Back in 1965, an unknown young attorney named Ralph Nader published a bestselling book called “Unsafe at Any Speed,” accusing American automakers of being resistant to safety features like seat belts and questioning the design of a GM car called the Corvair. In those days, allegations that American companies would knowingly sell products that were harmful and potentially life threatening were considered quite alarming. Congress and state legislatures reacted in kind.
Senate hearings resulted in the creation of the Department of Transportation and the predecessor agencies of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Virtually every state passed legislation mandating the use of seat belts. GM harassed and tried to intimidate Nader, for which it was forced to publicly apologize and ultimately pay him $425,000 in a court settlement. Nader used that money to fund the creation of the Center for Auto Safety. He was a driving force that led to the creation of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and other significant legislation.
Corporate wrongdoing has become so pervasive that Americans have become inured to it. In recent weeks, there have been published stories about a California utility whose negligence resulted in murder convictions but no executives were held accountable, about Amazon’s inability to halt the pervasiveness of unsafe products on its website, and about the Pentagon’s questionable dealings with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt, formerly executive chairman of Google’s parent company.
These stories should have sparked outrage and Congressional hearings. Instead, there wasn’t even a whimper of public concern. The issues are bipartisan: The Democrats control California and the murderous Golden State utility is a major campaign contributor to donkey party pols. The Trump Administration has dismantled the limited consumer protection oversight remaining from the Obama Administration, hence the inaction against Amazon. James Mattis, Trump’s former secretary of defense, figures prominently in the Bezos and Schmidt Pentagon saga.
“Democracy Dies in Darkness,” is the slogan of the Washington Post, which notably is owned by Bezos. China’s leadership operates in secrecy and with no accountability, which is why young protesters in Hong Kong are risking their lives and protesting in the streets to reassert their country’s independence. The U.S. enjoys a free and vibrant press, but the benefits of the First Amendment are squandered if the public no longer cares about public safety and the security of the country.
Here are the three published stories that should be dominating the national conversation. Two of them were published in the Wall Street Journal and one was produced by ProPublica, far and away America’s most trustworthy news organizations.
I wrote about San Francisco-based PG&E’s mafia-like tactics in June and mistakenly thought I’d captured the essence of all the bankrupt utility’s wrongdoings. Understand, when I say PG&E has gotten away with murder, I’m not being hyperbolic. The company was literally convicted on six criminal charges because of its negligence causing a pipeline explosion. Yeah, it was forced to pay a $3 million fine, but that’s a fraction of the $35 million severance Peter Darbee, PG&E’s CEO at the time of the explosion, was handed on his way out the door. Whoever said that crime doesn’t pay never worked at PG&E.
In my PG&E post I said that outlining the entire litany of the company’s wrongdoings would consume too much of your device’s memory. The Wall Street Journal has deftly laid out more than two decades worth of PG&E’s lies, deceit, and negligence, that given the extent of the wrongdoing and the resulting murders and deaths, paid a measly $2.6 billion in fines and judgments.
The Journal story captures all of PG&E’s sordid past and is replete with an easy-to-follow graphic. Falsified documents, a history of firing and demoting employees who sounded warning alarms, lying to regulators, withholding critical data, and outsourcing critical safety functions. PG&E’s failure to perform upgrades to towers and equipment, some more than a century old, ignited fires that killed 107 people in 2017 and 2018, destroyed 22,000 buildings, and burned 350,000 acres.
You don’t need a political science degree to understand why and how PG&E has gotten away with its behavior. The company is a major contributor to Democratic candidates, including Gov. Gavin Newsom. Former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, Kamala Harris’ former boyfriend and political benefactor, is a longtime PG&E consultant.
Harris declined to prosecute PG&E when she was California’s attorney general, despite multiple pleas from political leaders whose constituents were impacted by the deadly pipeline explosion. There are additional allegations that she stifled a corruption investigation of California’s utility regulator. It’s what you might expect from an attorney general who prosecuted a mentally ill woman who had been shot and severely wounded by the police. Harris is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Amazon Has Ceded Control of Its Site. The Result: Thousands of Banned Unsafe or Mislabeled Products
By Alexandra Berzon, Shane Shifflett, and Justin Scheck
I can’t do justice paraphrasing the Wall Street Journal’s reporting, so here are the paragraphs that tell you what you need to know:
A Wall Street Journal investigation found 4,152 items for sale on Amazon.com Inc. ’s site that have been declared unsafe by federal agencies, are deceptively labeled or are banned by federal regulators—items that big-box retailers’ policies would bar from their shelves. Among those items, at least 2,000 listings for toys and medications lacked warnings about health risks to children.
The Journal identified at least 157 items for sale that Amazon had said it banned, including sleeping mats the Food and Drug Administration warns can suffocate infants. The Journal commissioned tests of 10 children’s products it bought on Amazon, many promoted as “Amazon’s Choice.” Four failed tests based on federal safety standards, according to the testing company, including one with lead levels that exceeded federal limits.
Of the 4,152 products the Journal identified, 46% were listed as shipping from Amazon warehouses.
After the Journal brought the listings to Amazon’s attention, 57% of the 4,152 listings had their wording altered or were taken down. . . . Within two weeks of Amazon’s removing or altering the first problematic listings the Journal identified, at least 130 items with the same policy violations reappeared, some sold by the same vendors previously identified by the Journal under different listings. Amazon said it then “removed these items and refined our tools to prevent them from being offered in our store.”
“There are bad actors that attempt to evade our systems,” Amazon said of products in violation of its policies that appear on the site, adding that “should one ever slip through, we work quickly to take action on the seller and protect customers.”
Should one ever slip through? The Journal found more than 4,000 items that slipped through, some multiple times. And how is it that three reporters identified these extensive violations at a company that is supposedly on the cutting edge of technology?
We’re talking about deaths here. The Journal cited a motorcyclist who bought a helmet on Amazon labeled as certified by the U.S. Transportation Department. It wasn’t. The motorcyclist was killed when his bike collided with a car and his helmet came off. Amazon argued in a lawsuit that it didn’t sell the helmet but merely listed it on the seller’s behalf. Not the argument and behavior I’d expect from the third largest holding in Vanguard’s fund of most socially responsible companies.
The Journal said that “many” of the defective and mislabeled products it found came from China, a point which segues nicely to the next story.
How Amazon and Silicon Valley Seduced the Pentagon
By James Bandler, Anjali Tsui, and Doris Burke
This investigative feature should contain a warning to take a Gravol tablet before reading because your head will spin keeping track of all the conflicts and bent rules allegedly involved with the Pentagon awarding a sweetheart $10 billion cloud computing contract that Amazon was all set to receive. To put it simply, Pentagon rules to ensure the integrity of its procurement processes don’t seem to apply to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google’s parent company.
The story opens with a startling revelation and doesn’t let up. We learn that Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2017 was prepared to swear in Bezos into an influential Pentagon advisory board despite not having completed the necessary background check to obtain a security clearance. Security clearances are required to ensure that people with access to sensitive information aren’t vulnerable to blackmail. Bezos is on record claiming that he was subsequently blackmailed by the National Enquirer acting in cahoots with Saudi Arabia.
We learn that Schmidt had unfettered access to Pentagon facilities and people, a seeming violation of Pentagon rules designed to prevent companies doing business with the agency from gaining an unfair competitive advantage. Unfortunately, billionaire Schmidt doesn’t like to fly commercial and Pentagon employees can’t fly on private planes. Not wanting to keep Schmidt waiting, Pentagon employees on at least one occasion requisitioned military aircraft at a cost of $25,000 an hour so they could promptly meet Schmidt on one of his tours.
The military has an honor code and is rife with people who want to uphold it. One of them was former marine Roma Laster who raised concerns about the Pentagon’s cozy dealings with Bezos and Schmidt. According to a grievance complaint she filed protesting her removal, Laster’s boss told her, “Mr. Schmidt was a billionaire and would never accept pushback, warnings, or limits.”
The story introduces Sally Donnelly, known as Silicon Valley’s “fairy godmother” within the Pentagon. A former Time reporter who wrote flattering articles about Mattis, she ultimately went to work for the general. Donnelly’s affection for industry hats seems to rival Imelda Marcos’s love for shoes; for the past dozen years she has shuttled between the DOD and consulting firms, including at least once with Amazon as a client. Donnelly allegedly arranged a private dinner with Mattis, Bezos, herself, and Amazon’s top government-sales executive. Of course, Amazon insisted the cloud computing contract was never discussed.
Schmidt reportedly advised Mattis at a private lunch that Google’s lead over China in artificial intelligence technology had shrunk from “five years to six months.” This strikes me as particularly noteworthy because Google in late 2017 opened an AI lab in China; General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said Google’s AI work in China indirectly benefits the Chinese military.
How can Google be granted Pentagon contracts when it also is helping China whose leader is on record as saying AI will help his country achieve world domination? Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, often described as the smartest person in Silicon Valley, is on record calling on the FBI and CIA to investigate Google for “treasonous behavior.” I also don’t understand how the Pentagon can entrust Amazon with virtually all its data when the company can’t adequately secure its own retail site from Chinese interference.
I’m always moved seeing photos of the brave Hong Kong demonstrators waving American flags. I wonder if they know that the surveillance cameras they fear and detest were possibly developed with Google know-how and expertise.
The people of Hong Kong are fighting to protect their freedoms. Americans, by their silence and indifference, are seemingly prepared to accept a society where companies get away with murder, the Chinese can out finesse a leading retailer with impunity, and tech oligarchs have undue influence on what we read, our privacy, and our military.