Pluralistic: 24 Sep 2022 Billionare grifters hate her

Today's links

Ida M Tarbell uses her writing to kindle a fire on a tree labelled 'Standard Oil Traditional Policy of Silence.' A panicked John D Rockefeller peers out of a squirrel-hole, screaming in alarm.

Billionaire grifters hate her (permalink)

A billionaire's crime spree has come to an end: a federal judge held that Fleetcor was running a fraudulent, predatory business, and found that the company's billionaire owner, Ron Clarke, was personally responsible for the company's offenses. He woulda gotten away with it, but for the reporting of a former nurse turned self-trained muckraker:

The Fleetcor scam wasn't sophisticated. The court found that Clarke's sales reps would call up small businesses and offer them a "discount" gas credit card with "no transaction charges or hidden fees." These cards had lots of transaction charges and hidden fees. That's it. That's the scam.

Fleetcor preyed on small businesses, counting on the fact that these business-owners wouldn't have time to scrutinize their bills in detail and would get suckered into paying its fees. A senior employee says Clarke called these customers "stupid dumbasses" from "shithole southern states":

According to senior staff, he assured them that "They are never going to know about the fees and the tiered rebates. They are not watching their bills."

We owe the downfall of Clarke's Fleetcor racket to one woman: Lisa Epstein, a former oncology nurse who was scammed by a big bank in the post-2008 financial crisis and devoted her life to reporting on finance crime for The Capitol Forum, a news site she founded:

It was her careful, dogged reporting that unraveled Fleetcor's scam and established Clarke's personal culpability in it. She's a hero – and she's part of a glorious American tradition of muckraking women journalists who devoted their lives to bringing down the billionaires who preyed on them and their families.

Reading about Epstein, I was immediately reminded of Ida M. Tarbell, who brought down John D. Rockefeller and triggered the breakup of his juggernaut, the Standard Oil Company. Rockefeller was the most powerful businessman in the world and Standard Oil was the most powerful company in the world, and Tarbell took them on – and won.

It's an amazing story. Tarbell was the daughter of a small-time Pennsylvania oilman who had been crushed by Rockefeller's cartel. She was brilliant – the only woman in her biology program at Allegheny College. Despite her love of science, she devoted herself to activism, campaigning for votes for women and against the business elites who had sewn up American life:

Tarbell was a brilliant orator, a careful researcher, and a quietly scathing writer. In 1902, she began publishing a series of articles in McClure's Magazine that unwound the baroque scams that Rockefeller used to crush competitors and workers. These were wildly popular, and when they were collected in 1904 in the two-volume History of the Standard Oil Company, it galvanized public support for a Standard Oil breakup.

Rockefeller hated Tarbell, called her "Tarbarrel" and dismissed her as an irrelevant fabulist (Clarke dismissed Epstein's reporting as "fake news" and says he'll appeal the judgment). But Tarbell won: Standard Oil was smashed into 34 independent companies in 1911, and Rockefeller lost his grip over the lives of millions of Americans.

Tarbell's History is in the public domain today, and you can get your own copy for free at the Internet Archive:

There's also a fantastic free audiobook edition at Librivox:

Tarbell did not claim to be objective (something to keep in mind when you hear about the evils of a "polarizing" press) and she had no credentials (another important point to recall when someone tells you that our current news crisis will be solved by certifying "real" journalists). She was on a mission, and she accomplished that mission.

In particular, Tarbell attacked the idea that ripping off workers and crushing competitors was "just business," saying that this would lead to "business men weeping on one another’s shoulders over human frailty, while they picked one another’s pockets."

I learned about Epstein from David Dayen's excellent story on the Fleetcor defeat for The American Prospect. Dayen writes that "We have her to thank for exposing FleetCor’s practices, just as she exposed the banking industry’s. The nation has a lot of reasons to thank Lisa Epstein for her work."

Dayen also points out a fly in the ointment: though the court has found that Fleetcor was running a scam, they will not have to pay any fines – for now. In 2021, the Supreme Court found that the FTC can't provide financial relief to the victims of the scams it runs to ground:

In order for the FTC to get justice for the victims of Fleetcor and Clarke, they'll have to conclude an administrative action that's been in limbo since last year, awaiting the resolution of this lawsuit:

They'll also have to separately pursue a permanent injunction against Fleetcor, which they're likely to get, which is why the company's stock is down 25% (40% of Fleetcor's revenue comes from its scammy fuel-cards):

If you want to learn more about Epstein, you can (and should!) subscribe to her Capitol Forum – but you can also read about her in Dayen's 2016 book Chain of Title, which chronicles her journey from oncology nurse to tireless muckraker, when she refused to tolerate the foreclosure scam that cost her her home:

You can learn how, in 2010, "she was instrumental in helping shut down the entire foreclosure system temporarily."

We need a thousand Tarbells, a thousand Epsteins. We should be grateful for the ones we have and nurture and support them. They're fighting for us all.

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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