Corporations have the worst type of bad reputation: the boring kind. They get accused of the same crimes as the drug dealers and mob bosses in our favorite movies, but their tactics are dry and methodical. When you get to the level of Fortune 500 corporations with recognizable name brands, we tend to assume that everything has been thoroughly vetted by legal, and subsequently wiped for prints just to be safe. There's just too much money at stake to risk getting sued for some minor misstep.
Except some of our most recognizable corporations are sitting on more machine gunnings and convoluted criminal conspiracies than you can throw at the last 30 minutes of a Die Hard movie. It turns out that owning a fantastic assortment of golf shirts doesn't preclude you from committing the sort of crimes that even the cool table in the prison cafeteria has to admit are pretty ballsy.
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In 1984, Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay was considering the unthinkable: voluntarily moving to Indianapolis. For years, Baltimore had refused to build a new stadium, and Indianapolis had pre-emptively built an entire freaking dome in the hopes of attracting an NFL team that wasn't turned off by the stench of desperation. Add in a growing economy and one of the nation's largest populations of bored white people, and the move seemed like a can't-miss business proposition. But it was still Indianapolis, so Irsay decided to field offers from other, warmer, less Indianapol-ish cities, such as Phoenix.
Like an inattentive boyfriend who finds himself on the verge of being dumped, Baltimore saw Irsay making eyes across state lines and promised to think about changing for him. When that didn't work, the city promptly switched into "you can't leave me, bitch, I won't let you" mode.
Foreshadowing the grit and shameless corruption that would one day make The Wire politicians like Clay Davis such compelling TV characters, the Maryland state legislature and the city of Baltimore decided to take control of the Colts by force, using an obscure law called eminent domain (which roughly translates to "Finders keepers, but we're the government so you can't laugh at us for saying that"). As the state legislature prepared to transfer ownership of the Colts to the city, Irsay could only call a press conference to futilely exclaim, "It's my damn team." And then he remembered who the rich white guy was around here and put a plan into action that the con men from The Sting would call "a little much."
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It's amazing he had time for any scheming, what with the daily airbrushing sessions.
First he called Phoenix and told them they could have the Colts if they agreed to his terms immediately because he was planning to move his entire company out of Baltimore that night. Phoenix withdrew from consideration, presumably under the rationale that they didn't make split-second decisions like that, as they weren't cocaine dealers. Indianapolis might have had similar reservations had they not been so focused on not shooting in their pants when they heard Irsay's voice on the other end of the phone.
It was a good thing Indianapolis was so eager, because it turned out Irsay hadn't totally thought through the various contingencies of smuggling an entire NFL team hundreds of miles in a single night. That's when Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut called his friend, the wealthily named John B. Smith, the head of Mayflower moving company. Mayflower moving trucks up and down the East Coast were suddenly converging on the Baltimore Colts practice facility. Within a matter of hours, the movers were quietly making an entire NFL franchise disappear. The drivers of the 15 trucks were given different routes to the state border so the cops couldn't stop them all.
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Two decoy trucks were filled with rabid jackals, just to keep the Highway Patrol on their toes.
The next morning, every physical piece of the Colts franchise was in the state of Indiana, the Indianapolis Star had a photo of Irsay and Hudnut cheering, while the Baltimore Sun had Baltimore mayor William Schaefer weeping. Fortunately, the city of Baltimore would eventually go on to get a Super Bowl-winning franchise, and no one ever committed a crime in their city ever again.
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As we've previously mentioned, the Chiquita fruit company has the sort of skeletons in their closet that once caused their company president to retire by jumping off a building. Back when they went by the far less mariachi-tinged name "The United Fruit Company," Chiquita conspired with the CIA to start a bloody civil war in Colombia, and even took part in some good old-fashioned union busting. (Note: Old-fashioned union busting was a mostly machine-gun-based activity.) But that was decades ago. They'd cleaned up their act, and were now an attractive Latin dancer with a silly name. They may still be operating in the same industry as when they committed the atrocities, and in the same country they plunged into civil war, but that was all behind them. Hey, look -- she put a big fruit basket on her head!
This is not the hat of a rational company.
Of course, when criminals change their names, put on elaborate disguises, and stay in the same line of work they were in when they killed people, that usually means they're just getting serious about getting away with some shit. In the case of Chiquita, that included secretly funding multiple terrorist organizations.
Now before you go blaming them, Chiquita would probably point out that their banana farms are located in the Colombian hinterlands, where rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and right-wing organizations such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), like to shoot and bomb each other and where everything that moves is immediately kidnapped. It's hard, dangerous work to run a business in the middle of a war zone of embassy takeovers and bus bombings. Of course, it would have been easier to sympathize with them if this hadn't been the same civil war they had started decades before. But that was the past, and Chiquita had to keep their employees safe in the present. The obvious answer would have been to move operations to a less murdery part of the world -- but that option was quickly dismissed when someone realized that it would cost less to just pay the guys with machine guns.
La Protesta Militar
"Hell, if we can get them to help negotiate employee salaries, they might make us more profitable!"
In 1989, Chiquita started paying the murder squads they were supposed to be protecting themselves from. Chalking it up to the price of doing business in a war zone that you've created, they played both sides of the fence, paying the FARC, ELN and AUC, which were all eventually listed as terrorist groups by the U.S. State Department.
In Chiquita's defense, the State Department was way less into labels when Chiquita started paying them. And when they learned they were funding officially sanctioned, grade-A terrorists, they immediately did something about it. Specifically, they consulted a lawyer to find out how illegal it would be if they were to, say, continue funding terrorists. Fortunately, the lawyer they consulted was a human being with a basic understanding of right and wrong. He was also apparently aware that his client's sense of business ethics was on par with most birds of prey, because he gave them the sort of unambiguous, one-sentence legal advice lawyers usually reserve for clients who have just taken hostages: "Bottom line: CANNOT MAKE THE PAYMENT."
While that advice may have been impossible to misunderstand, it was apparently extremely easy to ignore, because Chiquita continued to make payments to those terrorist organizations for another year, which is especially astounding when you take into account how unlikely it is that terrorists let you set your account to automatic payments.
When the scheme was discovered in 2004, the governments of the United States and Colombia were upset. In all, the Cincinnati-based Fortune 500 company had funneled $1.7 million to the organizations over the years, or as one prosecutor summed it up, the equivalent of "financing three World Trade Center attacks."
"I knew it. This is about that September 11 thing, isn't it? That was three years ago!"
While the PR department presumably looked into the legal and logical contradictions involved with hiring one of the terrorist organizations to intimidate the head honchos into not paying them anymore, the U.S. government fined them $25 million. The company immediately saw the error of their ways.
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Over 63 percent of the world's oil is produced by 10 lucky countries, which helps explain why oil tycoons tend to clock in somewhere between drug dealers and Donald Trump on the spectrum of tackiest per capita displays of wealth. The top 10 countries are a mixture of famously oil-rich Middle Eastern nations (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait), countries that possess lots of land and the technology to drill it (Canada, the U.S., and Russia), and countries that clearly landed on this list by way of clerical error, like Nigeria.
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A nation that we just now learned exists outside of our inbox.
Shockingly, that's not a mistake. The capital of petty email fraud is extremely rich in oil. But before you start responding to those wealthy Nigerian princes stowed away in the "Look into?" email folder, it turns out very little of that money ever found its way to the people of Nigeria. During the oil discovery process, somewhere between the part where "a bubbling crude" comes up through the ground and the part where the narrator helpfully clarifies "Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea," the people of Nigeria turned around to find the Royal Dutch Shell Company balls deep in their oil deposits. They started pumping oil out of the country in the 1930s and haven't stopped since. For most of the century, the people of Nigeria were pretty good sports about the whole thing, but sometime in the 1990s they turned into major nags. Suddenly, everyone was all "Stop bulldozing our villages to install pipelines" and "The constant oil spills are killing our fish and vegetation."
Pius Utomi Ekpei / Getty
"I'm not sure, but it seems like there was less poison everywhere when I was a kid."
Everyone, including Shell, seemed to acknowledge that they weren't exactly helping the local ecosystem, but pretty soon the Nigerian accusations had escalated to human rights abuses with a dash of crazy conspiracy theory. For instance, when the military tortured and executed nine environmental activists in 1995, they claimed that it was Shell pulling strings. The things Shell got accused of doing in Nigeria were so aggressively evil, and would have required them to be secretly in control of so many decisions in the country, that it became hard to take their accusers seriously.
Like any bitter divorce, there was an emotionally and judicially unsatisfying out-of-court cash settlement between Shell and the families of the slain protesters in 2009. Shell claimed that it was worth more than $15 million to not be associated with such heinous accusations, and that seemed to be where it would end.
Bebeto Matthews / AP
"Our punishing mustache-twirling schedule doesn't leave time for that sort of hands-on evil."
That's when the terrifying truth started to leak and then WikiLeak out for everyone to see. First, in 2009, internal memos surfaced that would have been used in the trial that Shell had paid $15 million not to have, which seemed to indicate that they had, in fact, paid the military to use force on the protesters, and just generally behave in a way that would make even the most paranoid crazy person drop the shit they were about to fling at the wall, and say, "Wait, really?"
The WikiLeaks documents that came torrenting onto the Web in 2010 contained more bad news for Shell, and also for people who value subtlety in their evil corporations. In one correspondence, Shell's head of Nigerian operations bragged to the U.S. government that the company had infiltrated pretty much every relevant ministry of Nigeria's government and was secretly calling the (occasionally very literal) shots from behind the scenes, just like the crazy accusations claimed.
Council on Foreign Relations
"I hear these guys sell pretty good taquitos over in the U.S."
Like a movie villain outlining her evil plan for global domination, she bragged that Shell "knew 'everything that was being done in those ministries'" and "boasted that the Nigerian government had 'forgotten' about the extent of Shell's infiltration and was unaware of how much the company knew about its deliberations," before lifting one of the Nigerians she'd turned into tiny shrimp and popping it into her mouth.
In better news for Shell, the documents were so damning that legal scholars think they must have access to some manner of wish-granting genie to have convinced the prosecution to settle for $15 million. And those come in handy when you're a Fortune 500 company that's about to get your balls sued clean out from under you.