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“Our Democracy Is Drowning In Big Money”: JP Morgan Chase, The Foreign Corrupt Practice Act, And The Corruption Of America

The Justice Department has just obtained documents showing that JPMorgan Chase, Wall Street’s biggest bank, has been hiring the children of China’s ruling elite in order to secure “existing and potential business opportunities” from Chinese government-run companies. “You all know I have always been a big believer of the Sons and Daughters program,” says one JP Morgan executive in an email, because “it almost has a linear relationship” to winning assignments to advise Chinese companies. The documents even include spreadsheets that list the bank’s “track record” for converting hires into business deals.

It’s a serious offense. But let’s get real. How different is bribing China’s “princelings,” as they’re called there, from Wall Street’s ongoing program of hiring departing U.S. Treasury officials, presumably in order to grease the wheels of official Washington? Timothy Geithner, Obama’s first Treasury Secretary, is now president of the private-equity firm Warburg Pincus; Obama’s budget director Peter Orszag is now a top executive at Citigroup.

Or, for that matter, how different is what JP Morgan did in China from Wall Street’s habit of hiring the children of powerful American politicians? (I don’t mean to suggest Chelsea Clinton got her hedge-fund job at Avenue Capital LLC, where she worked from 2006 to 2009, on the basis of anything other than her financial talents.)

And how much worse is JP Morgan’s putative offense in China than the torrent of money JP Morgan and every other major Wall Street bank is pouring into the campaign coffers of American politicians — making the Street one of the major backers of Democrats as well as Republicans?

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, under which JP Morgan could be indicted for the favors it has bestowed in China, is quite strict. It prohibits American companies from paying money or offering anything of value to foreign officials for the purpose of “securing any improper advantage.” Hiring one of their children can certainly qualify as a gift, even without any direct benefit to the official.

JP Morgan couldn’t even defend itself by arguing it didn’t make any particular deal or get any specific advantage as a result of the hires. Under the Act, the gift doesn’t have to be linked to any particular benefit to the American firm as long as it’s intended to generate an advantage its competitors don’t enjoy.

Compared to this, corruption of American officials is a breeze.  Consider, for example, Countrywide Financial’s generous “Friends of Angelo” lending program, named after its chief executive, Angelo R. Mozilo, that gave discounted mortgages to influential members of Congress and their staffs before the housing bubble burst. No criminal or civil charges have ever been filed related to these loans.

Even before the Supreme Court’s shameful 2010 “Citizens United” decision — equating corporations with human beings under the First Amendment, and thereby shielding much corporate political spending – Republican appointees to the Court had done everything they could to blunt anti-bribery laws in the United States. In 1999, in “United States v. Sun-Diamond Growers,” Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, interpreted an anti-bribery law so loosely as to allow corporations to give gifts to public officials unless the gifts are linked to specific policies.

We don’t even require that American corporations disclose to their own shareholders the largesse they bestow on our politicians. Last year around this time, when the Securities and Exchange Commission released its 2013 to-do list, it signaled it might formally propose a rule to require corporations to disclose their political spending. The idea had attracted more than 600,000 mostly favorable comments from the public, a record response for the agency.

But the idea mysteriously slipped off the 2014 agenda released last week, without explanation. Could it have anything to do with the fact that, soon after becoming SEC chair last April, Mary Jo White was pressed by Republican lawmakers to abandon the idea, which was fiercely opposed by business groups.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is important, and JP Morgan should be nailed for bribing Chinese officials. But, if you’ll pardon me for asking, why isn’t there a Domestic Corrupt Practices Act?

Never before has so much U.S. corporate and Wall-Street money poured into our nation’s capital, as well as into our state capitals. Never before have so many Washington officials taken jobs in corporations, lobbying firms, trade associations, and on the Street immediately after leaving office. Our democracy is drowning in big money.

Corruption is corruption, and bribery is bribery, in whatever country or language it’s transacted in.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, December 8, 2013

December 9, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, Democracy | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Because Corporations Lie”: Voluntary Political Transparency Is Just Not Enough

The Securities and Exchange Commission took a bold step in considering new rules that would require publicly traded companies to disclose political donations. This is a good idea because since the Citizens United decision, corporate entities have moved away from disclosed campaign committees, and instead have begun funneling cash into secret campaign funds, mostly 501c nonprofits.

Last year, The Nation published an investigation that debunked the idea that corporate money has flowed mostly to so-called Super PACs in the wake of Citizens United. Rather, big business has embraced nonprofit trade associations and issue advocacy groups to pour hundreds of millions into direct campaign advocacy. The distinction is important because Super PACs, for all their problems, at least disclose their donors and spending records; trade associations and issue advocacy groups do not.

To the credit of reformers, particularly the Center for Political Accountability and several investor groups, many large corporations have voluntarily adopted transparency measures. While we should applaud corporations that go beyond the letter of the law in disclosing these funds, a system based on voluntary participation does not come close to solving the problem of secret political slush funds. In some cases, voluntary disclosure actually obscures the truth.

Take health insurance companies. Aetna, Aflac and WellPoint are among several that have adopted voluntary disclose rules to provide the public and shareholders with a window into their giving patterns. There’s one problem: they aren’t truthful.

In 2009, the major health insurers, including the aforementioned companies, secretly funneled over $86.2 million to the US Chamber of Commerce, a trade association, using another trade association as a proxy to move the money, to run television and radio advertisements against health reform. Aetna’s disclosures that year only revealed $100,000 to the Chamber. WellPoint and Aflac failed to report those donations, as well. The following year, during the midterm elections, Aetna again secretly provided $7 million to “American Action Network,” a social welfare nonprofit used to run partisan attack ads against Democrats, along with the Chamber, which spent over $50 million on a partisan campaign to elect mostly Republicans that year. Again, Aetna’s voluntary disclosure report made no mention of the money, which became public through an inadvertent regulatory filing.

Similarly, several major oil companies have adopted voluntary disclosure guidelines that are fairly useless. ExxonMobil and Valero Energy are two examples: Both firms proudly produce annual reports on which candidates and political parties they fund. The problem? That data can be found already on the Federal Elections Commission website and related state-level disclosure websites, so there’s nothing new. As The Nation has reported, oil companies often work through secretive trade associations like the American Petroleum Institute, which has become more active in financing campaign-related advertisements and grants to other dark money groups.

As Senator John McCain and others have noted, the hundreds of millions slushing in secret money is bound to lead to another major scandal. And that scandal will likely to produce a lot of liability for the corporations involved. Moreover, as attorney Jerry Goldfeder noted in a letter to the New York Times this week, the I.R.S. has sent a questionnaire to 1,300 nonprofit groups questioning their tax exempt status. The increased scrutiny could lead to new questions that could increase liability for corporations: Are these groups being used to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, by funneling cash to foreign governments? Are consumer brands secretly funding ads that could harm the perception of their product (as was the case with Target and their donations to an anti-gay politician in Minnesota)?

Under the current system, only corporate executives, their lobbyists, and certain politicians really understand where the money is flowing. Shareholders, the public, and reporters have a right to know, too.

By: Lee Fang, The Nation, March 29, 2013

March 30, 2013 Posted by | Big Business, Campaign Financing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“High Stakes Gambling”: Biggest Romney And GOP Donor Sheldon Adelson Did Business With Chinese Mob

Things are getting awkward for Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who pledged to spend a “limitless” amount of money to get Mitt Romney elected. Adelson’s latest woes stem from business practices surrounding his lucrative casino in Macau, the only Chinese city with legalized gambling.

The Macau operation has long been under scrutiny but a new in-depth investigation from ProPublica and PBS focused on allegations of improper, and perhaps in some cases illegal, business dealings by Adelson’s Las Vegas Sands company in China. While focusing on the possibility that Sands violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act with a $700,000 payment to a Chinese associate, PBS also released documents that bolstered accusations of business ties between Adelson’s shop and Chinese organized crime figures.

PBS reports that Sands was clear that, in order to drive business from mainland China to their Macau casino, they would need to use “junkets” — trips arranged by private companies to ferry high-stakes gamblers to Macau:

Among the junket companies under scrutiny is a concern that records show was financed by Cheung Chi Tai, a Hong Kong businessman.

Cheung was named in a 1992 U.S. Senate report as a leader of a Chinese organized crime gang, or triad. A casino in Macau owned by Las Vegas Sands granted tens of millions of dollars in credit to a junket backed by Cheung, documents show.

Cheung did not respond to requests for comment.

Another document says that a Las Vegas Sands subsidiary did business with Charles Heung, a well-known Hong Kong film producer who was identified as an office holder in the Sun Yee On triad in the same 1992 Senate report. Heung, who has repeatedly denied any involvement in organized crime, did not return phone calls.

Because Nevada gambling authorities forbid doing any business with organized crime, Sands’s Las Vegas gambling licenses could hang in the balance. (Adelson and his company refused to comment for the PBS story.) But Adelson has other issues with his China operations.

In 2001, Adelson allegedly helped derail House Republican measure opposing Beijing’s Olympic bid due to human rights issues. “The bill will never see the light day, Mr. Mayor. Don’t worry about it,” he reportedly told Beijing’s mayor after phoning then-House Majority Whip Tom Delay. Sands went on to receive its lucrative casino license from China.

Part of Adelson’s Chinese dealings, which came under federal scrutiny in 2011, went through a non-profit called the Adelson Center for U.S.-China Enterprise. According to a WikiLeaks cable flagged by Salon, the association, which was meant to facilitate business between the U.S. and China, was shut down by China after some “missteps” with “funds transfer mechanisms” used by Sands. Unlike competitors, the cable said, Sands lobbied Beijing directly instead of going through Macau authorities. Adelson and Sands deny any wrongdoing related to the federal investigation.

Adelson’s many interests in politics are sometimes business-oriented and, on other issues, purely driven by ideology. Either way, his spending is massive. Adelson pledged to join forces with the Koch brothers to take down President Obama. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — a top surrogate for Romney’s campaign — said of Adelson’s Chinese business interests and political giving that “maybe in a round-about way, foreign money is coming into an American campaign, political campaigns.”

 

By: Ali Gharib, Think Progress, July 16, 2012

July 17, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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