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Special Weapons for Fighting Giants

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The last few years have seen a series of corporate catastrophes, for which the perpetrator companies have escaped any meaningful accountability. Big banks and giant Wall Street firms tricked and ripped off homeowners and investors, and crashed the national and global economy. BP's reckless operations poisoned the Gulf of Mexico in one of the worst oil disasters in history. Massey Energy's cost-cutting led to the Upper Big Branch coal mine collapse that killed 29 workers.

There have been virtually no criminal prosecutions for Wall Street wrongdoing related to the crash, and precious few civil actions. Criminal charges are likely to be filed against BP, but the company already has been granted new permits to drill for oil in the Gulf. Massey Energy-now owned by Alpha Natural Resources-was forced to pay $200 million in penalties but avoided any criminal prosecution.

This history notwithstanding, We the People, and our government representatives, do have the power to hold companies accountable for the wrongs they commit. The challenge is to mobilize sufficient political pressure to demand that available tools be used and new mechanisms of accountability be created.

One powerful way to hold companies accountable is through debarment-denying corporate wrongdoers the right to obtain government contracts. Almost every major company does significant business with the government, so debarment is a penalty with teeth. Similarly, federal, state, and local governments should deny other government benefits to corporate criminals and wrongdoers. Denying BP the right to drill in the Gulf is a penalty that would sting. Drug companies that can't sell to Medicare, Medicaid, and the Department of Veterans Affairs are deprived of more than a third of their market. The Federal Communications Commission has the authority to deny broadcast licenses to media corporations that do not exhibit "good character." Federal and state governments do frequently debar companies, but typically only smaller firms that engage in massive fraud or operate as criminal enterprises.