Blow and Nocera

Ms. Collins is off today.  In “Justice for Trayvon” Mr. Blow says when a Florida family simply asked that the case involving the shooting death of an unarmed teenager be tried in a court of law, America responded.  Mr. Nocera has an idea for “How to Prevent Oil Spills.”  He says two years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s clear that fines are meaningless. Only the threat of prison time can change behavior.  With all due respect, Joe, pigs will fly before that happens.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

America has heard the calls for justice from a Florida family.

A boy’s blood had been spilled on a rain-soaked patch of grass behind a row of mustard-colored condominiums by a man who had pursued him against the advice of 911 dispatchers. That man carried a 9-millimeter handgun. The boy carried a bag of candy.

Yet it seems, largely on the weight of his own word, the man who killed the boy was allowed to walk out of the police station that night without even a charge.

The boy’s body was taken to the medical examiner’s office and kept in a morgue. The man who killed him was able to return home.

The dead boy was Trayvon Martin. The man who killed him was George Zimmerman. The bullet that passed between them silenced a child but ignited a nation.

Americans saw the anguish of the boy’s father and the tears of his mother. America saw a child who was its own. America saw its concept of basic fairness sinking in to the marsh of miscarried justice.

So America rose up. Thousands marched in the streets. Millions signed petitions online. Hearts poured out for justice to rain down.

With the force of public pressure at its back, the system kicked into gear. A state attorney in the Florida county where the shooting death occurred recused himself, and the local police chief stepped down — at least “temporarily.” The governor appointed a special prosecutor, Angela Corey, to lead the state’s investigation in the case, and the United States Department of Justice’s civil rights division and the F.B.I. opened their own investigations.

On Wednesday, Corey charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder and he was taken into custody. On Thursday, Zimmerman appeared in a Florida courtroom, and Corey released a simple but chilling affidavit for probable cause that painted a disturbing portrait of Zimmerman as a man who “profiled,” “followed” and “confronted” the boy.

This is a moment when America should be proud. The wheels of justice are finally turning. The State of Florida has taken up the cause of the dead boy. His life is no more, but his legacy will live forever.

The state will vigorously prosecute, and Zimmerman will be vigorously defended as is his constitutional right.

The facts should come out in court and under oath and not just over airwaves and in newspapers. Truth will be sought and, hopefully, found. And whatever the verdict, it will be based on the presentation of evidence and the interpretation of the law, as it should be.

That is not to say that the quest for justice in this case has been without incident.

Some have sought to demagogue the boy’s death and shroud his lifeless body in partisan politics. Some have pressed their passion for justice beyond the bounds of what is proper. Some have sought to besmirch the boy’s life to minimize the resonance of his death.

But, in the end, all of this was just a diversion from the central issue, a noble good, a moral right: the quest for truth and justice for a child by the people who loved him and a nation who refused to forget him.

None but those who themselves have lost a child can ever know his parents’ pain, but we can all sympathize with their sorrow.

America doesn’t always get it right, but she is in her greatest glory when she turns her face toward righteousness. She is not perfect, but men and women of good will and good conscience toil endlessly to make her better.

And, in this case, America seems to be finally getting it right because equal justice under the law is one of her greatest ideals.

By the way, it is important to remember here that no one should take joy in any dark days that may come Zimmerman’s way, even as we take great joy in seeking justice for the child he killed. Crusading for justice is an act of love and honor, not of vengeance or spite or hatred. Justice is a high calling, not a low pursuit.

And, because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law and Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, there is a possibility that the case may never go to trial or, even if it does, there will be no conviction. But whatever the outcome, satisfaction must be taken in the fact that the system recognized the value of Trayvon’s life and the tragic circumstances of his death.

As his mother said after the charge was announced: “We simply wanted an arrest. We wanted nothing more, nothing less. We just wanted an arrest. And we got it. And I just want to say, ‘Thank you. Thank you, Lord. Thank You, Jesus.’ ”

Now here’s Mr. Nocera:

BP held its annual meeting on Thursday, and, all things considered, the company’s shareholders had much to be happy about. Yes, a small percentage voted against the $6.8 million pay package that the board awarded Bob Dudley, the chief executive. And there were plenty of protesters in attendance, including angry Gulf Coast residents and climate change activists.

Mainly, though, BP shareholders had to be pleased with the progress the company has made since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Two years after the spill that cost 11 lives and saw millions of gallons of crude poured into the Gulf of Mexico, the company unveiled 2011 net profits of close to $24 billion. And that’s after spending some $22 billion settling claims and paying cleanup costs. “We are fully back to work in the Gulf of Mexico,” Dudley announced.

To be sure, there are still some lawsuits to resolve, brought by several gulf states as well as the federal government. And there is also a criminal investigation, which a Justice Department representative told me was “very much ongoing.”

But not to worry. In addition to the $22 billion it has already spent, BP has another $15.2 billion set aside to cover future fines and payments. No government settlement will come close to that amount. As for the criminal investigation, it will likely result in a deal in which BP agrees to plead guilty — and pays yet more fines — while no actual human being goes to jail. Money solves everything, doesn’t it?

It always has before. As Abrahm Lustgarten brilliantly recounts in his new book, “Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster,” time after time over the past 15 years, BP put profits over safety and created dangerous conditions for its workers, which resulted in serious industrial accidents that brought criminal investigations. Every time, BP wiggled out of trouble by paying money and promising to do better — and then went right back to its recidivist ways. The implicit message of Lustgarten’s book, which recounts this history in infuriating detail, is that for a multinational like BP, fines and settlements are meaningless punishments. Even a criminal conviction has very little meaning for a faceless corporation. After all, you can’t throw a company in prison.

Take, for instance, the worst of the accidents preceding the Deepwater Horizon explosion. It took place in 2005, at a BP-owned refinery in Texas City, when an explosion killed 15 workers. Lustgarten’s reporting for ProPublica makes it abundantly clear that the problems at the refinery were well known. Necessary maintenance was deferred. Warnings signs were ignored. Managers would plead for money to improve the safety of the plant only to have their budgets savagely cut. Top management in London turned a blind eye to reports recounting problems.

Then, when the inevitable occurred, BP at first blamed it on “operator error.” John Browne, who was then its chief executive — and the man most responsible for creating BP’s culture of putting profits over safety — insisted that the accident, like all the other BP accidents, was just a matter of being unlucky. Lots of people knew better, including a handful of federal investigators who had been tracking the company for years.

Yet, in the end, BP wound up paying $2.1 billion — most of it to compensate victims — and agreed to a felony conviction. These punishments did nothing to change the company. Barely a year later, a BP-owned pipeline in Alaska ruptured, causing a serious oil spill. After that one, BP agreed to plead to a misdemeanor and paid a fine. Lustgarten found government documents suggesting that a number of BP executives were investigated by prosecutors. But nothing ever came of those investigations.

I have argued in the past, mainly in the context of the financial crisis, that the country has been poorly served by the Justice Department’s unwillingness to hold to account big shots like Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, whose companies’ illegal practices helped lead us to the brink of financial apocalypse. It has sent a terrible message that there are two kinds of justice: one for the rich and powerful, and another for everybody else.

But there is another reason corporate executives need to be prosecuted when corporate crimes take place. It sends a signal to every other executive about what is — and is not — acceptable behavior. The threat of prison can change a culture faster and more effectively than even the heftiest fine. If, after the Texas City explosion, one BP executive or more had been prosecuted, it seems to me quite likely that the Deepwater Horizon accident would never have happened. A prison sentence would have done the thing that all those fines never did: force the company to begin paying attention to safety.

Prison is what makes the difference. Otherwise, it’s only money.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: