Dirt Diggers Digest Guide to Strategic Corporate Research
By Philip Mattera
Director of the Corporate Research Project and Publisher of the Dirt Diggers Digest
Companies also have relationships with their employees and with the communities in which they do business. The way they conduct these relationships is known as the company’s accountability (or social responsibility) record. All too many companies behave in an irresponsible manner—breaking the law, violating regulations, mistreating workers, despoiling the environment and manipulating public policy through lobbying and campaign contributions. Investigating these issues is an essential part of any thorough corporate research project.
The corporate accountability movement has grown in size and sophistication over the past few decades. One of the outcomes of this is that various organizations provide useful summaries of the track record of large companies. Among these are the following:
- The Corporate Research Project provides dossiers on the misconduct track record of many large companies in our Corporate Rap Sheets collection.The Project's Violation Tracker has data on the regulatory records of more than 2,400 parent companies and thousands of smaller ones as well.
- The Global Corporations portal on the Source Watch website has critical entries on numerous companies.
- The website Transnationale compiles critical information on some 13,000 companies around the world; access to detailed data requires a subscription.
- The Dutch organization SOMO has dossiers on numerous multinational corporations.
- The website of UK-based Corporate Watch has a collection of corporate profiles.The group also publishes Investigating Companies: A Do-It-Yourself Handbook.
- Another UK group, the Ethical Consumer Research Association, has a pay service called Corporate Critic with data on more than 25,000 companies, including ratings from the group's Ethiscore rating system.
- George Draffan's Endgame Research website has a collection of company profiles focused on forest products and other extractive industries.
- SocialFunds.com has a section called the Corporate Research Center that provides links to social responsibility information on hundreds of companies.
- The GoodGuide has ratings of consumer products and the companies that produce them.
- Co-Op America has a site called Responsible Shopper that rates about 350 consumer products companies according to workplace, environmental and disclosure issues.
- A comprehensive database of social responsibility profiles called SOCRATES, formerly produced by KLD Research & Analytics, is now known as MSCI ESG Manager (the ESG refers to environment, social & governance) and is available through some university library systems. See also the EIRIS service and Thomson Reuters' ESG Research Data.
- CorporateRegister.com is a subscription service providing access to social responsibility reports from a variety of sources.
- The Business & Human Rights website does not have profiles, but it contains a valuable collection of links to articles, reports and other documents about thousands of corporations. It has a section with summaries of more than 100 human rights and other lawsuits brought against major corporations.
For current news about corporate misdeeds, the best (but expensive) source is the weekly Corporate Crime Reporter. Multinational Monitor is no longer published, but its free online archive is still available. My Dirt Diggers Digest blog is published weekly.
Another source of information on the business practices of companies, including very small ones, is the Better Business Bureau, which has been collecting consumer complaints since 1912. The Bureau has a website that contains a search engine through which you can research the reputation of business establishments (at least as measured by the number of customer complaints) throughout the country.
Less critical but often useful analyses of companies can be found in business school case studies. Such materials from the faculty of the Harvard Business School and other institutions can be purchased here. See also the UK-based Case Centre and CasePlace, which has some cases studies on the social and environmental impact of companies.
Another source of critical (though not always accurate) information on companies are websites that have been created by people who have a grievance against the firm, who disagree with its policies, or who just don’t like it. See, for example, I Hate Starbucks. It has also become common for unions or environmental groups that are engaged in a corporate campaign against a company to create such a site or a Facebook page. Use Google and social media to find such material on your target company.
SEC Form SD is the document publicly traded companies must file to comply with the Dodd-Frank Act rule regarding disclosure of the sourcing of materials from conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or adjoining countries. The filings are available through the SEC's EDGAR system.
Investigating a company’s involvement in litigation is useful for two reasons. First, it says something about a firm’s way of operating if it frequently ends up as a defendant in lawsuits over matters such as race and sex discrimination, defective products and antitrust violations – not to mention outright fraud. Second, in the course of legal proceedings, companies will often be required to divulge information that might otherwise never make it into the public domain. The latter is also true in court proceedings -- especially divorces -- involving a top executive or owner of your target company.
The place to begin, if you are dealing with a public company, is the 10-K filing (see above), which contains a section called Legal Proceedings. Companies are supposed to use this section to describe any legal matters that could have a material impact on the firm’s finances. Some companies choose to interpret this narrowly and say little or nothing about litigation; other firms may provide a long narrative of legal issues. The 10-K is just a starting point, so you need to know how to do an independent litigation search. There are several types of court information that you can access:
These are lists of pending and recently closed cases that contain basic information about the nature of the case, the parties involved and a chronology of events (motions, rulings, etc.) in the case. At one time, the only way to search dockets was to go to the courthouse where the case was filed. Today nearly all federal courts and a growing number of state courts have put their dockets online.
The website Justia provides free basic searches of federal dockets going back to 2004. More detailed dockets of federal district, appellate and bankruptcy courts can be accessed through a fee-based system called PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), which is run by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. In order to use the system you must open an account and pay a modest fee based on usage. In addition to providing access to individual courts, PACER provides access to a Case Locator, which allows you to search all federal court dockets at once for cases in which a specific company or individual is a party.
Courtlink, a commercial service owned by Lexis-Nexis, provides a more convenient and speedier system for accessing PACER information, though at a substantially higher price.
The U.S. Tax Court, which hears cases brought by companies and individuals challenging IRS notices of deficiency, puts its docket online. Tax Court cases are important to check, because they may require a company to put its tax return into the public record for a period of time.
State courts have been somewhat slower in putting their dockets online, but they are starting to catch up. For a list of which courts are available electronically, check LLRX.com. Courtlink also provides access to some state court dockets.
Once your docket search has turned up an interesting case, the way to find out more about the matter is to look at the actual documents that have been filed by the parties. These would include things such as the original complaint (in a civil matter) or indictment (in a criminal matter), briefs, motions, depositions and transcripts of court proceedings. In the past , these documents were available only in hard-copy form at the clerk’s office of the court in which the case was filed. The federal courts, however, developed an extension of PACER that allows subscribers to view images of court filings on their home or office computer.
Verdicts, Judgments and Liens
There are a variety of reporting services around the country that collect information about significant verdicts in civil cases. There are also some that collect nationwide data. For example, there is a pay site called VerdictSearch. A number of these collections are available via Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw.
Financial judgments in civil matters become a matter of public record as do liens on property and federal and state tax liens. You can search these records at the county courthouse in the jurisdiction where the action occurred. If you want to do a wider search, use services such as KnowX or the liens collections or Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw.
Lawyers and legal researchers review written opinions via expensive services such as Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw. Both allow you to search for cases in which a particular company was a party and to display the full text of the opinions. At the federal level, more and more courts are putting their opinions on the web. See the websites of individual courts; for a list of links, see the Federal Judiciary site.
To find out which law firms are used by the largest companies in the United States, see the annual list called Who Defends Corporate America published by the National Law Journal. The list can be accessed by subscribers online.
Violation Tracker provides access to data on a wide range of cases from 43 federal regulatory agencies, cases referred by those agencies to the Justice Deparment and cases initiated by DOJ. Additional agencies will be added in the future.
The Securities and Exchange Commission
The SEC, which regulates publicly traded companies as well as entities and individuals involved in the securities industry, is often criticized for failing to prevent or even fraudulent activity, but it does engage in enforcement. The agency’s website contains an archive of Litigation Releases dating back to September 1995; Lexis-Nexis has an archive that goes back decades. The SEC site also has information about administrative proceedings of its Division on Enforcement. Also check out the Securities Class Action Clearinghouse for information on fraud lawsuits brought on behalf of investors against public companies.
Federal Trade Commission
The FTC enforces a variety of consumer protection laws and shares enforcement of the antitrust laws with the Department of Justice. The Commission’s website contains an archive of actions it has taken since 1996 (and a few earlier cases). The trade library on Lexis-Nexis has an archive of consent decrees that companies have signed with the FTC since 1980. It also has an archive of Justice Department final judgments during that same period.
Federal product regulators
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has an archive of product recalls and other commission actions as well as a website called Safer Products that contains complaints and hazard warnings submitted by consumers. The Food and Drug Administration has an archive of safety alerts and product recalls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has an archive of motor vehicle recalls, investigations and complaints. There is also a federal site called Recalls.gov that has data from various agencies in one place.
Also see Violation Tracker mentioned above.
General Services Administration
The GSA, which oversees federal purchasing, maintains a list of those individuals and companies that have been barred from doing business with the federal government for violations of various kinds; it is called the Excluded Parties List System and is now part of the System for Award Management, which also contains the central registry of contractors.
See also the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, which is assembled by the Project On Government Oversight. The Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), which was supposed to be a public version of the POGO database, has been available to the public since 2012 but turned out to be a disappointment.
Other federal regulatory agencies
For a list of links to enforcement, inspection, product recall and debarment data from a wide range of federal regulatory agencies, see the Enforcement page of the Dirt Diggers Digest. Much of this data is collected in the Violation Tracker cited above.
See below for information relating to the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Election Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Public company 10-K filings (see above) contain a section indicating the number of employees and (sometimes) the portion of the workforce covered by collective bargaining agreements. Companies that deal with unions to a significant extent may also name the unions, indicate how many employees are members and give a description of the general state of labor relations. In almost all cases, the company will say that those relations are good.
On the other hand, there is substantial evidence that this country’s low level of unionization is in large part a result of anti-union animus on the part of many employers. A key way to document a company’s labor relations record is to look at the unfair labor practice (ULP) charges that have been filed against it by unions or individual workers.
The website of the National Labor Relations Board has an archive of the agency’s written decisions going back to the 1930s. To do a comprehensive search of ULPs that may have been filed against a company, as well as other aspects of a firm’s labor practices, the best source was the Labor Database CD-ROM compiled by the Food and Allied Service Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. Among its contents were:
- an index of all ULPs since 1990;
- data on NLRB elections since 1990;
- data on collective bargaining agreements filed with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service since 1990;
- compliance data since 1996 relating to the Fair Labor Standards Act (overtime, minimum wage and child labor violations), Davis-Bacon and Service Contract Act (prevailing wage violations); the Family Medical Leave Act and other employment laws; and
- Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cases since 1989.
Unfortunately, FAST no longer exists, and no other organization has stepped in to make those databases readily available. Bloomberg BNA provides subscription-based access to much of the information. For example, its BNA Labor Plus service contains data on NLRB elections, unfair labor practices, collective bargaining agreements, contract settlements and work stoppages.
Pieces of the data are available from various non-commercial sources. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards has an online archive of collective bargaining agreements covering 1,000 or more workers. Click here to see an index by employer name. The AFL-CIO has an internal database called Unicore that contains more extensive data showing which companies have relationships with which unions. Requests to access the database must usually come through an international union. The AFL-CIO’s Union Label and Service Trades Department has provides a public directory of union-made products and services. That site also has the current version of the AFL-CIO boycott list. Violation Tracker has data on back pay awards ordered by the NLRB to resolve unfair labor practice cases.
DOL's Enforcement Data site has information such as Wage & Hour Compliance Cases (since 2007) and Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program cases (since 2004). (Both of these datasets are also in Violation Tracker.) Decisions of DOL Administrative Law Judges on cases involving matters such as black lung claims, ERISA disputes and whistleblower cases can be found here. DOL also has a disclosure page with information on foreign labor certifications (including pay levels) given to companies that claim they have to import foreign workers to the United States to perform certain jobs.
The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) requires most employers with 100 or more workers to provide notification 60 calendar days in advance of plant closings and mass layoffs. WARN notices are posted online by some states; for example, the Pennsylvania archive is here. Unfortunately, there is no centralized database of notices or even an up-to-date list of links to the state sites. The Job Tracker site created by AFL-CIO affiliate Working America contained WARN data along with info such as labor law violations, but as of September 2014 it remains offline for an indefinite period.
Employee benefit plans
Hidden taxpayer costs
Social safety net programs originally designed to help the unemployed and those outside the labor force have been increasingly used by workers employed by companies providing low wages and limited benefits. Some states have identified which employers account for the largest number of workers and their dependents on programs such as Medicaid. Good Jobs First maintains a compilation of such disclosures. The National Employment Law Project has estimated total hidden taxpayer costs for fast food chains, using methodology developed by the UC Berkeley Labor Center and the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A report by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce provides estimates of such costs for a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Discrimination and diversity
One way to find EEOC cases is to search by company name in the archive of press releases on the Commission's website; it goes back to 1994. (Data is also in Violation Tracker.) Private employers above a certain size are required to file an EEO-1 form with the EEOC providing a breakdown of their workforce by race and gender. The EEOC does not make these forms public, but under pressure from advocacy organizations some large companies (such as Google) have voluntarily disclosed their EEO-1 forms via their websites.
Company-specific salary data
A website called Glassdoor has company-specific salary information posted anonymously by employees.
Labor relations news
The best news sources on U.S. labor relations are BNA's Daily Labor Report and Labor Relations Week. BNA is now owned by Bloomberg, which makes the archives of BNA publications available through the Bloomberg Government data service. Also see the online archive of the rank-and-file-oriented newsletter Labor Notes.
International labor relations
A good source of information on U.S.-based transnationals and other large corporations are the websites of the international union federations that bring together unions from various countries. The Global Unions website is a handy starting point for exploring these organizations and their resources. The major global federations are: IndustriALL (manufacturing, mining and energy), International Transport Workers' Federation, IUF (food, farm and hospitality) and UNI Global Union (services).
In recent years, more and more information has come to light about the dismal working conditions of third world factories that supply multinational corporations. Here are some sources for information about sweatshops:
- Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights
- Worker Rights Consortium
- United Students Against Sweatshops
- Labour Behind the Labels
- Asia Monitor Resource Centre
Health and safety conditions on the job have been a matter of public controversy since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Since the early 1970s in the United States, those conditions have been regulated by a federal agency, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. To carry out its mandate, OSHA is supposed to conduct periodic inspections of workplaces and cite employers for any violations that are found. The OSHA website has a database that contains the results of every inspection the agency has carried out. There is also a list of the companies that have received the largest penalties as well as a list of corporate-wide settlement agreements.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration’s Data Retrieval System contains accident and violation histories for specific mines as well as inspection dust sampling data.
Also see BNA's Occupational Safety and Health Daily and other BNA publications.
OSHA and MSHA data since 2010 is included in Violation Tracker.
One of the ways in which many companies fail to act in a socially responsible manner is by violating environmental regulations, which all too many corporate executives regard as an annoyance rather than a means of protecting public health. Environmental regulation in the United States is conducted both at the federal level – through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – and at the state level.
The EPA website is a source of a great deal of data on environmental matters. Start at the Envirofacts page, which allows you to search a variety of EPA databases at once for data on a particular geographic location. If you enter the zip code of a facility of your target company, Envirofacts will give you information such as the following:
- data on your target facility and others located in the same zip code that produce air pollution (from Aerometric Information Retrieval System)
- data on toxics (from the Toxics Release Inventory)
- data on hazardous waste (from the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act database and from the Superfund list of the worst hazardous waste sites)
- data on water quality (from the National Drinking Water Contaminant Occurrence Database and the Permit Compliance System).
Envirofacts also has a feature that maps much of this information. Good Guide has a useful site that combines data from the Envirofacts databases and other sources to give a comprehensive profile of the environmental condition of a given location. You can also access the EPA data through the Right-to-Know Network website.
In 2002 the EPA made a major advance in disclosure with the launch of a website containing enforcement data on hundreds of thousands of regulated facilities nationwide. The service, called Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO), contains information relating to Clean Air Act stationary sources, Clean Water Act facilities with direct discharge permits (under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System), and generators/handlers of hazardous waste regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. It also provides information on state enforcement data. For historical research, see the EPA Civil Enforcement Docket on Nexis, which covers the period from 1971 to 2000.
Data from ECHO, EPA civil settlements and the EPA criminal docket can be found on Violation Tracker, which also has environmental data from other federal agencies.
Data on greenhouse gas emissions by large facilities can be found on the EPA's FLIGHT database. See also the Greenhouse 100 and the Toxic 100 lists produced by the Political Economy Research Institute.
Corporations are barred from making direct contributions to federal candidates, but they do find other ways to greatly influence the political process. These include individual contributions by company executives and contributions through company Political Action Committees (PACs) as well as spending through Super PACs, 501(c)3 "dark money" entities and 527 groups.
Those contributions that are part of the public record are disclosed via reports issued by the Federal Election Commission. The FEC website has a database with lists of contributions and files with images of the original documents. Filings by 527 groups are posted by the Internal Revenue Service.
Several organizations have taken the FEC and IRS data and created websites with extensive analysis and better searching capabilities. The best of these is the Open Secrets site of the Center for Responsive Politics. It contains, for example, excellent analyses of contribution patterns by industries and interest groups. CQ MoneyLine has more extensive historical data, but you have to pay a subscription fee to access all of its features.
The Center for Political Accountability has successfully pressured dozens of large corporations to voluntarily disclose their political spending, including contributions to dark money groups. Maplight has a paid service that links corporate contributions to company positions on specific federal legislation.
State contribution data was slower to come on line, but the Institute on Money in State Politics has done a heroic job in gathering the information and putting it in a uniform searchable format on its Follow the Money site, which allows for searches by contributor or recipient in specific states or across the entire country. Note that some states allow direct campaign contributions by corporations. Maplight's paid service that links corporate contributions to company positions on legislation also has a state version for California.
Television stations are now required to disclose data on political advertising, including the names of the purchasers of air time and the amounts they paid. The information, which is not searchable, is contained in forms submitted to the Federal Communications Commission and posted here (you need to enter the station call ID and then look in the Political Files section).
For access to the personal financial disclosure forms filed by members of Congress and top federal officials, see the Open Secrets site.
Lobbying and Revolving Door
Federal lobbyists have to submit semi-annual reports to the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House identifying their clients and the amount of income they receive. Companies have to report their overall lobbying expenditures and the names of any lobbyists employed as part of an in-house lobbying effort. The Senate has put its filings online in a database that allows you to search by the name of the client. A good compilation of available data can be found on the Lobbying Database created by the Center for Responsive Politics. Lists of state lobbyists are usually posted on a state's secretary of state website.
For lists of which lobbyists represent a given company, you can also consult the print volumes Washington Representatives (which is published by Columbia Books) or a subscription website called Lobbyists.info. Another source is the Government Affairs Yellow Book, which is published by Leadership Directories and is also available along with other directories via a subscription website.
Many lobbyists are former elected officials and their aides. For a database of individuals who have passed through the revolving door, see the Open Secrets website.
For data on lobbyists representing foreign entities, see the Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Act disclosure page. See also the Foreign Influence Explorer produced by the Sunlight Foundation.
Public relations is essentially a process of lobbying the public, either directly or through the media. Large companies spend large amounts of money to build their image. Think, for example, of the ad campaigns that the likes of tobacco maker Philip Morris and Wal-Mart have conducted to publicize corporate disaster relief efforts.
Companies use both in-house personnel and outside public relations agencies to carry out these initiatives. The National Directory of Corporate Public Affairs, published by Columbia Books, is the best collection of information on corporate flacks. See also O’Dwyers Directory of Public Relations Firms, published by J.R. O’Dwyer & Co., which also provides data online. To keep up with trends in corporate propaganda, see the website PR Watch, which has profiles of industry front groups on its SourceWatch site. For information on which companies are sponsoring which events, see Sponsorship.com.
One of the more aggressive forms of p.r. is manipulation of scientific research. For information on industry ties to scientists and non-profits, see the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Integrity in Science database.
Charitable contributions are one of the ways that companies do public relations. Sometimes companies set up their own foundations to conduct this activity. For larger companies, check the website to see if there is a report on philanthropic activities. The Corporate Giving Directory has data on direct contributions by companies. The Foundation Center, whose website is the best online source of information on corporate and other foundations, publishes the National Directory of Corporate Giving. NOZA is a subscription database that assembles details of charitable contributions by individuals as well as companies. The Million Dollar List compiled by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis includes publicly awarded gifts of $1 million or more since 2000.
Private foundations, like other non-profits, must file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service (the private foundation version is called the 990-PF). These documents, which are public records, contain a great deal of information about the finances of the foundation and usually contain a list of the organizations that have received grants. Scanned images of 990s can be accessed on the web at Guidestar or the Foundation Center's 990 Finder site. CitizenAudit provides a full-text search tool covering all 990s.
Excessive pay for top corporate executives is a perennial problem in corporate America. Finding out how much CEOs and other top dogs in publicly traded companies earn is not difficult. The information – including stock option data – is spelled out down to the dollar in the company’s proxy statement (Form DEF 14A), which can be obtained online through the EDGAR system (see above). For access to comparative compensation information, there are subscription services such as Equilar and ExecuComp.
Corporate executives have come to expect that government will subsidize their operations in one way or another. The federal tax code and the tax policies of the states provide a myriad of subsidies for particular types of companies or business in general. Yet there are also programs that provide individual companies with special tax abatements/exemptions or direct grants, loans or loan guarantees. These benefits, often called corporate welfare, are usually justified in the name of economic growth or development.
The most comprehensive database of these subsidies is Subsidy Tracker, which I and my colleagues at Good Jobs First have compiled. Version 3.0, introduced in March 2015, added federal data for the first time, including 164,000 awards from 137 programs. Subsidy Tracker's federal data comes from portions of USA Spending as well as numerous other resources. It does not include farm subsidies, which are covered in a database created by the Environmental Working Group.
Cities and states offer subsidies to companies to induce them to move their headquarters or locate a factory or other facility in a given jurisdiction. Nearly all states provide online disclosure of which companies are receiving subsidies in one or more of their major programs. This disclosure often takes place via obscure reports and web pages.
Subsidy Tracker began to bring together information from state and local disclosure sites into one national search engine in 2010. Four years later, we released Tracker 2.0, which added parent-subsidiary linkages for much of the data. The site now has subsidy summary pages for more than 2,800 parent companies. The Good Jobs First website contains various other resources on subsidy disclosure.
One other national resource related to a form of state subsidies is EMMA (short for Electronic Municipal Market Access), a database produced by the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board. Its provides access to prospectuses known as Official Statements that are issued in connection with industrial development bonds (also known as industrial revenue bonds) issued by state and local governments to provide low-cost financing to certain companies.