Washington’s culture of corruption and corporate impunity


Washington’s revolving door corruption and culture of corporate impunity reached new lows last week, raising serious doubts about the United States’ commitment to upholding its international anti-corruption obligations as spelled out in the UN Convention against Corruption.

First there was the adoption on Tuesday of the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, which contains a provision protecting the manufacturers of genetically modified seeds from future litigation in the face of potential health risks. Then, two days later, Lanny Breuer, former Justice Department Criminal Division chief, joined a corporate law firm as its vice chairman earning $4 million a year.

The controversial Monsanto legislation, officially called the Farmer Assurance Provision – also known as Section 735 of the spending bill HR 933 – effectively bars federal courts from halting the use of genetically modified seeds, regardless of health issues that may be identified with them in the future. While the use of genetically modified seeds, driven primarily by the biotech giant Monsanto, has proved wildly profitable, many argue that there have been too few studies into the potential health risks of this new class of crop.

But following the adoption of the spending bill HR 933 with President Obama’s signature last week, even if those studies are completed and they end up revealing serious adverse health effects related to the consumption of genetically modified foods, the courts will have no ability to stop the spread of the seeds and the crops they bear.

“This dangerous provision, the Monsanto Protection Act, strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment,” the group Food Democracy Now said on its website.

Monsanto's campaign contributions by election cycle

Monsanto’s campaign contributions by election cycle

The group had collected more than 250,000 signatures in a petition for Obama to veto the legislation, but to no avail. Monsanto, which helped draft the controversial provision in collusion with freshman Sen. Roy Blunt, is very well connected in Washington, having showered millions of dollars in campaign contributions to federal candidates, with contributions spiking in recent years.

In particular, the Center for Responsive Politics notes that Sen. Blunt received $64,250 from Monsanto to go towards his campaign committee between 2008 and 2012.

Campaign contributions, however, are far from the only way in which Monsanto wields its disproportionate influence in Washington. Its revolving door corruption is legendary in fact, with dozens of Monsanto executives and government officials exchanging titles and paychecks on a fairly regular basis.

Below is a diagram of some of the more prominent beneficiaries of this cozy revolving door relationship. (Click here for a full-size version.)


Michael Taylor, the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, exemplifies more clearly than most the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it. An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

Before President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, where he published two documents on U.S. aid for African agriculture, both of which were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Rather than using his position of power in the FDA to provide stringent oversight over Monsanto’s business practices, Taylor has instead gone after the agribusiness giant’s competitors, particularly small dairy farms that produce fresh milk.

As CREDO has pointed out, “the Food and Drug Administration is running sting operations followed by ‘guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords’ as part of a crackdown on unpasteurized milk.”

While this strict enforcement of laws requiring pasteurization could be considered a commendable as zero-tolerance approach to food safety, the fact is, under Taylor’s watch the FDA has been letting the highly consolidated industrial meat and factory farm industry off the hook despite growing problems. But this of course is what’s to be expected with Washington’s revolving door.

lanny breuer

Another fine example of this corruption is the decision by the corporate law firm Covington & Burling to rehire Lanny Breuer, this time as the firm’s vice chairman. Breuer has spent the last four years at the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, where he led the so-called investigation into the financial crisis.

He will now be joining the white-collar defense firm for the third time, and much like he has done at the DOJ, his job will be to defend large corporations from prosecution. This time however, he will be paid $4 million a year.

Not a single prosecution was brought under his watch against the too-big-to-fail financial institutions that crashed the global economy in 2008, and it’s not a conspiracy theory to speculate that Breuer was simply biding his time at the DOJ to build his value in the marketplace and pad his resume as a corporate lackey, a point that this satirical YouTube video makes clear:

This point was also driven home by an official DOJ directive from 2008, the same year that Breuer took over the Criminal Division. That year, the Justice Department announced a shift in policy, deciding to encourage self-policing by the banks and corporations, rather than vigorously prosecuting their law breaking. After all, “federal prosecutors and corporate leaders typically share common goals,” read the directive.

And unfortunately, Obama’s DOJ followed through on this policy of non-enforcement in spectacular fashion. Obama has prosecuted fewer financial crimes than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or either of the Bush presidents. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, another Covington & Burling alum previously making $2.5 million a year, has publicly stated that he won’t go after big banks.

Because of the notoriously bad policies enacted by corrupt governments, the revolving door practice so common in Washington is prohibited by international law. As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

It could be said that the United States is routinely and flagrantly flouting this international obligation by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing so freely and lucratively, with business executives and corporate lawyers becoming government regulators and then returning to the private sector to collect multi-million dollar paychecks once they have completed their stints in “public service.”

Of course, the corporations and the banksters claim that this system works wonderfully.

As Monsanto so artfully explains on its website,

One objection opponents of biotechnology have raised is the fact that some former government employees have gone to work for Monsanto, and some company employees have left the company to take jobs in the public sector. Some critics say this shows collusion by Monsanto and the government. Such theories ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests. Both the public and private sectors benefit when employers have access to the most competent and experienced people. It makes perfect sense that someone in government who has concluded biotechnology is a positive, beneficial technology might go to work for a biotech company, just as someone who believes otherwise might find employment in an organization which rejects agricultural biotechnology.

While there is some ostensible logic to this argument, it fails to acknowledge the self-evident reality of the overriding profit motive that trumps any possible public-interest gains to be made by allowing corporate chieftains to dictate public policy or ensure the non-enforcement of statutory law.

There are in fact common sense approaches that could be taken towards preventing these conflicts of interests, such as those adopted by the European Union on March 19, which help to regulate the revolving door between the European Central Bank and the financial institutions it supervises.

Transparency International hailed these reforms as important “democratic accountability mechanisms,” which among other things include:

  • a requirement for the ECB to put in place “comprehensive and formal processes” that prevent conflicts of interest, including the possibility of “cooling off” periods of up to two years.
  • an explicit assurance that ECB supervision will be subject to EU legislation on public access to documents.
  • robust democratic oversight in the form of parliamentary approval of the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Supervisory Board and a stronger right of enquiry.

While a cynic might say that these reforms are a self-serving and inadequate approach to addressing Europe’s own malfeasance, these measures are nevertheless a far cry from anything the United States is currently implementing to rein in its epic levels of corruption. In fact, far from enacting any anti-corruption legislation, U.S. lawmakers are instead cashing in on the gravy train.

As USA Today reported on March 26, “sixteen lawmakers who left Congress recently have landed posts with groups that seek to influence policy — despite rules aimed at slowing the revolving door between Capitol Hill and lobbying firms.”

It’s clear that this problem of corruption is endemic in Washington, and without any push-back from the people it’s likely to continue to deteriorate.

There is some hope in a legislative initiative launched by a group called Represent.Us, called the American Anti-Corruption Act. One of the key points of this piece of legislation is to “close the ‘revolving door’ so that elected representatives and their senior staff can no longer sell off their legislative power in exchange for high-paying jobs when they leave office.”

“Today, politicians routinely move straight from Congress to lucrative lobbying jobs on K Street, in order to influence their former colleagues and friends,” Represent.Us laments. “This corrupts policymaking in two ways: members and their staff anticipate high-paying jobs with lobbying firms, and routinely do favors to their future employers while still in Congress; and once out of congress they enjoy undue access and influence to members of Congress.”

Represent.Us is attempting to rally at least a million American citizens to join its cause, building on popular revulsion to what it deems “the worst political corruption in American history.” After that, it plans to introduce the Anti-Corruption Act to Congress by the end of 2013 and solicit cosponsors.

Perhaps what is more needed though is a reinvigoration of the spirit that brought tens of thousands of Americans into the streets and into downtown parks as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that surprised the world in late 2011. While that particular movement may have turned out to be little more than a flash in the pan, the spirit of indignation and rebellion that fueled the protests has likely only intensified.

To harness and refocus that energy is what is needed now more than ever if there is any real hope in countering the type of blatant corruption and the culture of impunity on display in Washington right now.


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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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