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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.

BoingBoing.net 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 Thesmokinggun.com, 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?


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