The Wall Street Journal is the main reporter in our country of corporate crime. The Wall Street Journal has so much information on corporate crime it should be named The Crime Street Journal.
Taking Nader at his word, we decided the best way to survey the corporate crime wave in this country was to read a year’s supply of The Wall Street Journal. What follows is a representative sample of the reports of big-business malfeasance published in the WSJ during 1996. And keep in mind that the paper’s talented reporters could cover only a fraction of the misdeeds that occurred during the year. The stories, despite their relative restraint and sober factuality, display a panorama of civil and criminal corruption, sleaze, unhinged greed and other antisocial antics of some of the businesses that shape our lives.
Please note the punishments handed out to the malefactors. Although three executives were sentenced to spend a few months in prison (for fraud resulting in ten deaths) and a couple of others seem destined to land in jail eventually, the kindly manner in which most erring business chieftains were treated solidly underscores the fact that in the United States a prison sentence is rarely looked upon as the proper fate of corporate villains.
Frequently, where criminal charges could have been brought the offenders were tapped with lesser counts of civil misconduct, and they agreed to make a settlement before trial, precluding the possibility of much heavier financial punishment. Don’t be impressed by the seemingly hefty fines and restitution paid by some corporations; they were a minor inconvenience, for 1996 was a banner year for corporate profits.
Perhaps the best lesson to be drawn from this kind of survey was laid out years ago by Gilbert Geis, who frequently wrote on white-collar crime:
The social consciousness of the corporate offender often seems to resemble that of the small-town thief, portrayed by W.C. Fields, who was about to rob a sleeping cowboy. He changed his mind, however, when he discovered that the cowboy was wearing a revolver. “It would be dishonest,” he remarked virtuously as he tiptoed away. The moral is clear: since the public cannot be armed adequately to protect itself against corporate crime, those law enforcement agencies acting on its behalf should take measures sufficient to protect it. High on the list of such measures should be an insistence upon criminal definition and criminal prosecution for acts which seriously harm, deprive, or otherwise injure the public.
The trouble is, even if they wished to get tough–and the overriding trend is toward less toughness–most of the federal agencies with jurisdiction over the business world are woefully outmanned by the huge array of corporate lawyers. It isn’t a David and Goliath situation–it’s more like Shirley Temple versus King Kong.
Jim Lehrer’s Fallen Angel
The Archer Daniels Midland company, super-briber to the political world, was involved in the most publicized corporate crime of 1996. Caught in a sting by Justice Department investigators, A.D.M., the planet’s largest grain processor, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to fix prices for two products: lysine, a feed supplement for livestock, and citric acid, used in soft drinks and detergents. A.D.M., which was fined $100 million, and its Asian co-conspirators also agreed to pay more than $100 million to settle civil lawsuits brought by shareholders and customers. More lawsuits lie ahead.