Friday, November 20, 2015
This past Sunday afternoon, I attended a screening of the film Poverty, Inc.
The trailer is available here.
I share a few, somewhat disconnected, thoughts on Poverty, Inc. under the page break.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
I teach both Civil Procedure and Business Associations. As a former defense-side commercial and employment litigator, I teach civ pro as a strategy class. I tell my students that unfortunately (and cynically), the facts don’t really matter. As my civil procedure professor Arthur Miller drilled into my head 25 ago, if you have procedure on your side, you will win every time regardless of the facts. Last week I taught the seminal but somewhat inscrutable Iqbal and Twombly cases, which make it harder for plaintiffs to survive a motion to dismiss and to get their day in court. In some ways, it can deny access to justice if the plaintiff does not have the funds or the will to re-file properly. Next semester I will teach Transnational Business and Human Rights, which touches on access to justice for aggrieved stakeholders who seek redress from multinationals. The facts in those cases are literally a matter of life and death but after the Kiobel case, which started off as a business and human rights case but turned into a jurisdictional case at the Supreme Court, civil procedure once again "triumphed" and the doors to U.S. courthouses closed a bit tighter for litigants.
This weekend, the New York Times published an in depth article about how the corporate use of arbitration clauses affects everyone from small businesses to employees to those who try to sue their cell phone carriers and credit card companies. Of course, most people subject to arbitration clauses don’t know about them until it’s too late. On the one hand, one could argue that corporations would be irresponsible not to take advantage of every legal avenue to avoid the expense of protracted and in some cases frivolous litigation, particularly class actions. On the other hand, the article, which as one commenter noted could have been written by the plaintiffs bar, painted a heartbreaking David v. Goliath scenario.
I see both sides and plan to discuss the article and the subsequent pieces in the NYT series in both of my classes. I want my students to think about what they would do if they were in-house counsel, board members, or business owners posed with the choice of whether to include these clauses in contracts or employee handbooks. For some of them it will just be a business decision. For others it will be a question of whether it’s a just business decision.
Thursday, October 15, 2015
How and when should CSR codes be enforced through litigation? This short article by Jan M. Smits attempts to answer that question. The abstract is below and the link to the article is here:
A central question in the debate on corporate social responsibility is to what extent CSR Codes can be enforced among private parties. This contribution argues that this question is best answered by reference to the applicable doctrinal legal system. Such a doctrinal approach has recently regained importance in American scholarship, while it is still the prevailing method of legal analysis in Europe. Applying a doctrinal analysis of CSR Codes allows to make the possibility of private law enforcement, i.e. enforcement by means of contract or tort, dependent on three different elements: the exact type of claim that is brought, the evolving societal standards about the binding nature of CSR Codes, and the normative complexity of the doctrinal system itself. This approach allows to make a typology of cases in which the enforceability of CSR Codes can be disputed. It is subsequently argued that societal standards have not yet reached the stage where the average consumer who buys a product from a retailer can keep that retailer legally liable for violations of the norms incorporated in the code.
Friday, October 2, 2015
Unfortunately, touting a business as socially-consious does not seem to lessen the chance of scandal.
Some companies known for their commitment to social causes have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. A few are noted below:
- BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill
- Plum Organics (a Delaware Public Benefit Corp.) baby food recall
- Whole Food's pricing scandal involving mislabeling weights of food and the company's layoffs
- Volkswagen's emission scandal
Predictably, the media latches onto these stories and claims of hypocrisy fly. See, e.g., Here's The Joke Of A Sustainability Report That VW Put Out Last Year and Whole Foods Sales Sour After Price Scandal and BP's Hypocrisy Problems.
No business is perfect, so what should social businesses do to limit the impact of these scandals? First, before a scandal hits, I think social businesses need to be candid about the fact that they are not perfect. Second, after the scandal, the social business needs to take responsibility and take significant corrective action beyond what is legally required.
Patagonia's founder does a really nice job of admitting the imperfection of his company and the struggles they face in his book The Responsible Company. Whole Foods supposedly offered somewhat above-market severance packages to laid off employees and took some corrective action in the price scandal, but I wonder if they went far enough, especially given the lofty praise for the company's social initiatives by the Whole Food's co-CEO in his book Conscious Capitalism. Whole Foods quickly admitted mistakes in the pricing scandal, but then lost points in my mind when they backtracked and claimed they were a victim of the media.
Even if social businesses take the appropriate steps, I think scandals probably hit them harder than the average business because social businesses have more customer goodwill at risk. I would love to see some empirical work on impact of scandal on social business as compared to those that do not market themselves as such; please pass any such studies my way.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Last night, I took my husband (part of his birthday present) to see The Illusionists, a touring Broadway production featuring seven masters of illusion doing a three-night run in Knoxville this week. I admit to a fascination for magic shows and the like, an interest my husband shares. I really enjoyed the production and recommend it to those with similar interests.
At the show last night, however, something unusual happened. I ended up in the show. I made an egg reappear and had my watch pilfered by one of the illusionists. It was pretty cool. After the show, I got kudos for my performance in the ladies room, on the street, and in the local gelato place.
But I admit that as I thought about the way I had been tricked--by sleight of hand--into performing for the audience and allowing my watch to be taken, I realized that these illusionists have something in common with Ponzi schemers and the like--each finds a patsy who can believe and suckers that person into parting with something of value based on that belief. That's precisely what I wanted to blog about today anyway--scammers. Life has a funny way of making these kinds of connections . . . .
So, I am briefly posting today about a type of affinity fraud that really troubles me--affinity fraud in which a lawyer defrauds a client. Most of us who teach business law have had to teach, in Business Associations or a course on professional responsibility, cases involving lawyers who, e.g., abscond with client funds or deceive clients out of money or property. I always find that these cases provide important, if difficult, teaching moments: I want the students to understand the applicable law of the case, but I also want them to understand the gravity of the situation when a lawyer breaches that all-important bond of trust with a client.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Last week I blogged about the Yates Memorandum, in which the DOJ announced that any company that expected leniency in corporate deals would need to sacrfice a corporate executive for prosecution. VW has been unusually public in its mea culpas apologizing for its wrongdoing in its emission scandal this week. VW’s German CEO has resigned, the US CEO is expected to resign tomorrow, and other executives are expected to follow.
It will be interesting to see whether any VW executives will serve as the first test case under the new less kind, less gentle DOJ. Selfishly, I’m hoping for a juicy shareholder derivatives suit by the time I get to that chapter to share with my business associations students. That may not be too far fetched given the number of suits the company already faces.
Thursday, September 10, 2015
Are Crooked Executives Finally Going to Jail? DOJ’s New White Collar Criminal Guidelines and the Questions for Compliance Officers and In House Counsel
I think my life as a compliance officer would have been much easier had the DOJ issued its latest memo when I was still in house. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has heard the criticism and knows that her agency may face increased scrutiny from the courts. Thus the DOJ has announced via the “Yates Memorandum” that it’s time for some executives to go to jail. Companies will no longer get favorable deferred or nonprosecution agreements unless they cooperate at the beginning of the investigation and provide information about culpable individuals.
This morning I provided a 7-minute interview to a reporter from my favorite morning show NPR’s Marketplace. My 11 seconds is here. Although it didn’t make it on air, I also discussed (and/or thought about) the fact that compliance officers spend a great deal of time training employees, developing policies, updating board members on their Caremark duties, scanning the front page of the Wall Street Journal to see what company had agreed to sign a deferred prosecution agreement, and generally hoping that they could find something horrific enough to deter their employees from going rogue so that they wouldn’t be on the front page of the Journal. Now that the Yates memo is out, compliance officers have a lot more ammunition.
On the other hand, the Yates memo raises a lot of questions. What does this mean in practice for compliance officers and in house counsel? How will this development change in-house investigations? Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ? Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ? What impact will this memo have on attorney-client privilege? How will the relationship between compliance officers and their in-house clients change? Compliance officers are already entitled to whistleblower awards from the SEC provided they meet certain criteria. Will the Yates memo further complicate that relationship between the compliance officer and the company if the compliance personnel believe that the company is trying to shield a high profile executive during an investigation?
I for one think this is a good development, and I’m in good company. Some of the judges who have been most critical of deferred prosecution agreements have lauded today’s decision. But, actions speak louder than words, so a year from now, let’s see how many executives have gone on trial.
September 10, 2015 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Scott Killingsworth, a corporate attorney at Bryan Cave who specializes in compliance and technology matters and is a prolific writer (especially for one who still has billable hour constraints!) recently wrote a short and thought-provoking article: How Framing Shapes Our Conduct. The article focuses the link between framing business issues and our ethical choices and motivations noting the harm in thinking of hard choices as merely "business" decisions, viewing governing rules and regulations as a "game" or viewing business as "war." Consider these poignant excerpts:
We know, for example, that merely framing an issue as a “business matter” can invoke narrow rules of decision that shove non-business considerations, including ethical concerns, out of the picture. Tragic examples of this 'strictly business' framing include Ford’s cost/benefit-driven decision to pay damages rather than recall explosion-prone Pintos, and the ill-fated launch of space shuttle Challenger after engineers’ safety objections were overruled with a simple 'We have to make a management decision.' (emphasis added)
Framing business as a game belittles the legitimacy of the rules, the gravity of the stakes, and the effect of violations on the lives of others. By minimizing these factors, the game metaphor takes the myopic “strictly business” framing a step further, into a domain of bendable rules, acceptable transgressions, and limited accountability. (emphasis added)
The war metaphor conditions our thinking in a way distinct from the game frame, but complementary to it. War is a matter of survival: the stakes are enormous, the mission urgent, and all’s fair. Exigent pressures grant us wide moral license, releasing us from adherence to everyday rules and justifying extreme tactics in pursuit of a higher goal; we must, after all, kill or be killed. If business is war, survival is at stake, and competitors, customers, suppliers, rivals or authorities are our enemies, then not only may we do whatever it takes to win, it’s our duty to do so. (emphasis added)
The full article is available here.
In light of the new ABA regulations on Learning Outcomes and Assessment, including the requirement that students have competency in exercising "proper professional and ethical responsibilities to clients and the legal system" this article seems like a great addition to a business organizations/corporations course line up. I know that I will be including it in my corporate governance seminar this coming year. And if I were responsible for new associate training, this would definitely merit inclusion in the materials.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
CALL FOR PAPERS: A Workshop on Vulnerability at the Intersection of the Changing Firm and the Changing Family (October 16-17, 2015 in Atlanta, GA)
UPDATE: The deadline for submissions has been extended to July 21.
[The following is a copy of the official workshop announcement. I have moved the "Guiding Questions" to the top to highlight the business law aspects. Registration and submission details can be found after the break.]
A Vulnerability and the Human Condition Initiative Workshop at Emory Law
This workshop will use vulnerability theory to explore the implications of the changing structure of employment and business organizations in the new information age. In considering these changes, we ask:
• What kind of legal subject is the business organization?
• Are there relevant distinctions among business and corporate forms in regard to understanding both vulnerability and resilience?
• What, if any, should be the role of international and transnational organizations in a neoliberal era? What is their role in building both human and institutional resilience?
• Is corporate philanthropy an adequate response to the retraction of state regulation? What forms of resilience should be regulated and which should be left to the 'free market'?
• How might a conception of the vulnerable subject help our analysis of the changing nature of the firm? What relationships does it bring into relief?
• How have discussions about market vulnerability shifted over time?
• What forms of resilience are available for institutions to respond to new economic realities?
• How are business organizations vulnerable? How does this differ from the family?
• How does the changing structure of employment and business organization affect possibilities for transformation and reform of the family?
• What role should the responsive state take in directing shifting flows of capital and care?
• How does the changing relationship between employment and the family, and particularly the disappearance of the "sole breadwinner," affect our understanding of the family and its role in caretaking and dependency?
• How does the Supreme Court's willingness to assign rights to corporate persons (Citizen's United, Hobby Lobby), affect workers, customers and communities? The relationship between public and private arenas?
• Will Airbnb and Uber be the new model for the employment relationships of the future?
July 14, 2015 in Business Associations, Call for Papers, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, July 2, 2015
The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University has multiple open positions in their Business Law and Ethics Department.
Kelley is well known in business school circles for having a strong legal studies program. Among the many fine faculty members are my ALSB mentor Jamie Prenkert (department chair) and BLPB guest-blogger Todd Haugh.
Information about these positions is available after the break.
Thursday, June 25, 2015
It’s always nice to blog and research about a hot topic. Last week I wrote about compliance challenges for those who would like to rush down to do business in Cuba- the topic of this summer’s research. Yesterday, Corporate Counsel Magazine wrote about the FCPA issues; one of my concerns. Earlier this week, I attended a meeting with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the United States International Trade Commission. Apparently, on December 17th, the very same day that President Obama made his surprise announcement that he wanted to re-open relations with Cuba, Senator Ron Wyden coincidentally sent a request to the USITC asking for an investigation and report on trade with Cuba and an analysis of restrictions. Accordingly, the nonpartisan USITC has been traveling around the country speaking to lawyers and business professionals conducting fact-finding meetings, in order to prepare a report that will be issued to the public in September 2015. Tomorrow the Miami Finance Forum is holding an event titled the New Cuba Revolution.
This will be my third and final post on business and Cuba and in this post I will discuss the focus of my second potential law review article topic. My working thesis is as follows: As relations between the United States and Cuba thaw, American businesses have begun exploring opportunities on the island. Cuba, however, remains a communist nation with a human rights record criticized by exiles, NGOs, and even members of the United States Congress. The EU has taken a "common position" on Cuba stating that the objective of the European Union in its relations with Cuba is to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy, require a respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people." Individual EU member states are free to conduct business with Cuba and many European companies have joined Canadian firms in investing through joint ventures and other state-sanctioned vehicles. This Article will examine whether the US should follow the EU's model in trying to spur reform or whether allowing American firms to do business in Cuba without human rights concessions will in fact perpetuate the status quo.
As I discussed in last week’s blog post, one reason that the U.S. is unlikely to lift the embargo is the nearly 7 billion in claims for confiscated US property. Another reason is Cuba’s human rights record. For example, the island is notorious for violations of rights to freedom of press, association, assembly, and imprisonment of political protesters. The Cuban government continues to control all media limiting the access to information on the Internet due to content-based restrictions and technical limitations. Independent journalists are systematically subjected to harassment, intimidation, and detention for reporting information that was not sanctioned by the state apparatus. My colleague Jason Poblete writes often and critically about the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba. (I highly recommend him for legal advice about Cuba by the way).
Depending on whom you talk to the embargo will be lifted next year, in five year or in ten years. Personally, I don't know that the EU Common Position has been particularly effective in pressuring the Castro brothers to make human rights reforms. I don’t think the U.S. government will be any more successful either. The embargo is Exhibit A.
Most of my academic research thus far has been on what drives corporations to act in the absence of legal obligations vis a vis human rights. With that in mind, I plan to examine a few options related to Cuba. First, I am researching the effect of bilateral investment treaties. A bilateral investment treaty is an "agreement between two countries for the reciprocal encouragement, promotion and protection of investments in each other's territories by companies based in either country.” These typically grant significant rights to foreign investors, provide safeguards to investments against foreign governments, and allow foreign investors to have investment disputes adjudicated outside of the country, which will be critical for those investing in Cuba. The problem is that these BITS rarely have human rights conditions. Accordingly, some scholars have recommended that they require adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. I would also recommend reference to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidance.
Another option is to condition any renewal of a development bank such as the US’s Ex-Im Bank on requiring human rights impact assessments. The Ex-Im bank is the official export credit agency of the US. It’s used when private sector lenders are unable or unwilling to provide financing to companies entering politically or commercially risky countries. Its charter is set to expire on June 30th although its supporters claim that it financed billions in exports, which supported 200 thousand jobs last year. Opponents claim that it financed exports in countries with abysmal human rights records and/or that it supports corporate welfare. I propose that Ex-Im and other lenders follow the lead of many European financers that require human rights disclosures. I (naively?) believe labor may be the only human right remotely and partially in the control of US companies operating in Cuba in the future.
I have some other ideas but those will have to wait for the upcoming article. In the meantime, if you have some thoughts or critiques of these early ideas, please comment below or send me an email at email@example.com. I’m off to Guatemala on Saturday for a week with a group of academics studying business and human rights (another research topic for this summer). We will be exploring climate change, the extractive industries, maquiladoras, corporate social responsibility, and the effects on the rights of indigenous peoples. You can be sure I will be writing about that in a future post.
June 25, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Law Reviews, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Research/Scholarhip, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Last week I posted the first of three posts regarding doing business in Cuba. In my initial post I discussed some concerns that observers have regarding Cuba’s readiness for investors, the lack of infrastructure, and the rule of law issues, particularly as it relates to Cuba’s respect for contracts and debts. Indeed today, Congress heard testimony on the future of property rights in Cuba and the claims for US parties who have had billions in property confiscated by the Castro government- a sticking point for lifting the embargo. (In 1959, Americans and US businesses owned or controlled an estimated 75-80% of Cuban land and resources). Clearly there is quite a bit to be done before US businesses can rush back in, even if the embargo were lifted tomorrow. This evening, PBS speculated about what life would be like post-embargo for both countries. Today I will briefly discuss the Cuban legal system and then focus the potential compliance and ethical challenges for companies considering doing business on the island.
Cuba, like many countries, does not have a jury system. Cuba’s court system has a number of levels but they have both professional judges with legal training, and non-professional judges who are lay people nominated by trade unions and others. Cubans have compulsory service to the country, including military service for males. Many law graduates serve part of their compulsory service as judges (or prosecutors) and then step down when they are able. The lay judges serve for five years and receive a full month off from their employer to serve at full pay. Although there is a commercial court, only businesses may litigate there and are then they are at the mercy of the lay judges, who have equal power to the professional jurists. This lay judge system exists even at the appellate level. Most lawyers and law firms are controlled by the Cuban government, unless they work for a non agcricultural cooperative. More important, although I have received differing opinions from counsel, it is possible that hiring and paying a local lawyer there could violate US law related to doing business in Cuba. Notwithstanding these obstacles, many companies are trying to get an OFAC license to do business in Cuba right away or are planning for the eventual life of the embargo. In my view, getting there is the easy part. The hard part will be complying with US law, not because Cuba is in a nascent state of legal and economic development, but because of the sheer complexity of doing business with a foreign government.
The first challenge that immediately comes to mind is compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for a person or company to make “corrupt payments” or provide “anything of value” to a foreign official in order to obtain or retain business. Since almost everything is a state-owned enterprise or a joint venture with a state owned enterprise, US firms take a real risk entering into contracts or trying to get permits. There is no de minimis exception and facilitation payments- otherwise known as grease payments to speed things along- while customary in many countries- are illegal too. Legal fees and fines for FCPA violations are prohibitively expensive, and those companies doing business in Cuba will surely be targets.
Another concern for publicly-traded US companies is compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules. Unless the law changes, most US companies will have to follow the model of Canadian and EU companies and enter into joint ventures or some contractual relationship with the Cuban government or a Cuban company (which may be controlled by the government). Most US employees are afraid to report on their own private employers in the US. How comfortable will a Cuban employee be using a hotline or some other mechanism to report wrongdoing when his employer is in some measure controlled by or affiliated with the Cuban government? As I will discuss next week, the biggest criticism of Cuba is its human rights record related to those who dissent. I have personally dealt with the challenge establishing and working with hotlines in China and in other countries where speaking out and reporting wrongdoing is not the cultural norm. I can imagine that in Cuba this could be a herculean task.
The last concern I will raise in this post relates to compliance with a company’s own code of conduct. If a company has a supplier code of conduct that mirrors its own, and those codes discuss freedom of association and workers’ rights that may be out of step with the Cuban law or culture, should the US firm conform to local rules? Even if that is legal, is it ethical? Google's code is famous for its “don’t be evil”credo and it has received criticism in the past from NGOs who question how it can do business in China. But Google was in Cuba last week testing the waters. Perhaps if Google is able to broaden access to the internet and the outside world, this will be a huge step for Cubans. (Of note, Cubans do not see the same TV as the tourists in their hotels and there are no TV commercials or billboards for advertisements).
There are a number of other compliance and ethics challenges but I will save that for my law review article. Next week’s post will deal with the role of foreign direct investment in spurring human rights reform or perpetuating the status quo in Cuba.
Friday, May 29, 2015
If you have been following my guest posts regarding white collar crime and how white collar offenders rationalize their conduct, you likely have noticed that the discussion thus far has been largely theoretical. In this post, I’d like to offer some more concrete uses of rationalization theory and discuss how it may (should?) impact lawmakers and business people.
But before doing that, I have to explain, just for a moment, a bit more theory. One of the most fascinating things about rationalizations, in addition to how they operate, is where they come from. Researchers have concluded that rationalizations are not created in a vacuum; offenders do not invent them in the spur of the moment. Instead, offenders find their “vocabularies of motive” within their own environments. Donald Cressey suggested that rationalizations are “taken over” from “popular ideologies that sanction crime in our culture.” He pointed to commonplace sayings that suggest wrongdoing is acceptable in certain situations: “Honesty is the best policy, but business is business” and “All people steal when they get in a tight spot.” (Warren Buffett once called the phrase “Everybody else is doing it,” which is a clear rationalization, the five most dangerous words in business.) Once rationalizations such as these have been “assimilated and internalized by individuals,” they form powerful constructs that allow illegal behavior to go forward.
Building on this idea, two other criminologists, Gresham Sykes and David Matza, found that offender rationalizations originate from an even more specific location: the criminal law itself. According to Sykes and Matza, great “flexibility” exists in criminal law; even if a defendant commits a bad act, he may avoid punishment if he provides a legally valid justification or defense. Citing defenses to criminal liability such as necessity, insanity, and self-defense, Sykes and Matza viewed application of the criminal law as variable, a circumstance they found offenders incorporate into their psychological processes. Sykes and Matza determined that most unethical and illegal behavior was based on “what is essentially an unrecognized extension of [legal] defenses to crimes, in the form of justifications for deviance that are seen as valid by the delinquent but not by the legal system or society at large.” Put another way, would-be lawbreakers rationalize their behavior in order to fit it within a “defense” to the law that they deem valid, but that society or a court may not.
These finding have important implications for how we consider controlling unethical and criminal behavior in corporations. Our preferred model has been to pass legislation criminalizing conduct in reaction to corporate scandals, e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley after Enron and Dodd-Frank after the financial crisis. As scandals continue to occur, we look for new ways to make the detection and prosecution of crime easier for the government. Unfortunately, this approach has led to overcriminalization in many spheres, including white collar crime. There are now over 5,000 federal criminal statutes and as many as 300,000 federal regulatory provisions carrying criminal penalties. While certainly not all relate to white collar crime, many do. In fact, white collar crime underwent the biggest expansion of federal law during the 1970s and 1980s, and it likely took the lead again in the early 2000s. Along with that expansion came reduced mens rea requirements for many white collar crimes, as well as increased punishments, all of which has had the effect of shifting lawmaking and adjudicatory powers to prosecutors. What this means, as many have observed, is that white collar crime suffers from the same ills as other overcriminalized areas of the law—its “depth and breadth” has led to inconsistent enforcement and arbitrary adjudication. (A great example of this is the recent Supreme Court case Yates v. United States, which dealt with a commercial fisherman who was convicted under the anti-document shredding provision of Sarbanes-Oxley for throwing a crate of undersized fish overboard. Yates was subject to at least five partially overlapping obstruction statutes; the prosecutor charged him with the one carrying a 20-year maximum sentence. The Court overturned Yates’ conviction, based partly on concerns of overcriminalization.)
While the arbitrary enforcement of white collar criminal law is problematic for many reasons, the most profound harm it causes is that it makes the law more uncoordinated and illogical, thereby lessening the law’s overall legitimacy. Why is the lessening of the legitimacy of the law so harmful? The answer comes from the interaction between the perceived illegitimacy of white collar criminal law and rationalizations. As discussed above, rationalizations are drawn from the white collar offender’s environment, including the law governing his conduct. As would-be offenders increasingly believe those laws to be illegitimate, more space is created for them to rationalize their conduct. They see “defenses” to the law all around them, which they then internalize and incorporate into their own thought processes. Once this occurs, there is little stopping an offender’s future criminal conduct from going forward. Instead of deterring crime, then, adding more criminal statutes and regulations to an already overcriminalized area of the law fosters the very conduct sought to be eliminated. Put simply, more laws aimed at white collar crime may actually be creating more white collar criminal behavior. (For a more complete discussion of this topic, please see here.) Lawmakers considering the next round of white collar criminal statutes should be mindful of the role of rationalizations play, or they may be inadvertently creating the conduct they are trying to stop.
In my final post, I’ll discuss how these same ideas impact corporate compliance efforts.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
My last post outlined the criminological and behavioral ethics theories that help explain why corporate executives commit unethical and illegal acts. I’d like to unpack that a bit more by providing some specific rationalizations used by white collar offenders. This list includes the first five rationalizations to be identified by researches (sometimes called the “famous five”), and then supplements three others that are particularly relevant. Not surprisingly, there are disagreements as to exactly how many rationalizations there are and precisely how they operate. But, as one team of researchers put it, what is interesting about rationalization theory is what rationalizations do, “not the flavors they come in.”
Denial of Responsibility. Called the “master account,” the denial of responsibility rationalization occurs when the offender defines her conduct in a way that relieves her of responsibility, thereby mitigating “both social disproval and a personal sense of failure.” Generally, offenders deny responsibility by claiming their behavior is accidental or due to forces outside their control. White collar offenders deny responsibility by pleading ignorance, suggesting they were acting under orders, or contending larger economic conditions caused them to act illegally.
Denial of Injury. This rationalization focuses on the injury or harm caused by the illegal or unethical act. White collar offenders may rationalize their behavior by asserting that no one will really be harmed. If an act’s wrongfulness is partly a function of the harm it causes, an offender can excuse her behavior if no clear harm exists. The classic use of this technique in white collar crime is an embezzler describing her actions as “borrowing” the money—by the offender’s estimation, no one will be hurt because the money will be paid back. Offenders may also employ this rationalization when the victim is insured or the harm is to the public or market as a whole, such as in insider trading or antitrust cases.
Denial of the Victim. Even if a white collar offender accepts responsibility for her conduct and acknowledges that it is harmful, she may insist that the injury was not wrong by denying the victim in order to neutralize the “moral indignation of self and others.” Denying the victim takes two forms. One is when the offender argues that the victim’s actions were inappropriate and therefore he deserved the harm. The second is when the victim is “absent, unknown, or abstract,” which is often the case with property and economic crimes. In this instance, the offender may be able to minimize her internal culpability because there are no visible victims “stimulat[ing] the offender’s conscience.” White collar offenders may use this rationalization in frauds against the government, such as false claims or tax evasion cases, and other crimes in which the true victim is abstract.
Condemning the Condemners. White collar offenders may also rationalize their behavior by shifting attention away from their conduct on to the motives of other persons or groups, such as regulators, prosecutors, and government agencies. By doing so, the offender “has changed the subject of the conversation”; by attacking others, “the wrongfulness of [her] own behavior is more easily repressed.” This rationalization takes many forms in white collar cases: the offender calls her critics hypocrites, argues they are compelled by personal spite, or asserts they are motivated by political gain. The claim of selective enforcement or prosecution is particularly prominent in this rationalization. In addition, white collar offenders may point to a biased regulatory system or an anticapitalist government.
Appeal to Higher Loyalties. The appeal to higher loyalties rationalization occurs when an individual sacrifices the normative demands of society for that of a smaller group to which the offender belongs. The offender does not necessarily reject the norms she is violating; rather, she sees other norms that are aligned with her group as more compelling. In the white collar context, the group could be familial, professional, or organizational. Offenders rationalizing their behavior as necessary to provide for their families, protect a boss or employee, shore up a failing business, or maximize shareholder value are employing this technique. Notably, female white collar offenders have been found to appeal to higher family loyalties more than their male counterparts.
Metaphor of the Ledger. White collar offenders may accept responsibility for their conduct and acknowledge the harm it caused, yet still rationalize their behavior by comparing it to all previous good behaviors. By creating a “behavior balance sheet,” the offender sees her current negative actions as heavily outweighed by a lifetime of good deeds, both personal and professional, which minimizes moral guilt. It seems likely that white collar offenders employ this technique, or at least have it available to them, as evidenced by current sentencing practices—almost every white collar sentencing is preceded by a flood of letters to the court supportive of the defendant and attesting to her good deeds.
Claim of Entitlement. Under the claim of entitlement rationalization, offenders justify their conduct on the grounds they deserve the fruits of their illegal behavior. This rationalization is particularly common in employee theft and embezzlement cases, but is also seen in public corruption cases.
Claim of Relative Acceptability/Normality. The final white collar rationalization entails an offender justifying her conduct by comparing it to the conduct of others. If “others are worse” or “everybody else is doing it,” the offender, although acknowledging her conduct, is able to minimize the attached moral stigma and view her behavior as aligned with acceptable norms. In white collar cases, this rationalization is often used by tax violators and in real estate and accounting frauds.
I’ve identified the use of these rationalizations by white collar offenders such as Rajat Gupta, Peter Madoff, Allen Stanford, and others. But I’d be interested to hear from readers where they’ve seen “vocabularies of motive” in the white collar world. (If you’re not sure, try starting with Bloomberg's oral history of Drexel Burnham Lambert, in what has to be the largest collection of rationalizations ever assembled.)
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Last week, I looked lovingly at a picture of a Starbucks old-fashioned grilled cheese sandwich. It had 580 calories. I thought about getting the sandwich and then reconsidered and made another more “virtuous” choice. These calorie disclosures, while annoying, are effective for people like me. I see the disclosure, make a choice (sometimes the “wrong” one), and move on.
Regular readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time thinking about human rights from a corporate governance perspective. I thought about that uneaten sandwich as I consulted with a client last week about the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. The law went into effect in 2012 and requires retailers, sellers, and manufacturers that exceed $100 million in global revenue that do business in California to publicly disclose the degree to which they verify, audit, and certify their direct suppliers as it relates to human trafficking and slavery. Companies must also disclose whether or not they maintain internal accountability standards, and provide training on the issue in their direct supply chains. The disclosure must appear prominently on a company’s website, but apparently many companies, undeterred by the threat of injunctive action by the state Attorney General, have failed to comply. In April, the California Department of Justice sent letters to a number of companies stating in part:
If your company has posted the required disclosures on its Internet website or, alternatively, takes the position that it is not required to comply with the Act, we request that – within 30 days of this letter’s date – you complete the form accessible at http://oag.ca.gov/sb657 and provide this office with (1) the web links (URLs) to both your company’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act disclosures and its homepage containing a link to the disclosures; and/or (2) information demonstrating your company is not covered by the Act.
There are no financial penalties for noncompliance. Rather, companies can face reputational damage and/or an order from the Attorney General to post something on their websites. A company complies even if that disclosure states that the company does no training, auditing, certification, monitoring or anything else related to human trafficking or slavery. The client I spoke to last week is very specialized and all of its customers are other businesses. Based on their business profiles, those “consumers” are not likely to make purchasing decisions based on human rights due diligence. I will be talking to another client in a few weeks on the California law. That client is business to consumer but its consumers specifically focus on low cost—that’s the competitive advantage for that client. Neither company-- the B2B nor the B2 (cost conscious)C-- is likely to lose significant, if any business merely because they don’t do extensive due diligence on their supply chains. Similarly, Apple, which has done a great job on due diligence for the conflict minerals law will not set records with the sale of the Apple Watch because of its human rights record. I bet that if I walked into an Apple Store and asked how many had seen or heard of Apple’s state of the art conflict minerals disclosure, the answer would be less than 1% (and that would be high).
People buy products because they want them. The majority of people won’t bother to look for what’s in or behind the product, although that information is readily available through apps or websites. If that information stares the consumer in the face (thanks Starbucks), then the consumer may make a different choice. But that assumes that (1) the consumer cares and (2) there is an equally viable choice.
To be clear, I believe that companies must know what happens with their suppliers, and that there is no excuse for using trafficked or forced labor. But I don’t know that the use of disclosures is the way to go. Some boards will engage in the cost benefit analysis of reputational damage and likelihood of enforcement vs cost of compliance rather than having a conversation about what kind of company they want to be. Many board members will logically ask themselves, “should we care if our customers don’t care?”
My most recent law review article covers this topic in detail. I’ll post it in the next couple of weeks because I need to revise it to cover the April development on the California law, and the EU’s vote on May 19 on their own version of the conflict minerals law. In the meantime, ignorance is bliss. I’m staying out of Starbucks and any other restaurant that posts calories- at least during the stressful time of grading exams.
May 14, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)
My post from last week posed the question of why corporate executives do what they do. Why do they commit unethical and illegal acts? If you ask almost anyone this, the answer comes back the same: corporate executives are greedy. That’s why they lie, cheat, and steal. Follow that up with the question of what should be done about it, and most people say that more law and more prison time is the solution.
I’ve never bought into that thinking (as to the cause or the fix). Sure, some of us are greedy. And some small percentage of us are looking to break the law to advance our own interests at every opportunity. But I’ve seen too many good people do bad things, and vice versa, to think that the cause of illegal corporate behavior (or almost any behavior) is somehow an inherently binary condition—good or bad, right or wrong, greedy or selfless. The reality is that many of us are both good and bad at the same time. But how does that actually work? How can someone like Rajat Gupta, the former managing director of Goldman Sachs, spend his time chairing three international humanitarian organizations and positively impacting “humanity writ large” (can you say that?), while also passing boardroom secrets to his billionaire hedge fund pal, Raj Rajaratnam?
Criminological and behavioral ethics theories help explain this duality. In the 1960’s, a criminologist named Donald Cressey conducted a study of hundreds of convicted embezzlers. Cressey determined that three key elements are necessary for violations of trust—the essence of almost all white-collar crime—to occur: (1) an individual possesses a “nonshareable problem,” i.e., a problem the individual feels cannot be solved by revealing it to others; (2) the individual believes the problem can be solved in secret by violating a trust, which is usually tied to their employment; and (3) the individual “verbalizes” the relationship between the nonshareable problem and the illegal solution in “language that lets him look on trust violation as something other than trust violation.” Put another way, the individual uses words and phrases during an internal dialogue that makes the behavior acceptable in his mind, such as by telling himself he is “borrowing” the embezzled money and will pay it back. Cressey believed that these verbalizations—what we commonly call rationalizations—were “the crux of the problem” of white collar crime, because they allowed an offender to keep his perception of himself as an honest citizen intact while acting in a criminal manner. This, in essence, is the psychological mechanism that allows good people to do bad things.
Importantly, Cressey (and others after him) found that rationalizations were not simply after-the-fact excuses offenders used to lessen their culpability upon being caught. Instead, rationalizations were “vocabularies of motive,” words and phrases that existed as group definitions labeling deviant behavior as appropriate, rather than excuses invented by the offender “on the spur of the moment.” In other words, offender rationalizations are drawn from larger society and put into use prior to the commission of criminal acts. This insight—that offenders rationalize their unethical or criminal conduct before they act, which then allows their conduct to proceed—is considered a key insight into white collar criminal behavior and has greatly influenced criminologists and behavioral ethicists alike.
In the next post, I will set out some of the most common rationalizations used by white collar offenders. And we’ll see that these rationalizations are present in many, if not most, of today’s headline-grabbing cases of corporate wrongdoing.
Friday, May 8, 2015
Thanks to faithful BLPB reader Scott Killingsworth for the tip about this new article appearing in the New Yorker detailing the scholarship and advocacy of renowned Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe. The article raises questions about conflicts of interest between scholarship and advocacy.
[I]t would also be foolish to ignore the inherent tension in searching for truth while also working for paying clients. The scholar-warrior may lapse into a far more contemptible figure: the scholar for hire, who sells his name and his title for cash. A subtler danger comes from the well-known and nearly unavoidable tendency lawyers have of identifying with their clients.
The article also highlights his role in the current debate on corporate constitutional rights.
Tribe has taken a strong view of individual rights; his view of corporate rights is similar, and in this capacity he has at times advanced constitutional arguments that might invalidate great parts of the administrative state, in a manner recalling the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. In that sense, the current condemnation of Tribe can be seen as part of a larger progressive backlash against the use of the Bill of Rights to serve corporate interests.
This short article is absolutely worth making your Friday procrastination list or your weekend "catch-up" reading list.
Thursday, May 7, 2015
As I begin my guest spot here at Business Law Profs Blog, I’ve really enjoyed reading the recent posts by Ann Lipton (here) and Marcia Narine (here) on corporate whistleblowers. What has always fascinated me about whistleblowers is the “why” question: why do they do it knowing all the negatives—to their career, their family, their psyche—in store for them?
While I don’t have any great insights as to the answer (although others do), trying to figure out why corporate executives do what they do—particularly in the realm of business ethics and white collar crime—is something I’ve been focused on for a while, first as a white collar criminal defense attorney and now as an academic. One way I’ve tried to look at the issue is by pulling together disciplines that provide some understanding of why business people commit bad acts and what our collective response to that should be. This has led me primarily into the areas of criminology, behavioral ethics, and federal sentencing. And what emerges from that soup, at least for me, is the concept of rationalization—that very powerful, and very human, way of viewing oneself positively (say, as an upstanding citizen, family man, etc.), while taking actions inconsistent with that view according to society’s standards (say, by passing a stock tip to a friend, misrepresenting your company’s financials, etc.). I see rationalization as the critical step in the commission of white collar crime, and thus what should be the focus of our corporate compliance and white collar crime enforcement efforts.
Over the next few posts, I’ll try and flesh out these ideas, explaining how rationalizations operate, their most common iterations in the white collar world, and how our current regulatory and corporate compliance efforts, by failing to consider the role of rationalizations, might actually be leading to more corporate wrongdoing.
Friday, May 1, 2015
Professor Todd Haugh (Indiana University - Kelley School of Business) will be joining us as a guest blogger for the month of May. Todd is an assistant professor of business law & ethics and has focused his research on white collar crime and sentencing. His most recent work deals with "the financial crisis and how white collar offenders rationalize their conduct." We welcome Todd to the Business Law Prof Blog and look forward to his posts.
I’ve been thinking a lot about whistleblowers lately. I serve as a “management” representative to the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee and last week we presented the DOL with our recommendations for best practices for employers. We are charged with looking at almost two dozen whistleblower laws. I've previously blogged about whistleblower issues here.
Although we spend the bulk of our time on the WPAC discussing the very serious obstacles for those workers who want to report safety violations, at the last meeting we also discussed, among other things, the fact that I and others believed that there could be a rise in SOX claims from attorneys and auditors following the 2014 Lawson decision. In that case, the Supreme Court observed that: “Congress plainly recognized that outside professionals — accountants, law firms, contractors, agents, and the like — were complicit in, if not integral to, the shareholder fraud and subsequent cover-up [Enron] officers … perpetrated.” Thus, the Court ruled, those, including private contractors, who see the wrongdoing but may be too fearful of retaliation to report it should be entitled to SOX whistleblower protection.
We also discussed the SEC's April KBR decision, which is causing hundreds of companies to revise their codes of conduct, policies, NDAs, confidentiality and settlement agreements to ensure there is no language that explicitly or implicitly prevents employees from reporting wrongdoing to the government or seeking an award.
Two weeks ago, I spoke in front of a couple hundred internal auditors and certified fraud examiners about how various developments in whistleblower laws could affect their investigations, focusing mainly on Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank Whistleblower. I felt right at home because in my former life as a compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I spent a lot of time with internal and external auditors. Before I joined academia, I testified before Congress on what I thought could be some flaws in the law as written. Specifically, I had some concerns about the facts that: culpable individuals could receive awards; individuals did not have to consider reporting wrongdoing internally even if there was a credible, functioning compliance program; and that those with fiduciary responsibilities were also eligible for awards without reporting first (if possible), which could lead to conflicts of interest. The SEC did make some changes to Dodd-Frank. The agency now weighs the whistleblower’s participation in the firm’s internal compliance program as a factor that may increase the whistleblower’s eventual award and considers interference with internal compliance programs to be a factor that may decrease any award. It also indicated that compliance or internal audit professionals should report internally first and then wait 120 days before going external.
Before I launched into my legal update, I gave the audience some sobering statistics about financial professionals:
- 23% have seen misconduct firsthand
- 29% believe they may have to engage in illegal or unethical conduct to be successful
- 24% would engage in insider trading if they could earn $10 million and get away with it
I also shared the following awards with them:
- $875,000 to two individuals for “tips and assistance” relating to fraud in the securities market;
- $400,000 to a whistleblower who reported fraud to the SEC after the employee’s company failed to address internally certain securities law violations;
- $300,000 to an employee who reported wrongdoing to the SEC after the company failed to take action when the employee reported it internally first;
- $14 million- tip about an alleged Chicago-based scheme to defraud foreign investors seeking U.S. residency; and
- More than $30 million to a tipster living in a foreign country, who would have received more if he hadn't delayed reporting
I also informed them about a number of legal developments that affect those that occupy a position of trust or confidence. These white-collar whistleblowers have received significant paydays recently. Last year the SEC paid $300,000 to an employee who performed “audit or compliance functions.” I predicted more of these awards, and then to prove me right, just last week, the SEC awarded its second bounty to an audit or compliance professional, this time for approximately 1.4 million.
I asked the auditors to consider how this would affect their working with their peers and their clients, and how companies might react. Will companies redouble their efforts to encourage internal reporting? Although statistics are clear that whistleblowers prefer to report internally if they can and don’t report because they want financial gain, will these awards embolden compliance, audit, and legal personnel to report to the government? Will we see more employees with fiduciary duties coming forward to report wrongdoing? Does this conflict with any ethical duties imposed upon lawyers or compliance officers with legal backgrounds? SOX 307 describes up the ladder reporting requirements, but what happens to the attorney who chooses to go external? Will companies consider self-reporting to get more favorable deferred and nonprosecution agreements to pre-empt the potential whistleblower?
I don’t have answers for any of these questions, but companies and boards should at a minimum look at their internal compliance programs and ensure that their reporting mechanisms allow for reports from outside counsel and auditors. In the meantime, it’s now entirely possible that an auditor, compliance officer, or lawyer could be the next Sherron Watkins.
And by the way, if you were in Busan, South Korea last Wednesday, you may have heard me on the morning show talking about whistleblowers. Drop me a line and let me know how I sounded.