NEW YORK - A corporate watchdog group has started a nationwide voting campaign to name and shame companies that run afoul of economic and environmental laws.
Opening the polls on its Web site this week, the Boston-based Corporate Accountability International (CAI) organization urged consumers to select the "most abusive" corporations of 2008.
"We believe all of the nominees deserve this infamous dishonor," said CAI executive director Kelle Louaillier, "But we look forward to seeing which corporations voters select as the worst of the worst,"
The group's nominees for its annual "Corporate Hall of Shame" elections include big names like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Toyota, Countrywide, Mattel, Nestle, Blackwater, Wal-Mart, and Wendy's.
Louaillier describes the "Hall of Shame" vote as an effective way to hold corporations accountable for major abuses of the public interest and to call politicians to task.
The eight corporations named by CAI are accused of influencing elected officials, undermining democratic decision-making, and endangering the environment and public health. Global warming, war profiteering, and predatory lending figure prominently in the polls.
The group expects record turnout this election season before polls close on Jul. 4. It said more than 20,000 took part in its polls last year, which named ExxonMobil, Haliburton, and Wal-Mart as the worst abusers in the corporate world.
CAI said ADM was one of the worst corporations this year because the agribusiness giant is running massive operations in Indonesia's peatlands to create palm plantations. Scientists say, due to the unique chemical makeup of Indonesia's peat forests, clearing them is adding significantly to the threat of global warming.
Last year a report released by the environmental group Greenpeace International said massive deforestation in Indonesia is responsible for 1.8 billion tons of carbon emissions every year, which is about 4 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.
Researchers say Indonesia has already lost about 50 percent of its peatlands and, largely as a result, it has become the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only China and the United States.
According to CAI, ADM's fiscal year 2007 revenues exceeded $44 billion, with its CEO, Patricia A. Woertz, raking in a salary of $2.7 million.
CAI believes the Toyota Motor Corporation is also contributing to inaction on global warming, saying the company has hypocritically crafted an image as a corporate ally in the fight against climate change while working behind the scenes to stop greenhouse gas mandates from becoming law. It says Toyota, which has already opposed "clean cars" legislation in many states, is employing aggressive lobbying efforts to kill a proposed bill that would force it to stop selling gas guzzlers by 2020.
Toyota is now the world's largest automaker in terms of net worth, revenue, and profits, says CAI, adding that, while the company has built its green image around the well-known Prius, "hybrid sales tell only a small part of their story." Toyota's reliance on the 14-mile-per-gallon (mpg) Tundra pickup truck and other so-called "gas guzzlers" has held the company's fleet-wide fuel efficiency down to levels below what they were several decades ago.
In considering consumer rights violations, CAI points to Countrywide Financial Corporation as the worst lender in the country. It says the nation's top lender relies heavily on "predatory" mortgages for profiteering, with much of the lending directed to elderly and non-English-speaking borrowers.
Countrywide's actions, according to CAI, have forced nearly a quarter of borrowers into default, at the same time its CEO earned a $120 million salary. Countrywide services about 17 percent of all mortgages in the United States.
Citing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, the group points out that Countrywide CEO Angelo R. Mozilo made $13 million in a single month last summer even as the company's financial situation worsened. Mozilo reportedly reaped about $150 million during 2007 by exercising his stock options and selling off his own Countrywide shares.
CAI said it nominated private security firm Blackwater Worldwide as a potential candidate for entry into the Hall of Shame for killing unarmed civilians in Iraq and using its ties to the Bush administration to secure lucrative contracts in that war-torn country;
The group has criticized Mattel Corporation for producing lead-contaminated children's toys, and lobbying against bans on other toxic chemicals; It has charged Nestle Corporation with massive abuse of labor rights around the world, including the exploitation of children.
In the CAI litany of bad corporations, retail chain Wal-Mart takes the heat for displacing local businesses, failing to provide health plans for many employees, and opposing legislation that would improve homeland security at shipping ports.
On the question of public health safety, the group has raised serious concerns about the way the fast-food giant Wendy's International is doing business. CAI researchers hold that the company's refusal to meet nutrition labeling regulations is adding to the growing childhood obesity and diabetes epidemics.
Wendy's is the third largest burger chain in the world after McDonald's and Burger King. Wendy's CEO Kerrii B. Anderson pulls in a $2.62 million annual salary.
The CAI Web site offers full details on abusive corporate practices and rallies the public to hold corporations accountable for their actions.