumpcare is actually an appropriate term for the crappy coverage—both because Trump has been touting such plans and because the Trump name has been involved in previous scams such as Trump University. Let’s not forget that after his election Trump had to pay $25 million to settle litigation related to that venture, a step that the New York State Attorney General called “a major victory for the over 6,000 victims of his fraudulent university.”

The ACA’s provisions relating to protection for pre-existing conditions are inseparable from those setting minimum standards for coverage. Ensuring the right of patients to buy insurance is meaningless if they end up with plans that pay for next to nothing.

The proliferation of junk insurance through the efforts of companies such as Aetna was one of the dismal realities of the U.S. health insurance market that gave rise to the ACA. Republicans have been promoting similar low-cost plans as their solution to the supposed crisis of Obamacare. This is a cynical ploy to use a perverse form of consumerism to restore the old days of limited regulation. Let’s hope the election results have taught them a lesson about the consequences of messing with healthcare.

The Other Rogue Banks

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

The slow but steady weakening of bank regulation is continuing. Responding to legislation passed by Congress earlier this year, the Federal Reserve just voted to propose new rules for a group of banks that are large but not gigantic. Congress had called for a review of banks with assets between $100 billion and $250 billion but the Fed proposals would affect some larger ones as well. In all, 16 banks would enjoy loosened restraints.

Much of the commentary on banks focuses on mega-institutions such as Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo. These corporations have certainly done the most harm to the economy and whose demise would have the most dire consequences.

Yet the next tier of banks have their own track record of misconduct that argues against relaxed oversight. Some of these offenses relate directly to financial risk while others do not, but they all point to the need for more regulation rather than less. Here are examples taken from Violation Tracker.

U.S. Bancorp (total penalties in Violation Tracker: $1.2 billion): paid $453 million this year to settle Justice Department allegations that it had insufficient protections against money laundering and failed to file suspicious activity reports.

PNC Financial (total penalties: $472 million): in 2003 one of its subsidiaries paid $115 million to settle criminal charges of conspiring to violate securities laws (the deal included a deferred prosecution agreement).

Capital One (total penalties: $228 million): in 2012 one of its subsidiaries paid $165 million to settle  Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) allegations that it deployed deceptive marketing tactics in its credit card business.

Charles Schwab (total penalties: $125 million): in 2011 it paid $118 million to settle SEC allegations that it made misleading statements to clients about one of its funds.

BB&T (total penalties: $93 million): in 2016 it paid $83 million to settle Justice Department allegations it knowingly originated mortgage loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration that did not meet applicable requirements.

SunTrust (total penalties: $1.5 billion): in 2014 it settled a case brought by the CFPB, the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and attorneys general in 49 states and the District of Columbia alleging that it engaged in systemic mortgage servicing misconduct, including robo-signing and illegal foreclosure practices. The settlement required SunTrust to provide $500 million in loss-mitigation relief to underwater borrowers and pay $40 million to approximately 48,000 consumers who lost their homes to foreclosure.

American Express (total penalties: $350 million): in 2017 it paid $96 million to settle CFPB allegations of having discriminated against customers in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories by charging higher credit card rates than in the 50 states.

Ally Financial (total penalties: $668 million): in 2012 it paid $207 million to settle Federal Reserve allegations of mortgage servicing violations.

The list goes on for the remainder of the 16 banks: Citizens Financial (total penalties: $137 million), Fifth Third Bancorp ($121 million), KeyCorp ($19 million), Regions Financial ($170 million), M&T Bank ($119 million), Huntington Bancshares ($14 million) and Discover Financial Services ($232 million).

It’s interesting that the only institution on the list with a small penalty total ($203,000) is Northern Trust, which caters to corporations and wealthy individuals rather than the general public. If all the banks similar records, then perhaps some measure of deregulation might be warranted.

Yet as long as the large banks are as ethically challenged as the giant ones, they should continue to face strict oversight.