Last Friday, it was announced that the company responsible for the chemical spill in West Virginia, Freedom Industries Inc., had filed for bankruptcy protection and is in the process of selling its assets to a newly created corporation headed by (you guessed it) the former CEO of Freedom Industries. What better way for a group of uncaring, money-grubbing individuals to maintain their incomes while avoiding the consequences of their actions? Or should it be inactions? After all, the chemical tank that leaked hadn’t been inspected in decades.
Not surprisingly, the company claims that the leak is not its fault. It claims that “an unidentified object pierced the affected tank” allowing the toxic, but largely unregulated chemical to flow into the river just upstream from the City of Charlotte’s water supply; a chemical that, if ingested, causes severe diahhrea and vomiting; a chemical that, in the words of West Virginia officials, is only good for “flushing.”
By filing for bankruptcy, the company owners are hoping to protect their assets while avoiding any lawsuits from those affected by the spill and fines from the Environmental Protection Agency. To be held accountable, courts will have to find that the former owners of Freedom Industries were guilty of negligence or malfeasance (difficult charges to prove). If not, the company owners will be able to go right back to doing what they were doing…soaking up large sums of money and sticking the public with any clean-up costs.
And that’s not all.
In its bankruptcy filing, Freedom Industries admits that it owes the IRS $2.4 million in back taxes. One assumes that sum is in jeopardy if the bankruptcy court allows the owners to abscond with the company assets while avoiding any and all liabilities. If nothing else, the corporation will likely be able to diminish its tax liabilities through a variety of tax write-offs. And don’t think for a moment that this situation is unique. This has become a common strategy for corporations facing lawsuits for irresponsible activities. Indeed, the advantage of incorporating a business is to create a “corporate veil” that the owners can hide behind if and when things go bad. The belief is that, without the corporate veil, no one would take the risk of starting a business…a belief that I don’t share.
It’s this very protection that belies the conservative fantasy that corporations are people. Yes, they are owned by people and they are run by people. But articles of incorporation give owners an opportunity to simply walk away from problems when they outweigh profits. Individuals and sole proprietorships have no such protections. And, as the result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, owners and managers of corporations now have more influence than ever before. They can contribute to political campaigns both as individuals and as corporate officers. Given this disproportionate influence, we are likely to see many more corporations like Freedom Industries.
That’s unlikely to generate any complaints from conservatives.
Conservative idealogues may insist on personal responsibility for individuals…especially those who ar impoverished. But they have no such demands for corporations. After all, they view corporations as “job creators” and they despise government agencies responsible for regulating corporations. Moreover, most corporate political contributions will benefit conservative candidates. Conservatives wouldn’t want to give up those.