Printer Friendly

Corporate Crime and Violence: Big Business Power and the Abuse of the Public Trust.

If the Bible were being rewritten today, and Russell Mokhiber were on the committee doing the work, I think he would insist (with every good reason) that in the future Romans 6:23 be updated to For the wages of sin is death, except for corporations. But they should be included."

Mokhiber is editor of "Corporate Crime Reporter," a weekly newsletter published in Washington, D.C., at a subscription cost that, I regret to say, is so steep only corporate criminals can afford to read about their nefarious ways in its pages.

However, Corporate Crime and Violence. Big Business Power and the Abuse of the Public Trust, priced - affordably, summarizes quite enough evil to last you the rest of the decade. This is repulsive, disgusting, infuriating, treasonous (in the true sense of betraying one's country) stuff -around which, I suspect, the Wharton and Harvard schools of business have not developed a course.

Mokhiber offers us thirty-six cases of corporate misconduct that killed people or destroyed the environment. Many of the episodes are several years old: Most of them were widely reported and commented on when they occurred, or shortly thereafter. No doubt the establishment press, being loath to force ethical conduct on its corporate peers in the fashion proposed by Mokhiber, will dismiss the book as "old stuff." But criticizing the age of the material misses the point entirely. Mokhiber is not dealing in "exposes." He is reviewing history for the purpose of suggesting reform. And he does it beautifully, masterfully. Some of these cases are so complex that a book could be written about them individually -books have been written about them. But Mokhiber condenses each case into about ten pages, and manages it so well that the core of each crime is saved for our thorough inspection.

I believe that what Mokhiber wants you to keep in mind more than anything else when reading his book is that these corporate crimes were not impersonal ones. When General Motors or McDonnell Douglas or J.P. Stevens did violence to their workers or to the public, it did not happen in the manner of a landslide or flood. It was not an accident, or an act of God. There was plenty of mens rea involved, which Mokhiber, a lawyer, will remind you is a "legal term used to identify the mental element in crime." The decision to risk lives, or to ignore warnings that people were dying or might die from company actions, or to fight attempts to help the victims these decisions can't be nullified or neutered by the word "corporate." Men, thinking men, in those corporations, consciously made the decisions. In many instances, it seems to me, the defiberateness - the premeditation - that went into those decisions, given the results, would have made first-degree murder charges perfectly justified.

There are many, many murders done in these pages: sly, calculated, coldblooded and often (though, thank goodness, not always) highly profitable murders.

When I say calculated, I mean among other things that a common theme running through these cases is a conscious contempt for life. Mokhiber will introduce you to corporations that persisted in marketing a dangerous product and took no thought for the consequences, even though they could have made the product safe very easily and cheaply.

The Ford Motor Company supplies two fine examples:

In the early 1960's, Ford began making cars that had a little problem: On its own, the transmission would often slip ftom park to reverse, triggering a release of the parking brake, and the car would be on its way, running into or over anything in its path-which very often was a person. By the time Ford quit making that particular transmission, in 1980, more than 400 persons had been killed and thousands injured by runaway Fords. Mokhiber says that midway through this slaughter, Ford engineers came up with a design change that would have eliminated 90 percent of the park-toreverse failures. "It would have cost Ford only three cents per vehicle. But Ford refused to adopt it."

When Ford put the Pinto on the market, it knew that the car had been designed so poorly that its gas tank was a potential bomb, waiting to be touched off if hit from the rear by another vehicle going no more than 30 miles an hour. The design could have been changed to make the car safe at a cost of no more than $11 per vehicle. Ford decided against making the change, and hundreds of people were killed or injured.

Too bad there isn't space to touch on all these crimes, but, since we must limit ourselves, let's start with the biggest mass murder on Mokhiber's list and work down, as an easy way to see into the heart of corporate America.

Union Carbide. Union Carbide controlled a pesticides factory in Bhopal, India, a city of 800,000. Officials had had recent and ample notice that the Bhopal plant was burdened with so many defective instruments and "safety" valves, so many poorly trained workers and such lax management that, in the words of a secret report submitted to the company by a team of experts, the plant had "serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials." In the previous six years, there had been six serious accidents at the plant that must have raised doubts about the quality of the operation. Union Carbide paid no attention.

Shortly after midnight on December 3, 1984, the accident occurred that started the methyl isocyanate leak. The gas poured across the city. Because some families buried victims before they were counted, there is no accurate number of the deaths, but best guesses are somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000. Possibly as many as 200,000 persons were harmed; at least 30,000 to 40,000 were seriously hurt -eyes, lungs, brains permanently damaged, etc. It was, as Mokhiber says, "the world's worst industrial disaster."

Stop to think what the results would have been if such a thing had happened in this country. But, as everyone knows, India is a nation of wogs, and wogs don't count, really. You can kill a great many wogs and not have to pay much, if anything. Union Carbide didn't.

Lawsuits could have fixed Union Carbide's hash, if they had been handled in this country. The company could have been wiped out. But a sympathetic Federal judge transferred the lawsuits to Indian courts, which simply are not equipped to handle such gargantuan litigation, and there the cases languish to this day, while the number of plaintiffs is thinned by death and migration.

Readers who feel that the willful indifference to plant conditions should have resulted in jail sentences for Carbide's top officials will be happy to know that when Union Carbide chair Warren Anderson visited India shortly after the leak, he was charged with criminal negligence and put in jail. They won't be so happy to learn it was merely a ceremonial incarceration of six hours. Says Mokhiber, "The charges were never pursued, which suggests that the arrests were made by the government to quell pubhc outrage at the corporation, which became popularly known in Bhopal as 'Killer Carbide,' and at the government, which was widely perceived asineffective in bringing medical relief to the victims."

Released from jail on $2,000 bail, Anderson flew home to say he was "proud of the way the corporation responded."

How exactly had it responded? Why, Union Carbide had said it was sorry it had killed and maimed so many people, and to demonstrate its sorrow, this corporation boasting a $5 billion equity had sent $1 million in disaster relief, which, as Mokhiber reminds us, "came to about $5 a victim." A week after the accident, "Carbide sent one shipment of medicine, sufficient for 300 to 400 persons."

Dow Chemical Long before the Vietnam War, Dow knew that the chemicals contained in Agent Orange (as the defoliant became known during the war) were extremely hazardous. But when the Pentagon ordered something to kill vegetation in the war zone to make it difficult for the enemy to hide, Dow did not hesitate to package Agent Orange and send it into battle. So far as is known, the corporation (and the six other firms contributing to the sale) did not warn the Pentagon of the dangers. Certainly the G.I.s in Vietnam were not warned, though they surely must have had some idea of the defoliant's potency when they saw tha"a dose of the synthetic growth hormone would send tropical plants into a wild cancerous growth spree until they got so big they would explode into limp nothingness. Two-foot-long bananas, tree-sized weeds, and mangled mangroves would lie dead . . . in hundreds of acres of mutilated forests." Insects, birds, animals, fish, all gone. "The soldiers labeled Agent Orange-sprayed forests 'the land of the dead."'

Never mind bananas. What about people? What could it do to them? "Three ounces of dioxin (the chief killer in Agent Orange) placed in New York City drinking water supply could wipe out the city's entire populace," writes Mokhiber. One hundred and thirty pounds of dioxin were scattered over Vietnam and over civilian residents and soldiers and sailors.

Returning G.I.s discovered they were carrying a plague in their blood. Thousands began suffering a variety of physical adments. But the ailments they sometimes passed on through their genes were even more terrible.

Dow officials still claim Agent Orange is "extremely safe." Furthermore, they insist that as a war contractor they were offly following the government's orders. Dow chair Earle Barnes says that Dow's accusers are guilty of "Hitlertype propaganda."

But Elmo Zumwalt 3d, son of the admiral who ordered the Agent Orange campaign in the first place, said he was "convinced" that "all the medical problems -nervous disorders, cancer and skin problems - reported by Vietnam veterans, or their children's severe birth defects" were caused by Agent Orange.

When the younger Zumwalt served in Vietnam he was exposed to the defoliant. He died of cancer this August 13, at the age of 42. He left behind an 11 -year-old son born with a congenital dysfunction that confuses his physical senses. Dow's denials notwithstanding, even The New York Times seemed to think the cause of Zumwalt's death was obvious enough to merit a headline description of him as a "Victim of Defoliation in Vietnam."

Many lawsuits have been filed. Dow and the six other companies have settled out of court for $240 million including interest - a conclusion that has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court -against the wishes of thousands of vets who feel that amount to be a total betrayal of their cause. "It is pin money," Mokhiber notes, "for a company as Dow which grossed $11 billion last year. Its payment is mostly covered by insurance. The day the settlement was announced, Dow's stock went up."

If the settlement is spread equally over the 250,000 people who could receive money, it would mean $960 per victim. Somehow, it doesn't seem likely that really would compensate, say, former jungle fighter Michael Ryan and his wife, Maureen, whose first daughter, Mokhiber tells us, was born with "no rectum. No urethra. Two vaginas. Four ovaries. Minus one elbow. Minus one wrist. Spine problems. Muscle problems.Limp arm. Missing fingers. A hole in the heart. Two cervixes."

Firestone. As early as 1972, Firestone knew that its "500" belted radial tires had a frightening rate of blowouts. It kept selling them even after tire tests in 1975 showed that none could even come dose to meeting Firestone's own minimum standard of lasting 15,000 miles. No tire lasted longer than 1,385 miles.

Naturally, consumers were somewhat upset because driving on Firestone 500s resulted in such high garage, hospital and mortuary bills. Forty-six percent of the company's customers were raising hell. But still Firestone tried to bluff it out because a recall of the 500s would have busted the company. When Ralph Nader's investigators got hold of a government study that showed just how dangerous the tires were, and released it to the press, did Firestone burn its worthless 500s? No, no. It dumped them on the market through half-price sales.

That was ten years ago. Now and then an accident happens that shows some Americans are still barreling down the highways on those bargain tires, risking their necks with every turn.

The score so far is vague, but government investigators count "thousands of accidents, hundreds of injuries, and 34 known fatalities" from driving on Firestone 500s.

Punishment? Ho, ho, ho. No Firestone official went to jail for killing people, but the company was fined $50,000 for selling a defective product -an amount 560 times smaller than its advertising budget for the year its tires were having a record number of blowouts.

Eli Lilly. This homicidal corporation is particularly worth noting because it is sort of George Bush's baby. He used to sit on its board of directors, and when he moved to Washington as Vice President he owned $180,000 worth of Lilly stock, which, we may assume, is one reason he told a drug industry convention in 1982, "Government shouldn't be an adversary. It ought to be a partner" with big business.

Lilly's reputation as a lawbreaker was well established, says Mokhiber, long before it got into trouble with its antiarthritic drug Oraflex. Cynics called one of its previous drugs, Darvon "less effective than aspirin in killing pain [but] more common than heroin in killing people." Then came Oraflex.

Oraflex was tested first overseas. It didn't do so well; in fact, several dozen persons had died after using the drug a little matter that Lilly failed to mention when it sought, and with surprising speed won, approval from the Food and Drug Administration to market the drug in this country. But why allow ethics to get in the way of what Lilly (listening to financial analysts) believed would be quarter-billion-dollar sales within three years?

Alas, that golden future was not to be. Oraflex consumers overseas kept falling over at such a rate that Britain suspended the drug's sales in August 1982. Realizing that would trigger similar action by the F.D.A., Lily pulled Oraflex from the market -something that probably would not have happened if Britain hadn't acted first. Knowing of the deaths overseas, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, head of Nader's health research group, had been hounding the Department of Health and the Justice Department for months to punish Lilly for its deadly cover-up. Public pressure finally mounted to the point that in August 1985 Justice cooked up a deal with Lilly by which the company would be charged with misdemeanors and fined $25,000 - a "Punishment" that was 480 times smaller than the $12 nimion advertising campaign for Oraflex that year.

General Motors. The air in the Los Angeles basin is, as everyone knows, foul beyond belief. In four out of six categories, its air pollution exceeds acceptable limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Twelve and a half million people in that area have had their lives shortened by being exposed to smog and ozone pollution that, more often than not, is 200 to 300 percent above acceptable health standards.

There are many corporate murderers involved in this pollution today including, particularly, the operators of the dozen off refineries in the basin - but, Mokhiber tells us, the original assassins, the folks who thought up the scheme that has ruined atmospheres and lives in this way, included: General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Mack Trucks and our old friend Firestone.

General Motors, the ringleader, decided in the 1930s to destroy the streetcar systems then operating all over urban America and replace them with bus lines. The details of the conspiracy are too complex to go into here, but the motivation of the corporations was simple enough: to sell vehicles, gasoline, tires. By the time the conspirators were through persuading -bribing? -city and county officials to go along with the scheme, a hundred electric transit systems in forty- five cities around the country had been wiped out: East St. Louis, Tulsa, Jackson, Montgomery, Port Arthur, Cedar Rapids and many et ceteras, including the biggies like New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Oakland and Los Angeles. Thirty-five years ago, 3,000 quiet, pollution-free electric trains transported 80 million people annually throughout the sprawling metropolis. Los Angeles was no hick town, either, but a fuly developed city, a city developed by the trains, not by the automobile, and it prospered in a cleaner environment.

The clean, efficient train system, then owned by the Pacific Electric utility company, was the world's largest interurban electric railway system. Branching from Los Angeles east to San Bernardino, and south to Santa Ana, it carried thousands of commuters between Los Angeles and the area's fifty-six separately incorporated cities. Today this railway no longer exists. The tracks have been ripped out or paved over, the train cars destroyed; smog has replaced clean air.

The destruction was complete by the end of the 1950s. By the early 1970s, Los Angeles's so -called leaders saw what a catastrophe they had allowed to happen and thought of rebuilding the system. Too late. The replacement cost had risen to $6.6 billion, and they couldn't afford it.

So they are left with 8 million cars and G.M.'s buses pumping 26,000 tons of pollutants daily into the atmospheric septic tank.

Were G.M. and the other conspirators punished? Of course they were. You can't kill whole cities and get away with it. The corporate antitrust conspirators were fined $5,000 each. The individuals were fined $1 each. Nobody went to jail.

Pittston Corporation. For callous mass murder, this one, I think, is the saddest in the book. At least a quarter-million people will be killed by Johns Manville and the other asbestos companies. The textile industry has brought scores of thousands of people to an early grave via brown lung syndrome. The harvesting of the tobacco companies is seen around us every day. Infant formula manufacturers like Nestle, Mokhiber says, have lured Third World mothers away from breast-feeding and into a bottle routine that in one recent year was blamed for killing 1 million infants. And then, of course, there was Bhopal.

Compared with those wide-screen wipeouts, the 125 people who died at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, may seem relatively negligible. But there was something about the event that hit me the hardest:

Starting at the top of the mountain, where three tiny waterways converge to form Buffalo Creek, the water trickles down the hollow past the tiny coal towns of Kistler, Fanco, Becco, and Pardee, and 12 others, including Man, some 17 miles downstream, where Buffalo Creek empties into the Guyandotte River. Nestled in the western edge of the Appalachian mountains in West Virginia, Buffalo Creek hollow was home to 5,000 rugged Appalachian mountaineers -people who had a deep pride in home and neighborhood, who were committed to hard work and a rejection of every kind of welfare.

But they were coal miners, prisoners of the coal economy, vulnerable to every dangerous whim of the coal companies.

"Waste was a big problem for" the Buffalo Mining Company, owned by New York City-based Pittston Corp., one of the largest coal companies in the country. "With every four tons the company dug out of the ground came one ton of 'slag' or 'gob'- a black mixture of mine dust, shale, clay, and other impurities."

Coal companies, not having the slight]st regard for the aesthetics of nature, dump their wastes wherever suits them. Buffalo Mining dumped its waste in Middle Creek, one of the three streams that made up Buffalo Creek. A thousand tons a day were dumped into the stream, up at the top of the mountain. The people living down below could see it growing into an enormous dam, 200 feet deep, 600 feet wide, 1,500 feet long.

While the turning company was building the dam of Slag, it was also dumping a half-million gallons of polluted waste water behind the dam, into the same stream. The people living below were seared. Every time it rained, they feared the dam would give. After all, it wasn't really a dam. No engineering had gone into its construction; it was just an enormous pile there at the top of the mountain, waiting to wash down on them. Every time it rained, many residents sought higher ground - just in case.

But officials of the company laughed at them, assured them everything was safe, told them not to worry. So the folks wrote the Governor, asking for help ("Please for God's sake have the dump and waters destroyed. Our lives are in danger"). He sent a couple of bureaucrats, but company officials softtalked them, and nothing was done.

On the morining of February 26, 1972, the dam broke. The "black torrent of 132 million gallons of water and a million tons of solid waste "thirty feet high swept down, wiping out whole towns, not a stick left standing. One hundred and twenty-five people were killed; 4,000 of Buffalo Creek's 5,000 residents were left homeless. Three years "survivors were still living in makeshift huts and a team of 60 psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers concluded that Buffalo Creek valley was virtually 'a village of the damned."'

At first, Pittston Corporation claimed that it was an "act of God," hoping to avoid any financial responsibility. When its record of ignoring warnings came out, the corporation knew it would have to dodge the bullet another way. Dealing with incredibly poor and psychologically vulnerable people, Pittston's lawyers moved in, "canvassing the hollow offering money settlements to the dazed survivors if they would agree not to take Pittston to court." Many of the survivors, ignorant of what they could do in court, accepted the offers. But 625 banded together and sued for $64 million. They didn't do too well, settling out of court for a mere $13.5 million $5.5 million for property losses and in wrongful death payments and $8 million for mental suffering.

We may assume that each of those 625 lost at least one family member and their home. The average settlement for home and death combined was $21,600.

The state of West Virginia sued Pittston for $11 million but, always craven in a showdown fight with coal companies, the state settled for 1 cent on the dollar.

Nobody at Pittston or its subsidiary went to jail.

What will be done to stop all this? Probably very little. In his landmark White- Collar Crime, Edwin Sutherland noted the difficulties of overcoming "the cultural homogeneity of legislators, judges, and administrators with businessmen. Legislators admire and respect businessmen and cannot conceive of them as criminals; businessmen do not conform to the popular stereotype of 'the criminal."' What that really means is that rogues and thugs in the top 3 percent of the income scale stick together.

But Sutherland wrote that forty years ago. I'm not sure that the "popular stereotype of 'the criminal"' doesn't today include white-collar rogues and thugs, although our judges and legislators like to pretend the public hasn't progressed that far. A national Washington Post ABC poll of 1,147 registered voters interviewed in July showed that to the statement "Large corporations have too much power for the good of the country," 73 percent registered a heartyAmen! Among Democrats, it was 79 percent; among Republicans, 66 percent. Granted, only 14 percent of the Republican delegates to their national convention said they agreed (versus 67 percent of Democratic delegates), and granted there has been an incredible tolerance among the general populace toward an Administration that has virtually abandoned the antitrust laws, antipollution laws, consumer protection laws and industrial safety laws. Still, it would seem from those figures that more than seven out of ten Americans today feel that they are being crapped on by big business and would welcome stiff enforcement of stiff laws to correct the situation.

Getting Congress to agree is, of course, another matter.

But if, on some road to Damascus, those spineless wonders should see the light, they have here in Corporate Crime and Violence the answers they need. Mokhiber lists fifty-it's a big, big problem, so fifty is none too many steps that should be taken to subdue the wicked giant. I will name just a few of his ideas.
COPYRIGHT 1988 The Nation Company L.P.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sherrill, Robert
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Nov 28, 1988
Previous Article:Robotizing gravediggers: campus hackers and the Pentagon.
Next Article:The sawdust war.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |