The following editorial appeared in the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa., on Thursday, October 8:
A federal judge recently sentenced Peanut Corporation of America CEO Stewart Parnell to 28 years for making and selling products he knew might be contaminated with salmonella.
Also this year, the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey is probing possible influence peddling involving former United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek, looking into whether Smisek restarted flights from Newark to South Carolina to accommodate a Port Authority heavyweight who could in turn arrange for lower gate rents for United at its Newark hub.
Now former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship faces a trial over charges he conspired to violate mining workplace safety rules, allegedly contributing to the deaths in 2010 of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.
What’s this, accountability at last?
For too long the answer to corporate wrongdoing, when it’s been uncovered, has been fines or penalties, but few consequences for those who should have — and often did — know better. In the banking sector alone, recall the wholesale speculating, mortgage-swapping and other virtually impenetrable financial maneuvering that led to and exacerbated the Great Recession. Yet even bankers who understood the financial risks but continued the practices faced no personal responsibility. Instead, after the 2008 crisis, taxpayers’ money helped rescue some of the banks that had problems. One of those bailed-out bankers, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, counted a $22 billion profit last year even while he railed against federal regulations designed to curb future risky behavior.
Parnell’s sentence and Blankenship’s trial indicate a welcome change toward finding individuals themselves, not just the institutions where they work, culpable for wrongdoing that harms real people. (There are no charges in the case of Smisek, who left with the usual golden parachute.)
No one should lose a home to foreclosure because bigwigs helped the economy tank. No one should be sickened or die from preventable salmonella poisoning. Airline passengers shouldn’t pay more for tickets just so an unsatisfactory CEO can retire with a $5 million cushion.
Instead of smiling all the way to the bank, let them cry on the way to jail, if that is warranted. The buck should, indeed, stop somewhere.