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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

“The Kleptocrats Are At It Again”: Congressional Radicals Anxious To Stop Disclosure Of Corporate Money In Elections

Perhaps I’ve been too harsh on congressional Republicans.

I had assumed that their vitriolic attacks on even the meekest of proposals to restrict the tsunami of secret corporate cash slamming into our elections stemmed from a hallucinogenic mix of partisan self-interest and Koch-induced plutocratic ideology. But I’ve since learned that they might simply need medical help.

Take Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican who recently came unglued at a public hearing before the House Financial Services Committee. Mary Jo White, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, had been summoned by GOP inquisitors to answer to a modest, straightforward proposal involving the disclosure of corporate political donations. Actually, it is not her proposal, but a citizen petition — signed by a record half-million Americans — asking the SEC to require that corporate executives reveal to shareholders how their money is being spent in elections.

That’s entirely reasonable — unless, like Garrett, you’ve got the political temperament of a live grenade. He exploded on White, demanding in a bullying manner that she “refuse to be bullied by these outside radical groups” who submitted the petition. He insisted that she declare, then and there, that the agency would not even consider the citizens’ proposal.

Yes, Garrett is a corporate toady, but that can’t explain his foam-at-the-mouth hissy fit. Then I learned about a new medical study that offers a clue about the source of such behavior. It seems that conflicts at work cause some people’s brains to release hormones that prompt them to fly into a rage and even threaten others. The researchers found out that corrosive hormones can make blood platelets stickier, causing the brain to go “boom,” creating angry outbursts of stupidity.

So maybe Scott’s problem is not merely toadyism, but the terrible tragedy of sticky platelets syndrome.

Still, one wonders: What did Rep. Garrett mean when he squawked about “outside radical groups” daring to submit that disclosure petition to the SEC? How radical is it to seek restraints on corporate chieftains who are pouring unlimited (and untold) amounts of their shareholders’ money into our elections?

The great majority of Americans — including rank-and-file Republicans — agree that, at the very least, the shareholders who own the corporation have a right to be told how much of their money is being spent on behalf of which candidates. This explains why more than 500,000 citizens have petitioned the SEC to require disclosure.

Who, you might wonder, exactly are these scary citizens, considered such a threat to corporate power that a congresscritter is tarring them publicly as radical outsiders? They’re professors from leading law schools, state and national elected officials, pension fund directors, public interest advocates and corporate shareholders. Not exactly outsiders, much less radicals.

And that’s what makes them so dangerous to the autocratic elites who run corporations as their own fiefdoms. Top executives want no accountability for the hundreds of millions of shareholder dollars they’re spending to elect corporate lickspittles like Garrett, so they feel it necessary to demonize the citizenry itself. Don’t question us, they demand, just trust us.

Uh … no. Far from earning trust, they’ve already wrecked our economy and betrayed our nation’s egalitarian ideals — while feathering their own plutocratic nests. Now they want free rein to pervert America’s democratic process with clandestine election campaigns secretly financed with other people’s money.

NO! These kleptocrats are the real radicals. It’s time to stop them, not only by disclosing their thievery, but ultimately by outlawing it — and retuning elections to the people. To join the effort, contact Public Citizen at http://www.citizen.org.

 

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, May 29, 2013

May 30, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, Elections | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Fatal Curse On Democracy”: Corporate Cowards Divert Shareholder Funds Into “Dark Money”

If corporations are people, as the Supreme Court pretends, they certainly are loudmouths, constantly telling us how great they are and spreading their names everywhere.

Amazingly, though, these corporate creatures have suddenly turned demure, insisting that they don’t want to draw any attention to themselves. That’s because, in this case, corporations are not selling, they’re buying — specifically, trying to buy public office for their pet political candidates by funneling millions of corporate dollars through such front groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In turn, the fronts use the money to air nasty attack ads that smear the opponents of the pro-corporate candidates.

Why do corporations need a middleman? Because the ads are so partisan and vicious that they would appall and anger millions of customers, employees and shareholders of the corporation. So, rather than besmirch their own names, the corporate powers have meekly retreated behind the skirts of Republican political outfits like the Chamber.

But don’t front groups have to report (at least to election authorities) who’s really behind their ads, so voters can make informed decisions? No. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizen United edict in 2010, such groups can now pour unlimited sums of corporate cash into elections without ever disclosing the names of their funders. This “dark money” channel has essentially established secret political campaigning in America.

That’s why shareholders and other democracy advocates are asking the Securities and Exchange Commission to rule that the corporate giants it regulates must reveal to shareholders all political donations their executives make with corporate funds. After all, the millions of dollars the executives are using to play politics don’t belong to them — it is shareholder money. And by no means do shareholders march in lockstep on which political candidates to support or oppose.

Hide and seek can be a fun game for kids, but it’s infuriating when CEOs play it in our elections. Last year, corporate interests sought to elect their candidates by hiding much of their politicking not only from company owners but also from voters. In all, $352 million in “dark money” poured into our 2012 elections, the bulk of it from corporations that covertly pumped it into secretive trade associations and such scams as “social welfare charities,” run by the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.

Since underhanded, anonymous electioneering puts a fatal curse on democracy, the SEC should at least compel corporate managers to tell their owners — i.e., the shareholders — how and on whom their money is being gambled in political races. It’s a simple reform, but — oh, lordy — what a fury it has caused among the political players.

A rare joint letter from the U.S. Chamber, Business Roundtable and National Association of Manufacturers has been sent to the CEOs of the 200 largest corporations in our country, rallying them to the barricades in a frenetic lobbying effort to stop this outbreak of honest, democratic disclosure.

House Republicans are even going to the extreme of trying to make it illegal for the SEC to let shareholders (and the voting public) know which campaigns are being backed by cash from which corporations. Hyperventilating, these powerful scaredycats claim to be intimidated by the very suggestion that they tell the people what they’re doing in public elections.

Their panic over having a little sunlight shine into their deepest bunker reveals just how destructive they intend dark money to be for our democracy. Ironically, the Supreme Court’s chief assumption in allowing unlimited corporate cash into the democratic process was that shareholders would be informed and involved, and provide public accountability for their companies’ political spending.

Even Justice Antonin Scalia, long a cheerleader for corporate politicking, is no fan of hiding it from the electorate: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage,” he has written, adding that a campaign “hidden from public scrutiny” is anathema to self-governance. He also deems it cowardly: “This does not resemble the Home of the Brave,” he pointedly noted.

 

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, May 8, 2013

May 10, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, Democracy | , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

“Freedom For The Few”: Corporations, Miniature Governments With Their Own Undemocratic Governance Structures And Election Systems

We should be done by now with the idea that a corporation is a single thing. Corporations contain a multitude of conflicting interests and are much more like miniature governments with their own governance structures and election systems than is commonly recognized. While these structures are far more hierarchical and undemocratic than we require of our public institutions, Americans should not be resigned that this is the best or the only way the private sector can be structured.

The debate over corporate disclosure currently going on at the SEC exposes some important fissures within the modern American corporation. On the one hand, corporate managers and their allies have argued that corporations should be able to engage in political activities without having to disclose how much they spent or who that money went to. But there is a subtle slight-of-hand to this argument. It conflates the overall interests of the corporation with the desires of management and directors. What proponents of this view really mean is that management and directors should be able to make political expenditures without getting any input from shareholders or other constituencies within the corporation.

On the other side of the debate, shareholders and shareholder advocacy groups have been calling for greater disclosure regarding how corporate money is spent in politics. Shareholders have pointed out, rightly, that management’s political activities are not necessarily good for business. The money spent on political activity is money that shareholders might otherwise see reinvested in the company or have paid out in dividends, and it is money they have residual legal claims to. And, importantly, it often expresses political views that shareholders have no interest in supporting.

Shareholders have been introducing and voting on proposals to improve disclosure. But even when these measures pass, they are merely advisory and do not bind managers. It’s simply not the case that corporate political spending reflects the views of all the people who make up a business. Under existing corporate law, these intra-business disputes already tend to be resolved in management’s favor. And right now it is only management and directors whose views are reflected in political activity. It’s also noteworthy that employees’ interests aren’t even a part of this picture.

In spite of all that, management continues to push back against shareholders. Likely emboldened by Citizens United, proponents of management-dominated corporate speech have begun to claim First Amendment freedoms against their own shareholders. Consider this rather surprising statement from former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins:

shareholder activists, including unions, state pension funds, and ‘socially responsible investors,’ have increasingly turned to shareholder proposals to selectively burden American businesses exercising their First Amendment rights.

Leaving aside the fact that nobody has First Amendment rights against other private actors, this is an extremely bold assertion. This is tantamount to saying that the interests of management should trump all others and that neither private nor public actors should be permitted to interfere.

Frighteningly, recent developments have begun to enshrine this pro-boss, pro-management bias elsewhere in the law as well. This trend can be seen in a number of settings. During the last election cycle, a number of journalists were reporting that employers were asserting a First Amendment right to trample on the voting rights of their employees. In the ongoing fights over the Affordable Care Act, a number of employers have asserted a constitutional right not to pay for employees’ access to birth control and reproductive health services. (And in the religious non-profit setting, the Obama administration appears prepared to give them the exemption they were seeking.)

Corporations are a “they,” not an “it.” And it’s vitally important that this “they” doesn’t only mean corporate management. More democratic private sector institutions would be an important start. But we need a new constitutional framework for understanding people’s positive rights in the private sector as well. Freedom under the First Amendment doesn’t simply mean, as Paul Atkins might like, protecting bosses from public and private accountability. It means empowering a variety of people, shareholders, workers, communities, and the broader public, to shape the political conditions they live in.

 

By: Anthony Kammer, The American Prospect, February 6, 2013

February 10, 2013 Posted by | Corporations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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