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Offshore Corporate Tax Havens: Why Are They Still Allowed?

Posted by Arianna Huffington on June 1st, 2010

Originally posted on June 1 on The Huffington Post.

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 indisputable.

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 the money.

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 time?

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 study found 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 receptionist.

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 2007.

"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 American people.

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.

Coming Soon to CNN: The PVC Manufacturing Capital of America

Posted by Mike Schade on May 19th, 2010

Originally posted on May 18 at The Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

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.

I’ll be there watching, will you?

Bad Karma in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Disaster

Posted by Phil Mattera on May 10th, 2010

Originally posted on May 7 at Dirt Digger's Digest.

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 were there.

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.

Oil spill changes everything

Posted by Michael Brune on May 2nd, 2010

Originally posted on on May 1.


Michael Brune

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.

We are 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.

This 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 Atlantic Coast.

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.

Another view: Why it won't be easy to replace fossil fuels

And it's 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 Management Service.

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Brune.

Banana Land and the Corporate Death Squad Scandals

Posted by Charlie Cray on February 25th, 2010

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.”
 [] 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."

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.

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.

Inspector General reports confirm CorpWatch story on Afghan power plant

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on February 9th, 2010

Three independent investigations have confirmed a CorpWatch investigation into a $305 million USAID project to build a diesel-fueled power plant in Kabul (see the original article here: "Black & Veatch's Tarakhil Power Plant: White Elephant in Kabul").

I've written an updated news story that is available from Inter Press Service.

Two of the independent investigations were published in mid-January by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. You can also download the reports from CorpWatch's website -- the first examines the Tarakhil plant and the second one examines the broader problems for the Afghan electricity sector. A third report on the failures of USAID projects in the Afghan electricity sector was published earlier by the USAID Inspector General, and comes to the same conclusions.

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.

Global Compact participant wins Survival Greenwashing Award 2010

Posted by on February 8th, 2010

Yaguarete Porá, a Global Compact participant from Brazil, has won Survival’s Greenwashing Award 2010. Survival is an international organization that supports tribal peoples worldwide.

Yaguarete has won the award for "dressing up the wholesale destruction of a huge area of the Indians' forest as a noble gesture for conservation", says Survival's director Stephen Corry.

The company owns 78,549 hectares of forest that is part of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode tribe's ancestral territory. After satellite photos were published around the world revealing that it has destroyed thousands of hectares of the tribe's forest, the company issued a press release announcing it intends to create a "nature reserve"on its land.

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.

Some 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 for all."

This video outlines Yaguarete's plans:


*Originally posted on February 1 at Global Compact Critics.

A Corporate Full-Body Scan

Posted by Philip Mattera on February 2nd, 2010

Originally posted on January 28 at Dirt Diggers Digest.

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 overall spending.

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 Constitutional amendment.

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 change.

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 information.

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.

Pecora Weeps

Posted by Philip Mattera on January 16th, 2010

Originally posted on January 15 at Dirt Diggers Digest.

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 damage.”

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 tongue-lashing.

25 Years and Still Fighting for Justice: When Will Dow Chemical Clean Up Its Poisonous Legacy in Bhopal

Posted by Tonya Hennessey on December 14th, 2009

Originally posted on, 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?

Take Dow Chemical, ranked #127 on the 2009 Global 500 List, and 2nd within the global chemical industry, with profits of $579 million. In 2001, Dow fully acquired Union Carbide Corporation. (See CorpWatch's wiki profile on Dow Chemical)

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.

Last week the group I direct, CorpWatch, published a new feature story by veteran activist and journalist Nityanand Jayaraman, “Bhopal: Generations of Poison.” In the article you’ll find a lot of historical detail, as well as findings from two new independent studies, released on December 1, showing continued high levels of contaminants in and around the factory site. See The Bhopal Medical Appeal’s “BMA Sambhavna Bhopal Water Report,” and The Centre for Science and Environment’s “Continuing nightmare in Bhopal: CSE laboratory tests soil, water samples from Union Carbide.”

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?

Instead, Dow has launched a Corporate Social Responsibility Campaign--Dow’s Global Water Initiatives, which doesn’t have a project in Bhopal--in a classic greenwash of its public image.

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.

Read about and help investigate corporate practices on CorpWatch's website--Collaborative Research On Corporations.

And join Students for Bhopal in their campaign to Dump Your Dow, until Dow steps up to account.

Chevron Gets Fixed

Posted by Antonia Juhasz on November 4th, 2009
Huffington Post

Originally published on 3 November 2009.

On Sunday, Chevron became the first oil company to come under a Yes Men Audience Attack.

(See Video, Photos, and Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum's Blog of event)

Chevron was chosen because Chevron is different from other oil companies.

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 Chevron too!

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 Corporation itself.

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 altogether.

Berkeley, Oakland urge oil money transparency

Posted by Josh Richman on October 20th, 2009

Originally posted, October 14, 2009 on

Berkeley City Council last night approved a resolution urging the U.S. Senate to approve S.1700, the “Energy Security Through Transparency Act” by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., which would urge the Obama Administration to require that companies disclose payments to foreign governments for oil, gas and mineral rights. Oakland City Council passed a similar resolution last week.

“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.

San Francisco-based Justice in Nigeria Now hails the cities’ actions as a moral victory.

“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.”

Still Learning Nothing

Posted by Mark Floegel on September 24th, 2009

Originally posted at

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 market.

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 back.

And we learned nothing from it.

Tightening the Corporate Grip: The Stakes at the Supreme Court

Posted by Robert Weissman on September 18th, 2009

Originally posted on 9 September at

Can things get still worse in Washington?

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.

Until 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.

The 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.

Overturning 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.

Yet 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 agenda.

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.

More 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.

In arguing to uphold the existing corporate expenditure restrictions, the Federal Election Commission has emphasized these common sense observations.

"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.

Public Citizen is organizing people to protest against a roll back of existing restrictions on corporate campaign expenditures. To join the effort, go to 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.

Ours 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 election outcomes.

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.

CorpWatch Bribery Report Helps Spark Dutch Inquiry

Posted by Anton Foek on August 20th, 2009

In July 2006, CorpWatch exposed evidence that a Dutch shipbuilding company, selling military equipment to Chile, was offering bribes to officials there. CorpWatch’s reporting is now fueling calls by anti-corruption activists and opposition politicians for a formal parliamentary investigation into the operations of the company, Rotterdamse Droogdok Maatschappij (RDM). 

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.

In early August this year, a high court in Santiago de Chile sentenced army General Luis Lobos and Brigadier General Gustavo La Torre to prison for accepting bribes of more than half a million dollars.

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.

Corporations and the Amazon

Posted by Philip Mattera on August 16th, 2009

Originally posted on August 13, 2009 at

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 environmental regulations.

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.

Chipotle Grilled!

Posted by Denver Fair Food on July 31st, 2009

Originally posted on July 23 at

Chipotle 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 "Chipotle Grilled: Burrito chain’s Food, Inc. sponsorship generates off-screen drama over farm-worker issues."

Schlosser 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."

Kenner 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 they will.”

Our cameo 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, Inc. screenings."

Our story of Chipotle's eagerness to shut up members of Denver Fair Food has really made a splash on the internet, appearing on the websites of the Organic Cosumers Association, the Coporate Ethics Network, US Indymedia, and others.

Of 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’s (Un)sustainability Index

Posted by Philip Mattera on July 24th, 2009

Originally posted on July 24 at

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 sustainability index.

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?

goodguideI 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 generous).

Maybe Wal-Mart should focus on improving its own scores before presuming to rate everyone else.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Shell's Settlement Doesn't Hide Unsettling Reality in Nigeria

Posted by Stephen Kretzmann on June 11th, 2009

Originally posted June 10, 2009, on The Huffington Post.

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.

Shell says 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.

Then there was this memo, requesting payment to the Nigerian military for an incident in which at least one Ogoni man died.

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 for all.

The struggle continues.

What's not in Chevron's annual report

Posted by Cameron Scott on May 26th, 2009

Originally posted at

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 soft-shoeing.

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 Chronicle interview 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 United States.

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.

The IDB—50 Years, Zero Reflection

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 region.

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:

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.

Originally posted on April 1,

Who Will Determine the Future of Capitalism?

Posted by Philip Mattera on March 13th, 2009

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.”

An article 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 series suggests 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.

Originally posted at:

The City Within

Posted by Mark Floegel on February 26th, 2009

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 individuals?”

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 social contract.

“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 reality.

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 crashes.

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.

Originally published at:

Not Quite Beyond Petroleum

Posted by Philip Mattera on February 20th, 2009

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.

Originally posted at:

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Norway finds Canada's largest publicly-traded company, Barrick Gold, unethical

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 2nd, 2009

Norway's Ministry of Finance announced Friday that it would exclude mining giant Barrick Gold and U.S. weapons producer Textron Inc from the country's pension fund for ethical reasons.  This is an especially significant judgment for Canada, as Barrick Gold is currently Canada's largest publicly traded company.

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.

The 10 Worst Corporations of 2008

Posted by on January 9th, 2009

What a year for corporate criminality and malfeasance!

As we compiled the Multinational Monitor list of the 10 Worst Corporations of 2008, it would have been easy to restrict the awardees to Wall Street firms.

But the rest of the corporate sector was not on good behavior during 2008 either, and we didn't want them to escape justified scrutiny.

So, in keeping with our tradition of highlighting diverse forms of corporate wrongdoing, we included only one financial company on the 10 Worst list.

Here, presented in alphabetical order, are the 10 Worst Corporations of 2008.

AIG: Money for Nothing

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.

Cargill: Food Profiteers

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 2008 alone.

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.)

Constellation Energy: Nuclear Operators

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 and 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.

CNPC: Fueling Violence in Darfur

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 investment."

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.

Dole: The Sour Taste of Pineapple

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 price.

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 workers.

Contract workers are paid under a quota system, and earn about $1.85 a day, according to ILRF.

GE: Creative Accounting

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 "performance reasons."

Imperial Sugar: 14 Dead

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 injured.

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.

Philip Morris International: Unshackled

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 world.

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.

Roche: "Saving lives is not our business"

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 Korea.

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 our business."

Originally posted on December 29, 2008, at:

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.

Hemispheric Conference against Militarization Says No to Merida Initiative, U.S. Military Bases

Posted by Laura Carlsen on December 30th, 2008
Americas Policy Program, Center for International Policy

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 conference site. 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 austerity.

Palmerola, 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 drugs."

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 of progress.

Both concrete 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.

The declaration 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."

Originally posted on October 17, 2008. Read the full declaration:

Popular Uprising Against Barrick Gold in Tanzania sparked by killing of local

Posted by Sakura Saunders on December 14th, 2008

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 safety."

While 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 mining.'"

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 mine.

James Bond Takes on the Corporate Water Privateers

Posted by Jeff Conant on December 10th, 2008

Spoiler Alert!

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.

Well, not true. But countless people and organizations worldwide, from the Red Vida to the African Water Network, from the People’s Health Movement to the Reclaiming Public Water Network, are vigilant in the defense of the human right to water. With the recent placement of water warrior Father Miguel D’Escoto, a Nicaraguan liberation theologian, in the presidential seat at the UN General Assembly, and his selection of Maude Barlow as a senior advisor on water, we are witnessing a tidal change in the highest levels of international cooperation.

They may not have the brutal take-no-prisoners attitude or the classy cocktail swagger of Mister Bond, but they represent a lot of people, and they’re on the right side.

So, corporate evil-doers, and your greenwashing NGO henchmen, beware. The forces of good are on the loose.

Originally posted at Food & Water Watch:

Public Ownership -- But No Public Control

Posted by Rob Weissman on October 21st, 2008

Originally posted Tuesday, October 14. 2008 -- It is an extraordinary time. On Friday, the Washington Post ran a front-page story titled, "The End of American Capitalism?" Today, the banner headline is, "U.S. Forces Nine Major Banks to Accept Partial Nationalization."

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.

That's 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 imbalances.

Although it was enabled by deregulation, the financial meltdown merely reflects these more profound underlying problems. It is, one might say, "derivative."

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 participating banks.

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 elite.

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.

Getting Wall Street Pay Reform Right

Posted by Robert Weissman on September 30th, 2008

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 structures.

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 earth.

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 incentives.

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 legislation.

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.

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.

The Dangers in Outsourcing the Bailout

Posted by Philip Mattera on September 30th, 2008

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 serious opposition.

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.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

The Financial Re-Regulatory Agenda

Posted by Robert Weissman on September 23rd, 2008

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.

The 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 eliminated.

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 control.

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 going bankrupt.

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.

Robert Weissman is managing director of the Multinational Monitor.

The SEC’s Risky New IDEA

Posted by Philip Mattera on September 3rd, 2008

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 quantitative.

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 accountability. 

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

The Commercial Games: How Commercialism is Overrunning the Olympics

Posted by Rob Weissman on August 17th, 2008

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 Commercial Games.

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.

The scope of commercialism at the Olympics and the consequences of commercialization are detailed in "The Commercial Games," a new report from Multinational Monitor magazine and Commercial Alert (both of which I'm associated with).

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 Olympics-related advertising.

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 Olympic Committee.

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. national teams.

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, buy, 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 product.

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. Soccer Federation.

+ 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 anytime soon.

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 corporate sponsorships.

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 future Games.

Original post at: 

Multinational Monitor Editor Robert Weissman is managing director of Commercial Alert, which opposes excessive commercialism in society.

Giant Mining Firm’s Social Responsibility Claims: Rhetoric or Reality?

Posted by Philip Mattera on August 1st, 2008

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 operations.

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 beware.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Disclosure Issues Bedevil Climate-Change Debate

Posted by Philip Mattera on July 8th, 2008

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 disclosure.

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?

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Over the Counter Intelligence

Posted by Philip Mattera on June 13th, 2008

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 Intelligence-Industrial Complex.

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 prisoners.”

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 apparatus.

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.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

See also feature articles by Tim Shorrock on

Domestic Spying, Inc.

QinetiQ Goes Kinetic: Top Rumsfeld Aide Wins Contracts From Spy Office He Set Up 

Carlyle Group May Buy CIA Contractor: Booz Allen Hamilton

Iranian schools teach Islamic version of history: CIA contractor

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 30th, 2008

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

Military contractor’s 747 crashes just before Memorial day

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 25th, 2008

A Kalitta Air plane en route to Bahrain in the Middle East has crashed. The Michigan based company has been linked to the CIA rendition program. It is also the main contractor that flies home bodies of U.S. soldiers after they are killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ironically the cargo plane crashed the day before “Memorial Day,” a major U.S. federal holiday that commemorates U.S. men and women who die while in military service.

Amnesty International has reported that Kalitta Air has been linked to “covert intelligence and military operations” but unlike other CIA contractors that appear to be dummy companies run by fictitious individuals, it was founded by a Conrad Kalitta, a retired U.S. drag racing driver.

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.

Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, Kalitta started up a scheduled cargo service to Europe and in 2005 the company won a part of a $1.2 billion dollar contract to provide airlift services to the Air Mobility Command.

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.)

Pharmaceutical Payola -- Drug Marketing to Doctors

Posted by Rob Weissman on May 22nd, 2008
Multinational Monitor

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.

"Virtually all physicians in America take cash or gifts from the drug companies," says Melody Petersen, author of Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs, and a former New York Times reporter. "A recent survey said 94 percent of physicians took something of value from the drug companies. Some doctors take hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from these companies, and there’s no law that says they can’t."

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."

There is no simple solution to these problems, though ending patent-based marketing monopolies would transform pharmaceutical marketing practices and likely eliminate most abuses.

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 and the Chinese Earthquake: Cheap Help for A Cheap-Labor Country

Posted by Philip Mattera on May 19th, 2008


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 variety).

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.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

KBR Questioned on Labor Abuses in Iraq

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on May 7th, 2008

Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), the former subsidiary of Halliburton, announced today that it was buying Alabama-based BE&K for $500 million. For David Nash, the president of BE&K, and the man who was in charge of handing out reconstruction contracts in Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion in March 2003, there must be a sense of deja vu to now be employed by one of the biggest building companies working in Iraq.

David Nash spent over 33 years in the U.S. Navy, beginning in Vietnam and ending as the top engineer (he was Chief of Civil Engineers and Commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command). In late 2003, he was put in charge of the Iraq Program Management Office, most of whose contracts were disastrous failures either because of poor planning, supervision or because they were destroyed by insurgents. Much has been written about the failure of these projects by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and in Blood Money, an excellent book by T. Christian Miller of the Los Angeles Times. The reports are still coming out; a report on Perini's power projects was published at the end of April 2008, which sadly cost the life of one of the auditors who was sent to find out why the project failed.

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 migrant workers. 

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 Asia)

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 problem.

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 sub-contractors.

Adding Insult to Injury

Non-CorpWatch articles

Lastly, but not least, we recommend an excellent film by Lee Wang: "Someone Else's War" 


An Afternoon with L-3 Communications/Titan

Posted by Tonya Hennessey on April 30th, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to exercising my presumed right, as a shareholder, to attend yesterday’s annual shareholder meeting of private military contractor L-3 Communications, held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manhattan’s financial district.

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.

Paulson Blueprint Promotes Insurance Industry Shell Game

Posted by Philip Mattera on April 5th, 2008

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.

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

The Beltway Bandit Behind the Passport Scandal

Posted by Philip Mattera on March 28th, 2008

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 Department.

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 federal workforce.

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 pp.20-21):

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 operational shortcomings.

Note: It’s just been reported that another company–Analysis Corporation–is also involved in the passport scandal. More on them later. 

Dirt Diggers Digest is written by Philip Mattera, director of the Corporate Research Project, an affiliate of Good Jobs First.

Bye, American

Posted by Mark Floegel on March 19th, 2008

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.”

Really? As fate would have it, I’ve driven three rental cars in the past week. One was a Hyundai Sonata, one a Dodge Avenger and one a Chevrolet Cobalt, from Mr. Lutz’s beloved GM.

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.

Mr. Lutz wrote, “My opinions on the subject [of global warming] — like anyone’s — are immaterial. Really.”

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. 

Making Company Data Truly Public

Posted by Ian Elwood on March 12th, 2008

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.

Spitzer versus Schwarzman

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 12th, 2008

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 trust.

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 of dollars. 

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 Times Falls for Wal-Mart’s "Authenticity"

Posted by Phil Mattera on March 6th, 2008
Dirt Diggers Digest

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 American manufacturers?”

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 is “sustainability.”

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.

McDonald's gets F grade in Florida

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on January 18th, 2008

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.

And in the 1990s there was a hue and cry by groups like UNPLUG! of Oakland, California, after McDonald's and other companies provided "sponsored educational materials" on subjects like nutrition to teachers to supplement or take the place of approved curriculum in the U.S. The company was also protested for sponsoring McTeacher's Night in southern California, which involved teachers working at local McDonald's restaurants to raise funds for schools by selling burgers to their own students!

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 ). 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.

Stop the Walled Garden!

Posted by Ian Elwood on January 15th, 2008

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.)

­While Apple's iPhone unabashedly locks users into using AT&T cell phone service, sometimes the strategies are more subtle. FaceBook, the popular social network site, restricts the functionality of their site so that it is easy to remain on, while making external linking and emailing difficult. LinkedIn, another social network site, doesn't allow users to delete their profile without contacting customer service.

All of these tactics seek to make it easier for companies to collect information on individuals, with the sole purpose of creating consumer profiles for targeted advertising. The reason is simple: they make their money from the advertisers who will pay to get a captive audience (the kind they were once guaranteed on newspapers and TV) who might buy their products.

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 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. ­­

The New Business Watergate: Prosecution of International Corporate Bribery is on the Rise

Posted by Philip Mattera on December 18th, 2007

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.


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 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.


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. 


Turning Ethnic Pride into Sales

Posted by Amelia Hight on November 6th, 2007

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.

Book Review: Stolen Without a Gun

Posted by Ian Elwood on November 1st, 2007

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."

Made in the U.S.A.

Posted by Amelia Hight on October 22nd, 2007

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.

Global Accounting Standards

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on October 18th, 2007

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... "

The good news is that the U.S. which has long insisted on using its own complex rules, may be open to using the global standard. SEC chairman Christopher Cox has agreed to allow U.S. companies to use the IFRS but has cautioned against local versions of the rules, like the European Union version. Financial Accounting Standards Board chairman Robert Herz has also said that this is a bad idea.

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.

Cowboy Capitalism: Chinese Companies in Africa

Posted by Amelia Hight on October 10th, 2007

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.

Outsourcing Fear

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 . 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 citizens.

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 civilians hands.

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 perfect. 

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 strategic interests.

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.

2008 Public Eye Awards

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!

Contractor Rock Bands Jam with Military

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 27th, 2007

You've heard of golf junkets for politicians and pay-offs for disc jockeys who help get artists into the Top 40. But government bureaucrats invited to play Grateful Dead-style music and rock music covers from the Clash with military contractors looking for work? Welcome to GitRockin, a fund-raiser to be held in Washington DC on October 18th.

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 It.

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.


Who's Really Paying the High Prices for Your Pharmaceuticals?

Posted by Stan Cox on September 19th, 2007


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.

Blackwater Back in the News

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on September 18th, 2007

Blackwater is back in the news again -- TIME Magazine's Adam Zagorin and Brian Bennett have copies of a document that show that the North Carolina private security company's employees shot and killed eight Iraqis in a firefight.

"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.

Erica Razook of Amnesty International's Business and Human Rights Program has provided an excellent summary of the legal issues around this thorny matter of human rights violations by private security contractors, which can be downloaded here. You can also see her testifying before U.S. Congress on the implications of this legal vaccum, in which she noted that the contractors operate in a "culture of impunity" with "virtually no control or oversight." "A contractor can shoot an Iraqi civilian in the street and face no consequences," she said.

A few months ago, we listed a number of similar incidents in which private contractors were involved in violent clashes in Iraq, which we reprint below:

A Blackwater security guard shot dead the personal bodyguards of Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi last Christmas Eve. Yet seven months later, the contractor has not been charged with any crime.

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.

* In July 2006, two security contractors working for Triple Canopy in Iraq witnessed their boss shoot at Iraqi civilians.

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.

David Phinney also broke the story of another North Carolina company named Zapata, whose security guards allegedly fired at U.S. Marines in Fallujah in May 2005.

Accounting for Errant Auditors

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 bars.

Will the Pope tell Gucci and Prada to please pay their taxes? (Mick Jagger and Microsoft too!)

Posted by Tonya Hennessey on August 14th, 2007

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.

Indeed, the Sunday Independent (Ireland) reports that Ireland was the most profitable location for U.S. multinationals between 1998-2002, during which the “the profits of US companies with Irish facilities doubled.”

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.

NOTE: For more good examples of what tax journalist Lucy Komisar calls the “corporate bag of tricks called profit laundering,” check out the Tax Justice Network, and the Komisar Scoop -- who just revealed where did Rupert Murdoch get $5 billion to buy up the Wall St. Journal?  (Answer: A collection of 800 offshore companies that helped him cut corporate taxes to 6%!)

CorpWatch stories on Iraq & New Mexico get mainstream coverage

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on July 27th, 2007

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.

See A U.S. Fortress Rises in Baghdad:
Asian Workers Trafficked to Build World's Largest Embassy
by David Phinney, Special to CorpWatch
October 17th, 2006

To read the article from today's Washington Post about yesterday's hearing, go here:

Foreign Workers Abused at Embassy, Panel Told
By William Branigin, Washington Post
Friday, July 27th, 2007

In related matters, we're also pleased to see that the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) has been looking into why Bechtel did such a bad job in Iraq. (Answer: the fault lies quite heavily with the way that the U.S. government managed the contract.) Good coverage of the SIGIR report can be found in yesterday's New York Times.

IRAQ: Bechtel Meets Goals on Fewer Than Half of Its Iraq Rebuilding Projects, U.S. Study Finds

By James Glanz, New York Times
July 26, 2007

But one thing: we'd like to note that SIGIR only looked at the second phase of Bechtel's work, what about the first phase? We ran a story on this some 40 months ago:

Bechtel Fails Reconstruction of Iraq's Schools
by Karim El-Gawhary, Special to CorpWatch
December 2nd, 2003

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:

Navajos and Environmentalists Split on Power Plant
By Felicity Barringer, New York Times
July 27th, 2007

To get a better feel for how the company has divided the traditional Diné community, do read our story from April of this year:

Speaking Diné to Dirty Power: Navajo Challenge New Coal-Fired Plant
by Jeff Conant, Special to CorpWatch
April 3rd, 2007

Digging for Dirt in the DRC?

Posted by Amelia Hight on July 25th, 2007

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.

Web Sanctions Tool Backfires on SEC

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on July 24th, 2007

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."

In June, the SEC decided to copy activist tactics by putting up a Web tool that tracks corporations with investments in countries considered by the U.S. to sponsor terrorism -- specifically Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. "No investor should ever have to wonder whether his or her investments or retirement savings are indirectly subsidizing a terrorist haven or genocidal state," Christopher Cox, the SEC chairman, said. In three weeks the site got "exceptional public interest," with more than 150,000 hits.

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."

On Friday the SEC took the web page down and promised to rethink the idea -- either to return with a new, more sophisticated, tool or to figure out another way to achieve the same results.

"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.

Frequent Toxic Miles

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on July 12th, 2007

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today about how toxics in the United States that are dumped in other countries may come back to haunt U.S. consumers. Toxics have been found in jewelry ranging from "Best Friends Forever" necklaces sold at a chainstore called Claire's Stores Inc. to necklace and earring sets with plastic "birthstones" sold by Kmart, another major retail chain.

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.

Our friends at Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition have a great animated film  showing how this works. (Full disclosure here: Aditi Vaidya, SVTC program director, is on CorpWatch’s advisory board) The video was created by Ben Goldhirsch’s Good magazine. Two other good films can be obtained from the Basel Action Network, which has a film on e-waste in Asia as well as one on similar schemes to dump e-waste in Africa.

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.

For U.S. consumers, SVTC has guides about less harmful ways to dispose of electronic waste and how to buy electronics more responsibly.

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.

Is Big Business Buying Out The Environmental Movement?

Posted by Philip Mattera on June 5th, 2007
Good Jobs First

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 movement.

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.

Every day seems to bring another announcement from a large corporation that it is taking steps to protect the planet. IBM, informally known as Big Blue, launched its Project Big Green to help customers slash their data center energy usage. Newmont Mining Co., the world’s largest gold digger, endorsed a shareholder resolution calling for a review of its environmental impact. Home Depot introduced an Eco Options label for thousands of green products. General Motors and oil major ConocoPhillips joined the list of corporate giants that have come out in support of a mandatory ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions. Bank of America said it would invest $20 billion in sustainable projects over the next decade.

Many of the new initiatives are being pursued in direct collaboration with environmental groups. Wal-Mart is working closely with Conservation International on its efforts to cut energy usage and switch to renewable sources of power. McDonald’s has teamed up with Greenpeace to discourage deforestation caused by the growth of soybean farming in Brazil. When buyout firms Texas Pacific Group and KKR were negotiating the takeover of utility company TXU earlier this year, they asked Environmental Defense to join the talks so that the deal, which ended up including a rollback of plans for 11 new coal-fired plants, could be assured a green seal of approval.

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 Corporate America.”

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.

A 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 consumer.

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 different paths:

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 lead-free bullets.

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.

When GE’s “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 efficiency measures.  

Chevron Wants to Lead

Many environmental 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.

Either corporations 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, enforceable regulation.

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 changes.

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?”

Join them? 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 environmental leadership.

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 pulls out of Utkal project in India

Posted by François Meloche on April 16th, 2007
Groupe Investissement Responsable Inc. (Montreal)

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

Total Denial: Burmese peasants fight Unocal

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 20th, 2007

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 disturbing."

"Total Denial" 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 11th.

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:
"Unocal knew 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 acts."
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.

Earth Rights International are using the same law to pursue another major oil company here in California (Chevron) with some success for abuses in Nigeria.

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 forces.

Incidentally, Earth Rights International is also pursuing a third Alien Tort Claims Act case against Shell in Nigeria for complicity in human rights abuses.

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 Shell.

Mercenaries, Multinationals and Movies

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 9th, 2007

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.

An excellent interview with film maker Bicanic, explains why people become mercenaries.

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" � expert human rights activists and academics alike � 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."

"Iraq for Sale" also discusses contractors like CACI, which used to provide interrogators at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. (David Phinney wrote an excellent article for us about CACI. If you want to learn who has since taken over the contract, read our article about L-3) .

Greenwald's films are produced quickly and distributed widely by his supporters. He is one of the most successful grassroots film-makers in history � 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."

Here's what the Washington Post had to say about him:
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.

The Curse of Gold

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 28th, 2007

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.

Papua New Guinea represents a case study in how resource extraction just might be the worst possible way to develop a country, especially where 85 percent of the population depends on the environment for their subsistence livelihood. Here, the pollution caused by open-pit mining and cyanide leaching creates an especially vulnerable situation for the indigenous people. In our recent feature, we attached testimonies from the landowners, mine workers, women, and human right activists who are affected by the mine. A principal landowner, Nelson Akiko, describes his disillusionment with the mine:

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.

This is similar to Mali, where gold makes up 65 percent of its exports, dwarfing its former economic bedrock cotton. Some 64 mining companies have active mining and exploration projects in this landlocked African country, but despite a surge in gold prices, Mali's development indicators have stagnated. A recent Oxfam report 'Hidden treasure: in search of Mali's gold mining revenues', concluded that:

"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 Mali."

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.

Unfortunately, Papua New Guinea is not an isolated example of how gold mines can destroy communities. Mining Watch Canada summed their view of the mining industry in Canada, where 60% of the world's mining companies reside:

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. 
CorpWatch has been tracking Barrick elsewhere in the world, most recently at its Pascua Lama project in Argentina.
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.

An excellent article on the boom in gold mining from the Las Vegas Mercury News explains the predicament that Shoshone face. 

Is Houston smarter than Detroit? Big Oil versus Big Auto (and a simple solution for global warming)

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.)

So it may seem astonishing that the Big Three's twin brother - Big Oil - is making money hand over fist. Chevron profits totaled $17.14 billion in 2006, Exxon made $39.5 billion (the highest any company has ever made in history) and Shell made $25.4 billion.

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.

P.S. I hear that Richard Branson and Al Gore are offering a $25 million reward for a solution to global warming. You can write that check out to groups like Smart Growth America and Surface Transportation Policy Project. They have the answers to global warming.


Remembering Oil Spills, Old and New

Posted by Sakura Saunders on February 13th, 2007

The week opened with the start of a four month trial against France's oil giant, Total, by groups like Friends of the Earth France.

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.

A Bloomberg article quotes local residents:

"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.''

In other oil spill news, Lagos' Vanguard newspaper reported today that ten Ijaw communities had been displaced and 500 made homeless by a Chevron Nigeria oil spill.

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.

The Fourth Branch of Government

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
The use of private interrogators at Abu Ghraib another matter we've been tracking, to read more about that, see David Phinney's article: "Prison Interrogation for Profit". To be fair, CACI is no longer in the interrogation business. To find out more about who has this lucrative work, do read "Intelligence in Iraq: L-3 Supplies Spy Support"

U.S. Army takes $19.6 million from Halliburton

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on February 8th, 2007

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.

Blackwater security shot Iraqi man

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on February 7th, 2007

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.

* In July 2006, two security contractors working for Triple Canopy in Iraq witnessed their boss shoot at Iraqi civilians.

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.

David Phinney also broke the story of another North Carolina company named Zapata, whose security guards allegedly fired at U.S. Marines in Fallujah in May 2005.

Meet the Wizard of Oz

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on February 5th, 2007

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."

Blood Money

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.

Beyond We Told You So

Posted by on August 24th, 2006

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."


Entergy Still Asking for Handouts and Putting Screws to Ratepayers

Posted by CorpWatch on August 23rd, 2006

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.

How High Can the Katrina Price Tag Go?

Posted by CorpWatch on August 22nd, 2006

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.

That's still much less than half of what the war in Iraq has cost the just the United States so far; the amount spent on that conflict recently surpassed $300 billion. And more than twice as many Americans have died in Iraq.

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.

Tax Mercenaries

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?

Get Hoffa Into Hair & Makeup, Stat!

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on August 10th, 2006

When employees of the show America's Next Top Model walked out and began picketing the production, we had a real-life labor struggle, right there in Hollywood!

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.

A Monkey Could Hack That Voting Machine

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on August 1st, 2006

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.

(Thanks to BoingBoing.)

Murdoch Censors MySpace?

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on July 17th, 2006

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.

Funny, That Wasn't in the Manual

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on July 17th, 2006

The least they could do is improve the healthcare coverage, then:

ST-JEAN-SUR-RICHELIEU, QUE. — Managers at a local Wal-Mart forced employees to search the store after it received a bomb threat, Radio-Canada reported Monday.

Some 40 nervous employees searched the store for an hour last Thursday, said Mailie Fournier, a former employee of the store. They were accompanied by six police officers.

Several employees, whose jobs don't include security, found the experience traumatic, said Mr. Fournier.

The incident prompted Quebec workplace health and safety board to investigate.

Wal-Mart said it simply wanted to help police conduct the search.

Iraq Wounded Fight for Insurance Coverage

Posted by David Phinney on July 12th, 2006

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.

Ding Dong ...

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on July 6th, 2006

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.

Is Wal-Mart Good for You?

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 27th, 2006

"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?

How We Got Here: Post-Doctoral Division

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 16th, 2006

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 credit-driven momentum.

Took the words right out of my mouth.

Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out ... Wait ... In?

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 15th, 2006

Thank you PR Watch for noting, via O'Dwyer's PR Daily, the increasingly obscene revolving-door scenarios in Washington:

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."

Seducing Kids with Smokes, Gambling, and Booze

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 11th, 2006

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.

Who Slipped Koppel a Mickey?

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 22nd, 2006

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.

U.S. Military Clothing Contractor Raided

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 17th, 2006

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.

Some Jokes Are Too True To Be Funny

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 17th, 2006

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.

He needs to work on his delivery.

Damn the Hurricane - Full Lobbying Ahead!

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 10th, 2006

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.

Yes-Men Taunt Halliburton

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 10th, 2006

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 addressed.

"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.

Michael Pollan and your Industrialized Lunch

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 8th, 2006

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.

Jordan: The New Saipan

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 8th, 2006

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.

The issue isn't news to us, since we've been on top of the issue for years. In 2003 we reported that the free-trade agreement inked with the U.S. had some very political overtones:

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.

When Death Really Pays

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on May 2nd, 2006

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:

"Mild flu season boded ill for Alderwoods' 1Q profits"

Alderwoods is one of the nation's largest funeral home chains. The view from the bottom line is quite upside-down: Not enough people died, dammit!

Pentagon Attacks Labor Trafficking by US Contractors

Posted by David Phinney on April 24th, 2006

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.

These conditions, endured by south Asian workers sometimes making only dollars a day, are all chronicled in my October story, Blood, Sweat & Tears: Asia's Poor Build U.S. Bases in Iraq.

One contractor that has been accused of coercing employees to work in Iraq against their will is now the prime contractor tasked with building new $592-million US embassy project in Baghdad.

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.


Cheney Profits From Katrina

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on April 19th, 2006

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.

Saving Money by Dumping Kids!

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on April 18th, 2006

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.

Today's story in the Houston Chronicle says "lawmakers once were told the project would save the state $646 million over five years." I guess they should have asked how before privatizing this aspect of their public 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.

One Expensive Education

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on April 12th, 2006

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.

No criminal investigation planned.

Clay Feet

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on April 4th, 2006

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.?!

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

iPod Psyops

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on April 3rd, 2006

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.

That'll teach France.

See No Corruption, Address No Corruption

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on April 3rd, 2006

It seems that not only does the right hand not know what the left hand is doing, the right hand doesn't even knows what it's doing.

Last week the Pentagon, presumably with a collective straight face, finished reviewing its contract procurement system (specifically with regard to its primary vendors), and found that, hey! the system works great!

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.

Selling Out, or Infiltrating?

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on March 21st, 2006

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.

ABCs of the Custer Battles Scandal

Posted by David Phinney on March 10th, 2006

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.

Custer Battles Royale

Posted by David Phinney on March 10th, 2006

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.

The CorpWatch Oscars

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on March 3rd, 2006

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!

In no particular order:

Modern Times


China Syndrome


Norma Rae

A Civil Action

Manchurian Candidate

Erin Brokivich


Soylent Green

Wal-Mart Waltons Get All Cultural

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 expenses.

Read the article at Alternet.

Beyond Cronyism to Geopolitics in the Port Controversy

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.

Pump and Dump

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on February 22nd, 2006

We're back!

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.

Monsanto's Old Plantation Days

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 28th, 2006

Stay Free! Magazine is 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.

Down on the farm

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 piles.

Bush Defends Mining Record

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 23rd, 2006

From Reuters:

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!

Do Private Contractors Do Better Work?

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.

Time Again to Expose a Mining Company's Safety Record

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 Citizens Coal Council says:

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.

So we have Sago, Part Two. Cronyism kills.

The Old "When in Rome" Excuse

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.

The Wal-Mart Image War

Posted by CorpWatch on January 18th, 2006

http://www.walmartworkersrights.orgIn 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.

Wal-Mart critics 1, Wal-Mart 0.

Mine Tragedy Spun as Profit Opportunity

Posted by CorpWatch on January 11th, 2006

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.

Privatizing Public Health in Massachusetts

Posted by CorpWatch on January 10th, 2006

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.

How Bush Rolled Back Mine Safety

Posted by CorpWatch on January 6th, 2006

With the same logic that dictates that logging is good for trees, the 5 years of the Bush Administration has rolled back regulations on mine safety at the bidding of mining corporations.

The head of the Mining Healthy and Safety Administration is himself a former mining executive. A New York Times article in August 2004 noted:

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.

Wal-Mart Conflates Apes, African-Americans

Posted by CorpWatch on January 5th, 2006

Wal-Mart keeps having what you might call image problems. No one seems to want it to go into the banking business, it was just busted for overcharging customers in Wisconsin, and several states are gunning for the mega-retailer for not providing adequate healthcare for its employees (leaving taxpayers to pick up the difference). Wal-Mart are presently under investigation for mishandling hazardous waste, and it has long had serious problems with sweatshops overseas. It is fighting a class-action lawsuit claiming that it systematically discriminated against female employees, and was exposed for having taken out life insurance policies on its lowest-level employees.

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. has a full screenshot, in case Wal-Mart takes the page down.

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.

Tyco Execs' Mugshots

Posted by CorpWatch on January 3rd, 2006

It isn't everyday you get to see Dennis Kozlowski holding a jailhouse clapboard featuring his vitals. Thanks to, we can give you that pleasure.

kozlowski mugshot

Click here for former Tyco CFO Mark Swartz's mugshot. (Hey, where did his curly tresses go?)

The Vicious Tobacco Cycle

Posted by CorpWatch on January 3rd, 2006

Oklahoma has a problem. Too many people are quitting smoking. It's cutting into the state's budget.

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.

Looking Back on 2005

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 ...)

Bechtel Fox in the Nuclear Henhouse

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on December 22nd, 2005

The news today that the federal government had awarded the Los Alamos National Laboratory to the UC-Bechtel team should give us all pause.

After all, as CorpWatch noted when Bechtel was amassing huge no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq (see "Profiting From Destruction"), the company's record with nukes is not exactly sparkling:

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).

The Presidential Pipeline

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.

For 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.

And 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.)

Read the whole series:

  1. Presidential Pipeline: Bush's Top Fund-Raisers See Spoils of Victory
  2. Presidential Pipeline: Bush Money Network Rooted in Florida, Texas
  3. Presidential Pipeline: Kerry Backers Still Feel Sting of Losing 2004 Presidential Contest

US Lags Behind in Tobacco Regulation

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.

The government of Uganda is considering banning all tobacco advertising in that country, because ministers consider the ads to imply falsely that smoking is an attractive and positive thing to do.

In China, the world's greatest consumer of tobacco products, the governors of Hong Kong may force several tobacco companies to change the names of their brands, because terms like "light" and "mild" imply that the cigarettes are less harmful.

In South Australia, the government is set to ban fruit-flavored cigarettes it claims are targeted to children. (You think?)

In the UK, the 2006 budget includes provisions for massive fines on tobacco companies whose product is found being smuggled anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ... a new study from a coalition of anti-tobacco groups shows that tobacco companies in the United States still spend $28 in advertising for every $1 they spend on anti-tobacco cessation and education programs.

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.

From an Associated Press story today:

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.

"It's much more convenient as opposed to your regular commercial travel," Howard said, noting there is no need to go through airport security.

On 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.

It's business as usual in Marlboro country.

Is Wal-Mart Good for You?

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on June 27th, 2005

"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?