The 5 Shadiest Crimes Ever Pulled Off by Famous Corporations
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.
An NFL Team Is Smuggled Across State Borders Like a Shipment of Cocaine
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."
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.
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.
Chiquita -- Funding Terrorism
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.
"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.
Shell Oil Owns Nigeria
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.
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."
"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.
"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.
"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.
American Express Acts as Benefactor to an Ocean's Eleven-Style Heist That Nearly Topples the Stock Market
As we've seen throughout this article, big business often operates on logic that's closer to street justice than the kind practiced in the courtroom. For instance, vouching for the wrong guy can't get you put in jail, but it often comes with a death penalty on the streets and in the boardroom.
"If this deal falls through, you'll be leveraging your synergy through a straw."
Criminals can't look up the credit rating of a potential drug mule or the success rate of a prospective getaway driver. So when it comes to evaluating the quantity and quality of a shit that a potential partner is worth, they have to rely on the complex math of street cred. (Who vouches for you? Who vouches for the guy vouching for you? Wait, didn't they hear that YOU TURNED SISSY IN THE JOINT? Ha, the sissy thing was a test, and you passed. Now you just have to kill a guy and you've got a street credit rating of 740, which is pretty good.) It may not be a perfect science, but the point is, criminals know better than to just assume someone is trustworthy because they say they are.
There are of course more official, less convoluted ways to determine a company's Wall Street cred in the world of business, but the cost of backing the wrong guy can be just as deadly. Therefore, you'd think that the background checks run by major corporations would be at least as thorough as the ones used by mobsters. Especially credit card companies, who have the "cred" part right there in their job description. Unfortunately for anyone holding American Express stock in the 1960s, the process for evaluating potential American Express partners had very little in common with the brutally judicious mafia bosses in the Godfather and had more of a Nanny from Muppet Babies vibe, happy to absently mutter "You kids be good now" before leaving the room for an irresponsible period of time.
"Don't drink any of the candy I keep under the sink."
This became a problem when a salad oil importer that American Express had been vouching for fooled them and the entire financial world with the oldest, most insultingly stupid trick in the petty criminal playbook. If you've ever watched a movie in which a drug transaction takes place, or paid $75 for an eighth of oregano, you're familiar with the trick. The reason drug dealers in movies always taste the bag of white powder is because they want to be sure the drug mule hasn't swapped it with baking soda. The drug mule will usually say something like "C'mon, Rico! What am I, an idiot? You think I'd scam you?" But Rico always, always tests the product, because the only thing deader than a drug mule trying to sell baking soda to a drug dealer is the drug dealer who actually manages to fall for that shit.
Dissolve fade back to the offices of American Express in the early '60s. A guy with a suspicious background selling mystery meat to the school lunch program with the suspiciously Italian name of Anthony "Tino" De Angelis is making the suspicious claim that he controls most of the nation's supply of vegetable oil and offering a suspiciously good deal to American Express if they vouch for him and let him keep his shit at their house. Background checks on his importing company reveal a credit rating of "punk-ass bitch who needs to get got." In the criminal underworld, this would be a clear cut verdict of "ass kicking for having wasted your time."
"Our preliminary research indicates a face only a shiv could love."
Instead, American Express spent the next couple of years vouching for De Angelis to anyone who would listen. When this happens in the movies, it's usually because the voucher and vouchee come from the same neighborhood (Rounders) or the same ball sack (The Godfather) or did time together (Reservoir Dogs, Heat). It's unclear why American Express vouched for De Angelis. Maybe they just realized that if he wasn't a scumbag, they'd be way richer, and if he was a scumbag ... hey, let's start talking about the one where we get rich again. And so, American Express spent the next couple of years insisting that De Angelis was a real stand-up guy, and everyone assumed they knew what they were talking about and lent him money for the insane amounts of 100 percent pure, uncut salad oil he claimed to be storing in American Express-owned warehouses.
Even after they realized that De Angelis was storing more salad oil in their warehouse than existed in the entire rest of the country, and even when they heard rumors that De Angelis had installed pipes under the enormous tanks in their warehouse, they never strayed from their official judgment: The guy's a good shit.
"Or a dumbshit. Or a piece of shit. The point is, he's some type of shit."
Imagine that movie drug transaction, only when the guy tells Rico, "You can trust me," Rico was like "Oh, well in that case, I'll buy all of it, and sell it to the least fucking-around drug dealers I know for the price of 100 percent pure cocaine." And then before they've had a chance to hear back from any of the drug dealers, Rico realizes that they've sold more cocaine than technically exists in the world, and he starts to hear rumors that there are giant piles of powdered sugar and baking soda boxes scattered around his drug mule's car. Well, you can probably guess how many creative ways Rico would be murdered by the end of the movie. Unless you were working for American Express in the early 1960s, in which case you're waiting to find out what Rico spent all of his well-earned money on.
It turned out De Angelis was the worst kind of shit. The only difference between the hypothetical scenario that fooled Rico and the salad oil swindle is that De Angelis had realized that he could take the worthless decoy in the drug switcheroo, a grocery item, and turn it into $200 million. He just needed a gullible partner and something even more worthless than groceries. For the decoy, he settled on the most abundant and worthless liquid on the planet: seawater. The warehouse that was supposed to be full of most of the salad oil in America was actually mostly full of seawater. There was a little salad oil on the top, which fooled inspectors (oil rises, and people generally only check the surface of shipments when they're being imported by companies that American Express says are good for it). Once the oil was in the warehouse, they piped oil and seawater back and forth between containers, which worked as long as American Express only looked in the tanks De Angelis said to look in when he said to look in them. Which must have been exactly what they did, since they never discovered the scheme.
"This is food, not underpants. Why waste time with thorough inspections?"
When salad oil began to plummet on the market and customers came to them for the salad oil they'd paid too much money for, the scheme was discovered, De Angelis disappeared with hundreds of millions of dollars, and American Express was on the hook for more money than they actually had at the time.
In fact, the only reason American Express is still a company today and not just a cautionary tale is because Warren Buffett decided that they'd learned their lesson and saved them from bankruptcy, although it's impossible to guess how many people he made them kill to prove they were good for it.
Coal Companies -- Bringing Full-Scale War and the U.S. Army Against Unions
The United States is what's known as a mixed economy, meaning the private sector (rich people and corporations) share control of the economy with the public sector (government programs and laborers), and it's estimated that over 90 percent of the country's most boring arguments are over which of those sides has too much influence. But the U.S. didn't arrive at its blend of regulation and mostly no regulation without a fight.
And not one of those boring, Congress-y word fights either.
When it suddenly emerged as the world's largest economy in the late 19th century, the U.S. was a mess of strikes, union busting, unsafe workplaces, and "company towns." Certain modern towns get called "company towns" because a bunch of the people there all work for the same company -- Atlanta and Coca-Cola, Orlando and Disney, Los Angeles and the gay propaganda machine that makes all of your movies and TV shows. The company towns in coal country were sort of like that, except there was literally only one company in town, and they owned your house, the school your kids went to, and the private detectives that threw your wife and kids out into the rain when you asked for reasonable wages. Of course, that didn't always happen. It wasn't always raining.
In 1912, the United Mine Workers of America were working on unionizing the coal mines in West Virginia, and it wasn't going well. That year, the coal miners of Paint and Cabin Creeks held themselves a strike. When unionizing miners were thrown out of their company-owned towns with their families, they set up tent towns on the outskirts. That's when the companies declared martial law, driving armored trains through the tent towns and machine gunning the men, women, and children staying there. In that one strike alone, 50 people were murdered, more starved to death, and everyone agreed that they probably shouldn't set up tents on the part of the outskirts with the machine gun train tracks running through the middle of it. And yet, through sheer tyranny of will, the miners in Paint and Cabin Creeks were able to unionize. In fact, all but a few of the company towns around the Blair Mountain mine were unionized by the time the 1920s roared in. If you're even a little bit good at pattern recognition, you can probably guess how the Blair Mountain coal bosses felt about unions. Hint: They had outlasted the coal bosses who machine-gun trained the coal miner pillow forts. But in 1921, the unions decided it was time to take on the real Final Boss.
"Wait till their heads glow, then shoot!"
The famed union activist and total killjoy Mother Jones led over 10,000 unionized miners down to Blair Mountain, where they faced down 2,000 sheriffs, state police, and company security representing the companies operating the mines. In case you're still picturing modern labor strikes with picket-sign-wielding, rock-throwing workers facing off against a billy-clubbing riot squad, this conflict was much closer to what the modern world calls "all-out war."
First of all, since this was 1920s rural West Virginia, everyone was armed.
So not all that different from West Virginia today.
There were a few days of intermittent shooting before the two sides turned the back roads of West Virginia into the Spanish Civil War. The companies managed to keep it at a controlled simmer while they were outnumbered and waited on word from the president about reinforcements.
No, not the company president. U.S. President Warren G. Harding had a rooting interest in the coal bosses maintaining their stranglehold over their towns, since the country was still largely running on coal, and also because, hard as it might be for modern readers to imagine, politics at the time was heavily influenced by the interests of wealthy white guys. Once Harding let the companies know the Army was on its way, the coal bosses knew they had the miners right where they wanted them.
What happened next was like a mini-Gettysburg. The miners and company fought for days, with the miners doing their best to take advantage of their numbers, and the company doing their best to out-Snidely Whiplash the little guys. They had better weapons and more ammunition, and at one point, they even wrangled up a bunch of planes that had been used in World War I and bombed and gassed the miners. The U.S. Air Force supplied more modern bombers, who flew in from Maryland and took aerial photos of the miners' positions, making it one of the only times air power was used on U.S. citizens.
Like 1920s Google Maps, if Google was openly trying to kill you.
Despite their many disadvantages, the miners actually managed to get into the counties they wanted to unionize. However, they had to relent when the Army arrived with enough ground troops to paint the town with anyone the coal bosses pointed at. The miners retreated, hiding their guns and ammo on the way in case the battle sparked up again.
"You two for treason and you two for dressing like newsies."
When the battle ended, 100 people were dead and over 1 million bullets had been fired. To this day, you can still find weapons and ammunition where the fleeing miners hid it inside old trees and crevices between rocks.
The government tried to keep it quiet that they'd supplied bombers, the military, and flat-out war against people who only wanted what the rest of the United States had. But the miners would ultimately be vindicated in the 1930s when the horrific working conditions in Appalachian coal mines were exposed. Fourteen years later, all of West Virginia was unionized, and American corporations never abused their power ever again.
When not finding ways businesses have screwed people over, Evan V. Symon is a workshop moderator and can be found on Facebook.
For more companies to boycott, check out 6 Companies That Are Clearly Catering to Supervillains and 6 Companies That Rigged the Game (And Changed the World).
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn why you should just go ahead and live off the grid.
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