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By Bill Gallagher

"They must understand there will be consequences." -- Russell Mokhiber, Editor, Corporate Crime Reporter.

DETROIT -- They kill and cause illnesses and suffering for millions of people. They do great harm to the water we drink and the air we breathe.

They steal and plunder and routinely rob the American taxpayers. They shamelessly exploit the young and the poor, stripping them of their dignity and using human beings like cheap commodities. Their crimes are often unreported and, when they are caught, they rarely face serious consequences.

Corporate criminals in the United States get away with murder, sometimes literally. When they steal from their shareholders or the public treasury, it seems the more outrageous the thievery, the more likely the culprits are to avoid prosecution.

The crimes run the whole spectrum of violence and deception. Denials and cover-ups supported by armies of corporate lawyers form the shields of dishonor to protect the dirty deeds and evil-doers.

No corporate officer really paid a price for Union Carbide's Bhopal, India, disaster in 1984. Poison gas at an agrochemical plant leaked, killing 8,000 people and leaving 150,000 more with permanent and debilitating injuries. The company put the plant there to take advantage of cheap labor and lax environmental and safety standards.

What about the tobacco and lead-additive industry executives who produced products they knew were deadly and for decades got away with it as millions died? Sure, a few fines and court settlements, but did anyone ever go to jail in the death-for-profit game?

Consider General Motors, Standard Oil of California and the Firestone Tire Company conspiring to derail environmentally friendly rapid rail systems in Los Angeles and more than 100 U.S. cities. Back in 1949, the companies were convicted and fined $5,000 each. Boy, was that a deterrent. They are still laughing about it in Detroit-area country clubs.

Archer Daniels Midland Company, the huge agribusiness operation, got caught red-handed fixing prices on lysine and citric acid. Lysine is an amino acid used by farmers as a food additive for livestock. Citric acid is a flavor additive used in soft drinks, processed foods and pharmaceutical and cosmetics products.

The Justice Department slapped the company with a $100 million fine, the largest criminal antitrust fine ever at the time. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno boasted, "If you engage in collusive behavior that robs U.S. consumers, there will be vigorous investigation and tough, tough penalties."

Let's see. In 1996, when the fine was levied, citric acid was a $1.2 billion-a-year industry worldwide, lysine $600 million a year. Do the math. The boys at ADM cheat the consumers for decades, reap billions in ill-gotten gains, and they use their shareholders' money to pay the one-time fine.

Nobody faces criminal responsibility and certainly nobody will spend a single day in jail for the monumental heist.

Why not send the swine who cooked up the price-fixing scheme to prison? Why not impose the corporate death penalty and yank ADM's corporate charter and dissolve the crooked company?

Enter Niagara Falls native Russell Mokhiber, editor of "Corporate Crime Reporter" and a fearless advocate for the need to get tough with the vile boardroom vermin. Mokhiber preaches consequences for corporate executives who break the law and for the corporations that seriously defraud the public and government.

Corporations dominate much of our lives, deciding for us what we buy and consume and essentially make choices for us by limiting our choices. More often than not, the deliberately limited choices are more costly and less healthy than they could be.

The time is more than ripe for our government to take on corporate crime and the pinstriped crooks who get rich breaking the law. For too long, they have hidden under corporate cover, avoiding individual responsibility for their crimes. The key to that is an awakened and outraged American people, politically charged and demanding action.

That's what Russell Mokhiber's been working on since law school. He founded "Corporate Crime Reporter" in 1987, and he's the co-author, with his frequent collaborator Robert Weissman, of "Corporate Predator: The Hunt for Mega-Profits and the Attack on Democracy" (Common Courage Press, 1999).

Every time there is another Enron revelation or a dangerous product kills a child, we hear a cry for a few days that something must be done. The people who do these things must be held accountable. But usually the fervor for reform quickly fades. Congress holds a hearing, the White House issues a statement, but life for corporate crooks is little changed.

Mokhiber and Weissman have seen this for years and they know mere regulation, government oversight and civil prosecutions fail to deal with the scope and depth of corporate crime. They offer some meaningful alternatives.

It's amazing that the Justice Department keeps detailed statistics on car thefts in Niagara Falls and burglaries in Buffalo, but don't keep track of corporate crime. Mokhiber suggests that the Federal Bureau of Investigation be required to "compile an annual report on corporate crime in America, to accompany its current Crime in the United States report, which is unfortunately confined to street crime."

Mokhiber wants the federal and local governments to refuse to do business with companies that are serious and repeat lawbreakers. He wants publicly held companies to be forced to reveal criminal activities and misconduct, not just the litigation that materially affects earnings, as present SEC regulations require.

The rights of whistleblowers and private citizens to regulate corporate conduct should be expanding, according to Mokhiber. He wants the False Claim Act, already on the books, to be enhanced to give people more standing to initiate lawsuits against companies that defraud the government. Executives at companies like Halliburton and Boeing shudder when they hear talk like that.

Russell Mokhiber's been around Washington long enough to know.

"Democrats and Republicans are both beholden to big business. Both parties answer to the same master," he said. He knows corporate lobbyists and the money they toss around get a warm reception on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

He says politicians coddle corporate crime and nothing will change until we have a corporate death penalty and executives are actually put in jail.

I talked with him about Niagara Falls. He grew up on Cleveland Avenue and attended Hyde Park School and Gaskill Junior High School. His father worked for Union Carbide. When his father died, Russell was 11, and his family moved from the area.

The environmental disasters that plagued Niagara Falls appall him. He says government "must send a message that you can't get away with dumping dangerous chemicals." That, of course, is what a couple of generations of corporate executives in Niagara Falls did, and they never paid any price at all. They got rich and people still suffer from the ground and water they ruined.

Activism and social conscience run deep in the Mokhiber family. I grew up down the block from Russell's aunt and uncle, Barbara and Annis Mokhiber. They were wonderful, warm people. Under the heading of full disclosure, the Mokhibers always let me and Niagara Falls Reporter Publisher Bruce Battaglia have our campaign signs on their property at South Avenue and 24th Street. They were always supporters of progressive and enlightened causes.

Bruce and I were in the Cub Scouts with their son Paul. He's recently returned to the Niagara area and already he's got his eye on New York State's plan to transport and bury PCBs General Electric dumped in the Hudson River in Niagara County.

Paul's brother, Albert, is a national board member of and formerly served as president of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He is an articulate and committed advocate for that important cause and his work has gotten more important since Sept. 11. He stands up against the reprehensible anti-Arab bigotry that can be found everywhere these troubled days.

It was a joy for me to grow up in an ethnically diverse, urban neighborhood. Along with the Mokhibers, we had many other families from the Middle East, like the Mezhirs, Haddads and Sawmas, to name a few.

Having friends, classmates and playmates from Lebanon and Syria, you grow up with a greater awareness of their wonderful culture and their decency as people. Association of Arabs with terrorism never occurred to us.

Russell Mokhiber had his White House press credentials lifted after Sept. 11 for an undefined "national security issue." After a couple of months, he had them restored when he threatened legal action. His Lebanese heritage was never mentioned, but no one from the administration even bothered to attempt any explanation for the expulsion.

Russell says that some days he feels like he's "banging his head against a wall," but he keeps up his work and continues to be a major irritant for corporate criminals and their protectors in Washington.

He told me he'd like to start up a national alternative newspaper like the Niagara Falls Reporter. But then he paused and added, "But more information is not really the answer. What we must create is a political base to challenge power. We should get up from our computer screens and be out there in the political arena."

He's right. We should. And I'll add another thought to improve public life in America and the quality of our republic. We need more Mokhibers.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com January 13 2004