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Oct 21, 2022

The week in GRC: Democrats ask DoJ to publish corporate crime data and US law firm partner pay rises, survey finds

This week’s governance, compliance and risk-management stories from around the web

Reuters reported that, according to the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Apple retail workers voted to form a union at an Oklahoma location, the company’s second US store to organize. Employees at the Apple Penn Square store in Oklahoma City voted 56 to 32 in support of joining the Communications Workers of America Union, according to a tally by the NLRB. The move to organize spread to new industries during the pandemic amid concerns about workplace safety. Momentum has continued at companies including Amazon and Starbucks.

The NLRB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘We believe the open, direct and collaborative relationship we have with our valued team members is the best way to provide an excellent experience for our customers and for our teams,’ Apple said in a statement. ‘We’re proud to provide our team members with strong compensation and exceptional benefits.’

– John Kocoras, the second-in-command in the Chicago US attorney’s office, is joining law firm Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom as a litigation partner, Reuters reported. Kocoras joined the office as first assistant US attorney in 2018 after nine years as a partner at McDermott Will & Emery and nearly four years at Kroll, a consulting firm. Working under US attorney John Lausch, Kocoras helped oversee an office of roughly 160 attorneys in both its civil and criminal divisions in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois. At Skadden, Kocoras will be reunited with Patrick Fitzgerald, who was the Chicago US attorney from 2001 to 2012.

The Wall Street Journal (paywall) reported that workers in upstate New York voted against unionizing in a setback for labor activists trying to expand their unionization push at the company. The NLRB said roughly 66 percent of employees who cast valid ballots at a company facility near Albany rejected the Amazon Labor Union, which earlier this year won a landmark union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York. An Amazon spokesperson said the company is glad workers chose to keep a ‘direct relationship with Amazon’, which the company sees as best for employees and customers. ‘We will continue to work directly with our teammates in Albany, as we do everywhere,’ the spokesperson said.

‘We are filled with resolve to continue to expand our campaign for fair treatment for all Amazon workers,’ said Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union. ‘It isn’t a loss, it’s an ongoing battle.’

– According to the WSJ, chief information officers (CIOs) say cyber-security will once again be their top investment priority in 2023. Companies are facing an escalation in cyber-attacks such as the 2021 Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that affected Eastern US fuel distribution. The FBI’s internet crime complaint center said it received a record 847,376 complaints in 2021, with potential losses exceeding $6.9 bn.

‘You boil it down to the CIO, it is cyber-security. Absolutely… that is the highest priority,’ said Chris Howard, chief of research at technology research and consulting firm Gartner, pointing to the results of the firm’s latest CIO survey.

– Daniel Loeb’s Third Point has built a significant position in toothpaste maker Colgate-Palmolive Co and sees value in a potential spin-off of its Hill’s Pet Nutrition business and other brands, the activist investor said in a letter seen by Reuters. The letter cited several reasons for investing in the consumer goods company, including its pricing power in inflationary conditions and the strength in its pet food business. ‘There is meaningful hidden value in the company’s Hill’s Pet Nutrition business, which we believe would command a premium multiple if separated from Colgate’s consumer assets,’ the letter said.

A spokesperson for Third Point declined to comment.

– Lafarge pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $777.8 mn to resolve a US federal criminal charge related to the French company’s payments to ISIS and another terror group to keep a cement plant operating in Syria, according to CNBC. The $10.24 mn in payments to ISIS, al-Nusrah Front and intermediaries were made from August 2013 through October 2014.

‘Lafarge has admitted and taken responsibility for its staggering crime,’ said US attorney Breon Peace in a statement. ‘Never before has a corporation been charged with providing material support and resources to foreign terrorist organizations.’

Lafarge was bought by Switzerland-based Holcim in 2015. In a statement, Lafarge said: ‘Lafarge and [Lafarge Cement Syria] have accepted responsibility for the actions of the individual executives involved, whose behavior was in flagrant violation of Lafarge’s code of conduct. We deeply regret that this conduct occurred and have worked with the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to resolve this matter.’

Holcim in a statement said it supports the plea agreement Lafarge reached. ‘None of the conduct involved Holcim, which has never operated in Syria, or any Lafarge operations or employees in the [US], and it is in stark contrast to everything Holcim stands for,’ Holcim said.

‘The DoJ noted that former Lafarge and [Lafarge Cement Syria] executives involved in the conduct concealed it from Holcim before and after Holcim acquired Lafarge, as well as from external auditors,’ the company said. ‘When Holcim learned of the allegations from media reports in 2016, Holcim proactively and voluntarily conducted an extensive investigation, led by a major US law firm and overseen by the board of directors. It publicly disclosed the principal investigative findings in 2017 and separated from former Lafarge and [Lafarge Cement Syria] executives who were involved in these events.’

Reuters reported that, according to a new lawsuit, decades-long deception by ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies has exacerbated climate change and forced the state of New Jersey to pay billions of dollars to clean up after disasters such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Ida. The complaint makes New Jersey the latest state or municipality to target major oil companies in an effort to make them help pay for the damages incurred by the severe weather made worse by climate change.

New Jersey alleges that a deceptive campaign has had particularly severe impacts on the Garden State. It paid billions to clean up after Superstorm Sandy and to fortify its shores from future storms. Thirty residents died when climate-exacerbated Hurricane Ida swept through in 2021, and poorer communities with large populations such as Newark and Atlantic City are at direct risk of flooding, the suit says.

‘Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risk of climate change,’ an Exxon spokesperson said, adding that the company is investing in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting societal energy demands.

‘These suits serve only to divert attention and resources away from the collaborative, international efforts that are critical to developing a meaningful solution to climate change,’ said an attorney representing Chevron.

– Spirit Airlines shareholders approved a takeover by JetBlue Airways, a deal that now faces federal regulatory scrutiny, CNBC reported. Spirit announced the results of the vote after a special shareholder meeting. The airlines said they expect to close the transaction no later than the first half of 2024. They now must convince regulators the agreement won’t harm competition or raise fares for consumers. The Biden administration has taken a hard stance against deals it argues will harm consumers.

Reuters reported that according to a report released by Major Lindsey & Africa (MLA), average annual pay for US law firm partners reached $1.12 mn in 2021 as higher client demand lifted company profits. MLA’s 2022 partner compensation survey said average pay was higher than at any time since it started tracking partner compensation in 2010. Average time billed by partners reached 1,721 hours, up from the 1,680 billable-hour figure the survey reported in 2020. Corporate partners reported the highest average total compensation at around $1.49 mn, a 26 percent increase. The second-highest percentage increase was among litigation partners, who saw average pay increase 17 percent to $1.05 mn.

– Mark Steward, executive director for enforcement and market oversight at the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), said he would step down next spring, the WSJ reported. Steward was appointed to his role seven years ago and is known for leading some of the FCA’s most complex and high-profile enforcement actions, including some against major global banks and individuals. Before joining the FCA in 2015, he was executive director of enforcement at the Securities & Futures Commission of Hong Kong. Prior to that, he was deputy executive director of enforcement for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Reuters reported that six Volkswagen investors filed a case against the company for what they said was refusing to discuss at its AGM whether its lobbying activities could threaten their investments. The investors – four Swedish public pension funds, Danish AkademikerPension and the Church of England Pensions Board – allege that Volkswagen’s lobbying via its membership of automotive and business associations goes against its public messaging on the importance of the transition to a lower-carbon economy. This exposes the company and the investors’ investments to operational and reputational damage, they argued in a statement.

Although Volkswagen discloses its trade association memberships, the investors have previously said it should go further and say whether the associations’ aims are compatible with the company’s emissions-cutting targets. The case will test whether companies have the right under German corporate law to refuse to include an item on an AGM agenda and whether Volkswagen can keep it off next year’s agenda.

A spokesperson for Volkswagen said adding the provision under discussion to the articles of incorporation would interfere with the executive board’s management authority in an inadmissible way, so could not be solved at an AGM. ‘We share the view that aspects relevant to climate protection deserve even higher priority in reporting and are currently considering various approaches,’ the spokesperson added.

– The WSJ reported that three Democratic lawmakers are asking the DoJ to disclose data related to its prosecution of corporate crime. In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the lawmakers said they were urging the department to more thoroughly track statistics on the number of actions taken by prosecutors against companies and executives who engage in business crime. The letter, signed by senators Dick Durbin, D-Illinois and Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut and Rep Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pennsylvania, comes after a senior DoJ official said data showed a decline in corporate criminal prosecutions.

‘We cannot ignore the data showing overall decline in corporate criminal prosecutions over the last decade,’ Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a speech in September. ‘We need to do more and move faster.’