Archive for July, 2019

Facebook Joins the Multi-Billion-Dollar Penalty Club

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

It is a sign of how jaded we have become to corporate misconduct that the $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations is being shrugged off by the company, by the market and by the public. Many are describing it as a slap on the wrist.

It’s true that a ten-figure penalty is no longer such a rarity. According to Violation Tracker, 35 parent companies have had to pay that amount in at least one case in the United States. Eleven corporations have been hit with billion-dollar-plus penalties more than once. Of these, nine are big banks: Bank of America, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Royal Bank of Scotland and Wells Fargo. The other two are BP and Volkswagen.

Bank of America, whose penalty total is far greater than that of any other corporation, has racked up seven ten-figure cases, including three in excess of $10 billion.

BofA’s rap sheet is perhaps the most persuasive evidence that escalating penalties are not having the desired effect of deterring corporate wrongdoing. Even at the higher levels, the fines are seen by large companies as a tolerable cost to pay for continuing to do business more or less as before.

The Justice Department and the regulatory agencies seem to be aware of this and are at least making noises about taking other steps to deter and punish miscreants.

In the case of Facebook that includes provisions in the FTC settlement that will put more responsibility on the company’s board to make sure that privacy protections are enforced. It also enhances external oversight by an independent third-party monitor.

All of this might be more impressive if Facebook had not already signed a previous settlement with the FTC in 2012 that was supposed to establish strong privacy protections—provisions that the company has clearly evaded.

Also contained in the Facebook settlement is a provision that will require Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to personally certify that the company is adhering to privacy protections. This would only have an impact if it is rigorously enforced, with non-compliance putting him behind bars rather than just triggering another big payout.

There is also renewed discussion of stepped up antitrust enforcement, especially against the big tech companies. This would be more effective if federal authorities were willing to try breaking up the likes of Facebook, Alphabet/Google and Amazon rather than seeking limited restrictions on their market power. That approach has largely been shunned for the past two decades, ever since the effort to split up Microsoft collapsed and the DOJ had to settle for more modest remedies.

Prosecutors and policymakers continue to struggle with the issue of how to deal with large companies. Often it seems they are mainly concerned with little more than giving the appearance of getting tough. Only when faced with sustained public pressure will they come up with effective ways to rein in rogue corporations.

The Tainted Corporations Dominating the Opioid Industry

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

The release of a previously confidential database is providing insights into the opioid industry analogous to what would be contained in the secret accounts of all the Mexican drug cartels. The database, known as the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System, or ARCOS, is compiled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It was made public by the federal judge in Cleveland overseeing a massive lawsuit brought by nearly 2,000 localities against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

A detailed analysis of the database by the Washington Post shows that the industry has been heavily concentrated in the hands of fewer than a dozen large corporations. These companies are among the defendants in the Cleveland case and are increasingly being targeted for their role in generating an epidemic that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The claims by the corporations that they are not to blame for the crisis is made harder to swallow by the fact that they each have a history of involvement in other types of corporate misconduct. That history, taken from their entries in Violation Tracker, is summarized below.

The Post analysis of ARCOS shows that just six companies distributed three-quarters of the 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills that saturated the country in the period from 2006 to 2012.

McKesson Corporation, which accounted for 18.4 percent of the pills, has accumulated more than $400 million in total penalties, more than half of which comes from False Claims Act cases. For example, in 2012 it paid $190 million to settle federal allegations that it reported inflated drug pricing information for a large number of prescription drugs, causing Medicaid to overpay for those medications. The company paid another $151 million to settle related allegations brought by 28 state attorneys general in a case not yet in Violation Tracker (but will be added in an expansion later this year).

Walgreens (16.5 percent) is now part of Walgreens Boots Alliance, which has total penalties of $589 million. Nearly half of that comes from a $269 million settlement of False Claims Act allegations of improper billing for insulin pens. In 2013 Walgreens paid $80 million in a Controlled Substances Act case.

Cardinal Health (14 percent) has more than $195 million in penalties, the largest portion of which includes four cases involving violations of the Controlled Substances Act. Among its other controversies: a $35 million settlement with the SEC of allegations it engaged in fraudulent accounting and a $26.8 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission concerning anti-competitive practices.

AmerisourceBergen (11.7 percent) has accumulated $899 million in penalties, including a $625 million False Claims Act settlement and a $260 million criminal penalty for distributing misbranded oncology drugs.

CVS (7.7 percent) has $850 million in penalties, more than half of which comes from 15 False Claims Act cases. Another $183 million resulted from Controlled Substances Act matters.

Rounding out the list of major distributors is Walmart (6.9 percent), which has accumulated $1.6 billion in penalties, 90 percent of which resulted from wage and hour cases.

According to the Post analysis, three companies accounted for 88 percent of opioid production during the 2006-2012 period.

SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt, accounted for the largest portion, 37.7 percent. Mallinckrodt has $139 million in penalties, including a $100 million antitrust settlement and a $35 million Controlled Substances Act settlement.

Actavis Pharma (34.6 percent) is now owned by Teva Pharmaceuticals, which has more than $2 billion in penalties, most of which comes from cases involving allegations that another subsidiary, Cephalon, engaged in anti-competitive practices and marketed drugs for purposes not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The last big manufacturer is Par Pharmaceutical (15.7 percent), a subsidiary of Endo International, which has total penalties of $287 million, including a $192 million settlement for marketing of drugs for unapproved purposes.

Purdue Pharma, which is often the leading target of criticism for the opioid crisis, showed up in the ARCOS database as producing only 3 percent of output.

Given the involvement of these companies in all kinds of corporate misconduct, it is highly unlikely that they were blameless in bringing about the opioid epidemic. Chances are that the lawsuit in Cleveland will result in substantial increases in their penalty totals.

One Less Wheeler Dealer

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

It’s unfortunate that 18,000 people will lose their jobs in the process, but it is good news that Deutsche Bank is leaving the investment banking business. The world is better off with one less wheeling and dealing financial player that has repeatedly flouted all kinds of laws and regulations.

That tarnished record dates back to the late 1990s, when Deutsche Bank acquired New York-based Bankers Trust, which was testing the limits of what a commercial bank could do while getting embroiled in a series of scandals.

Just a few months after the acquisition was announced, Bankers Trust pleaded guilty to criminal charges that its employees had diverted $19 million in unclaimed checks and other credits owed to customers over to the bank’s own books to enhance its financial results. The bank paid a $60 million fine to the federal government and another $3.5 million to New York State.

Deutsche Bank was also having its own legal problems during this period. In 1998 its offices were raided by German criminal investigators looking for evidence that the bank helped wealthy customers engage in tax evasion. In 2004 investors who purchased what turned out to be abusive tax shelters from DB sued the company in U.S. federal court, alleging that they had been misled (the dispute was later settled for an undisclosed amount). That litigation as well as a U.S. Senate investigation brought to light extensive documentation of DB’s role in tax avoidance.

In the 2000s, DB was penalized repeatedly by financial regulators, including a 2004 settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in which it had to pay $87.5 million to settle charges of conflicts of interest between its investment banking and its research operations, and a $208 million settlement with federal and state agencies in 2006 to settle charges of market timing violations.

In 2009 the SEC announced that DB would provide $1.3 billion in liquidity to investors that the agency had alleged were misled by the bank about the risks associated with auction rate securities. 

In 2010 the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced that DB would pay $553 million and admit to criminal wrongdoing to resolve charges that it participated in transactions that promoted fraudulent tax shelters and generated billions of dollars in U.S. tax losses.

In 2011, the Federal Housing Finance Agency sued DB and other firms for abuses in the sale of mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the case was settled for $1.9 billion in late 2013).

In 2012 the Southern District of New York announced that DB would pay $202 million to settle charges that its MortgageIT unit had repeatedly made false certifications to the Federal Housing Administration about the quality of mortgages to qualify them for FHA insurance coverage.

In 2013 DB agreed to pay a $1.5 million fine to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to settle charges that it had manipulated energy markets in California in 2010.

In 2013 Massachusetts fined Deutsche Bank $17.5 million for failing to inform investors of conflicts of interest during the sale of collateralized debt obligations. That same year, DB was fined $983 million by the European Commission for manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index. (Later, in 2015, it had to agree to pay $2.5 billion to settle LIBOR allegations brought by U.S. and UK regulators.)

In 2015 the SEC announced that DB would pay $55 million to settle allegations that it overstated the value of its derivatives portfolio during the height of the financial meltdown. Later that year, DB agreed to pay $200 million to New York State regulators and $58 million to the Federal Reserve to settle allegations that it violated U.S. economic sanctions against countries such as Iran.

In January 2017 the bank reached a $7.2 billion settlement of a Justice Department case involving the sale of toxic mortgage securities during the financial crisis. That same month, it was fined $425 million by New York State regulators to settle allegations that it helped Russian investors launder as much as $10 billion through its branches in Moscow, New York and London.

In March 2017 Deutsche Bank subsidiary DB Group Services (UK) Limited was ordered by the U.S. Justice Department to pay a $150 million criminal fine in connection with LIBOR manipulation. The following month, the Federal Reserve fined DB $136 million for interest rate manipulation and $19 million for failing to maintain an adequate Volcker rule compliance program. Shortly thereafter, the Fed imposed another fine, $41 million, for anti-money-laundering deficiencies. In October 2017 DB paid $220 million to settle multistate litigation relating to LIBOR.

In 2018 DB paid a total of $100 million to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission–$70 million for interest-rate manipulation and $30 million for manipulation of metals futures contracts.

As a result of all these and other cases, Deutsche Bank ranks seventh among parent companies in Violation Tracker, with more than $12 billion in total penalties.

Not all these cases arose out of DB’s investment banking business. Its commercial banking operation, which will continue, was responsible for keeping the Trump Organization afloat when other banks shunned the shaky company. And it has just come to light that DB  provided loans to the notorious Jeffrey Epstein.

Deutsche Bank’s history of controversies may not be over.