“We have your back,” Bank of America says in a new video about the coronavirus. “We’re in it together.”
But while Bank of America and other companies present a supportive face, some are working behind your back to make it harder to seek justice for corporate wrongdoing related to the coronavirus.
Corporate lobbyists — including former top aides to Sen. Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — have been quietly working to curtail the legal rights of Americans regarding coronavirus. Disclosure forms show that lobbyists for individual companies and the biggest corporate lobbyist in the country have been pursuing legislative and regulatory restrictions with Congress, the White House, and federal agencies.
Congress is expected to address these issues, one way or another, when the two chambers return to Washington. The Senate will begin a new session next week, but the House schedule remains unclear. The influence campaign, however, is well under way.
At stake are the rights of individuals to seek justice, or at least money, if they get coronavirus due to employer negligence; to sue banks for steering federal relief money to their existing customers; and to blow the whistle on companies that use relief money to enrich themselves.
At the moment, corporate America seems to be winning. McConnell said Monday that any new relief must shield business owners from legal liability for their actions. Pres. Trump has said he is planning to exempt companies from liability for their actions, to facilitate them reopening.
While McConnell has been the public face for this drive, corporate America has deployed an army of lobbyists, including McConnell’s former lieutenants, to make it happen. Leading that army is the nation’s most powerful corporate lobbyist, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Securities and Exchange Commission filings and other documents reviewed by The Young Turks show many companies with millions of dollars riding on the federal response to the coronavirus also have ties to the Chamber.
According to new lobbying disclosure forms, the Chamber deployed the firm Akin Gump to lobby both houses of Congress regarding the CARES Act coronavirus stimulus package. Among the issues Akin Gump disclosed lobbying on in this area were the False Claims Act and “private right of action issues.”
While the False Claims Act deals with whistleblowers — like the kind that might report companies hoarding relief funds — ”private right of action” refers to when legislation creates new legal rights. The liability shields that McConnell and Trump are talking about would prevent courts from recognizing those rights — blocking people from taking corporations to court over the coronavirus.
Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Federal Consumer Program, said in a statement to TYT, "Consumer and taxpayer advocates are very concerned about the efforts of powerful special interests to seek self-serving Congressional action to immunize themselves from COVID19 liability, which could range from their failures to protect consumers and workers from harm to any false claims made to obtain or their subsequent misuse of federal disaster funds."
Among the lobbyists working on CARES Act private right of action issues for the Chamber were G. Hunter Bates and Casey Higgins. Bates was McConnell’s chief of staff. Higgins worked for then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Other Akin Gump lobbyists on this beat also have Senate connections. Ryan Thompson was chief of staff and press secretary to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK). Another, Geoff Verhoff, was made a vice chair of the Republican National Committee’s finance committee. Verhoff has also helped the Saudis lobby for acquiring U.S. businesses.
McConnell’s former chief lawyer, John Abegg, is now executive vice president of the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR). Abegg is also a registered lobbyist. He and other ILR lobbyists disclosed contacting the Senate, House, Treasury, and the Department of Justice about coronavirus legislation, “including issues related to the False Claims Act.”
The Chamber lobbies on its own, as well. Its most prominent lobbyist is Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s CEO. Donohue himself disclosed lobbying on whistleblower issues regarding the coronavirus.
And one company with ties to both Donohue and the Chamber has already reported deaths related to the coronavirus. The company is Sunrise Senior Living, a chain of senior residences.
Donohue is not only a former board member at Sunrise, a 2012 shareholder letter from Sunrise disclosed that he had 117,644 shares of the company at the time, with options and deferred shares valued at $452,458. Paul Klaassen, the Sunrise founder who met Donohue in college, is a member of the Chamber’s board.
Sunrise has ample reason to favor legal caps on corporate liability around the coronavirus. At least three people reportedly have died from coronavirus at a single Sunrise facility in Prairie Village, KS, with another 18 contracting the virus there.
The Sunrise website says that the company “takes our responsibility to support seniors and their families seriously.”
Bank of America has already won one coronavirus case, at least for now. The bank was accused of favoring its existing clients when making coronavirus relief loans.
In that case, the bank wasn't cleared of the charge. Instead, the judge said Congress will have to decide whether it’s legal or not.
And Bank of America — along with other lenders — is trying to get Congress to decide in their favor. The bank has ties to the Chamber, supporting its foundation, participating in Chamber projects and benefiting from Chamber backing in legal disputes.
A 2016 report by Public Citizen found that the Chamber filed at least seven legal briefs directly supporting Bank of America in court. Only four other companies got more customized filings from the Chamber.
Bank of America does not leave lobbying solely to the Chamber, however. The bank has paid the Smith-Free Group millions over the years for lobbying. Smith-Free President and CEO Jack Deuser also disclosed lobbying for Bank of America on coronavirus legislation. Deuser, a Kentucky native who once worked for McConnell and still considers him a mentor, reported lobbying only the Senate on the coronavirus bills.
And Bank of America’s in-house coronavirus lobbying was also done by political veterans, according to its own disclosure form.
Among them was Darrell Minott, who used to work for Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), member of the Finance Committee. Delaware was home to MBNA when that bank, where Minott worked, was acquired by Bank of America. Another lobbyist pursuing coronavirus issues for Bank of America married a Carper staffer in 2006.
Carper has been a big recipient of banking donations, and has proved willing to defend banks in the past, even against laws already on the books.
Senior Vice President Jim Carlisle of the bank’s lobbying department also lobbied on the coronavirus, and is an alumnus of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The accounting giant, in its most recent tax filing, disclosed a $100,000 donation from its charitable foundation to the Chamber’s.
An influential financial trade group, the Bank Policy Institute (BPI), is also lobbying on coronavirus issues, disclosure forms show, utilizing in-house lobbyists and two high-powered K Street firms: CGCN and Sullivan and Cromwell.
The forms don’t disclose the positions BPI is pushing, but the group called for deregulation in early March. Its lobbying forces draw from the ranks of both political parties, including veterans of the Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations, as well as both sides of the aisle in Congress.
BPI’s chairman is Brian Moynihan, the CEO of Bank of America. Greg Baer, BPI’s CEO, serves on a Chamber committee (and was part of the Clinton Administration’s deregulatory drive that contributed to the 2007-2008 mortgage crisis). BPI and the Chamber have worked together on at least one amicus brief defending banks.
Amazon and Target have both disclosed their own lobbying related to the coronavirus. The companies are part of the focus of a widespread strike on Friday, in which workers are demanding safety measures. An Amazon vice president chairs the Chamber’s Procurement and Space Industry Council, while Target reportedly has acknowledged its association with the Chamber.
An Amazon spokesperson, Jill Kerr, told TYT that the company has not done any lobbying on private right of action issues or the False Claims Act. “We have never worked with the Chamber on these issues,” she said.
Kerr said one reference to “false claims” in Amazon's disclosure forms was related not to whistleblowing but to the company’s public campaign against sellers misleading consumers on Amazon's platforms. She did not respond to questions seeking specifics about Amazon’s relationship with the Chamber.
Target, Bank of America, Sunrise, and the Chamber itself did not respond to TYT’s questions and requests for comment. Neither did McConnell's office.
Other companies that could be affected by the federal response to the coronavirus also have ties to the Chamber. Aetna has given the Chamber at least $4 million, according to a 2016 proxy statement. Chamber Pres. Suzanne Clark sits on the board of the agricultural equipment maker AGCO. A 2015 SEC filing says CVS paid the Chamber $187,500 in dues “used for political activities or advocacy.”