Monday, January 24, 2005

Ten Worst Corporations of 2004

From Common Dreams....."The 10 Worst Corporations of 2004" by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman. To affect these companies, we should avoid supporting their businesses as much as possible.
"When the Multinational Monitor judges gather to pick the 10 worst corporations of the year, one of their instructions is: name no companies that appeared on the previous year's list (barring extraordinary circumstances).

For the 2004 list, that means no Bayer (even though in 2004 the company pushed for import of genetically modified rice into the European Union, polluted water in a South African town with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, and was hit with evidence that its pain medication Aleve (naproxen) increases the risk of heart attack, among other egregious acts), no Boeing (despite new evidence that the tanker plane scandal costing U.S. taxpayers tens of billions of dollars is even worse than it appeared), no Clear Channel (even though the radio behemoth in 2004 stooped to new lows with a "Breast Christmas Ever" contest that promised to pay for breast implants for a dozen contest "winners"), and no Halliburton (embroiled in a whole new set of contracting fraud and bribery charges in 2004).

But at least the no-repeat rule helps limit the field a bit. And there remained plenty of worthy candidates.

Of the remaining pool of price gougers, polluters, union-busters, dictator-coddlers, fraudsters, poisoners, deceivers and general miscreants, we chose the following -- presented in alphabetical order -- as the 10 Worst Corporations of 2004 [full text available at]:

Abbott Laboratories: Abbott makes the list for raising the price of Norvir, an important AIDS drug, developed with a major infusion of U.S. government funds, by 400 percent. The price increase doesn't apply if Norvir is purchased in conjunction with another Abbott drug, giving Abbott an unfair advantage over competitors and tilting consumers to use the Abbott products on the basis of price.

AIG: The world's largest insurer, American International Group Inc. (AIG) was charged in October with aiding and abetting PNC Financial Services in a fraudulent transaction to transfer $750 million in mostly troubled loans and venture capital investments from subsidiaries off of its books. AIG agreed to pay $126 million to resolve the charges, but it got off light, entering into a "deferred prosecution agreement" -- meaning the charges against the company will be dropped in 12 months time if it abides by the terms of the agreement.

Coca-Cola: Workers at the Coke bottling plant in Colombia have been terrorized for years by right-wing paramilitary forces. A fact-finding mission headed by a New York City Council member found, among other abuses, "there have been a total of 179 major human rights violations of Coca-Cola's workers, including nine murders. Family members of union activists have been abducted and tortured." Coke says it opposes the anti-union violence and in any case that it hasn't had control of the bottling plant (though it does now, after purchasing the Colombian bottling company). Coke's former general counsel, and the former assistant U.S. attorney general, Deval Patrick, resigned in 2004, reportedly in part because Coke refused to support an independent investigation into the Colombia allegations.

Dow Chemical: The world's largest plastic maker, Dow purchased Union Carbide in 1999. At midnight on December 2, 1984, 27 tons of lethal gases leaked from Union Carbide's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, immediately killing an estimated 8,000 people and poisoning thousands of others. Today in Bhopal, at least 150,000 people, including children born to parents who survived the disaster, are suffering from exposure-related health effects such as cancer, neurological damage, chaotic menstrual cycles and mental illness. Dow refuses to take any responsibility. In a statement, the company says, "Although Dow never owned nor operated the plant, we -- along with the rest of industry -- have learned from this tragic event, and we have tried to do all we can to assure that similar incidents never happen again."

GlaxoSmithKline: Following revelations and regulatory action in the UK in 2003 and 2004, the story of the severe side effects from Glaxo's Paxil (as well as other drugs in the same family) -- notably that they are addictive and lead to increased suicidality in youth -- finally broke in the United States in 2004. In June, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer filed suit against Glaxo, charging the giant drug maker with suppressing evidence of Paxil's harm to children, and misleading physicians. Glaxo denied the charges, but agreed to a new system whereby it would make public results all of its clinical trials. In October, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered Glaxo and makers of drugs in Paxil's class to include a "black box" warning -- the agency's strongest -- with their pills.

Hardee's: The fast-food maker is bragging about how unhealthy is its latest culinary invention, the Monster Thickburger: "First there were burgers. Then there were Thickburgers. Now Hardee's is introducing the mother of all burgers -- the Monster Thickburger. Weighing in at two-thirds of a pound, this 100 percent Angus beef burger is a monument to decadence." The Monster Thickburger is a 1,420-calorie sandwich. Eating one Thickburger is like eating two Big Macs or five McDonald's hamburgers. Add 600 calories worth of Hardee's fries and you get more than the 2,000 calories that many people should eat in a whole day, according to Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which calls the Thickburger "food porn."

Merck: Dr. David Graham, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug safety official, calls it "maybe the single greatest drug-safety catastrophe in the history of this country." Testifying before a Senate committee in November, Dr. David Graham put the number in the United States who had suffered heart attacks or stroke as result of taking the arthritis drug Vioxx in the range of 88,000 to 139,000. As many as 40 percent of these people, or about 35,000-55,000, died as a result, Graham said. The unacceptable cardiovascular risks of Vioxx were evident as early as 2000 -- a full four years before the drug was finally withdrawn from the market by its manufacturer, Merck, according to a study released by The Lancet, the British medical journal. Merck says it disclosed all relevant evidence on Vioxx safety as soon as it acquired it, and pulled the drug as soon as it saw conclusive evidence of the drug's dangers.

McWane: McWane Inc. is a large, privately held Alabama-based sewer and water pipe manufacturer. In a devastating series, the New York Times revealed the company's egregious safety record, and the utter failure of regulatory agencies to control the company's workplace violence. Nine McWane employees have lost their lives in workplace accidents since 1995 -- and three of the deaths were the result of deliberate company violations of safety standards. More than 4,600 injuries were recorded among the company's 5,000 employees. According to the Times, McWane pulled the wool over the eyes of investigators by stalling them at the factory gates, and then hiding defective equipment. Accident sites were altered before investigators could inspect them, in violation of federal rules. When government enforcement officials did find serious violations, the Times reported, "the punishment meted out by the federal government was so minimal that McWane could treat it as simply a cost of doing business."

Riggs Bank: An explosive report from the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, issued in July, revealed that the Washington, D.C.-based Riggs Bank illegally operated bank accounts for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and routinely ignored evidence of corrupt practices in managing more than 60 accounts for the government of Equatorial Guinea. Although these and other activities seem to violate U.S. banking rules, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) did not take enforcement action against the bank after it learned of these matters in 2002. That presumably was not unrelated to the fact that the OCC examiner at Riggs soon thereafter went to work for Riggs. In May 2004, the bank paid $25 million in fines in connection with money-laundering violations related to the Equatorial Guinea and Saudi Arabian governments, and it is the subject of ongoing federal criminal investigations.

Wal-Mart: While Wal-Mart is presently on a bit of a public relations defensive, the company remains the colossus of U.S. -- and increasingly global -- retailing. It registers more than a quarter trillion dollars in sales. Its revenues account for 2 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. For two years running, Fortune has named Wal-Mart the most admired company in America. It is arguably the defining company of the present era. A key component -- arguably the key component -- of the company's business model is undercompensating employees and externalizing costs on to society. A February 2004 report issued by Representative George Miller, D-California, tabulated some of those costs. The report estimated that one 200-person Wal-Mart store may result in a cost to federal taxpayers of $420,750 per year -- about $2,103 per employee. These public costs include free and reduced lunches for just 50 qualifying Wal-Mart families, Section 8 housing assistance, federal tax credits and deductions for low-income families, and federal contributions to health insurance programs for low-income children.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, . Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, , and counsel for Essential Inventions, a nonprofit involved in the pricing dispute discussed in the Abbott profile. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press).

No comments: