Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

The Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (REINS Act) would require congressional approval of all major regulations issued by federal agencies before those regulations could go into effect. This bill represents one of the most radical threats in generations to our government’s ability to protect the public from harm.

The REINS Act will delay or shut down the implementation of critical new public health and safety safeguards, financial reforms and worker protections, thereby making industry even less accountable to the public. It will only benefit those corporations that wish to game the system and evade safety standards and do nothing to improve protections for the American public.

The REINS Act is redundant and needlessly time-consuming.

Agencies already undergo rigorous reviews of their proposed rules and solicit comments from the public, business interests, and other agencies. In addition, many rules are promulgated in response to congressional directive, such as the regulations required by recent product safety, health care, and financial services laws. And under the Congressional Review Act, Congress already has the authority to review and nullify a rule by passing a resolution of disapproval. The REINS Act would force Congress to refight its previous debates, wasting time and money and paralyzing the agencies and Congress itself.

The REINS Act endangers the public.

The REINS Act would require both houses of Congress to approve a major rule, with no alterations, within a 70-day window. If both chambers are unable to approve a major rule, it would not take effect and would be tabled until the next congressional session. In other words, by doing nothing, Congress would prevent existing laws from being effectively implemented. It would stop all major rules and delay vital public protections, such as those limiting the amount of lead in children’s products, preventing salmonella contamination in eggs, and increasing the safety of job sites where cranes or derricks are operated. These rules were promulgated to reduce injuries, illnesses, and fatalities caused by unsafe products or behavior. Allowing them to be held up or stopped by Congress would endanger the public.

The REINS Act threatens the separation of powers.

Congress already participates in the rulemaking process by writing and passing federal law that provides the blueprint for agency actions. Any agency error or misinterpretation is subject to judicial review. The REINS Act attempts to dramatically alter the separation of powers by allowing Congress to veto executive actions. Previous attempts to create a legislative veto have been overturned for violating the separation of powers. Although the REINS Act possibly skirts this issue by requiring the president’s signature before a rule is overturned, this legislation does not comply with the spirit of the checks and balances system laid out in the Constitution.

The REINS Act corrupts and politicizes the regulatory process.

The REINS Act would inappropriately – but deliberately – inject political considerations into a regulatory process that is supposed to be based on objective agency science and expertise. Federal agencies employ personnel with policy, scientific, and technical expertise to produce smart and sensible regulations. Allowing Congress to have the final say on regulations would give lobbyists, special interest groups, and those who provide legislators with campaign contributions even more influence in shaping a rule.

The REINS Act is unnecessary.

The regulatory process already allows ample opportunities for input, including the opportunity for Congress to vote to nullify a rule. Requiring Congress to affirmatively pass each rule before it can go into effect would taint the regulatory process with improper political considerations, endanger the public by delaying crucial safeguards, and would usurp powers reserved to the executive and judicial branches to implement and interpret the law. The REINS Act is a deeply flawed bill that would handicap the federal agencies and add a considerable workload to a legislative body which already struggles with time constraints. Congress should be searching for ways to make federal agencies run more smoothly, not throwing up roadblocks to the regulatory process.

By Eren Orellana, Congress Watch legal intern and Susan Harley, Congress Watch Deputy Director

Recently, consumer advocate and Public Citizen founder, Ralph Nader hosted Breaking Through Power, a four-day conference highlighting the different ways Americans can work together to organize change in a political system that has been overrun by wealthy corporate special interests. A longtime advocate for consumer rights, starting in the automobile industry, Nader dedicated the last day of the conference to speaking about the underutilization of the civil law system.

logo225Special topics included “The Need to Educate the Public on The Importance of Tort Law” and “Why Lawsuits are Good for America.” In a panel discussion titled “Plaintiffs for Justice” victims shared their stories and their road to advocacy. Laura Christian, an auto safety advocate, urged the need to create a system that regulates and provides notice of recalls to buyers and existing owners of used cars. Todd Anderson, a victims advocate, shared the personal story of his son’s death. Anderson’s son was killed in a car accident due to an automobile malfunction that he was not notified of in time to correct. Susan Vento, a mesothelioma advocate, spoke about the need to ban asbestos and the legal rights victims of mesothelioma have against corporate negligence. Overall, the panelists pushed the point that greater advocacy is needed to improve consumer protections and positively increase the utilization of the court system.

In the much-anticipated session “Litigating for Justice,” renowned trial lawyer, Thomas Girardi spoke about how corporations attempt to shame lawyers and how he has succeeded in trying his cases and breaking the stigma associated with personal injury suits. In 1970 Girardi became the first attorney to win a one million dollar award for a medical malpractice case. However, Girardi is best known for the part he played in the Pacific Gas & Electric case of the Hinkley groundwater contamination. In that case, residents of Hinkley brought a class-action suit against PG&E for claims of contamination of the town’s water supply due to a leak from PG&E’s gas compressing station. The leak apparently began as early as the 1950’s and the residents did not receive notice until 1987. The residents blamed incidents of cancer and other diseases on the contaminated water and in 1996 PG&E settled the suit and agreed to pay the town’s residents $333 million. This case was the inspiration for the film Erin Brockovich.

More recently, Girardi was on the team of lawyers who tried Bryan Stow’s case. Bryan Stow was the man brutally beaten after a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Girardi reasoned that the Dodgers and the stadium’s personnel were partially to blame for the incident due to a lack of organized and effective security personnel, which was not suited to handle such large crowds. Girardi described his pride in the fact that after winning the verdict of Stow’s case, Dodger Stadium heightened security and started regulating the consumption of alcohol during games.

In addition to the important monetary compensation lawyers, like Girardi, earn for their clients in these cases, there is the societal benefit of trying these cases. Win or lose, civil law cases bring to light many of the ways corporations fail to protect consumers, sometimes even at the cost of death. These cases expose corporate lawbreakers and force them to better protect their customers. Utilizing the justice system to compensate victims has proven to be one of the best mechanisms to hold corporations accountable. Conferences like Breaking Through Power are doing a great service to society by bringing this very powerful tool to light. Even better, videos from the conference are available so you too can learn how to join the Breaking Through Power movement.

– Eren Orellana

 

Last week, Ralph Nader headlined a panel at the 2016 Freedom of Information Summit focused on dissecting the challenges facing the open government movement, but also celebrating the victories. At the top of the list of successes is the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA,) which gives the public the right to access government records subject to nine limited exemptions. Recently having celebrated the 50th anniversary of FOIA’s passage, the panel on which Nader spoke was aptly entitled “FOIA at 50.”

Nader and the other panelists spoke about critical consumer protections that were achieved as a direct result of the public’s right-to-know as granted by FOIA. The panelists also addressed areas where the law continues to fall short, even after the open government community’s recent victory in securing passage of bipartisan FOIA reforms that were signed into law by President Barack Obama right before the law hit its 50 year mark.

It was especially moving to hear the other panelists speak so eloquently about the steadfast commitment that Public Citizen has to protecting FOIA. Notably, for most of the organization’s 45 year history, our litigation group has been a national leader in upholding the public’s right-to-know. Getting access to government records had uncovered threats to public health, safety, and the nation’s financial security. This law is an invaluable tool for holding the government accountable and ensuring it is acting in the public’s best interest.

Nader said it best during the panel: FOIA is the ultimate tool of democracy.

And Public Citizen will be there for the next 45 years protecting our right-to-know.

-Susan Harley

 

Disclosures from a sick Wells Fargo obviously soil the efforts of deregulators on many issues. One of these is the very issue of disclosure.

In the Wells Fargo scandal, more than 5,300 employees created more than 2 million accounts unsolicited accounts for their customers.

Photo courtesy J B/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Photo courtesy J B/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

First, the Wells Fargo employees faked the accounts to avoid being fired for failing an account creation quota.  Then, their bosses pressured them to meet quota because the bosses got bonuses based on quotas. And finally, their bosses and bosses’ bosses all the way to the CEO got bonuses when investors drove up the stock price as those investors figured those ever expanding account creation numbers demonstrated exceptional management.

Twelve times in the last half decade, CEO John Stumpf made reference to those account numbers on the quarter calls with Wall Street analysts.

The very core of this pathology involves disclosure.  In this case, both non-disclosure and fake disclosure.

Yet at this very time, Chair White’s Securities and Exchange Commission is railroading through a monster rule designed explicitly to reduce disclosure. Keeping with the tradition of misdirection, this reduction is misnamed the “Disclosure Update and Simplification.”

As Wells Fargo was diligent in reporting rigidly account sales figures, here are simply a few of the inconvenient items that are obviously material to how an investor values this stock that Wells Fargo elected not to disclose.

  • In 2009, Wells Fargo executives recognized that certain ambitious sales programs – such as “Jump into January” – were generating fraudulent accounts. This was not disclosed.
  • In February 2011, Chairman and CEO John Stumpf reportedly received an email from a 22 year veteran of the company explaining how the appearance of growth in new accounts could be faked; this employee was subsequently terminated. This was never disclosed.
  • In 2011, employee satisfaction surveys reportedly found that bank employees were uncomfortable with instructions from management to push customers to buy products. This was not disclosed.
  • In 2012 the community banking unit began to investigate suspicious practices in areas with high levels of customer complaints, such as Southern California. These investigations reportedly led to the firing of 200 employees in February 2013. This was not disclosed.
  • In 2013 and 2014, the board and management took action in response to these signals and at the behest of regulators— including increased risk management standards in the community banking divisions, modification of some sales goals, and an internal investigation by Accenture and Skadden, Arps on which the board was reportedly updated. This was not disclosed.
  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau began its investigation in 2013. This was not disclosed.
  • Wells Fargo employees delivered petitions with more than 10,000 signatures to the board at both the 2014 and 2015 annual meetings that urged the board to recognize the link between Wells Fargo’s high-pressure sales quotas and the fraudulent opening of accounts without customer permission. These petitions called on Wells Fargo to cease using these high-pressure quotas. This was not disclosed.
  • The New York Times reports that even after the company began to recognize the problem and provide ethics training that warned against creating false accounts, the continued sales pressure from management overwhelmed the ethical training. When employees either refused to sell customers products they did not want, or reported fraudulent account creation to the Wells Fargo ethics line, they were subject to discipline including termination. This was not disclosed.

While viewing this perfect example of non-disclosure, Chair White has been speeding through her SEC a major proposal to gut disclosure rules. The bewilderment of changes includes gutting disclosure on executive compensation.

The Agency proposes to delete its requirement that CEO and other senior officer pay be disaggregated. Disaggregation allows investors to see what in the pay package is cash, stock, options, etc. Had it been clear to investors that the millions in bonuses for the top brass stemmed from line salespeople (paid $25,000 a year) to open an absurdly high eight accounts per customer,[1] or be fired, or cheat and try not to get caught, then this runaway fraud might have lasted two years, instead of a possible two decades.

In addition,  White plans to reduce what firms using repurchase agreements (repo) for loans must disclose. Repo is like a pawn shop, where you deposit a watch worth $1,000 and get $900 for a day, then you buy back the watch for $1,100, which you agreed to from the outset. (You need to do well at the horse race track in the interim for this to work out for you.)  The financial crisis demonstrated that firms such as Lehman had grown addicted to repo, and had manipulated tax and other rules to enable its dependency. In fact, repo disclosure should be enhanced, not deleted.

There are a number of other disclosure rules that Chair White wants to white out.

On many items, White says the SEC won’t require a disclosure if GAAP requires it. GAAP may stand for “generally accepted accounting principles,” but that must be an inside joke since they’re not generally accepted. U.S. GAAP differs from accounting standards in other countries (an acute problem given that many public companies operate in multiple nations). And it can change, regardless of what the SEC does. As with many other proposals, the Agency is ceding its responsibility to safeguard disclosure.

That’s not a very cheery pep talk to write comment for the Nov. 2 deadline. So, Citizens, just try this:

Write Ms. White at regulations@sec.gov, put this in the subject line:  Re: “Disclosure Update and Simplification,” Proposed Rule; File No. S7-15-16; RIN 3235-AL82, and write something like: “Chair White,  Wells Fargo shows that all’s not well that ends well short of full disclosure. Wells Fargo shows that your disclosure idea goes in the opposite direction. Investors want to know.  Sincerely, your name.”

(Oh, and white-out apparently doesn’t work on computer screens, which is double-entendre.)

Our country is still reeling in the aftermath of the greed-fueled contagion of the 2008 economic collapse and Wall Street getting caught in villainous behavior is daily news. The anger of the American public toward Big Banks that were bailed out while average citizens went under—institutions that continue to get away with mere slaps on the wrist to settle claims of severe wrongdoing— is the foundation of the current populist political surge. It’s not surprising that Hollywood wants to get in on the act, and they should be applauded.

oneheart-invite215The Academy Award-winning  film The Big Short spotlighted for the movie-going public the complex web of financial maneuverings that tumbled down like a house of cards, leaving millions without homes and millions more with empty nest eggs. “A-listers” Julia Roberts, George Clooney, and Jodie Foster have even embraced the “us-versus-Wall Street” theme in the recently-available-for-the-small-screen film, Money Monster. The plot focuses on the problems that cascade from an everyman feeling wronged by a high-speed trading firm, and a “glitch” that bottomed out the value of a stock. Without commenting on the quality of the film, it can be said with all conviction that such glitches are not fiction.

In May of 2010, there was a flash crash that brought the curtain down on a trillion dollars of market value in a matter of minutes. And, in October 2013, in an unexpected twist, the normally very steady U.S. Treasury bond market went on a wild ride that was eventually blamed partially on high-frequency trading, computer programs called algorithms that automatically buy and sell financial instruments in much less than a blink of an eye.

Why should we risk our market stability with such rampant speculation? Spoiler alert: we don’t have to!

Right on cue to tamping-down on undesirable market behavior is an idea associated with Nobel prize-winning economist James Tobin, who called for a corrective tax on speculative trading that would  “throw some sand in the wheels” of the market to slow it down. Dozens of countries already have these taxes in place and the U.S. had a tax on Wall Street taxes from 1914 through 1965. Public Citizen has long advocated for reinstating a tax on Wall Street trades to protect consumers.

Not a Hollywood blockbuster, but another recent film, The Same Heart, also chronicles the rise of the high-speed trading ‘bot. However, the problem toward which the documentary film’s lens is primarily pointed is the horrible injustice of childhood poverty. But, instead of showing only the negative—the unthinkable hurdles of hunger, disease, and violence that billions of children face worldwide—it focuses on a possible solution: taxing Wall Street trades. The Same Heart makes the ethical and economic case for the wealthiest among us, the financial elite who make millions and billions of dollars in profit from financial transactions, to fund programs that invest in the world’s youth.

On September 27, at 1 pm in the Capitol Visitor’s Center, Public Citizen, in coordination with Media Voices for Children, which produced the film, the Child Labor Coalition, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is hosting an event called “Investing in our Future, One Transaction at a Time,” a panel discussion and screening of an excerpt of The Same Heart. I will be center stage for a dialogue with U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), filmmaker Len Morris, and experts from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Communications Workers of America, the Institute for Policy Studies, and the National Consumers League. In addition to speaking about how the tens of billions in estimated yearly revenues from a Wall Street tax could benefit the next generation, I will outline how current legislative proposals to reinstate a tax on Wall Street trades to make markets less volatile and work better for average investors.

A fairer market does not have to be a celluloid dream. If we want to flip today’s script: the robbers being the banks themselves, bad guys costumed in pinstripes, never jail stripes, we need to take on Wall Street. The first step is making Wild West Wall Street stock market gamblers pay their fair share by taxing their trades at a fraction of a percent.

And, even if you’re not in DC to make the movie and panel event, you can still help set the scene for a legislative win. Please tell your U.S. Representative that you want her or him to be a hero and cosponsor the Putting Main Street FIRST (Finishing Irresponsible Reckless Speculative Trading) Act (HR 5745). If you’ve already done that, be a social media superhero and help spread the word about the Take on Wall Street fight by sharing this blog on Twitter with the hashtags #WallStTax or #TakeOnWallSt.

With your help, soon we will reach a critical consensus: no longer will we let the One Percent steal the show.

village-1357192_640At a time when public approval of Congress remains near all-time lows, revisiting campaign finance laws is critical. Party officials have recommended members spend roughly twice as much time fundraising as they do on the floor or in committee. U.S. House members raise on average $2,400 every single day of their term. U.S. Senators will raise roughly twice that.

These campaign spending increases are reflected at the state and local level as well. For example, a single local school board race in California resulted in over $3.5 million in inside and outside spending. The tides may be shifting, however.

California is now poised to enact a law which would lift the state’s ban on publicly financed campaigns. SB 1107 passed with bipartisan backing last week. It gives local and state government to option stick with the current system or switch to public financing. The bill requires public financing laws have a dedicated funding source and that funds be “available to all qualified, voluntarily participating candidates for the same office without regard to incumbency or political party preference.”

Public Citizen’s members in California sent over 1,200 letters to their assembly members in the days leading up to the vote. All that’s left is for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign the bill.  You can contact his office at (916) 445-2841 and ask him to sign SB 1107.

Voters in California will have further opportunity to express their frustration with the current system when Proposition 59 appears on their ballots this November. It is a resolution that calls on California legislators to do everything they can to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Yesterday, the Sacramento Bee endorsed the measure, which is backed by groups such as California Common Cause, calPIRG, Courage Campaign and others.

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