True crime story

As some front pages informed us last week, the Warner-Lambert Co. has pleaded guilty to criminal charges and has agreed to pay a $10 million fine for hiding faulty drug-making processes from the Food and Drug Administration.

The more typical front page--not to mention TV news program, where the motto is "If it bleeds, it leads"--treated us to an account of some local murder, rape, or horrendous attack. Thus, a sense of proportion about crime in this country is largely limited to, believe it or not, regular readers of The Wall Street Journal.

The FBI does not even bother to issue an annual report on "Corporate Crime in the United States," preferring to focus its attention on the relatively piddly efforts of small, private entrepreneurs in the crime field.

According to Russ Mokhiber, writing in the Multinational Monitor, white-collar fraud alone costs this country $200 billion a year, and that is not counting such white-collar crimes as pollution, procurement, public corruption, and occupational homicide. According to the FBI, street robbery and burglary combined costs $4.3 billion a year.

And as we all know, the real "crime of the century" was the savings-and-loan scandal--total cost now trending toward the high end of the long-estimated $300 billion to $500 billion.

The FBI also says that the U.S. murder rate is about 24,000 a year. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety estimates that occupational diseases alone kill 50,000 American workers every year and that another 10,000 workers die on the job every year. And I do trust that the health police have by now managed to drum the significant contribution of a single industry into all our heads: One thousand Americans die every day from tobacco-induced disease.

Now, I bring this up not just for a friendly frisk through the recent annals of corporate malefacture--although a little reminder never hurts, given the neglect of this topic by the corporate media. Here's a handy round-up from the November issue of The Washington Monthly:

*Du Pont Co. was fined $115 million for concealing evidence in a 1993 trial involving one of its fungicides. "Put in layman's terms," the judge wrote, "Du Pont cheated, and it cheated consciously, deliberately, and with purpose."

*Maytag agreed to pay $16.5 million to almost 800 workers for breaking a promise not to close a plant near Washington, D.C.

*After one of the largest FDA health-care investigations in history, three former executives of the C.R. Bard Co. were convicted on criminal charges of concealing information about the use of faulty heart catheters in coronary surgery.

*In California, federal officials have raided sweatshops where illegal Asian immigrants were working in slave-like conditions.

And, of course, asbestos, the Dalkon Shield, and Bhopal all involve body counts worthy of a small war.

If there were a three-strikes-and-you're-out law on corporations (a Mokhiber proposal), most of the Pentagon's major contractors would no longer be eligible to bid on government contracts--and their executives would be in the clink. On the fraud front for defense contractors, we find General Electric leading with 15 cases of fraud; Boeing, four; Grumman, five; Honeywell, three; Hughes Aircraft, nine; Martin Marietta, five; McDonnell Douglas, four; Northrop, four; Raytheon, four; Rockwell, four; Teledyne, five; Texas Instruments, three; and United Technologies, three (research by the Project on Government Oversight).

As aforementioned, the purpose of this quick tour of just a few recent corporate highlights is not corporation-bashing but public-policy-bashing. For example, you taxpayers will be paying $1 billion to cover the costs of plant shutdowns and employee relocations stemming from the merger of Lockheed and Martin Marietta (five counts of fraud). It is estimated that 30,000 workers will lose their jobs as a result of the merger, but--good news!--top officials of the new combined company will get a $31 million present from the taxpayers (and that's only one-third of their annual bonus package) for overseeing this trying shuffle. The company is expected to generate $11.6 billion in annual military sales (research by the Center for the Study of Responsive Laws).

Frankly, I expect corporations to misbehave, in that they are entities set up for the sole purpose of generating profits, and lo, their temptations are many. It is (or used to be) considered the function of government to stop them from harming and/or ripping off the rest of us, at least in the most glaring cases. But corporations have by now bought so much influence in government (business has 10,000 lobbyists in Washington) that half the time the feds are guilty of aiding and abetting.

The defense contractors are trying to weaken the Federal False Claims Act; the bidness lobby is hell-bent on repealing the alternate corporate minimum tax; and corporate welfare remains unchecked by those Republicans who came to D.C. vowing to stop "business as usual" in the Capitol. In fact, if you really want to make yourself gag, try tracing the special favors done for corporate contributors to House Speaker Newt Gingrich's GOPAC.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins