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With the Bush Administration too often feeling the pain of its corporate
sponsors, and with the Enron scandal (so far) producing little political
fallout or legislative change on Capitol Hill, advocates of corporate
accountability have cause for frustration. (Martha Stewart is not much
consolation.) But in one area corporate critics can feel encouraged. For
several years, a small group of lawyers and labor advocates has been
trying to hold transnational companies responsible for their actions by
suing them in the United States for abetting and/or benefiting from
human rights abuses overseas. Finally, these corporation-chasers are
beginning to see signs of possible success.

In about a dozen cases, attorneys in the United States, on behalf of
villagers, indigenous people and labor leaders overseas, have filed
legal action against large corporations under the Alien Tort Claims Act
(ATCA), a law passed in 1789 that allowed foreigners to sue one another
in US courts. The law was not much used until 1979, when the family of a
17-year-old boy tortured and killed by a Paraguayan policeman
successfully employed it to sue the officer. Afterward, human rights
lawyers turned to the act as a way to address human rights violations
conducted or enabled by multinational firms.

In 1996, for instance, the Washington-based International Labor Rights
Fund (ILRF) filed an ATCA suit against Unocal, an oil and gas firm,
charging that it knowingly used slave labor to build a pipeline in
Burma. The plaintiffs included villagers who said they were forced at
gunpoint to work on the project. A federal judge dismissed the ATCA
lawsuit, arguing that Unocal did not have direct control over the
Burmese military regime, a partner in the pipeline project. That
decision is under appeal, but, in a legal first, in June a California
state judge ordered Unocal to stand trial. In that trial, in September,
the plaintiffs will argue under state law that partners in a joint
venture can be held responsible for each other's actions. That would be
a blow to Unocal. Evidence in the federal case showed it was well aware
that human rights abuses were committed by the military regime in
relation to the pipeline.

ATCA-wielding lawyers and activists have been going after corporate
malfeasance around the globe. Earlier this year, a case filed against
Shell by EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional
Rights got a major boost. This lawsuit claims the oil company is liable
for human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military against the
Ogoni people, who opposed a Shell pipeline. Shell repeatedly filed
motions to dismiss the case, but in February a federal judge denied
these motions and permitted the case to move into the discovery phase.
Now the plaintiffs can take depositions of Shell officials and review
Shell documents.

Texaco was sued in New York by indigenous people of Ecuador, who charged
it with destroying their local environment by dumping a million gallons
of toxic waste into the ecosystem for two decades. The company's
actions, they claim, devastated rainforest areas, caused an increase in
cancer and other diseases and brought several tribes to the brink of
extinction. In March the two sides argued about whether the case should
be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The court has not yet ruled. Two
years ago, residents of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea filed a
lawsuit in San Francisco against the London-based Rio Tinto mining firm.
The plaintiffs maintained that the corporation, which took over a
company that developed a mine on the island, was in cahoots with a
government that engaged in human rights abuses and destroyed entire
villages in wiping out local resistance to the project. In March a
federal judge dismissed the lawsuit after the State Department argued
that the case could interfere with an ongoing peace process in Papua New
Guinea. But the judge said the Papua New Guinea government would have to
agree to permit the plaintiffs to file a case there.

In addition to the Unocal case, the ILRF is handling ATCA lawsuits
against Coca-Cola (for allegedly using paramilitary forces to
suppress--violently--union activity in Colombia), Del Monte (for
allegedly employing thugs who tortured union leaders in Guatemala),
DynCorp (for allegedly spraying Ecuadorean farmers and villagers with
toxic chemicals that were supposed to be dumped on coca plants in
Colombia) and the Drummond Company, a mining firm (for allegedly hiring
gunmen to torture, kidnap and murder labor leaders in Colombia). In a
case against ExxonMobil, ILRF contends that Mobil, which formed a
joint-venture natural gas project with the Indonesian government, paid
the Indonesian military for security and that these troops committed
human rights atrocities--including murder and torture--against villagers
in the Aceh province.

As these ATCA lawsuits creep forward, corporations here and abroad have
to take notice. A plaintiff's win would compel transnationals to
consider bringing their activities overseas into sync with international
human rights standards. As the Wall Street Journal noted, a
ruling against Unocal--if upheld--"could subject a long list of US
companies to lawsuits in American courts as human rights groups seek to
expand the reach of American tort law to foreign soil." Already the
Street is paying attention. "I've started getting calls from mutual fund
managers," says Terry Collingsworth, ILRF's executive director. "They
tell me that they cannot base stock recommendations on moral
considerations. But if there is a chance a company could be damaged by a
big award in a trial, its business practices overseas become quite
relevant." That is, "the markets" are watching and waiting--to see if
Third World locals screwed by transnationals can find justice in courts
far from their villages.

Would it be too early to sense a sudden, uncovenanted shift against the corporate ethic, if ethic is the word? I can barely turn the page of a newspaper or magazine without striking across either some damaging admission, or at least some damage-control statement, from the boardroom classes.

"How many times can you say 'unbelievable'?" my wife asked the other
morning, as I was rattling the newspaper and again exclaiming over the
latest outrageous news from American capitalism. Maybe it was the story
about the CEO of Tyco International, a very wealthy and much admired
titan, being indicted for evading the New York State sales tax on his
art purchases. Perhaps it was the disclosure that the soaring market in
energy trading, a jewel of the new economy, was largely a fabrication
built on phony round-trip trades. Or the accusation that Perot Systems,
after designing California's deregulated energy-trading system, turned
around and showed the energy companies how to blow holes in it (and
generate those soaring electric bills for Californians).

It is unbelievable--what we've learned in the past six or eight
months about the financial system and corporate management. The
systematic deceit and imaginative greed--the sheer chintziness of
personal finagling for more loot--go well beyond the darkest hunches
harbored by resident skeptics like myself. Indeed, the Wall Street
system is now being flayed in the media almost daily by its own leading
tribunes. Listen to this summary of the scandals: "The failures of Wall
Street's compliance efforts are coming under intense scrutiny--part of a
growing awareness of how deeply flawed the US financial markets really
are. The watchdogs charged with keeping the financial world honest have
all lost credibility themselves: outside auditors who bend the rules to
please corporate clients, analysts who shape stock recommendations to
woo investment-banking customers and government regulators too timid or
overwhelmed to keep track of the frenzy." You might have read those
points in The Nation, but these words appeared on the front page
of the Wall Street Journal. A week later, another page-one
Journal story crisply explained the implications for global
investors: "Boasts about world-class corporate disclosure, bookkeeping
and regulation of American financial markets have become laughable in
the wake of Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals."

When radical critique becomes mainstream observation, change may be in
the air. In my view, this is a rare historical moment--conditions are
ripe for reforming and reordering the system, an opportunity unmatched
since World War II. How things really work is on the table, visible to
all in shocking detail, authoritatively documented by the torrent of
disclosures, with more to come. The libertarian ideology that colonized
economic affairs and politics during the past two decades (markets know
best, government is an obstacle, greed is good) has been pulled up
short. The conservative orthodoxy is vulnerable--actually breaking
down--because it has no good explanations for what we now understand to
be routine malpractice in business and finance. Political tinder is
spread all around the landscape, but who will strike the match?

The potential downside of this moment is also palpable and quite
ominous: Nothing will happen, nothing will change--nobody goes to jail,
no significant reforms are enacted. If so, the main result will be
confirmation of an already endemic public cynicism and the further
poisoning of American values. The revelations, instead of provoking a
sea change in political thinking, may be smothered by the alignments of
corporate-financial power, diverted into false reforms and complexified
to the point that media attention and public anger are exhausted. In
that event, the consequences for the country will be less obvious but
profoundly corrosive. The system would go forward in roughly the same
fashion (perhaps tarted up with public-relations rouge), and everyone
would understand that corruption is the system. In markets and in
the popular culture, the message would be: Forget that crap about
ethics--might as well take the low road, since that's how the big boys
get theirs.

The stakes are enormous, and it's much too early to predict the outcome.
But there's already abundant evidence that the business establishment
expects to ride out this storm and is working the usual political levers
to insure it. The politics resemble the S&L debacle in the late
1980s, when Congressional Republocrats put out lots of noise and smoke
but left the high-priced suits unruffled and stuck the public with the
bill. Our current galaxy of scandals is far more grave because it is
systemic. Anyone with courage among the Democratic presidential hopefuls
could seize this moment and reorder the agenda for 2004, but no one so
far has found the guts to break ranks with corporate power. Smoldering
public anger, however, may yet find a way to express itself, perhaps in
the fall elections, and rouse the reluctant politicians.

For now, the best hope seems to be that the bankers and business guys
will react to the fact that financial markets have been severely damaged
by the scandalous revelations, as have the high-flying moguls of
corporate America. Who can trust them? Who wants to pour more good money
after bad? In other words, this scandal stuff is bad for business,
especially bad for the faltering stock market. Henry Paulson Jr., chair
of Goldman Sachs, delivered that message recently in a sober speech
before the National Press Club and endorsed a number of useful reforms.
His remedies are insufficient (even the Journal editorial page
was happy to bless them) but are a fair start. A chorus of high-minded
anguish from elite circles might persuade Washington that this problem
does need fixing.

The scandals of Enron et al., unfortunately, must compete with another
story--the war on terrorism--that's more exciting, and threatening, than
dirty bookkeeping or the looted billions. The two crises are intertwined
in perverse ways. The smug triumphalism of Bush's unilateralist war
policy could be abruptly deflated by economic events--which probably
would be a good thing for world affairs, since Washington couldn't run
roughshod over others, but terrible for US prosperity. The financial
scandals have provided yet another chilling reason to be wary of the US
stock market, and if overseas investors decide to take their money home
in volume, the already declining dollar will fall sharply. Credit would
thus become suddenly scarce, since our debtor-nation economy relies
heavily on capital borrowed from abroad, and such a convergence would
trigger an ugly downdraft in the US economy. In that event, the
fashionable boastfulness about America, the only superpower, would
implode as swiftly as Enron's stock price.

The Enron "outrage," AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told a rapt crowd of several hundred workers at Milwaukee's Serb Memorial Hall, is "not the story of one corporation's abuses, but sadly it's an example of business as usual in boardrooms and executive suites all across the country." Over the coming months, at a series of town-hall meetings around America, the AFL-CIO will warn workers that they, too, could be "Enroned," and it will call for "no more business as usual."

In an unprecedented way, argues AFL-CIO corporate affairs director Ron Blackwell, the Enron scandal "opens up a channel of public discourse on issues of retirement security and corporate accountability." In the booming nineties nobody wanted to hear why corporations and capital markets had to be better regulated, and reformers were left pleading for corporations to be "socially responsible." But today, "new economy" job-hoppers as much as steelworkers have good reasons to listen to union warnings about deeply flawed 401(k) plans and Social Security privatization.

The labor movement helped win millions in severance pay for laid-off Enron workers, provided legal counsel for workers battling Enron's creditors, sued Enron executives (through union-affiliated Amalgamated Bank) on behalf of pension funds that lost hundreds of millions of dollars in Enron's collapse and helped ex-Enron workers--both union and nonunion--tell Congress and the public how they were misused. The AFL-CIO requested new Securities and Exchange Commission rules and forced four Enron directors to withdraw from renomination at other corporate and public boards. Now labor is challenging Enron director Frank Savage's renomination to Lockheed Martin's board, sending the message that independent directors have a public trust.

Besides supporting auditor reform, the AFL-CIO is promoting legislation to strengthen the rights of workers in 401(k) plans--to a point. Senator Jon Corzine, backed by the Pension Rights Center, initially proposed prohibiting employees from holding more than 20 percent of their employer's stock in their plans. But after complaints from unions representing some workers who had bet big with their employers' stock, like pilots and GE employees, the AFL-CIO backed Senator Ted Kennedy's legislation, which places a less stringent limit on the employees' 401(k) holdings of their employers' stock but which, quite importantly, would require equal worker and employer representation in governing the plans. Enron worker Dary Ebright, who lost $300,000 from his 401(k), argues that limits make sense. "If that had been in place," he said in Milwaukee, "I wouldn't be here today."

Sweeney hopes that unions can use votes on Enron-related reforms to draw lines in this year's elections showing what candidates put first--corporations or workers. The AFL-CIO attacked Republican Representative John Boehner's legislation, passed in April, for "wip[ing] out existing retirement protections for workers under the guise of responding to" Enron. The House bill would permit investment firms to advise workers about financial products, like mutual funds, from which those firms profit--precisely the kind of 1990s conflict of interest that is under investigation at several Wall Street brokerages. While providing limited protections for workers and preserving executive privileges, the House bill would also make it easier for corporations to exclude most employees from retirement plans. Labor's advocacy for Enron workers and retirement security could also strengthen organizing, including efforts among white-collar workers, by sparking a more "enlightened" view of a collective voice at work, as it did with former Enron vice president Dennis Vegas, now a union enthusiast.

But a budding labor scandal threatens the movement's credibility on corporate accountability. It appears that a few labor leaders, sitting on the board of ULLICO, parent of Union Labor Life Insurance Company, personally profited from privileged deals in the Enronlike boom and bust of telecommunications upstart Global Crossing, while their unions' pension funds were denied the same opportunity. Robert Georgine, president of ULLICO and former president of the AFL-CIO's building and construction trades department, former Iron Workers president Jake West, Plumbers president Martin Maddaloni and Carpenters president Douglas McCarron are among those who got windfalls of several hundred thousand dollars. In March Sweeney, who did not take part in the deal, called on ULLICO, like Enron, to appoint an independent committee and counsel to investigate, but in mid-April Georgine said he would take a "somewhat different" approach. "We're not going to ask Enron to live by one set of standards and ULLICO to live by another," Sweeney insisted. Many union officials say they were shocked and disgusted by the news, a reminder that "no more business as usual" is a widely applicable slogan, even within union ranks.

The rise and fall of the house of Enron should trigger comprehensive investigations--civil, criminal and Congressional. The full scope of relations between Enron and its cronies in the Bush Administration must be dragged out into the sunlight. Miscreants should be prosecuted, and fundamental reforms enacted to bring corporations back to public accountability.

Desperately trying to put a lid on the cascading scandals, White House spokesmen have insisted that since Bush officials did nothing when Enron chairman Ken Lay warned them about its impending collapse, there is no political scandal, only a financial one. Don't fall for that.

The largest scandal, as Robert Borosage suggests on page 4, is not just what was done illegally but what was done legally--for example, the failure of Bush Cabinet members to warn small investors and employees that Enron was going down and that its executives were bailing out. Or the slick way Enron gouged billions from Western energy consumers while its planted head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Pat Wood, ignored the pleas of Western governors for price controls. Or Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's torpedoing of the Clinton Administration's attempt to regulate offshore tax havens, a direct benefit to Enron, among others. Or Enron officials' six meetings with Vice President Cheney to help shape Bush's energy plan. What is Cheney hiding by refusing to reveal the names of those FERC met with?

Clearly, the full range of Administration contacts with Enron should be probed. This will reveal how crony capitalism works and what must be done to curb it. Congress must begin the hard task of rebuilding the legal framework for corporate accountability. As William Greider writes on page 11, Enron's demise reveals that all the supposed checks on executive plunder--accountants, stock analysts, independent board members, regulatory agencies--were either short-circuited or inactive. We need bold reform now. And Congress should take a close look at pensions, boosting defined-benefit plans and returning 401(k) plans to the supplement they were intended to be. And of course Enron once again illustrates the corrosive corruption of big-money politics.

With the House and the White House in Republican hands, Democrats in the Senate, sadly, will have to take the lead in ferreting out the facts and defining the necessary reforms. "Sadly" because too many Senate Democrats mirror Republicans in pocketing corporate bucks and parroting the deregulation/privatization line that comes with them. The chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, Joseph Lieberman, was leader of the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council and a founder of New Democrat Network, the proud recipient of Enron contributions. Last year Lieberman blew off the probe of Enron's connections to the California energy crisis. He now has another chance to show if he stands with his voters or his contributors.

Enron's bankruptcy is the largest in US history, but it is not unique. It is a product of the conservative offensive to unfetter corporations by dismantling hard-won public protections. Given that freedom, Enron's executives--and their brethren--gouged consumers, fleeced investors, even betrayed their own employees. It's time for Congress and the people to put an end to Enronomics and call corporate marauders to account.

Blogs

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July 8, 2013

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June 24, 2013

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June 5, 2013

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May 6, 2013

The Dow hit a new high yesterday. A small tax on Wall Street trading could alleviate some of our drastic sequester cuts—and the majority of Americans support it.

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