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Ford/Firestone: Homicide?


Russell Mokhiber 

and Robert Weissman   

In

1998, in Corpus Christi, Texas, 17-year-old Matthew Hendricks was on his way to

pick up his girlfriend. He was driving a Ford Explorer. The tread ripped off one

of the Ford’s Firestone’s tires, causing him to lose control. He was thrown from

the vehicle and killed.

"When

I was told that my son died, I felt like someone had reached in and ripped my

heart out," Vicki Hendricks, Matthew’s mom, said last week.

Matthew

Hendricks is one of more than 150 deaths around the world linked to Firestone

tread separations. The families and friends of those killed in these accidents

want to know — what did Ford and Firestone know about these tires and when did

they know it?

Journalists,

members of Congress, and trial lawyers are seeking to provide answers. Reporters

have informed us that Ford and Firestone knew that they had a problem, but

failed to notify federal regulators. Many months ago, Ford and Firestone were

ordering the recall of problem tires in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Asia — but

not in the United States.

Ford

and Firestone knew of at least 35 deaths and 130 injuries before the federal

government launched its probe earlier this year. They knew about these cases,

because they were being sued by the families of the victims. (The parents of

Matthew Hendricks settled their case against Firestone earlier this year.) And

as a condition of these settlements, Ford and Firestone were demanding that the

lawyers who bring these cases not speak to anyone about what they found out

during discovery.

With

Congressional hearings ablazing in an election year, klieg light fever has

overcome our elected officials, and the keepers of the corporate flame, like

Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana), Thomas Bliley (R-Virginia) and John Dingell

(D-Michigan), have been transformed overnight into clones of Ralph Nader.

There

is much talk in Washington about expanding the authority of federal enforcement

officials, of increasing penalties, of requiring auto companies to report

overseas recalls to federal authorities here in the United States.

But

these reforms are being pushed by the liberal corporate elite to put out a very

hot fire that threatens not the reputations of not just Ford and Firestone, but

that also may plant the seed of doubt in the American mind (in an election year,

nonetheless) about the ethical foundation of corporate America. (Or as Business

Week asked in its cover story this week, "Too Much Corporate Power?")

The

families of the victims not only want the truth, and reform, but they also are

demanding justice. And justice begins and ends with the criminal law.

Last

week, Attorney General Janet Reno said she was looking into whether any criminal

case can be brought. But when the auto safety law was first passed in 1966, the

auto companies prevented criminal penalties from becoming law. And they have

blocked criminal penalties ever since. So why is Janet Reno blowing smoke?

Senator

Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) took the floor of the Senate last week and

introduced legislation that would establish criminal sanctions for executives

who knowingly market a defective product that kills or maims. Auto safety

activists want criminal penalties for any knowing or willful violation of the

federal auto safety law. But that doesn’t help bring justice here and now to the

families and victims of Ford and Firestone’s act of violence.

Michael

Cosentino knows what this game is about. Cosentino is the Republican prosecuting

attorney for Elkhart, County Indiana. Twenty-two years ago, Cosentino brought a

homicide charge against Ford Motor Co. for the deaths of three teenaged girls.

The girls were riding in their Ford Pinto when it was rear-ended. The doors on

the Pinto slammed shut, the gas tank split open, gas leaked out, caught fire and

the girls were incinerated.

Cosentino

had been reading about a 1973 memo that Ford executives had written about the

Pinto gas tank problem. In the memo, Ford put a price on a human life ($200,000)

and a burn injury ($67,000) and calculated that the cost of saving lives and

prohibiting burn injuries by recalling the Pinto’s and fixing the fuel tank ($11

per auto) would be prohibitive.

Faced

with a murder charge, Ford brought in its best legal guns, and hired the judge’s

best friend as its local counsel. The judge in turn ruled that much of

Cosentino’s evidence (including the smoking gun cost/benefit memo) could not get

to the jury, and the jury found Ford not guilty.

We

called up Cosentino last week and asked him if he would consider criminally

prosecuting either Ford or Firestone today. He said the situation has yet to

present itself.

E.

Michael McCann, the district attorney in Milwaukee County knows that he will

launch a criminal homicide investigation if the situation presents itself. He

has called on the county medical examiner to search whether any recent death in

Milwaukee County has been linked to a Firestone tire tread separation. McCann

has a track record of criminally prosecuting corporations for reckless homicide.

He currently has an investigation open into the deaths of three workers who died

in a crane collapse during construction at the new Milwaukee Brewers ballpark.

But

the list of prosecutors with sufficient resources and courage to take on

America’s most powerful corporations is short. The families of victims need to

approach their local prosecutors and demand they open criminal homicide

investigations now. (If they need advice, they should give a call to McCann or

Cosentino.)

Earlier

this week, the New York Times ran a long investigative article by Keith Bradsher.

Bradsher concludes that the story of the Firestone tire debacle is one of

"missed hints and lost opportunities." That it might have been. But it

also might one of corporate crime and violence. And maybe even homicide. It’s

time we found out.

Russell

Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the

Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).

  

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