The Hightower Lowdown
Killing workplace safety rules, Paul O'Neill's Alcoa conflict, and Poppy's international hustle
Recently, the Republican leadership -- backed by Cheerleader-in-Chief George W. Bush -- rammed through a nasty piece of special-interest legislation for their Big Business benefactors. At issue were new steps to protect American workers from the physical and financial pain suffered from on-the-job injuries they get by repeatedly having to strain their muscles, tendons, and joints. People whose jobs require them to bend, twist, lift, or make other repetitive motions often come down with back injuries, tendonitis, and other debilitating and chronic ailments that can leave them disabled for life.
Stabbing Workers in the Back
Many of these injuries could be avoided by simply redesigning some of the equipment or reconfiguring the workspace, but few corporations have taken such steps, so OSHA developed new workplace rules during the past 10 years, with the full involvement of health professionals, unions, and corporate officials. In all but the worst cases, the new rules required little more than informing employees of the dangers of repetitive strains and allowed simple remedies where crippling injuries were occurring.
But even this gesture of workplace civility was too much for Big Business. With their Boy George W. ensconced in the White House, corporate lobbyists seized the opportunity to stick a knife in OSHA's safety rules -- and into the backs of employees. The Republican leadership in Congress rushed to pass a bill that revokes the rules.
George Bush, who took hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from these business interests, and who has talked loudly about bringing civility and bipartisanship to Washington, was delighted to sign this most uncivil and partisan bill into law. He called it his first legislative "accomplishment."
After 12 years as CEO of Alcoa Inc., Paul O'Neill left to enter government work, becoming treasury secretary. Though he's now in a position of public trust, O'Neill can't seem to shake the corporate ethic, which says: No matter what else happens, it's money that matters. Paul has lots of money, including $117 million worth of Alcoa stock and stock options.
O'Neill as Model Corporate Citizen
This stock ownership poses what you might call gross conflict of interest, since the decisions he makes as treasury secretary will have a direct bearing on Alcoa's stock price and profits. Yet O'Neill wants it all, and refuses to sell the stock and put the money in a blind trust. He says he'll simply recuse himself from any government decisions that directly involve Alcoa, and he's even set up a bureaucratic screen of agency lawyers to review documents before he sees them and to decide which meetings he can attend.
There are a few giant problems with this so-called "fix," however. First, these lawyers work for him and are not likely to be fearless watchdogs. Second, he's the government's chief economic official, and he ought to be focused full-time on that, not skipping meetings and avoiding information that affects the world's largest aluminum maker. And, third, just about everything the treasury secretary does -- from shaping tax policy to directing currency policy -- has a direct impact on Alcoa and on the value of the stocks O'Neill holds.
His Republican defenders assert that we shouldn't worry about those old, fusty, conflict-of-interest laws because O'Neill is "a model corporate citizen." That's precisely the problem.
Yet another twist on Washington's revolving door between top government officials and big business. This ever-revolving door usually sees former members of Congress and White House officials spinning out of it to become fat cat lobbyists. But now, The New York Times reports that a multibillion-dollar investment firm called the Carlyle Group has taken the revolving door global. It employs such political sparklies as former president George Bush and former secretary of state Jim Baker, as well as a former prime minister of England, a former prime minister of Thailand, and a former president of the Philippines.
Bush the Elder Finds Work
None of these are paid the very big bucks they get from Carlyle because of their investment skills, but simply because of their extensive contacts with political and business leaders around the world. In short, Bush and the rest are influence peddlers, hired to be door openers. For example, the Times reports that Bush used his name and connections to bring the Carlyle Group into South Korea. He was able to get a meeting with the prime minister -- not a door that most investment groups can walk through. This led to Carlyle being able to take over a powerful Korean bank.
For such entrée, Carlyle gladly puts millions in the pockets of Bush the Elder. A company executive candidly notes that having the former president on board "punches up the brand awareness for us globally." Then, with a straight face, this Carlyle executive adds that having Bush flack for them "shows that we're associated with people of the highest ethical standards."
Ha! If using your office for personal gain is your standard of ethics, then Bush is your man. While Jimmy Carter puts his influence to work for Habitat for Humanity, building houses for poor people, Bush is taking yacht cruises with crown princes to pedal investment schemes.
Jim Hightower's latest book, If The Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, has just been released in a fully revised and updated paperback edition.