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May 29, 2002
Journalists List Corporations Found Guilty of Crimes throughout the 1990s
    by William Baue

A simple list of corporate crimes, presented along with guilty pleas or fine payments, hints at the pervasiveness of poor corporate ethics.

Although the Enron debacle has focused the spotlight on corporate crime, it revealed not a new phenomenon but rather a longstanding and pervasive one. While it is vital to perform a careful post-mortem to identify what crimes Enron executives and their cohorts committed, it is equally important to scrutinize other companies to expose similar patterns of corporate criminality. The first step in this process has already been taken, as journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman have compiled a list of The Top 100 Corporate Criminals of the Decade.

"To compile The Top 100 Corporate Criminals of the 1990s, we used the most narrow and conservative of definitions--corporations that have pled guilty or no contest to crimes and have been criminally fined," wrote the authors, who jointly publish "Focus on the Corporation," a weekly column on corporate power. Mr. Mokhiber also edits the Corporate Crime Reporter, and Mr. Weissman edits the Multinational Monitor, which offers critical reporting on corporate power.

The list therefore presents information that is publicly available but often buried under other news. The authors specifically avoided putting any spin on this information by refusing to analyze or assess it. However, although this approach maintains objectivity, it also fails to relate the context of the situation, which might explain a company's side of the story. The list identifies guilty parties, but it does not provide information readers need to assess if the company purposely circumvented the public good.

The authors first published the information in the book Corporate Predators: The Hunt for Mega-Profits and the Attack on Democracy, which was released in 1999. However, Enron's revitalization of the issue of corporate criminality sparked renewed interest in the list.

"There are millions of Americans who care about morality in the marketplace," wrote the authors. "But few Americans realize that when they buy Exxon stock, or when they fill up at an Exxon gas station, they are in fact supporting a criminal recidivist corporation."

The authors point out that six corporations--Exxon (now ExxonMobil--ticker: XOM), Rockwell International (ROK), Royal Carribbean Cruises (RCL), Warner-Lambert (now part of Pfizer (PFE)), Teledyne (TDY), and United Technologies (UTX)--appear more than once on the list.

For example, Exxon placed fifth and 96th on the list with its 1991 guilty pleas related to federal criminal charges stemming from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which resulted in a $125 million fine, and the Arthur Kill oil spill in New York and New Jersey, which resulted in a $200,000 fine, the maximum allowed by law for such an incident.

Rockwell International (ROK) came in 19th and 41st for cases involving hazardous waste. Rockwell paid an $18.5 million fine in 1992 for illegal storage and treatment of hazardous waste at a nuclear plant near Boulder, Colorado. It paid $6.5 million in 1996 when two of its scientists died while illegally burning hazardous waste to dispose of it.

Mr. Mokhiber and Mr. Weissman point out the irony that most people consider corporate crime as victimless, though the above example proves otherwise. The authors cite statistics that also counter this perception that corporate crime is victimless.

"The FBI estimates that 19,000 Americans are murdered every year," they write. "Compare this to the 56,000 Americans who die every year on the job or from occupational diseases such as black lung and asbestosis and the tens of thousands of other Americans who fall victim to the silent violence of pollution, contaminated foods, hazardous consumer products, and hospital malpractice."

The authors also highlight the irony of a double standard that excuses corporations for behavior that is considered criminal when committed by individuals. And while individuals often suffer harsh consequences for their crimes, corporations remain immune to imprisonment, and are only fined for their wrongdoing. Furthermore, corporations often evade accusation for their crimes, or they avoid punishment by influencing the legislative and judicial systems in the U.S.

The authors conclude with a plea for the U.S. Department of Justice to publish a yearly report on corporate crime, as it does with "street" crime. Such a report has yet to be published.


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