Dirt Diggers Digest No. 69  

Editor: Philip Mattera

May 31, 2006



-- 1. Ambivalence in the wake of the Enron convictions

-- 2. EPA plan to weaken toxics reporting thwarted in the House; Toxic 100

-- 3. Invoking national security to restrict financial disclosure

-- 4. Public Citizen ties lobbyists to campaign contributions; Congresspedia

-- 5. The rise of a secret justice system

-- 6. CSR’s growing love affair with lists

-- 7. RAN’s Global Finance Campaign shines light on “dirty” banks

-- 8. Free resource for full-text EDGAR searches

-- 9. Lexis-Nexis signs deal to expand data offering on corporate transactions

-- 10. [job opening omitted from web archive version]


1. Ambivalence in the wake of the Enron convictions


The resounding guilty verdicts against former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling are being spun by some commentators as the end of an era of corporate corruption. One talking head on Fox News even suggested that the Enron scandal was somehow the responsibility of the Clinton Administration.

The Bush Justice Department, on the other hand, wants to give the impression that it is aggressively combating malfeasance in the boardroom, so that people forget the long relationship between George W. Bush and the “Kenny Boy” Lay. In its press release about the Enron convictions, federal prosecutors made a point of mentioning that the Administration’s Corporate Fraud Task Force has brought about “1,063 convictions, including the convictions of 167 corporate presidents and chief executive officers, and 36 chief financial officers.” Checking this claim is made more difficult by the fact that the website of the Task Force doesn't contain any progress reports since the one published in July 2004.

The depiction of prosecutors as junkyard dogs was reinforced by a sidebar in the May 26 Wall Street Journal headlined: GUILTY VERDICTS PROVIDE ‘RED MEAT’ TO PROSECUTORS CHASING COMPANIES. If certain business lobbyists have their way, however, prosecutors will be put on a milquetoast diet instead. For months, these advocates have been pushing to weaken the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, especially as it applies to smaller companies. Fortunately, the SEC has resisted the pressure, but bills have been introduced in Congress and a lawsuit has been filed against aspects of the Act. Such efforts have to overcome the fact that revelations about corporate misdeeds—such as the recent reports of the backdating of stock options—never seem to end.


2. EPA plan to weaken toxics reporting thwarted in the House; Toxic 100


The House of Representatives recently approved an amendment to an Interior Department appropriations bill that derailed plans by the Environmental Protection Agency to weaken pollution reporting by companies under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program. The 231-187 vote on a measure brought by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Hilda Solis (D-CA) blocked EPA from implementing changes such as the following:

  • allowing firms to report every two years rather than annually,
  • increasing by tenfold the minimum levels at which reporting is required,
  • permitting firms to withhold detailed data on toxins such as lead and mercury.

For more on the issue, see the website of OMB Watch.

It’s significant that data from the TRI was used in a recent report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an official body formed by the United States, Canada and Mexico. The report, Toxic Chemicals and Children’s Health in North America, is also based on data from Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory.

Note: For more information on the top corporate air polluters, see the Toxic 100, an updated version of which was recently released by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts.


3. Invoking national security to restrict financial disclosure


The Bush Administration’s penchant for secrecy is well known, but it’s now been revealed that this practice of withholding information has been extended to the securities filings of certain publicly traded companies doing work for the federal government. Business Week reports in its June 5 issue that the Administration has given intelligence czar John Negroponte the power to exempt contractors working on secret military projects from certain SEC financial and operational disclosure requirements as they pertain to classified projects. Major contractors would not confirm or deny the practice when contacted by the magazine. The move by the Administration is in keeping with its efforts to derail lawsuits against major telecom companies for their alleged cooperation with a federal program to collect comprehensive phone records.


4. Public Citizen ties lobbyists to campaign contributions; Congresspedia


Public Citizen has come out with a report it calls the first comprehensive effort to match the names of lobbyists with federal campaign contribution data. Titled The Bankrollers, the report found that lobbyists and their political action committees have contributed at least $103.1 million to members of Congress since 1998. Contributions given by the top 50 lobbyists averaged more than $207,000 each during that period, and 36 members of Congress received a half-million dollars or more. The report also contains profiles of the top 20 lobbyist contributions, noting how some of them have been involved in “some of the most egregious legislative boondoggles in recent years,” such as the Boeing air tanker leasing deal and synfuel subsidies.

Another new resource on the denizens of Capitol Hill is Congresspedia, a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center on Media & Democracy. Calling itself a “citizen’s encyclopedia of Congress,” this is a wiki-based resource, meaning that anyone can add new information or edit existing postings. Some entries are already in place, such as the one for Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, which includes a summary of his reported involvement in the Jack Abramoff scandal.


5. The rise of a secret justice system


As researchers, we tend to think of the court system as a realm in which public access to information is sacrosanct, except for the rare case in which documents are sealed. In recent months there has been a series of reports suggesting that secrecy is on the rise with regard to court records— and not only for cases involving terrorism. For example, in March the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press issued a report showing that, over the previous five years, more than 450 federal criminal cases in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC were undocketed. A broader investigation by the Associated Press found that the number of sealed federal criminal cases nationwide had more than doubled over a two-year period, reaching nearly 2,400 in 2005.

Recently, AP reported that secrecy has spread to civil cases in state court. In California, wealthy celebrities and business executives are paying retired judges to handle disputes outside public courthouses. While similar to arbitration, these proceedings are sanctioned under California law, and rulings can be appealed in the regular court system. The records of the proceedings are often not, however, recorded in the official court docket.

Concern about openness in court proceedings is not waning everywhere. Recently, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced the creation of a special commission to look into issues of transparency, accessibility and accountability for the state’s judicial system.


6. CSR’s growing love affair with lists


The website Socialfunds.com has just published a useful article about the burgeoning of company lists in the world of CSR—corporate sustainability and responsibility (formerly corporate social responsibility). CSR advocates believe that the ranking of companies on their social performance will be as effective in encouraging good behavior as traditional business lists such as the Fortune 500 were in prodding firms into faster rates of growth.

Along with the proliferation of “best” lists, there are still CSR advocates focusing on the companies that remain “irresponsible.” For example, Co-Op America recently launched its new Responsible Shopper website, which, as the group’s press release put it, “features the latest ‘dirt’ on more than 150 of America’s largest corporations and helps consumers shift their support to the most responsible companies.”


7. RAN’s Global Finance Campaign shines light on “dirty” banks


The Global Finance Campaign launched by Rainforest Action Network has been expanding its research (and pressure) on large banks that bankroll environmentally destructive projects in logging and other extractive industries. Recently, RAN and Forest Ethics issued a report on the greenwashing efforts by Toronto-Dominion (TD Bank), which has financed projects that threaten Canada’s Boreal Forest system. The campaign has also been focusing on questionable investments by banks such as Wells Fargo and ABN Amro.


8. Free resource for full-text EDGAR searches


Researchers looking to find “needles” such as passing references to specific names in the “haystack” of SEC filings in the EDGAR system have had to subscribe to pay services such as 10-K Wizard to get the desired results in the most convenient form. Now a free website called EdgarScan, developed by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, has added what appears to be an effective full-text feature. By clicking on the link for Advanced searches, you can hunt for words and phrases using connectors such as “and,” “or” and “near.” The display features are not quite as versatile as those in the paid version of 10-K Wizard, but the price is right.


9. Lexis-Nexis signs deal to expand data offering on corporate transactions


Lexis-Nexis recently announced that it has signed an exclusive deal with FactSet Research Systems to make available that company’s database on corporate transactions to Lexis-Nexis subscribers. FactSet collects data on mergers, acquisitions, initial public offerings, asset sales and divestitures and as well as information on litigation relating to such deals. Lexis-Nexis will integrate the FactSet data in its Market Intelligence product as well as its flagship service.