Organizational Crime in NASA and among Its Contractors: Using a Newspaper as a Data Source

Article excerpt

Introduction

Despite being less of a problem today than it was in the past, information on the extent of corporate and organizational crime is still difficult to find. The most commonly used and cited measure of the extent of crime in the United States, the Crime Index, includes only street crimes, and thus by definition excludes both white-collar and corporate crimes. Therefore, only a segment of all crimes is compiled in the Crime Index. Without such ready access, researchers are forced to collect their own data sets from a variety of sources. Commonly used sources include the records of federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (e.g., Simpson, 1986). In some instances, researchers may obtain access to court-related documents such as pre-sentence investigation reports (e.g., Weisburd et al., 1991).

Previously, we contributed to this process by suggesting the use of newspapers as a data source (Gerber and Fritsch, 1993). Using The Wall Street Journal as our information base, we traced the corporate activities of General Electric (GE) throughout the 1980s. We were particularly interested in determining the value of GE's defense-related contracts, which violations it had allegedly been engaged in, the sanctions received for these violations (e.g., fines), and the consequences of such sanctions in terms of obtaining future contracts. Relying on what must be one of the most conservative records of white-collar crime, we were able to show that GE obtained defense contracts worth at least $43 billion during the 1980s, was accused of numerous unethical and illegal practices, admitted to having engaged in many of these practices, but suffered virtually no negative consequences. The fines it was required to pay were minimal (they represented .17% of the value of GE's contracts during the 1980s) and the company continued to receive contracts, even while nominally "banned" from new contracts.

Furthermore, we showed that GE was able to mitigate the negative publicity it received partially by nominating to its board of directors individuals who had extensive ties to the Pentagon and various branches of the federal government. Thus, we documented the participation of GE's directors in what had been termed the "power elite" by Mills (1956) and studied subsequently in detail by Domhoff (1983) and Useem (1984). In particular, we were able to show the existence of a "revolving door" that lets individuals move freely within the executive branch of government, the military, and corporate leadership.

The present project represents an extension of our earlier study by focusing on another agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which has the ability to award large sums of money to contractors who provide defense-related goods and services. However, although the GE study focused on a single corporation that had obtained contracts from one agency of the federal government, the Department of Defense, the current study is more ambitious in three important ways. First, we study all corporations that deal with a federal agency, NASA. Second, though our earlier study focused on the wrongdoing of the corporation alone, this study will also examine the illegal practices of the agency itself. Third, although the Pentagon is a national governmental agency whose interactions with corporations can easily be monitored through a national newspaper such as The Wall Street Journal, NASA has several regional centers. Hence, we decided that the regional press is of importance for this study. The current project will therefore demonstrate the feasibility of using the regional press as a data source for corporate and organizational crime.

Methods

One goal of our earlier study had been the development of a research technique that relies on an unusual source of white-collar crime data: The Wall Street Journal. This newspaper is the leading source of business news and maintains one of the most complete indexes of all major newspapers, yet it has been underutilized as a research tool for social scientists interested in white-collar crime. …