A 17-Year Quest for Accountability

The phrase banana republic was coined in the early 20th Century to describe countries dominated by large corporations which operated plantations marked by the ruthless exploitation of their workers. Perhaps the most notorious of those companies was United Fruit, which used both its economic power and the might of the U.S. military to rule much of Central America. The latter was seen clearly in the 1954 ouster of the populist Arbenz government in Guatemala in a coup engineered by the CIA.

United Fruit later changed its name to United Brands and then to Chiquita Brands International, but its behavior did not cease to be scandalous. In the 1970s, for instance, it was revealed to have paid a large bribe paid to the president of Honduras.

Another major controversy with its origins in the 1990s has tainted the company for three decades, culminating in a recent jury verdict against Chiquita in a federal civil lawsuit in Florida. That controversy stemmed from the company’s decision to make payments to a rightwing paramilitary group in Colombia, supposedly to protect its personnel and operations in the country. Chiquita continued to bankroll the group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (known by its Spanish initials AUC), even after it was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. government.

Chiquita eventually found itself the target of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, and in 2007 it pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid a penalty of $25 million.

But that was not the end of the matter. Families of farmers and other civilians slaughtered by the AUC brought suit against the company in the U.S. with the help of EarthRights International. They argued that Chiquita improperly benefitted from the group’s reign of terror, including the purchase of land at depressed prices that had been owned by murdered farmers. It took 17 years of litigation, but the jury in the first of a series of trials just awarded the plaintiffs $38.3 million in damages.

Chiquita plans to appeal, but the verdict was a major accomplishment in the effort to hold large corporations responsible for abuses in connection with their foreign operations. In its statement hailing the verdict, EarthRights International said: “This historic ruling marks the first time that an American jury has held a major U.S. corporation liable for complicity in serious human rights abuses in another country, a milestone for justice.”

While it is true that Chiquita has major offices in Florida, the company has its international headquarters in Switzerland. Chiquita is owned by two Brazilian firms: Cutrale and the Safra Group. Fortunately, these complications did not prevent the jury from finding the company culpable under U.S. law.

Chiquita is not the only large company to have gotten into legal jeopardy for bankrolling an entity designated as a terrorist group. In 2022 Lafarge S.A., part of the Swiss building materials group Holcim, and its Syrian subsidiary pleaded guilty to a criminal charge brought by the U.S. Justice Department, accusing them of conspiring to provide material support and resources to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al-Nusrah Front, both U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations. Lafarge was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay $777 million in penalties.

Naming the Offenders

Regulatory agencies and prosecutors seek to punish misbehaving corporations in the hope they will change their practices and obey the rules. That happens occasionally, but all too often corporate offenders go on to break the law again, sometimes repeatedly.

The prevalence of such recidivism is one of the main conclusions that arises from the data on enforcement actions—numbering more than 600,000—my colleagues and I have collected in Violation Tracker.

Now one of the more aggressive federal regulators is planning to assemble an official resource on rogue corporations. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau just announced it will create a registry of companies that have broken consumer protection laws and that are subject to court orders regarding their ongoing behavior.

“Too often, financial firms treat penalties for illegal activity as the cost of doing business,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “The CFPB’s new rule will help law enforcement across the country detect and stop repeat offenders.”

I am happy to report that Violation Tracker played a role in the agency’s development of the registry. As noted on page 405 of the lengthy description of the plan, CFPB made use of data from Violation Tracker to estimate how many companies might be affected.

Given that CFPB’s registry will cover only nonbank consumer finance companies, its scope will be much narrower than that of Violation Tracker, which covers all kinds of corporations, large and small. Yet it is important for there to be official compilations, since they will hopefully provide more pressure on bad actors.

It would be good if the CFPB’s move inspires the Justice Department to do more to respond to calls from members of Congress and corporate accountability advocates to create a comprehensive database on corporate crime.

Last year, DOJ created a page of its website called Corporate Crime Case Database, which initially contained only about a dozen items but was described as being “still in the process of being populated.” It’s now been about 12 months since the site went up, but that process is proceeding at a glacial pace. The page currently contains all of 85 case summaries, making it far from a comprehensive database.

It is no surprise that DOJ seems reluctant to do more to highlight its criminal enforcement, given that the department has been emphasizing leniency rather than aggressive prosecution of corporate miscreants. DOJ continues to allow large corporations to escape from criminal investigations with a deferred or non-prosecution agreement under which the company pays a penalty but does not need to plead guilty.

In theory, companies which fail to change their behavior would be subject to a real prosecution in the future, but there are many cases in which one leniency agreement is followed by nothing more than another leniency agreement.

Sometimes DOJ employs another device known as a declination in which the possibility of a prosecution is completely taken off the table. This deal was recently offered to a company called Proterial (formerly known as Hitachi Cable), which misrepresented to customers that the motorcycle brake hose assemblies it sold met federal safety performance standards. The problem was not that the company failed to test the assemblies. It did the tests but lied to customers about the results, claiming that the assemblies had passed when in fact they had failed. A page on the DOJ website lists 20 declinations, but there may be more that are not disclosed.

When it comes to corporate crime, DOJ needs to engage in more aggressive prosecutions and make sure the public knows about them.