Crush Corporate Crime

Last week, we attended a press conference.

It was held by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which identifies itself as “an international learned society composed of the world’s leading scientists, scholars, artists, business people, and public leaders.”

The Academy held the press conference to draw attention to a new study it was releasing: “Restoring Trust in American Business.”

The idea for the study came from three corporate insiders — securities lawyer powerbrokers Martin Lipton and Larry Sonsini, and Harvard Business School Professor and Computer Associates board member Jay Lorsch — the same Computer Associates that was recently criminally charged in a massive corporate fraud, and was granted a deferred prosecution agreement, which let the company off the hook for the consequences of the crime.

These corporate insiders said that they found a “disturbing breakdown of values in corporate America.”

But search as we would through the 184 pages of “Restoring Trust in American Business,” we found nary a suggestion that one way to restore trust and deter corporate criminal wrongdoing would be to criminally prosecute felonious corporations or their executives.

No, in their book, the power brokers talk on and on about ethics, and gatekeepers, and stronger professional standards, lack of judgment, and independence — but nothing about prosecuting corporate crime.

And so at the press conference, we asked — why didn’t you address this issue in your study?

Damon Silvers, a lawyer at the AFL-CIO, and a friend of ours, rose to answer.

Silvers says that he attended business school.

And he said that on his first day at business school, he attended a mandatory ethics class.

The question addressed on the first day of class was — do you take a factory overseas where you are certain to benefit from child labor?

Half the class, mostly Americans said — if it is value maximizing in the short term, do it.

The other half of the class, mostly non-Americans said — of course not, that is dangerous, bad things will happen to your corporation in the long run if you do it.

Nobody in the class — no student, nor the teacher — suggested that there might be things that would be value maximizing but would be wrong to do, short term or long term.

“There are a lot of bad apples,” Silvers said. “Maybe there are some sociopaths out there. But when you have a culture where people who are given control of most of the resources of our society believe there are in fact no moral limits, none, that every moral question can be answered on a spreadsheet, then what we have essentially seen in the last few years is doomed to repeat itself. But the solution to that cannot be putting sociopaths in jail. Because that is not the problem. The problem is systemic structures that encourage people to behavior in really destructive ways. It is not about good people and bad people, which is how President Bush framed it. It is about how we channel ordinary people. That’s why I think the criminal issue, while important, is necessarily and unavoidably a limited solution.”

Well, if the people who are “given control of most of the resources of our society believe there are in fact no moral limits, none,” as Silvers puts it, then we have a nation of corporate sociopaths.

And all the informed business ethics courses and codes of professional responsibility are not going to make a dent in corporate crime.

But criminal prosecution might actually do the trick.

Criminal prosecution is not just about catching and holding accountable a few bad apples. It is about society drawing clear lines of right and wrong, and then enforcing those social norms seriously.

Had the academy added even one or two citizen activists, or one or two academics who have studied corporate and white-collar crime, they might have added this to their list of remedies.

Just to name one, they might have talked with University of Tennessee criminologist Neal Shover, who has written a book titled Choosing White Collar Crime.

It will be published by Cambridge University Press in September 2005.

Shover argues that the choice to commit corporate and white-collar crime is a far more careful, prudent and protracted process than it is for street crime.

Therefore, criminal prosecution will have a greater deterrent impact with white collar crime than with street crime.

Translated: Shover wants to crack down hard on corporate crime.

We were thinking about all of this the other day when we pulled over to a rest stop in Virginia.

The Virginia State Police had posters up at the rest stop encouraging the citizenry to join with the police to “crush crime.”

According to the poster, the Virginia State Police are seeking to curb “escalating crime” with “112 specially trained state troopers who work with citizens, civic groups, and governmental agencies on crime prevention issues.”

To which we counter today with our “Crush Corporate Crime” campaign.

Our “Crush Corporate Crime” campaign will seek to curb escalating corporate crime with the millions of Americans who recognize that corporate crime and violence inflicts far more damage than all street crime combined — yet receives far less attention from the corporate political, media, academic and law enforcement establishments.

Our first item on the agenda:

Get the District Attorney in Galveston County, Texas to open a criminal homicide and reckless endangerment investigation of BP and its executives.

Last week, 15 workers were incinerated, and more than 70 injured, following an explosion at BP’s sprawling refinery in Texas City, Texas.

It was the third fatal accident at the Texas City BP facility in the last four years.

In September 2004, two workers were burned to death and another was seriously injured.

In 2001, a maintenance worker at the facility died after falling into a tank that had been shut down.

Nationwide, BP’s facilities have had more than 3,565 accidents since 1990, ranking first in the nation, according to a 2004 report by the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG).

To charge BP or its executives with reckless homicide, or involuntary manslaughter, the DA would have to find that BP and its executives consciously disregarded “a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a death will occur.”

We believe that the families of the dead deserve a full-blown reckless homicide investigation by the District Attorney in Galveston County.

Ira Reiner, when he was district attorney of Los Angeles County in the early 1990s, would open a criminal investigation any time there was a worker death in his jurisdiction.

But Mohamed Ibrahim, the first assistant district attorney in Galveston County, told us that his office had opened no such criminal investigation into the BP matter.

“We have no reason to believe at this point that it was anything but an unfortunate industrial accident,” Ibrahim said. “If OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) came to us and said it was a result of criminal recklessness, we would look at an investigation.”

But OSHA has proven that it can’t be trusted with worker safety investigations.

Why not an independent homicide investigation?

“We don’t have the resources or expertise,” Ibrahim said.

Well, it’s time to ramp up.

We call on all citizens of conscience to take a moment now and write to Kurt Sistrunk, the district attorney in Galveston County, and call on him to open a criminal investigation of BP and its executives in connection with the blast that killed at least 15 and injured more than 70.

Opening a criminal investigation doesn’t mean a crime has been committed.

It means only that there are 15 dead human beings — may they rest in peace — and the need for an all-out criminal investigation.

The District Attorney can be reached at kurt.sistrunk@co.galveston.tx.us
— or give him a call (409) 766-2355.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, <http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com>. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, http://www.multinationalmonitor.org. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2005).

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

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