CORPORATE FOCUS: Homicide Charges in Tire Fiasco?

In 1998, in Corpus Christi, Texas, 17-year-old Matthew Hendricks was on his way to pick up his girlfriend. He was driving a Ford Explorer. The tread ripped off one of the Ford's Firestone's tires, causing him to lose control. He was thrown from the vehicle and killed.

"When I was told that my son died, I felt like someone had reached in and ripped my heart out," Vicki Hendricks, Matthew's mom, said last week.

Matthew Hendricks is one of more than 150 deaths around the world linked to Firestone tread separations. The families and friends of those killed in these accidents want to know -- what did Ford and Firestone know about these tires and when did they know it?

Journalists, members of Congress, and trial lawyers are seeking to provide answers. Reporters have informed us that Ford and Firestone knew that they had a problem, but failed to notify federal regulators. Many months ago, Ford and Firestone were ordering the recall of problem tires in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Asia -- but not in the United States.

Ford and Firestone knew of at least 35 deaths and 130 injuries before the federal government launched its probe earlier this year. They knew about these cases, because they were being sued by the families of the victims. (The parents of Matthew Hendricks settled their case against Firestone earlier this year.) And as a condition of these settlements, Ford and Firestone were demanding that the lawyers who bring these cases not speak to anyone about what they found out during discovery.

With Congressional hearings ablazing in an election year, klieg light fever has overcome our elected officials, and the keepers of the corporate flame, like Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana), Thomas Bliley (R-Virginia) and John Dingell (D-Michigan), have been transformed overnight into clones of Ralph Nader.

There is much talk in Washington about expanding the authority of federal enforcement officials, of increasing penalties, of requiring auto companies to report overseas recalls to federal authorities here in the United States.

But these reforms are being pushed by the liberal corporate elite to put out a very hot fire that threatens not the reputations of not just Ford and Firestone, but that also may plant the seed of doubt in the American mind (in an election year, nonetheless) about the ethical foundation of corporate America. (Or as Business Week asked in its cover story this week, "Too Much Corporate Power?")

The families of the victims not only want the truth, and reform, but they also are demanding justice. And justice begins and ends with the criminal law.

Last week, Attorney General Janet Reno said she was looking into whether any criminal case can be brought. But when the auto safety law was first passed in 1966, the auto companies prevented criminal penalties from becoming law. And they have blocked criminal penalties ever since. So why is Janet Reno blowing smoke?

Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) took the floor of the Senate last week and introduced legislation that would establish criminal sanctions for executives who knowingly market a defective product that kills or maims. Auto safety activists want criminal penalties for any knowing or willful violation of the federal auto safety law. But that doesn't help bring justice here and now to the families and victims of Ford and Firestone's act of violence.

Michael Cosentino knows what this game is about. Cosentino is the Republican prosecuting attorney for Elkhart County, Indiana. Twenty-two years ago, Cosentino brought a homicide charge against Ford Motor Co. for the deaths of three teenaged girls. The girls were riding in their Ford Pinto when it was rear-ended. The doors on the Pinto slammed shut, the gas tank split open, gas leaked out, caught fire and the girls were incinerated.

Cosentino had been reading about a 1973 memo that Ford executives had written about the Pinto gas tank problem. In the memo, Ford put a price on a human life ($200,000) and a burn injury ($67,000) and calculated that the cost of saving lives and prohibiting burn injuries by recalling the Pinto's and fixing the fuel tank ($11 per auto) would be prohibitive.

Faced with a murder charge, Ford brought in its best legal guns, and hired the judge's best friend as its local counsel. The judge in turn ruled that much of Cosentino's evidence (including the smoking gun cost/benefit memo) could not get to the jury, and the jury found Ford not guilty.

We called up Cosentino last week and asked him if he would consider criminally prosecuting either Ford or Firestone today. He said the situation has yet to present itself.

E. Michael McCann, the district attorney in Milwaukee County knows that he will launch a criminal homicide investigation if the situation presents itself. He has called on the county medical examiner to search whether any recent death in Milwaukee County has been linked to a Firestone tire tread separation. McCann has a track record of criminally prosecuting corporations for reckless homicide. He currently has an investigation open into the deaths of three workers who died in a crane collapse during construction at the new Milwaukee Brewers ballpark.

But the list of prosecutors with sufficient resources and courage to take on America's most powerful corporations is short. The families of victims need to approach their local prosecutors and demand they open criminal homicide investigations now. (If they need advice, they should give a call to McCann or Cosentino.)

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a long investigative article by Keith Bradsher. Bradsher concludes that the story of the Firestone tire debacle is one of "missed hints and lost opportunities." That it might have been. But it also might one of corporate crime and violence. And maybe even homicide. It's time we found out.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

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