Underregulation

October 31st, 2019 by Phil Mattera

The ink was barely dry on the 1970s laws creating the EPA, OSHA and other new federal agencies overseeing business activities when a counterattack began. For the past four decades, there has been an endless drumbeat of claims about the supposedly pernicious effects of regulation and continuous calls for weakening or eliminating rules.

This ongoing anti-regulatory campaign lets up only when a major incident – such as a massive oil spill or fatal industrial explosion – contradicts the argument that things would be fine if we let corporations manage their affairs with as little interference as possible. As soon as the uproar dies down, business apologists return to their customary posture, in the same way that the NRA handles mass shootings.

We are now in another of those periods, but with a significant difference. Instead of a single situation reminding us of the value of regulation, we now have multiple scandals at the same time.

It’s been clear for quite a while that reckless behavior by opioid producers and distributors – along with insufficient oversight by the FDA and DEA — was largely responsible for many thousands of overdose deaths. The industry has been hit with a wave of lawsuits and is now beginning to pay out billions of dollars in settlements.

It’s becoming clearer by the day that it was a monumental error for the FAA to cede oversight of the development of Boeing’s 737 Max to the company itself. Newly disclosed internal corporate documents indicate that Boeing was aware of safety problems with the plane and downplayed the risks in communicating with the agency.

It’s become apparent that Juul exploited the permissive approach of the FDA and marketed its vaping products not only to adult tobacco smokers trying to quit but also to young people, hooking many of them on nicotine for the first time. Now those young people are caught up in an epidemic of lung ailments linked to vaping.

The widespread wildfires in California are attributed in part to faulty transmission lines that PG&E has not adequately repaired and upgraded. Now the company is trying to mitigate the longstanding problem by imposing frequent blackouts on millions of customers.

Tech companies such as Amazon have taken advantage of weak antitrust enforcement to expand their dominance in a growing number of markets, forcing smaller companies into subservience or putting them out of business.

How many examples of corporate misconduct and feeble government oversight will it take to get across the message that in the vast majority of cases the problem is not overregulation but underregulation?

One significant obstacle is Donald Trump, who has embraced deregulation and likes to claim that weakening oversight, especially at the EPA, will promote job growth and prosperity. At a time when many large corporations are taking a more nuanced approach to social responsibility issues, Trump is touting crude anti-regulatory positions and climate-change denialism. In its latest move, the Trump EPA is reportedly planning to roll back an Obama-era regulation limiting emissions of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and mercury from coal-fired power plants.

Fortunately, many of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks are carried out in an inept way and get tied up in court. Yet the administration could still end up doing significant damage, if only in fostering the distorted idea that regulation-bashing is a populist position rather than a central part of the corporate agenda.  

Immunity Disorders

October 24th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

Immunity was once a term used mainly in discussing medical conditions, but Donald Trump and his defenders have seized on it as an all-purpose defense in dealing with the Mueller investigation and now the Ukraine probe. Trump’s lawyers just made preposterous claims about the scope of Presidential immunity in appellate court arguments seeking to block a subpoena for Trump Organization business records.

The claim is based on the dubious argument that having to respond to a criminal case would unduly distract the president from his duties. Given that Trump seems to relish doing battle with those who dare to investigate him, it is unlikely that an indictment would change his behavior much. If Trump is successful in his immunity claims, that would go a long way in putting the presidency above the law.

At least the debate on presidential immunity is being conducted in the open. There is another form of effective immunity that is rarely described as such but is also dangerous to our society.

That is the de facto immunity that chief executives of large companies enjoy in cases of egregious corporate misconduct. Consider some of the issues that dominate the business news these days.

  • Large pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors stand accused of fostering an opioid epidemic that has resulted in tens of thousands of overdose deaths.
  • Johnson & Johnson is involved in a series of controversies about asbestos in baby powder, dangerous pelvic mesh and improper marketing of an anti-psychotic drug.
  • Boeing is facing allegations that it covered up serious safety hazards in a new jetliner that was involved in two fatal crashes before being taken out of service.
  • Exxon Mobil is facing lawsuits accusing it of suppressing for many years internal evidence of the costs and consequences of climate change exacerbated by its own operations.
  • PG&E is alleged to be responsible for wildfires in California that took scores and lives and destroyed thousands of homes.

What all these situations have in common is that the defendants are the corporations themselves rather than the individual executives ultimately responsible for the actions or policies that created the harms. We have come to take it for granted that corporations can shield their officers and board members from liability and use the company’s coffers to buy their way out of legal jeopardy.

This is, of course, nothing new. Top executives of the big banks escaped individual prosecution for their role in the financial meltdown, as did CEOs in many other scandals.

There have been a few exceptions. Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in prison for his role in that company’s giant fraud, but he used his resources to fight the sentence and ended up spending only half that amount of time behind bars.

In Violation Tracker we have 380,000 cases of corporate misconduct, including 84 in which a company paid a penalty of $1 billion or more. If we had chosen to compile data on convictions of corporate executives rather than companies, the list would fit on a single page.

If we are lucky, the courts will strike down the spurious claims of presidential immunity. Yet we must also find ways to make sure that rogue chief executives also remain within the reach of the law.

Inflicting Financial Pain on the Pain Pill Pushers

October 17th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

The proceedings in a Cleveland courtroom are addressing issues about the fundamental nature of a major American industry. The case consolidates more than 2,000 lawsuits brought mainly by state and local governments against all the major parties responsible for the opioid crisis: the drug manufacturers, the drug distributors, the pharmacy benefit managers, the large drugstore chains and major supermarket chains whose stores contain pharmacies.

What is known as Multidistrict Litigation 2804 is scheduled to begin trial proceedings on October 21 in a partial action involving two Ohio counties and a handful of the corporate defendants — unless Judge Aaron Polster (photo) succeeds in his effort to get the parties to reach a settlement. Reports on potential deals have been emerging at frequent intervals. The New York Times reports that several of the defendants, including the three big drug distributors – AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson – together with two of the pharmaceutical producers, have been offering a deal worth nearly $50 billion.

That sounds like a lot of money, but there may be less to it than meets the eye. For one thing, only about half the total consists of cash payments, with the rest taking the form of addiction treatment drugs, supplies and delivery services. It would be easy for the companies to inflate the value of the in-kind compensation and thus lower their burden.

Moreover, the cash payments would probably be paid out over time, again making things easier for the defendants and reducing the resources that state and local governments need in the short term. Those costs are massive. The Times quotes a report by the Society of Actuaries estimating the cost to society of the opioid epidemic at roughly $188 billion this year alone.

This suggests that a reasonable settlement should be some multiple of the $50 billion figure currently being considered. The 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement showed that a large profitable industry could handle payments that were estimated to cost $206 billion, spread out over time. The industry has paid out more than $132 billion over the past two decades, with annual payments in recent years amounting to about $6 billion.

The plaintiffs should not focus on the total theoretical size of the settlement but instead on how much will be available to each jurisdiction each year to address a problem that remains overwhelming.

It is also worth remembering the size of the industry in question. The big three drug distributors alone have combined annual revenues of more than $500 billion. Their deep pockets and those of the other defendants should be depleted as much as possible.

The drug industry giants have caused massive pain and suffering in the opioid epidemic. They should be made to feel substantial financial pain of their own.

Back Pedaling on Kickbacks?

October 10th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

It’s hard not to be suspicious when the Secretary of Health and Human Services promotes a supposed reform by stating that “President Trump has promised American patients a healthcare system with affordable, personalized care, a system that puts you in control, provides peace of mind, and treats you like a human being, not a number. But too often, government regulations have stood in the way of delivering that kind of care.”

Secretary Alex Azar used those dubious statements in a press release about his department’s plan to “modernize and clarify” the regulations that interpret the Physician Self-Referral Law (known as the Stark Law) and the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute.

Azar claims that the rule changes would promote new methods of delivering healthcare based on greater coordination among providers, including those with financial relationships with one another.

The changes are technical in nature, but I cannot help but worry that the scheme would serve to legitimize dubious dealings and enable providers to avoid prosecution under laws that have been in place for several decades.

I have become more familiar with these laws in the course of collecting data for Violation Tracker. The database currently contains more than 360 cases in which kickbacks and bribery are involved as the primary or secondary offense. These cases have resulted in more than $14 billion in fines and settlements involving many of the largest names in pharmaceuticals (Merck, Amgen, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, et al.), hospitals (Tenet, HCA, among others) and pharmacies (such as CVS).

The biggest penalty is a $2.2 billion agreement signed by Johnson & Johnson in 2013 to resolve civil and criminal charges of paying kickbacks to physicians to encourage them to prescribe several of its drugs for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

One of those drugs was the anti-psychotic medication Risperdal, which was only approved for schizophrenia but which J&J was allegedly promoting for other less serious conditions among elderly patients through financial inducements to providers.

In an interesting coincidence, the announcement of the new HHS proposal came at almost exactly the same time that a jury in Philadelphia hit J&J with an $8 billion verdict over its marketing of Risperdal for use by children.

It will be interesting to see whether the new HHS rules on kickbacks, if they go through, manage to distinguish between more innocent financial dealings among providers and the corrupt practices that have been so common among the larger players. Given this administration’s track record on healthcare and so many other issues, we cannot give it the benefit of the doubt.

Capital Punishment

October 3rd, 2019 by Phil Mattera

Some corporate critics have argued that the only way to deter egregious misconduct by companies may be to give prosecutors the option to seek the “death penalty”—revocation of the firm’s charter and the closing of the business.

Ever since the dismantling of Arthur Andersen after its conviction on criminal charges relating to its auditing of Enron, prosecutors at the federal level have avoided seeking that harsh remedy. In fact, they moved sharply in the other direction by adopting dubious arrangements known as deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements that allow companies essentially to buy their way out of criminal jeopardy. A recent report from Public Citizen found that these arrangements have been a failure in deterring corporate wrongdoing.

Yet what has received less attention is the fact that the corporate death penalty is alive and well at the state level. Numerous state AGs have been using this method to deal with those firms considered unredeemable bad actors.

For example, the Delaware AG Kathy Jennings recently announced that she had filed actions in the state Court of Chancery to dissolve 15 Delaware business entities for involvement in criminal activities. Her press release stated: “State law allows the Attorney General to petition for cancellation of an entity’s Delaware formation document when its powers, privileges, or existence have been abused or misused.”

Among the firms she moved to dissolve were LOAV Ltd., Davis Manafort International LLC, DMP International LLC, BADE LLC, Jupiter Holdings Management, LLC, and Davis, Manafort & Stone, Inc. The principals of these companies, the AG noted, were Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to charges involving money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent, failure to report bank transactions, and making false statements. Manafort was also convicted in 2018 by a jury of tax and bank fraud charges. The charges against the two men included allegations that they used the named businesses to illegally conceal from the United States government millions of dollars in income received from the Ukrainian government as well as evading roughly $1.4 million in personal income taxes owed to the IRS while funding lavish personal expenditures.

The AG also proposed to dissolve Essential Consultants LLC, which was used by former Trump fixer Michael Cohen to facilitate a hush-money payment of $130,000 to Stormy Daniels.

Previously, the Delaware AG was successful in forcing four LLCs linked to the now defunct website Backpage.com to relinquish their state certificates of formation in the wake of allegations that the site promoted prostitution and human trafficking.

Not all the companies forced to dissolve are quite so well known. In the course of collecting data for our recent report on state AGs, my colleagues and I came across numerous cases in which obscure firms such as home contractors or used-car dealers were forced out of business.

For example, in July 2011 the Oregon AG announced that a company called S&S Drywall Assemblies was ordered dissolved as part of the resolution of criminal racketeering and antitrust charges brought against the company and its owner.

In some cases a state AG would carry out what amounted to a partial death sentence by banning an out-of-state company from continuing to operate in the AG’s state while it may continue to function elsewhere. We found numerous cases of this in North Dakota, which rarely penalized in-state companies but did not hesitate to ban misbehaving out-of-state ones. One of these targets was a traveling asphalt paving company.

We did not include these cases in our report or the state AG data we added to Violation Tracker because the dissolutions or state bans usually did not include monetary penalties, the common denominator among the varied cases contained in our database.

Clearly, it’s much easier for state AGs to dissolve smaller firms than it would be for federal prosecutors to do the same to large corporations with thousands of employees and shareholders. States also have the advantage that corporate chartering is a function that they, not the feds, control.

There is a feeling of satisfaction that comes from seeing a rogue company shut down that does not go along with a deferred prosecution agreement and a far-from-confiscatory monetary penalty. There has to be some way to bridge the gap.

Sweet Deals for Corporate Wrongdoers

September 26th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

We have been hearing plenty this year about the unwillingness of the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against Donald Trump, but a new report from Public Citizen shows there is an even bigger non-prosecution scandal when it comes to lawbreaking by large corporations.

Soft on Corporate Crime is a detailed analysis of the long-standing yet still disturbing practice by which big companies found to be involved in serious misconduct are given a sweet deal not typically available to individual criminals. These deals, known as non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements, allow the company to avoid criminal charges if it admits to the wrongdoing, pays a penalty, and signs an agreement that leaves open the prospect of future prosecution if the bad behavior continues.

Using data from the Corporate Prosecution Registry, Public Citizen examined the 535 NPAs and DPAs the Justice Department has entered into since 1992. The report finds that the practice originated in the Clinton Administration and has been used widely during both Democratic and Republican presidencies. The Trump Administration’s DOJ has continued the trend amid its overall reduction in corporate prosecutions.

NPAs and DPAs are part of a fundamental unwillingness of the U.S. justice system to get really tough with corporate miscreants, no matter how egregious their behavior. The argument for using these agreements is that conventional prosecutions of large corporations could result in their demise—as happened in the Arthur Andersen case of the early 2000s—and thereby cause great harm to employees and shareholders.

The theory is that having companies admit responsibility for the misconduct and pay substantial monetary penalties would be enough to deter future wrongdoing. Yet Public Citizen’s research makes it clear that the deterrent effect of NPAs and DPAs is quite weak.

The report finds 38 examples in which companies that had signed those agreements were later the subject of a new criminal enforcement action by DOJ. The problem is that DOJ rarely punishes repeat offenders for violating NPAs and DPAs. Public Citizen found only seven examples, and of these only three corporations—UBS, Barclays and Aibel Group—faced full prosecution for their recidivism. In other cases, the penalty, if you can call it that, was simply to extend the terms of the NPA or DPA and sometimes an additional monetary penalty.

Public Citizen highlights seven egregious examples of corporate repeat offenders that have received multiple DPAs and/or NPAs. These include four banks (HSBC, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase and Societe Generale) along with Bristol-Myers Squibb, Zimmer Biomet and Las Vegas Sands.

Although the report focuses on corporate criminal recidivism, it is worth pointing out that many of these companies were embroiled in civil misconduct cases in the period during which they were supposed to be on their best behavior to comply with the NPA or DPA.

For example, as shown in Violation Tracker, in the period since JPMorgan entered into its first NPA in 2011 it has paid more than $26 billion in civil penalties (including settlements). A substantial portion of that total comes from actions that date back to the 2000s, but there is still a strong indication that the NPA did not do much to change the bank’s overall behavior.

The bank’s civil and criminal wrongdoing seemed to have little effect on DOJ’s treatment of the company either. It’s true that JPMorgan had to plead guilty in 2015 to conspiring with other banks to manipulate global currency exchange rates, yet the following year it was offered an NPA in another case.

Public Citizen concludes that the Justice Department’s NPA/DPA system has been a failure, finding that instead of deterring future misconduct the agreements have “enabled further wrongdoing.” At the very least, the report concludes, DOJ should stop offering the agreements to repeat offenders but the ultimate fix would be to end the practice completely and prosecute corporations to the fullest.

Note: Violation Tracker has 360 NPA or DPA entries dating back to 2000. A list can be found here.

Bipartisan Corporate Crime Fighting by the States

September 16th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

A new report from the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First on lawsuits filed by state attorneys general shows that the current cases against the drug companies and the tech sector are part of a long-standing practice of bipartisan cooperation in fighting corporate misconduct.

The report focuses on 644 cases in which AGs from multiple states took on companies over issues ranging from mortgage abuses to illicit marketing of prescription drugs and collected more than $100 billion in settlements over the past two decades.

These multistate cases are a subset of more than 7,000 state AG actions compiled for the latest expansion of Violation Tracker and now available for searching on the database.

In at least 260 multistate cases, a majority of the states signed on as plaintiffs. In 172 of the cases, 40 or more states participated. State AGs are split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, meaning that the cases with large numbers of state participants are necessarily bipartisan.

In 362 of the cases, the defendants were giant companies included in the Fortune 500 or the Fortune Global 500. The parent company with the most cumulative multistate AG penalties is, by far, Bank of America, with more than $26 billion in settlements over issues such as mortgage abuses and the sale of toxic securities. It is followed by the Swiss bank UBS ($11 billion), Citigroup ($8 billion), JPMorgan Chase ($6 billion) and BP ($4.9 billion).

The most frequent defendant has been CVS Health, which has paid out more than $215 million in 14 settlements, most of them involving the alleged submission of false claims to state Medicaid programs and the payment of illicit kickbacks to healthcare providers.  Another 47 parent companies have been involved in three or more multistate AG cases.

In 118 multistate AG cases, corporations have paid penalties of $100 million or more; in 19 of these the amount exceeded $1 billion. The biggest individual settlement was an agreement by UBS to repurchase $11 billion in investments known as auction-rate securities whose safety it allegedly misrepresented to investors. The second largest was an $8.7 billion agreement by Bank of America to resolve claims relating to predatory home mortgage practices by its Countrywide Financial subsidiary. (The recently announced multistate settlement with Purdue Pharma is not included because it is still tentative.)

Banks and other financial services companies account for far and away the largest monetary share of penalties paid in multistate AG cases — $70 billion from 122 settlements involving 65 different parent companies. In second place is the pharmaceutical industry with $10.4 billion in penalties from 137 settlements.

Consumer protection and price-fixing cases are the most numerous kinds of multistate AG lawsuits, but investor protection and mortgage abuse lawsuits against the big banks have generated the greatest monetary penalties.

In 243 of the multistate cases, the U.S. Department of Justice or another federal agency was also involved in the settlement and often led the negotiations. These actions, which accounted for $31 billion of the $105 billion in total penalties, include cases in which the federal entity, usually DOJ, initiated the investigation and brought in the states — as well as ones in which federal and state prosecutors were involved from the start.

Multistate AG lawsuits originated in the 1980s, when state prosecutors grew concerned at rollbacks in federal enforcement by the Reagan Administration and decided they needed to fill the gap. They scored a big win with the master tobacco settlement of the late 1990s and continued their actions through both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.

There is every reason to believe that the number of multistate AG settlements will continue to grow. The pending cases against opioid and generic drug producers, as well as emerging antitrust investigations of the tech sector, could add billions more to the penalty totals.

Crossing Party Lines to Fight Corporate Crime

September 12th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

The state attorneys general seem to be divided on how big a settlement they should extract from the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma to resolve a lawsuit concerning their involvement in the opioid crisis. According to one report, the split is largely on party lines, with Democratic AGs calling for a bigger payout and Republican prosecutors settling for less.

More on the diverging negotiating positions will probably come to light in the days ahead. This disagreement should not, however, obscure the bigger story: states with very different partisan orientations have been cooperating for years on cases involving corporate misconduct.

On policy issues, state AGs exhibit strong ideological tendencies. Democratic AGs have been suing the Trump Administration repeatedly over issues such as the travel ban and migrant family separation. In the same way, Republican AGs went to court to try to undermine Obama Administration initiatives such as the Affordable Care Act.

Yet in the area of corporate crime-fighting, bipartisanship is the norm.

My colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First have been documenting this fact in the course of collecting data for the latest expansion of our Violation Tracker database. We’ve compiled more than 600 cases in which two or more state AGs successfully sued a corporation and collected monetary penalties, usually in the form of a settlement in which the company did not admit guilt.

Next week we will post the data on Violation Tracker and publish a report that analyzes the multistate AG cases. I can’t give away the main findings until then, but I can say that the new entries will make a major addition to penalty totals in the database.

Currently, there are 61 parent companies with $1 billion or more in cumulative penalties (our entries go back to the beginning of 2000). With the AG cases, that number increases to 84.

The penalty totals for many of the individual corporations, especially the big banks, will rise dramatically. The combined state and federal penalty total for Bank of America, for instance, will be in excess of $80 billion.

Although the report will focus mainly on the multistate AG cases, we also collected data on 7,000 single-state AG cases from across the country that will be added to Violation Tracker. These include lots of relatively minor consumer protection cases (crooked used car dealers and the like), but there are also plenty of major settlements, including 70 cases with corporate payouts of $100 million or more.

There have been a few state AGs who have shown less enthusiasm about pursuing corporate miscreants. One example was Scott Pruitt, when he held that post in Oklahoma before being chosen as the Trump Administration’s first administrator of the EPA.

As state AG, Pruitt brought few actions against companies on his own and did not sign on to many of the multistate cases. Fortunately, he was far from typical, even among the reddest states.  

Exorcising Evil at Google

September 5th, 2019 by Phil Mattera

For the past two decades, Google’s Code of Conduct has included the phrase Don’t Be Evil. It used to be at the beginning of that document but now it is relegated to the end, appearing almost as an afterthought.

That turns out to be appropriate, given that Google can no longer pretend to be a paragon of virtue. The latest example of this move to the dark side is the announcement by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York State Attorney General that Google is paying $170 million to settle allegations that its subsidiary YouTube committed serious violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. It was said to have done this by collecting personal information from under-age viewers of online videos without their parents’ consent.

Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc. will be facing more headaches. There have been recent reports that a large group of state attorneys general are getting ready to announce a major antitrust investigation of Google, whose search engine is essentially a monopoly and which has dominant positions in other areas as well.

The company has already been targeted in Europe. Last year the EU hit Google with a $5 billion fine for abusing its control over cellphone operating systems, and earlier this year the Europeans imposed a $1.6 billion penalty for abusing its control over web searches.

Google’s misconduct is not all of recent vintage. In 2012 it paid a $22 million fine to the FTC to settle allegations that it misrepresented to users of Apple’s Safari Internet browser that it would not place tracking cookies or serve targeted ads to them, violating an earlier privacy settlement between the company and the agency. The following year it had to pay $17 million to a group of three dozen state AGs to settle allegations of unauthorized placement of cookies on web browsers. Around the same time it paid $7 million to another set of AGs for the unauthorized collection of data from unsecured wireless networks across the country.

In 2014 it paid to $19 million the FTC to resolve allegations that it unfairly billed consumers for in-app charges incurred by children without their parents’ consent.

For a long time, Google promoted itself as an outstanding place to work. Yet that image has eroded as well. In 2015 it and three other tech giants had to pay $415 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that they conspired to suppress salary levels by secretly agreeing not to hire one another’s employees.

Last year Google faced an unprecedented walkout by thousands of its employees around the world who were protesting what they saw as the company’s lax treatment of sexual harassment claims.

The positive side of this is that it inspired a new form of activism among tech workers previously thought to be too individualistic to act collectively. Google employees have also been outspoken on other issues such as providing services to the repressive Chinese government.

If the evil is ever to be exorcised at Google, it will be done not by a corporate motto but by pressures brought to bear by federal regulators, state prosecutors and the company’s own workforce.

High Standards, Poor Behavior

August 22nd, 2019 by Phil Mattera

It is amazing how much attention is being paid to the Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation just issued by 181 chief executives of large corporations under the auspices of the Business Roundtable. We are supposed to think it is a major breakthrough that big business is claiming to do more than maximize returns for shareholders.

In fact, Corporate America has long given lip service to the notion that it has an obligation to other stakeholders such as employees, communities and suppliers and that it needs to promote sustainability in its operations. The language of the Roundtable statement could have been taken from similar pronouncements that have been made by the vast majority of large companies under the rubric of corporate social responsibility or a similar phrase. The website of Exxon Mobil, for instance, contains a page on its Guiding Principles, which are said to include adherence to “high ethical standards.”

The question, of course, is whether these high-minded statements have any real meaning—whether they result in more responsible practices or are designed mainly to let corporate executives pretend to be moral exemplars.

The answer seems clear. If large corporations truly had a commitment to their employees, they would not engage in so many exploitative practices and fight so hard against unionization. If they truly cared about the environment, they would take more aggressive steps to reduce pollution and address the climate crisis. If they truly cared about ethical supply chains, they would stop sourcing from low-road producers.

Not only are most large corporations far from ethical leaders—in many cases they cannot bring themselves to adhere to their most basic responsibility: obeying the law and complying with regulations.  

For the past few years, I’ve spent most of my time documenting corporate lawlessness by building the Violation Tracker database, which now contains more than 360,000 examples of misconduct that have resulted in $470 billion in penalties since 2000.

I ran the names of the 181 companies whose CEOs signed the Roundtable statement through Violation Tracker and, not surprisingly, the results were eye-popping. The signatories and their subsidiaries together account for more than $197 billion in cumulative penalties, or more than 40 percent of the total penalties from tens of thousands of companies.

Twenty-one of the signatories have penalty totals of $1 billion or more, and three with $25 billion or more. At the top of the list is Bank of America, with more than $58 billion in penalties from 128 cases largely involving mortgage abuses and toxic securities. JPMorgan Chase comes in at $30 billion from similar cases. As a consequence of its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other disasters, BP ranks third with $27 billion in penalties.

The list continues with other big banks (Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.), big utilities (American Electric Power, Duke Energy, etc.), big pharmaceutical manufacturers (Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, etc.), other big oil companies (Marathon Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, etc.), and others such as Boeing and Walmart.

It is significant that two of the worst corporate miscreants of recent years, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, are missing from the list of signatories. Perhaps they or the Roundtable realized that their inclusion would have detracted from the message.

Yet the track records of many of the other signatories are not much better. Large corporations that repeatedly break the rules concerning consumer protection, environmental protection, workplace protection, investor protection and every other kind of protection cannot profess that they are committed to serving the well-being of all their stakeholders. Until they change their behavior, their purported principles mean little.