Tuesday, March 21, 2006

DISGUSTING: Corporations stiffing Gov’t on billions in fines

I'm so glad that I got hounded and threatened to pay a $75 ticket a couple of years ago that I received for being waved through a red light by a cop (no kidding). Because it seems as though that $75 I had to pay was way more important than the $35 BILLION (yes, with a "B") that was owed to the government as of 2004 for white collar crimes and corporate violations.

As originally reported in the WaPo but also last night by Anderson Cooper, a recent AP report determined that corporate and criminal fines are being levied but not collected upon.

The result is that We the People get screwed yet again while criminals and corporations skip out on billions of dollars in fines each year for a variety of reasons - and are either waived or reduced further.

Just another "thank you" from Bu$hCo to corporations for negligence, fraud, safety violations and other actions. And just another "fuck you" to the rest of us who have to pick up the tab.

Below is a map breaking down the amount of fines that were unpaid in 2004 by state (I am so proud of my home state of NY leading theway):

Since we are talking in billions of dollars, a frame of reference would be nice...

This is almost five times the amount uncollected 10 years ago -- and enough to cover the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security. A decade ago, Congress mandated that fines be imposed regardless of defendants' ability to pay, which has added tremendously to outstanding debt.

And what are these fines for? Well, according to the report, here are some examples:

  • When a gasoline spill and explosion killed three young people in Washington state, officials announced a record penalty against a gas pipeline company: $3 million to send the message that such tragedies "must never happen again." When the pipeline burst, the fuel exploded into a fireball that ravaged the surrounding woods. And it killed two 10-year-olds playing in the woods and an 18-year-old who had gone to the stream to fish.
  • When nuclear laboratories around the country were found exposing workers to radiation and breaking other safety rules, assessments totaling $2.5 million were quickly ordered.

    When coal firms' violations were blamed for deaths, injuries and risks to miners from Alabama to West Virginia, the companies were slapped with more than $1.3 million in penalties.

What happened next with these no-nonsense enforcement measures? Not much. The pipeline tab was eventually reduced by 92 percent, the labs' assessments were waived as soon as they were issued, and the mine penalties largely went unpaid.

With respect to the coal mines, the egregious violations are still happening.
The recent West Virginia coal mine deaths focused new criticism on enforcement tradeoffs made by mine safety inspectors.

During hearings in January, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., voiced outrage at how coal operators can whittle down fines. He cited assessments by the Mine Safety and Health Administration against a company in an Alabama mine where 13 people were killed in 2001 -- penalties reduced from $435,000 to $3,000 in what he called "a decision that harms workers and erodes MSHA's authority."

The Labor Department later announced plans to raise fine amounts, and in a case it called "precedent-setting" sought an injunction against a Kentucky mine operator and two companies he owns, which paid nothing on $200,000 in penalties.

And it isn't just large corporations either. This administration's favorite type of person - the white collar criminal - accounted for the largest percentage of unpaid debt, with just 7% of the fines paid.

Of course, in typical Bush administration fashion, the fines are touted as proof that they are being tough, while the fines are then quietly waived, reduced or abated.

Documents provided to the AP by the Labor Department's Employment Benefits Security Administration, whose job is to protect pension and welfare benefits, showed that $2,000 was the maximum amount paid on nearly a dozen penalties ranging from $86,500 to $180,000; these were for various violations, from failure to file reports to self-dealing by pension fund managers.

Why the reductions? Officials explained that compliance is the agency's goal, and that the law allows penalties to be reduced when companies make amends. Violators who don't comply risk being referred to the Treasury Department, which can collect by seizing federal benefits.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's written policy explains to inspectors that they can reduce penalties by as much as 95 percent, "depending upon the employer's 'good faith,' (25 percent) 'size of business,' (60 percent) and 'history of previous violations.' (10 percent)"

Internal documents from U.S. Customs show that dramatically large fines may be cut sharply. Agency files released under AP's FOIA request listed, for example, a $60,911,316 "commercial fraud" assessment for one company -- but the case ended with a $15,000 collection by Customs. The company explained some paperwork was simply not in order: "no major problem."

So I guess I should have offered to pay $5 on my $75 ticket....It is real nice that we have to pay 100% of fines or fees (that we may not even deserve to get in the first place), while actual laws and regulations can be broken and violated by white collar criminals and corporations who poison the environment, endanger their workers or residents of the general area, only to get drastically reduced if they promise to "do better the next time".

Just another criminal giveaway to criminals by the criminals who are running this country into the ground.

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