Kochs, Chamber of Commerce Bankroll Judges’ Seminars On Corporate Crime And Capitalism

The Louisiana federal judge overseeing the civil trial over BP’s alleged gross negligence in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident attended a seminar in 2009 called “Criminalization of Corporate Conduct” sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 13 other funders. In 2011, that same judge dismissed a wrongful-death claim in a suit brought against ExxonMobil and Chevron USA for exposure to radioactive substances. Another judge who attended that seminar voted in a 2-1 holding to reject emissions caps that both the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber had opposed in briefs in the case.

In all, 11 percent of U.S. federal judges attended all-expense paid seminars whose top contributors included conservative foundations and major corporations between 2008 and 2012, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. Sponsors often pay for participants’ airfare, hotel stays, and meals. CPI reports:

Leading the list of sponsors of the 109 seminars identified by the Center were the conservative Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, The Searle Freedom Trust, also a supporter of conservative causes, ExxonMobil Corp., Shell Oil Co., pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. and State Farm Insurance Cos. Each were sponsors of 54 seminars.

Other top sponsors included the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation (51), Dow Chemical Co. (47), AT&T Inc. (45) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (46), according to the Center’s analysis.

It is not just the sponsorship of these seminars that creates at least the appearance of a conflict. Many of these seminars are outwardly devoted to addressing corporations’ liability and/or economic theories. For example, a seminar called “Corporations and the Limits of Criminal Law.” was funded by AT&T, BB&T, BP America, Cigna, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, FedEx Corp. and others. Another called “The Moral Foundations of Capitalism” was funded by that same group of sponsors and the Chamber of Commerce. A host of others are generally themed around economics and tort liability.

Outcry about these all-expense paid judicial education programs was louder before 2007, when the body that oversees judges started requiring judges and seminar hosts to disclose information about their programs. As a result of these disclosures and the work of the Center for Public Integrity, we now know that conservative groups and corporations with a stake in major litigation are bankrolling these junkets. The new rule, however, does not require disclosure of how much each entity contributed.

Aside from contributions to particular seminars, the Center’s reporting traces millions of dollars more in contributions to two schools that host the bulk the majority of these seminars.  It found that ExxonMobil reported “giving $20,000 to George Mason specifically for its judicial training program. The oil company gave an additional $30,000 to the university’s Law & Economics Center, which hosts the conferences. Between 2003 and 2007, the ExxonMobil Foundation gave the think tank $150,000.” The Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation has also contributed millions to George Mason University, and other foundations and corporations contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to George Mason’s judicial education program and a similar program at Northwestern University. One major sponsor of these programs known for its corporate-influenced program ceased holding seminars on 2011.

Not every seminar fit into this category. The Open Society Foundation and the Robina Institute, both of which have social justice missions, sponsored one seminar — on human rights and international law. CPI has an excellent tool for viewing all contributions by seminar, judge, sponsor, and several other factors here.