Thursday, April 27, 2006

GUILTY: The "McWane Way" May Land Managers In Jail

Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe Company, owned by the notorious McWane Inc., an Alabama-based conglomerate whose extensive record of safety and environmental violations was highlighted in a 2003 NY Times/Frontline series, along with four of its managers, were found guilty earlier this week of conspiring to evade workplace safety and environmental laws.
Yesterday's verdict marks the fifth time a McWane plant has been found guilty of federal crimes since The New York Times published a series of articles in 2003 about McWane's safety and environmental record.

In the four previous cases, McWane was ordered to pay a total of $19 million in fines and restitution, and several current or former managers were fined or sentenced to probation. The Atlantic States verdict is likely to bring many millions more in criminal fines; Atlantic States was found guilty on 32 of 34 counts. The four managers, all found guilty of multiple felony charges, face possible prison terms.
Prosecutors didn't have many nice things to say about the company
"Today's sweeping verdicts demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that McWane is one of the worst and most persistent violators of our nation's environmental and worker safety laws," David M. Uhlmann, chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section, said in an interview. The case represented the most serious confrontation yet between McWane and the Justice Department.

Prosecution witnesses, including several former foundry supervisors, depicted a brutal and dangerous workplace at Atlantic States, in Phillipsburg, N.J. They told of rigged smokestack tests, of polluted wastewater dumped under cover of night, of regulators stalled at the front gate while flagrant safety violations were hidden. Workers, they said, were blamed for accidents even when shoddy equipment or inadequate training was the real cause. Prosecutors called it "the McWane way."

"Welcome to Atlantic States, a division of McWane, where production is priority number one — everything else is incidental," Norv McAndrew, an assistant United States attorney.


Two incidents framed much of the trial testimony. The first concerned the foundry's response when environmental officials showed up one weekend day in 1999 to investigate the cause of an 8.5-mile oil slick on the Delaware River. The second focused on the actions of foundry managers after an employee was run over by a forklift and killed in 2000.

In both cases, prosecutors said, top foundry managers conspired to obstruct official investigations. "There was an implicit agreement between all of them," Mr. McAndrew said, "to work together for the common goal, and that goal was to deceive. That goal was to lie."
The managers that face jail time were convicted of a variety of crimes:
Besides the conspiracy charges, the four Atlantic States managers were convicted on other charges involving specific environmental and workplace crimes.

[John] Prisque, the plant manager, was convicted of making false statements to safety investigators after three separate workplace accidents, including the forklift fatality. In another, a worker had three fingers amputated in a cement mixer, and in another a worker lost an eye when a saw blade broke.

[Craig] Davidson, Jeffrey Maury, the maintenance supervisor, and Scott Faubert, the human resources manager, were all convicted of lying to either environmental or workplace safety investigators.
The New York Times article, written by David Barstow who is the Pulitzer Prize winning co-author of the oringal McWane series, points out that this is one of the first cases where the federal government is using stiffer environmental laws, on top of the much weaker Occupational Safety and Health Act to prosecute workplace wrongdoing. OSHA announced this program with little fanfare around a year ago.

Personally, while I think it's quite appropriate to to see prison sentences being used to punish workplace crimes instead of generally ineffectual financial penalties, you have to wonder if the managers are just evil, or whether they're acting under the direct (or implied) orders from above. In other words, what was it about the environment or "culture" in which they worked that encouraged them to cut corners, neglect safety standards and lie to government officials?

You can't help but feel sorry for the relatives:
Outside the courtroom after the verdicts were read, Jane Prisque, the elderly mother of defendant John Prisque, the plant manager, sobbed in the arms of Phyllis Davidson, the mother of defendant Craig Davidson, the finishing supervisor at the foundry.

"They don't deserve this. They were doing their jobs," Prisque said. "They took them out of the plant in chains. They're all good men. They didn't do nothing."

Craig Davidson's father, Stuart, stood nearby seething at prosecutors and jurors.

"I can't believe it. It's just pathetic what our government can do to us," he said. "They're just a bunch of tree huggers."
Well, not quite. And just "doing their jobs" sounds like a line out of Nuremburg. Nevertheless, if, as we hope, the idea of criminal prosecution catches on in this country, we need to do a lot more thinking about the issue of of "who should go to jail" -- particularly in big companies with many layers of management .

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