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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.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/173 

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

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. 

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/148

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

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.

http://dirtdiggersdigest.org/archives/23

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

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.

THE “BUSINESS WATERGATE”

It is often forgotten that the Watergate scandal of the 1970s was not only about the misdeeds of the Nixon Administration. Investigations by the Senate and the Watergate Special Prosecutor forced companies such as 3M, American Airlines and Goodyear Tire & Rubber to admit that they or their executives had made illegal contributions to the infamous Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Subsequent inquiries into illegal payments of all kinds led to revelations that companies such as Lockheed, Northrop and Gulf Oil had engaged in widespread foreign bribery. Under pressure from the SEC, more than 150 publicly traded companies admitted that they had been involved in questionable overseas payments or outright bribes to obtain contracts from foreign governments. A 1976 tally by the Council on Economic Priorities found that more than $300 million in such payments had been disclosed in what some were calling “the Business Watergate.”

While some observers insisted that a certain amount of baksheesh was necessary to making deals in many parts of the world, Congress responded to the revelations by enacting the FCPA in late 1977. For the first time, bribery of foreign government officials was a criminal offense under U.S. law, with fines up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to five years.

The ink was barely dry on the FCPA when U.S. corporations began to complain that it was putting them at a competitive disadvantage. The Carter Administration’s Justice Department responded by signaling that it would not be enforcing the FCPA too vigorously. That was one Carter policy that the Reagan Administration was willing to adopt. In fact, Reagan’s trade representative Bill Brock led an effort to get Congress to weaken the law, but the initiative failed.

The Clinton Administration took a different approach—trying to get other countries to adopt rules similar to the FCPA. In 1997 the industrial countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reached agreement on an anti-bribery convention. In subsequent years, the number of FCPA cases remained at a miniscule level—only a handful a year. Optimists were claiming this was because the law was having a remarkable deterrent effect. Skeptics said that companies were being more careful to conceal their bribes, and prosecutors were focused elsewhere.

Any illusion that commercial bribery was a rarity was dispelled in 2005, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker released the final results of the investigation he had been asked to conduct of the Oil-for-Food Program. Volcker’s group found that more than half of the 4,500 companies participating in the program—which was supposed to ease the impact of Western sanctions on Iraq—had paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to the government of Saddam Hussein. Among those companies were Siemens, DaimlerChrysler and the French bank BNP Paribas.

THE REBIRTH OF FCPA PROSECUTIONS

The Volcker investigation, the OECD convention, the Sarbanes-Oxley law and other factors together breathed new life into FCPA enforcement. Stricter internal controls mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley have made it more difficult for improper payments to be concealed, prompting numerous companies to self-report FCPA violations in the hope of receiving more lenient treatment.

In 2005 the number of FCPA prosecutions started to pick up and reached double digits the following year. This year the number of investigations has reportedly been in the dozens, and the resolved cases have gained higher visibility. Among these have been the following:

    * Three subsidiaries of British oil services company Vetco International  pleaded guilty to FCPA violations in Nigeria and agreed to pay a total of $26 million in criminal fines. This was the largest criminal penalty the Justice Department had ever obtained in an FCPA case.

    * Oil & gas distributor El Paso Corporation settled FCPA charges in connection with the Oil-for-Food Program and agreed to disgorge $5.5 million in profits and pay a civil penalty of $2.2 million.

    * Dow Chemical paid a $325,000 civil penalty to settle FCPA charges relating to improper payments made by an Indian subsidiary in the late 1990s.

    * A subsidiary of oil services company Baker Hughes pleaded guilty to FCPA charges involving bribery in Kazakhstan and paid a criminal fine of $11 million. In related SEC charges, Baker Hughes agreed to pay more than $44 million in criminal fines, civil penalties and disgorgement of profits. This became the new record for FCPA-related penalties.

    * Textron Inc. paid more than $3.5 million to settle FCPA charges relating to kickback payments made by a subsidiary to obtain contracts for the sale of humanitarian goods to Iraq under the Oil-for-Food Program.

    * Industrial equipment company Ingersoll-Rand agreed to pay more than $4.2 million to settle FCPA charges that four of its subsidiaries made kickback payments in connection with the Oil-for-Food Program sale of humanitarian goods.

FOREIGN COMPANIES IN THE FCPA NET

While the recent rash of FCPA cases has drawn little attention in the United States, the Siemens case has generated a major scandal in Europe. Last year, more than 200 police officers participated in a raid of company offices and homes of managers. Prosecutors in Italy and Switzerland joined in the investigation, which focused on suspicious transactions at the company’s telecommunications equipment unit reportedly totaling more than $2 billion.

The outcry over the bribery charges (and separate controversies over matters such as price-fixing) forced both the chief executive of Siemens and the chairman of its supervisory board to announce their resignation. In October the company agreed to a $300 million fine, hoping that the controversy would die down. But in November the Wall Street Journal gained access to the unpublished court ruling in the case, which provided embarrassing details about the payment of bribes in Nigeria, Libya and Russia. Subsequently, Business Week Online reported that FCPA charges in the United States could generate penalties for Siemens much harsher than what it experienced at home.

Siemens is not the only European company whose bribery problems are becoming an issue in the United States. Earlier this year there were reports that U.S. prosecutors have been investigating improper payments by major military contractor BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace), including some reportedly involving Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former Saudi ambassador to the United States and a close ally of the Bush Administration, as well as other members of the Saudi royal family.

A quarter century after the Watergate investigation revealed a culture of corruption in the foreign dealings of major corporations, the new wave of FCPA prosecutions suggests that little has changed. There is one difference, however. Whereas the bribery revelations of the 1970s elicited a public outcry, the recent cases have generated little comment in the United States. Companies like Chevron pay their fine and go right on using their ad campaigns to present themselves as paragons of virtue. It took years for the reputation of Richard Nixon to recover from the taint of Watergate in the eyes of mainstream observers. Corporate America seems to be able to purchase instantaneous redemption. 

 

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.

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.

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.

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