Portraying Corporate Villains as Victims

November 30th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

The world according to Trump is one of grievances and victimhood. During the presidential campaign he got a lot of mileage by appearing to empathize with the travails of the white working class and promising to be their champion in fighting against the impact of globalization and economic restructuring. At times he even seemed to be adopting traditional left-wing positions by criticizing big banks and big pharma.

Over the past ten months that stance has been steadily changing, and now the transformation is starkly evident. Trump is still obsessed with victimhood, but the focus on the legitimate economic grievances of white workers has been replaced by a preoccupation with the bogus grievances of large corporations. He would have us believe that today’s most oppressed group is Corporate America.

The desire to come to the rescue of big business is, when all the distracting tweets are put aside, at the core of the mission that Trump shares with Congressional Republicans: dismantling regulation and slashing corporate taxes.

It’s difficult to know whether this is what Trump planned all along and cynically manipulated his supporters or if he was turned by the Washington swamp he unconvincingly vowed to drain. In either event, his administration is engaging in one of the most egregious betrayals in American history.

Trump is not only neglecting the economic interests of his core supporters; he is siding with those who prey on them. This is playing out in many ways — from promoting anti-worker policies at the Labor Department to going easy on the drug companies responsible for the opioid epidemic — but one of the most revealing situations is taking place at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Putting aside the question of whether outgoing director Richard Cordray or President Trump has the right to name an acting director, the real issue is what is going to become of an agency that has been courageous and unrelenting in its enforcement actions against predatory financial firms.

The CFPB’s sin, from the point of view of the White House and Congressional Republicans, is that it has been doing its job too well. One of the dirty little secrets of Washington is that most regulatory agencies are in the pocket of the corporations they are supposed to police. Oversight is usually friendly or at least not onerous.

The CFPB was designed to, and in practice did, break that mold. It has not been chummy with the banks, payday lenders, mortgage brokers and credit agencies. As shown in Violation Tracker, since 2012 the CFPB has brought more than 100 enforcement actions and imposed more than $7 billion in penalties.

After he was named to take over the agency, Mick Mulvaney, who had long advocated its dismantlement, was quoted as saying that President Trump wanted him to get the CFPB “back to the point where it can protect people without trampling on capitalism.” The very thinly veiled message is that CFPB will cease to be an aggressive advocate for consumers, allowing banks and other financial companies to breathe easier.

Mulvaney was giving what amounted to a moral reprieve for all those companies pursued by the CFPB, including:

  • Wells Fargo, which was the target of one of the CFPB’s highest profile enforcement actions: the $100 million penalty imposed on the bank for secretly creating millions of extra accounts not requested by customers, in order to generate illicit fees.
  • Mortgage loan servicer Ocwen Financial, which the CFPB ordered to provide $2 billion in principal reduction to underwater borrowers, many of whom had been forced into foreclosure by Ocwen’s abusive practices.
  • Bank of America and FIA Card Services, which the CFPB ordered to provide $747 million in relief to card customers harmed by deceptive marketing of add-on products.
  • Corinthian Colleges Inc., the operator of dubious for-profit schools that was sued by the CFPB and ended up going out of business amid charges that it lured students into taking out private loans to cover expensive tuition costs by advertising bogus job prospects and career services.
  • Colfax Capital (also known as Rome Finance), which the CFPB ordered to pay $92 million in debt relief to some 17,000 members of the U.S. armed forces who had been harmed by the company’s predatory lending practices.
  • Or smaller operators such as Reverse Mortgage Solutions, which the CFPB fined for falsely telling customers, mainly seniors, that there was no risk of losing their home.

The Trump Administration has come to the rescue of financial scammers such as these by moving to defang the CFPB and restore the proper order of things in which it is not capitalists but rather consumers and workers who get trampled.

The Corporate Crook Conquest of the Executive Branch

November 16th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

It appears that the Trump Administration will not rest until every last federal regulatory agency is under the control of a corporate surrogate. The reverse revolving door is swinging wildly as business foxes swarm into the rulemaking henhouses.

Among the latest predators is Alex Azar II, who was just nominated by Trump to head the Department of Health and Human Services, a position Tom Price had to vacate amid the uproar over his excessive use of chartered jets for routine government travel. Until earlier this year Azar was the president of the U.S. division of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

Azar apparently shares Price’s abhorrence of the Affordable Care Act, but he also brings the perspective of a top executive for a drug company with a particularly sordid track record. For the past 40 years Lilly has been embroiled in a series of scandals involving unsafe products and the marketing of drugs for unapproved uses. Among the many cases were some that involved criminal charges.

In 1985 Lilly pleaded guilty to charges that it failed to notify federal regulators about deaths and illnesses linked to Oraflex.  The company’s former chief medical officer entered a plea of no contest to similar individual charges. A Justice Department report put the number of deaths the company had covered up at 28.

In 2009 the U.S. Justice Department announced that Lilly had agreed to pay a $515 million criminal fine as part of the resolution of allegations relating to the illegal marketing of its schizophrenia drug Zyprexa.

The company has also faced bribery allegations. In December 2012 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Lilly would pay a total of $29.4 million to resolve charges that some of its subsidiaries violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by making improper payments to win business in Russia, Brazil, China and Poland.

Violation Tracker’s tally on Eli Lilly amounts to $1.49 billion in penalties since 2000.

Meanwhile, the Senate has confirmed (along party lines) the Trump Administration’s nomination of coal mining executive David Zatezalo to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. For seven years Zatezalo served as chairman of Rhino Resource Partners, where he clashed with MSHA over the company’s safety problems. The agency issued two rare “pattern of violation” warnings against the company. Violation Tracker contains 160 cases involving Rhino with total penalties of more than $2 million.

And given the headlong rush by Congressional Republicans to pass their tax legislation, it should be noticed that the Trump Administration’s interim head of the Internal Revenue Service (following the resignation of John Koskinen, who had been named by Obama) is David Kautter, who spent most of his career at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, which now prefers to be called EY.

Kautter was in charge of the tax compliance department at Ernst, which to a great extent meant helping clients dodge their fiscal obligations. In 2013 the firm had to pay $123 million to settle federal criminal charges of wrongful conduct in connection with illegitimate tax shelters (it was offered a non-prosecution agreement).

The phrase regulatory capture used to refer to tendency of agencies to gradually become more sympathetic to the needs of the industries they were supposed to oversee. Under Trump that process has been accelerated, with regulatory posts being given to individuals who are already corporate insiders or shills for the worst the business world has to offer. More than regulatory capture, it is the corporate crook conquest of the executive branch.

Tax Dodgers and Regulatory Scofflaws

November 9th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

Large corporations in the United States like to portray themselves as victims of a supposedly onerous tax system and a supposedly oppressive regulatory system. Those depictions are a far cry from reality, but that does not stop business interests from seeking to weaken government power in both areas.

This year has been a bonanza. The Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans have taken aim at numerous Obama-era regulatory initiatives and now are serving up a banquet of business tax breaks.

At the same time, corporations take matters into their own hands by using every opportunity to circumvent tax obligations and regulatory safeguards. The newly released Paradise Papers are just the latest indications of how large corporations such as Apple (and wealthy individuals) use offshore havens to shield billions of dollars in profits from taxation.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy has published a list of more than 300 Fortune 500 companies that hold some $2.6 trillion offshore, thereby avoiding about $767 billion in federal taxes. Of these, ITEP has found indications that 29 corporations keep their holdings not only outside the United States but in tax haven countries where they pay very little in local taxes.

It should come as no surprise that quite a few of these tax dodgers also show up high on the list of regulatory scofflaws documented in Violation Tracker. In fact, one of the 29 is Bank of America, which has racked up $57 billion in fines and settlements since 2000 — far more than any other corporation. ITEP reports that B of A has $17.8 billion in unrepatriated income.

Also on the ITEP list is Citigroup, with $47 billion in unrepatriated income. It ranks 5th on the Violation Tracker list, with more than $16 billion in fines and settlements. Wells Fargo has $2.4 billion in unrepatriated income and $11 billion in penalties, but that latter figure is likely to rise as various cases relating to the bank’s bogus account scandal are resolved.

Banks are not the only overlaps between the two lists. For example, pharmaceutical company Amgen has $36 billion in unrepatriated income and $786 million in penalties.

Major regulatory violators can also be found on the larger list of corporations that are known to have large offshore holdings but do not disclose enough information to allow ITEP to determine whether those holdings are in tax havens. Chief among these are other pharmaceutical giant such as Pfizer ($197 billion offshore and $4.3 billion in penalties), Johnson & Johnson ($66 billion offshore and $2.5 billion in penalties), Merck ($63 billion offshore and $2 billion in penalties) and Eli Lilly ($28 billion offshore and $1.4 billion in penalties).

Also on the list are petroleum majors such as Exxon Mobil ($54 billion offshore and $714 million in penalties) and Chevron ($46 billion offshore and $578 million in penalties).

The mindset that prompts corporate executives to use international tax dodging techniques seems to be related to the one that encourages them to break environmental, consumer protection and other laws at home. The logical course of action would be to tighten both tax and regulatory enforcement, but those currently in charge of federal policymaking instead want to make it even easier for large corporations to make out like bandits.

Bizarro-World Worker Populism at Trump’s OSHA

November 2nd, 2017 by Phil Mattera

The bizarro-world worker populism of Donald Trump strikes again. The White House recently nominated Scott Mugno to be the Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Mugno (photo at left) is not a worker safety advocate, occupational health scientist or a union official. Instead, he is a corporate safety executive at the shipping giant FedEx.

Data in Violation Tracker shows since 2000 FedEx has racked up $335,853 in OSHA penalties (counting only those fines of $5,000 or more designated as serious, willful or repeated). This total is the 208th largest among the 1,777 parent companies in Violation Tracker with OSHA fines.

While FedEx may not be at the very top of the OSHA penalty list, it does have some significant safety blemishes on its record. In 2014, for example, OSHA proposed a fine of $44,000 against the company for failing to properly guard a conveyor belt at its facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts. In its press release announcing the proposed penalty (which FedEx managed to get deleted), the agency noted that the company had previously been cited for the same issue at two other facilities.

Moreover, FedEx in general and Mugno in particular have tried to weaken OSHA oversight. In a 2006 presentation at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event, Mugno argued that workers needed to take more responsibility for health and safety issues, conveniently ignoring the fact that they rarely have the autonomy to make meaningful changes in workplace conditions.

Another sign of Mugno’s orientation is the warm reception his nomination has received from business groups such as the Chamber and the American Trucking Association. At the same time, public interest groups have expressed concern. Public Citizen came out in opposition to the nomination, citing Mugno’s 2006 remarks and arguing that his “stance on laws and regulations do not mesh with leading an agency tasked with writing rules to ensure safe and healthy working conditions.” The Center for Progressive Reform posted a long list of questions that need to be put to Mugno.

The Center, by the way, has just introduced a Crimes Against Workers Database that compiles information on state-level criminal actions against companies and their executives implicated in serious workplace accidents. (I’m pleased to report that the database includes links to Violation Tracker data, and I plan to reciprocate.)

It was to be expected that Trump, who repeatedly bashed the EPA during the presidential campaign, would have named a climate change denier and regulation hater like Scott Pruitt to head that agency. Yet Trump did not carry on a similar tirade against OSHA, perhaps realizing that many of his blue-collar supporters were all too aware of workplace hazards that needed the agency’s oversight.

If Trump were any kind of real populist, he could have named a true worker safety advocate to OSHA without breaking any campaign promises. Instead, he brought in a business apologist who will pursue the Chamber agenda and raise the risk level for millions of American workers. The Trump corporate takeover marches on.

Unfettered Corporate Power

October 26th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

Once upon a time, there was a debate on how best to check the power of giant corporations. Starting in the Progressive Era and resuming in the 1970s with the arrival of agencies such as the EPA and OSHA, some emphasized the role of government through regulation. Others focused on the role of the courts, especially through the kind of class action lawsuits pioneered by lawyers such as Harold Kohn in the 1960s.

When regulators were seen as too aggressive, business apologists pushed back by arguing that corporate misconduct should be addressed through litigation. When class actions grew more effective, those apologists started lobbying for tort reform and arguing that regulatory agencies (especially those dominated by industry) were the better forum.

This year, amid a supposed populist upsurge, that debate is dying out. The Republican-controlled Congress and the White House are undermining both regulation and litigation. Virtually all legislative “accomplishments” since Inauguration Day have consisted of Congressional Review Act maneuvers to roll back business regulations. Now, with the Senate’s move to kill the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s restriction on forced arbitration, Congress has used the same device to reduce the ability of consumers to seek redress through the courts — what Sen. Elizabeth Warren aptly described as “a giant wet kiss to Wall Street.”

The result of these moves is that big business is increasingly being allowed to operate with no effective controls at all. This unilateral disarmament is taking place when corporate misconduct is rampant. Among the companies that will benefit from the arbitration move are the likes of Wells Fargo and Equifax, whose willingness to mistreat customers has been truly astounding.

We should be careful, however, not to overstate the effectiveness of damage awards in class action lawsuits in changing corporate behavior. It’s unfortunately true that large corporations have come to regard substantial monetary settlements as an acceptable cost of doing business.

That’s true both of private litigation and cases brought by regulatory agencies and the Justice Department. As shown in Violation Tracker, 40 corporations have paid $1 billion or more in fines and settlements. Seven of those have paid $10 billion or more, including all the giant national banks: Bank of America ($57 billion), JPMorgan Chase ($29 billion), Citigroup ($16 billion) and Wells Fargo ($11 billion).

These amounts have involved scores of different cases dating back to 2000. In other words, the banks are repeat violators that are willing to pay out large sums in order to continue doing business more or less as usual. More class action lawsuits are unlikely to change this dynamic.

I believe that banks and other large corporations should continue to face heavy financial penalties for their misconduct, but it has become clear that these penalties alone are not going to put an end to the corporate crime wave. It’s time to go beyond damages in addressing the damage caused by these companies.

Getting Tough on the Corporations Behind the Opioid Crisis

October 19th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

The withdrawal of Tom Marino’s nomination as national drug czar is a reminder of the power of whistle-blowing and aggressive investigative reporting, while the fact that he was named in the first place is a reminder of the hollowness of the Trump’s Administration’s commitments to draining the swamp and to seriously addressing the opioid epidemic.

Yet there is much more to be done beyond denying a high-profile job to the Congressman who did the pharmaceutical industry’s bidding in weakening the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to thwart illicit distribution of prescription painkillers.

The first step, of course, is for Congress to undo the damage caused by Marino’s bill, which Democrats and Republicans alike allowed to be enacted with little scrutiny. Also needed are reforms to the revolving door system, which the excellent reporting by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes and the revelations of DEA whistle-blower Joseph Rannazzisi (photo) showed to play a key role in the story as former DEA officials working for the drug industry or its law firms helped to draft and promote the legislation.

If the scourge of opioids is to end, there will have to be much stronger enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the law that forms the basis of U.S. drug control policy. For a long time, it appeared the problem was that the CSA was being enforced too strictly, at least when it was applied to drug users and low-level drug sellers.

Starting about a decade ago, federal officials and prosecutors began to pay attention to the pernicious role played by the supposedly legitimate drug industry. In 2007, Purdue Pharma’s Purdue Frederick Inc. unit and several of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misleading the public about the addictive nature of its OxyContin pain medication and paid more than $634 million in penalties. That case was brought by the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration, not the DEA.

During the following years, the DEA began to bring its own enforcement actions under the CSA or referred cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. According to data I have collected for Violation Tracker (some of which has not yet been posted on the site), there have been about 80 CSA actions against drug companies, distributors or healthcare providers since 2008.

The penalties collected in the cases total about $605 million. The biggest amounts were imposed on the distributor McKesson ($176 million in three cases); CVS ($130 million in nine cases); Walgreens ($80 million); and a second big distributor, Cardinal Health ($68 million in three cases).

It’s notable that the penalties in these 80 cases combined amount to less than that imposed on Purdue alone. Moreover, all of the cases were brought as civil rather than criminal actions. I found one corporate CSA criminal cases but it was not brought against a healthcare company or retailer but rather against United Parcel Service, in connection with its role in delivering shipments from illegal online pharmacies. And in that case UPS was offered a non-prosecution agreement that essentially nullified the criminal charge.

Given the size of the industry and the profitability of the companies involved, all these cases amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist. The gravity of the opioid crisis requires stronger action against the companies involved, as well as their executives and, in cases like the Sackler Family behind Purdue Pharma, their individual owners.

Employers and Sexual Harassment

October 12th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is bringing necessary attention to the problem of sexual harassment. But that problem is not limited to abusive behavior on the part of big-time movie producers and a few other powerful men. Women are confronted with sexual predators in a wide variety of workplaces.

Evidence of this can be found in the cases resolved by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In addition to enforcing anti-discrimination rules regarding hiring, pay levels, etc., the EEOC brings lawsuits (or joins existing ones) dealing with harassment.

In Violation Tracker I have collected data on a total of 1,393 resolved EEOC cases since the beginning of 2000 that together have resulted in about $1 billion in penalty payments by employers. Of these, about 300 involved sexual harassment (often in conjunction with other allegations). They have resulted in about $135 million in employer penalties. Here are some of the more significant cases:

In August, Ford Motor agreed to pay $10.1 million to resolve allegations that mangers at two plants retaliated against workers who complained that they were being subjected to sexual (and racial) harassment on the job.

In 2011, a telemarketing company called International Profit Associates agreed to pay $8 million to resolve allegations that some 82 female employees had been subjected to sexual harassment. It took nine years from the time the EEOC first filed the case to get to that resolution, with the agency attributing the delay to the filing of frivolous legal motions by the firm, whose top officials were alleged to have personally participated in the abusive behavior.

In 2010 ABM Industries, a major provider of janitorial services, agreed to pay $5.8 million to resolve allegations that more than 20 female workers were subjected to repeated sexual harassment by co-workers and supervisors. An EEOC press release stated: “Some of the harassers allegedly often exposed themselves, groped female employees’ private parts from behind, and even raped at least one of the victims.”

Predatory behavior can also occur at non-profit workplaces. In 2003 Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York agreed to pay $5.4 million to resolve allegations that female workers were subjected to inappropriate touching during employment-related medical examinations conducted by a hospital physician who also asked intrusive questions about their sexual practices.

In 2005 Carrols Corporation, a major Burger King franchisee, agreed to pay $2.5 million to resolve EEOC allegations that 89 female workers, many of them teenagers, were subjected to egregious sexual harassment at many of the company’s locations. The EEOC alleged that the abuse “ranged from obscene comments, jokes, and propositions to unwanted touching, exposure of genitalia, strip searches, stalking, and even rape” and that it was “perpetrated by managers in the majority of cases.”

In a case involving retailer Fry’s Electronics, a supervisor was said to have been fired for supporting a subordinate who complained about sexual harassment The supervisor had told the company’s legal department that the worker reported receiving repeated sexually charged text messages from an assistant store manager. Fry’s paid $2.3 million to resolve the EEOC’s allegations.

Whether in the Weinstein case or these other situations, what starts out as the depraved behavior of individuals is compounded by the efforts of employers to conceal the abuse and punish those victims who dare to report it. Whether the targets are famous actresses or janitors and fast food workers, corporate America needs to do more to stop the sexual predators on its payrolls.

The Corporate Death Penalty for Wells Fargo?

October 5th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

Wells Fargo’s seemingly endless transgressions have reached the point that there is growing discussion of a possibility rarely considered even in some of the most egregious corporate scandals: putting it out of business.

Rep. Maxine Waters, the top ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, recently issued a report that recounted the banks sins (including a reference to the $11 billion Violation Tracker tally of its penalties), saying that Wells has “demonstrated a pattern of egregiously harming its customers.”

Such statements have been heard frequently since the Wells bogus account scandal came to light last year. But Waters goes on to argue: “When a megabank has engaged in a pattern of extensive violations of law that harms millions of consumers, like Wells Fargo has, it should not be allowed to continue to operate within our nation’s banking system, and avail itself of all of the associated privileges afforded to it.”

A similar sentiment is expressed in a letter just submitted to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency by the AFL-CIO, Americans for Financial Reform and five other groups. The letter asks the OCC to consider whether, “in light of the bank’s pattern of law breaking,” the bank “should forfeit its national banking charter.”

The issue was even brought up in a recent Congressional hearing in which Wells CEO Tim Sloan was being grilled by members of the Senate Banking Committee. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said that Sloan should be fired, while Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii went further by asking Sloan: “Why shouldn’t the OCC revoke your charter?”

“We serve one out of every three Americans, we have 270,000 team members,” Sloan responded before Schatz cut him off, saying: “So, you’re too big.”

Those comments encapsulate how a debate about the possible shutdown of a bank or other company as large as Wells Fargo would play out. The corporation would emphasize the disruptive effect on its customers and employees, suggesting they would be the unintended victims. Of course, in the case of Wells it was the bank itself that victimized customers and staff.

Schatz’s comment points to the direction any serious effort to penalize a rogue corporation should take: the emphasis should not be a precipitous shutdown but rather a breakup into smaller entities that would be subjected to rigorous regulation and scrutiny. Care should be taken in the process to protect the interests of customers and employees, though upper level executives should be shown the door.

Discussions of the corporate death penalty have come and gone over the years. The need to deal with a brazen recidivist such as Wells may finally bring more serious consideration to a tool that could be more effective than billions in penalties in ending the ongoing corporate crime wave.

A Strange Way of Helping Workers

September 28th, 2017 by Phil Mattera

The Trump Administration would have us believe it is all about helping workers. Yet it has a strange way of showing it. Policies that directly assist workers are under attack, and all the emphasis is on initiatives that purportedly aid workers indirectly by boosting their employers.

That dubious approach is on full display now in a tax proposal that is being sold as pro-worker even though its main effect will be to make the rich even richer with the trickle-down hope they decide to use some of their additional wealth to create jobs and boost wages.

The same goes with regulation, a topic Trump is expected to return to in a speech next week. The dismantling of safeguards vital to the well-being of workers and consumers is packaged as the key to unleashing Corporate America’s job-creation mojo.

To a great extent these arguments are nothing more than chicanery. If there is any shred of sincerity, it is based on the idea that corporations, with fewer tax and regulatory burdens, will act in a socially beneficial way.

Corporations themselves, including ones that have lately been critical of the Trump Administration on issues such as race relations and climate change, help to promote the notion of business civic virtue. In fact, they and their apologists don’t restrain themselves in claiming the moral high ground.

A prime example of this appears in a recent issue of Fortune, which contains the magazine’s latest list of what it calls Change the World companies. These are the corporations whose operations supposedly have the greatest positive social impact.

Perhaps I have a jaded view, but I was astounded to see many of the companies on the list. Not only are they not paragons of virtue — in some cases they are leading corporate miscreants.

Take No. 1 on the list: JPMorgan Chase. In Violation Tracker the bank shows up with more than $29 billion in fines and settlements since 2000, making it the second most penalized company in the United States (after Bank of America). A big part of its total comes from toxic securities cases and mortgage abuses in the period leading to the financial meltdown, but there is much more. For example, it had to pay $1.7 billion to resolve a deferred prosecution criminal case relating to its role as the banker for Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme; $550 million for its role in a conspiracy to manipulate the foreign exchange market; $329 million for illegal credit card practices; and so on.

No. 9 on the Fortune list is Johnson & Johnson, which long cultivated a lily-white image as a producer of baby powder and other wholesome items, but in recent years has gotten itself embroiled in a series of scandals. Its Violation Tracker tally comes mainly from a 2013 civil and criminal case in which it had to pay $2.2 billion to resolve allegations of promoting three prescription drugs for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Among the companies on the top tier of the Fortune list are some with terrible employment records, including Walmart, which has long fought efforts of its U.S. workers to form unions and bargain for better pay, and Apple, which grew rich from the toil of the underpaid overseas workers producing its overpriced devices.

The Fortune lists contains some smaller and less notorious companies, but the presence of those leading corporate culprits taints the whole project.

A similar taint can be found in the Trump tax and deregulatory initiatives. If you want to help workers, help them directly — don’t give away the store to their employers.

Identifying Repeat Corporate Offenders

September 21st, 2017 by Phil Mattera

When a new corporate scandal arises, there is a tendency on the part of many observers to treat it as a complete surprise — as something that could not have been anticipated.

The truth is that large companies are rarely first time offenders. If you look into their background, you are likely to see evidence of past behavior that presaged the recent misconduct.

It is now easier than ever to research that track record thanks to a major expansion of Violation Tracker my colleagues and I just rolled out. We posted an additional ten years of data, extending coverage back to 2000 and in the process nearly doubling the size of the database to 300,000 entries. Together, these account for $394 billion in fines and settlements — 95 percent of which was assessed against 2,800 large parent companies and their subsidiaries.

Take the example of Equifax, which is at the center of a growing scandal over its apparent negligence in protecting personal information and its delay in reporting a major hack. Violation Tracker shows that early this year the company was fined $2.5 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for using deceptive means to lure people into purchasing costly credit-protection services. The company was also ordered to provide $3.8 million in restitution to affected customers. Over the previous two decades, Equifax was fined three times by the Federal Trade Commission.

The announcement by the CFPB last year that it was fining Wells Fargo $100 million for creating bogus customer accounts — a scandal that has subsequently mushroomed — was far from the first time the bank had gotten into trouble for questionable practices. Violation Tracker documents prior penalties totaling some $11 billion going back to 2000 for offense such as mortgage abuses, toxic securities abuses, and discriminatory practices.

Sometimes the prior offense is indistinguishable from the current one. In 2005, a decade before it was revealed to be engaged in a massive scheme to deceive regulators about emissions levels, Volkswagen was compelled to pay a fine of $1.1 million and spend $26 million on a recall to settle allegations that it failed to correct a defective pollution-control sensor.

Of the 2,800 companies in the Violation Tracker universe, more than 80 were penalized for something or other by federal agencies or the Justice Department every year from 2000 through 2016. The company that has the dubious distinction of leading by this measure is oil giant BP, which has paid out an average of some $1.6 billion in fines and settlements each year during the 17-year period.

No other company comes close. In second place is Verizon Communications, whose average annual penalty was $72 million, followed by FirstEnergy ($71 million), Valero Energy ($58 million), Marathon Petroleum ($54 million), Alcoa ($43 million), Exxon Mobil ($42 million), Koch Industries ($39 million) and Chevron ($34 million).

While they may not have gotten penalized every single year, there are hundreds of other parent companies that have been penalized in multiple years, and in many cases multiple times in a given year. In other words, just about every large company is a recidivist.

Who knows: maybe regulators and prosecutors will start consulting Violation Tracker to identify prior bad acts and take them into account when deciding how to penalize companies for their current sins.