The bracing reality that America has two sets of rules -- one for the
corporate class and another for the middle class -- has never been more
The middle class, by and large, plays by the rules, then watches as
its jobs disappear -- and the Senate takes a break instead of extending
unemployment benefits. The corporate class games the system -- making
sure its license to break the rules is built into the rules themselves.
One of the most glaring examples of this continues to be the ability
of corporations to cheat the public out of tens of billions of dollars a
year by using offshore tax havens. Indeed, it's estimated that
companies and wealthy individuals funneling money through offshore tax
havens are evading around $100 billion a year in taxes -- leaving the rest of
us to pick up the tab. And with cash-strapped states all across the
country cutting vital services to the bone, it's not like we don't need
You want Exhibit A of two sets of rules? According to the White
House, in 2004, the last year data on this was compiled, U.S.
multinational corporations paid roughly $16 billion in taxes on $700 billion
in foreign active earnings -- putting their tax rate at around 2.3
percent. Know many middle class Americans getting off that easy at tax
In December 2008, the Government Accounting Office reported
that 83 of the 100 largest publicly-traded companies in the country --
including AT&T, Chevron, IBM, American Express, GE, Boeing, Dow, and
AIG -- had subsidiaries in tax havens -- or, as the corporate class
comically calls them, "financial privacy jurisdictions."
Even more egregiously, of those 83 companies, 74 received government
contracts in 2007. GM, for instance, got more than $517 million from the
government -- i.e. the taxpayers -- that year, while shielding profits
in tax-friendly places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. And Boeing,
which received over $23 billion in federal contracts that year, had 38
subsidiaries in tax havens, including six in Bermuda.
And while it's as easy as opening up an island P.O. Box, not every
big company uses the dodge. For instance, Boeing's competitor Lockheed
Martin had no offshore subsidiaries. But far too many do -- another GAO
that over 18,000 companies are registered at a single address in the
Cayman Islands, a country with no corporate or capital gains taxes.
America's big banks -- including those that pocketed billions from
the taxpayers in bailout dollars -- seem particularly fond of the Cayman
Islands. At the time of the GAO report,
Morgan Stanley had 273 subsidiaries in tax havens, 158 of them in the
Cayman Islands. Citigroup had 427, with 90 in the Caymans. Bank of
America had 115, with 59 in the Caymans. Goldman Sachs had 29 offshore
havens, including 15 in the Caymans. JPMorgan had 50, with seven in the
Caymans. And Wells Fargo had 18, with nine in the Caymans.
Perhaps no company exemplifies the corporate class/middle class
double standard more than KBR/Halliburton. The company got billions from
U.S. taxpayers, then turned around and used a Cayman Island tax dodge
to pump up its bottom line. As the Boston Globe's Farah
Stockman reported, KBR, until 2007 a unit of Halliburton,
"has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare
and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies
based in this tropical tax haven."
In 2008, the company listed 10,500 Americans as being officially
employed by two companies that, as Stockman wrote, "exist in a computer
file on the fourth floor of a building on a palm-studded boulevard here
in the Caribbean." Aside from the tax advantages, Stockman points out
another benefit of this dodge: Americans who officially work for a
company whose headquarters is a computer file in the Caymans are not
eligible for unemployment insurance or other benefits when they get laid
off -- something many of them found out the hard way.
This kind of sun-kissed thievery is nothing new. Indeed, back in
2002, to call attention to the outrage of the sleazy accounting trick, I
wrote a column announcing I was thinking of moving my
syndicated newspaper column to Bermuda:
I'll still live in America, earn my living here, and enjoy
the protection, technology, infrastructure, and all the other myriad
benefits of the land of the free and the home of the brave. I'm just
changing my business address. Because if I do that, I won't have to pay
for those benefits -- I'll get them for free!
Washington has been trying to address the issue for close to 50 years
-- JFK gave it a go in 1961. But time and again Corporate
America's game fixers -- aka lobbyists -- and water carriers in
Congress have managed to keep the loopholes open.
The battle is once again afoot. On Friday, the House passed the American
Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act. The bill, in addition to
extending unemployment benefits, clamps down on some of they ways
corporations hide their income offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Even
though practically every House Republican voted against it, the bill passed 215 to 204.
The bill's passage in the Senate, however, remains in doubt, with
lobbyists gearing up for a furious fight to make sure America's
corporate class can continue to profitably enjoy the largess of
government services and contracts without the responsibility of paying
its fair share.
The bill is far from perfect -- it leaves open a number of loopholes
and would only recoup a very small fraction of the $100 billion
corporations and wealthy individuals are siphoning off from the U.S.
Treasury. And it wouldn't ban companies using offshore tax havens from
receiving government contracts, which is stunning given the hard times
we are in and the populist groundswell at the way average Americans are
getting the short end of the stick.
But the bill would end one of the more egregious examples of the
double standard between the corporate class and the middle class,
finally forcing hedge fund managers to pay taxes at the same rate as
everybody else. As the law stands now, their income is considered
"carried interest," and is accordingly taxed at the capital gains rate
of 15 percent.
The issue was famously brought up in 2007 by Warren Buffett when he noted that his receptionist paid 30 percent of her
income in taxes, while he paid only 17.7 percent on his taxable income
of $46 million dollars.
As Robert Reich points out, the 25 most successful hedge fund
managers earned $1 billion each. The top earner clocked in at $4
billion. And all of them paid taxes at about half the rate of Buffett's
Closing this outrageous loophole would bring in close to $20 billion
dollars in revenue -- money desperately needed at a time when teachers
and nurses and firemen are being laid off all around the country.
Hedge fund lobbyists are currently hacking away at the Senate's
resolve with, not surprisingly, some success. And it's not just
Republicans who are willing to do their bidding, but a number of
Democrats as well. Indeed, it was a Democrat -- Chuck Schumer -- who led the fight against closing the loophole in
"I don't know how members of Congress can return home and look an
office manager, a nurse, a court clerk in the eye and say 'I chose hedge
fund managers instead of you and your family'," said Lori Lodes of the SEIU.
Nicole Tichon, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, framed the debate in similar terms:
It's hard to imagine anyone campaigning on protecting hedge
fund managers, Wall Street banks and companies that ship jobs and
profits overseas. It's hard to imagine telling constituents that somehow
they should continue to subsidize these industries. We're anxious to
see whose side the Senate is on and what story they want to tell the
Up until now, the story has been a familiar narrative of Two
Americas, with one set of rules for those who can afford to hire a fleet
of K Street lobbyists and a different set for everybody else. It's time
to give this infuriating tale a different -- and far more just and
satisfying -- ending.
On June 2nd at 8pm, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta will be airing an hour-long investigative story into the environmental health and justice problems plaguing the community of Mossville, Louisiana. Nestled amidst an alarming cluster of chemical plants, Mossville is home to more PVC chemical plants than anywhere else in the entire country, and has been dubbed the Vinyl Manufacturing Capital of America.
CNN broke a terrific story a few weeks ago profiling Mossville which you can watch in this embedded video below. Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s June 2nd feature will explore how Mossville has been polluted by the chemical industry with vinyl chloride, Dioxins, and other harmful chemicals.
From Buffalo, NY to Mossville, Louisiana
I traveled to Mossville back in 2004 as part of an environmental health delegation that I led and organized, to bear witness to the environmental pollution the chemical industry has brought to this poor African American community. CertainTeed, one of our nation’s largest PVC manufacturers, was building a PVC fabrication plant on the Lake Erie waterfront in Buffalo, and we wanted to investigate how CertainTeed and other PVC plants had impacted Mossville in Louisiana. CertainTeed’s chemicals were manufactured just outside Mossville, and were then shipped to Buffalo to be fabricated.
At the time I was no stranger to contaminated communities. I had visited and worked with many impacted communities in the Buffalo area, from homeowners in Hickory Woods whose neighborhood was built on toxic waste, to parents fighting the only hazardous waste landfill in the Northeastern united States.
I was no stranger to toxic pollution, but was not prepared for the scope of pollution and cluster of chemical plants bordering this environmental justice community. Me and a few colleagues went on a toxic tour led by Mr. Edgar Mouton Jr., who is an inspiration to me. We met with concerned residents and former workers, and drove around parts of the community that had been turned into a ghost town – scores of homes were evacuated due to the plume of chemicals seeping into the neighborhood. We listened to residents’ stories of cancer, asthma, and reproductive health problems – diseases residents were sure was a result of the chemical industry.
I will never forget that visit. That experience and trip stays with me every day, and it motivates me to continue fighting for environmental health and justice.
A Posterchild for the PVC Chemical Industry
Mossville is not an isolated example, but instead a poster child for a broken chemical safety system. Mossville is also a posterchild for the PVC chemical industry’s pollution, as PVC plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color, making the production of PVC a major environmental justice concern for neighboring residents.
Community members, led by Mossville Environmental Action Now, have been fighting for a healthy community for years. Just consider some of these alarming facts:
* A jury found one of the United States’ leading PVC manufacturers liable for “wanton and reckless disregard of public safety”, caused by one of the largest chemical spills in the nation’s history which contaminated the groundwater underneath the surrounding community.
* A 1999 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found vinyl chloride levels in ambient air greater than 100 times the state air quality standard. * Independent studies confirmed groundwater is threatened by liquid toxic leachate, and there are contaminated fish, vegetables, and fruit in the area * Studies in 1998 and 2001 by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found alarming results — residents had more than three times the national average of dioxins in their blood, elevated dioxins in breast milk, and high cancer mortality rates.
More recently a few years ago, MEAN compiled data from the USEPA and ATSDR and found 77% of the mixture of dioxin compounds released by the Georgia Gulf PVC plant were the same dioxin compounds that made up 77% of the dioxins detected in the blood of Mossville residents. This finding shows that residents are accumulating the same mixture of dioxin compounds being released from the Georgia Gulf PVC plant and this mixture includes the most toxic forms of dioxin
Mark your calendars! Wednesday June 2nd at 8pm – Toxic Towns, USA
Mark your calendars for Wednesday June 2nd at 8:00pm EST to watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Toxic Towns and stand in solidarity with the community of Mossville, and all communities impacted by the PVC chemical industry.
British Petroleum is, rightfully, taking a lot of grief for the
massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should save some of our
vituperation for Transocean Ltd., the company that leased the ill-fated
Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. Transocean is no innocent
bystander in this matter. It presumably has some responsibility for the
safety condition of the rig, which its employees helped operate (nine of
them died in the April 20 explosion).
Transocean also brings some bad karma to the situation. The company,
the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, is the result of a
long series of corporate mergers and acquisitions dating back decades.
One of the firms that went into that mix was Sedco, which was founded in
1947 as Southeastern Drilling Company by Bill Clements, who would
decades later become a conservative Republican governor of Texas.
In 1979 a Sedco rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased to a Mexican oil
company experienced a blowout, resulting in what was at the time the
worst oil spill the world had ever seen. As he surveyed the oil-fouled
beaches of the Texas coast, Gov. Clements made the memorable remarks:
“There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. Let’s don’t get excited
about this thing” (Washington Post 9/11/1979).
At the time, Sedco was being run by Clements’s son, and the family
controlled the company’s stock. The federal government sued Sedco over
the spill, claiming that the rig was unseaworthy and its crew was not
properly trained. The feds sought about $12 million in damages, but
Sedco drove a hard bargain and got away with paying the government only
$2 million. It paid about the same amount to settle lawsuits filed by
fishermen, resorts and other Gulf businesses. Sedco was sold in 1984 to
oil services giant Schlumberger, which transferred its offshore drilling
operations to what was then known as Transocean Offshore in 1999.
In 2000 an eight-ton anchor that accidentally fell from a Transocean
rig in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured an underwater pipeline, causing a
spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of oil. In 2003 a fire broke out on a
company rig off the Texas coast, killing one worker and injuring several
others. As has been reported in recent days, a series of fatal accidents
at company operations last year prompted the company to cancel
executive bonuses. It’s also come out that in 2005 a Transocean rig in
the North Sea had been cited by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive for a
problem similar to what apparently caused the Gulf accident.
Safety is not the only blemish on Transocean’s record. It is one of
those companies that engaged in what is euphemistically called corporate
inversion—moving one’s legal headquarters overseas to avoid U.S.
taxes. Transocean first moved its registration to the Cayman Islands in
1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008. It kept its physical headquarters
in Houston, though last year it moved some of its top officers to
Switzerland to be able to claim that its principal executive offices
In addition to skirting U.S. taxes, Transocean has allegedly tried to
avoid paying its fair share in several countries where its subsidiaries
operate. The company’s 10-K annual report admits that it has been assessed additional amounts
by tax authorities in Brazil and that it is the subject of civil and
criminal tax investigations in Norway.
In 2007 there were reports that Transocean was among a group of oil
services firms being investigated for violations of the Foreign Corrupt
Practices Act in connection with alleged payoffs to customs officials in
Nigeria. No charges have been filed.
An army of lawyers will be arguing over the relative responsibility
of the various parties in the Gulf spill for a long time to come. But
one thing is clear: Transocean, like BP, brought a dubious legacy to
this tragic situation.
Editor's note: Michael Brune is
executive director of the Sierra Club and former director of the
Rainforest Action Network.
The oil disaster
plaguing the Gulf of Mexico and our coastal states puts our desperate
need for a new clean energy economy in stark relief. We need to move
away from dirty, dangerous and deadly energy sources.
pleased that the White House is now saying it will suspend any new
offshore drilling while the explosion and spill are investigated, but
there should be no doubt left that drilling will only harm our coasts
and the people who live there.
Taking a temporary break from
offshore drilling is an important step, but it's not enough. We need to
stop new offshore drilling for good, now. And then we need an aggressive
plan to wean America from dirty fossil fuels in the next two decades.
This BP offshore rig that exploded was supposed to be
state-of-the-art. We've also been assured again and again that the
hundreds of offshore drilling rigs along our beaches are
completely safe. Now, we've seen workers tragically killed. We've seen
our ocean lit on fire, and now we're watching hundreds of thousands of
gallons of toxic oil seep toward wetlands and wildlife habitat.
rig's well is leaking 210,000 gallons of crude every day,
wiping out aquatic life and smothering the coastal wetlands of Louisiana
and Mississippi. As the reeking slick spreads over thousands of square
miles of ocean, it rapidly approaches the title of worst environmental
disaster in U.S. history, even worse than 1989's Exxon
Valdez oil spill. The well is under 5,000 feet of water, and it
could take weeks or even months to cap it.
This disaster could
unfortunately happen at any one of the hundreds of drilling platforms
off our coasts, at any moment. It could happen at the drilling sites
that the oil industry has proposed opening along the beaches of the
Indeed, even before this spill, the oil and gas industry had torn
apart the coastal wetlands of the Louisiana Bayou over the years. These
drilling operations have caused Louisiana to lose 25 square miles of
coastal wetlands, which are natural storm barriers, each year.
hardly just the environmental costs of oil spills that we have to worry
about with offshore drilling. The threat to the people who work on these
platforms has again become terribly clear. In fact, more than 500 fires
on oil platforms in the Gulf have injured or killed dozens of workers
in just the past four years, according to the federal Minerals
We don't need to pay this price for energy.
We have plenty of clean energy solutions in place that will end our
dependence on dirty fossil fuels, create good, safe jobs and breathe new
life into our economy.
One huge example came Thursday, when the
Obama administration approved our country's first offshore wind farm.
Our country has huge solar power potential as well. We can also save
more oil through simple efficiency measures than could be recovered by
new drilling on our coastlines.
This oil spill changes
everything. We have hit rock-bottom in our fossil fuel addiction. This
tragedy should be a wake-up call. It's time to take offshore drilling
off the table for good.
expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Brune.
American based food companies are facing a spate of lawsuits charging that they have cooperated with and paid off groups officially designated as terrorists by the U.S. government.
In February, a federal judge refused to dismiss a civil suit filed against Chiquita, a global corporation that markets itself for “products and services [that] are designed to win the hearts and smiles of the world's consumers.” [http://www.chiquitabrands.com/CompanyInfo/CompanyInfo.aspx] The suit makes the less cheerful charge that the company paid “protection” money to leftist (FARC) guerrillas operating near its plantations in Colombia -- during a period when the FARC killed four American missionaries.
Families of the missionaries who are bringing this case (Julin et al. v. Chiquita Brands Int’l) to Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida are suing Chiquita under the civil provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991, which allows American citizens and their heirs to be compensated for injuries resulting from international terrorism.
This is not the first time that Chiquita has faced charges of complicity with “terrorists.” In March 2007, (US v. Chiquita Brands Intl) the company had pled guilty to violating U.S. antiterrorism laws by funding the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (“AUC”). In the U.S. Department of Justice’s Factual Proffer to the Court in conjunction with Chiquita’s plea agreement in the 2007 case, the Justice Department stated that it could prove Chiquita made similar payments to FARC from 1989 through 1997. Both FARC and the AUC have been officially designated by the State Dept. as “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.”
Meanwhile, Dole is facing similar charges. The families of former plantation workers and land squatters are suing the world's largest producer and marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables in the Los Angeles Superior Court of California. The plaintiffs' complaint in Juana Perez 1-51/Juan Perez 5e-50 V. Dole Food Company, Inc., details a horrific litany of summary executions, off-the-bus abductions, forced-entry murders, kidnappings, ghoulish disappearances, and other crimes committed against trade unionists and land reform activists between 1997 and 2008 – the period when Dole, like Chiquita, allegedly supported the paramilitary AUC.
While Dole has denied making payments, Chiquita has taken a different route, voluntarily telling the Department of Justice about the payments. Its consistent position has been that both the left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries extorted cash "to protect the lives of its employees." http://dolecsr.com/PressSection/PressReleases/April292009/tabid/5853/Default.aspx
Both positions have become increasingly untenable now that paramilitaries who took the payments have come in from the cold. In exchange for disarming, submitting to Colombia's "Justice and Peace" process, and confessing to all their crimes, the former combatants have been promised reduced jail time.
Dole’s denial of pay offs is contradicted by sworn affidavits filed in the ongoing litigation. Jose Gregorio Mangones Lugo (aka "Carlos Tijeras") was the former commander of the William Rivas Front of the AUC group that operated in northern Colombia, in the zone where the companies and their suppliers grew bananas. In a sworn statement, Tijeras described the AUC's relationship with the head of plantations controlled or owned by both Dole and Chiquita as "an open public relationship" involving everything from "security services" to the kidnapping and extrajudicial assassination of labor leaders fingered by the companies as "security problems."
Tijeras' statement–which reads like the confessions of a corporate death squad leader and directly refutes his paymasters' version of events – was entered into the record in the California case (Juana Perez 1-51/Juan Perez 5e-50 V. Dole Food Company, Inc), filed against Dole in April 2009 by attorneys with Conrad and Scherer, representing the families of the 73 people killed by the AUC.
“I've been told that Chiquita has asserted that they paid the AUC funds, but that this was coerced and was a form of extortion,” Tijeras states. “I have also heard that Dole claims to have never paid us any funds. Both of these assertions are absolutely false. In fact, my agreement with Chiquita and Dole was to provide them with total security and other services.”
“These terrorists have every reason to lie by making false allegations against international companies like Dole in order to minimize their own culpability and reduce their jail time,” said C. Michael Carter, Dole's Executive Vice President and General Counsel. "This lawsuit is irresponsible and the allegations are blatantly false."
Tijeras is not the only paramilitary to put some of the blame on the companies. Salvatore Mancuso, the overall commander of the AUC, also testified in early 2008 that Dole and Del Monte, like Chiquita, had been providing major support to the AUC since its inception. He repeated the accusation to 60 Minutes, which originally aired the segment in September 2008.
According to these and other witnesses, as well as investigators familiar with the bloody history of Colombia, the companies originally hired the AUC to drive the leftist FARC guerillas out of the banana-growing region and protect their plantations from, as Tijeras put it, "the gangs of common delinquents that robbed their supplies and equipment." Once the FARC was vanquished and order restored, the banana companies continued to pay the AUC to "pacify" their work forces, suppress the labor unions, and terrorize peasant squatters perusing competing land claims.
Tijeras: After we restored order and became the local agents of law enforcement, managers for Chiquita and Dole plantations relied upon us to respond to their complaints. ...We would also get calls from the Chiquita and Dole plantations identifying specific people as "security problems" or just "problems." Everyone knew that this meant we were to execute the identified person. In most cases those executed were union leaders or members or individuals seeking to hold or reclaim land that Dole or Chiquita wanted for banana cultivation, and the Dole or Chiquita administrators would report to the AUC that these individuals were suspected guerillas or criminals.
According to Tijeras, for years the companies provided up to 90 percent of the AUC's income.
When the families and heirs of dozens of victims filed the case against Dole in April 2009, the company immediately rejected the charges as "baseless allegations" that "are the product of the most untrustworthy sources imaginable" and "nothing more than the false confessions of convicted terrorists from Colombia, who had every motive to lie about their activities in order to minimize their jail time."
Dole’s use of the term “terrorist” to refer to the AUC accurately reflects the official U.S. State Department categorization of the group assigned (coincidentally) on September 10, 2001. That designation carries legal consequences for both Dole (if evidence of the payments is proven) and Chiquita: First, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991 allows U.S. citizens and their heirs to sue over injuries from international terrorism; and second, payments to designated terrorists are illegal even if coerced -- and whether or not the company is cognizant of or indifferent to the consequences.
The ongoing case against Chiquita in Florida is strengthened by the company’s March 2007 guilty plea in U.S. v. Chiquita Brands International, Inc., by its voluntarily disclosure of payments, and by its agreement to pay a $25 million criminal fine for violating U.S. antiterrorism laws. The 2007 Chiquita criminal case was remarkable for numerous revelations, not least that the company continued to make the payments against the advice of its own outside counsel, and even after notifying the Justice Department.
As part of that settlement, Chiquita acknowledged that it had also made payments to the FARC from 1989 to at least 1997 -- a period, according to relatives, when the guerrilla group abducted and killed the missionaries.
Pattern of Complicity with Terror
It has been almost 3 years since Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), chair of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, launched an investigation into U.S. multinationals' complicity with human rights violations in Colombia. At a June 2007 hearing, witnesses testified that there was a pattern of complicity between Colombian terrorists and multinational corporations -- including the Alabama-based Drummond Co. Inc., which allegedly paid members of a Colombian terrorist group to kill three union organizers. The Miami Herald reported just days before the hearing that paramilitaries had also come forward to talk in detail about payments Drummond made to the paramilitaries.
Drummond denies all allegations against the company and its employees made by attorneys working for relatives of murdered Drummond employees.
Other companies with operations in Colombia that were mentioned at Delahunt's hearing include Occidental, Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil.
An "independent" review commissioned by the company's board reinforced Chiquita's claim that its sole motivation in making payments to both the FARC and the AUC was to protect the lives of its employees.
That report may help deflect derivative lawsuits filed by the company's own shareholders, but is greeted with skepticism in Colombia, where Attorney General Mario Iguaran roundly rejected Chiquita's explanation, and reportedly threatened to extradite as many as eight Chiquita executives (including John Paul Olivo, Charles Dennis Keiser, and Dorn Robert Wenninger) who, he says, were responsible for approving the payments and maintaining a "criminal relationship" with the paramilitaries.
Another remarkable aspect of the Chiquita case is the fact that the lead attorney representing Chiquita Brands International is now the U.S. attorney general.
In August 2007, when he was still representing Chiquita, Eric Holder told the Washington Post that it would be unfair to treat "harshly" any company that voluntarily discloses payments to designated terrorists, and that even if the company was penalized, the individuals within the firm should not be. Yet just a few years before he first passed through the revolving door, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Holder authored the "Holder Memo," a famous corporate crime policy memo asserting that the "prosecution of a corporation is not a substitute for the prosecution of criminally culpable individuals within or without the corporation."
Jason Glaser, a documentary filmmaker who helped launch the Banana Land Campaign in December, says that Attorney General Holder has a clear conflict of interest and should recuse himself from any decision concerning the requested extradition of Chiquita executives or any other matter related to the investigation of multinational complicity in violence in Colombia.
“Holder is the nation's top cop, overseeing a department that regularly claims that fighting terrorism is a top priority,” Glaser points out. “If that’s true, then it's worth asking where’s the Department's investigation of Dole, which, unlike Chiquita won't volunteer any facts, and patently deny any allegations - when there is so much obvious evidence pointing their way?”
To learn more about the situation in Colombia and other countries check out The Banana Land Campaign and International Rights Advocates.
Notably the three reports do not address the issue of nepotism within the Afghan government. For more on how the family of the vice-president of Afghanistan profited from the electricity sector project, see this story: "Paying Off the Warlords."
Following up on our August 2009 feature, Jack Currie, the project manager for Black & Veatch's Tarakhil power plant, wrote CorpWatch in November to say that he was not dismissed from the Qudas project in Iraq but "left after my stint was complete due to family matters, pressures of being in a war zone."
He also added that the commissioning and operation of the Qudas plant in Iraq was 'challenged' because it did not have the correct quality fuel available to run the new engines, the new engines were designed to run on naptha, which was not available at the time, and the crude oil used caused significant problems. Black & Veatch was asked to start up engines that were installed by the Iraqis -- and despite having no drawings or manuals managed to get them up and running.
But plans submitted by Yaguarete to Paraguay’s Environment Ministry reveal that the amount of "continuous forest" in the reserve will be just 16,784 hectares out of the 78,549 hectares total, and the company in fact plans to convert around two thirds of the land to cattle ranching.
of the Totobiegosode have already been contacted and vehemently
condemned the plans for the 'reserve', pointing out that it violates
their rights under both Paraguayan and international law. The contacted
Totobiegosode have been claiming legal title to this land since 1993,
but most of it is still in private hands.
The Totobiegosode are the only uncontacted Indians in the world having their territory destroyed for beef production.
Survival director, Stephen Corry, said that "This is textbook
'greenwashing': bulldoze the forest and then 'preserve' a bit of it for
PR purposes. The public won't fall for it. Yaguarete should stop
playing games and pull out of the Totobiegosode's territory once and
The one redeeming feature of the abominable Supreme Court ruling
on corporate electoral expenditures is the majority’s retention of the
rules on disclaimers and disclosure. While opening the floodgates to
unlimited business political spending, the Court at least recognizes
that the public has a right to know when a corporation is responsible
for a particular message and a right to information on a corporation’s
Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy states: “The First
Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens
and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a
proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed
decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
There’s no question that steps must be taken to mitigate the
Citizens United ruling, whether through changes in corporation law,
shareholder pressure, enhanced public financing of elections, or even a
Yet while these efforts progress, it is also worth taking advantage
of the Court’s affirmation of the principle of transparency and push
for even greater disclosure than what we have now. Groups such as the
Sunlight Foundation are already moving in this direction.
The effort could begin with pressing the Federal Election Commission
to tighten the existing reporting rules on what are known as “electioneering communications” and to enforce them more diligently. But that’s not enough.
In the wake of Citizens United, we’ve got to demand more information
on the many ways corporations exercise undue influence not only on
elections but also on legislation, policymaking and public discourse in
general. Now that Big Business is a much bigger threat to popular
democracy, we have to subject corporations to intensive full-body scans
to find all their hidden weapons of persuasion. The following are some
of the areas to consider.
Lobbying. In his State of the Union Address,
President Obama said that lobbyists should be required to disclose
every contact with the executive branch or Congress. That’s fine, but
why stop there? Many corporations do their lobbying indirectly, through
trade associations which disclose little about their sources of
funding. How about rules that require those associations to disclose
the fees paid by each of their members and require publicly traded
companies to disclose exactly how much they pay to belong to each of
their various associations?
Front Groups. Corporations also indirectly seek to
influence legislation and public opinion by bankrolling purportedly
independent non-profit advocacy groups. Such front groups—such as those
taking money from fossil-fuel energy producers to deny the reality of
the climate crisis—do not have to publicly disclose their contributor
lists. Why not require publicly traded companies, at least, to reveal
all of their payments to such organizations?
Union-Busting. Encouragement of collective
bargaining is still, in theory, official federal policy. Yet many
companies violate the principle—and the rights of their workers—by
using corporate funds to undermine union organizing campaigns. The
existing rules on the disclosure of expenditures on anti-union
“consultants” are too narrow and not vigorously enforced. That should
These are only a few of the ways that undue political influence and
other forms of anti-social corporate behavior could be addressed
through better disclosure. Yet, as we’ve seen, transparency by itself
does not counteract corporate power unless something is done with the
This came to mind in reading the last portion of the Citizens United
ruling. Not all five Justices in the majority went along with the idea
of maintaining the disclaimer and disclosure rules. Parting with
Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia and Alito, Justice Thomas argued not only that
corporate independent expenditures should be unrestricted, but also
that they should be allowed to take place under a veil of secrecy.
He bases his argument not on legal precedent, but rather on dubious
anecdotal evidence that some supporters of California’s
anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 were subjected to threats of violence
after their names appeared on public donor lists. Thomas thus suggests
that corporations should be able to make their political expenditures
anonymously to avoid retaliation.
While I am in no way advocating violence, I think activists need to
use the information that becomes public as the result of expanded
disclosure to make corporations pay a price for any attempts to buy our
political system. If we can get them to worry about (non-violent)
retaliation to the point that they limit their expenditures, then we
will have gone a long way toward neutralizing the pernicious effects of
the Citizens United ruling.
After J.P. Morgan was questioned by Congressional investigator
Ferdinand Pecora during a 1930s investigation of the causes of the
Great Crash, the legendary financier complained
that Pecora (photo) had “the manners of a prosecuting attorney who is
trying to convict a horse thief.” Morgan was also embarrassed when a
Ringling Bros. publicity agent placed a diminutive circus performer on
his lap in the middle of the proceedings.
At this week’s public hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry
Commission, the nation’s most powerful bankers were, unfortunately,
treated with a lot more deference. Sure, there was one satisfying
exchange between FCIC Chairman Phil Angelides and Goldman Sachs CEO
Lloyd Blankfein in which Angelides likened the firm’s practice of
betting against the very securities it was peddling to clients to that
of selling someone a car with faulty brakes and then buying an
insurance policy on the buyer.
But those moments were rare. For the most part, the bankers came
away unscathed. Most of the ten commissioners treated them not as
suspected criminals whose misdeeds needed to be probed, but rather as
experts whose opinions on the causes of the crisis were being
solicited. This gave the bankers abundant opportunities to pontificate
about industry and regulatory practices while avoiding any
incriminating admissions about their own firm’s behavior.
For example, Commissioner Heather Murren, CEO of the Nevada Cancer
Institute, asked Blankfein whether there should be “more supervision of
the kinds of activities that are undertaken by investment banks?” This
allowed him to babble on about the “sociology…of our regulation before
and after becoming a bank holding company.”
The bankers seemed to have expected tougher questioning. Their
opening statements sought to soften the interrogation by conceding some
general culpability, though it was done in a mostly generic way. Jamie
Dimon of JP Morgan Chase admitted that “new and poorly underwritten
mortgage products helped fuel housing price appreciation, excessive
speculation and core higher credit losses.” John Mack of Morgan Stanley
acknowledged that “there is no doubt that we as an industry made
mistakes.” And Brian Moynihan, the new CEO of Bank of America, noted:
“Over the course of the crisis, we, as an industry, caused a lot of
But much too little time was spent by the commissioners exploring
how the giant firms represented on the panel contributed to that
damage. A search of the transcript of the hearing produced by CQ
Transcriptions and posted on the database service Factiva indicates
that the word “predatory” was not used once during the time the four
top bankers were testifying.
The commissioners failed to challenge most of the self-serving
statements made by the bankers to give the impression that, despite
whatever vague transgressions were going on in the industry, their own
firms were squeaky clean. Even Angelides failed to pin them down. When
he asked Blankfein to state “the two most significant instances of
negligent, improper and bad behavior in which your firm engaged and for
which you would apologize” the Goldman CEO admitted only to
contributing to “elements of froth in the market.” Angelides asked
whether that included anything “negligent or improper.” Blankfein again
evaded the question and the Chairman gave up.
The bankers also went unchallenged in making statements that were
incomplete if not outright erroneous. When Blankfein, for example,
claimed that Goldman deals only with institutional investors and
“high-net-worth individuals,” no one pointed out the firm’s ties to Litton Loan Servicing, which has handled large numbers of subprime and often predatory home mortgages.
The Goldman chief also made much of the fact that he and other top
executives of the firm took no bonuses in 2008. That’s true, but he
failed to mention that, according to Goldman’s proxy statement, he alone became more than $25 million richer that year when previously granted stock awards vested.
The bankers were at their slipperiest when it came to the few
questions about the issue of being too big to fail. They would not, of
course, admit to being too big, but in spite of every indication that
the federal government would never allow another Lehman Brothers-type
collapse to occur, they labored mightily to argue that they could
conceivably go under. This notwithstanding the fact that a couple of
them had just thanked U.S. taxpayers for the financial assistance their
firms had received.
I suppose it’s possible that the Commission is saving its best shots
for later stages of the investigation and its final report, but its
handling of the banker hearing deprived the public of a chance to see
some of the prime villains of the current crisis get a much-deserved
Posted by Tonya Hennessey on December 14th, 2009 TakePart.com
Originally posted on TakePart.com, Participant Media's Social Action site.
Even now, after 17 years of working in the international NGO arena, fighting for environmental and human rights, and social justice, I am still taken aback by multinational corporations and the disproportionate power and influence these entities have amassed on the global stage. Don’t get me wrong: commerce and markets are as old as humankind, so it’s not about that.
But who holds multinational corporations accountable when things go wrong--especially overseas--and how? And what happens when one company buys another, one that is holding significant public liability? Doesn’t the liability go along with the purchase?
On the night of December 2-3, 1984, Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, leaked a deadly cloud of methyl iso cyanate gas that floated out into the surrounding area. 8,000 people lost their lives in the immediate aftermath of that terrifying night. According to Bhopal Medical Appeal, at least 25,000 people have died in total as a result of the tragedy.
Last week was the 25th Anniversary of this man-made disaster. And Dow Chemical has yet to clean up the contaminated site. The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal estimates 100,000 more people--now including 2nd generation impacted children--are still suffering. Deformities, disabilities, miscarriages and other illnesses such as chronic respiratory problems are among the maladies documented.
I was hoping to get this blog post up last week, too, so as not to be late in honoring the survivors and the victims on this awful anniversary. Pesky deadlines and the unanticipated prevented me from doing so before I caught my flight on Thursday to Amsterdam, on my way to the climate talks now beginning in Copenhagen, Denmark. “Damn,” I thought, “I’ve missed the anniversary window, and now my blog would be late.”
Then it hit me. Wait a minute…talk about late! Twenty-five years is a long time to wait for Dow and Union Carbide to right this devastating wrong, and it’s even longer when the tragedy keeps on giving. Because site contamination has still not been adequately contained, nor cleaned up, the poisons continue to pollute the groundwater that more than 30,000 people rely on for drinking water.
Again, how is it that a corporation gets away with this? Countries have been invaded over lower numbers of victims (no number is a good number here), and if a non-state actor released a cloud of noxious gas that killed 8,000 pretty much off the bat, wouldn’t that be considered an act of terrorism? Or at the least, egregious criminal wrong-doing? Wouldn’t the clamor be deafening to hold to account those responsible?
Despite all this, Bhopali survivors are not giving up their struggle for justice. Take a look at this inspiring photo gallery of the rally they held last week on December 3rd.
December is also the first anniversary of Children Against Dow-Carbide, an association of about 60 youngsters. As 17-year old Safreen Khan, one of the co-founders of the youth group interviewed in our article, puts it, “The Bhopal struggle is not 25 years old. With our entry, the struggle has just entered its youthful phase, and we'll keep the fight alive for as long as it takes.”
What can you do to TakePart?
Inform yourself about what happened in Bhopal in 1984 through the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, and about the chemical industry, its impacts, and alternatives.
It is bigger than all but three (only ExxonMobil, BP and Shell are
larger). It is facing the largest potential corporate liability in
history ($27 billion) for causing the world's largest oil spill in the
Ecuadorian rainforest. It is the only major U.S. Corporation still
operating in Burma and, with its partner Total Oil Corp., is the single
largest financial contributor to the Burmese government. It is the
dominant private oil producer in both Angola and Kazakhstan, with
operations in both countries mired in human rights and environmental
abuses. It is the only major oil company to be tried in a U.S. court on
charges of mass human rights abuse, including summary execution and
torture (for its operations in Nigeria).
It is the only oil company to hire one of the Bush Administration's
"torture memo" lawyers (William J. Haynes). It is the largest and most
powerful corporation in California, where it is currently being sued
for conspiring to fix gasoline prices. It has led the fight to keep
California as the only major oil producing state that does not tax oil
when it is pumped from the ground, thereby denying the state an extra
$1.5 billion annually. It is the largest industrial polluter in the Bay
Area and is among the largest single corporate contributors to climate
change on the planet.
Chevron is also the focus of one of the world's most unique and well-organized corporate resistance campaigns.
That campaign got a jolt of energy when Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum came
to San Francisco on Halloween weekend for a special screening of The Yes Men Fix the World.
Global Exchange and I teamed up with Andy (the movie's co-writer,
director, and producer) and a host of the Bay Areas most creative
activists, to lead an entire movie audience out of the theater, into
the streets, and in protest of Chevron.
We spread the word early, far, and wide: The Yes Men are coming! The
Yes Men are coming! They will not only fix the world, they will fix
Larry Bogad, a Yes Man co-hort and professor of Guerilla Theater,
helped concoct a masterful street theater scenario. A crack team of
protest and street theater organizers was compiled, including David
Solnit of the Mobilization for Climate Justice and Rae Abileah of Code Pink. Rock The Bike signed on and the word kept spreading.
On Sunday, the Roxie Theater in San Francisco's Mission District was
filled beyond capacity with an audience that came ready to protest.
They laughed, clapped, booed, and cheered along with the film. When the
movie ended, Andy answered questions, I talked about Chevron, and Larry
laid out the protest scenario.
Three Chevron executives, protected from the early ravages of climate change in SurvivaBalls,
were dragged up the street by dozens of Chevron minions with nothing
but haz-mat suits to protect them. Those unable to afford any
protection (i.e. The Dead) followed close behind. Next came resistance:
the Chevron street sweepers, actively cleaning up Chevron's messes who
were followed by the protesters, ready to change the story.
We didn't have a permit, but we took a lane of traffic on 16th
street anyway. The police first tried to intervene, then they "joined
in," blocking traffic on our way to Market and Castro.
As we marched and the music blared, people literally came out of
their houses and off of the streets to join in. Passersby eagerly took
postcards detailing Chevron's corporate crimes.
Once we arrived at the gas station, I welcomed everyone and
explained that we were at an independent Chevron (as opposed to
corporate) station, whose owner (whom I'd been speaking with regularly)
had his own list of grievances with his corporate boss. The particular
station was not our target of protest, but rather, the Chevron
Larry and Andy than led the entire crowd in a series of Tableaux
Morts. The Chevron executives in their SurvivaBalls drained the
lifeblood from the masses. The people began to rebel, forcing the
SurvivaBalls into the "turtle" position to fend off the attacks.
Ultimately, the separate groups saw their common purpose in resisting
Chevron's abuses. The dead rose, the Chevron minions rebelled, and the
sweepers and protesters joined together. They all chased the Chevron
executives off into the distance, and then danced in the streets,
rejoicing in their shared victory!
The Chevron Program
I direct at Global Exchange seeks to unite Chevron affected communities
across the United States and around the world. By uniting these
communities, we build strength from each other, and become a movement.
By expanding, strengthening, and highlighting this movement, we bring
in more allies and create a powerful advocacy base for real policy
change. Those changes will reign in Chevron, and by extension, the
entire oil industry. And, by raising the voices of those hardest hit by
the true cost of oil and exposing how we all ultimately pay the price,
we help move the world more rapidly away from oil as an energy resource
“Good governance in extractive industries contribute to a better
domestic investment climate for U.S. businesses, increase the
reliability of commodity supplies, promote greater U.S. energy security
and thereby strengthen our national security,” says the summary on Lugar’s Web site.
“I was tortured and imprisoned by the Nigerian military for my
peaceful protests against Shell Oil’s destruction of our land,” Suanu
Kingston Bere, a Nigerian activist who spoke at the Berkeley City
Council meeting, said in JINN’s news release. “I believe the City’s
support sends a strong message that communities in the U.S are
concerned about the human rights abuses and environmental damage
associated with oil extraction. I do not want to see my people continue
to go through what I went through.”
Berkeley’s resolution also calls on the State Department to support
third-party peace talks in the Delta to address environmental
destruction and lack of investment in the oil producing region. The
resolution was co-sponsored by Councilmembers Jesse Arreguin, Darryl Moore and Max Anderson and was introduced to the council through the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission, which worked with JINN to draft it.
JINN says 50 years of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta has
produced over $700 billion in oil revenues shared between the Nigerian
government and oil giants like San Ramon-based Chevron as well as Exxon Mobil and Shell.
More than 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil is exported to the U.S. Yet
despite the corporate oil wealth, local residents’ quality of life has
deteriorated – their drinking polluted, their food fisheries poisoned,
their access to education, health care and even electricity limited.
“Oil companies in Nigeria have had long a relationship with the
notoriously corrupt and historically brutal Nigerian government where
rampant corruption, fraudulent elections and violent suppression of
peaceful protests are the norm in the Delta,” Nigerian writer and
activist Omoyele Sowore said in JINN’s news release. “The proposed ESTT
Act in the Senate is an important step toward holding oil companies
accountable for their collusion with the Nigerian government, which
protects their profits while killing and injuring innocent local people
and destroying the Delta’s fragile environment.”
The best time to announce the worst news is late on Friday. The
federal government and public relations firms have known this for
years. So it was that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
scheduled its press conference last Friday for 3 p.m., Pacific Daylight
Time or (even better!) 6 p.m. in the east.
As planned, the news that stocks of Bering Sea pollock – America’s
largest fishery – have declined to a 30-year-low was reported only in
the fishing trade press and the Seattle and Anchorage papers. Mission accomplished.
Every summer, NMFS technicians survey pollock. The amount of fish
allowed to be caught in 2009 was based on the 2008 summer survey. The
2010 quota will be based on the 2009 survey and so on. On one hand,
these surveys are about “environmental protection.” (Alas, we must us
the dreaded quotation marks, because the environment has not
been protected.) On the other hand, the surveys are a
government-subsidized service for the industrial trawler fleet that
pulls the pollock from the sea.
On the other, other hand (we’re playing three hands today), most
people don’t know what a pollock is, but we eat enough of it. (As I
mentioned two paragraphs ago, it’s America’s largest fishery.) All that
imitation crabmeat in the supermarket wet case? Pollock. (And why must
pollock imitate crabmeat? American fisheries management.)
Pollock is the whitefish in all those
disgusting frozen fish sticks. Pollock is, or was, the fish in the
sandwiches at the fast food restaurants. Now that pollock is in severe
decline, McDonald’s is considering switching to hoki. This has nothing
to do with environmental awareness; McDonald’s requires a steady supply
of a consistent product at a predictable price. Hoki, a whitefish
that’s overfished by industrial trawlers in New Zealand waters, will be
a temporary fix, a few years at best. Thanks, Ronald.
Where was I? Oh right, severe decline. Three years ago, NMFS
allowed the trawlers to take 1.5 million metric tons of pollock out of
the Bering Sea. This year, because the decline was already evident in
last year’s survey, the quota was set at 815,000 metric tons. The
industry trade press headlines news like this as: “Pollock prices
likely to rise.”
The At-Sea Processors Association, the trade group that represents
the industrial trawlers, will try to convince the feds to keep the
quota high and if the past is any evidence, they’ll do it. That’s why
the fish population is crashing. What’s worse, they may bully the feds
into continuing the pollock roe season. Roe, of course, is fish talk
for eggs. The trawlers deliberately target the pregnant females, strip
the eggs out of their bellies and sell them for big bucks on the Asian
What the Epicureans of Korea and Japan eat for dinner is what
doesn’t become a fish in the Bering Sea, with tragic consequences for
the sea and the other animals that live there. Pollock have
traditionally been mighty breeders, the rabbits of the northern seas
(one reason we fish them so hard). As such, they’ve provided much of
the food for the rest of the animals in the ocean, like Steller sea
lions and Pribilof fur seals. Because we humans got greedy with the
trawlers and the roe, now those species (and more) are in trouble.
Yes, eating the eggs is a great way to deplete a population of fish
(or any other wild creature) and yes, there’s more to it than that.
Global warming plays a role, with warm water moving north into the
Bering Sea, making conditions for pollock love less favorable than
they’ve been in decades past. The pollock don’t cause global warming,
though, nor do sea lions or fur seals. So yeah, we should stop burning
so many fossil fuels, but until we do, we have to back off with the
trawlers and give the pollock time to rebuild their numbers.
An irony here (not the irony, there’s too much irony for
that) is that Bering Sea pollock are often referred to (by the
industrial trawling people) as “the best-managed fishery in the world.”
Sadder still is that the statement is not far from accurate. Look at
Atlantic cod, that population crashed 15 years ago and has yet to come
Yes, they can. And
they will, if the Supreme Court decides for corporations and against
real human beings and their democracy in a case the Court will be
hearing today, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
reaching the Supreme Court last year, this case has involved a narrow
issue about whether an anti-Hillary Clinton movie made in the heat of
the last presidential election is covered by restrictions in the
McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. However, in a highly unusual move
announced on the last day of the Supreme Court's 2008 term, the
justices announced they wanted to reconsider two other pivotal
decisions that limit the role of corporate money in politics.
The Court ordered a special oral argument on the issue, before the full start of their 2009 term in October.
Court will today hear argument on whether prior decisions blocking
corporations from spending their money on "independent expenditures"
for electoral candidates should be overturned. "Independent
expenditures" are funds spent without coordination with a candidate's
campaign. The rationale for such a move would be that existing rules
interfere with corporations' First Amendment rights to free speech.
the court's precedents on corporate election expenditures would be
nothing short of a disaster. Corporations already dominate our
political process -- through political action committees, fundraisers,
high-paid lobbyists and personal contributions by corporate insiders,
often bundled together to increase their impact, threats to move jobs
abroad and more.
On the dominant issues of the day -- climate
change, health care and financial regulation -- corporate interests are
leveraging their political investments to sidetrack vital measures to
protect the planet, expand health care coverage while controlling
costs, and prevent future financial meltdowns.
The current system
demands reform to limit corporate influence. Public funding of
elections is the obvious and necessary (though very partial) first step.
the Supreme Court may actually roll back the limits on corporate
electoral spending now in place. These limits are very inadequate, but
they do block unlimited spending from corporate treasuries to influence
election outcomes. Rolling back those limits will unleash corporations
to ramp up their spending still further, with a potentially decisive
chilling effect on candidates critical of the Chamber of Commerce
The damage will be double, because a Court ruling on
constitutional grounds would effectively overturn the laws in place in
two dozen states similarly barring corporate expenditures on elections.
than 100 years ago, reacting to what many now call the First Gilded
Age, Congress acted to prohibit direct corporate donations to electoral
candidates. Corporate expenditures in electoral races have been
prohibited for more than 60 years.
These rules reflected the
not-very-controversial observation that for-profit corporations have a
unique ability to gather enormous funds and that expenditures from the
corporate treasury are certain to undermine democracy - understood to
mean rule by the people. Real human beings, not corporations.
arguing to uphold the existing corporate expenditure restrictions, the
Federal Election Commission has emphasized these common sense
"For-profit corporations have attributes that no
natural person shares," the FEC argues. Noting that corporations are
state-created -- not natural entities -- the FEC explains that
"for-profit corporations are inherently more likely than individuals to
engage in electioneering behavior that poses a risk of actual or
apparent corruption of office-holders." The FEC also notes that
corporate spending on elections does not reflect the views of a
company's owners (shareholders).
Although the signs aren't good, there is no certainty how the Court will decide Citizens United.
There is some hope that the Court will decide that it is inappropriate
to roll back such longstanding and important campaign finance rules, in
a case where the issue was not presented in the lower courts, and where
the litigants' dispute can be decided on much narrower grounds.
Citizen is organizing people to protest against a roll back of existing
restrictions on corporate campaign expenditures. To join the effort, go
People are pledging to protest in diverse ways -- from street actions
to letter writing -- today, and in the event of a bad decision, and
also networking for solutions to corporate-corrupted elections.
is a government of the people, by the people, for the people -- not the
corporations and their money. Corporations don't vote, and they
shouldn't be permitted to spend limitless amounts of money to influence
Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen.
Public Citizen attorney Scott Nelson serves as counsel to the original
sponsors of the McCain-Feingold law, who have filed an amicus brief in
the case, asking that existing restrictions on corporate election
expenditures be maintained.
The RDM case may become the first test for the Netherlands’ new anti-corruption legislation and for its will and ability to prosecute corporations for making foreign bribes.
The RDM bribery scandal dates back to 1998 when the company sold 202 Leopard tanks to the Chilean army. The Rotterdam-based company had purchased the tanks as scrap metal from the Dutch Department of Defense and rebuilt them. It then paid bribes to Chilean army officials facilitating the sale.
Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, the Dutch businessman, and officials of his company—who offered and facilitated the bribes—have never been prosecuted in relation to this case. The Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office told CorpWatch that at the time of RDM’s bribes, the Netherlands had no laws against offering bribes to officials overseas. Legislation to make these practices illegal was introduced in 2001. Further muddying the waters, RDM went bankrupt in 2006, and Joep van den Nieuwenhuyzen, its owner, was jailed for fraud. He was released two years ago.
The current Dutch government investigation will delve further into the extent and mechanics of the bribery scheme, and interview key politicians active at the time. A Dutch parliamentary team is following up on the case in the Netherlands and in Chile. Key targets of the investigation include Edmundo Perez Yoma, Chile’s former minister of defense and currently its interior minister, along with his then deputy Mario Fernandez, now member of the Constitutional Court. Both are suspected of facilitating the bribery. Chile has announced similar investigations.
One Dutch official at the time of the tank sales, then Minister of Defense Joris Voorhoeve, joined the call for parliament to undertake a broad investigation into RDM’s bribes. He defended his own role. While Voorhoeve acknowledges that he issued an export license for the 202 Dutch Leopard tanks, he maintains he is appalled and shocked by the allegations of bribery. “The Netherlands government would never agree to pay bribes to get a deal closed,” he said, “nor participate in any other form of corruption.” The sales were justified, he said, because when they took place in 1998, Chile had become a democracy and General Augusto Pinochet, who had ruled from 1973 to 1990, was no longer president. But in fact, the former dictator still wielded considerable influence as senator for life and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, positions he retained until his death in 2006.
The parliamentary investigation, while welcomed by many, is late in coming. For years politicians ignored requests by the Netherlands Socialist Party for a formal investigation—again, sparked in part by CorpWatch’s reporting on the money RDM paid to the former dictator and his entourage.
According to a Swiss newspaper, van den Nieuwenhuyzen, currently a Swiss resident, said that he was not aware that the company he once owned was under investigation for payments to Chilean army officials.
But former RDM workers and associates charged that the company paid millions to Chilean colonels and brigadier generals through a third party, with $1.6 million going to a private consultant to the late general Pinochet. RDM said the $1.6 million was a donation to the Pinochet Foundation, a Santiago-based organization that promotes the general’s legacy.
Chilean and cooperating Dutch private investigators that examined the Pinochet’s overseas bank accounts have found that the dictator had stashed almost $28 million overseas, mainly in European bank accounts. Dutch investigators will look for links between that money, the two recently jailed Chilean army officers, and Pinochet.
The spokesperson of the Dutch Socialist Party in Rotterdam told CorpWatch that there have been no successful prosecutions of corporations in the Netherlands for foreign bribes, because it is extremely difficult to secure evidence in foreign countries. Of the scores of cases under consideration, none have yet reached the courts. If RDM is charged, it will be the first time Dutch officials or businesspeople are prosecuted under the new regulations.
These days just about every large corporation would have us believe
that it is in the vanguard of the fight to reverse global warming.
Companies mount expensive ad campaigns to brag about raising their
energy efficiency and shrinking their carbon footprint.
Yet a bold article in the latest issue of business-friendly Bloomberg Markets
magazine documents how some large U.S.-based transnationals are
complicit in a process that does more to exacerbate the climate crisis
than anything else: the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rain forest.
While deforestation is usually blamed on local ranchers and loggers, Bloomberg
points the finger at companies such as Alcoa and Cargill, which the
magazine charges have used their power to get authorities in Brazil to
approve large projects that violate the spirit of the country’s
Alcoa is constructing a huge bauxite mine that will chew up more
than 25,000 acres of virgin jungle in an area, the magazine says, “is
supposed to be preserved unharmed forever for local residents.” Bloomberg
cites Brazilian prosecutors who have been waging a four-year legal
battle against an Alcoa subsidiary that is said to have circumvented
the country’s national policies by obtaining a state rather than a
federal permit for the project.
Bloomberg also focuses on the widely criticized grain port
that Cargill built on the Amazon River. Cargill claims to be
discouraging deforestation by the farmers supplying the soybeans that
pass through the port, but the Brazilian prosecutors interviewed by Bloomberg expressed skepticism that the effort was having much effect.
Apart from the big on-site projects, Bloomberg looks at
major corporations that it says purchase beef and leather from
Amazonian ranchers who engage in illegal deforestation. Citing
Brazilian export records, the magazine identifies Wal-Mart, McDonald’s,
Kraft Foods and Carrefour as purchasers of the beef and General Motors,
Ford and Mercedes-Benz as purchasers of leather.
The impact of the Amazon cattle ranchers was also the focus of a Greenpeace report published in June. That report put heat on major shoe companies that are using leather produced by those ranchers.
Nike and Timberland
responded to the study by pledging to end their use of leather hides
from deforested areas in the Amazon basin. Greenpeace is trying to get
other shoe companies to follow suit.
Think of the Amazon the next time a company such as Wal-Mart tells
us what wonderful things it is doing to address the climate crisis.
is getting burned by the very scheme it cooked up as what it thought
was a great public relations opportunity - sponsoring free screenings
of Food, Inc. - is becoming a PR fiasco.
Food, Inc. director
Robert Kenner and co-producer Eric Schlosser speak out and Chipotle has
to answer tough questions in Tom Philpott's must-read article on Grist.org "Chipotle Grilled: Burrito chain’s Food, Inc. sponsorship generates off-screen drama over farm-worker issues."
explains that while many of Chipotle's efforts are great, he
nonetheless "cares more about human rights than any of those things."
He continues: "If Taco Bell, Subway, Burger King, and McDonald’s can
reach agreement with the CIW, I don’t see why Chipotle can’t."
likewise, the article states, "made clear that he disagreed with the
company’s position on the CIW" even if he agrees with other things
Chipotle is doing. Kenner explains: "I was hopeful that by associating
itself with a film that promotes workers’ rights, [Chipotle] might be
inclined to sign with the Coalition . . . And now I’m not confident
in this unfolding fiasco is also noted: "Chipotle clearly resents such
critical statements at events designed to demonstrate its
sustainability cred. At one of its screenings in Denver, Chipotle
employees barred people
from the Campaign for Fair Food to speak after the
screening—overturning an arrangement that had been made with Food,
Inc’s public-education campaign. " After investigating the incident,
the article decides: "In other words, people wanting to discuss the CIW
issue aren’t to be given stage time at the Chipotle-sponsored Food,
course Denver wasn't the only city where Chipotle got heat from Fair
Food activists while trying to bask in Food, Inc.'s glory. All over the
country allies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers took to the movies to deflate Chipotle's hot air about "food with integrity" with some sharp truths about farm labor in Chipotle's supply chain. See the great photo report from the nationwide "Battle of the Burrito" on the CIW website.
References to this PR fiasco are popping up in unforseen places such as thedailygreen or even more surprising the mainstream investor blog The Motely Fool. And the bed which Chipotle made for itself in which it now must lie can't be feeling any more comfortable.
The lesson for Chipotle to learn from its bungled Food, Inc. PR experiment? The ecorazzi blog has these fitting words: "you can’t have your 1000+ calorie burrito and eat it too."
Wal-Mart has taken the latest in a long series of steps to make
itself look good by imposing burdens on its suppliers. The mammoth
retailer, which is thriving amid the recession, recently announced
plans to require its more than 100,000 suppliers to provide information
about their operations that would form the basis of a product
Rating products is a good idea. It’s already being done by various
non-profit organizations that bring independence and legitimacy to the
process. Wal-Mart, by contrast, brings a lot of negative baggage. In
recent years, Wal-Mart has used a purported commitment to environmental
responsibility to draw attention away from its abysmal record with
regard to labor relations, wage and hour regulations, and employment
discrimination laws. It also wants us to forget its scandalous tax
avoidance policies and its disastrous impact on small competitors. The
idea that a company with a business model based on automobile-dependent
customers and exploitative supplier factories on the other side of the
globe can be considered sustainable should be dismissed out of hand.
Yet Wal-Mart is skilled at greenwashing and is, alas, being taken
seriously by many observers who should know better.
On close examination, Wal-Mart’s latest plan is, like many of its
previous social responsibility initiatives, rather thin. All the
company is doing at first is to ask suppliers to answer 15 questions.
Ten of these involve environmental issues such as greenhouse gas
emissions, water use, waste generation and raw materials sourcing. The
final five questions are listed under the heading of “People and
Community: Ensuring Responsible and Ethical Production.”
Two of them involve “social compliance.” It is an amazing act of
chutzpah for Wal-Mart, which probably keeps more sweatshops in business
than any other company, to claim moral authority to ask suppliers about
the treatment of workers in their supply chain.
The questions in this category seem to assume that suppliers don’t
do their own manufacturing. This is a tacit acknowledgement of how
Wal-Mart has forced U.S. manufacturers to shift production offshore,
and often to outside contractors. Now Wal-Mart has to ask those
companies to be sure they know the location of all the plants making
their products and the quality of their output.
The point about quality was one that CEO Mike Duke (photo) emphasized
when announcing the rating system. This is also highly disingenuous.
For years, Wal-Mart was notorious for pressing suppliers to reduce the
quality of their goods to keep down prices. Now the behemoth of
Bentonville is suddenly a proponent of proponent of products that “are
more efficient, that last longer and perform better.” Will Wal-Mart pay
its suppliers higher prices to cover the costs of improving quality?
can’t bring myself to jump on Wal-Mart’s bandwagon. If I want product
ratings I will turn not to Mike Duke but rather to someone like Dara
O’Rourke, who founded a website called Good Guide
that rates consumer products and their producers using independently
collected data from social investing firms such as KLD Research and
non-profits such as the Environmental Working Group. It uses criteria
such as labor rights, cancer risks and reproductive health hazards that
are unlikely to ever find their way into the Wal-Mart index.
Good Guide also rates companies, including Wal-Mart, which receives a mediocre score
of 5.3 (out of 10), and it reaches that level thanks to its marks on
p.r.-related measures such as charitable contributions and some but not
all environmental measures. In the category of Consumers it gets a 4.1,
Corporate Ethics 3.9, and for Labor and Human Rights 4.1 (which is
Maybe Wal-Mart should focus on improving its own scores before presuming to rate everyone else.
After thirteen years and
countless hours by lawyers, community members, and activists around the
world, Royal Dutch Shell finally settled the Wiwa v Shell case in a New York court for $15.5 million.
Plaintiffs in the case, which included Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., and the
families of other Ogoni men hanged in November 1995, charged the
Royal Dutch/Shell company, its Nigerian subsidiary, and the former
chief of its Nigerian operation, Brian Anderson, with complicity in the
torture, killing, and other abuses of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and
other non-violent Nigerian activists in the mid-1990s in the Ogoni
region of the Niger Delta.
they settled the case as a "humanitarian gesture" to the Ogoni. Does
anyone really believe that after fighting for more than a decade to
keep this out of court, Shell suddenly woke up and felt great
compassion for the Ogoni? Please.
Shell settled because they were scared, and they knew the evidence
against them was overwhelming. They publicly say they had nothing to do
with the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni, and yet there
were documents and video that they fought hard to keep out of the public eye.
Evidence that was to be introduced in the case included an internal Shell memo
where the head of Shell Nigeria offered to intervene on Saro-Wiwa's
behalf, if only Saro-Wiwa and others would stop claiming that Shell had
made payments to the military.
Witness were set to testify that they saw Shell vehicles
transporting Nigerian soldiers, that they saw Shell employees
conferring with the military, that they saw money being exchanged
between Shell employees and military officers, and that they heard
military officers, including the brutal Major Okuntimo of the Rivers
State Internal Security Task Force, make admissions regarding the work
they were doing on behalf of Shell.
We have known some of Shell's involvement in this tragedy for a long
time. In early May of 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa Sr. faxed me a memo authored
by Major Okuntimo which read "Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence" and further called for "pressure on oil companies for prompt regular inputs."
I received that fax and immediately called Ken. He said "this is it.
They're going to kill us all. All for Shell." It was the last time I
talked with him. Several weeks later he was arrested on the trumped up
charges for which he was ultimately hanged.
In the last day, lots of people have asked me if $15.5 million is
enough to compensate for the hanging of nine men, the death of
thousands more, and for the destruction of an ecosystem. No of course
not. But was it on par with what a jury would have awarded in this
case? Yes, lawyers tell me, for sure.
More importantly, does the settlement bring relief to Ken Wiwa Jr.
and the families of the other men who were executed? If you read Ken's thoughtful and moving piece in the Guardian, the answer is clearly yes. That alone should be cause for celebration.
Ken Sr.'s famous last words from the gallows were "lord take my soul
but the struggle continues." In this moment, perhaps more than ever
before, we need to heed that call to action. The settlement in this
case brings satisfaction to the plaintiffs for an event that happened
14 years ago. It in no way, shape or form excuses or absolves Shell of
their ongoing destruction of the Niger Delta environment.
One of the central complaints of Niger Delta communities for forty
years has been gas flaring, which sends plumes of toxic pollutants into
the air and water of the Niger Delta. Gas flaring endangers human
health, harms local ecosystems, emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases,
wastes vast quantities of natural gas, and is against Nigerian law.
Shell does it nowhere else in the world in volumes that are even
remotely comparable to what they flare in the Delta.
But Shell is still flaring gas in Nigeria.
While there is no doubt that the settlement represented a
significant victory for the plaintiffs' in this one human rights case
against Shell, true justice will not be served as long as the people of
Nigeria continue to suffer the terrible impact of Shell's operations.
Shell estimates it would cost about $3 billion -- only 10% of just
their last year's profits -- to end Shell's gas flaring in Nigeria once
and for all.
But instead of putting their great "humanitarian concern" into
action, Shell points the finger at the Nigerian government and demands
that they pay to end this practice.
Send a message to Shell's CEO
Jeroen van der Veer, and let him know that if he really wants to prove
his great concern for the Ogoni people, he'll end gas flaring once and
When people with strong ideological perspectives are often outraged
by media coverage of their pet issues. When both sides are mad, you
know you're doing something right. But how often do you hear
corporations furious about they way they are covered in the business
section? The section seems to lend itself to favor-currying and
In the lead-up to Chevron's annual shareholders meeting tomorrow in San Ramon, the company landed a puff piece on KGO focusing on its efforts to decrease its water usage. No mention of the Amazon controversy, and no mention of outside pressure on Chevron, EBMUD's largest water user.
I'm disappointed to say that a Chronicleinterview
with the company's top lawyer also softballs the issues, while giving
Chevron the opportunity to present its side of the story with no
opportunity for response from the company's many critics. [Update: Chron editors tell me there will be more coverage of Chevron later in the week.]
Well, Chevron's opponents, including San Francisco's Amazon Watch, have taken matters into their own hands, releasing an alternate annual report that presents the externalities
not listed in the company's balance sheet, which shows a record profit
of $24 billion, making the company the second most profitable in the
Did you know that Chevron's Richmond refinery was built in 1902 and emitted 100,000 pounds of toxic waste in 2007, consisting of no less than 38 toxic substances? The EPA ranks it as one of the worst refineries
in the nation. With 17,000 people living within 3 miles from the plant,
you'd think the San Ramon-based company would take local heat from more
than just a couple dozen activists.
Chevron has sought to brand itself an "energy" company, one eagerly pursuing alternatives to petroleum. Its aggressive "Will You Join Us?"
ad campaign asked regular folks to reduce their energy consumption,
suggesting that Chevron was doing the same. In actuality, the company
spent less than 3 percent of its whopping capital and
exploratory expenditures on alternative energy. And it has refused to
offer better reporting on its greenhouse gas emissions, despite strong
shareholder support for it. (The aggressive, and misleading, ad
campaign seems to have ired the report's researchers as well: The
report is decorated by numerous parodies, and some have been
wheat-pasted around town.)
It's a very well researched report, written by the scholar Antonia Juhasz,
clearly divided into regional issues, and it's a much needed
counterbalance to the friendly coverage Chevron is otherwise getting.
(Juhasz was interviewed on Democracy Now this morning.)
For information on protesting the shareholder meeting early tomorrow morning, click here.
Posted by Laura Carlsen on April 3rd, 2009 Americas Policy Program, Center for International Policy
At the end of
March, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) celebrated its 50th
anniversary in Medellin. The occasion presents an opportunity to revise
concepts and move toward a fairer development model. It is logical to
think that among the festivities, a process of evaluation and
self-critique would begin regarding the bank's actions and work in the
The circumstances demand it. The continent has been plunged into a
grave economic crisis, in part because of the string of structural
reforms, deregulation, foreign market dependence, and privatization
that the IDB has supported in the region. Limits on the use of
non-renewable fuels have become more and more obvious while climate
change threatens to affect the production of basic foods and increase
the frequency of natural disasters. Forced migration characterizes
modern life and growing inequality has become the most important
challenge faced by all the countries in the region.
Medellin: site of the 50th anniversary of the IDB. Photo: www.skyscraperlife.com.
In spite of this gray outlook, it seemed that until now everything
suggested that the IDB would prescribe more of the same medicine. They
predicted an increase in loans to the region for the record figure of
US$18 billion for 2009 as a response to the crisis. This will generate
a new wave of debt in the recipient countries, while at the same time
the development model behind the loans faces a crisis of credibility
due to its dubious results. For the IDB, development is seen as a
process of ensuring the transnational mobility of capital, enabling
foreign investment, the transfer of goods, and access to natural
resources. In recent years, this model has been imposed on regions that
were previously closed off due to their geographical location or
because of little interest from big business. Now that the value of
natural resources is increasing and national economies have opted for
exports, mega-projects including transportation infrastructure and
hydroelectric power plants, among others, have become attractive again.
They generally target regions with a low population density, and, in
many cases, significant indigenous populations. While these communities
are often forgotten by their national governments and suffer high
levels of marginalization, at the same time their territories are rich
in both culture and biodiversity.
The IDB has been a major promoter of infrastructure mega-projects
designed to drive this vision. Two mega-project master plans have been
of particular interest to the IDB: The Plan Puebla-Panama (also known
as the Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project) and the
Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South
America (IIRSA). These plans include the construction of
super-highways, dams, electricity networks, and more. The projects
signal a drastic change in the use of land and resources. Local,
regional, and national markets—which generate more jobs and constitute
the majority of food distribution—are seen as a hindrance, and natural
resources—conserved by indigenous communities—are considered the spoils
of transnational business.
Among its objectives, the IDB aims to generate development in these
regions. However, a recent study revealed that the mega-projects
financed by the IDB in many cases end up displacing thousands of people
who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. The construction of dams is
the clearest example because it entails the involuntary displacement
through the flooding of vast areas which often include pre-existing
communities. One example is the La Parota hydroelectric dam in
Guerrero, Mexico which would displace around 25,000 people and has
currently been halted due to popular resistance. A group of 43
grassroots organizations met prior to the IDB meeting in Medellin. They
presented studies and testimonies on the impacts of these projects in
an effort to change the IDB's policies. Through the campaign known as
"The IDB: 50 years financing inequality," these groups argue that,
rather than alleviate the issue of poverty, mega-projects channel the
profits gained from natural resources into the hands of the private
sector and destroy the social fabric and community networks necessary
for indigenous survival.
The solution to poverty that the IDB fundamentally proposes would
seem to be: reduce poverty by expelling the poor. The two meetings—that
of the IDB authorities and that of the organizations which question its
practices—present an opportunity to revise the concept of development
and move toward a fairer development model.
Amid the worst financial and economic crisis in decades, the U.S.
business press tends to get caught up in the daily fluctuations of the
stock market and, to a lesser extent, the monthly changes in the
unemployment rate. By contrast, London’s Financial Times is looking at the big picture. It recently launched a series
of articles under the rubric of The Future of Capitalism. In addition
to soliciting varying views on this monumental question, the paper
published a feature this week presuming to name the 50 people around the world who will “frame the way forward.”
Kicking off the series, the FT’s Martin Wolf was blunt in asserting
that the ideology of unfettered markets promoted over the past three
decades must now be judged a failure. Sounding like a traditional
Marxist, Wolf writes that “the era of liberalisation [the European term
for market fundamentalism] contained seeds of its own downfall” in the
form of tendencies such as “frenetic financial innovation” and “bubbles
in asset prices.”
in the series by Gillian Tett casually notes that “naked greed, lax
regulation, excessively loose monetary policy, fraudulent borrowing and
managerial failure all played a role” in bringing about the crisis.
Richard Layard of the London School of Economics weighs in with a piece
arguing that “we should stop the worship of money and create a more
humane society where the quality of human experience is the criterion.”
Did editorial copy intended for New Left Review mistakenly end up in the FT computers?
Wolf finished his initial article
with the statement: “Where we end up, after this financial tornado, is
for us to seek to determine.” Yet who is the “we” Wolf is referring to?
Following the damning critique of markets and poor government
oversight, the last ones we should turn to for leadership are the
powers that be. Yet that is exactly the group that dominates the list
of those who, according to the editors of FT, will lead the way
forward. The 50 movers and shakers include 14 politicians, starting
with President Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao; ten central
bankers; three financial regulators; and four heads of multinational
institutions such as the IMF and the WTO. Also included are six
economists, including Paul Krugman and Obama advisor Paul Volcker, and
three prominent investors, among them George Soros and Warren Buffett.
The list also finds room for three chief executives (the heads of
Nissan, PepsiCo and Google) and, amazingly, the chiefs of four major
banks: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, HSBC and BNP Paribas. It even
includes two talking heads: Arianna Huffington and Rush Limbaugh.
Except for Olivier Besancenot of France’s New Anticapitalist Party,
who is included among the politicians in a way that seems a bit
condescending, there is not a single person on the list directly
involved in a movement to challenge corporate power or even to
significantly alter the relationship between business and the rest of
society. There is not a single labor leader, prominent environmental
advocate or other leading activist. The editors at FT seem never to
have heard of civil society.
Then again, the problem may not be thickheadedness among FT editors.
Perhaps the voices for radical change have simply not been loud enough
to earn a place on a list of those who will play a significant role in
the shaping capitalism’s future. In fact, one of the articles in the FT
that in Europe neither the Left nor the labor movement has taken a
leadership role in responding to the crisis, even as spontaneous
protests have erupted in numerous countries.
In the United States, where those forces are weaker, anger at the
crisis has to a great extent been channeled into support for the
Keynesian policies of the Obama Administration. That’s unavoidable in
the short term, but it doesn’t address the need for fundamental
alteration of economic institutions. If, as the Financial Times suggests, the future of capitalism is up for grabs, let’s make sure we all join the fray.
Before his execution, Socrates was visited in prison by his friend
Crito, who told him the bribes for the guards were ready and Socrates
could escape whenever he wished. Socrates refused to go.
Crito, angered, argued Socrates would a) leave his children orphans
and b) bring shame on his friends, because people would assume they
were too cheap to finance his escape. (Apparently, this sort of thing
was common in Athens in those days.)
Socrates replied that in his imagination, he hears the Laws of
Athens saying, “What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us,
the Laws, and the whole city so far as in you lies? Do you think a
state can exist and not be overthrown in which the decisions of law are
of no force and are disregarded and set at naught by private
In short, either Socrates or the rule of law had to die. Socrates
chose to die rather than diminish his city. Now, as then, he’d be a
lonely guy. His notion that the city lay within him – that he was the city of Athens – is striking.
All failure to enforce law – or to work
around it – is bad. This applies equally to speed limits, armed robbery
and banking regulations. Failure to enforce our agreed-upon standards
weakens our social bonds and undermines faith in both our justice
system and our government. If the police will not apprehend or the
courts will not prosecute or the legislatures draw protective circles
around certain elements in society, then society as a whole suffers.
There is within all of us an affinity for justice. The majority of
citizens have no training in law or political science, but we possess
intuitive notions of right and wrong. We’re willing to tolerate some
discrepancy on either margin of the page, but when things are pushed
too far out of balance on either side, then the door to vigilantism,
riot and revolution is opened.
This great imbalance – and we’re getting strong whiffs of it now –
is a failure by our institutions to enforce the terms of the American
“America is a classless society.” “All citizens stand equal before
the law.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s illegal to rob a convenience store.
It’s illegal to defraud investors. The accused robber, who flashed a
knife and made off with eighty or a hundred bucks, sits behind steel
bars and waits for his overburdened public defender to get around to
speaking with him.
The accused fraudulent investment fund manager, who flashed a phony
set of books and made off with eight or fifty billion dollars, sits in
his cosmopolitan penthouse and consults a million-dollar legal team,
which he pays with ill-gotten dosh.
If we vigorously enforce laws on the working class and make only
half-hearted attempts to do so with the managing class, then the class
warfare Republican politician are always whining about comes closer to
Worse, by allowing Ken Lays, Bernie Madoffs and Allen Stanfords to
get off easy, it destroys real opportunity for people in the working
classes to realize the American dream for themselves and their
children. The crimes of the managing class – unlike the convenience
store robber – have the real effect of depriving millions – both here
and abroad - of their livelihoods and homes when the financial system
In the news and before Congressional committee, we hear that
regulators were specifically warned for years that Bernie Madoff and
Allen Stanford were violating regulations.
While the beltway talkers argue over whether Wall Street bankers
should be allowed to keep their bonuses and exorbitant salaries, the
discussion that had yet to start is: why were these highly leveraged
instruments and securitized debt transactions legal in the first place?
We’re told incessantly that the Wall Street banking transactions were
so complicated that “no one really understands them.” There is,
however, the easily understood principle that one’s debts should be
balanced by one’s assets. Or one’s at least one’s assets should be
within shouting distance of one’s debts.
We have speed limits not because driving 110 is inherently evil, but
because it is unsafe and anyone who does shows reckless disregard for
themselves and others. And yet, a legion of reckless drivers loosed on
the interstate for a decade could not have wrought as much misery as
this handful of bankers, brokers and hedge fund managers.
We will now suffer for years. These will be hard times, but within
this hardship will be opportunities to rediscover the extent to which
our society lives within in us, as Socrates would have said.
For the past eight years, the oil giant formerly known as British
Petroleum has tried to convince the world that its initials stand for
“Beyond Petroleum.” An announcement just issued by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency may suggest that the real meaning of BP
is Brazen Polluter.
The EPA revealed
that BP Products North America will pay nearly $180 million to settle
charges that it has failed to comply with a 2001 consent decree under
which it was supposed to implement strict controls on benzene and
benzene-tainted waste generated by the company’s vast oil refining
complex in Texas City, Texas, located south of Houston. Since the
1920s, benzene has been known to cause cancer.
Among BP’s self-proclaimed corporate values
is to be “environmentally responsible with the aspiration of ‘no damage
to the environment’” and to ensure that “no one is subject to
unnecessary risk while working for the group.” Somehow, that message
did not seem to make its way to BP’s operation in Texas City, which has
a dismal performance record.
The benzene problem in Texas City was supposed to be addressed as part of the $650 million agreement
BP reached in January 2001 with the EPA and the Justice Department
covering eight refineries around the country. Yet environmental
officials in Texas later found that benzene emissions at the plant
remained high. BP refused to accept that finding and tried to stonewall
the state, which later imposed a fine of $225,000.
In March 2005 a huge explosion (photo) at the refinery killed 15
workers and injured more than 170. The blast blew a hole in a benzene
storage tank, contaminating the air so seriously that safety
investigators could not enter the site for a week after the incident.
BP was later cited for egregious safety violations and paid a record fine of $21.4 million. Subsequently, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former secretary of state James Baker III found
that BP had failed to spend enough money on safety and failed to take
other steps that could have prevented the disaster in Texas City. Still
later, the company paid a $50 million fine as part of a plea agreement on related criminal charges.
In an apparent effort to repair its image, BP has tried to associate
itself with positive environmental initiatives. The company was, for
instance, one of the primary sponsors
of the big Good Jobs/Green Jobs conference held in Washington earlier
this month. Yet as long as BP operates dirty facilities such as the
Texas City refinery, the company’s sunburst logo, its purported
earth-friendly values and its claim of going beyond petroleum will be
nothing more than blatant greenwashing.
While the Norwegian Council of Ethics full recommendation mentions conflicts involving Barrick in Chile, Tanzania, and the Philippines, the panel acknowledged that, "due to limited resources," it restricted its investigation of Barrick to the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea. The Porgera mine has been a prime target for criticism for its use of riverine tailings disposal, a practice banned in almost every country in the world.
"It's unbelievably embarrassing," admitted Green Party deputy leader Adriane Carr. "It's got to be bad news for Canada when a foreign government says it's going to sell its shares in a Canadian company they figure is unethical."
This isn't the first time that Norway's Fund has divested from a gold mining company. In fact, looking at a list, the fund – with the notable exception of Walmart – divests exclusively from mining (primarily gold mining) corporations and corporations that produce nuclear weapons or cluster munitions... an interesting juxtaposition highlighting the comparable nature of mining to the production of weapons of mass destruction, especially in terms of long-term environmental consequences.
Compare that to Canada's treatment of gold mining companies. Just this last December, Peter Munk, the chairman and founder of Barrick Gold, received the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor. Additionally, within Toronto he is honored as a philanthropist, with the Peter Munk Cardiac Center and the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto both adorning his name. Similarly, Ian Telfer, the chairman of Goldcorp, the world's second largest gold miner behind Barrick, has the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa bearing his name.
These symbolic gestures, along with the fact that several Canadian Pension funds and even Vancouver-based "Ethical Funds" are still heavily invested in Barrick Gold, show that Canada has a long way to go in demanding that its companies honor human rights and halt its colonial-style, exploitative economic regime. In fact, by its own admittance, Canada's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade stated that "Canada does not yet have laws to ensure that the activities of
Canadian mining companies in developing countries conform to human
rights standards, including the rights of workers and of indigenous
peoples." Since the date of that landmark confession, Canada has yet to adopt any intervening structures (like an ombudsperson) or develop any mandatory regulations for Canadian companies operating abroad.
Gold mining produces an average of 79 tons of waste for every ounce of gold extracted, 50 percent of it is carried out on native lands, and about 80 percent of it is used for jewelry, according to the "No Dirty Gold" campaign, a project of Oxfam and Earthworks. It is no wonder that in a portfolio with plenty of human rights abuses, the Norwegian Pension Fund decided to concentrate on gold miners, cluster munition manufacturers and nuclear weapon producers first. It is time that the rest of the world catch up.
There's surely no one party responsible for the ongoing global
financial crisis. But if you had to pick a single responsible
corporation, there's a very strong case to make for American
International Group (AIG), which has already sucked up more than $150
billion in taxpayer supports. Through "credit default swaps," AIG
basically collected insurance premiums while making the ridiculous
assumption that it would never pay out on a failure -- let alone a
collapse of the entire market it was insuring. When reality set in, the
roof caved in.
When food prices spiked in late 2007 and through the beginning of 2008,
countries and poor consumers found themselves at the mercy of the
global market and the giant trading companies that dominate it. As
hunger rose and food riots broke out around the world, Cargill saw
profits soar, tallying more than $1 billion in the second quarter of
In a competitive market, would a grain-trading middleman make
super-profits? Or would rising prices crimp the middleman's profit
margin? Well, the global grain trade is not competitive, and the legal
rules of the global economy-- devised at the behest of Cargill and
friends -- ensure that poor countries will be dependent on, and at the
mercy of, the global grain traders.
Chevron: "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies"
In 2001, Chevron swallowed up Texaco. It was happy to absorb the
revenue streams. It has been less willing to take responsibility for
Texaco's ecological and human rights abuses.
In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians filed a class action suit in
U.S. courts, alleging that Texaco over a 20-year period had poisoned
the land where they live and the waterways on which they rely, allowing
billions of gallons of oil to spill and leaving hundreds of waste pits
unlined and uncovered. Chevron had the case thrown out of U.S. courts,
on the grounds that it should be litigated in Ecuador, closer to where
the alleged harms occurred. But now the case is going badly for Chevron
in Ecuador -- Chevron may be liable for more than $7 billion. So, the
company is lobbying the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to
impose trade sanctions on Ecuador if the Ecuadorian government does not
make the case go away.
"We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like
this -- companies that have made big investments around the world," a
Chevron lobbyist said to Newsweek in August. (Chevron subsequently
stated that the comments were not approved.)
Although it is too dangerous, too expensive and too centralized to make
sense as an energy source, nuclear power won't go away, thanks to
equipment makers and utilities that find ways to make the public pay
Constellation Energy Group, the operator of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear
plant in Maryland -- a company recently involved in a startling,
partially derailed scheme to price gouge Maryland consumers -- plans to
build a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, potentially the first new
reactor built in the United States since the near-meltdown at Three
Mile Island in 1979.
It has lined up to take advantage of U.S. government-guaranteed loans
for new nuclear construction, available under the terms of the 2005
Energy Act. The company acknowledges it could not proceed with
construction without the government guarantee.
Sudan has been able to laugh off existing and threatened sanctions for
the slaughter it has perpetrated in Darfur because of the huge support
it receives from China, channeled above all through the Sudanese
relationship with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
"The relationship between CNPC and Sudan is symbiotic," notes the
Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights First, in a March 2008 report,
"Investing in Tragedy." "Not only is CNPC the largest investor in the
Sudanese oil sector, but Sudan is CNPC's largest market for overseas
Oil money has fueled violence in Darfur. "The profitability of Sudan's
oil sector has developed in close chronological step with the violence
in Darfur," notes Human Rights First.
A 1988 Filipino land reform effort has proven a fraud. Plantation
owners helped draft the law and invented ways to circumvent its
purported purpose. Dole pineapple workers are among those paying the
Under the land reform, Dole's land was divided among its workers and
others who had claims on the land prior to the pineapple giant.
However, wealthy landlords maneuvered to gain control of the labor
cooperatives the workers were required to form, Washington, D.C.-based
International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) explains in an October report.
Dole has slashed it regular workforce and replaced them with contract
Contract workers are paid under a quota system, and earn about $1.85 a day, according to ILRF.
In June, former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston reported on
internal General Electric documents that appeared to show the company
had engaged in a long-running effort to evade taxes in Brazil. In a
lengthy report in Tax Notes International, Johnston reported on a GE
subsidiary's scheme to invoice suspiciously high sales volume for
lighting equipment in lightly populated Amazon regions of the country.
These sales would avoid higher value added taxes (VAT) in urban states,
where sales would be expected to be greater.
Johnston wrote that the state-level VAT at issue, based on the internal
documents he reviewed, appeared to be less than $100 million. But, he
speculated, the overall scheme could have involved much more.
Johnston did not identify the source that gave him the internal GE
documents, but GE has alleged it was a former company attorney, Adriana
Koeck. GE fired Koeck in January 2007 for what it says were
On February 7, an explosion rocked the Imperial Sugar refinery in Port
Wentworth, Georgia, near Savannah. Days later, when the fire was
finally extinguished and search-and-rescue operations completed, the
horrible human toll was finally known: 14 dead, dozens badly burned and
As with almost every industrial disaster, it turns out the tragedy was
preventable. The cause was accumulated sugar dust, which like other
forms of dust, is highly combustible.
A month after the Port Wentworth explosion, Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors investigated another Imperial
Sugar plant, in Gramercy, Louisiana. They found 1/4- to 2-inch
accumulations of dust on electrical wiring and machinery. They found as
much as 48-inch accumulations on workroom floors.
Imperial Sugar obviously knew of the conditions in its plants. It had
in fact taken some measures to clean up operations prior to the
explosion. The company brought in a new vice president to clean up
operations in November 2007, and he took some important measures to
improve conditions. But it wasn't enough. The vice president told a
Congressional committee that top-level management had told him to tone
down his demands for immediate action.
The old Philip Morris no longer exists. In March, the company formally
divided itself into two separate entities: Philip Morris USA, which
remains a part of the parent company Altria, and Philip Morris
International. Philip Morris USA sells Marlboro and other cigarettes in
the United States. Philip Morris International tramples the rest of the
Philip Morris International has already signaled its initial plans to
subvert the most important policies to reduce smoking and the toll from
tobacco-related disease (now at 5 million lives a year). The company
has announced plans to inflict on the world an array of new products,
packages and marketing efforts. These are designed to undermine
smoke-free workplace rules, defeat tobacco taxes, segment markets with
specially flavored products, offer flavored cigarettes sure to appeal
to youth and overcome marketing restrictions.
The Swiss company Roche makes a range of HIV-related drugs. One of them
is enfuvirtid, sold under the brand-name Fuzeon. Fuzeon brought in $266
million to Roche in 2007, though sales are declining.
Roche charges $25,000 a year for Fuzeon. It does not offer a discount price for developing countries.
Like most industrialized countries, Korea maintains a form of price
controls -- the national health insurance program sets prices for
medicines. The Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs listed
Fuzeon at $18,000 a year. Korea's per capita income is roughly half
that of the United States. Instead of providing Fuzeon, for a profit,
at Korea's listed level, Roche refuses to make the drug available in
Korean activists report that the head of Roche Korea told them, "We are
not in business to save lives, but to make money. Saving lives is not
It was only a few years ago that a group of offshore outsourcing
companies based in India seemed poised to take over a large portion of
the U.S. economy. Business propagandists insisted that work ranging
from low-level data input to skilled professional work such as
financial analysis could be done faster and much cheaper by workers
hunched over computer terminals in cities such as Bangalore. The New York Times once described one of these offshoring companies as “a maquiladora of the mind.”
Among the most aggressive of the Indian firms was Satyam Computer
Services Ltd., which signed up blue-chip clients such as Ford Motor,
Merrill Lynch, Texas Instruments and Yahoo. In a 2004 report
I wrote for the U.S. high-tech workers organization WashTech, I found
that Satyam was also among the offshoring companies that were doing
work for state government agencies. It was hired, for example, as a
subcontractor by the U.S. company Healthaxis to develop a system for
handling applications for medical insurance services provided by the
Washington State Health Care Authority. As it turned out, Healthaxis’s
contract was terminated, allegedly because of late delivery and poor
quality in the work done by Satyam.
The Washington State fiasco may have been an early omen of things to come. Satyam has just admitted that for years it cooked its books and engaged in widespread financial wrongdoing. The revelation came in a letter
sent to the company’s board of directors by Satyam founder and chairman
B. Ramalinga Raju (photo), who simultaneously tendered his resignation.
Raju wrote that what started as “a marginal gap between actual
operating profit and the one reflected in the books” eventually
“attained unmanageable proportions” as the company grew. The fictitious
cash balance grew to more than US$1 billion. “It was like riding a
tiger,” Raju colorfully wrote, “not knowing how to get off without
While admitting that he engaged in very creative accounting, Raju
insisted he did not personally benefit from the fraud, denying for
instance that he had sold any of his shares in the company. I guess it
is meant to be some consolation that among his sins Raju is not guilty
of insider trading.
Apart from Raju, the party most on the hot seat is the company’s
auditor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, whose Indian unit gave Satyam’s
financial reports a clean bill of health.
The Satyam scandal is being called India’s Enron. It should probably
also be called India’s Arthur Andersen as this seems to be another case
in which an auditor was either oblivious to widespread accounting
misconduct by one of its clients or complicit in it.
Some soul-searching is probably also in order for the many large
U.S. corporations that have not hesitated to take jobs away from
American workers and ship the work off to Indian companies such as
Satyam. The revelation that much of the work has been going to a
crooked company is all the more galling.
More than 800
representatives from organizations throughout the Americas made their
way to the northern city of La Esperanza, Honduras to take a strong
stand against the militarization of their nations and communities.
Following three days of workshops, the participants read their final
declaration in front of the gates of the U.S. Army Base at Palmerola,
Honduras, just hours from the conferencesite. The first demand on the list was to close down this and all U.S.
military bases in Latin America and the Caribbean. By the end of the
demonstration, the walls of the base sported hundreds of spray-painted
messages and demands that contrasted sharply with their prison-like
formally called the Soto Cano Air Base, brought back some very bad
memories among the hundreds of Central American participants. The U.S.
government installed the base in 1981 and used it to launch the illegal
contra operations against the Nicaraguan government. The base was also
used to airlift support to counterinsurgency operations in Guatemala and El Salvador and train U.S. forces
in counterinsurgency techniques during the dirty wars that left over
100,000 dead, and is now used as a base for the U.S.-sponsored "war on
The demilitarization conference also called for an immediate halt to the recently launched "Merida Initiative,"
the Bush administration's new Trojan horse for remilitarization of the
region. The resolution asserts that the measure "expands U.S. military
intervention and contributes to the militarization of our countries"
and representatives from the Central American nations and Mexico
included in the military aid package committed to a process of
monitoring the funds and defeating further appropriations.
The Merida Initiative was announced by President Bush
as a "counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and border security"
cooperation initiative in October 2007. The model extends the Bush
administration's infamous national security strategy of 2002 to impose
it as the U.S.-led security model for the hemisphere. The approach
relies on huge defense contracts to U.S. corporations, and military and
police deployment to deal with issues ranging from drug trafficking to
illegal immigration and seeks to extend U.S. military hegemony in
foreign lands. It has been proven in Colombia
and other areas where it has been applied to have the effect of
increasing violence, failing to decrease drug flows, and leading to
extensive human rights violations.
Among the 14
resolutions of the conference, three others reject aspects of the
Initiative: the repeal of anti-terrorist laws that criminalize social
protest and are a direct result of U.S. pressure to impose the
disastrous Bush counter-terrorism paradigm; the demand to replace the
militarized "war on drugs" model with measures of citizen
participation, community heath, etc.; and the demand for full respect
for the rights of migrants.
Although on the
surface, Latin America is experiencing a period of relative calm after
the brutality of the military dictatorships and the dirty wars,
grassroots movement leaders from all over the continent described a
context of increasing aggression. The indigenous and farm organizations
that occupy territories coveted by transnational corporations have
become targets of forced displacement. Social movements that protest
privatization and free trade agreements have been dubbed terrorists and
attacked and imprisoned under new anti-terrorist laws that are a poor
legal facade for outright repression. The use of the military troops in
counter-narcotic activities has become commonplace and often hides
other agendas of the powerful. Police forces have come to deal with
youth as if being young itself were a crime.
In viewing the
threats of militarization in their societies, participants use a
broader definition than just the presence of army bases and troops.
"Militarism," states the Campaign for Demilitarization of the Americas,
is " the daily presence of the military logic in our society, in our
economic forms, in our social links, and in the logic of gender
domination and the supposed natural superiority of men over women."
Using this concept, the conference covered the profound need to change
the educational system and social norms, to work from within
communities, as well as making demands for changes in the external
conditions that affect them.
Despite days of
testimonies that sometimes included tears and anger, delegates to the
conference expressed hope above all else. Ecuador's new constitution
and decision to kick out the U.S. army base at Manta was cited as proof
plans for action and an encouraging consensus emerged: the breadth of
the challenge can be overwhelming but the dream of lasting peace
provides an irresistible light at the end of the tunnel.
concludes on this note: "... through these campaigns and actions on the
grassroots level, organized within each nation and throughout the
continent, we can reach a day not long from now when we fulfill the
dream of living free of violence, exclusion, and war."
Why would "criminals" set fire to millions worth in mine equipment?
How was it that these "intruders" had an estimated 3,000 - 4,000 people backing them up?
In what appears to be a spontaneous civilian movement against Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold miner, thousands of people invaded Barrick`s
North Mara Gold Mine this week in Tarime District and destroyed equipment worth
$15 million. Locals say that the uprising was sparked by the killing of a local, identified as Mang'weina Mwita Mang'weina. According to a Barrick Public Relations officer (as reported by the Tanzanian Guardian newspaper), "the intruders stoned the security personnel relentlessly until they
overpowered them. The guards abandoned their posts and retreated to
Barrick implies that "high levels of crime" are the cause of this
recent outbreak, recent reports suggest a different picture.
Allan Cedillo Lissner, a photojournalist who recently documented mine life near the North Mara mine, explains:
Ongoing conflict between the mine
and local communities has created a climate of fear for those who live
nearby. Since the mine opened in 2002, the Mwita family say that they
live in a state of constant anxiety because they have been repeatedly
harassed and intimidated by the mine's private security forces and by
government police. There have been several deadly confrontations in
the area and every time there are problems at the mine, the Mwita
family say their compound is the first place the police come looking.
During police operations the family scatters in fear to hide in the
bush, "like fugitives," for weeks at a time waiting for the situation
to calm down. They used to farm and raise livestock, "but now there are
no pastures because the mine has almost taken the whole land ... we
have no sources of income and we are living only through God's wishes.
... We had never experienced poverty before the mine came here." They
say they would like to be relocated, but the application process has
been complicated, and they feel the amount of compensation they have
been offered is "candy."
Evans Rubara, an investigative journalist from
Tanzania, blames this action on angry locals from the North Mara area
who are opposed to Barrick's presence there. "This comes one week after
Barrick threatened to leave the country based on claims that they
weren't making profit," comments Evans after explaining that Barrick
does not report profit to avoid taxes in the country. "This is a sign
to both the government of Tanzania and the International community
(especially Canada) that poor and marginalized people also get tired of
oppression, and that they would like Barrick to leave."
Only one week prior, Barrick's African Region Vice President, Gareth Taylor threatened
to leave Tanzania due to high operating costs, claiming that the company did not make profits there. Barrick's Toronto office
quickly denied this report, stating that "the company will work with
the government to ensure
the country's legislation remains 'competitive with other
jurisdictions so that Tanzanians can continue to benefit from
Interestingly, Taylors threat came shortly after he attended a workshop to launch the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in Dar es Salaam.
One thing is clear, though; these reports of hundreds, backed by thousands, of villagers attacking mine infrastructure reflects a resentment that goes beyond mere criminal
action. And this surge in violence should be examined in the context of
the on-going exploitation and repressive environment surrounding the
Back in the good old days of the Cold War, everybody’s favorite secret agent, James Bond, fought villains like Dr. No, an evil scientist out to sabotage U.S. missile tests, and Mr. Big, a Soviet agent using pirate treasure to finance espionage in America. But as Bond’s friend Mathis tells him in Quantum of Solace, released this month, “When one is young, it’s easy to tell the difference between right and wrong. As one gets older, the villains and heroes get all mixed up.”
The reference is to a shady new Bond villain, agent of the Quantum organization – one Dominic Greene. In public, Greene is a leading environmentalist whose organization, Greene Planet, buys up large tracts of land for ecological preserves. But behind the scenes, Greene has another agenda. As he says to his co-conspirators, “This is the most valuable resource in the world and we need to control as much of it as we can.”
The film makes a number of plays on the assumption that the resource in question is oil – but oil is so…twentieth century.
By the time Bond has pursued Greene from Italy to Haiti, from Haiti to Austria, and crash-landed his plane in a sinkhole in the high, barren desert of Bolivia, we make the discovery that this vital resource is – surprise! – water.
Colluding with Greene is a cast of evil characters taken straight from the history books. We have General Medrano, the ex-dictator of Bolivia, to whom Greene says, “You want your country back? My organization can give it to you.” We have the U.S. Ambassador, myopically sticking to the familiar program: “Okay, we do nothing to stop a coup, and you give us a lease to any oil you find.” And we have the British foreign office, continually wrangling with M15, Bond’s spy agency. When Bond’s boss, M, tells him that Greene is not an environmentalist but a villain, the Foreign Minister says, “If we refused to do business with villains, we’d have almost no one to trade with.” Ain’t it the truth.
The fact that Quantum of Solace makes water the villain’s object of greed, replacing oil, gold, diamonds, and mutually assured destruction, is telling of the point we’ve reached. More telling still is the fact that our villain’s cover has him acting as an environmentalist, the ultimate corporate greenwasher. The fact that the action winds up in Bolivia – the country where, in real life, both Bechtel and Suez have tried and failed to take control of community water resources during and shortly after the reign of former-dictator-turned-neoliberal President Hugo Banzer – brings the plot frighteningly close to reality. The privatization of water in Bolivia back in 2000, and the massive popular response that turned out rural water stewards and urban ratepayers to riot for months until the multinational transgressor was ousted, was the spark that set social movements worldwide on red alert. Since then, numerous private water companies have been refused contracts on the grounds that popular movements, and, increasingly, governments, recognize the need to treat water as a human right and a public good – not a commodity.
If only the water movement had a few organizers with the physique, the gadgets, and the, er, style of Bond.
While we have many great documentaries telling the story of the global water wars, including this year’s Flow and Blue Gold, one is forced to wonder if 007 does a greater service to the water movement than even our most highly talented documentarians. After all, who better than Hollywood to characterize the greenwashing corporate water profiteers as straight up evil, sans the need to justify the hyperbole?
Matieu Amalric, the actor who played Dominic Greene, wanted to wear make-up for the role, but director Marc Forster “wanted Greene not to look grotesque, but to symbolize the hidden evils in society.” Similarly, the original screenplay had Greene having some “hidden power.” But in the final cut, the director seems to have decided that corporate power was power enough.
One wonders if Dominic Greene – had he not died drinking motor oil to quench his thirst in the Bolivian desert – might give the keynote speech at the upcoming World Water Forum in Istanbul (WWF). After all, the World Water Council (WWC) that puts on the forum is presided over by Loïc Fauchon, a former executive at one of the French subsidiaries of Suez, the world’s largest private water corporation.
As we learn from the WWF website, “One of the benefits of joining the WWC is the Council's ability to influence decisions related to world water management that affect organizations, business, and communities.” Perhaps their secret meetings will also be attended by executives of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, whose recent partnership with Coca-Cola aims to help the global soft-drink giant become “the most efficient company in the world in terms of water use,” with “every drop of water it uses…returned to the earth or compensated for through conservation and recycling programs.” And, with this blending of fact and fiction, it would hardly be surprising to find Greene’s signature on the CEO Water Mandate, which has companies with such devastating environmental track records as Dow Chemical, Shell Oil, Unilever, and Nestlé pledging to “help address the water challenge faced by the world today.”
When M, Bond’s overweening boss at M15, finds out about Quantum, she demands, “What the hell is this organization, Bond? How can they be everywhere and we know nothing about them?”
Well, my darling M, the answer is simple: like transnational corporations, and like the large NGO’s that work with the private sector to reform its practices and green its reputation, and like the International Finance Institutions whose interests are increasingly endangering the United Nations’ mandate to defend and protect human rights, they can be everywhere because their particular form of villainy works best when hidden in plain sight.
Thankfully, the world’s water is safe, because, behind the scenes, secret agent 007 is on the job.
There's no question that this morning's announcement from the Treasury
Department, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
(FDIC) is remarkable.
It was also necessary.
Over the next several months, we're going to see a lot more moves like
this. Government interventions in the economy that seemed unfathomable
a few months ago are going to become the norm, as it quickly becomes
apparent that, as Margaret Thatcher once said in a very different
context, there is no alternative.
because the U.S. and global economic problems are deep and pervasive.
The American worker may be strong, as John McCain would have it, but
the "fundamentals" of the U.S. and world economy are not. The
underlying problem is a deflating U.S. housing market that still has
much more to go. And underlying that problem are the intertwined
problems of U.S. consumer over-reliance on debt, national and global
wealth inequality of historic proportions, and massive global trade
Although it was enabled by deregulation, the financial meltdown merely
reflects these more profound underlying problems. It is, one might say,
Nonetheless, the financial crisis was -- and conceivably still might be -- by itself enough to crash the global economy.
Today, following the lead of the Great Britain, the United States has announced
what has emerged as the consensus favored financial proposal among
economists of diverse political ideologies. The United States will buy
$250 billion in new shares in banks (the so-called "equity injection").
This is aimed at boosting confidence in the banks, and giving them new
capital to loan. The new equity will enable them to loan roughly 10
times more than would the Treasury's earlier (and still developing)
plan to buy up troubled assets. The FDIC will offer new insurance
programs for bank small business and other bank deposits, to stem bank
runs. The FDIC will provide new, temporary insurance for interbank
loans, intended to overcome the crisis of confidence between banks.
And, the Federal Reserve will if necessary purchase commercial paper
from business -- the 3-month loans they use to finance day-to-day
operations. This move is intended to overcome the unwillingness of
money market funds and others to extend credit.
But while aggressive by the standards of two months ago, the most
high-profile of these moves -- government acquisition of shares in the
private banking system -- is a strange kind of "partial
nationalization," if it should be called that at all.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson effectively compelled the leading U.S.
banks to accept participation in the program. And, at first blush, he
may have done an OK job of protecting taxpayer monetary interests. The
U.S. government will buy preferred shares in the banks, paying a 5
percent dividend for the first three years, and 9 percent thereafter.
The government also obtains warrants, giving it the right to purchase
shares in the future, if the banks' share price increase.
But the Treasury proposal specifies
that the government shares in the banks will be non-voting. And there
appear to be only the most minimal requirements imposed on
So, the government may be obtaining a modest ownership stake in the banks, but no control over their operations.
In keeping with the terms of the $700 billion bailout legislation,
under which the bank share purchase plan is being carried out, the
Treasury Department has announced guidelines
for executive compensation for participating banks. These are
laughable. The most important rule prohibits incentive compensation
arrangements that "encourage unnecessary and excessive risks that
threaten the value of the financial institution." Gosh, do we need to
throw $250 billion at the banks to persuade executives not to adopt
incentive schemes that threaten their own institutions?
The banks reportedly will not be able to increase dividends, but will
be able to maintain them at current levels. Really? The banks are
bleeding hundreds of billions of dollars -- with more to come -- and
they are taking money out to pay shareholders? The banks are not obligated to lend with the money they are getting. The banks are not obligated to re-negotiate mortgage terms with borrowers -- even though a staggering one in six homeowners owe more than the value of their homes.
"The government's role will be limited and temporary," President Bush said in announcing today's package. "These measures are not intended to take over the free market, but to preserve it."
But it makes no sense to talk about the free market in such
circumstances. And these measures are almost certain to be followed by
more in the financial sector -- not to mention the rest of economy --
because the banks still have huge and growing losses for which they
have not accounted.
If the U.S. and other governments are to take expanded roles in the
world economy -- as they must, and will -- then the public must demand
something more than efforts to preserve the current system. The current
system brought on the financial meltdown and the worsening global
recession. As the government intervenes in the economy on behalf of the
public, it must reshape economic institutions to advance broad public
objectives, not the parochial concerns of the Wall Street and corporate
There's mounting talk on Capitol
Hill that a Wall Street bailout will include some limits on executive
compensation, as well as contradictory reports about whether a deal on
controlling executive pay has already been reached.
Four days ago, such a move seemed very unlikely. But the pushback from
Congress -- from both Democrats and Republicans -- has been
surprisingly robust, thanks in considerable part to a surge of outrage
from the public.
Will restrictions on CEO pay just be a symbolic retribution, as some have charged?
The answer is, it depends.
Meaningful limits not just on CEO pay, but also on the Wall Street
bonus culture, could significantly affect the way the financial sector
does business. Some CEO pay proposals, by contrast, would extract a
pound of flesh from some executives but have little impact on incentive
There are at least five reasons why it is important to address executive compensation as part of the bailout legislation.
First, there should be some penalty for executives who led their
companies -- and the global financial system -- to the brink of ruin.
You shouldn't be rewarded for failure. And while reducing pay packages
to seven digits may feel really nasty given Wall Street's culture of
preposterous excess, in the real world, a couple million bucks is still
a lot of money to make in a year.
Second, if the public is going to subsidize Wall Street to the tune of
hundreds of billions of dollars, the point is to keep the financial
system going -- not to keep Wall Street going the way it was. Funneling
public funds for exorbitant executive compensation would be a criminal
appropriation of public funds.
Third, the Wall Street salary structure has helped set the standard for
CEO pay across the economy, and helped establish a culture where
executives consider outlandish pay packages the norm. This culture, in
turn, has contributed to staggering wealth and income inequality, at
great cost to the nation. We need, it might be said, an end to the
culture of hyper-wealth.
Fourth, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research
says, the bailout package must be, to some extent, "punitive." If the
financial firms and their executives do not have to give something up
for the bailout, then there's no disincentive to engage in unreasonably
risky behavior in the future. This is what is meant by "moral hazard."
If Wall Street says the financial system is on the brink of collapse,
and the government must step in with what may be the biggest taxpayer
bailout in history, says Baker, then Wall Street leaders have to show
they mean it. If they are not willing to cut their pay for a few years
to a couple of million dollars an annum, how serious do they really
think the problem is?
Finally, and most importantly, financial sector compensation systems
need to be changed so they don't incentivize risky, short-term behavior.
There are two ways to think about how the financial sector let itself
develop such a huge exposure to a transparently bubble housing market.
One is that the financial wizards actually believed all the hype they
were spreading. They believed new financial instruments eliminated
risk, or spread it so effectively that downside risks were minimal; and
they believed the idea that something had fundamentally changed in the
housing market, and skyrocketing home prices would never return to
Another way to think about it is: Wall Street players knew they were
speculating in a bubble economy. But the riches to be made while the
bubble was growing were extraordinary. No one could know for sure when
the bubble would pop. And Wall Street bonuses are paid on a yearly
basis. If your firm does well, and you did well for the firm, you get
an extravagant bonus. This is not an extra few thousand dollars to buy
fancy Christmas gifts. Wall Street bonuses
can be 10 or 20 times base salary, and commonly represent as much as
four fifths of employees' pay. In this context, it makes sense to take huge risks. The payoffs from benefiting from a bubble are dramatic, and there's no reward for staying out.
Both of these explanations may be true to some degree, but the
compensation incentives explanation is almost certainly a significant
part of the story.
Different ideas about how to limit executive pay would address the
multiple rationales for compensation reforms to varying degrees.
A two-year cap on executive salaries would help achieve the first four
objectives, but by itself wouldn't get to the crucial issue of
One idea in particular to be wary of is "say on pay" proposals,
which would afford shareholders the right to a non-binding vote on CEO
pay compensation packages. These proposals would go some way to address
the disconnect between executive and shareholder interests, reducing
the ability of top executives to rely on crony boards of directors and
conflicted compensation consultants to implement outrageous pay
packages. But while they might increase executive accountability to
shareholders, they wouldn't direct executives away from market-driven
short-term decision making. Shareholders tend to be forgiving of
outlandish salaries so long as they are making money, too, and -- worse
-- they actually tend to have more of a short-term mentality than the
executives. So "say on pay" is not a good way to address the multiple
executive compensation-related goals that should be met in the bailout
The ideal provisions on executive compensation would set tough limits
on top pay, but would also insist on long-term changes in the bonus
culture for executives and traders. Not only should bonuses be more
modest, they should be linked to long-term, not year-long, performance.
That would completely change the incentive to knowingly participate in
a financial bubble (or, more generously, take on excessive risk),
because you would know that the eventual popping of the bubble would
wipe out your bonus.
Four days ago, forcing Wall Street to change its incentive structure
seemed pie in the sky. Today, thanks to the public uproar, it seems
eminently achievable -- if Members of Congress seize the opportunity.
Originally posted at Dirt Digger's Digest on September 23, 2008 -- A number of leading Democrats and Republicans expressed strong
misgivings last Monday about the autocratic plan for bailing out Wall
Street that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wants to ram through
Congress. It remains to be seen whether this is mere posturing or
Critics are focusing on vital issues such as cost and oversight, but
a lot less attention is being paid to the mechanics of Paulson’s
proposal – specifically, the question of who would carry out the
federal government’s purchase of $700 billion in “troubled” securities
from banks. As I noted in my post a week ago Sunday, the draft legislation
circulated over the weekend includes a provision that seems to allow
Treasury to contract out the process. Treasury then put out a fact sheet
making it quite clear it intends to use private asset managers to
manage and dispose of the assets it acquires, though the document does
not specifically allude to the purchasing. Paulson himself referred to the use of “professional asset managers” during an appearance on one of the Sunday morning talk shows.
It amazes me that there is not more outrage over this aspect of the
plan. Paulson seems to be leaving open the possibility that the same
firms that are being bailed out could be hired to run the bailout. This
would mean that institutions receiving a monumental giveaway of
taxpayer money could turn around and earn yet more by acting as the
government’s brokers. Aside from the unseemliness of this arrangement,
this would be an egregious conflict of interest.
The alternative proposal
floated by Senator Chris Dodd, which accepts Paulson’s language on
contracting out, includes a section on conflict of interest. But rather
than stating what the rules should be, the draft leaves it up to the
Treasury Secretary to do so. There were reports last Monday night that Treasury would go along with the inclusion of a conflict-of-interest provision.
Paulson’s approach to the Big Bailout, particularly the insistence
that there be no punitive measures for the banks, shows he is not the
right party to oversee ethical issues. Paulson apparently can’t help
himself. He still has the mindset of a man who spent more than 30 years
working on Wall Street, at Goldman Sachs. He is a living example of the
perils of the reverse revolving door: the appointment of a
private-sector figure to a key policymaking position affecting his or
her former industry.
The weak conflict-of-interest provisions Paulson is likely to impose
would probably not address the inherent contradiction in having
for-profit money managers running the bailout program. Even if Treasury
chooses managers whose firms are not getting bailed out, there is still
the danger that they will use their inside knowledge to benefit their
non-governmental clients (and themselves) or will collude with buyers
to the detriment of the public.
A Reuters story of last Monday reported that a leading contender for a federal
money management role is Laurence Fink and his firm BlackRock, which
was involved in managing the portfolio of Bear Stearns when that firm
was sold to JPMorgan Chase as part of an earlier bailout. Last March,
BlackRock, which is 49-percent owned by Merrill Lynch (now part of Bank
of America), announced
it was forming a venture to “acquire and restructure distressed
residential mortgage loans.” Will Paulson see that as a conflict of
interest – or more likely as a credential?
Letting financial firms that have profited from the mortgage crisis
manage the bailout gives the impression that we are permanently in the
grip of Big Money. To Paulson’s way of thinking, that’s not a problem,
but it could make a bad plan much worse.
As the Federal Reserve and
Treasury Department careen from one financial meltdown to another,
desperately trying to hold together the financial system -- and with
it, the U.S. and global economy -- there are few voices denying that
Wall Street has suffered from "excesses" over the past several years.
The current crisis is the culmination of a quarter century's
deregulation. Even as the Fed and Treasury scramble to contain the
damage, there must be a simultaneous effort to reconstruct a regulatory
system to prevent future disasters.
There is more urgency to such an effort than immediately apparent. If
the Fed and Treasury succeed in controlling the situation and avoiding
a collapse of the global financial system, then it is a near certainty
that Big Finance -- albeit a financial sector that will look very
different than it appeared a year ago -- will rally itself to oppose
new regulatory standards. And the longer the lag between the end (or
tailing off) of the financial crisis and the imposition of new
legislative and regulatory rules, the harder it will be to impose
meaningful rules on the financial titans.
hyper-complexity of the existing financial system makes it hard to get
a handle on how to reform the financial sector. (And, by the way,
beware of generic calls for "reform" -- for Wall Street itself taken up
this banner over the past couple years. For the financial mavens,
"reform" still means removing the few regulatory and legal requirements they currently face.)
But the complexity of the system also itself suggests the most
important reform efforts: require better disclosure about what's going
on, make it harder to engage in complicated transactions, prohibit some
financial innovations altogether, and require that financial
institutions properly fulfill their core responsibilities of providing
credit to individuals and communities.
(For more detailed discussion of these issues -- all in plain, easy-to-understand language, see these comments from Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO, The American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, author of the The Squandering of America and Obama's Challenge, and Richard Bookstaber, author of A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation.)
Here are a dozen steps to restrain and redirect Wall Street and Big Finance:
1. Expand the scope of financial regulation. Investment banks and hedge
funds have been able to escape the minimal regulatory standards imposed
on other financial institutions. Especially with the government safety
net -- including access to Federal Reserve funds -- extended beyond the
traditional banking sector, this regulatory black hole must be
2. Impose much more robust standards for disclosure and transparency.
Hedge funds, investment banks and the off-the-books affiliates of
traditional banks have engaged in complicated and intertwined
transactions, such that no one can track who owes what, to whom.
Without this transparency, it is impossible to understand what is going
on, and where intervention is necessary before things spin out of
3. Prohibit off-the-books transactions. What's the purpose of
accounting standards, or banking controls, if you can evade them by
simply by creating off-the-books entities?
4. Impose regulatory standards to limit the use of leverage (borrowed
money) in investments. High flyers like leveraged investments because
they offer the possibility of very high returns. But they also enable
extremely risky investments -- since they can vastly exceed an
investor's actual assets -- that can threaten not just the investor
but, if replicated sufficiently, the entire financial system.
5. Prohibit entire categories of exotic new financial instruments.
So-called financial "innovation" has vastly outstripped the ability of
regulators or even market participants to track what is going on, let
alone control it. Internal company controls routinely fail to take into
account the possibility of overall system failure -- i.e., that other
firms will suffer the same worst case scenario -- and thus do not
recognize the extent of the risks inherent in new instruments.
6. Subject commodities trading to much more extensive regulation.
Commodities trading has become progressively deregulated. As
speculators have flooded into the commodities markets, the trading
markets have become increasingly divorced from the movement of actual
commodities, and from their proper role in helping farmers and other
commodities producers hedge against future price fluctuations.
7. Tax rules should be changed so as to remove the benefits to
corporate reliance on debt. "Payments on corporate debt are tax
deductible, whereas payments to equity are not," explains Damon Silvers
of the AFL-CIO. "This means that, once you take the tax effect into
account, any given company can support much more debt than it can
equity." This tax arrangement has fueled the growth of private equity
firms that rely on borrowed money to buy corporations. Many are now
8. Impose a financial transactions tax.
A small financial transactions tax would curb the turbulence in the
markets, and, generally, slow things down. It would give real-economy
businesses more space to operate without worrying about how today's
decisions will affect their stock price tomorrow, or the next hour. And
it would be a steeply progressive tax that could raise substantial sums
for useful public purposes.
9. Impose restraints on executive and top-level compensation. The top
pay for financial impresarios is more than obscene. Executive pay and
bonus schedules tied to short-term performance played an important role in driving the worst abuses on Wall Street.
10. Revive competition policy. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act,
separating traditional banks from investment banks, was the culmination
of a progressive deregulation of the banking sector. In the current
environment, banks are gobbling up the investment banks. But this
arrangement is paving the way for future problems. When the investment
banks return to high-risk activity at scale (and over time they will,
unless prohibited by regulators), they will directly endanger the banks
of which they are a part. Meanwhile, further financial conglomeration
worsens the "too big to fail" problem -- with the possible failure of
the largest institutions viewed as too dangerous to the financial
system to be tolerated -- that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson cannot
now avoid despite his best efforts. In this time of crisis, it may not
be obvious how to respect and extend competition principles. But it is
a safe bet that concentration and conglomeration will pose new problems
in the future.
11. Adopt a financial consumer protection agenda that cracks down on abusive lending practices.
Macroeconomic conditions made banks interested in predatory subprime
loans, but it was regulatory failures that permitted them to occur. And
it's not just mortgage and home equity loans. Credit card and student
loan companies have engaged in very similar practices -- pushing
unsustainable debt on unreasonable terms, with crushing effect on
individuals, and ticking timebomb effects on lenders.
12. Support governmental, nonprofit, and community institutions to
provide basic financial services. The effective governmental takeover
of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and AIG means the U.S. government is going
to have a massive, direct stake in the global financial system for some
time to come. What needs to be emphasized as a policy measure, though,
is a back-to-basics approach. There is a role for the government in
helping families get mortgages on reasonable terms, and it should make
sure Fannie and Freddie, and other agencies, serve this function.
Government student loan services offer a much better deal than private
lender alternatives. Credit unions can deliver the basic banking
services that people need, but they need back-up institutional support
to spread and flourish.
What is needed, in short, is to reverse the financial deregulatory wave
of the last quarter century. As Big Finance mutated and escaped from
the modest public controls to which it had been subjected, it demanded
that the economy serve the financial sector. Now it's time to make sure
the equation is reversed.
When you go to the Securities and Exchange Commission website these days, the first thing you see is an animation that looks like something out of The Matrix films or the TV show Numb3rs.
It seems the agency’s accountants and lawyers are trying to look cool
as they move toward the creation of a new system for distributing
public-company financial information on the web.
Recently SEC Chairman Christopher Cox (photo) unveiled
Interactive Data Electronic Applications (IDEA, for short), the
successor to the EDGAR system that corporate researchers have relied on
since the mid-1990s for easy access to 10-Ks, proxy statements and the
like. The big selling point of IDEA is tagging. Companies (and mutual
funds) will be required to prepare their filings so that key pieces of
information are electronically labeled—using a system called XBRL—and
thus can be easily retrieved and compared to corresponding data from
other companies. The first interactive filings are expected to be
available through IDEA late this year. EDGAR will stick around
indefinitely as an archive for pre-interactive filings.
“With IDEA,” the SEC press release
gushes, “investors will be able to instantly collate information from
thousands of companies and forms, and create reports and analysis on
the fly, in any way they choose.”
I just finished watching the webcast
of Cox’s press conference earlier this week and came away with mixed
feelings about IDEA. In one respect, it will be great to be able to
readily extract specific nuggets of information. My concern is the
emphasis being placed on disclosure as simply a collection of pieces of
data. This may serve the needs of financial analysts and investors, but
as a corporate researcher, I find that some of the most valuable
portions of SEC filings are narratives rather than
numbers—for example, the descriptions of a company’s operations, its
competitive position and its legal problems that appear in 10-Ks.
As Cox finally mentioned about an hour into the press conference,
tagging can be applied to text as well as numbers. Yet I can’t help
worry that the direction the SEC is going in will tend to reduce
narratives to bite-size portions that serve to diminish the full scope
of disclosure. It was not comforting to hear William Lutz, the outside
academic who is advising the SEC on a complete overhaul
of its entire disclosure system, suggest during the press conference
that the forms (10-K, 10-Q, etc.) companies are currently required to
file will be phased out. Perhaps it was unintentional, but the
impression Lutz and Cox gave is that future disclosure will be mainly
This shift in focus from text to numbers would, I believe, increase
the risk that company reporting on social and environmental matters,
already inadequate, will be scaled back. That may not mean much for
short-sighted investors, but it would be a major setback for corporate
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
have been referred to as the “People’s Games,” the “High Tech Games”
and the “Green Games,” but they could be more aptly described as the
Commercialism is overrunning the Olympics. It is undermining the
professed ideals of the Olympic Games, and subverting the Olympics'
veneration of sport with omnipresent commercial messaging and branding.
The Olympics have auctioned off virtually every aspect of the Games to
the highest bidder. In addition to multimillion-dollar sponsorship
deals between the International Olympic Committee and international
companies, smaller firms are paying for designations from “official
home and industrial flooring supplier” to the “frozen dumplings
exclusive supplier” of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Corporate sponsors are showering money on each tier of the Olympic
organizational committees: the International Olympic Committee, the
Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) and the
International Federations governing each individual sport, to each
country’s National Organizing Committees. Corporations are sponsoring
many Olympic teams and national governing bodies for particular sports
-- including virtually every national governing body in the United
States -- and individual athletes themselves.
To its credit, the Olympics do prohibit advertising in sports stadia or
other venues. The Olympics also prohibit advertisements on uniforms
(other than uniform maker logos).
Everywhere else, Olympic spectators, viewers and athletes, and the
citizens of Beijing should expect to be overwhelmed with
A record 63 companies have become sponsors or partners of the Beijing
Olympics, and Olympics-related advertising in China alone could reach
$4 billion to $6 billion this year, according to CSM, a Beijing
marketing research firm.
The Olympic Partners (TOP) program,
run and managed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since
1985, includes 12 companies for the Beijing Olympics. These 12
companies -- among them, Coca-Cola, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Lenovo,
Panasonic and Visa -- have paid $866 million to the International
The U.S. Olympic system is awash in corporate sponsor money. Well over
100 corporations are sponsoring the U.S. Olympic Committee or U.S.
Besides celebrating sport, there is an official ideology of the Olympics, called "Olympism." It aims to promote a pure blend of sport, culture and education.
Sports, of course, remain at the center of the Olympics, but
commercialism has overwhelmed whatever other values the Olympics hope
to embody. The overwhelming cultural influence at the Olympics is now
commercial culture; and the overwhelming informational message is: buy,
Commercial relations interfere with proper functioning of the Olympics.
In at least one notable case, commercial entanglements have called into
question the integrity of a national sports governing body. A lawsuit
and accusations around the activities of USA Swimming and the national
team coach -- both sponsored by swimwear maker Speedo -- charge Speedo,
the national team and the coach with antitrust violations. The lawsuit,
filed by Tyr, a Speedo competitor, alleges the coach has trumpeted the
benefits of LZR Racer, a new, high-profile Speedo suit, because of his
financial ties to the company. Tyr says its Tracer Rise swimsuit,
introduced weeks before the LZR Racer, is comparable to the Speedo
The Olympic race for corporate sponsors has also put the Olympics in unhealthy -- and sometimes quite unpleasant -- company.
+ The International Olympic Committee will not partner with hard liquor
companies, but the IOC tolerates sponsorships by beer and wine
companies. Anheuser-Busch says it is a sponsor of 25 national Olympic
Committees, including those of China, Japan, Great Britain and the
United States. A tequila maker, Jose Cuervo, is a sponsor of the U.S.
+ Notwithstanding the fundamental principles of "Olympism," which
celebrate healthful living, two of the 12 Olympic TOP sponsors run
businesses centered around the sales of unhealthy food: Coca-Cola and
McDonald's. Snickers, the candy bar made by Mars, is an official BOCOG
supplier. Hershey's is a sponsor of the USOC. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of
FIFA, the international soccer federation. McDonald's and Sprite are
sponsors of USA Basketball. McDonald's and Sierra Mist are sponsors of
the U.S. Soccer Federation. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of USA Softball.
Hershey's is a sponsor of USA Track & Field.
+ Many of the sports apparel and equipment makers partnered with the Olympics and official Olympic bodies -- among them Adidas, Nike and Speedo -- source their products from sweatshop factories. In a very disturbing development just before the start of the Olympics, Adidas reportedly announced it was transferring large amounts of its production out of China because wages set by the government were "too high" (!).
+ At least two major Olympic partners, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Sinopec, have been linked to gross human rights violations in Sudan. Both companies are sponsors of the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games.
There is no doubt that the horse is out of the barn on Olympic
sponsorships, and the world is unlikely to see a commercial-free Games
Nonetheless, the most egregious problems with the Olympics' pervasive sponsorship arrangements can and should be addressed.
The IOC, National Olympic Committees, and international and national
sports governing bodies can and should scale back the number of
They can and should develop safeguards to ensure apparel and equipment
sponsorships do not compromise sports governing bodies' decisions.
Coaches of national teams should be prohibited from serving as paid
spokespeople or consultants for apparel and equipment makers.
They can and should refuse to accept sponsorships from any alcohol
company, including beer and wine companies. This recommendation does
not reflect a prohibitionist impulse. It merely extends the insight in
the present IOC ban on hard liquor sponsorships: promoting more alcohol
consumption is unhealthful, and inappropriate for an event with
enormous appeal to children.
They can and should end partnerships and sponsorship arrangements with
junk food, soda and fast food companies. These companies' operations
are incompatible with Olympic ideals of promoting fitness and healthful
living, and the companies use the association with the Olympics to
remove some of the tarnish of their unhealthy products.
They can and should insist that official, sponsoring apparel and
equipment makers disclose where their products are manufactured, and
ensure that their products are manufactured in a fashion that respects
core labor standards.
They can and should refuse to enter into sponsorship arrangements with
companies connected to gross human rights abuses. This is a simple
ethical standard, and one required by the Olympic commitment to
demonstrate "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
Will the IOC and other committees move in these directions? They
refused to respond to repeated requests for comment. It may be,
however, that it will be the corporate sector driving reduced
commercialization of the Olympics. The opportunity to project a
high-profile in China's fast-growing market has made the Beijing
Olympics uniquely attractive; but already leading sponsors
have indicated they do not intend to continue paying for the right to
besiege the planet with Olympics-related marketing in connection with
The recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to slash the damage
award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and the indictment of Sen. Ted
Stevens on corruption charges are not the only controversies roiling
Alaska these days. The Last Frontier is also witnessing a dispute over
a proposal to open a giant copper and gold mine by Bristol Bay, the
headwaters of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Given
the popularity of salmon among the health-conscious, even non-Alaskans
may want to pay attention to the issue.
The Pebble mine project
has been developed by Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Ltd., but the
real work would be carried out by its joint venture partner Anglo
American PLC, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Concerned
about the project and unfamiliar with Anglo American, two Alaska
organizations—the Renewable Resources Coalition
and Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of the Land)—commissioned a
background report on the company, which has just been released and is
available for download on a website called Eye on Pebble Mine (or at this direct PDF link). I wrote the report as a freelance project.
Anglo American—which is best known as the company that long
dominated gold mining in apartheid South Africa as well as diamond
mining/marketing through its affiliate DeBeers—has assured Alaskans it
will take care to protect the environment and otherwise act responsibly
in the course of constructing and operating the Pebble mine. The
purpose of the report is to put that promise in the context of the
company’s track record in mining operations elsewhere in the world.
The report concludes that Alaskans have reason to be concerned about
Anglo American. Reviewing the company’s own worldwide operations and
those of its spinoff AngloGold in the sectors most relevant to the
Pebble project—gold, base metals and platinum—the report finds a
troubling series of problems in three areas: adverse environmental
impacts, allegations of human rights abuses and a high level of
workplace accidents and fatalities.
The environmental problems include numerous spills and accidental
discharges at Anglo American’s platinum operations in South Africa and
AngloGold’s mines in Ghana. Waterway degradation occurred at Anglo
American’s Lisheen lead and zinc mine in Ireland, while children living
near the company’s Black Mountain zinc/lead/copper mine in South Africa
were found to be struggling in school because of elevated levels of
lead in their blood.
The main human rights controversies have taken place in Ghana, where
subsistence farmers have been displaced by AngloGold’s operations and
have not been given new land, and in the Limpopo area of South Africa,
where villagers were similarly displaced by Anglo American’s platinum
High levels of fatalities in the mines of Anglo American and
AngloGold—more than 200 in the last five years—have become a major
scandal in South Africa, where miners staged a national strike over the
issue late last year.
Overall, the report finds that Anglo American’s claims of social
responsibility appear to be more rhetoric than reality. Salmon eaters
Big business is talking more these days about the need to reduce
greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Even long-time global warming denier
Exxon Mobil feels the need to publicize
what it is doing in this regard. Claims of reductions in GHG are not,
however, meaningful unless those emissions are being estimated
consistently to begin with.
A study issued yesterday by the Ethical Corporation Institute raises
questions about how much we really know about the volume of GHG being
generated by large corporations. According to a press release about the report
(which is available only to those willing to fork over more than 1,000
euros), there are “staggering inconsistencies in how companies
calculate and verify their greenhouse gas emissions.” The report found,
for instance, that companies responding to the fifth annual Carbon Disclosure Project
questionnaire used more than 30 different protocols or guidelines in
preparing their emissions estimates. The report, it appears, surveys
this potpourri of measurement techniques but does not attempt to
resolve the differences.
The absence of consistency has not prevented the Carbon Disclosure
Project from trying to use current reporting to understand the larger
framework of GHG trends. In May, the Project issued the first results of its Supply Chain Leadership Collaboration,
an initiative in which large companies such as Nestlé, Procter &
Gamble and Unilever urge their suppliers to report on their own carbon
footprint. It is unclear how much effort is made to ensure these
results are reported in a uniform manner.
Along with the need for improved GHG reporting, there are growing calls for companies to disclose the liability risks
(and opportunities, if any) associated with those emissions. Recently,
a broad coalition of institutional investors and major environmental
groups once again urged
the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to clarify the obligations
of publicly traded companies to assess and fully disclose the legal and
financial consequences of climate change. The statement was aimed at
reinforcing a petition filed with the SEC last year on climate-change
Climate-change liability risks no longer exist just in the realm of the theoretical. Lawsuits
have been filed against the major oil companies for conspiring to
deceive the public about climate change—including one brought in the
name of Eskimo villagers in Alaska who are being forced to relocate
their homes because of flooding said to be caused by global warming.
Famed climate scientist James Hansen recently declared
at a Capitol Hill event that oil and coal company executives could be
guilty of “crimes against humanity.” If that isn’t a risk worth
reporting, what is?
Almost twelve years ago, when a group of us started CorpWatch, we did so because it seemed then that a few hundred transnational companies were intent on remaking the earth in their image. As we saw it, the corporate version of globalization undermined community, ecology and democracy. At that moment the Internet had just appeared on the scene, and it seemed to us, and to many others, a vehicle through which to build an alternative – a form of grassroots globalization that fostered human rights and environmental rights, and that helped hold corporations accountable across the globe. Thus CorpWatch was born.
In the ensuing dozen years, the corporate encirclement of the earth has only
grown – as has the grassroots response to it in every corner of the planet.
The Internet has boomed and become on the one hand, more corporatized than we might once have imagined and yet also an increasingly powerful tool for building democratic participation and communication (and I’m very proud that CorpWatch is still part of it). This dual nature of the Internet embodies a fundamental paradox of globalization. While globalization seems to concentrate power in the hands of a few in most every realm it touches, it also increasingly interconnects us, interweaving universal values into a multinational tapestry of cultures and politics.
I see this here in Argentina, where I’ve had the good fortune to live for the past year. As numerous people here will tell you, once, this country was so isolated from the rest of the world that a lot of folks were not aware of the magnitude of the horrors unleashed by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. People knew enough and saw enough and felt enough to be afraid, and tens of thousands felt the direct impact as they or their loved ones were arrested, tortured, “disappeared.” But the truth was hard to come by; there was heavy local censorship, and there was no Internet. People abroad knew more about what was going on in Argentina, than many here did.
Today, the country, like most of the rest of the world, is dialed-in, networked to the hilt, totally online. It seems almost unthinkable that something similar could happen here again. There is a strong consciousness of and commitment to human rights, and an understanding of the connection between what Argentina went through, and similar histories and battles elsewhere in the Latin American region and the world. Argentina pulled itself out of the horrors of dictatorship, and as it has re-evolved as a nation, it has benefited in this way from globalization.
At the same time, the country is suffering many of the attendant ills. I asked my twelve year-old daughter what she had learned about the United States from spending a year outside of the country. Her reply was quick and clear – I’ve learned that the US controls the media in the rest of the world. From the mouths of babes...but after all, she learned to speak Spanish, in part, by watching American sitcoms dubbed into Spanish on the local TV. Meanwhile, although the country has reaped significant economic benefit from its agricultural prowess as a giant in the world soy market – the control of this commodity is increasingly in the hands of a few transnational corporations: Cargill, ADM and others. And the country’s forests are suffering as more and more trees are felled to make room for more and more soybeans. These facts will remain true, no matter the outcome of the current conflict between President Kirchner and the country’s farmers.
Finally, globalization and all its contradictions hits home directly for me here in the Buenos Aires neighborhood I’m living in. Once a zone of automechanics and warehouses, Palermo Viejo is today one of the hippest and most popular destinations in this wonderful city. Now known as Palermo Hollywood, it is a barrio in the midst of a vast transformation. Many of our neighbors have lived here for forty or more years – they are old-school butchers, bakers, antique dealers, bar owners. Yet they are increasingly surrounded by trendy boutiques and fashionable restaurants. Many are being squeezed out by big corporate real estate that has entered the scene and is speculating on a series of high-end apartment towers that will forever change the face of this low-slung old time neighborhood. In the midst of it all are a throng of artists, ex pats, and activists organizing for the soul of the barrio.
Don’t get me wrong; it ain’t all bad. To be honest, all the paradoxes and contradictions of the gentrification of this globalizing hub make it an exciting and wonderful place to live (for the moment). I decided to try and document the intersection – the convergence and contradiction – of these various separate realities-the old and the new of Palermo Viejo. You can check out my photo essay on the subject at http://www.palermobuenosaires.blogspot.com.
Josh Karliner is Founder and a board member of CorpWatch.
Tim Shorrock, a veteran investigative journalist and a longtime subscriber to the Dirt Diggers Digest, has just come out with a book called Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing.
Shorrock describes how an activity that used to be handled by spooks on
the federal payroll has been steadily transformed into a $50 billion
Thanks to the contracting scandals surrounding Halliburton and its
former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, the public learned of the
extent to which the Pentagon has turned over routine functions to
private military companies. The outrageous behavior of Blackwater has
highlighted the use of mercenaries to protect U.S. diplomats and other
VIPs in Iraq.
Shorrock shines a light on another group of corporations that are
carrying out a more sensitive function that most people have no idea is
being handed over to the private sector. Careful readers of the
revelations concerning abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq
would have learned that interrogators alleged to have abused detainees
included civilians employed by a company called CACI. But that is only
the tip of a lucrative iceberg, Shorrock shows.
For example, he writes, more than half the people working at the
super-secret National Counterterrorism Center in Virginia are employees
of companies such as Science Applications International Corporation
(SAIC), BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin. The Center’s terrorist
database is maintained by The Analysis Corporation, which subcontracted collection activities to CACI.
Since 9/11, Shorrock says, the Central Intelligence Agency has been
spending 50-60 percent of its budget (or about $2.5 billion a year) on
contractors—both individuals and companies. At the CIA and its sister
spook agencies: “Tasks that are now outsourced include running spy
networks out of embassies, intelligence analysis, signals intelligence
(SIGINT) collection, covert operations, and the interrogation of enemy
Shorrock devotes an entire chapter to Booz Allen Hamilton, known to
most people as a management consultant for large corporations but which
pioneered the intelligence outsourcing industry (though it recently
agreed to sell its federal business to the Carlyle Group). When Mike
McConnell, a former Booz Allen executive, was named by President Bush
as Director of National Intelligence, it was the first time, Shorrock
notes, that a contractor was put in charge of the country’s entire spy
Spies for Hire has much more to offer that cannot be
adequately summarized here. I recommend that you read it in full. But
let me let also note that profiles of some of the intelligence
contractors discussed by Shorrock—such as CACI and ManTech International—can be found on the Crocodyl wiki to which I contribute. Also note that the updated edition of Jeremy Scahill’s valuable book Blackwater,
recently issued in paperback, has a discussion (p.453 forward) on the
mercenary company’s move into another form of privatized intelligence—a
product called Total Intelligence Solutions that is designed to bring
“CIA-style” services to Fortune 500 companies.
The U.S. Department of National Intelligence (the body that oversees spy agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency) recently decided it wanted to know what Iranian students were taught in school these days.
Most people might have considered the obvious: pick up the phone and ask an Iranian student or perhaps their parents, who have already had to spend many days and probably nights reading the books.
But fortunately for the DNI, such a treasonous act was not necessary.
Instead they hired SAIC, a major CIA and NSA contractor, to do the job. On December 31st, 2007, the company published the results: a 17 page report on 85 Iranian textbooks that the company downloaded off the Internet from the Iranian government's website. The final report was not made public, but Secrecy News, an excellent electronic newsletter written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists, obtained a copy.
The textbooks that are used in Iranian schools "reveal a clear emphasis on Islam, as it has been interpreted by the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran," is one of "the most important conclusions" of the study and they "provide a distorted view of Shia Islam as the only true path in Islam, and among religions."
Beyond this shocking headline, SAIC can also reveal that the Iranian government may be censoring detailed news of discrimination: While page 74-77 of the sociology textbook for the third year of high school makes reference to discrimination, there are no specific cases of discrimination in Iran mentioned, according to the company's analysts.
The CIA will be delighted to learn that, in accordance with popular belief, the textbooks do spread hate against the U.S. Page 64 of the Islamic Teaching textbook for the fifth grade contains a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini that reads: "The Muslims must use the power of the Islamic Republic of Iran for crushing the teeth of this oppressive government [the USA] in its mouth."
Although SAIC says it studied Iranian mathematics and chemistry textbooks, the geeks at the NSA will be disappointed that they contained no smoking guns or secret equations.
The question CorpWatch wants to know - how much did the government pay for this study? For any of our readers out there with access to the spy budget, here's a clue: it is contract number: 2003*N443600*022
Kalitta first entered the freight business in 1967 when he started ferrying car parts in a Cessna 310. In November 2000, Kalitta Air, started running domestic and international scheduled or on-demand cargo service and support for the Pentagon’s Air Mobility Command based at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
On Sunday, a 25 year old Boeing 747 Kalitta jet, N704CK, crashed on take-off from Brussels airport. The specific plane is one of four of the company’s 747-200F’s and it regularly flies on Kalitta’s European cargo service to New York and Chicago, according to the company’s web schedule.
The plane broke in half and Belgian firefighters, who rushed to the scene, coated the wings of the plane with special fire retardant foam as a precaution because the plane was still full of jet fuel. The five people on board were slightly injured although none were killed. The plane was carrying 76 tonnes of cargo, half of which Belgian media reported to be mail. Details of the remaining cargo were not revealed.
Back in the U.S., the Wilmington News-Journal reported that the company planes were awaiting Monday’s commemoration ceremonies. “Along Delaware 1 near a busy Dover Air Force Base, travelers could catch glimpses in the distance of the original reason for Memorial Day. White, corporate-size jets owned by Kalitta Air waited in the sun to ferry home fallen troops whose final journey passes through the large military mortuary at Dover.”
(The company also leased one of its 747s to a Columbia Pictures film named “Air Force One,” a 1997 suspense thriller about the hijacking of the U.S. president's plane. The film starred Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Glenn Close.)
Last week, a Congressional committee properly raked Big Pharma over the coals for misleading advertising of pharmaceuticals.
A hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight subcommittee focused on advertising campaigns for three drugs, including the remarkable case of Robert Jarvik. Jarvik is featured in endlessly re-run ads for Pfizer's blockbuster cholesterol drug Lipitor. Known as the inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart, he is not a cardiologist, not a licensed medical doctor and not authorized to prescribe pharmaceuticals. He's shown in the ads engaged in vigorous rowing activity, but in fact he doesn't row. Pfizer pulled the ads in February after controversy started brewing.
Among industrialized countries, only the United States and New Zealand permit drug companies to market directly to consumers. It's a bad idea, it drives bad medicine, and it should be banned.
But although it has the highest profile, direct-to-consumer advertising is a small part of Pharma's marketing machine.
Researchers Marc-André Gagnon and Joel Lexchin conclude in a recent issue of the journal PLOS Medicine that direct-to-consumer ads make up less than a tenth of industry marketing expenditures ($4 billion of $57.5 billion in 2004). And Gagnon and Lexchin's estimate of $57.5 billion on marketing excludes many industry expenditures that are really driven by marketing, including clinical trials conducted for marketing purposes.
The bulk of the industry marketing effort -- more than 70 percent by Gagnon and Lexchin's calculation -- is directed at doctors.
Because it works.
The companies spend huge amounts paying firms that carefully track what doctors prescribe, and then they use the information to tailor messages to doctors, distribute samples and develop continuing medical education programs.
Gagnon and Lexchin report that Pharma spends more than $20 billion a year on "detailers" -- the pharma reps that knock on doctor doors, ply the staff with free coffee and lunches, distribute samples ($16 billion worth), and prod docs to prescribe their drugs.
This is complemented by a host of tactics that in other circumstances might be called bribes.
Petersen says she "had no idea this was so extensive until one day I was writing a story about Celebrex and Vioxx -- this was before Vioxx was taken off the market. The story was about the marketing battle between these two pain drugs. I called one of the large societies of rheumatologists and asked for an expert on arthritis. I specifically said I needed an expert who was not being paid as a consultant to one of the manufacturers of these drugs. A staff person said, 'We have lots of people you can talk to, but all of these doctors are consultants to one or both of the drug companies.'"
Drug companies hire doctors to give lectures, and they hire other doctors as "consultants" to go to fancy dinners and listen to the lectures. "There are more than 500,000 of these dinners or events in America every year," Petersen says.
The drug companies weave these diverse strategems into an elaborate tapestry -- not infrequently to push drugs for inappropriate purposes. One eye-opening case that Petersen details in Our Daily Meds concerns Neurontin, a mediocre drug for epilepsy that Warner-Lambert illegally peddled as an unapproved treatment for bipolar disorder, migraines, attention deficit disorder in children and other conditions. The drug does not work for most of these conditions. Many persons were injured by taking excessive doses of Neurontin, and many others wasted money and emotional energy on hopeless Neurontin treatment strategies. Warner-Lambert ultimately paid $430 million to settle criminal and civil charges related to Neurontin marketing, but Petersen says that, even so, the illegal marketing scheme was clearly profitable for Warner-Lambert (and Pfizer, which acquired Warner-Lambert in 2000).
Petersen's account of the Neurontin nightmare draws heavily on a whistleblower, David Franklin. She summarizes the central theme of the story Franklin revealed: "The company got doctors to prescribe the drug for all these experimental uses by paying them. They paid physicians to give speeches to other physicians at restaurants or hotels or resorts. The doctors not only enjoyed a nice meal or a weekend vacation, they often also received a $500 check for attending. The physicians giving lectures at these parties were often trained by the drug company’s ad firm to describe how Neurontin could work for conditions like bipolar. … The company tracked the doctors’ prescriptions before and after these dinners or weekend retreats. The executives saw how well it worked."
Which raises an interesting question: How is that industry can so effectively manipulate highly trained doctors?
Answers Adriane Fugh-Berman, a doctor and Georgetown University professor who runs PharmedOut, a project that focuses on how pharmaceutical companies influence prescribing decisions and encourages physicians to educate themselves from non-industry sources: "Physicians are trained in medicine, not psychological manipulation. Every bit of flattery, friendship and information offered by reps is aimed at selling drugs."
In the meantime, a ban on Pharma gifts to doctors would be a modest step forward. In the United States, notes Petersen, "radio disc jockeys can’t take cash from music companies. But when it comes to something like medicines -- which mean life or death for people -- doctors can take as much money as they want from the drug companies. We need a law to stop that."
Note: Rob Weissman serve as managing director for Commercial Alert, which advocates for elimination of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising.
Wal-Mart Stores has put out a press release
patting itself on the back for promising the equivalent of about
$430,000 for disaster relief and reconstruction for the area of China
hit by a massive earthquake this week. The gesture was laudable but the
amount was less than impressive.
After all, the giant retailer would be nowhere today without the
countless Chinese workers who toil in sweatshops so that American
consumers can be offered the cheap goods that are at the core of the
company’s business model. Last year those largely Chinese-made goods
brought Wal-Mart profits of $12.7 billion, or about $1.4 million every
hour of every day. The $430,000 contribution thus represents less than
20 minutes of profit.
Wal-Mart also profits from Chinese consumers. The company operates more than 200 stores in
China (through joint ventures and minority-owned subsidiaries), several
of which have been shut down because of the tremblor. Wal-Mart was so
eager to operate stores in China that it agreed to let its employees
there be represented by unions (though of the government-dominated
Wal-Mart has a history
of using relatively inexpensive amounts of disaster relief to boost its
reputation. After Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005,
Wal-Mart maneuvered to get maximum exposure for its prompt delivery
of relief supplies. A fairly routine operation for a company possessing
the most advanced logistics infrastructure was seen as nearly
miraculous, given the ineptitude of federal and state public officials.
The company made an initial faux pas (quickly reversed) in
announcing that employees at its stores shut down by the storm would be
paid for only three days.
It also started out offering a measly $2 million in relief but soon
overcame its parsimonious instincts and upped the figure by $15 million, thereby winning wide praise. The wave of favorable coverage went on for several months, thanks at least in part to the efforts of
its army of p.r. operatives from Edelman and a conservative blogger who
was paid to tout Wal-Mart’s hurricane work in the blogosphere.
Wal-Mart may have to part with more than $430,000 to get a similar public relations bonanza from China’s suffering.
BE&K is no stranger to KBR: indeed BE&K was sub-contracted to build a temporary tent
city after Hurricane Katrina to house 7,000 military personnel and
others assisting in the disaster response. Both KBR and
BE&K came under scrutiny for firing dozens
of unionized electricians, many of them local residents who had their
homes destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, in favor of lower-wage
CorpWatch attended KBR's annual meeting today at the Houstonian
hotel and met with William Utt, the company CEO, to ask him about the
company's policy on the exploitation of migrant workers, particularly
in Iraq, where the many sub-contractors employ at least 35,000 Third
Country Nationals (largely from South and South East
Indeed these are the people who are
responsible for KBR's boast that it has
"served over 500 million meals, delivered 272 million pounds of
mail, produced more than 7.5 billion gallons of potable water,
transported more than 3.5 billion gallons of fuel, hosted more than 87
million patrons at MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) facilities,
logged nearly 3.7 million miles transporting supplies and equipment
for the military, and laundered 32 million bundles of laundry for the
troops." And this work is set to continue far into the
future - KBR has just been awarded a big chunk of the mammoth new $150
billion troop support contract in Iraq.
Utt told CorpWatch that his
company followed the Federal Acquisition
Regulations and paid their staff "world-scale wages". When we
noted to the assembled shareholders and the board of director that
these wages were as low as $9 a day for cleaners and $20 a day for
short-order cooks at the dining facilities we visited in April 2008,
and that many of these workers paid as much as $4,000 to get these
jobs in the first place, he acknowledged that he was aware of the
But our question still remains, what are
companies like KBR and BE&K going to actually do about their
workers wages other than react and investigate?
We invite Utt and Nash to learn more about the
labor conditions of workers in Iraq by reading some of our coverage of
this matter on the last few years. Our trip to Iraq in April 2008
suggests that very little has changed for the men and women who cook
the food and clean the toilets for the U.S, soldiers living in Iraq on
contract to KBR, its competitors, and their
I was one of a group including a translator, Marwan Mawiri, who worked for
a year and ½ for Titan, now an L-3 subsidiary, in
Iraq. Marwan has witnessed first-hand numerous problems with the way
interrogation and translation contracting is being handled in Iraq – a
practice that may be putting at substantial risk the national security and
lives of the Iraqi people, of U.S. and multinational troops, officials
and contractors, and of the United States itself.
The problem is clear: inadequate and downright bad vetting and hiring practices for analysts, interrogators and linguists. Indeed, the U.S. military has recently cancelled Titan’s translation contract due to poor practices along with waste, fraud and abuse.
What is also crystal clear is that the war in Iraq can neither be won,
effectively prosecuted, nor competently withdrawn from until these
problems are solved and until proper oversight is in place.
If people hired to translate in critical battlefield and other situations
are not even fluent in at least Arabic and English; if screeners
monitoring the entry and exit of people to U.S. military bases at times
have no more qualification and training than having been a baggage
screener at a U.S. airline (see CorpWatch’s new report [note: updated December 2008] "Outsourcing Intelligence in Iraq":); if
interrogators are not qualified, experienced and trained to the highest
standards possible, how can we ensure that we avoid future travesties due
to bad intelligence? Such as the bad intelligence around the supposed
Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program (which was, of course, Bush/Cheney and neocon-driven, not L-3-driven), that got the U.S. into this war
in the first place? (And remember, even when U.S. soldiers start coming
home from Iraq, large numbers of private contractors will stay, making proper
oversight all the more crucial.)
It turned out that L-3’s management wasn’t so happy to see us, and that my co-worker, Pratap Chatterjee and I, were supposed to have received a
certain admission ticket to attend the meeting. The same went for our companions from the Iraq Campaign 2008 – a major coalition to oppose the war, which is now taking on private military contractors as part of their broader campaign on the high cost U.S. taxpayers are paying for the war in Iraq – and Foreign Policy in Focus, who were holding proxies. Funny that.
Looking out at the Statue of Liberty from the hotel lobby downstairs, where we gathered to figure out how to proceed, I pondered the damage this
war has done to the liberties of so many Iraqi people, and to so many
U.S. liberties and values that I hold dear. Like respect for human
rights, compliance with the Geneva Conventions around torture, appropriate
security that is handled with skill and integrity. I wasn’t surprised that
L-3/Titan didn’t want to hear our message; though I sincerely hope some of the shareholders, managers, directors, staff and financial analysts do
take the time to read our report and to talk to current and former contractors like Marwan. We didn’t go in malice.
We went in genuine concern over business operations that, while they may
be earning a pretty profit for large shareholders, pose a genuine
reputational risk to the company for future liability. And are causing harm on the ground, to real people. We challenge L-3 Communications
to become a truly ethical leader in business
practices, not just in products and sales. Surely the sixth-largest U.S. defense industry company (according to their website) has the intelligence to recognize bad
practices and the ability to change them for the better.
Or are we simply destined for years more, as Huffington Post blogger
Charlie Cray put it, of companies and investors milking a “Baghdad Bubble
as a result of the Bush administration's refusal to hold them accountable”?
As the meeting ended, and the muckety-mucks began leaving the Ritz-Carlton
to be chauffered away in their Lincoln Town cars and limousines, we gave
these decision makers another opportunity to take a copy of CorpWatch’s
report, or even to talk to us directly. The vast majority kept their
blinders on and marched resolutely past.
Suddenly we saw General Carl Vuono
(ret.). Vuono is former chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and long-time president of private military
consulting firm MPRI, which is now
also an L-3 subsidiary. Pratap and Marwan rushed to try and speak with him, while a reporter and cameraman from Al-Jazeera English filmed and stood at the ready for the general’s reply. The general didn’t want to
talk, but you can see some of the footage on YouTube. You can also watch Pratap and Marwan describe their experiences on Democracy Now!, where they were interviewed live this morning.
Pratap gave the general a copy of “Outsourcing Intelligence In Iraq” – maybe
he’ll decide to have one of his staffers give it a read. We’d love to
talk, and welcome any dialogue with officials of L-3.
There’s something peculiar in the report on
financial market regulation issued March 31 by Treasury Secretary Henry
Paulson. The plan, touted by some as a bold expansion of federal
control over capital markets and dismissed by others as a mere
rearranging of the deck chairs on the financial Titanic, includes an
incongruous section on the insurance industry.
While insurance is a financial service, it hasn’t been at the center
of the implosion of the housing market or (aside from the bond
insurance crisis) linked to the instability on Wall Street. The Paulson
plan, nonetheless, provides a resounding endorsement of a “reform” that
key players in the insurance industry have been seeking for at least 15
years—allowing large national carriers to do an end run around the
current state-based insurance regulatory system. Such carriers would be
permitted to adopt an “optional federal charter” and thereby put
themselves under the supervision of a federal regulatory agency that
does not yet exist.
Big Insurance has not sought federal oversight because it wants more regulation.
After all, this is the industry that pioneered offshoring when some
carriers moved their official headquarters to tax havens such as
Bermuda. While it is true that many state regulators have been
toothless watchdogs, other states have been aggressive in protecting
the interests of policy holders and the public.
In fact, the Paulson proposal comes just a couple of weeks after
insurers were celebrating the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer
in a prostitution scandal. During his time as New York’s attorney
general, Spitzer pursued major insurance companies such as Marsh &
McLennan and American International Group for offenses such as bid
rigging. Marsh ended up settling for $850 million in 2005, and AIG paid
a whopping $1.6 billion the following year. While it is true that
Spitzer went after the industry as a prosecutor rather than a
regulator, he did so in the overall context of state oversight.
The insurance industry swears that it supports the optional federal
charter in the name of modernization (as does the Paulson report), but
it is significant that the reform has been supported by groups such as
the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the American Enterprise Institute that
are no friends of regulation (some Democrats in Congress are also in
favor). When word of Paulson’s insurance proposal leaked out over the
weekend, the American Insurance Association rushed out a press release
hailing it, saying that the optional federal charter “will be more
efficient, effective and rational given the ‘increasing tension’ a
state-based regulatory system creates.”
Throughout its history, the insurance industry has avoided “tension”
by trying to minimize government interference in its affairs. In 1945
the industry supported the McCarran-Ferguson Act, which responded to a
Supreme Court ruling by affirming the regulatory role of the states. In
recent times, the industry has wanted the option of federal oversight
on the assumption that it would be less onerous. I’ll let the legal
scholars decide whether state or federal regulation is inherently more
appropriate. The issue is whether an industry not known for generous
treatment of its customers (think of Katrina victims denied coverage)
is going to be subjected to some strict oversight somewhere.
My hunch from last night was correct: Stanley Inc.
(also known by the name of its subsidiary Stanley Associates) is one of
the employers of contract workers who improperly viewed the passport
file of Sen. Barack Obama. It now seems that the files of Senators
McCain and Clinton were violated as well, so perhaps the speculation
about political skulduggery is unfounded.
Yet that still leaves a host of questions related to the growing
reliance of the State Department and other federal agencies on
contractors such as Stanley, which until today was far from a household
name. Yet it’s been around for more than three decades, making its
money—like the scores of other Beltway Bandits that populate the office
buildings of the Washington, DC area—from the federal spigot.
Stanley started as a maritime consultant and now provides “information technology services and solutions.” In its most recent 10-K filing,
Stanley reported getting 65% of its revenue from the Pentagon and 35%
from more than three dozen civilian agencies, most notably the State
Stanley used to be a pretty small operator, but over the past decade
it has grown at the remarkable rate of 33% a year, reaching more than
$400 million. Although the company is publicly traded, it is
majority-owned by officers, directors and employees (the latter through
an employee stock ownership plan).
While the passport contract is the one in the news, Stanley is
largely a military contractor. It brags that some 53% of its 2,700
employees have Secret or Top Secret security clearances. CEO Philip
Nolan is ex-Navy, and his board includes retired generals from the Army
and the Marine Corps. Stanley doesn’t produce weapons—it provides the
systems engineering, operational logistics and other services that keep
the high-tech war machine running.
In the 10-K filing, where it is addressing investors rather than the
public, the company is blunt about why it expects continuing growth:
“increased spending on national defense, intelligence and homeland
security” and “increased federal government reliance on outsourcing.”
In other words, its business strategy is fundamentally based on the
continuation of the “War on Terror” and the steady hollowing out of the
The company goes on to list the specific risk factors that might
affect the value of its shares. Here’s one of particular interest (see
Security breaches in sensitive government systems could result in the loss of customers and negative publicity.
Many of the systems we develop, integrate and maintain involve
managing and protecting information involved in intelligence, national
security and other sensitive or classified government functions. A
security breach in one of these systems could cause serious harm to our
business, damage our reputation and prevent us from being eligible for
further work on sensitive or classified systems for federal government
customers. We could incur losses from such a security breach that could
exceed the policy limits under our professional liability insurance
program. Damage to our reputation or limitations on our eligibility for
additional work resulting from a security breach in one of the systems
we develop, install and maintain could materially reduce our revenues.
It will be interesting to see if the passport scandal has this
negative effect, or if the federal government protects Stanley from its
Note: It’s just been reported that another company–Analysis Corporation–is also involved in the passport scandal. More on them later.
You might have heard the story about General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. At a recent closed-door meeting with reporters, the 76-year-old, who’s in charge of product development said he thinks global warming theory is “a total crock of sh*t” and that hybrid cars “make no economic sense.”
As you might expect, the people who cover both the auto industry and the environment went nuts. Mr. Lutz eventually responded to the uproar with a post on GM’s blog site (or at least a 26-year-old administrative assistant posted a response for him).
In the blog, Mr. Lutz called his remarks “an offhand comment.” “But I think that the people making a big deal out of it are missing the real point,” he wrote. “My beliefs are mine and I have a right to them, just as you have a right to yours.”
I don’t think anyone’s questioning Mr. Lutz’s right to have an opinion. I think, instead, when Mr. Lutz was kind enough to treat the world to his unvarnished thoughts, we all had an “Aha!” moment explaining why Toyota is overtaking GM as the world’s largest automaker.
Hybrid vehicles “make no economic sense” to Mr. Lutz, who undoubtedly basks in a bloated bath of cash thanks to his salary ($8 million per year), bonus and perks, but the for rest of us poor schmucks, trying to pony up what will soon be four dollars per gallon at the pump, hybrid cars make a world of economic sense and again, explains why Toyota is eating Mr. Lutz’s lunch.
“Instead of simply assailing me for expressing what I think, they should be looking at the big picture,” Mr. Lutz wrote. “What they should be doing, in earnest, is forming opinions not about me but about GM, and what this company is doing that is — and will continue to be — hugely beneficial to the very causes they so enthusiastically claim to support.”
The Cobalt was – to paraphrase Bob Lutz – a total piece of sh*t. It was cramped, handled poorly; the interior was made of such cheap plastic that I was afraid I’d a) die from off-gas fumes or b) snap off the handle when I went to open the door. The icing on this cake of deficiency was the fact that the little monster sucked down gas like a fleet of overloaded semis. Yet another wonderful product from GM, polluting the atmosphere and making people poor and miserable while it careens toward an early grave in the junkyard. Thanks, Bob.
My favorite – by far – was the Hyundai. It was comfortable, roomy, responsive and got decent gas mileage. The Dodge fell somewhere in between.
Really? GM pays you eight million dollars a year and doesn’t give a sh*t (I hate to keep using this word, but you brought it up, Bob) what you think?
And, really? Everyone’s opinion on global warming is immaterial? Perhaps that’s true. No one’s opinion counts except that of the decider, George W. Bush and he’s decided we need to keep pumping oil and mining coal.
Bob Lutz is a walking embodiment of what’s wrong with America’s industrial policy. He’s got his head so far up his own ass that everything looks like a crock of sh*t to him. Someone find this bozo a gold watch and let’s get on with trying to save ourselves from the internal combustion engine.
For anyone who has private photos on MySpace there is a good chance that their intimate moments are now being laughed at by pimple-faced teenage boys around the world. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, owner of MySpace, neglected to repair a security vulnerability that made 77,000 "MySpaces" into "OurSpaces" in late 2007. Around 500,000 private photos were extracted from the site and uploaded to a popular file sharing website called the Pirate Bay. Over the course of three months MySpace was notified multiple times about the glitch, but it was only fixed after Wired News reported the story in late January.
Well, what if the scheme that troublemakers used to embarrass amateur photographers was used to publish secret material in the public interest (such as evidence of product failures or toxic waste dumping), and then distributed far and wide for free, so that anyone could access it in a manner that the rich and powerful had no way to prevent it?
One recent event has tipped the scales in favor of corporate accountability. A website called WikiLeaks recently released information on an offshore bank named the Julius Baer Group that exposed a scandal involving Cayman Island tax havens, money laundering and tax evasion. WikiLeaks allows whistleblowers to leak documents to the site anonymously, and has a community of editors and users who vet the information and rate the credibility of submissions. Julius Baer Group asked a U.S. court to issue a gag order against WikiLeaks and had their domain name revoked by court order for a short period of time.
Instantly other organizations sprang to the defense of the public interest, the ACLU, EFF and Public Citizen all recognized the need for whistleblower websites, and as a failsafe WikiLeaks had kept multiple mirror sites, so all of their information stayed online. Eventually more people saw the data than if the bank had ignored the matter, so the Julius Baer Group gave up the fight.
Sites like WikiLeaks provide a good venue for otherwise difficult to find information to be made publicly available. This type of information is crucial for holding corporations accountable, and is not always easy to find. If you have information on any corporate malfeasance, and would like to share it anonymously, please visit our corporate malfeasance wiki, Crocodyl.
The news this week is deeply ironic: the main
building of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street will be engraved with the name of Stephen A. Schwarzman, while the periodicals inside may sadly chronicle Eliot Spitzer, the
governor of New York state, as Client Number 9 of a prostitution ring. Both men made their name on Wall Street:
Schwarzman rose from his first job in investment banking at Lehman
Brothers to run the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, that has
allowed him to stash away an estimated $4 billion today, while Spitzer
got corporations from Samsung to investment bankers like Lehman
Brothers to return almost the same amount to the public
The Wall Street financier is now giving $100
million to support a worthy cause that taxpayers cannot afford: a new library to lend books, wireless Internet access
and new rooms for children and teenagers, to attract as many as three
million new users, most of whom are expected to be from low-income
minority groups. It will be financed by the profits that Schwarzman
made at Blackstone by exploiting tax loopholes to cut his tax rate
from 35 percent to 15 percent, costing the U.S. taxpayer tens of millions
Doubtless one of the books
that will be available at the new library will be the play Julius Ceasar, where Mark Anthony is quoted as
saying: "The evil that men do lives after
them; the good is oft interred with their bones." Yet
Schwarzman, like many wealthy people before him, will be able to escape
the curse of history, by buying fame at a public auction.
Spitzer may not escape the curse. The name
"Mr. Clean" may never be applied to him again. But for those
of us that track corporate fraud, who can forget his shining moments?
For example, in 2002 when ten Wall Street
banks from Bear Sterns to UBS Warburg were forced to pay $1.4 billion to settle
charges of "spinning" stock prices to make millions for
wealthy investors? Or in 2003, when his office uncovered how mutual fund brokers allowed select clients
privileges deprived to ordinary customers? Another billion dollars was
paid back to the small investor. How about the $50 million in royalties that his office
discovered that record companies hid from musicians in a
2004 investigation? And let's not forget the
$730 million in fines paid out in 2006 when his office discovered
price-fixing among computer chip manufacturers.
When Spitzer offered his apologies for his
private folly, he asked that the media remember that politics should
not be about individuals but about ideas and the public good. That surely is also the role of
libraries -- ideas and the public good -- not about celebrating the
titans of greed and excess. Perhaps if Wall Street were to pay its
fair share of tax dollars to spend on libraries, then there would be
no need to name the Central Library after one of the men who robbed
the public purse.
Will children who pass through those two stone
lions to enter the library notice that their names are Patience and
Fortitude? Or will they hope that one day they become as rich and
famous as the man after whom the building is named?
I hope that when they look through the shelves
of the New York public library, they will find books and magazines
that remind generations of New Yorkers to come of Eliot Spitzer's
true legacy: of an honest man -- human and fallible no doubt -- who
spoke truth to power.
(And for those on Wall Street who are crowing
about Spitzer's misfortune, shame on
you; your turn may be next to lose your job in
the reckoning over the real scandal on Wall Street: the sub-prime mortgage crisis that threatens to leave many a poor family without a
home of their own.)
The New York Times gave a boost today to Wal-Mart’s effort to raise its coolness quotient. Its account of a new blog
that the giant retailer is allowing some of its merchandise buyers to
produce was filled with references to “candor,” “speak[ing] frankly,”
and “uncensored rambling.” Much is made of the fact that the posters
have made unflattering comments about some of the offerings of
Wal-Mart’s suppliers. Wal-Mart is said to have learned its lesson from
earlier disasters with blogs created in the name of bogus front groups.
This new initiative, the Times assures us, is the real thing.
It is indeed the case that the site allows reader comments that are critical of certain company practices. For example, a posting
by an “associate” named Alex saying he might use spend his federal
economic stimulus check to purchase a TV or a laptop was followed by
comments on how that would do more to help the foreign economies where
such products are made. One person asked: “what happened to the
campaign WalMart used to run advertising its commitment to support
Yet, it appears that the Times was hoodwinked by Wal-Mart.
The appearance of authenticity and candor is just another technique
used by advertising agencies and public relations consultants to win
over skeptical audiences.
As for those critical comments, it’s significant that “Alex” thanked
all those who had corrected a spelling error in his post but had
nothing to say about the company’s sourcing practices. In fact, that
the only real topic covered in the posts apart from product assessments
Those items are posted in the name of Rand Waddoups,
who is no lowly buyer but rather the company’s senior director of
business strategy and sustainability. His part of the blog, at least,
fits in neatly with the company’s dubious campaign to depict itself as
the environmental leader of the corporate world.
As I have previously noted,
Wal-Mart’s green crusade places all the burdens on its suppliers, while
the moves taken by the retailer itself (improving energy efficiency,
etc.) are in fact nothing more than cost-cutting measures that boost
its bottom line. Until Wal-Mart makes some hard choices itself—such as
paying all its workers a living wage—nothing it does in the blogosphere
or elsewhere is going to be very authentic.
Fast food giant McDonald's was just forced to withdraw a controversial program to sponsor report cards in Seminole County, central Florida, in exchange for a Happy Meal coupon on the cover that features an image of Ronald McDonald. (Children with A and B grades, with two or fewer absences or who exhibit good behavior were entitled to pick up a free Happy Meal at their local McDonald's, as long as they presented their report cards. The company paid the $1,600 cost of printing the report cards.)
The promotional campaign by the Illinois-based company was defeated by a small, but feisty, activist coalition named the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood, which is based out of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.
In early December last year, CCFC launched a campaign against McDonald's when outraged parents contacted them. "My daughter worked so hard to get good grades this term and now she believes she is entitled to a prize from McDonald's," Susan Pagan, an Orlando parent, told CCFC. "And now I'm the "bad guy" because I had to explain that our family does not eat at fast food chains. I'm outraged that McDonald's is trying to exploit my daughter's achievement -- and that the Seminole County School Board would help facilitate this exploitation."
It's not the first time that McDonald's has tried to directly influence the eating habits of young children (nor, probably the last, unfortunately). Three years ago the company dropped a national campaign in the UK of providing educational material and teaching assistants to primary schools after a public backlash against the program by groups like McLibel.
Yet perhaps the most devastating blow to McDonald's advertising to school-children was done by documentarian Morgan Spurlock with his film: SuperSize Me (the entire film can be watched for free online at http://freedocumentaries.org/film.php?id=98 ). In the film, Spurlock documents the impact of dining exclusively on McDonald's products for a 30-day time period. The film also explores the fast food industry's corporate influence, including how it encourages poor nutrition for its own profit. (An edited DVD version of the film designed to be integrated into a high school health curriculum is available from Arts Allliance America.)
NB: Full disclosure: This writer is a former fast food food industry employee with almost two years experience working fulltime in the business including stints at Burger King, McDonald's and Pizza Hut which allowed him to finance a diploma course in journalism school.
Many of today's new dot-com corporations, like Facebook and LinkedIn, make money by building "walled gardens" and programs that conduct "data mining" to take advantage of casual users surfing the web who are signing up in their millions for the numerous popular "free" social network sites. (Facebook refuses to reveal its profits but is rumored to be worth $15 billion.)
(A walled garden refers to a media strategy that compels users to one stay on their service. Data mining is the practice of collecting large amounts of personal information on website users by the site itself.)
It is possible that these companies will soon sell their inventions for vast profits in the same way that YouTube and MySpace did, by taking advantage of ordinary people who would probably not pay for their services unless they were completely free. But activists say that the the Web has enormous potential to be a digital commons, if we assert our rights to use it for purposes other than buying and selling.
An activist group named Freespeech.org has put together a video that they are using to promote their "It's Our Web" campaign. The video, which spoofs the Transformers, is pretty entertaining, and manages to fit some complicated ideas about Internet user freedom into an accessible format. The underlying message of the video is a good one: the Internet is a medium that is best if it remains free. Restricting access to information is a taboo among Wikipedians, Slashdotters, bloggers and Gnubies alike because the free flow of information is what has driven the collective production responsible for the Web as we know it.
Philip Mattera is director of The Corporate Research Project,
an affiliate of Good Jobs First. The Project is a non-profit center that assists
community, environmental and labor organizations in researching and
analyzing companies and industries. Philip is also author of The Corporate Research E-Letter, and this blog is a re-posting of the November-December 2007 edition.
Chevron has recently been spending heavily on a public relations campaign titled “the Power of Human Energy” to depict itself as a leader in environmental and social responsibility. This image-burnishing effort faced a setback last month when the company was forced to pay $30 million to settle federal charges that it made illegal kickback payments to prewar Iraq in connection with crude oil purchases under the United Nations Oil-for-Food Program.
Chevron is just one of dozens of corporations that have been caught up in a move by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice to step up enforcement of a law prohibiting overseas bribery by U.S.-based corporations. The law—the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or FCPA—can also be applied to foreign companies with a substantial presence in the United States. There have been reports that electronic and engineering giant Siemens, which recently paid a fine of around $300 million in a global bribery investigation by a German court, may soon be hit with FCPA charges as well.
The rise in FCPA enforcement emerged just as the prosecution of the wave of accounting scandals starting with Enron was winding down. In fact, the limited reforms enacted in response to those scandals—especially the Sarbanes-Oxley Act—have helped bring to light much of the information on which the recent FCPA cases are based. Business apologists who hoped that the public was forgetting about corporate crime now have to deal with new reminders of the sleazy aspects of commerce.
THE “BUSINESS WATERGATE”
It is often forgotten that the Watergate scandal of the 1970s was not only about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Investigations by the Senate and the Watergate Special Prosecutor forced companies such as 3M, American Airlines and Goodyear Tire & Rubber to admit that they or their executives had made illegal contributions to the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President.
Subsequent inquiries into illegal payments of all kinds led to revelations that companies such as Lockheed, Northrop and Gulf Oil had engaged in widespread foreign bribery. Under pressure from the SEC, more than 150 publicly traded companies admitted that they had been involved in questionable overseas payments or outright bribes to obtain contracts from foreign governments. A 1976 tally by the Council on Economic Priorities found that more than $300 million in such payments had been disclosed in what some were calling “the Business Watergate.”
While some observers insisted that a certain amount of baksheesh was necessary to making deals in many parts of the world, Congress responded to the revelations by enacting the FCPA in late 1977. For the first time, bribery of foreign government officials was a criminal offense under U.S. law, with fines up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to five years.
The ink was barely dry on the FCPA when U.S. corporations began to complain that it was putting them at a competitive disadvantage. The Carter Administration’s Justice Department responded by signaling that it would not be enforcing the FCPA too vigorously. That was one Carter policy that the Reagan Administration was willing to adopt. In fact, Reagan’s trade representative Bill Brock led an effort to get Congress to weaken the law, but the initiative failed.
The Clinton Administration took a different approach—trying to get other countries to adopt rules similar to the FCPA. In 1997 the industrial countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reached agreement on an anti-bribery convention. In subsequent years, the number of FCPA cases remained at a miniscule level—only a handful a year. Optimists were claiming this was because the law was having a remarkable deterrent effect. Skeptics said that companies were being more careful to conceal their bribes, and prosecutors were focused elsewhere.
Any illusion that commercial bribery was a rarity was dispelled in 2005, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker released the final results of the investigation he had been asked to conduct of the Oil-for-Food Program. Volcker’s group found that more than half of the 4,500 companies participating in the program—which was supposed to ease the impact of Western sanctions on Iraq—had paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to the government of Saddam Hussein. Among those companies were Siemens, DaimlerChrysler and the French bank BNP Paribas.
THE REBIRTH OF FCPA PROSECUTIONS
The Volcker investigation, the OECD convention, the Sarbanes-Oxley law and other factors together breathed new life into FCPA enforcement. Stricter internal controls mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley have made it more difficult for improper payments to be concealed, prompting numerous companies to self-report FCPA violations in the hope of receiving more lenient treatment.
In 2005 the number of FCPA prosecutions started to pick up and reached double digits the following year. This year the number of investigations has reportedly been in the dozens, and the resolved cases have gained higher visibility. Among these have been the following:
* Three subsidiaries of British oil services company Vetco International pleaded guilty to FCPA violations in Nigeria and agreed to pay a total of $26 million in criminal fines. This was the largest criminal penalty the Justice Department had ever obtained in an FCPA case.
* Oil & gas distributor El Paso Corporation settled FCPA charges in connection with the Oil-for-Food Program and agreed to disgorge $5.5 million in profits and pay a civil penalty of $2.2 million.
* Dow Chemical paid a $325,000 civil penalty to settle FCPA charges relating to improper payments made by an Indian subsidiary in the late 1990s.
* A subsidiary of oil services company Baker Hughes pleaded guilty to FCPA charges involving bribery in Kazakhstan and paid a criminal fine of $11 million. In related SEC charges, Baker Hughes agreed to pay more than $44 million in criminal fines, civil penalties and disgorgement of profits. This became the new record for FCPA-related penalties.
* Textron Inc. paid more than $3.5 million to settle FCPA charges relating to kickback payments made by a subsidiary to obtain contracts for the sale of humanitarian goods to Iraq under the Oil-for-Food Program.
* Industrial equipment company Ingersoll-Rand agreed to pay more than $4.2 million to settle FCPA charges that four of its subsidiaries made kickback payments in connection with the Oil-for-Food Program sale of humanitarian goods.
FOREIGN COMPANIES IN THE FCPA NET
While the recent rash of FCPA cases has drawn little attention in the United States, the Siemens case has generated a major scandal in Europe. Last year, more than 200 police officers participated in a raid of company offices and homes of managers. Prosecutors in Italy and Switzerland joined in the investigation, which focused on suspicious transactions at the company’s telecommunications equipment unit reportedly totaling more than $2 billion.
The outcry over the bribery charges (and separate controversies over matters such as price-fixing) forced both the chief executive of Siemens and the chairman of its supervisory board to announce their resignation. In October the company agreed to a $300 million fine, hoping that the controversy would die down. But in November the Wall Street Journal gained access to the unpublished court ruling in the case, which provided embarrassing details about the payment of bribes in Nigeria, Libya and Russia. Subsequently, Business Week Online reported that FCPA charges in the United States could generate penalties for Siemens much harsher than what it experienced at home.
Siemens is not the only European company whose bribery problems are becoming an issue in the United States. Earlier this year there were reports that U.S. prosecutors have been investigating improper payments by major military contractor BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace), including some reportedly involving Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and a close ally of the Bush Administration, as well as other members of the Saudi royal family.
A quarter century after the Watergate investigation revealed a culture of corruption in the foreign dealings of major corporations, the new wave of FCPA prosecutions suggests that little has changed. There is one difference, however. Whereas the bribery revelations of the 1970s elicited a public outcry, the recent cases have generated little comment in the United States. Companies like Chevron pay their fine and go right on using their ad campaigns to present themselves as paragons of virtue. It took years for the reputation of Richard Nixon to recover from the taint of Watergate in the eyes of mainstream observers. Corporate America seems to be able to purchase instantaneous redemption.
Listen to this as you read . . . "Air Force Ones" by rappers Nelly, Murphy Lee, Ali, and Kyjuan, 2002
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Nike is tapping into the sway of cultural “influencers” to attract new types of consumers. Traditionally, celebrity athletes have worn Nike shoes in return for lucrative endorsement deals. However, recent charges brought against famous Nike-sporting athletes like NFL star and criminal dog-fighter, Michael Vick, and more recently, track heroine and self-admitted steroid user, Marion Jones, have dirtied this image of the hard-working athlete and further urged Nike to look beyond the sweat-drenched athlete for culturally influential people to wear their shoes. While still focusing on the athlete as the main consumer, Nike is turning to “under the radar” influencers for inspiration. In many cases, this leads to Nike’s white sneaker being painted, embroidered or dyed the colors of a Latin American flag or taking on “cultural signifiers,” often stereotyped symbols meant to represent a certain heritage or ethnicity.
Nike’s most stylistic shoe, the Air Force 1, provides an excellent case in point. A new series of the shoe, called the “Cultura” collection consists of shoes like The Los Angeles Cortez, inspired by “the traditional images of LA street life,” the Handball Aztec Cortez designed to capture “our Aztec heritage,” and the green, white and red Mexican Airforce, which “pays homage to the Motherland.” Nike designers hired well-known graffiti and tattoo artists to create each shoe’s aesthetic appeal. Each year, Nike releases a new Chinese New Year AF1 (check out the Year of the Dog here). And, in previous years, Nike has introduced a series of West Indies Air Force 1s in time for West Indies Pride Days in New York City. Each shoe has the flag of a different West Indies country on its insole. There are also Jamaica, Philippines, and Puerto Rico Air Force 1s. Deemed “ethnic pride sneakers” by bloggers, these shoes bring up interesting issues about identity and consumerism. Through these shoes Nike present a pre-packaged narrative of identity. They tell consumers that it is possible to express ethnic pride by wearing Nike tennis shoes. Effectively, commodifying ethnicity has become a sales strategy for Nike.
However, according to Nike, developing shoes for certain ethnicities is not only about ethnic pride, but also about promoting health. Earlier this year, Nike introduced the Air Native N7, a shoe designed specifically for Native Americans. In addition to its signature swoosh, the shoe features “heritage callouts,” including sunrise and sunset patterns on the tongue and heel, arrowheads and feathers. Nike claims the new shoe is “an effort aiming at promoting physical fitness in a population with high obesity rates.” As one self-described Native American blogger, David Yeagley, summarizes, “American Indians are fat and have funny-shaped feet.” He continues: “Our own Nikes! What an achievement!” and asks, “A shoe designed especially for Indians is going to make us walk more? A national company name lent to Indians is going to inspire us to better health?” Another critic, Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian had the following to say, “The day it was announced, I thought: ‘Are they going to have dream catchers on them? Are they going to be beaded? Will they have native bumper stickers on them that say, ‘Custer had it coming’?”
Apparently the idea behind these specialized shoes is that they will create a buzz that will spread to consumers closer to the mainstream. That's right, Nike is attempting to attract attention from "under the radar" consumers in order to appeal to the mainstream. Buying "ethnic pride" sneakers from Nike might allow someone to feel like they're expressing their ties to a certain culture or identity, but in the end, they're still just products designed to make profits for the biggest footwear company in the world.
One has to wonder if Nike's switch from risky celebrity endorsements to ethnic pride, is really just about creating a positive spin on its image, which has historically also been sullied by accusations of worker abuse in poor country sweatshops.
Stolen Without a Gun reads like an Anarchist's Cookbook of Corporate Crime and illustrates well how an international money laundering scheme works (including how to nest embezzled funds in a series of quasi-legal Cayman Island bank accounts) while telling the personal tale of Walter Pavlo, Jr., a convicted white-collar criminal who was busted for embezzling $6 million while working at MCI Telecommunications in the mid-1990s.
Pavlo, who served his time in jail and now gives lectures and advice on the subject of ethics and white-collar crime, is portrayed in the book as an everyman, without any particular bent to stealing money.
The narrative gives an inside perspective of how a business person could get wrangled into a high stakes game of money laundering. Pavlo, good at his job, notices the graft and corruption all around him and sees people hiding debt in accounts that he knows will never be repaid. Millions of dollars are being thrown away all around him. All the myths that he learned in business school, "The corporation as a community run by thoughtful innovators striving to do good while doing well," are shattered before him. As he is being groomed by his superiors in the company and his rise to power begins, he realizes the upper limits of just how much money he will make in his career at MCI. And it isn't enough. Plus, his company is being ripped off by delinquent customers everyday and he is the one responsible when they don't pay up. They are all getting away with it, why can't he?
The entire scheme is viewed by the perpetrators as nothing more than a college prank, they justify it by telling themselves that no one will miss the money, and for a while no one does. They get increasingly bold and sloppy with their methods and start to go after larger customers with higher levels of oversight. It is fun to watch the dizzying high come crashing down as Pavlo realizes that he cannot keep control of all of the accounts he has been siphoning, and he is running out of shells to shuffle money under.
The book does a good job of giving a frank perspective on how the culture of graft and corruption works. The demands to collect money from his clients are so unrealistically high that Pavlo has no choice but to bend the rules to make his quota. Corporate won't tell him explicitly to shirk regulations, but it is understood. Once he sees how easy it is to break the rules, and that everyone is doing it, there isn't much ground to cover for him and his buddies to come to the realization that he could be making money for himself instead of chucking it away into delinquent accounts.
Stolen Without a Gun is a "How-To" guide for students of the U.S Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and shows that too often a white collar criminal pushes externalities on their families and friends; Pavlo loses his wife and two children and his coworkers end up in jail. In the end the protagonist goes to jail, as the cover suggests, and presumably has a change of heart about his life of crime. But a quote from the last pages of the book suggests otherwise, "Bottom line, we are...getting what we deserve. We had our eyes wide open. Our only real regret is that we got caught. Case closed."
In a recent decision reported in the Guardian, a federal appeals court ruled that Caterpillar Inc. could not be sued over the death of an American peace activist who was crushed under bulldozers sold to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The story of Rachel Corrie, the activist who was crushed by a 60-ton Caterpillar D9 Bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza in 2003 while trying to prevent the razing of a Palestinian home by the Israeli army, achieved widespread media attention. Reports of the IDF’s razing of homes in Rafah were issued by numerous human rights watchdog organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Corrie’s family, along with four Palestinian families of victims killed while their houses were bulldozed, began legal proceedings against Caterpillar in 2005 for selling machines to Israel. Lawyers arguing for the families insisted that the company sold the bulldozers to the Israeli government on a commercial basis and knew, or should have known, that they would be used to demolish homes and kill innocent victims in violation of international law.
Explaining its decision, the court claimed that it could not rule in favor of the bereaved families "without implicitly questioning, and even condemning, United States foreign policy towards Israel." Of course, this is not the first time that U.S. companies have been implicated in mass human rights abuse and not had to answer for their participation. Indeed, U.S. companies have been intimately connected to the human rights abuses of regimes throughout modern history. Near the turn of the millennium, pressure from Jewish organizations finally forced the U.S. to begin looking at the use of slave labor by U.S. corporations (and their subsidiaries) in Nazi Germany.
A court case brought against Ford Motor Co. was dismissed, but Ford admitted that its German subsidiary, Ford-Werke AG, used labor at the Buchenwald concentration camp to build vehicles. Other major U.S. corporations that continued to operate in Nazi-occupied Europe and used slave labor include General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank and JP Morgan. ''There are things that have to be faced up to,'' alleged Elan Steinberg, World Jewish Congress executive director, ''American companies were collaborating with Nazi Germany at a time when we were at war, because there was an ethos that demanded huge profits at the expense of everything else.''
Modern history is peppered with examples of corporations seeking profit during periods of mass human rights abuse: In the 1970s, the U.S. manufacturing giant, ITT, and others helped overthrow democracy and install the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile (to listen to the Nixon Whitehouse tape that acknowledges this relationship visit GWU’s website, The National SecurityArchive). Numerous companies supported South African apartheid, including U.S. giants IBM, General Motors, ExxonMobil, J.P Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Caltex Petroleum Corporation, Ford Motor Company and the Fluor Corporation. In 2002 a group of South Africansunsuccessfully sued 20 banks and corporations that did business in South Africa during apartheid. The list goes on and on.
Even if these corporations are not held accountable for their role in mass human rights abuse and economic activities are allowed to take legal precedence over human rights, it is of vital importance to recognize the role that corporations play in this abuse. It appears to be the responsibility of the public to put pressure on corporations to consider where they do business and with whom.
The world of global accounting is girding up for a trans-Atlantic battle. Last month L'Oreal, Royal Dutch Shell, and Unilever, all gigantic companies, asked the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow them to choose which accounting standards they want to use. (The companies belong to the European Association of Listed Companies, who delivered the letter.)
The reason is that U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) is 25,000 pages long (which are based on very specific rules) and they don't like it. By comparison, the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), is just one tenth the length (which are based on principles which can be more open to interpretation).
There are other good arguments for using the global rules - there are now more than 100 countries either using or adopting international financial reporting standards, or IFRS, including the members of the European Union, China, India and Canada.
But L'Oreal, Royal Dutch Shell, and Unilever, don't just want the easier rules, they want to choose which version of IFRS they can use - a European Commission version that allows them to choose how they value certain assets.
Financial Week, an industry magazine, in New York is up in arms.
" Imagine signing a contract and not having to hold up your end of the bargain. Or being able to say "I do" at the altar when you might sometimes mean "I don't." Having it both ways in such matters sure provides flexibility, to put it charitably. Yet that's exactly what a group of European companies want when it comes to accounting standards for global companies tapping the U.S. capital markets," editors of Financial Week, wrote earlier this month. (see "Converging on Chaos")
Another industry magazine, Accountancy Age in London, has also been critical of companies that use the more flexible European Commission rules. A couple of years ago, Taking Stock, the magazine's blog, asked Rudy Markham, the finance director of Unilver, why he was using flexible IFRS rules in reporting for the company, but he refused to comment, leading them to poke fun at him:
" TS understands that the biggest accounting change for a generation can be a complete turn off. We assume the numbers involved didn't mean that much to Markham anyway - a billion off the top line there, a billion on the bottom line there. He did, after all, personally take home just over £1.1 million last year. Money, money, money, as Abba used to sing... "
Today the International Accounting Standard Board, which drew up the IFRS, appointed a new chairman, Gerrit Zalm, a former Dutch finance minister, who has already announced that he would try to prevent local variations of the global rules: "One of my first priorities will be no new carve-outs in Europe and trying to get rid of the existing carve-out, because if Europe is doing this, other countries could get the same inspiration and then all the advantages of the one programme fade away," Zalm told the Financial Times. "The fragmentation of standards is costly for the enterprise sector and it doesn't help in creating clarity for investors."
We look forward to his efforts to create a single global standard. Stronger global rules are always welcome, especially if they are easier to follow, but weaker ones that cater to nationalistic interests are not.
Transit riders switching trains at the Montgomery BART subway station in downtown San Francisco will find it difficult to miss the new ads covering the walls, the floor and even the stairs with pictures of Sudanese refugees. The advertisements' message is attention catching: "Are you invested in genocide?" As part of the Save Darfur Coalition's Divest for Darfur campaign, the ads urge transit users to visit their website, where they are asked to demand that investment firms - specifically JP Morgan, Franklin Templeton, Fidelity Investments, Capital Group (American Funds), and Vanguard - withdraw investments from companies like the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which are, according to the website, "filling the coffers of the Sudanese government and helping fund the government's actions in Darfur." (As a side note, the use of the term "genocide" by groups like Save Darfur to describe the conflict in Sudan is highly controversial. For more information, read the transcript of Professor Mahmood Mandani's June 4th interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, titled "The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency."
The CNPC has been heavily censured for continuing to do business in Sudan, despite the ongoing conflict there. Attempting to place pressure on firms invested in the state-owned CNPC, rather than on the CNPC itself, is a way for activists to circumvent the "no strings attached" stance of the Chinese government toward investment in Africa and other parts of the world. China prides itself on having a different approach to investment than western lending organizations like the World Bank or IMF, which have numerous development and human rights stipulations attached to investments. In Sudan, this means that the government doesn't have to bend to international pressure to, say, allow UN troops into Darfur. Many African governments welcome Chinese investment specifically because of this hands-off approach. In a recent article in the New York Times, Lydia Polgreen comments on the increasing presence of Chinese companies in Africa, especially in the rich natural resources and mining sector. Manganese mines in South Africa, uranium pits in Nigeria and cobalt mines in the Congo are all areas of investment for state-owned Chinese companies, like the Nonferrous Metals Corporation.
African citizens view Chinese investment with ambivalence. Some see economic relationships with China as a source of much needed income and a step up from paternalistic relationships with the West. "Let the Chinese come," said Mahamat Hassan Abakar, a lawyer in Chad. "What Africa needs is investment. It needs partners. All of these years we have been tied to France. Look what it has brought us." Others are more critical, seeing China as just another country robbing Africa of its resources and in the process enriching local elites, bolstering repressive governments and perpetuating Africa's secondary economic status. Cheap Chinese goods flooding Africa inhibit local manufacturing and the jobs that accompany it. Unsafe working conditions lead to industrial accidents like the 2005 blast at a Chinese-owned explosives factory in Chambishi, Zambia, which killed 51 people.
The investment of Chinese state-owned companies in Africa is hardly a win-win situation, but it is easy to recognize the attraction for African governments doing business with Chinese companies. In judging if China is a partner or colonizer in Africa, the answer is probably, a little of both.
Posted by Robert Young Pelton on October 2nd, 2007
Robert Young Pelton is the author of "Licensed to
Kill: Hired Guns in the War
on Terror " and the "Guide to the World's Most
Dangerous Places." He is also co-founder of
http://www.iraqslogger.com . This blog item is about his
experiences attending the Congressional hearing into the Blackwater
shootings in Iraq written on October 2nd, 2007.
Standing in line to get into Tuesday's hearing, I found myself in a
strange position. In front of me, dark-suited and staid Blackwater
executives stood waiting to show moral support for their boss, Erik
Prince, while the colorful and animated Pink Ladies behind me ticked
off reasons he and his industry should be feared.
The two extremes represent the bookends of public debate on the
private security industry. The former military men who run Blackwater
view their supporting role in the war on terror as both necessary and
good, while human rights activists believe there is something deeply
wrong with authorizing private citizens to kill other private
One of the women waiting in line asked me, "How can we find out what
these people are doing?" I suggested she could go to any
neighborhood in Baghdad and just ask the locals.
Or better yet--spend a week driving through Baghdad in an unmarked car
to see how often convoys blast through intersections, guns bristling
from every door, pointed directly at you, giving you mere seconds to
get out of the way before the bullets start flying. Feel your own
pulse racing as you realize how easily you could have been killed if
you'd had your radio a little louder, or hadn't noticed their
approach, or hadn't swerved to a stop fast enough.
Companies like Blackwater wield a life-and-death power in Iraq,
creating an arrogant misuse of force the United States has put into
I spent time in Sadr City and other areas interviewing the victims of
Blackwater and other security companies. Terrified Iraqis, many who
did not want to be identified or publicly quoted, told of sudden
unexpected encounters with fast moving convoys of SUVs--then death,
destruction, or permanent life change as family members were crushed,
maimed, killed, or traumatized.
During the time I spent researching my book Licensed to Kill, I
realized there were thousands of stories waiting to be heard about
excessive force being used on civilians in the name of "security".
Not surprisingly, many victims look to a militia to seek some revenge
for the transgression in the form of an ambush or IED.
Security companies are reviled; the Iraqis that work for these
companies have to cover their faces because they know militias or
their neighbors will kill them and or their families.
Military commanders understand that a non-state actor on the
battlefield is a wild card--whether death squad, militia or security
company. Iraqis know that the undermanned military must rely on
contractors to deliver 16 flavors of ice cream, frozen lobster and
bullets to the war effort.
The normally timid State Dept, known more for issuing warnings and
shutting down embassies when things get rough, has decided that its
people must travel the mean streets of Baghdad rather than give in to
intimidation. Security contractors are literally the grease that makes
our forward-leaning foreign policy in Iraq work.
So when Prince pretends like he is defending the US--justifying
violent acts by categorizing it as fighting bad guys--he does it with
the support of the State Department, though to the direct detriment of
the Iraqi civilians those actions terrify and kill.
When Prince testified that his people "acted appropriately at all
times," it made me wonder how many killings he investigated from
the Iraqi viewpoint. He has a blind spot towards the damage he causes
if he thinks that firing a contractor who just murdered someone
somehow fixes the problem. "Window or Aisle" instead of "guilty
or not guilty" does not enforce any accountability
It is no coincidence that BW has been involved in shootouts with the
Iraqi police. They too have seen the destructive force Blackwater has
been authorized to unleash on their citizens.
When Prince rattles off the various legal umbrellas he operates under,
he conveniently ignores that none of his hired guns have been brought
up on any charges for anything-despite clear incidents of
malfeasance. Blackwater itself faces no ill consequence for deploying
unstable men into the war zone.
"Anytime a contractor is abroad, he can be brought up on
charges," is the equivalent of saying speeding is illegal while
cars whip by at 80 mph without a cop in sight.
Blackwater is the personification of war as a business, violence as a
service, and chaos as a product. Prince recognized the lack of
sufficient available US troops and provided a privatized solution. He
cannot be faulted for that.
Any corporate master would take the position, like Prince did in front
of Congress Tuesday, that his people are perfect, his conduct
Exposed deceit or corruption at most companies would lead to its own
downfall. If it's a monster like Enron, it could conceivably flutter
Wall Street for a few days.
But the conduct of companies like Blackwater directly impacts US
The obvious polarization of politicians addressing Prince during the
hearing indicates that Republicans are willing to bless the use of
lethal force by a private individual against the people they are
trying to pacify, while Democrats have yet to quite capture what it is
about the industry that makes people so nervous.
I say again: Go to Iraq. Talk to the people. Drive in an unmarked
car. When an armed convoy pushes you off the road with guns
drawn, you'll understand the naked fear that Blackwater sells.
Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 27th, 2007
Which are the world's worst multinationals? Which are the best? These are questions CorpWatch gets asked practically everyday. Just to clarify, we do not rank good corporations or endorse any of them, for several reasons: today's idols sometimes turn out to have feet of clay. And we see our job as investigators of malfeasance. For those who want to do the opposite, there are plenty of groups out there who promote "socially responsible" businesses, and we encourage you to look them up. (We don't have a list of these groups for the aforementioned reasons, but we do have a guide to the principles that we believe good businesses should follow -- and we leave it to you, our gentle readers, to apply this criteria to evaluate corporations.)
(We strongly believe that it is very important not to take corporate claims at face value, because sometimes these companies are not telling the whole truth. This is known as "greenwash" and to see a history of this phenomenon, we urge you to check out our short history of the subject, in this handy guide written by Josh Karliner, the founder of CorpWatch.)
Today, there is an opportunity for you to get your favorite (or maybe, least favorite) multinational nominated for an award for corporate malfeasance -- the Berne Declaration and Friends of the Earth Switzerland are holding its fourth annual award ceremony in January 2008, to coincide with the annual gathering of Fortune 500 chieftains in Davos. You can take part in this contest by clicking here.
(Previous winners from 2005, 2006 and 2007 are available online.)
If you have questions, contact Oliver Classen who is coordinating the awards ceremony.
In case you are wondering, how do you find out whether companies are telling the truth? Well, here's a tip -- there's a group in the Netherlands that collects these reports: the Global Reporting Intitiative. You can even search their database to look up your favorite/least favorite company. GRI is about to launch a tool on October 1st, 2007 that will allow you to rank these reports -- if you are so inclined.
Read the reports, search our website and that of Multinational Monitor, and then contact groups on the ground to see if these companies are telling the truth or not.
Remember the deadline to nominate a company for the Public Eye on Davos award is September 30th, 2007!
Ken Sandler of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), a
division of U.S. Central Command, will play the drums with Jim
Ittenbach, a Verizon engineer under contract with DISA. The pair
belong to a band called Troubled Spirit. They play songs like Rolling Stones'
Sympathy For The Devil and REM's End Of The World As We Know
For the October 18th event, Troubled Spirit has renamed itself the
DISA-Peering Act, after the agency that they both work at. Our
question is will they play one of their classic covers: the Rolling
Stones Can't Always Get What You Want or will it be the
Beatles Come Together?
Then there is an all contractor band composed of a vocalist from
Perot Systems and a guitarist from AT&T. Songs on their previous play lists
include The Clash's I Fought the Law and English Beat's Save
it for Later.
CorpWatch asked a former senior government official how ethical this
was. (Sorry, we can't tell you who, but he goes way to the top) His
response: "There is an Office of Government Ethics regulations at 5
CFR 2635 that talks about "impartiality" in performing a
Federal employee's duties, but that was about the closest thing I
could find. I suppose that one could argue that a Federal
employee participating in this sort of thing loses his/her
"impartiality", but that's about it."
The event, which is being held
at the State Theater in Falls Church, Virginia, is a benefit for the
United Service Organizations (USO) that provides charity to the United
States Armed Forces personnel and their families. Iraqis waiting for
handouts may just have to suffer in silence while Tacocat belts out
REM's Fables of the Reconstruction.
Hazardous imports have been the top story on the evening news for weeks now. But the poor quality of some foreign-made products is only half the story. Before we ever see those products, manufacturing plants in the countries of origin can pose an even greater danger to human and ecological health.
Take India, which is now our biggest foreign source of pharmaceuticals. A just-published study by Sweden's Goteborg University shows that, whatever the quality of the drugs being shipped out of India, they are leaving behind a toxic mess. Even after days in a water-treatment plant, effluents discharged into streams and rivers in one Indian region show concentrations of antibiotics and other drugs at 100 to 30,000 times the levels considered safe.
In a 2005 visit to villages in that area near Patancheru, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, I spoke with people who’d broken out in rashes from bathing in water from their own wells; farmers who’d left rice paddies unsown because their irrigation water was ruined; and herders whose water buffalo had dropped dead while grazing -- damage they attributed to pollution from the 90 or more bulk-drug factories in the vicinity. Health surveys have shown higher rates of cancer and other illnesses in villages around Patancheru’s "special economic zone" than in more distant villages.
State law says that the factories must haul their toxic wastes to an effluent treatment plant run by Patancheru Enviro Tech, Ltd. (PETL) on a tributary of the Nakkavagu rivulet. The treatment plant’s outflow into the Nakkavagu (which waters a valley dotted with 14 villages) has often been found to carry industrial pollutants at many times the statutory limits.
Now the Swedish study, recently published online by the Journal of Hazardous Materials (abstract here free) has found record-breaking concentrations of eleven drugs – antibiotics and treatments for high blood pressure, ulcers and allergies – in wastes flowing from the PETL plant.
Noting that "to the best of our knowledge, the concentrations of these 11 drugs were all above the previously highest values [ever] reported in any sewage effluent", the authors singled out the antibiotic Ciprofloxacin (Cipro), which flows out of the plant at the rate of 100 pounds of active ingredient per day. That, say the authors, "is equivalent to the total amount consumed in Sweden (population nine million) over an average 5-day period"! Concentrations of five other antibiotics were found at levels that are toxic to plants, blue-green algae, and a range of bacteria. And before it leaves the facility, the stew of drugs is mixed with human sewage, creating perfect conditions for breeding dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In June, a front-page story by Washington Post reporter Marc Kaufman revealed that there are virtually no controls on the quality of drugs being imported from India. He wrote that India and China together supply as much as 20 percent of the US market for generic and over-the-counter drugs and 40 percent of all bulk drugs used here and that the two nations' share may rise to 80 percent by 2022. India’s share of the US market in 2006 was $800 million, exceeding China’s.
According to Kaufmann, the FDA conducted 1222 quality-assurance inspections of domestic drug-manufacturing plants in 2006. That same year, the agency carried out only 32 inspections of Indian drug plants, mostly to check on new import applications, not for quality control by existing suppliers. And "on-the-ground inspections of Indian and Chinese plants remain rare and relatively brief and are always scheduled in advance, unlike the surprise visits that FDA inspectors pay to domestic manufacturers." There is no indication that FDA inspectors pay any attention to environmental impacts of the plants.
The Swedish researchers calculated that if the quantities of pharmaceuticals they detected being released from the Patancheru treatment facility in a single 24-hour period could be collected and sold in Sweden, they would fetch an amount approaching $200,000, even in generic form. But, they wrote, because the production costs are so much lower than the eventual retail price, it is cheaper for companies to waste the drugs than to invest in pollution control.
When I returned to India earlier this year and checked on the current state of pollution in Patancheru, I was told that burgeoning export-drug production is putting more pressure than ever on the system. Meteorologist Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy -- a former chief technical advisor to the United Nations and now a campaigner for tougher policies on pollution in the Patancheru area -- told me that the sheer quantity of drugs that plants are producing means that they pump out far more waste water than the treatment plant can handle.
The state permits each company to dispose of only a certain amount of water per day, and if its chemical concentration is too high, the company is fined. But, said Dr. Reddy, "The fines are peanuts to them." And, of course, the effluent is not even tested for presence of pharmaceuticals. The bulk-drug plants are often producing at two, three, sometimes ten times the permitted capacity. Reddy has watched as tanker trucks full of effluent from drug factories are turned away by the water treatment plant because their company's daily quota has been exceeded. He says that rather than returning to the factory, the trucks will often head out into the countryside to dump their load. Those wastes would contain, if anything, higher concentrations of pharmaceuticals than seen in the Swedish study.
So when the alarm is raised over hazardous toys, food, and drugs imported from China, India, or other countries, it may be that people living and working downstream or downwind from the foreign factories who could well be paying the highest price of all for our insatiable demand.
"The skirmish occurred at 12:08 p.m. on Sunday when, "the motorcade was engaged with small arms fire from several locations" as it moved through a neighborhood of west Baghdad. "The team returned fire to several identified targets" before leaving the area. One vehicle engine was hit and disabled by bullets and had to be towed away. A separate convoy arriving to help was "blocked/surrounded by several Iraqi police and Iraqi national guard vehicles and armed personnel," the report says. Then an American helicopter hovered over the traffic circle, as the U.S. convoy departed without casualties. Some reports have said the helicopter also opened fire on Iraqis, but a Blackwater official told TIME that no shots were fired from the air."
The Iraqi government says it has revoked Blackwater's license to operate in Iraq, although CorpWatch understands from knowledgable insiders that the company's license (issued by the Ministry of Interior) had expired a while ago. Although the Ministry has issued licenses to a number of private security contractors, many companies do not bother to get licenses because they know that there is no enforcement mechanism against them. Indeed, Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority issued an executive order that specifically gave private contractors in Iraq immunity from prosecution.
The admission by Blackwater that one of their security guards shot dead an Iraqi man confirms worries that armed contractors working directly or indirectly for the U.S. government have been involved in killing Iraqi civilians and that they have escaped the rule of law in Iraq or in the United States.
An article in the Washington Post in September 2005 quoted Brigadier General Karl R. Horst, deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which is responsible for security in and around Baghdad. "These guys run loose in this country and do stupid stuff. There's no authority over them, so you can't come down on them hard when they escalate force. They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath. It happens all over the place."
The article described the shooting of an Iraqi man named Ali Ismael in Erbil, Northern Iraq by unamed U.S. private security contractors.
Nor is Blackwater the only company to have been accused of shooting at Iraqi civilians with an intent to kill.
Shane B. Schmidt, a former Marine Corps sniper, and Charles L. Sheppard III, a former Army Ranger, have sued the company, which they say fired them after they filed a report on July 8 that their shift leader fired deliberately and unnecessarily at Iraqi vehicles and civilians in two incidents while their team was driving in Baghdad.
Schmidt and Sheppard's lawsuit claims that the Triple Canopy employee announced that he was ''going to kill someone today,'' stepped from his vehicle and fired several shots from his M4 assault rifle into the windshield of a stopped white truck. The men claim that the truck was not an evident threat and that their team was not in danger. The men say in the suit that the shift leader then returned to their truck and said, ''That didn't happen, understand.'' Later that day, the suit says, the shift leader said, ''I've never shot anyone with my pistol before,'' and then opened the vehicle door and fired seven or eight shots into the windshield of a taxi.
* Custer Battles, another U.S. security company, was accused of shooting at Iraqis in February 2005, in an investigative report by NBC News. Titled "U.S. Contractors in Iraq Allege Abuses." The report quotes four former U.S. soldiers.
"[He] sighted down his AK-47 and started firing," says (Corporal Ernest) Colling. "It went through the window. As far as I could see, it hit a passenger. And they didn't even know we were there."
Later, the convoy came upon two teenagers by the road. One allegedly was gunned down.
"The rear gunner in my vehicle shot him," says Colling. "Unarmed, walking kids."
In another traffic jam, they claim a Ford 350 pickup truck smashed into, then rolled up and over the back of a small sedan full of Iraqis.
"The front of the truck came down," says (Captain Bill) Craun. "I could see two children sitting in the back seat of that car with their eyes looking up at the axle as it came down and pulverized the back."
* CorpWatch's David Phinney was among one of the first reporters to chronicle the infamous "Trophy Video" in Novermber 2005, in which security contractors for Aegis, a British company, in Iraq, were seen shooting at Iraqi civilians.
Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 14th, 2007
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought charges against 69 accountants for failing to register with the Public Company Accounting Board (PCAB) earlier this week. This somewhat obscure action is the latest ripple in the wave of crackdowns that followed the Enron accounting scandals in 2001 -- to break up the all too cozy relationship between auditors and the multinationals that they are supposed to be policing.
Governments allow companies to close their financial books at the end of the fiscal year, if a qualified accountant has signed off on it. The problem is that both the companies and the auditors are private entities whose ultimate motive is to make a profit, so there is potential for one or both of the two not to report any cooking of the books, unless they know that a regulator might catch them and discipline them. And in the last two decades, as favored accountants have been rewarded with multi-million dollar non auditing consulting gigs (such as tax planning or management consulting), the worry was that they were looking the other way in order to win more business.
Following the Enron scandal, which showed that Arthur Andersen, the company's auditor, had failed in its public duty, the U.S. Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley law in 2002 that replaced the accounting industry's own regulators with the Public Company Accounting Board with subpoena and disciplinary powers. Auditors are supposed to register with the board, but clearly not everyone took this seriously.
The SEC's enforcement director, Linda Chatman Thomsen, said that Thursday's action showed that the agency "is committed to ensuring compliance with the regulatory framework Congress established for auditors of public companies." A total of 50 of the errant accountants settled the charges with the federal agency the very same day.
This action is an important warning shot across the bows to let the auditors know that the SEC is checking up on them. But the jury is still out as to whether the SEC will go one step further and prosecute auditors who fail to report companies that are cooking their books.
In related news, a new study from the University of Nebraska suggests the whistle-blowers who report violations of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to agencies like the PCAB are not properly protected. The study looked at 700 cases where employees experienced retaliation from companies for whistle-blowing and found that a mere 3.6 per cent of cases were won by employees.
Richard Moberly, the study's author, argues the findings "challenge the hope of scholars and whistle-blower advocates that Sarbanes-Oxley's legal boundaries and burden of proof would often result in favourable outcomes for whistle-blowers."
The Financial Times reports that Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project, a non-profit organization that lobbies for whistle-blowers, calls the law "a disaster." Jason Zuckerman, a lawyer at the Employment Law Group, a law firm that represents Sarbanes-Oxley whistle-blowers, says: "Part of the problem is that investigators misunderstand the relevant legal standards and believe that a complainant must have a smoking gun -- that is, unequivocal evidence proving retaliation."
The debate is still on
over whether Sarbanes-Oxley is effective five years after the law was
passed, although all appear to agree it was a step in the right
direction. The proof of the pudding, they say, will be in the eating,
so we eagerly await the day that SEC puts errant accountants behind
In the next few days Pope Benedict plans to issue his second encyclical – the most authoritative statement a pope can issue – which apparently will focus on social and economic inequity in a globalized economy. In the statement, he is expected to denounce the use of tax havens as socially-unjust and immoral in cheating the greater well-being of society.
According to the Times (UK) newspaper, the statement may have been inspired by a recent request to the Vatican by Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, who urged church leaders to speak out on tax evasion.
Prodi’s government plans to seek taxes on undeclared earnings of €60 million ($84 million) by Valentino Rossi, the world motorcycling champion. How about also asking Gucci and Prada, some of Italy’s best known fashion designers, to move their tax headquarters back to home turf (from the tax-saving Netherlands, see below) and contribute to Italy’s budget deficit?
As global capital has progressively unbound itself from traditional national constraints, excessive off-shore wealth seemingly knows no shame, with wealthy individuals and corporations setting up front companies abroad to avoid paying taxes, supported by a new class of financial services specialists.
While Caribbean island resorts are often assumed to be the places where the wealthy stash their money away for retirement, some European countries (and I don't mean Lichtenstein) have also newly seen the light.
A favored location is the Netherlands -- check out the November 2006 report by Dutch-based SOMO, "The Netherlands: A Tax Haven?" The report is the first comprehensive analysis of the complex system of double tax treaties, tax incentives, the relationship with the Netherlands Antilles and the now 20,000 and counting mailbox corporations operating within the borders of this small European nation. According to SOMO, "examples of companies with tax-induced headquarters in the Netherlands are Volkswagen, IKEA, Gucci, Pirelli, Prada, Fujitsu-Siemens, Mittal Steel, and Trafigura."
The issue has been in the news, mostly because big name musical artists (like Bono and Mick Jagger) and famous athletes (think David Beckham) have also been getting in on the act. When it comes to evading taxes on lucrative licensing and royalties, the Netherlands is fast emerging as the hip tax haven of choice because Holland levies no tax on earnings royalties.
In an article titled “Gimme Tax Shelter”, the New York Times reported on this in February 2007 as newly public documentation surrounding the assets and wealth-transfer plans of the Rolling Stones demonstrated that the wily rockers have paid a mere 1.5% (as opposed to the British tax rate of 40%), or $7.2. million, on $450 million in earnings routed through the land of tulips with the help of their company Promogroup.
"The Caribbeans are thinking about trading profits, not royalties, so the smaller European countries like Holland have had to be creative, tax-wise,'' David Pullman, an investment banker in New York who caters to entertainers and athletes told the New York Times. ''They are going for the high-end stuff and don't want to be seen as shady like some Caribbean haven.''
More scandalous was the 2006 revelation that super-rockers U2 had transferred their song-publishing catalog from Ireland to Holland's Promogroup, in order to avoid a change in Irish tax law introducing taxes on royalties earned in excess of 250,000 Euros per year. Much ado was made of Bono's unwillingness to pony up his share of the tax obligation in service of the global debt relief and poverty eradication for which he so famously advocates.
Another European country that has figured they can make money out of tax evasion is Ireland -- whose “Celtic Tiger” growth is largely the product of charming huge corporations like Dell, Google, Microsoft and Sun Systems to move much of their intellectual property patents over to subsidiaries in the land of Eire -- where the corporate tax rate is 12.5%, but no taxes are charged on royalties.
Microsoft has been a major beneficiary of this scheme for the last four or so years -- it slashed billions in tax receipts to the U.S. Treasury -- by setting up subsidiaries Round Island One and Flat Island Company in Dublin. Recently Microsoft took things a step further by re-registering the two patent-holding entities as unlimited liability companies which have no obligation to file their accounts publicly.
The Irish law exempting patent income from taxes also provides a sweet loophole for corporate executive pay. In November 2005 it was reported that Dell Ireland’s top executives were reaping the fruits of sumptuous pay, and saving the company taxes: between them the senior management shared nearly $3.8 million in tax-free dividends since 2003.
These corporate tax breaks have earned Ireland the distinction of being hailed “the world’s 7th freest economy” in 2007 by the conservative, DC-based Heritage Foundation, which says that “Ireland’s economy is 81.3 percent free.”
Most of this tax evasion, is sadly, quite legal. But ordinary citizens around the world who think that Microsoft and Mick Jagger should pay taxes, can take heart from the fact that some members of the global elite have been punished -- take the recent conviction of media mogul Conrad Black of Hollinger International. In July, Canadian and U.S. press reported on the lawsuits, corporate and civil, that are following his conviction for obstruction of justice and mail fraud, seeking remuneration from assets, including purported millions stashed in the Caribbean:
…"Not satisfied with receiving $20 to $40 million a year in excessive management fees, Black and the Ravelston insiders then directed significant portions of those fees to Moffat Management and Black-Amiel Management, which were empty shell companies registered in Barbados," a special report from Hollinger’s board stated.
"Even though these entities did nothing to earn fees, and did not have either employees or real operations, paying management fees to them on the pretense that they performed services allowed the recipients the prospect of transforming a portion of the enormous management fees that would otherwise most likely have been taxable in Canada (where the payments were received), or possibly the U.S. (where services were largely performed), into dividends received in Barbados (where nothing occurred)," the report stated.
We're gratified to see that the U.S. Congress and the mainstream media are picking up on some of the issues that CorpWatch has been digging into over the last couple of years. For example, there was a hearing on July 26th, 2007 in Representive Waxman's committee (the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee) on a topic that CorpWatch broke a year ago February: the use of trafficked Asian labor to build the US Embassy in Baghdad.
Our original story can be seen here:
Baghdad Embassy Bonanza Kuwait Company's Secret Contract & Low-Wage Labor
by David Phinney, Special to CorpWatch
February 12th, 2006
The two witnesses who testified yesterday were first featured in an extensive CorpWatch article in October 2006.
Back on the U.S. home front we are also glad to see that the New York Times is following the story of the Sithe Global Power's proposed coal-fired power plant at Desert Rock in New Mexico on Diné lands:
Billy Rautenbach, a South African mining kingpin, was deported from Lubumbashi airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on July 18th. “He was accused of fraud, theft, corruption and violating commercial law [the expulsion document] said. He was persona non grata. He would have to leave,” writes Ben Laurence in the Sunday Times (UK).
Best known in South Africa and Botswana for his activities in assembling Hyundai cars, Rautenbach faces hundreds of charges of fraud, corruption and other crimes in his home country of South Africa (the reasons cited in the documents prepared for his deportation last week). South Africa is currently considering asking Zimbabwe to extradite him to stand trial.
But Rautenbach was also once a powerful man in the DRC. He ran Gecamines, the DRC’s state-owned copper mining company, from 1998 to 2000. At the time he was accused of under-reporting exports of sales of huge quantities of DRC cobalt when he was in charge – and diverting the profits to a company he controlled in the British Virgin Islands.
Although Rautenbach lost his job, he continues to play an important role in the mining sector, as he also happens to be a major shareholder of Central African Mining & Exploration Company (CAMEC), which won major contracts in the DRC a couple of years later.
CAMEC’s contracts were the result of an investor-friendly mining code introduced by the World Bank in July 2002. (An informative analysis of this code was done by the Bank Information Center.) While the code calls for a much-needed regulatory framework and environmental protection, it hands the responsibility for mining development to private companies.
However, it is doubtful that the Congolese public institutions charged with regulating the mining sector have the resources to carry through with it, and the World Bank certainly has not been successful in providing oversight. A memo leaked to the Financial Times in November 2006 details the World Bank’s failure to provide sufficient oversight in three major contracts made between Gecamines and international mining groups like CAMEC. Worth billions of dollars, these contracts reportedly gave these groups control over 75% of Gecamines mineral reserves. (In May 2007, the Financial Times also revealed that the World Bank withheld the findings of an inquiry into alleged mismanagement of funds in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)
More details on the business dealings of Rautenbach and CAMEC may emerge from a DRC commission that recently began a three-month review of mining contracts signed in the last decade. The commission is the first attempt of a new “democratically elected” government to investigate ongoing corruption in the DRC’s valuable mining sector. The new commission follows a string of attempts by previous governments and international financial institutions to investigate the exploitation of natural resources in the DRC.
If the commission hopes to be successful it must take a look at whose interests are being promoted/protected in the Congo and how. This would include an investigation into local elites, regional influences, international financial institutions and the powers they represent, and international corporations along with the relationships between these different actors.
History has shown that the more resources a nation or region possess, the more conflict and poverty the people of that nation are forced to endure. The DRC is the third largest country in Africa and is rich in natural resources, particularly cobalt, copper, diamonds and gold. It is home to one third of the world’s cassiterite, the most important source of the metallic element tin and holds 64-80% of the world’s coltan reserves, an ore that is the source of the metal tantalum, which is used in cell phones and other devices.
In an article for Alternet, Stan Cox quotes a miner responsible for digging the valuable cassiterite: "As you crawl through the tiny hole, using your arms and fingers to scratch, there's not enough space to dig properly and you get badly grazed all over. And then, when you do finally come back out with the cassiterite, the soldiers are waiting to grab it at gunpoint. Which means you have nothing to buy food with. So we're always hungry."
This cassiterite will inevitably end up in cheap cell phones and laptops laying abandoned in American landfills.
Despite (or indeed because of) its abundance of resources, the DRC has been plagued by conflict, famine and political instability since its independence in the 1960s. Following the end of the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko (who was brought to power by the U.S. in the 1960s), the greed of neighboring countries for natural resources forced the DRC into the center of what organizations like Human Rights Watch have deemed, “Africa’s first world war.” The war resulted in the death of three to five million people, many from famine, exposure and disease.
A cease-fire ended the war in 1999, but the DRC has continued to suffer the extraction of resources and wealth through corrupt deals between local elites and international companies. A 2006 report from the London-based watchdog organization, Global Witness, describes how copper and cobalt are mined informally and illicitly exported, robbing the Congolese people of any opportunity to reduce poverty.
The new commission’s plan to revisit mining contracts between the state and private companies is a response to years of domestic and international pressure. Hopefully, once the review is completed (assuming that it is a transparent and non-corrupt process), the international companies involved will be willing to re-negotiate contracts in a way that is more beneficial to the Congolese state and its citizens. An interesting precedent was established last year in Liberia when Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steel company, agreed to step down from an unbalanced concessionary agreement made with a corrupt transitional government once a democratically elected government was in place.
Boycotts and sanctions are two key tools that activists and governments use to target corporations who do business with "unsavory" regimes. There is a long history of progressive activists calling for boycotts, for example, against companies doing business in South Africa in the 1980s, Burma and Nigeria in the 1990s, and most recently Sudan in an attempt to topple or change regimes with a history of human rights abuse.
In the old days, activists created boycott flyers to target companies that were wheat-pasted on walls, they picketed stores that sold goods from the offending companies, and most recently many activist groups have created websites created to encourage consumers to vote with their dollars: such as Ethical Consumer in the UK or tools to track companies in specific countries such as the Sudan Divestment Network.
The U.S. government has followed a similar but more heavy-handed tactic to enforce its anger against other governments, by passing laws forbidding companies from doing business in countries ranging from Cuba in the 1960s, South Africa in the 1980s, Iraq in the 1990s and most recently in Syria. (A State Department official suggest that sanctions have been imposed on foreign countries well over 100 times since the First World War.) Of course, unlike activists, the U.S. government has the power to prosecute companies who fail to comply.
Some of the targets of boycotts and sanctions have been one and the same: South Africa being a notable example.
How successful have these boycotts and sanctions been? Activists argue that the South African apartheid regime was felled by such pressure, undertaken in solidarity with local movements, although one might argue that anti-apartheid protests within South Africa itself played an even more significant role. A variety of think-tanks (mostly conservative) have argued that sanctions don't work.
In May, Christopher Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut and the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, called on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to make it easier for "shareholders to access reliable information regarding publicly traded companies' business transactions involving Iran and Sudan."
The tool generated some odd results: Reuters, the media company, had reported news-gathering activities in Cuba, Iran and Syria, so it made all three lists!
Not surprisingly, the Web tool provoked a storm of protest. "The list was fraught with distortions that could have actually harmed investors instead of informing them," Todd Malan, the president of the Organization for International Investment, which represents such companies, told reporters. "It was basically just a word search with no context, scale or reference."
Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, called the list "unfair and perhaps counterproductive." He said some companies "apparently have investments that are so negligible they could not be considered material either to investors or the economy of the terrorist-financing state."
"Our role is to make that information readily accessible to the investing public, and we will continue to work to find better ways to accomplish that objective," says the SEC. We await the results eagerly -- will the SEC try picketing the listed companies or dropping protest banners? If so, we just might know some folks who might be able to help.
Many of these products are made in China – which is probably the leading exporter to the U.S. But not many know that the reason for this is that the country also is a major importer of U.S. electronic waste, despite the fact that the country's laws essentially ban imports of such waste.
Reporter Gordon Fairclough writes: “For lead, the trip to China from the U.S. typically goes something like this: U.S. consumers and businesses send their old electronics to recycling firms -- often by way of innocuous recycling drives. Some of those firms then sell the electronics to dealers in the U.S., who sell them to dealers in China. Chinese companies buy the e-waste and strip lead and other re-sellable materials from it -- often discarding harmful materials along the way, adding to local pollution. The lead makes its way -- sometimes at toxic levels -- into trinkets sold to consumers in the U.S.”
The article is based on studies by Jeffrey Weidenhamer and Michael Clement, chemists at Ashland University in Ohio, who examined the composition of children's highly leaded jewelry and key chains and determined that some also contained levels of copper and tin that suggested the source was lead solder used in electronic circuit boards. Other jewelry samples were also found to contain antimony, a toxic metalloid element used to harden lead used in batteries.
Says Jim Puckett, coordinator of BAN. “In a globalized world, pollution knows no borders so the US government’s policy of allowing a free trade in hazardous waste has come back to haunt and hurt us.”
None of this should be legal. Under the Basel convention, as of 1 January 1998, all forms of hazardous waste exports from the 29 wealthiest most industrialized countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to all non-OECD countries. Unfortunately although China has ratified the treaty, the United States has not, so the trade continues.
The European Union is way ahead of the U.S. here – it requires companies to cover the costs of recovery and recycling under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. Last week, Britain become the latest country to enforce that law. For another fun way to learn about this issue, check out the WEEE man: a huge robotic figure made of scrap electrical and electronic equipment. It weighs 3.3 tonnes and stands seven meters tall – representing the average amount of e-products every single British citizen throws away over a lifetime.
In the business world these days, it appears that
just about everything is for sale.
Multi-billion-dollar deals are commonplace, and even
venerable institutions such as the Wall Street
Journal find themselves put into play. Yet
companies are not the only things being acquired.
This may turn out to be the year that big business
bought a substantial part of the environmental
That’s one way of interpreting the remarkable level
of cooperation that is emerging between some
prominent environmental groups and some of the
world’s largest corporations. What was once an arena
of fierce antagonism has become a veritable love
fest as companies profess to be going green and get
lavishly honored for doing so. Earlier this year,
for instance, the World Resources Institute gave one
of its “Courage to Lead” awards to the chief
executive of General Electric.
Observing this trend, Business Week detects
“a remarkable evolution in the dynamic between
corporate executives and activists. Once fractious
and antagonistic, it has moved toward accommodation
and even mutual dependence.” The question is: who is
accommodating whom? Are these developments a sign
that environmental campaigns have prevailed and are
setting the corporate agenda? Or have enviros been
duped into endorsing what my be little more than a
new wave of corporate greenwash? An Epiphany About The Environment?
The first thing to keep in mind is that Corporate
America’s purported embrace of environmental
principles is nothing new. Something very similar
happened, for example, in early 1990 around the time
of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.
Fortune announced then that “trend spotters and
forward thinkers agree that the Nineties will be the
Earth Decade and that environmentalism will be a
movement of massive worldwide force.” Business
Week published a story titled “The Greening of
The magazines cited a slew of large companies that
were said to be embarking on significant green
initiatives, among them DuPont, General Electric,
McDonald’s, 3M, Union Carbide and Procter & Gamble.
Corporations such as these put on their own Earth
Tech environmental technology fair on the National
Mall and endorsed Earth Day events and promotions.
difference between then and now is that there was a
lot more skepticism about Corporate America’s claim
of having had an epiphany about the environment. It
was obvious to many that business was trying to undo
the damage caused by environmental disasters such as
Union Carbide’s deadly Bhopal chemical leak, the
Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the
deterioration of the ozone layer. Activist groups
charged that corporations were engaging in a bogus
public relations effort which they branded “greenwash.”
Greenpeace staged a protest at DuPont’s Earth Tech
exhibit, leading to a number of arrests.
Misgivings about corporate environmentalism grew as
it was discovered that many of the claims about
green products were misleading, false or irrelevant.
Mobil Chemical, for instance, was challenged for
calling its new Hefty trash bags biodegradable,
since that required extended exposure to light
rather than their usual fate of being buried in
landfills. Procter & Gamble was taken to task for
labeling its Pampers and Luvs disposable diapers
“compostable” when only a handful of facilities in
the entire country were equipped to do such
processing. Various companies bragged that their
products in aerosol cans were now safe for the
environment when all they had done was comply with a
ban on the use of chlorofluorocarbons. Some of the
self-proclaimed green producers found themselves
being investigated by state attorneys general for
false advertising and other offenses against the
The insistence that companies actually substantiate
their claims put a damper on the entire green
product movement. Yet some companies continued to
see advantages in being associated with
environmental principles. In one of the more brazen
moves, DuPont ran TV ads in the late 1990s depicting
sea lions applauding a passing oil tanker
(accompanied by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) to take
credit for the fact that its Conoco subsidiary had
begun using double hulls in its ships, conveniently
failing to mention that it was one of the last oil
companies to take that step.
At the same time, some companies began to infiltrate
the environmental movement itself by contributing to
the more moderate groups and getting spots on their
boards. They also joined organizations such as
CERES, which encourages green groups and
corporations to endorse a common set of principles.
By the early 2000s, some companies sought to depict
themselves as being not merely in step with the
environmental movement but at the forefront of a
green transformation. British Petroleum started
publicizing its investments in renewable energy and
saying that its initials really stood for Beyond
Petroleum—all despite the fact that its operations
continued to be dominated by fossil fuels.
This paved the way for General Electric’s
“ecomagination” public relations blitz, which it pursued even
while dragging its feet in the cleanup of PCB
contamination in New York’s Hudson River. GE was
followed by Wal-Mart, which in October 2005 sought
to transform its image as a leading cause of
pollution-generating sprawl by announcing a program
to move toward zero waste and maximum use of
renewable energy. In recent months the floodgates
have opened, with more and more large companies
calling for federal caps on greenhouse gas
emissions. In January ten major
corporations—including Alcoa, Caterpillar, DuPont
and General Electric—joined with the Natural
Resources Defense Council and other enviro groups in
forming the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. A few
months later, General Motors, arguably one of the
companies that has done the most to exacerbate
global warming, signed on as well.
A Cause for Celebration or Dismay?
Today the term “greenwash” is rarely uttered, and
differences in positions between corporate giants
and mainstream environmental groups are increasingly
difficult to discern. Everywhere one looks, enviros
and executives have locked arms and are marching
together to save the planet. Is this a cause for
celebration or dismay?
Answering this question begins with the recognition
that companies do not all enter the environmental
fold in the same way. Here are some of their
Defeat. Some companies did not embrace green
principles on their own—they were forced to do so
after being successfully targeted by aggressive
environmental campaigns. Home Depot abandoned the
sale of lumber harvested in old-growth forests
several years ago after being pummeled by groups
such as Rainforest Action Network. Responding to
similar campaign pressure, Boise Cascade also agreed
to stop sourcing from endangered forests and J.P.
Morgan Chase agreed to take environmental impacts
into account in its international lending
activities. Dell started taking computer recycling
seriously only after it was pressed to do so by
groups such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.
Diversion. It is apparent that Wal-Mart is
using its newfound green consciousness as a means of
diverting public attention away from its dismal
record in other areas, especially the treatment of
workers. In doing so, it hopes to peel
environmentalists away from the broad anti-Wal-Mart
movement. BP’s emphasis on the environment was no
doubt made more urgent by the need to repair an
image damaged by allegations that a 2005 refinery
fire in Texas that killed 15 people was the fault of
management. To varying degrees, many other companies
that have jumped on the green bandwagon have sins
they want to public to forget.
Opportunism. There is so much hype these days
about protecting the environment that many companies
are going green simply to earn more green. There are
some market moves, such as Toyota’s push on hybrids,
that also appear to have some environmental
legitimacy. Yet there are also instances of sheer
opportunism, such as the effort by Nuclear Energy
Institute to depict nukes as an environmentally
desirable alternative to fossil fuels. Not to
mention surreal cases such as the decision by
Britain’s BAE Systems to develop environmentally
friendly munitions, including low-toxin rockets and
In other words, the suggestion that the new business
environmentalism flows simply from a heightened
concern for the planet is far from the truth.
Corporations always act in their own self-interest
and one way or another are always seeking to
maximize profits. It used to be that they had to
hide that fact. Today they flaunt it, because there
is a widespread notion that eco-friendly policies
are totally consistent with cutting costs and
fattening the bottom line.
“ecomagination” campaign was launched, CEO Jeffrey
Immelt insisted “it’s no longer a zero-sum
game—things that are good for the environment are
also good for business.” This was echoed by Wal-Mart
CEO Lee Scott, who said in a speech announcing his
company’s green initiative that “being a good
steward of the environment and in our communities,
and being an efficient and profitable business, are
not mutually exclusive. In fact they are one in the
same.” That’s probably because Scott sees
environmentalism as merely an extension of the
company’s legendary penny-pinching, as glorified
Chevron Wants to Lead
activists seem to welcome the notion of a
convergence of business interests and green
interests, but it all seems too good to be true. If
eco-friendly policies are entirely “win-win,” then
why did corporations resist them for so long? It is
hard to believe that the conflict between profit
maximization and environmental protection, which
characterized the entire history of the ecological
movement, has suddenly evaporated.
are fooling themselves, in which case they will
eventually realize there is no environmental free
lunch and renege on their green promises. Or they
are fooling us and are perpetrating a massive public
relations hoax. A third interpretation is that
companies are taking voluntary steps that are
genuine but inadequate to solve the problems at hand
and are mainly meant to prevent stricter,
In any event, it would
behoove enviros to be more skeptical of corporate
green claims and less eager to jump into bed with
business. It certainly makes sense to seek specific
concessions from corporations and to offer moderate
praise when they comply, but activists should
maintain an arm’s-length relationship to business
and not see themselves as partners. After all, the
real purpose of the environmental movement is not
simply to make technical adjustments to the way
business operates (that’s the job of consultants)
but rather to push for fundamental and systemic
Moreover, there is a
risk that the heightened level of collaboration will
undermine the justification for an independent
environmental movement. Why pay dues to a green
group if its agenda is virtually identical to that
of GE and DuPont? Already there are hints that
business views itself, not activist groups, as the
real green vanguard. Chevron, for instance, has been
running a series of environmental ads with the
tagline “Will you join us?”
Wasn’t it Chevron and the other oil giants that
played a major role in creating global warming?
Wasn’t it Chevron that used the repressive regime in
Nigeria to protect its environmentally destructive
operations in the Niger Delta? Wasn’t it Chevron’s
Texaco unit that dumped more than 18 billion gallons
of toxic waste in Ecuador? And wasn’t it Chevron
that was accused of systematically underpaying
royalties to the federal government for natural gas
extracted from the Gulf of Mexico? That is not the
kind of track record that confers the mantle of
In fact, we shouldn’t
be joining any company’s environmental initiative.
Human activists should be leading the effort to
clean up the planet, and corporations should be made
to follow our lead.
Alcan, a Canadian company, has decided to sell its 45 percent stake in Utkal Alumina International Limited, a company aiming to produce alumina in the state of Orissa in India. Alcan had been under pressure for years to withdraw or at least ensure the project had obtained the free prior and informed consent of local communities.
Community members, mostly "scheduled tribes" Adivasis, have opposed the Utkal project, to protect their right to control local resources and avoid environmental damage. The project, which is in its "engineering phase" has already started to displace the 200 or so families living on the site of the future alumina plant. Herders and others would also be affected by the mining operation. It is unclear how many people would be affected but some critics have estimated that over 10,000 people would suffer. At least 23 villages would be affected by the project.
In December, 2000, police in Kashipur opened fire on protesters opposed to the Utkal mine and smelter, killing three people. One of the partner at that time, Norsk Hydro of Norway, immediately pulled out and sold its share to Alcan.
Activists from Alcan't in India, a solidarity group based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, are pressuring Alcan to compensate people whose "lives have been ruined through jailings, beatings, displacement, and even death due to Alcan’s involvement."
Last year, Alcan promised it would provide an answer to shareholder activists by March 2007 on its involvement in the project. Shareholders had filed a proposal (see 'Tis the Season for Shareholder Activism) asking for an independent study on the consent of the community, a proposal that received a surprisingly high 37 percent. (Similar resolutions typically get between zero and ten percent. Any resolution that scores in the higher end of that range is taken seriously by management)
The Indian partner in the Utkal project, Hindalco, the industrial division of the Indian conglomerate Aditya Birla group, which owns 55% of the project, has not given any indication that it will change its plans.
Alcan, on the other hand, invests a lot of money in public relations to promote its sustainability strategy, has portrayed itself as a minority partner that does not participate in the real decision making around this project.
“We have carefully weighed the opportunity and risk presented by the Utkal Project, and, given constraints within the governance structure that limit Alcan's ability to participate in key decisions, believe that we have acted in the best interests of all our stakeholders,” Jacynthe Côté, president and chief executive officer of Alcan Bauxite and Alumina, said in a statement.
Alcan says it will keep a commercial interest in the project by continuing to "benefit from an Alcan technology supply agreement", according to the Alcan press release, but it does not give further details.
Editor's note: The decision of Alcan to pull out of the Utkal smelter reflects similar dissatisfaction over aluminum smelters around the world. Sujatha Fernandes reported for us from Trinidad on a similar project in the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville area (see “Smelter Struggle: Trinidad Fishing Community Fights Aluminum Project") that was canceled in January 2007 although the Alcoa is now hoping to get permission to relocate the project to Otaheite Bay, which also serves as a nesting ground for the scarlet ibis, one of Trinidad and Tobago's national birds, as well as 36 other avian species.
And communities in Iceland have also been battling a proposed Alcoa smelter, for which the gigantic $3 billion Karahnjukar dam, north of Vatnajokull, Europe's biggest glacier, is being built. The Guardian did a great story ("Power Driven") on this in 2003, and the New York Times recently did a feature on what it called the angriest and most divisive battle in recent Icelandic history. Updates can be found at the Saving Iceland website.
Continuing our film recommendations from last
week, we'd like to mention "Total Denial" - a new
documentary on corporate-financed human rights abuses in Burma. The film was
made by Bulgarian-born Milena Kaneva.
The Austin-Chronicle newspaper in Texas called the film:
"heart-wrenching and utterly
chronicles a major human rights lawsuit brought by EarthRights
International and villagers from Burma against oil giant Unocal, a
company based right here in California, as well as a French
multinational named Total. A number of screenings are coming up
in the next few weeks here in the U.S.
If you live in the Bay area, do check it out on Thursday, in
Los Angeles on March 27th or in Washington DC on April
The lawsuit was brought by 11 Burmese peasants who suffered a variety of human
rights violations at the hands of Burmese army units that were
securing the pipeline route. These abuses included forced relocation,
forced labor, rape, torture, and murder.
The case was spearheaded by Ka Hsaw Wa, the executive
director of Earth Rights International, an organization based in
Washington DC. Of the Karen indigenous minority in Burma, he was one of the student leaders in the 1988
nation-wide student uprising for democracy and freedom, and has been a
human rights activist since he fled Burma in 1988. He was helped by
Paul Hoffman of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Hadsell &
Stormer, and Judith Brown Chomsky.
Almost a decade after the case was brought,
the court decided that:
that the military had a record of committing human rights abuses; that
the Project hired the military to provide security for the Project, a
military that forced villagers to work and entire villages to relocate
for the benefit of the Project; that the military, while forcing
villagers to work and relocate, committed numerous acts of violence;
and that Unocal knew or should have known that the military did
commit, was committing and would continue to commit these tortious
The legal basis for the case was a laws called
the Alien Tort Claims Act (a 1789 law intended to curb piracy on the high seas by extending U.S. jurisdiction to cover breaches of international law outside its borders), which has been used
primarily to sue international human rights abuses in U.S. courts. In recent
years a number of plaintiffs have sued multinational corporations for
abuses outside the U.S. under this law. While many of these cases are
now in court, Unocal decided to settle out of court and
compensate the victims in January 2006.
The case is based on two
incidents: the shooting of peaceful protestors at Chevron's Parabe
offshore platform and the destruction of two villages by soldiers in
Chevron helicopters and boats.
Last week U.S. District Judge
Susan Illston in San Francisco agreed
that the Nigerian plaintiffs: "have presented
evidence of a link between the conduct of Chevron in the United States
and the attacks in Nigeria at issue" as well as evidence that the corporation had
substantial control over its Nigerian unit, that it
"designed and adjusted the general security policies and
procedures" of its subsidiary and approved payments from the
subsidiary to the Nigerian government security
The particular abuses at issue
are the November 10, 1995 hangings of Ken Saro-Wiwa and John Kpuinen,
two leaders of MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People),
the torture and detention of Owens Wiwa, and the shooting of a woman
who was peacefully protesting the bulldozing of her crops in
preparation for a Shell pipeline by Nigerian troops called in by
There's a constant stream of good films coming out about corporate malfeasance and we'll try to keep you updated on this blog about some of our favorite ones.
"Shadow Company" opens tonight at the Roxie movie theater in San Francisco. This documentary follows the tale of James Ashcroft, a college friend of film maker Nick Bicanic, who quits his job in a British law firm to take a job with a private security company in Baghdad, whom many human rights activists consider to be "mercenaries," or soldiers for hire made famous by Blackwater in Fallujah.
It's simple math: you have a given individual who has the prospect of risking his life as part of a member of a nation-state military for X amount of dollars or doing virtually the exact same level of risk and almost the exact same job for roughly three to five times the money for a private company. The proof is in the pudding. A very large number of U.S. and U.K. Special Forces are asking for early retirement, and it's a serious problem.
Like any good documentary, "Shadow Company" has no shortage of "talking heads" ï¿½ expert human rights activists and academics alike ï¿½ but it also has quite a few fun little graphics, historical footage, and lots of action to explain the history of private military companies.
What sets this film apart from the classic military channel films or even your typical Amnesty fare, is that it chooses not to take sides, but allow the characters to argue the case for and against private military work in their own words. There's Cobus Classens, a South African mercenary who worked for Executive Outcomes; there's Robert Young Pelton, author of the "The Guide to the World's Most Dangerous Places;" and there's a professor of ethics and a lobbyist for the "International Peace Operations Association" (yes, there is an industry association, believe it or not).
There could have been voices of Iraqis who are rightly angry that men in plainclothes and assault weaponry have taken over their cities and obey no laws. (Yes, there are clips from the classic Al Qaeda videos, but that's not the same as interviews with the citizenry.) All in all, it is very educational and a good introduction to this emerging business and the potential threats to human rights.
"Shadow Company" only discusses the gun-carrying contractors. Another excellent (though one-sided) film that explains other contractors like Halliburton who do military logistics is "Iraq for Sale."
Greenwald's films are produced quickly and distributed widely by his supporters. He is one of the most successful grassroots film-makers in history ï¿½ he made "Uncovered: The War on Iraq," "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" and his most recent, "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."
His fans applaud his work; his detractors, such as Fox's Bill O'Reilly, call him "a radical progressive who blames America first," as well as "a liar and an idiot." He calls it "People Powered Film." It could be the start of something.
Greenwald's films cover very important issues, but they would benefit from interviewing some of the promoters of military contracting, if only to learn why this business is so profitable. More movies on corporate malfeasance next week.
This week's CorpWatch feature highlights the plight of indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, where landowners feel that they are cheated out of their resources, livelihoods, and just compensation by the world's largest gold producer, Barrick Gold.
We depend on our land. You depend on money. Money is not need, it is only a want, but it is need in western society. I live on land, which is my stomach. I grow food from this land and then I survive. But now, where can I get food?
Also, the fact that mineral deposits, including oil, copper, and gold, account for two-thirds of PNG's export earnings leaves them susceptible to the Dutch Disease, or the phenomenon wherein resource exports raise the exchange rate for a country's currency, thereby making their labor less desirable. While this only accounts for a tiny part of the negative consequences of mining, it does illustrate that even within an economic paradigm, mining carries negative consequences for 'development', especially open pit mines because they require less human labor. Large mineral exports also make countries more susceptible to corruption because of the negotiating power held with government gatekeepers.
"There is not sufficient disclosure in an
understandable form for citizens or civic groups to determine whether
they are indeed benefiting as they should according to current law in
The fact that gold is a largely useless metal (that is already hoarded and unused in large quantities) makes the destruction caused by it's extraction all the more tragic. According the No Dirty Gold Campaign, 80% of the gold is used by the jewelry industry. On average, the production of one gold wedding ring produces 20 tons of waste.
Metal prices are booming, and Canadian mining companies are taking advantage of the same prejudicial conditions to expand into all corners of the globe, manipulating, slandering, abusing, and even killing those who dare to oppose them, displacing Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities alike, supporting repressive governments and taking advantage of weak ones, and contaminating and destroying sensitive ecosystems.
Barrick's plans to "relocate" three glaciers - 816,000 cubic meters of ice - by means of bulldozers and controlled blasting, is seen by mine-opponents as symbolic of the company's utter insensitivity to the environment. As headwaters for a water basin in an arid region receiving very little rainfall, many opponents are gravely concerned for the ice. They say the mechanical action involved in moving the glaciers will irreversibly melt much of it, jeopardizing a delicate ecological balance further downstream.
While Barrick originally planned to "relocate" three glaciers to another area, since being denied their original plan, the project now aims to build an open-pit mine next to the glaciers. However, most alarmingly, since construction has started on the mine, the glaciers have been depleted an estimated 50-70 percent, according to Chilean General Office of Waters (DGA). Barrick attempted to blame global warming for the melting, but those claims have been disproven.
Mining in the U.S.
In the U.S., Western Shoshone lands now account for the majority of gold produced within the United States and almost 10 percent of world production. The scale of development is unprecedented and will leave a legacy of environmental impacts for centuries into the future.
Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on February 17th, 2007
US car makers and the US oil industry appear to be speeding in opposite directions in what may seem like a complete paradox. Just as companies like Chevron, Exxon and Shell announce the highest profits of any company in history, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors sales are in free fall. Is the oil industry in Houston is smarter than the car industry in Detroit?
Ford announced a global loss of $12.7 billion last year. The company plans to close 16 plants and cut up to 45,000 jobs in North America. Chrysler made a $1.5 billion loss last year and just announced it will cut 13,000 jobs. General Motors cut 35,000 production jobs last year but is suggesting it might have turned a profit after losing $10.6 billion in 2005. (The company "found" $200 million in earnings previously unaccounted for between 2002 and 2006, according to a Friday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But given that it has restated its results seven times in the last two years, the numbers maybe rather meaningless.)
That adds up to $82 billion, three times greater than the losses of the Big Three car companies!
What's the difference between the two industries? Those of us that live in North America know exactly why: the price of gasoline has soared since the invasion of Iraq, and the oil companies have taken advantage of the high prices to cut themselves a bigger piece of the pie. Consumers don't have a choice as the oil industry is an oligopoly.
On the other hand the car industry is much more competitive, so consumers do have some choice.
Instead of buying giant cars that consume more gasoline than the original Model T Ford made in 1908 (the energy efficiency of a Ford Explorer is 16 miles per gallon versus the 25 miles per gallon of the signature Ford car), US consumers have made the cheaper choice and bought Japanese-made cars.
Japanese car maker profits are in stark contrast with the Big Three. Toyota is expecting a $13.4 billion profit for the fiscal year ending next month while Honda is predicting 2006 profits to come in close to $5 billion.
Ten years ago, General Motors controlled about a third of the U.S. market while Toyota's share was closer to eight percent. As General Motors has lost about eight percent of the market, Toyota has gained about the same.
(Another major difference between the two companies: General Motors expects to pay $50 billion in health care costs for its retired workers, while Toyota's Japanese workers are covered by a government health care system.)
Simple, isn't it? Energy conscious vehicles could turn around the US car makers and government provided health care for workers could cut Detroit's losses.
Yet, that would not solve all our problems. Even if the Big Three are losing market share, U.S. citizens are still buying cars that emit greenhouses gases and contribute to global warming. The latest figures show that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions during 2004 increased by 1.7 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which released the figures last April. This was the largest annual amount ever produced by any country on record.
Perhaps the price of gasoline is still far too low? If doubling the price of gas has crushed the once mighty U.S. car industry, what if prices were to double again? People might start shopping close by, taking buses and trains to work. New jobs would be created by small local businesses for all those Wal-Mart employees and out-of-work Big Three employees.
Toyota and Honda might have to give way to a bus system or railways! Gasp! How archaic! How could the U.S. pay for a new mass transit system? Well, I heard some folks in Houston just found $82 billion... and the Japanese car makers have another $17 billion. that could pay for a lot. (That's not their money, its money taken out of the pockets of consumers who had no choice)
The U.S. needs mass transportation - and it needs to stop sprawl - lessons on how to do this can be found anyway outside the borders of this country when people live, work and shop in communities and take bicycles, buses and trains to work.
If commuters in the U.S. were to stop driving altogether, we could slash global fossil fuel emissions by 25 percent. Now that would be a revolution, and it would reverberate through history. How America saved the world it might even surpass Superman as a story for ages to come! If not, there won't be much more history to write. But that final page in human history might record that the U.S. failed to act.
The Paris tribunal will examine the 1999 Erika tanker disaster that poured 20,000 tonnes of oil into the sea, polluted 250 miles of coastline and caused $1.3 billion in damage. At least 150,000 seabirds were found dead on the coast and up to 10 times as many were probably lost in the oil-blackened seas. Observers say this may also turn into a trial of the "globalized" international shipping system as the Erika was crewed by Indians, sailing under a Maltese flag, chartered by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas for a French oil company.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit between the state of New York against Exxon and four other companies has recently been announced. This suit addresses an oil spill from the 1950's that was several times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil leak in Alaska, but lay undiscovered until 1978. According to New York state attorney Andrew Cuomo, Exxon has been slow to clean up, with an estimated eight million gallons of oil and petroleum byproducts still underground and toxic vapors from the ground threatening neighborhood health.
"There are people who live above this that still don't know about it,'' said Basil Seggos, chief investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental group that sued in 2004 to try to force Exxon Mobil to clean up the creek. Others in Greenpoint have become spill experts, according to Seggos, and they say the fumes that rise from basements and sewers are especially bad when the barometer drops before a storm. "The locals tell you they know when it's going to rain because they can smell the oil.''
The report quotes Gbabor Okrika, the councilor representing the affected communities:
"Chevron is not bothered about the health of the people they are only concerned about their operations and they have now started a process that can only divide the people and create further division among them."
Also, last month's massive leak in the Chad Cameroon Pipeline caused a storm of criticism regarding the environmental safety of this project. This Exxon-managed pipeline extends from landlocked Chad through Cameroon and extends 11 kilometers off the coast into the Atlantic. This project, which is overseen by the World Bank, has already received much criticism due to money from this project fueling conflict in Chad.
IRIN News quoted Kribi Mayor Gregoire Mba Mba:
"Our town lives on fishing and tourism. If more incidents like this or worse occur it is the economic future of the town that is threatened."
Environmental groups are warning that a similar spill could happen in the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline operated by BP that transports crude 1750 kilometers from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea. On Monday, a coalition of Azeri, British and US watchdog groups leaked a report from the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which says that cracks and leakages in the coating of the pipeline will need to be monitored closely.
Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on February 12th, 2007
Technology consultants Booz Allen Hamilton may not be on the top of everyone's lists for conflicts of interest, but Congressman Henry Waxman revealed some rather interesting information about this McLean, Virginia, company at last week's hearing on contracting abuse.
Waxman told the hearing that Booz Allen had $97 million in contracts with the Department of Homeland Security in 2005. One job that Booz Allen staff were hired to do was to help plan, award and manage the federal government's SBI-Net program, a high technology security fence between the U.S. and Mexico (Joe Richey wrote us an article on this program - see Border for Sale)
Of the 98 personnel assigned to the SBI-Net project office as of December 2006, 60 work for contractors like Booz Allen. The company that these personnel are overseeing for SBI-Net is Boeing.
What Waxman finds worrying is the fact that Booz Allen has had an ongoing relationship with Boeing since 1993 to assist Boeing in maintaining its market share in the airplane industry, and other extensive relationships with the aircraft manufacturer since 1970.
The question is an important one: how can you be an impartial supervisor over someone who also pays your bills?
Booz Allen is no stranger to the inner workings of government, though. They happen to be one of the largest contractors to the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Tim Shorrock has done some digging into this subject, which you can read in his Mother Jones article: The Spy Who Billed Me.
Contractors supervising their own business partners is fashionable in Washinton DC these days, so we are glad to see that Scott Shane of the New York Times has started a regular series on this subject which he calls "The Fourth Branch of Government". In the first article about this phenomenon he wrote:
In June, short of people to process cases of incompetence and fraud by federal contractors, officials at the General Services Administration responded with what has become the government's reflexive answer to almost every problem.
They hired another contractor.
It did not matter that the company they chose, CACI International, had itself recently avoided a suspension from federal contracting; or that the work, delving into investigative files on other contractors, appeared to pose a conflict of interest; or that each person supplied by the company would cost taxpayers $104 an hour.
... CACI had itself been reviewed in 2004 for possible suspension in connection with supplying interrogators to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Tina Ballard, deputy assistant secretary for policy and procurement for the U.S. Army, told the same hearing that they had taken back $19.6 million from Halliburton for employing private security guards in Iraq, because their contract specifically stated that they could only use U.S. military for security. "We removed the money yesterday," said Ballard (on February 6th, 2007)
Halliburton, a Houston, Texas-based company, has been paid over $20 billion to provide logistical support to U.S. troops occupying Iraq such as building bases, cooking food and cleaning toilets.
Although Halliburton director of security, George Seagle, acknowledged that the company had used Blackwater and other private security sub-contractors in Iraq, he denied that the company was working for them in Fallujah, the day that the four Blackwater men were killed in Fallujah in March 2004, as related earlier. He also told the Congressmen that he did not know what company provided security for their convoys because that was the responsibility of the sub-contractor.
"You should know who you hired, who you sub-contracted to," scolded Republican Congressman Christopher Shays. "You can't be Pontius Pilate and wash your hands of the matter."
Seagle's statement contradicts a 2004 investigation by the Raleigh News-Observer, which unearthed documents that suggest that Blackwater was working indirectly for Halliburton via a complex pyramid of sub-contracting.
An email dated June 3, 2004, produced by Congressman Waxman at the hearing, quotes James Ray, a Halliburton contract administrator, warning the company that they could get into trouble for using Blackwater. "We should not attempt to effect a material change in our contract with the government by hiring a company that we know uses armed contracts. That company is an agent of KBR (Halliburton) and if anything happens KBR is in the pot with them. Even with lipstick, a pig is a pig. Dancing around it will only weaken out position with the government."
Blackwater counsel Andrew Howell says that the men who were killed in Fallujah, were providing security for a company in Kuwait named Regency Hotel, which in turn was employed by a company named ESS in Germany.
Throwing fresh doubt on this matter, was Steve Murray, the director of contracting for ESS, who was also at the hearing says that the four men who were killed that day were actually protecting another major U.S. engineering company named Fluor on that particular day.
But Tom Flores, the director of security for Fluor, who also testified at the hearing, says he was unaware that the Fallujah convoy was protecting his company.
"This tells me that we are not going to have good quality work if neither the government or the contractors can tell us who the subcontractors are," said an exasperated Shays.
Lawyers for Blackwater, the private security company, today publicly acknowledged that one of their security guards shot dead an Iraqi man whom he worked with. "He was off-duty that day," said Andrew Howell, the company's general counsel told a Congressional hearing today. "We brought him back to the States the next day and took him off the contract."
The story of the killing, which took place on December 24, 2006, was first broken by Bill Sizemore of the Virginian Pilot less than a month ago.
The admission by Blackwater's lawyer came at a hearing that was convened by U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman at the House Government Reform Committee.
Blackwater, a North Carolina company, became famous when four of their contractors were shot and killed in Fallujah in March 2003, sparking a massive U.S. military assault on the city in which hundreds were killed. (Excellent accounts of this incident can be found in Robert Young Pelton's new book: "Licensed to Kill" and Jeremy Scahill's forthcoming book: “Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” out later this month from Nation Books) The company was back in the news ten days ago when five of their employees were shot down as they accompanied U.S. embassy employees in Baghdad.
The admission by Blackwater confirms worries that armed contractors working directly or indirectly for the U.S. government have been involved in killing Iraqi civilians and that they have escaped the rule of law in Iraq or in the United States.
An article in the Washington Post in September 2005 quoted Brigadier General Karl R. Horst, deputy commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which is responsible for security in and around Baghdad. "These guys run loose in this country and do stupid stuff. There's no authority over them, so you can't come down on them hard when they escalate force. They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath. It happens all over the place."
The article described the shooting of an Iraqi man named Ali Ismael in Erbil, Northern Iraq by unamed U.S. private security contractors.
Nor is Blackwater the only company to have been accused of shooting at Iraqi civilians with an intent to kill.
Shane B. Schmidt, a former Marine Corps sniper, and Charles L. Sheppard III, a former Army Ranger, have sued the company, which they say fired them after they filed a report on July 8 that their shift leader fired deliberately and unnecessarily at Iraqi vehicles and civilians in two incidents while their team was driving in Baghdad.
Schmidt and Sheppard's lawsuit claims that the Triple Canopy employee announced that he was ''going to kill someone today,'' stepped from his vehicle and fired several shots from his M4 assault rifle into the windshield of a stopped white truck. The men claim that the truck was not an evident threat and that their team was not in danger. The men say in the suit that the shift leader then returned to their truck and said, ''That didn't happen, understand.'' Later that day, the suit says, the shift leader said, ''I've never shot anyone with my pistol before,'' and then opened the vehicle door and fired seven or eight shots into the windshield of a taxi.
* Custer Battles, another U.S. security company, was accused of shooting at Iraqis in February 2005, in an investigative report by NBC News. Titled "U.S. Contractors in Iraq Allege Abuses." The report quotes four former U.S. soldiers.
"[He] sighted down his AK-47 and started firing," says (Corporal Ernest) Colling. "It went through the window. As far as I could see, it hit a passenger. And they didn't even know we were there."
Later, the convoy came upon two teenagers by the road. One allegedly was gunned down.
"The rear gunner in my vehicle shot him," says Colling. "Unarmed, walking kids."
In another traffic jam, they claim a Ford 350 pickup truck smashed into, then rolled up and over the back of a small sedan full of Iraqis.
"The front of the truck came down," says (Captain Bill) Craun. "I could see two children sitting in the back seat of that car with their eyes looking up at the axle as it came down and pulverized the back."
* CorpWatch's David Phinney was among one of the first reporters to chronicle the infamous "Trophy Video" in Novermber 2005, in which security contractors for Aegis, a British company, in Iraq, were seen shooting at Iraqi civilians.
Paul Bremer, the U.S. envoy who ran Iraq for over a year, will testify before the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, February 6th, 2007. This rare opportunity to see what the man we call the Wizard of Oz is rare, so CorpWatch plans to attend. Why do we call him the "Wizard of Oz", you may ask? Well, for those of you who remember the children's book by L. Frank Baum, the man who ran the land of the Munchkins, was protected from his subjects by special soldiers in the Emerald City.
And "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" is the title of a simply incredible book, that every member of Congress and the public at large, should first read to understand why Iraq is such a mess today. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the bureau chief of the Washington Post in Baghdad for almost two years, published an account of the so-called Green Zone, the six square miles that the new rulers of Iraq have lived in ever since they occupied the country in April 2003.
This books lays out in hilarious detail the adventures of Paul Bremer, protected by his private security detail from Blackwater, and two of the three other men who testify on Tuesday: Tim Carney and David Oliver.
Tim Carney has just been appointed by Condoleeza Rice to oversee U.S. reconstruction and development projects in the country. Chandrasekaran tells us that Carney, who was in charge of the ministry of industry and minerals, was also a big game hunter who has hunted elephants, cape buffalo, giraffes, warthogs and two species of zebra, but sadly had no experience in either industry or minerals. (He was however a personal friend and ex-deputy to Paul Wolfowitz) In "Emerald City" we learn about his disastrous attempts to privatize Iraq's industries.
David Oliver, was Bremer's budget chief in the Emerald City. He first drew up a plan to fix Iraq that would have cost $60 billion. Bremer asked him to cut it to $18 billion and Oliver obligingly slashed the budget to ribbons.
Chandrasekaran's book is easily the funniest in what is now a library of books on the U.S. in Iraq, although ultimately it tells a tragic tale. The stories he tells reveal an incompetent and ideological group of inexperienced people. He lets us know that the nickname for the first group of advisors - Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance or ORHA - was the "Office of Really Hapless Americans" and that the organization that Bremer ran - the Coalition Provisional Authority or CPA - was also known as "Can't Produce Anything."
Some gems from his book:
An exchange between, Bernard Kerik, the New York cop who was put in charge of the Iraq police, in conversation with Robert Gifford, his predecessor, about a group of Iraqi judges who came to visit him.
"Bob, who are these people? Who the fuck are these people?" "Oh, those are Iraqis" "What are they doing here?" "Bernie, that's the reason we are here.
John Agresto, the director of St John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who was a friend of both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney's wife, was put in charge of Iraq's university system.
He left the country after saying to Chandrasekaran what must be one of the most compelling confessions of failure by a Bush supporter: "I'm a neoconservative who has been mugged by reality."
And Chandrasekaran has a wonderful description of life inside the Emerald City aka the Green Zone, catered by Halliburton.
"You could dine at the cafetaria in the Republican palace for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread or a lamb kebab. The fare was always American, often with a southern flavor. A buffet featured grits, cornbread and a bottomless barrel of pork, sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. There were bacon cheeseburgers, grilled bacon-and-cheese sandwiches and bacon omelets."
"Hundreds of Iraqi secretaries and translators who worked for the occupation authority had to eat in the dining hall. Most of them were Muslims, and many were offended by the presence of pork. But the Americans running the kitchen kept serving it. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food."
Chandrasekaran, who had first hand access to Paul Bremer, provides a delightful antidote to the more ponderous and self-important book by his chief subject: "My Year in Iraq" (Simon and Schuster, 2006). Although it should be said that Bremer's book is an important insight into why the U.S. failed in Iraq, chronicling in minute detail how he worked to manipulate Iraq's politics by creating the Iraqi Governing Council.
But read Bremer's book only after you read Chandrasekaran, and another book that I also heartily recommend: "Babylon by Bus" (Penguin, 2006) by two young volunteers from the United States named Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann, who worked under Bremer, who were put in charge of non-governmental organizations in Iraq.
The book, which is a modern day equivalent of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" consists of them boasting about their complete lack of qualifications for the job and the chaos that they took advantage of by getting stoned on Valium, drive around rip-roaring drunk, helped soldiers get illegal steroids. The book, which is alternately funny and horrifying, explains that they did what they thought was best under the circumstances but admitted freely that they had no idea what they were doing.
"Babylon by Bus" concludes with the person that they selected to take over their job being targeted and killed in June 2004 and an apology to the people of Iraq:
"(W)e apologize for the reckless, unplanned, understaffed, corrupt, and wasteful way in which our country occupied and failed at rebuilding your shattered nation. For every innocent (person) who was killed, tortured, or injured by our country, we extend our deepest sympathy."
But back to the hearing on February 7th, 2007, in Washington DC. The fourth man that will testify is also a staunch friend of the administration: Stuart Bowen. There the similarity between the four men ends, because Bowen is honest and competent, and has dedicated his last three years to uncovering fraud in Iraq.
To learn about his work you need to check out the website of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) although I dare say that you will find it rather dry reading, being composed of serious audit reports and project assessments.
If that does not draw your fancy, check out a sobering and well written book by T Christian Miller, titled "Blood Money" (Little, Brown 2006) that portrays Bowen, a former fund raiser for George Bush in Texas, as a man who is a mix of "professor, political junkie and prosecutor." And also read a series of articles by Ed Harriman of the London Review of Books, who has been following SIGIR's work in detail. Another journalist who has tracked the work of SIGIR practically daily is James Glanz of the New York Times.
Back to Miller. Some more gems from his excellent book, which members of Congress and the public really should read, to get an adequate picture of what went wrong in Iraq's reconstruction.
"A nation-building process crafted with the care of a sand castle."
"The rebuilding process was like an enormous bulldozer with a cinder block on the gas pedal, grinding blindly forward but accomplishing little." " Achievements were tallied like body counts: another 100 schools painted, another clinic opened, another 1000 Iraqis employed - statistics that said little about the reality on the ground. It was rebuilding without a foreman or blueprints"
(Miller is perhaps one of the best investigative journalists who has tracked infrastructure and corruption projects until the Los Angeles Times put him on the environment beat. His work is as relentless as Chandrasekaran's is humorous, although both do an excellent job of explaining why the U.S is failing so badly, with their intimate portraits of the real heart of the occupation.)
He interviews Douglas Feith, the under secretary of defense for policy, at his home in Washington about the infamous Halliburton no-bid contracts and Dick Cheney. He tracks down the failure of Halliburton to fix Iraq's oil fields and restore the natural gas supply, perhaps one of the few detailed accounts available in print on what has really happened to Iraq's main source of revenue.
Miller visits Parsons engineering at the company headquarters in Pasadena, California, and at the Green Zone in Baghdad, and tells how they botched the job of fixing Iraq's infrastructure. "Fear and confusion were better reasons than greed for explaining the way that the company acted the way it did." The company was "caught in a crossfire between customer satisfaction, profit and death."
The book tells the sad tale of Colonel Ted Westhusing, who reportedly committed suicide (a matter of some dispute) soon after discovering allegations of fraud by a Carlyle Group subsidiary that was training Iraqi commandos.
And lastly, but not least, it also has excellent descriptions of how David Oliver and Paul Bremer botched the plan for Iraq's reconstruction.
Our next posting, hopefully, will come from the inside the Throne Room, where Henry Waxman, playing the role of Dorothy Gale, will attempt to uncover the real story behind the Throne of the Wizard of Oz.
John Kenney, a former advertising guy, wrote an op-ed entitled "Beyond Propaganda" last week in the The New York Times about his disillusionment upon finally accepting that the new company name and identity for BP he helped create – "Beyond Petroleum" to replace "British Petroleum"– has turned out to be just so much bunkum designed to make a dirty oil company look environmentally friendly on TV, while it's busy drilling for ever more petroleum and spilling billions of gallons all over Alaska.
Its nice to know there are (or were) still idealists in the ad business, people who believe their job can be something noble instead of public deceipt and manipulation. And kind of sad he was so naive.
We at CorpWatch, however, have always been cynical enough to see through obvious rebranding. Way back in 200, we wrote this about BP's new image: "British Petroleum: Beyond Pompous, Beyond Protest,
Beyond Pretension, Beyond Preposterous, Beyond Platitudes, Beyond
Posturing, Beyond Presumptuous, Beyond Propaganda... Beyond Belief."
The Times-Picayune has followed up on an issue that CorpWatch broke back in May, namely, how the people barely scraping by in New Orleans are being asked to foot the bill for the private utility's recovery from Katrina. Now it seems ratepayers, who are dealing with higher rents and fewer jobs to begin with, will be paying electricity bills 50% higher than before Katrina. Not because Entergy can't afford to fix its own infrastructure, but because doing so would bite into profits.
Rita J. King, author of our report "Big, Easy Money: Disaster Profiteering on the American Gulf Coast," noted four months ago that Entergy's corporate structure deliberately shields it from most risk associated with doing business in Hurricane Alley. Although Entergy New Orleans is a wholly-owned subsidiary, it is fiscally independent of its massive parent. Therefore, the larger Entergy doesn't have to make up its losses in case of, say, a major natural disaster. What Entergy N.O.'s insurance didn't cover it is demanding from the state government in the form of a block grant. The rest will come out of the pockets of it's customers, many of whom will be unable to pay, and therefore unable to stay.
This is a evilly clever arrangement. Entergy has New Orleans over a barrel. Ratepayers will complain to their lawmakers, who will be motivated to favor directing a massive public grant to a private corporation in order to keep rates down and taxpayers and voters happy and, more importantly, in Louisiana at all.
The Times-Picayune notes that the latest proposed hike is being justified as a "fuel adjustment charge." Which is a time-honored and now again fashionable way to raise prices for just about anything without looking greedy.
It is Katrina anniversary week, and news outlets are abuzz with stories probing why, 12 months after the worst natural disaster in American history, so little progress semms to be made. USA Today notes that the price tag for recovery and reconstruction stands at $122 billion, and shows no signs of slowing its ascent.
It is important to note that the war in Iraq is very much man-made, and was very much voluntarily created.
We at CorpWatch strive to put numbers like these into perspective. Our new report, "Big, Easy Money: Disaster Profiteering on the American Gulf Coast" explores where all of that money appropriated to Katrina relief so far has gone. And the answer is: into the same pockets as much of the money appropriated for the war. Huge multinational corporations such as Halliburton, Bechtel, AshBritt and CH2M Hill (who have well-documented ties to the Bush Administration and/or members of Congress) have made a fortune from no-bid and contingency contracts to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, and have also received similar contracts to clear debris and rebuild the Gulf Coast. And the very same problems have emerged: overcharging, underperformance, and a near complete lack of accountability.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on August 21st, 2006
Paul Krugman today has an interesting take on yesterday's news that the I.R.S will be outsourcing the collection of back taxes to private debt collection agencies today.
"It’s an awful idea. Privatizing tax collection will cost far more
than hiring additional I.R.S. agents, raise less revenue and pose
obvious risks of abuse. But what’s really amazing is the extent to
which this plan is a retreat from modern principles of government. I
used to say that conservatives want to take us back to the 1920’s, but
the Bush administration seemingly wants to go back to the 16th century.
And privatized tax collection is only part of the great march backward."
Creating a profit incentive for debt agencies to go after taxpayers is just another step – in concert with wiretapping, for example – in institutionalizing the corporate-government war on the individual. And in handing over "public good" duties to corporations, to whom the very concept of public good runs counter to the profit motive at the center of their identity. Of course the biggest tax cheats in America are corporations and millionaires with abusive tax shelters and the means to exploit every loophole available to them. Will the collection agencies turn on their fellow corporations?
Krugman notes what CorpWatch has been tracking for years: that we are already outsourcing the dirty bits of war to private security contractors (or "mercenaries"), seriously considering privatizing Social Security, handing contracts out for public infrastructure and utilities, and otherwise privatizing some of the most basic responsibilities of government.
But the potential for abuse is staggering. Imagine the collection agencies that win these contracts - certainly, in keeping with the pattern established in federal contracting in Iraq, Afghanistan and the American Gulf Coast. They will be overwhelmingly those that have been profligate in their financial support of the campaigns that won their new bosses office in Washington. So is it much of a stretch to imagine that those same agencies might single out of aggressive collection those individuals and organizations who criticize and challenge the same administration?
The Writer's Guild of America has been trying to unionize reality TV for two years, arguing that staffers who concoct challenges and situations in which the "real" drama unfolds and then patch hundreds of hours of footage into a compelling episode, are in fact storytellers in a sense, and should thereby be represented by the WGA.
Some of the models on the show have joined the picket lines in sympathy. Unsurprisingly, they are getting a lot more attention than most picketers we ever see. Those Chilean miners just don't look as good with pluging necklines and empire waists.
The Open Voting Foundation has discovered that those notorious Diebold electronic voting machines can be made to behave in a completely different manner than the tested and certified models with the flip of a simple switch.
If you have access to these machines and you want to rig an election,
anything is possible with the Diebold TS -- and it could be done
without leaving a trace. All you need is a screwdriver.” This model
does not produce a voter verified paper trail so there is no way to
check if the voter’s choices are accurately reflected in the tabulation.
You will recall that the CEO of Diebold, Wally O'Dell, pledged millions to the Bush campaign ahead of the 2004 election and told the president that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," just as the company was pushing its paperless voting system on the state oh Ohio - a crucial swing state.
The machines have had spectacular failure rates, and Diebold has repeatedly resisted calls for it to supply a paper trail for its systems, so votes can be verified in the case of a dispute. O'Dell has since left the company, but there is reason for cynicism still - Diebold controls half the market for electronic voting machines and in the wake of the 2000 fiasco in Florida (think butterfly ballots), Congress is pushing states to invest in computerizing elections.
Concerns have resulted in more careful testing and certifcation of the machines to prevent errors, but this new discovery makes the entire certification process moot. A simple flick of a switch makes the machines eminently hackable and elections supremely fixable. Be afraid.
We knew no good could come of Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of MySpace, the popular community web space, and of course we were right.
Last week, following the sad demise of the net neutrality amendment at the hands of Big Telecom and Big Media, the web was alive with the video of Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska explaining why equal access to the Internet is bad, because it clogs the system. He explained how it took him a long time to get an email (Stevens called it "an internet") from his staff because it was getting tangled up in all of the stuff on the web.
Apparently feeling the American people did not understand what the Internet is and needed to have it explained to them by an expert such as himself, Stevens described the netwrk as a "system of tubes." His jolly cluelessness has made for tons of fun for bloggers and other web denizens, including a MySpacer who put Stevens' embarrassing video on his page, along with a groovy backbeat.
The page was exceedingly popular. Too popular apparently. MySpace deleted the user's page and all of its contents. MySpace spokespeople have since claimed the enitre incident was the result of a glitch. Uh huh.
CBS Evening News and ABC Nightline are both working stories about wounded civilian contractors fighting for insurance coverage from their employers.
It's a very rich story. The Pentagon's privatizing of military support services may or may not save money, but it certainly does privatize the human toll of war.
Civilians are coming home by the thousands with injuries sustained in Iraq. Whenever the Pentagon and the news media report US casualties -- the 500 dead (or more) working under US contractors are ignored.
The story is also a nightmare for many civilians serving in Iraq. A good number of them went to Iraq because they were making good money -- and, as the president told them, "major combat is over."
Thousands are suffering from battle fatigue -- once known as soldier's heart and now even more widely known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Veterans struggled with the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs for years to get the acknowledgement and support for the debilitating condition. PTSD is one reason for the huge homeless problem among Vietnam vets.
Now civilian contractors are fighting the same battle -- not to mention the struggle to get coverage and disability benefits for physical injury.
(The first story to tackle the issue of civilians fighting for their insurance payments, Adding Insult to Injury, appeared under my byline. Just one of many stories framed by me that set the tone for major news organizations to follow. Anytime you guys want to send a check or share some credit, please do.)
My understanding is that both CBS and ABC are relying heavily on two fabulously strong sources for their insurance angles: Jan Crowder and Houston attorney Gary Pitts.
Jana runs several Web sites to help support contractors working in Iraq and their families, most notably Contractors in Iraq. Gary Pitts represents dozens of clients suing companies for their coverage. Jana, me and CorpWatch regularly refer potential clients to him.
While ABC and CBS will undoubtedly focus on KBR truck drivers (some riveting amateur video of insurgent attacks shot by truckers is available -- and in the hands of CBS), there are plenty of other companies in the same pickle, including Titan, which provides translators to the Army in Iraq. The San Diego Union ran an excellent series on the issue.
I admit when I heard that Ken Lay had died, I sat bolt upright in bed and then wondered what to think. No more. The bastard flipped America - and especially the thousands of peniless ex-Enron employees, and the entire state of California - a final bird. Not a day in jail. Not another penny to the people he stole from.
Perhaps what shocked me most was the discovery that the convicted felon was at home in Aspen, Colorado when he died, out on a $5 million bond while awaiting sentencing. How, I wondered, could this little man who claimed to be $250,000 in debt, be living so high, just a month post-conviction? Ah, the American legal system. Had Lay been, say, an African American looter in New Orleans, he'd have died in a rat-infested cell.
And, lookee here: poor, poor Kenny-Boy had a Goldman Sachs investment account worth over $6 million when he died. Woe was he, indeed.
Now we learn that the civil suits aimed at collecting some of Lay's ill-gotten assets for the benefit of those bilked by his scheming may be dropped. Lay's wife, who stands to inherit the estate, will likely keep it all. This is the woman who staged the most grotesque PR stunt ever when she opened a second-hand store (called, repulsively, "Jus' Stuff" to sell of trinkets from the Lays' 15 homes, claiming she was destitute.
It is infuriating, particularly if you don't believe in karma, or hell, or any other means of divine retribution available after the grave. It almost makes you believe he died on purpose.
"Progressive" economist Jason Furman and Barbara Ehrenreich are currently engaged in an eye-opening dialogue over at Slate. He presents the old red-herring argument that boils down to "What do you elitist liberals have against saving working people money?"
He makes some points I'll concede that I think critics should internalize: it isn't the low prices we object to, it's the way Wal-Mart treats people. If anything, the efficiencies that allow Wal-Mart to have such low prices do not require that the company abuse its employees, fail to provide a living wage or the most basic benefits, or to source product from factories that abuse people oversees. Wal-Mart's low prices, and its low regard for its own employees has been proven to depress wages in the communities where it operates. If Wal-Mart is so clever, why doesn't it innovate when it comes to how it treats human beings? Why doesn't it spend as much money actually improving communities as it does telling us about how it improves communities?
The New Left Review will either excite or exhaust your brain. But if you want to see the rise of capitalism on a global scale through the eyes of an economist who speaks economese, this is your guy: Robin Blackburn. I'm not saying I understood the whole thing (I wonder if many outside the ivy-clad ivory towers could), but the whole issue of how corporations came to be the driving force in almost everything in the world, and how money became both the ends and the means to all things, is somewhere here between the lines.
The NLR summarizes the piece thusly: "The concept of alternative futures, banished from postmodernity’s
eternal present, flourishes on the financial summits of the global
economy. Robin Blackburn argues against a neo-Luddite dismissal of the
new financial engineering techniques by the Left, while coolly
assessing the economic and social costs of their current configurations."
Uh-huh. I almost said that.
The gist is, once you see everything - people, the environment, cultures - as commodities, it all makes perfect sense. Of course, money doesn't have a soul.
Therefore, this begins to appear to be a genius corporate philosophy:
In the years 2001–03 about three million jobs were lost in the United
States. By the turn of the century Enron’s managers had become famous
for a regime in which each employee knew that one tenth of the staff,
those who failed to reach trading targets, would be sacked each year,
no matter how good or bad the overall performance. Many of the most
powerful corporations today do their best to avoid having a workforce;
instead they out-source and sub-contract.
We've seen see how well that works.
Ultimately, the soveriegnty of financial institutions that make this entire "financialization" thing work, actually causes corporations and the system they have creates, self-destruct (see Enron, WorldCom, Delphi et al):
[F[inancial profits over the last
decade have mainly taken the form of the cancellation of promises made
to employees—exploitation over time—the erosion of small capital
holdings by large and unscrupulous money managers and the swallowing of
shoals of tiny fish by a shark-like financial services industry. Few of
the gains from the reallocation of capital through superior risk
assessment have been channelled to production. Financial profits have
instead prompted a surge in upscale real-estate prices and the turnover
of the luxury goods sector. The mass of employees and consumers have
sunk deeper into debt. Yawning domestic inequalities have been
compounded by escalating international imbalances, with an inflow of
foreign capital covering a deficit on the us
current account. With a sagging dollar, an oil price shock and rising
interest rates, American households—the consumers of first and last
resort—are likely to find the strain of carrying the world on their
shoulders ever more difficult. Financialization promotes such a skewed
distribution of income that it ends by undermining its own
Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's lobbying firm, the Ashcroft Group, has been hired by General Dynamics to represent it on "trade and defense issues," reports O'Dwyer's PR Daily. Working on the account are Juleanna Glover Weiss, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former press secretary; Lori Day Sharp, who worked under Ashcroft at the Justice Department; and Willie Gaynor, a former Commerce Department official who was western finance director for the 2004 Bush campaign. The Washington Times reports that General Dynamics "received a $30.7 million U.S. Navy contract last week and was selected -- along with Lockheed Martin in Bethesda -- to submit a bid to design and implement part of the government's Integrated Wireless Network. ... The steady stream of orders from the U.S. Army -- which now total about 25 percent of the company's sales -- provides a solid base that will continue for years. ... The defense contractor's net sales have more than doubled since 2000 to $21.24 billion last year."
Back in the day, tobacco companies used quaint tactics to hook kids on their deadly wares: cartoon character spokescamels and candy-flavored tobacco. The former, being rather blatant, was outlawed - the latter is still considered a stealthy way to capture a youth market, especially in the developing world.
R.J. Reynolds, of spokescamel fame, has come up with a new way to tap into kids' yearning to seem grown up: booze-flavored cigarettes with a gambling theme. Part of its new line of "Exotic Blends" are flavors such as "Screwdriver Slots," "Blackjack Gin," and "SnakeEyes Scotch." A trifecta of dangerous legal addictions.
Of course, Reynolds claims it is only aiming for the "young adult" demographic, but I can smell the cigarette smoke and mirrors as well as the next guy. This Italian blog has a great graph that shows that children aged 17 (who are not allowed to buy cigarettes legally in all 50 of the United States) like flavored cigarettes almost as much as young adults 18-20 years old. After 20, the taste for novelty smokes appears to wear off as the addiction sets in.
The malignant shamelessness on display here is nothing new. Let us not forget the days when cigarette companies actually talked up the health benefits of their products. Some things never change, they just put on new thin veils.
OK, I have to start just assuming that ted Koppel, once the lovably goofy nerd who dared ask the really boring but important questions of the day on national television (although at a time almost no one was still awake), is simply goading us on. He cannot possibly believe that his modest proposal in today's New York Times op-ed is actually in any way a good idea. He of all people should recognize that he left out all the really important questions, and they aren't even the boring ones!
Koppel argues that perhaps the answer to our over-extended military force trying to fight multiple wars and assist in multiple humanitarian efforts is to call upon private security contractors to do the heavy lifting.
Koppel caught the wonk virus: he sees the whole issue in terms of political expedience and/or fallout. Never mind the causes of the problems he seeks to address with mercenaries; never mind the morality (indeed, patriotism) of paying others to fight and die for your causes.
The draft is unpopular! The military is overextended! Answer: Blackwater!
Holy bejeezus. Hang on there, pilgrim.
First of all, perhaps if we had not declared war on an unidentifiable and undefeatable enemy ("terrorism"), we might not be quite so over-extended. Perhaps if we had provided enough troops in the first place to secure the peace after the fall of Saddam Hussein, we would not now be so over-extended. Ah, but that is another argument for another day.
Koppel's list of "factors" that make a rent-a-military a good idea includes some real chokers:
"• The unwillingness or inability of the United Nations or other multinational organizations to dispatch adequate forces to deal quickly with hideaous, large-scale atrocities"
Ted, what about the United States' unwillingness and inability to do the very same? We lecture the UN and NATO about not doing enough, and yet we commit not one soldier to the effort. We've got no room to throw shame around on that one. But again, another argument, another day.
"• The expansion of American corporations into more remote, fractious, and potentially hostile settings."
Ahem. Since when has it been the American soldiers job to die for corporations? Since when do we go to war expressly for the purpose of defending corporate interests abroad? We do, of course, but even George W. Bush has the decency to tell us it's for "freedom."
Koppel goes on to argue that perhaps our future is one of thousands of bands of roving, hired mercenaries, each defending the interests of its benefactor - be it a corporation or a nation.
Of course, Koppel must know that this already happens every day. Shell "allowed" the Nigerian military to execute the activists who were making it difficult to keep drilling for and pumping out oil from Ogoni native lands. Freeport McMoRan was just exposed for having made illegal payments to the Indonesian military (which has murdered thousands of civilians) to protect its interests in the region. Multinational companies operating all over the world hire private contractors to "protect their interests," which, according to reliable sources, sometimes amounts to killing whoever gets in the way of maximum profit.
And let us remember, before we embrace private contractors to fight our national battles, that it was a private security contractor - Jack Idema - who set up a private jail in Kabul and tortured hundreds of innocent civilians because he thought they looked like terrorists. Let us not forget that Halliburton, Custer Battles, and other private contractors hired to "support" our military efforts have in fact overcharged or outright defrauded the very government they supposedly serve. Blackwater last year was embarrassed by the revelation of an internal memo which described shooting people as "fun."
Can you imagine, though, the Koppelian future Ted has proposed? A
stateless world where private contractors maintain private armies for
multinational corporations, not countries. Spooky.Thousands of angry little bands of mercenaries crawling the globe, each answering to a different wealthy benefactor, each with a different objective, none subject to the Geneva Convention, bound only to shareholders? There are simply no enforceable standards of accountability in this privatized future. There is certainly no room for morality.
Tell me you're floating a little trial balloon here, Ted, to watch our heads explode. Tell us you're playing devil's advocate. But most of all, please tell us you're not serious.
How cynical is this? In order to take advantage of quotas that require a certain nmumber of federal contracts be awarded to minority-owned and operated businesses, the cuddly sounding "National Center for the Employment of the Disabled" used the word "disabled" to win a contract to manufacture miltary uniforms, and then failed to actually employ disabled people to do the work.
Well, the FBI agents who raided the company's factory last week found out that a whopping 7 percent of the laborers at the plant were moderately to severely disabled. The contract was awarded based on assurances that the labor force would be at least 75 percent disabled.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson may think he's Steven Colbert, but his blunt brand of "humor" is a little too, er, observational for a laugh.
The secretary was at a forum in Dallas earlier this month and told this hilarious story of an advertising contractor who had just been selected to receive a contract from HUD:
"He had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years. He made a heck of a
proposal and was on the (General Services Administration) list, so we
selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he
said something ... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.'
"I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President
Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect -- the
president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the
contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the
president, don't tell the secretary.'
"He didn't get the contract. Why should I
reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to
try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the
contract. That's the way I believe."
Jackson later said the conversation had never happened, that it was a joke, and that political leanings do not figure into the contract award system. Qualifications and competitiveness of bids are the only criteria, he insists.
More emails to and from former FEMA heavy Michael "Brownie" brown have emerged from the week of Hurricane Katrina's landfall, illustrating just how much non-Katrina business was going down as Brown fluffed his hair and the devil bore down on New Orleans. We checked out The Center for Public Integrity's analysis ...
Among the missives was one -- hours after the hurricane made landfall -- from former Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchinson, brother of GOP Congressional power-broker Asa Hutchinson. It said:
"I am certain you are overwhelmed by the situation regarding Hurricane
Katrina. I apologize for bothering you at this critical time and for
going directly to you about this," wrote former Sen. Tim Hutchinson
(R-Ark.) "I would very much appreciate being able to bring the
President of Blu-Med Response Systems, Gerritt Boyle, in to meet with
you as soon as your schedule permits."
While Blu-Med indeed supplies emergency health facilities and might have been of use in the immediate crisis, that was not what this urgent meeting was about. It was, instead, scheduled to be a face-to-face whine about the fact one of Blu-Med's competitors had won a non-Katrina contract Blu-Med itself had wanted, and they were using their friendly ties with Hutchinson to push the issue.
Have we mentioned how much we love the Yes Men, since even before the Dow Hoax that suckered the BBC in 2004?
They have now come out with a faux press-release and website claiming that Halliburton has solved global warming. Good for a laugh, and an inevitable cease-and-desist, so we repost here the press release before it is wiped from the ether.
Halliburton Solves Global Warming SurvivaBalls save managers from abrupt climate change
An advanced new technology will keep corporate managers safe even
when climate change makes life as we know it impossible.
"The SurvivaBall is designed to protect the corporate manager no
matter what Mother Nature throws his or her way," said Fred Wolf, a
Halliburton representative who spoke today at the Catastrophic Loss
conference held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Amelia Island, Florida.
"This technology is the only rational response to abrupt climate
change," he said to an attentive and appreciative audience.
Most scientists believe global warming is certain to cause an
accelerating onslaught of hurricanes, floods, droughts, tornadoes,
etc. and that a world-destroying disaster is increasingly possible.
For example, Arctic melt has slowed the Gulf Stream by 30% in just
the last decade; if the Gulf Stream stops, Europe will suddenly
become just as cold as Alaska. Global heat and flooding events are
also increasingly possible.
In order to head off such catastrophic scenarios, scientists agree we
must reduce our carbon emissions by 70% within the next few years.
Doing that would seriously undermine corporate profits, however, and so
a more forward-thinking solution is needed.
At today's conference, Wolf and a colleague demonstrated three
SurvivaBall mockups, and described how the units will sustainably
protect managers from natural or cultural disturbances of any
intensity or duration. The devices - looking like huge inflatable
orbs - will include sophisticated communications systems, nutrient
gathering capacities, onboard medical facilities, and a daunting
defense infrastructure to ensure that the corporate mission will not
go unfulfilled even when most human life is rendered impossible by
catastrophes or the consequent epidemics and armed conflicts.
"It's essentially a gated community for one," said Wolf.
Dr. Northrop Goody, the head of Halliburton's Emergency Products
Development Unit, showed diagrams and videos describing the
SurvivaBall's many features. "Much as amoebas link up into slime
molds when threatened, SurvivaBalls also fulfill a community
function. After all, people need people," noted Goody as he showed an
artist's rendition of numerous SurvivaBalls linking up to form a
managerial aggregate with functional differentiation, metaphorically
dancing through the streets of Houston, Texas.
The conference attendees peppered the duo with questions. One asked
how the device would fare against terrorism, another whether the
array of embedded technologies might make the unit too cumbersome; a
third brought up the issue of the unit's cost feasibility. Wolf and
Goody assured the audience that these problems and others were being
"The SurvivaBall builds on Halliburton's reputation as a disaster and
conflict industry innovator," said Wolf. "Just as the Black Plague
led to the Renaissance and the Great Deluge gave Noah a monopoly of
the animals, so tomorrow's catastrophes could well lead to good - and
industry must be ready to seize that good."
Goody also noted that Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society
was set to employ the SurvivaBall as part of its Corporate Sustenance
(R) program. Another of Cousteau's CSR programs involves accepting a
generous sponsorship from the Dow Chemical Corporation, whose general
shareholder meeting is May 11.
I could try cool, professional detachment, but it would be dishonest: I'm elated to see Michael Pollan now blogging over at The New York Times. As an idealist, a foodie, an amateur cook, and a guilty liberal, my passions and my ethics often collide over a corn-fed steak, an osso bucco or a prawn ceviche. But there are so many choices ... there is very little to defend a corn-fed, industry-raised and slaughtered beef meal, other than the fact it tastes really good. (And vegetarians, trust me, I've heard your arguements and I have felt the requisite guilt - I am simply weak-willed when it come to culinary self-indulgence. Although the movie "Babe" did end my consumption of most pork products, and I haven't bought veal in two decades.)
I have taken small steps - having locally-grown organic produce delivered weekly at ridiculously inflated prices; I hit farmer's markets when possible; I shop at Trader Joe's; I buy free-range, cage-free, antibiotic-free whatever; I buy organic at my local supermarket; I buy artisanal foods when I can afford them (which, in honesty, is pretty much never, but that's what credit is for). But is this really changing anything?
Pollan helps answer the questions tortured gourmands like me wrestle with daily. And not all of his answers make me feel any better. For example, your suspicions are correct if you think "free-range" is essentially meaningless in practice. The truth is, industrial agriculture is busily co-opting the organic and ethical foods market because suckas like me will pay more just to assuage our guilt. I'd rather believe the chicken on my plate lived a long happy life romping in the grass and sun. I'll pay to have the lie told me.
Anyway, Pollan's new book is out, which I'll buy of course (from Powell's!), but more happily, I will have his blog to tempt and torture me. Don't miss it if you are a food sensualist and a thinker about ethics.
I received an urgent update from Charlie Kernaghan over that the National Labor Committee about the situation in Jordan, where a free-trade arrangement has created a labor force of indentured servants, and spawned a human-trafficking industry. He writes:
Tens of thousands of foreign guest workers, stripped of their passports, trapped in involuntary servitude, sewing clothing for Wal-Mart, Gloria Vanderbilt, Target, Kohl's, Thalia Sodi for Kmart, Victoria's Secret, L.L.Bean and others.
In the Western factory, which was producing for Wal-Mart, four young women, including a 16-year old girl, were raped by plant managers. Despite being forced to work 109 hours a week, including 20-hour shifts, the workers received no wages for six months. Workers who fell asleep from exhaustion were struck with a ruler to wake them up.
At the Al Shahaed factory, also producing for Wal-Mart, there were 24, 38 and even 72-hour shifts. The workers were paid an average wage of two cents an hour. Workers were slapped, kicked, punched and hit with sticks and belts.
In a factory called Al Safa, which was sewing garments for Gloria Vanderbilt, a young woman hung herself after being raped by a manager.
Late last year (2002), Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Elizabeth Cheney paid a visit to the Al-Tajamout compound. The State Department official is also the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. "Jordan is a strategic tool for both the US and Israel," Marar says, noting the importance of the visit.
And yet, Jordanians own almost none of the factories. Most are owned and operated by entrepreneurs from China, Taiwan, Korea, India, Pakistan or the Philippines who import workers from over-seas.
Of the some 40 thousand workers employed in these Qualified Industrial Zones, fewer than half are Jordanian. Ninety percent are women under the age of 22, and almost all of them pay the minimum wage, about $3.50 a day.
Factory owner Syed Adil Ali says his factory only contracts Sri Lankan girls.
"They are very peace minded girls," he says. "I found some kind of problem with the boys. They made some kind of union, some kind of disturbance in the factory. So we prefer the girls."
And while we roll our eyes that The New York Times only managed to sniff out the story three years later, we give them props for a pretty good story on it last week.
You have to marvel at how news coverage of business so skews one's view of the world. It seems to strip writers of all human perspective. For example, this headline from the Cincinnatti Business Courier today:
It has been long in coming. The Pentagon is now demanding that contractors fight labor trafficking and lousy working conditions in Iraq endured by tens of thousands of low-paid south Asians working under US-funded contracts in Iraq.
In an April 19 memorandum to all Pentagon contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Joint Contracting Command demands that the widespread practice of taking away workers passports come to end. Contractors engaging in the practice, states the memo, must immediately "cease and deist."
"All passports will be returned to employees by 1 May 06. This requirement will be flowed down to each of your subcontractors performing work in this theater."
Contractors and subcontractors routinely hold workers passports -- in direct violation of US labor trafficking laws -- to prevent them from changing employers or leave wartorn Iraq.
As many as 35,000 low-paid workers are employed under Halliburton's sweeping, multibillion logistics contract serving the US military. Many of these workers are brought to Iraq by subcontractors from neighboring Arab countries -- countries that have been frequently cited by the US State Department for the exploitation of foreign workers.
A new April 4 contracting directive (I know the PDF is upside down!) also officially confirms the dirty little secret that reporters, military people and contractors have been complaining about ever since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq: Employers routinely have been exploiting many of the tens of thousands of south Asian workers working under US contracts.
The directive notes that inspections of Defense contractors in Iraq has revealed deceptive hiring practices, excessive recruiting fees that indebt workers for months if not years, substandard living conditions that include crammed sleeping quarters and poor food, and the circumventing of Iraqi immigration procedures.
The April military directive announces that contractors will be required to take part in new education and awareness programs, policy enforcement and inspections by Joint Contracting Command's Inspector General in the coming months for compliance.
A Notre Dame professor has analyzed Dick Cheney's 2005 tax return and concluded that our fair Vice President exploited a new tax law instituted post-Katrina to save himself several million dollars. It turns out that Smirky Dick used a loophole intended to encourage charitable donations for Katrina relief to write off charitable contribution which went to non-Katrina causes. That alone might not be enough to get irked about, except that it looks like the exploitation of the loophole was deliberate to minimize his overall liability, and he used Halliburton money to do it.
Cheney exercised some of his Halliburton options in late 2005, during which time that company's profits were soaring in part because of fat no-bid reconstruction contracts granted to its subsidiary KBR in the wake of Katrina. Cheney used those proceeds -- $6.8 million -- to donate to charities per his 2001 agreement to use his options only for charity.
Says the prof: "While there's nothing inappropriate about that from a legal
perspective, it does demonstrate how the legislation, which was sold to
the public as providing relief to Katrina victims, provided significant
tax benefits to the VP (and potentially other wealthy individuals) in
situations that have nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina."
Not illegal but definitely soulless, cynical, opportunist, and greedty. So, no big surprise.
Accenture, that former consulting arm of the scandal-plagued Arthur Andersen, won a contract last year to operate a call center in Texas to direct children and families to publicly available social services.
Turns out accenture is saving the state money by rejecting claims from families attempting to access the state's Children's Health Insurance Progam. The number of kids covered has plunged from 500,000 to 300,000.
I don't think Jonathan swift himself could come up with a more fail-safe modest proposal for saving money.
Two stories this week, that deserve to be looked at side-by-side:
You'd have had to have been sleeping to not know this before today, but the government had to conduct an expensive investigation to discover to their apparent surprise: "Army Corps overpaid on Katrina classrooms contract." (We are constantly tempted by the news media to start a blog called the "Duh Files," or the "No S--t Files.") Turns out the politically connected winner of that fat contract submitted an estimate, won the contract, then submitted a hugely inflated estimate, while a local Mississippi contractor had submitted a lower overall bid from the start.
So imagine our surprise (read: total lack of same), when PBS discovered that a school district in Mississippi where the well-compensated contractor was to build portable classroom buildings is actually holding classes in travel trailers, while students and teachers alike sleep in tents and cars.
I was reading this article about Wal-Mart tricking its customers into signing up for a stealth PR campaign to burnish the retailer's image, when this stopped me cold:
Thousands of area Wal-Mart shoppers have been asked in recent weeks to
join Working Families for Wal-Mart, a group headed by former Atlanta
Mayor Andrew Young. Those who did so may not have realized that they
had become the newest recruits in a fierce public relations war between
Wal-Mart and national labor unions.
Andrew Young?! Former program director of the SCLC? Friend and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr.?!
Its hard to be a conspiracy theorist when you keep being proved right.
Scotland's Sunday Herald reveals the United States' future plans to engage in world-wide information warfare using everything from PDAs to cell phones, to the web.
But are they really future plans? Our story on the use of poor-man's iPods to disseminate "information" and "education" to the people of Afghanistan would seem to indicate the plan is quite underway. Says the Herald:
"[P]sychological military operations, known as psyops, will be at the
heart of future military action. Psyops involve using any media – from
newspapers, books and posters to the internet, music, Blackberrys and
personal digital assistants (PDAs) – to put out black propaganda to
assist government and military strategy. Psyops involve the
dissemination of lies and fake stories and releasing information to
wrong-foot the enemy."
Of course, some of the pie-in-the-wi-fi plans do strike us as spooky (and kinda cool, in a dystopian horror-flick sort of way):
Thirdly, the US wants to take control of the Earth’s electromagnetic
spectrum, allowing US war planners to dominate mobile phones, PDAs, the
web, radio, TV and other forms of modern communication. That could see
entire countries denied access to telecommunications at the flick of a
switch by America.
Never mind that Iraq contractor Custer Battles was found guilty of $3 million in fraud just the week prior. Never mind that the Defense Logistics Agency confessed that it had been overcharged more that $300,000 by its suppliers of such crucial terror-fighting implements as refrigerators and ice-cube trays. ($32,000 for a refrigerator somehow didn't spark suspicion for years, nor did a $20 ice-cube tray; I'm in the wrong business). Never mind that the DLA decided to discontinue contracts with several suppliers deemed to have scammed them.
If it weren't my money, as a United States taxpayer, it would be hard to feel sorry for the feds for getting, er, used and abused. After all, the only way they can avoid being embarassed is to deny that they were suckered. Its like enabling an abuser. Rumsfeld pops up with a black eye, and says "I ran into a door," instead of "I bought a $32,000 fridge." Maybe he thinks deserves it.
The news in the past week that Tom's of Maine is being sold to Colgate-Palmolive, and The Body Shop will be acquired by L'Oreal disappoints some ... but creative thinkers might see opportunity where cynics see surrender.
Anita Roddick, a personal friend of mine and founder of The Body Shop, says L'Oreal won't change The Body Shop's core values (environment, human rights, fair trade, etc.), but rather that L'Oreal will be transformed. As she says, "I am, of course, pathologically optimistic. But that doesn’t mean I am wrong.
After all, Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's years ago, and the brand is still free of BGH and antibiotics, and the milk is bought from family farmers. Does it mean Unilever is any less evil? No, but neither is B&J, which is something, isn't it? Two steps forward, one step back is better than three steps back.
Colgate-Palmolive has been criticized for being anti-union, for putting unlabelled toxics in its products, and lacing its toothpaste with borderline toxic ingredients. Acquiring Tom's can be seen either as swallowing an embarrassing competitor, or an acknowledgement that Tom's natural formula works - there's a market for chemical-free products.
L'Oreal, after all, fired a counter clerk in 2003 for not being "hot" enough. And it has joined competitors such as Estee Lauder and Revlon in opposing "safe cosmetics" legislation. Is The Body Shop window-dressing, or is it an admission that doing good can actually be good for business? Guess it depends on how cynical you are. Maybe Roddick is right - maybe a vastly expanded market will be good for the communities from which The Body Shop souces its products. No one has accused The Body Shop or L'Oreal with being OxFam - they sell stuff you don't need. But at least with The Body Shop, if you're going to buy Body Butter anyway, its good to know you're helping women in Ghana feed their families at the same time.
Personally, I get irked at progressives who attack other progeressives for not being pure enough, for questioning any motives that don't keep us marginalized. Seems to me there's a place for open minds and optimism. At least until they are proven to be misplaced.
Here are some answers to some common questions about the Custer Battles federal contract fraud trial and its aftermath:
1. Why didn't the US Justice Department join in the Custer Battles lawsuit?
The plaintiffs invited them. After investigating under closed seal, the department decided against it. BUT, I did notice a Justice official sitting in the courtroom quietly taking copious notes on the proceedings.
2. Will there be criminal prosecution of Michael Battles and Scott Custer now that they have been found guilty of fraud in a federal civil case?
The plaintiffs' attorney Alan Grayson thinks not: "This is a huge embarrassment for the administration and they don't want to do anything to publicize it," Grayson said. "It's just another example of corruption and fraud that the administration does nothing about and willingly participates in. The Bush administration had people running around lining up contracts for contractors who turned out to be people who stole millions upon millions from the taxpayer."
3. Because Custer Battles was largely paid with seized Iraqi Assets, will Iraq be entitled to any or all of the damages?
No. It is considered war booty and property of the invading forces.
Our man in DC, David Phinney, has been covering the upstart private security contractor Custer Battles since long before the mainstream media had a clue who they were. Now the company, which has made millions in taxpayer money in Iraq, has been found guilty of federal contract fraud amounting to nearly $3 million. The firm was ordered pay nearly $10 million in restitution.
David has been at the trial in recent weeks, and sends us this post-verdict dispatch:
Scott Custer and Michael Battles discovered contracting business to be so good in Iraq for their new private security firm that they soon paid themselves bonuses between $3 million to $4 million in January 2004.
One month later company managers fired off internal memos warning the two entrepreneurs that the firm was regularly charging for goods and services never delivered or, if they were, at freakishly inflated prices.
That’s just one of the tasty items to come out of the three-week trial that found their company, aptly named Custer Battles, liable for massive contract fraud while working for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the March 2003 invasion On Thursday, a federal jury in Alexandria, Va., determined that Custer Battles must now shell out more than $10 million in penalties and damages.
"What they did is treason," claims attorney Alan Grayson, the lead attorney for two former Custer Battles business associates who filed the fraud suit more than two years ago. "There's no other word for it."
The $10 million judgment addresses only part of the complaint filed by the two whistleblowers, Robert Isakson and William Baldwin, which accuses Custer Battles of orchestrating a sweeping swindling scheme on Iraq contracts with the use of bogus invoices, forgery and shell companies in the Cayman Islands to fraudulently pump up their billings.
Thursday's verdict rules on a CPA contract to protect the multi-billion currency exchange program that replaced money used by Saddam Hussein's regime with new Iraqi dinars. A second trial is expected on a $16 million security contract for Baghdad's airport. Damages for the airport contract could reach $40 million or more if the company is found of wrongdoing.
During the three-week trial, Grayson was able to tease out the tale of the $3-million-plus bonuses.
"On January 2nd, 2004, you took a bonus of $3 million out of the company, did you not?" Grayson asked Michael Battles as he sat on the witness stand.
"I didn't take a bonus necessarily, but I took a draw," Battles, a 2002 Republican candidate for Congress in Rhode Island, responded curtly.
Grayson: "What's a draw?"
Battles: "A draw is a disbursement of funds to the principals.... And I was happy to say that, yes, we were successful enough that I took a $3 million draw."
At one point Battles attempted to deflect any responsibility in the management of his company by insisting he was largely involved with business development and "strategic initiatives." He rarely took a hands-on executive role, he said.
"One thing I learned as lieutenant is that the secret to successful leadership is to surround yourself with people smarter than you are," he said.
Later, Battles shared another lesson: "In retrospect, one of the things I've learned is don't put your name on your company,"
Meanwhile, it looks as though Isakson and Baldwin will be counting their money. Individuals are allowed to sue on behalf of the government when they have knowledge that the government is being defrauded. They may receive up to 30 percent of the money paid by Custer Battles.
Those not counting their money will be the Iraqi people. Much of the money paid to Custer Battles was from seized Iraqi assets. Judge T. S. Ellis III, of the Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., had ruled early in the trial preliminary proceedings that the False Claims Act applies only to bills paid directly from the American treasury.
This year, several big-budget and award-nominated films have dared stray into the subject areas we at CorpWatch cover everyday, validating our sense that we are really not laboring obsessively in the shadows on inconsequential things (don't you get your esteem from Hollywood?). We loved "Lord of War" for its remarkably honest protrayal of the international arms trade, "Syriana" for not trying to make the issue of oil, war and corruption in the Middle East any simpler than it really is, "The Constant Gardner" for daring to take on Big Pharma so baldly, and "North Country" for its impeccable timing and for keeping mining issues in the public eye.
But these films are just the latest in a long line of brilliant anti-corporate films. In the spirit of random lists and Oscar-season bandwagon-jumping, we present you the completely subjective CorpWatch Oscars, honoring our 10 favorite non-documentary films in Hollywood history dealing with corporate malfeasance. Your fave not here? Nominate your own!
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on February 23rd, 2006
Here's a story that will make your blood boil: The Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation, are planning a huge art museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. There's nothing wrong with a little culture in the Midwest, right?
Except when you consider how much they are spending on their little hobby, while resisting spending a fraction as much to simply pay their employees a living wage.
Rebecca Solnit's article on the subject will enrage you. She discusses a single painting the family recently bought for $35 million:
The average Wal-Mart cashier makes $7.92 an hour and, since Wal Mart
likes to keep people on less than full-time schedules, works only 29
hours a week for an annual income of $11,948--so a Wal-Mart cashier
would have to work a little under 3,000 years to earn the price of the
painting without taking any salary out for food, housing, or other
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on February 22nd, 2006
As much as this is a story of privatization and racism, it is also about cronyism. The New York Daily News notes that Dubai Ports World has at least two ties to the Bush Administration - Treasury Secretary John Snow who, a year after joining the administration, sold his company's port operations to the same Dubai firm; and David Sanborn, the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration who still runs Dubai Ports World's European and Latin American operations.
But before concluding that this is simply more Bushistic cronyism, consider that almost all of the United States' military supplies headed for Iraq and Afghanistan are channelled through Dubai's ports, at the pleasure of Dubai's government, which in turn just happens to run DP World. This is geopolitical quid-pro-quo. Don't piss off Dubai, and we can still run our wars in the Middle East.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on February 22nd, 2006
We were getting all ready to climb up on our soapbox to shout our revelation to the word: the scandal of the Dubai Ports deal is not the knee-jerk reaction that exposes a deep-seated anti-Arab xenophobia among average Americans and Congress alike. No, it's about the little-known fact that major operations of ports in America are sold off in the global marketplace. How would we feel if JFK International was run by a Venezuelan company? Or if our interstate railways were run by Pakistan, or China, or Canada for that matter? We assume too easily that certain basic infrastructure matters are of such national importance that we keep their care in American hands. That's our own naivete. In the global economy, everything's for sale.
Well, that's what we were going to say, but it turns out Joshua Holland over at AlterNet beat us to it:
This deal is about government procurement, one of the hottest
controversies in the trade debate, but one of which the general public
is largely unaware.
The U.S., E.U. and Japan -- the dominant
service economies -- have been pushing hard to get a deal done on
government procurement that would bring public purchasing of goods and
services into the WTO framework. Their goal is to give foreign-based
multinationals "national status," meaning that governments couldn't
favor domestic firms over foreign firms for any reason (except for
security issues, and this case wouldn't be likely to qualify as such).
assume that this UAE port deal was the best one out there -- that they
offered the lowest bid among highly-qualified firms. Under the
framework that we've been pushing, it would be a sanction-able
violation of WTO rules to discriminate against the company because it's
based in the Middle East.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on February 22nd, 2006
Great interview with the authors of "Pump and Dump: The Rancid Rules of the New Economy" on the WaPo site today. The book's authors float an obvious theory (to us anyway) of 1990s financial fraud called "pump and dump," in which corporate executives artificially inflate stocks and securities in order to sell
their shares at higher prices, leaving any fall-out and responsibility
on naive investors.
You don't say? We applaud the market timing of the publisher, releasing the book as they did during the Enron trial.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 28th, 2006
Stay Free! Magazineis always worth a read, and the current issue caught our eye with this ad. We forget that Monsanto was a chemical giant long before Round-Up and genetically modified crops.
Allison Xantha Miller's article on the history of plastics the current Stay Free! notes:
Plastics from cotton? The industry didn't always show
plastics futuristically. In some cases, like this 1939 ad from Monsanto,
it reassuringly tied plastics to nostalgia for America's agricultural
heritage and for a racial order in which African-Americans worked on farms
in the South. The ad speaks condescendingly of mysterious processes that
"create new materials from nature's crops," juxtaposing its knowingness
with the innocence and ignorance of children cavorting in the soft white
The Bush administration on Monday defended the government's oversight of the Sago mine and said none of the previous safety problems cited at the West Virginia mine appeared to be the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners.
That's sort of like an auto mechanic saying he forgot to tighten the bolts on a customer's car wheels after the tune-up, but the accident that killed him was a seat-belt issue. Just because the Bush administration never cited Sago for the safety issue that resulted in the tragedy doesn't mean it shouldn't have, or that the political coziness of the mining industry to the Bush camp might not have resulted in the oversight.
Not clear how this makes Bush look better: Yep, all of the citations we issued were obviously not as serious as the one we should have!
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 23rd, 2006
Categorically no, if we're to take a lesson from a recent experiment in Fresno, California. Fresno's City Council conducted a year-long competition pitting private contractors against city public works crews to see who did a better job paving their assigned roads in the municipality.
The city crew and two contractors were each given five neighborhoods to pave. The city crew finished its work in September - ahead of schedule and on budget. One private contractor had finished only 20% of its work by September and had its contract terminated. The other contractor hadn't even started paving one of its neighborhoods, and instead asked the city for $750,000 to complete the work.
The mayor still says the competition is too close to call (!). Some council members saw the competition as a waste of money, and illustrative of how city contracts need closer consideration and accountability.
"Awarding these contracts out, the administration is playing Russian
roulette with taxpayer money, and it's been a costly, very expensive
experiment," said Councilman Henry T. Perea.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 20th, 2006
As we write this, two more miners are missing in West Virginia as the result of a fire inside a coal mine. This time, the company that owns the Mine is Massey Energy - a mining giant with one hell of a bad reputation in Appalachia.
In 2000, a coal waste reservoir operated by Massey in Kentucky sprung a leak and dumped 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into local tributaries of the Ohio River. The accident killed more wildlife and destroyed a larger geographical area that the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which amounted to "only" 11 million gallons of oil.
A young investigator named Jack Spadaro was sent by the Mine Safety and Health Agency to investigate the accident. Hew discovered that Massey had been fully aware of the reservoir's likelihood to fail, and yet did nothing. Instead, Massey had poured money into Republican campaign coffers, including Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell's campaign committee and the Bush Cheney campaign. It just so happened that McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao was appointed Secretary of Labor after Bush's election. The MSHA is an agency within the Department of Labor. Furthermore, Bush appointed a former Massey executive to the MHSA's review committee which handles all legal issues related to the Coal Act.
Spadaro recommended that Massey be charged with criminal negligence. His superiors refused. And when Spadaro publicly questioned whether mine safety had been sold to the highest bidder under Bush, he was summarily fired.
Today, another huge Massey sludge pond at a Kentucky mine sits on a hill
above an elementary school. Coal dust blankets the school yard.
Neighbors want the pond decommissioned; in response Massey applied for
and won permits to build coal silos even closer to the school.
The company also regularly
violates coal truck weight limits, sending monster
trucks weighing 140,000–160,000
pounds hurtling through central Appalachia’s winding
roads. These speeding, overweight trucks damage roads
and kill, on average, four to six people a year in auto
accidents. Recently Don Blankenship, Massey’s CEO,
weighed in with his thoughts on killing innocent motorists:
“The truth of the matter is . . . four to six fatalities a year,
with the number of miles coal trucks are traveling on these highways each year,
is no worse than average.”
In addition to being openly
anti-union (only 5 percent of Massey’s work force is represented by a union),
Massey has been called one of the worst coal companies
in America for miner safety by the United Mine Workers
of America union, who also claim that the company uses
contracted management to avoid paying workers’ compensation.
Massey has been sued by its employees for overexposure
to coal processing chemicals and has been investigated
by the Mine Safety & Health Administration for chronic
health and safety violations at its mines.
In the past 2 years, the Massey mine where yesterday's fire broke out was cited by the MSHA 204 times for safety violations, but paid less that $50,000 in fines.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 19th, 2006
Great article by Richard Cohen in today's New York Times about Microsoft's recent willingness to cave in to the Chinese government and shut down an MSN blog by a Chinese journalist that criticized the current regime. They, of course, follow Cisco Systems, which sells the equipment the Chinese government uses to censor the Web and Yahoo, who revealed the contact information for a dissident who is, as a result, now in a prison camp doing 10 years hard labor.
This is just the same old birthday suit on a new emporer. The Gap, Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart and scores of other corporations who farm out manufacturing to subcontractors in developing nations have used the same tired excuse: Sure, the working conditions are bad, the labor and evironmental laws are nonexistent, and the pay is paltry - but that's how everyone does it in (insert country here). It's a positively Clintonian splitting of factual hairs - we're not breaking any local laws, we're complying with the local custom. They conveniently ignore the moral implication if, say, the local custom is to whip children who don't meet their quotas. The same semantic jig is on display whenever one of these multinationals falls back on the old reliable "we don't own the factory, so we can't be held responsible for what a factory owner does."
It is remarkable, and remarkably sad, that companies like Microsoft who have grown incomprehensibly huge and prosperous precisely because of certain freedoms and ideals that make America great, yet they choose to sell out other freedoms and ideals when it is convenient. For shame.
In this morning's email was a press release from an organization called American Rights at Work. Normally, we don't pimp for activists - we're an investigative journalism outfit. But dammit, they made us laugh.
They've launched a new Wal-Mart-bashing site (Yes, they're a dime a dozen; the form is the Google maps mash-up of 2006). This one features Garth Brooks - the spokes-singer who recently agreed to make his latest album available only through Wal-Mart - thereby pissing off and financially screwing many an independent and even chain record store. In a smirky flash movie, the grotesquely caricaturized Brooks prances about inside a Wal-Mart, singing a knock off of his old hit "Friends in Low Places"; here he warbles "I've got friends with low wages, their health care plan fits on two pages ...". The message, the form, the content are not new, but this is a clever execution that deserves a look. It evokes (one might say steals directly from) Jib Jab's monumental viral "This Land" during the 2004 presidential election. But it does touch on some legitimate issues.
Meanwhile, of course, Wal-Mart has been stocking its arsenal against the growing chorus of such loud-mouth critics who would question its angelic, altruisitc ways. A few months back it was revealed that the company had hired former campaign consultants from the Bush and Kerry campaigns to burnish its image in the halls of power and among the public at large. Things being what they are, what with Maryland's decision last week, perhaps these consultants are sleeping on the job (Kerry's image consultants certainly proved given to fits of narcolepsy).
Then of course, there was the dust-up earlier this month in which a San Diego blogger discovered that Wal-Mart's website featured pages where one could by the DVDs of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Planet of the Apes" which also recommended similar items - except that the "similar items" on these pages were all films about African-American history. Wal-Mart claimed a malfunction and denied racial malevolence. You goatta think that made those high-priced consultants shotgun the Kaopectate.
So I checked out Wal-Mart's charitable arm - the Wal-Mart Foundation to see how wrong these snarky yahoos - including the entire Old Line State - are. The website desribes how the store improves every community in which it operates, from educating kids to saving the environment. But what stumps us, is the site's downright peculiar slogan: "Wal-Mart Good. Works." Someone either has a severe verb deficiency, or Wal-Mart is tailoring its message for the caveman constituency (not sure this is a departure from usual). "Wal-Mart Good. Union Bad!" Wal-Mart say get your club, aisle 11. Always low-brow.
Spectacular. Bad-boy investment celebrity Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's "Mad Money with Jim Cramer," actually recommended today investing in "mine-safety" stocks. Not because it is important for us as a country to pick up the slack left by a "paper tiger" federal mine safety agency, but because there could be lots of dough in it.
According to the blog Crooks and Liars, Cramer actually said ""we're not partisan here... we're just looking to make money, and the Bush Administration has been negligent." And why on earth not cash in?
There is simply something obscene about the very suggestion.
Letting corporations clean up after other corporations sometimes leaves a bigger mess. At least, that is what Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in Massachusetts are saying today.
Massachusetts has outsourced its toxic clean-up responsilibities to private contractors, who have failed spectacularly in repeated state audits. (Most other states assign clean-up to public agencies.) Some of the findings in a review of Massachusetts state records:
• Three out of every
four private clean-ups failed to pass state audits
• Nearly one in ten
were so deficient that they were completely invalidated and retracted.
• Nearly three-out of
four (71%) of private clean-ups will require some sort of follow-up
work, such as retesting or additional soil removal
PEER says clean-up failure rates have almost doubled during Governor Mitt Romney's reign.
In all, the mine safety agency has rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.
The policy of the Bush Administration from the first has been to kowtow to energy interests, allowing them to tinker with the nation's energy policy, labor codes, and environmental protections in exchange for huge financial contributions to campaign coffers. Only today, in the wake of the Sago mine tragedy, we see how such policies can actually kill. And to think that West Virginia is a blood red state; perhaps not for long.
But this just beats all. On Wal-Mart's website, the page for the Planet of the Apes DVD set includes recommendations for "similar items." Listed there are films about Dorothy Dandridge and Martin Luther King, Jr., "Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," and "What's Love Got To Do With It," a film about Tina Turner.
UPDATE: Wal-Mart has apologized and claimed that it's cross-selling system had gone haywire. They deny that anyone perhaps coded some offensive keywords to enable the system to equate apes and African-Americans.
Tobacco tax revenues are up, but not as high as expected, and that means that health programs funded by tobacco revenue are gasping for air. This illustrates an interesting conundrum: how can state governments effectively fight tobacco use when they have arranged to be so dependent on the tax revenue smokers provide? Sin taxes like those levied on tobacco are supposed to dissuade people from using the product - but if too many are scared off, budget line items go up in a puff of smoke.
George Will recently made this same observation (although he demonizes state governments for their 1998 deal with the tobacco companies to seize proceeds from a legal and federally subsidized commodity), but with a decidedly different conclusion. He says the Master Settlement Agreement should be scrapped. But consider: if fewer people smoke, fewer people get sick, meaning fewer costs associated with both healthcare and lost productivity. In the long run, if the theory holds, income may dwindle at roughly the same pace that outlay does.
Quitting smoking takes time, patience and determination. Apparently, so does quitting tobacco taxes.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 2nd, 2006
Sure, sure, The New York Times is the voice of the status quo according to lefties, the bully pulpit of the liberal elite according to righties. But if corporate corruption, graft, greed, incompetence and influence-peddling are of concern to you - no matter your political stripe - you have to admit that a lot of stories used to fly under the radar of the Gray Lady are now frontpage news, and that is good news. Perhaps we can thank Kenneth Lay for that; what we at CorpWatch have long done just wasn't as sexy before he came along. Thanks, you big lug.
So here in the first week of a new year, we begin with a clean slate, ready for a year of customary despoiling. In reflection, let us review the year in corporate crime, courtesy of Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times. (Or, of course, you could page through a few thousand of our favorite stories on the subject from the last 12 months ...)
San Onofre, California, has a 950-ton
radioactive problem: a nuclear reactor built by Bechtel that nobody
wants. The unit was shut down over a decade ago in 1992 by its owners,
Southern California Edison, who preferred not to spend $125 million in
required safety upgrades.
The only place that will accept the reactor is a dump in South
Carolina but railway officials refused to transport the cargo across
the country. The next suggestion was to ship it via the Panama Canal
but the canal operators said no. So did the government of Chile when
the power plant owners asked for permission to take it around the Cape
of Good Hope.
The only option left is to ship it all the way around the world,
although even that is looking unlikely as harbor officials in
Charleston, South Carolina, are already suggesting that they may deny
the reactor entry. Edison officials are currently desperately looking
for a port that might accept the toxic cargo before the dump shuts its
doors in 2008. [...]
The local environmental costs continue to
mount every day as the plant sucks in huge quantities of plankton, fish
and even seals with the water to cool the reactors. It is destroying
miles of kelp on the seabed by discharging water that is 25 degrees
Fahrenheit warmer than ocean temperature, according to Mark Massara,
director of the Sierra Club's coastal program. [...]
Several former employees at the plant who have
developed cancer have also sued Bechtel and plant owner Southern
California Edison for exposure to radiation. It's a story that has
become depressingly familiar for dozens of communities living downwind
from nuclear plants that are seeing alarming increases in cancer.
Bechtel was also the contractor responsible for the biggest construction boondoggle in American history: Boston's Big Dig. Errors by Bechtel in planning and execution lead to massive cost overruns. As the Boston Globe observed at the time, "Yet, even as Bechtel's errors helped drive up the Big Dig's cost, the
company never paid for any of its mistakes. Instead, it profited."
Is this really the kind of company we want watching over the most sensitive and dangerous of projects?
While the award of the Los Alamos contract to UC and Bechtel surprised some, the company's long record of coziness with those in high government places even outpaces its rival for the contract, Lockheed Martin (which was to partner with the University of Texas to run the lab).
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on December 21st, 2005 CorpWatch Blog
The Pultizer Prize-winning and yet still oddly underappreciated Toledo Blade
ran a penetrating series this week on how specific Bush fundraisers
have seen their investments in the cadidate reap profitable policies.
It's worth a read as a primer on exactly how corporate executives and
lobbyists buy influence legally ... and sometimes not-so-legally.
example, Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim is chairman of Texas-based Pilgrim's
Pride, the country's second biggest poultry processor, and a Bush
"Pioneer" (meaning he has raised over $100,000 for Bush. He freely
admits he asked the president directly for a favor in 2002. And quite a
favor it was: Pilgrim asked Bush to speak to Russian president Vladimir
Putin about dropping that country's ban on chickens imported from the
United States. Shortly thereafter, Russia opened its markets to
American chickens. Pilgrim's company has also collected $60 million in
federal monies since Bush took office for selling his birds to the
Department of Agriculture.
then there's MBNA, the massive credit-card company which eclipsed Enron
last year as the largest corporate patron of Bush's entire political
career. The company regularly let the Bush campaign use its corporate
jet. It was MBNA's generosity in Bush's campaigns that may have
persuaded the president to push through a revamping of the nation's
personal bankruptcy laws. The result: $380 million a year annually
toward MBNA's bottom line. (See CorpWatch coverage of MBNA here.)
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on December 20th, 2005 CorpWatch Blog
It isn't new for the United States to fall behind the rest of the world on causes like global warming and arms control. But this week, news from the rest of the world reveals how much more seriously the tobacco problem is being addressed, even in the tiny, poverty-stricken country of Uganda.
After a series of high-profile lawsuits that mandated some of Big Tobacco's profits go to public service education campaigns, the industry has spent a lot of time and money advertising its altruistic side, while far less is being spent actually funding those community programs being hyped.
And there is always more. Just yesterday, a study showed that Indiana -- a major tobacco-growing state -- actually loses money because of tobacco.
Profits and tax revenue generated by tobacco production and sales is
far outweighed by the resulting costs associated with health-care and
decreased productivity due to tobacco-related illness and death.
But even with such evidence, tobacco companies are freer in the US than many other parts of the world. Appeals have shrunk the monetary awards resulting from those suits to negligible amounts, and tobacco again looks untouchable in this country. Last week the Illinois Supreme Court reversed a lower-court verdict penalizing Philip Morris over $10 million for defrauding customers into thinking its "light" cigarettes were less dangerous.
As ever, it keeps friends in high places to ensure that regulations like those in Uganda, China, and Australia do not happen at home. For example, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds reportedly supplied now-sullied Texas Senator Tom DeLay with their corporate jets as he flew from campaign fundraiser to campaign fundraiser.
R.J. Reynolds let DeLay use a company plane at least nine times since
1999, once joining Philip Morris in making jets available for a DeLay
PAC fundraiser at a Puerto Rican resort in winter 2002. R.J. Reynolds
spokesman David Howard said planes are loaned usually at lawmakers'
request and are only done if jets aren't needed for company business.
much more convenient as opposed to your regular commercial travel,"
Howard said, noting there is no need to go through airport security.
R.J. Reynolds' planes, smoking is allowed and there are usually
beverages and deli-style food. There's more leg room and the
convenience of phones.
The smoking rule suits DeLay, who likes
to chomp on cigars while golfing and reported spending at least $1,930
in PAC money on cigar-shop purchases. The cigars were reported to the
Federal Election Commission as donor gifts.
Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on December 20th, 2005
Welcome to the Corpwatch Blog! We're introducing this new feature as a tool for you to navigate our resources, and to help provide context to breaking news elsewhere on the Web.
For example, you may have read today that the ex-CEO of Qwest Communications was indicted today for illegally cashing in on his company's IPO during the Internet boom, to the tune of $100 million. But did you know that Qwest in 2001 entered into Enron's bogus scam to trade digital bandwidth like any commodity? Back then, investigators discovered that the deal was all smoke and mirrors: Qwest agreed to pay Enron $308 million for use of "dark fiber" --
unused fiber optic capacity. In exchange, Enron agreed to pay Qwest
between $86 million and $195 million for access to active sections of
Qwest's network. Both companies could report these phantom revenues on their balance sheets to fool investors.
It's this kind of news-behind the news only CorpWatch can offer, and we think this forum is the place to do it.
We hope you find this new blog to be useful, informative, and enlightening. Of course, we welcome your comments, complaints, and especially compliments.
"Progressive" economist Jason Furman and Barbara Ehrenreich are currently engaged in an eye-opening dialogue over at Slate. He presents the old red-herring argument that boild down to "What do you elitist liberals have against saving working people money?"
He makes some points I'll concede that I think critics should internalize: it isn't the low prices we object to, it's the way Wal-Mart treats people. If anything, the efficiencies that allow Wal-Mart to have such low prices do not require that the company abuse its employees, fail to provide a living wage or the most basic benefits, or to source product from factories that abuse people oversees. Wal-Maerts low prices, and its low regard for its own employees has been proven to depress wages in the communities where it operates. If Wal-Mart is so clever, why doesn't it innovate when it comes to how it treats human beings? Why doesn't it spend as much money actually improving communities as it does telling us about how it improves communities?