Convicting Corporate Criminals: British Petroleum and Walmart

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at Press Conference on BP Criminal Charges

New Orleans    US-Attorney General Eric Holder was in New Orleans yesterday to announce a $4.5 billion settlement with British Petroleum on criminal charges.  It isn’t easy in this country to convict corporations of criminality, all evidence to the contrary, so having them plead out to their obvious culpability in the environmental and human tragedy caused by their criminal negligence off the Louisiana Gulf Coast was a small step forward.  Holder also indicated that he is charging several managers with criminal negligence as well, but the company is fighting those charges.  We still have the civil cases pending which will no doubt render huge penalties.  BP has $30 billion or more set aside in expectations of their conviction, proving how much money oil companies have to burn these days.

As interesting to me was Walmart’s front page efforts to spin away their acknowledged criminality in bribing officials in Mexico.  They have finally admitted that their criminal like culture includes China, India, and Brazil.   From the first day Mexico hit the press, I had the dead certain likelihood that their bribery was not limited to that country, but almost surely engulfed India and China as well.  Such activity is patently in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), so why have criminal charges and penalties not be levied against Walmart yet?  This spin is clearly the company’s effort to dance away from danger by pretending to be turning over every rock to uncover their own misdeeds.

A lot of their spin has to do with the money they are spending on their internal “investigation.”  The company in an SEC filing for its shareholders claims to have spent $35 million on a “compliance” program and “$99 million on the current investigation.”  This is chump change for Walmart obviously, but it is clearly not simply a bit of transparency theater for the stockholders as much as it is a message to a strapped US government that the cost of an appropriate external investigation of their criminality would be daunting to the feds.  The Justice Department hardly has the capacity to peel off $100 million and many millions more to root out Walmart corrupt overseas, so Walmart is preening to mask its criminal culpability and intimidate other investigations.

There are huge consequences to their activity that they have not yet disclosed to their shareholders.  In India these corruption issues have led to a call for investigations into their Indian corporate practices which could exclude them from participation in the proposed relaxation of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.  Dharmendra Kumar who directs the India FDI Watch Campaign supported since its beginning by ACORN International has reported this week that all of these matters are currently moving to a vote in the Indian Parliament which still could bring down the government.

There is no word of whether or not Walmart has followed British Petroleum in setting aside billions for its potential assignment of criminality liabilities for violations of the FCPA.  They need to do so.  There are also key executives, including former CEO Lee Scott, that have already lawyered up, but need to see Attorney General Holder moving to file criminal charges for their impunity in the face of the law and in pursuit of their predatory profits.

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Regulations, Contractors, and the Gulf Oil Spill

BP blame game
BP blame game

New Orleans The wave of news comments was provoked by the release of an almost 400 page report by the National Oil Spill Commission in Washington head by former Florida Senator and Governor Bob Graham and former Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly during Republican administrations.  In the inimitable words of Aaron Viles of Gulf Restoration Network, this commission was “not a bunch of bomb throwers.”  Their recommendations included improved regulations, dedication of a significant percentage of the BP settlement money to Gulf Coast restoration, and raising the liability cap on companies making Tr mess.  Reasonable observers might even say that the Commission had not gone nearly far enough, especially when the front page picture on my hometown paper, The Times Picayune, had a fisherman on his knees begging Kenneth Feinberg, the fund administrator, to release promised money since he was without heat and utilities now.   Even Senator Mary Landrieu, who Lord love her, almost never misses an opportunity to apologize for the oil companies, expressed herself satisfied with the report, so how could anyone be against moving forward on what is bound to be weak tea.

Most interesting to me were Reilly’s comments about contractors where a lot of the accountability needs to be increased.  He noted that the big companies “dependency upon contractors who operate in virtually every one of the world’s oceans” is at the core of the problem.  He reasonably doubts that this could be anything but a “systemic problem,” because to do so we would have “to believe also that Halliburton would only have supplied faulty cement to BP.  Or that Transocean, on any other rig but a BP rig, would have detected gas rising in the drill pipe.”  The problem of down-the-chain lack of accountability and reliance on contractors keeps cropping up everywhere whether in the Gulf or Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere on the service and production chain.  This is huge, unanswered problem in modern social and economic society where responsibility and accountability is totally sacrificed at the altar of cheaper pricing, shady dealing, and “who me, not me, who you, not you” finger pointing and foot shuffling.

So much is at stake in every endeavor that we just have to do better!

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