Speaking Truth to Power(Archive)
At the 1998 Mobil annual shareholder meeting, I witnessed Cordelia Kokori speak truth to power.
I was at the annual general meeting (AGM) to move a shareholder resolution opposing Mobil’s operations in Nigeria. Cordelia Kokori was there because her father, oil workers’ union leader Frank Kokori, had been imprisoned for leading a strike against Mobil’s business partner, the Nigerian military junta.
Before the AGM, we had urged Mobil officials to simply request a meeting with the jailed union leader. Mobil refused. At the AGM, Mobil CEO Lucio Noto added insult to injury by disavowing all knowledge of Frank Kokori.
I walked with Cordelia Kokori up to the open microphone and stood beside her as she spoke. With incredible dignity, she directly confronted Noto. “You say you don’t know my father,” accused Cordelia Kokori. “Let me tell you about my father.” She then described how her father had been imprisoned without any communication with his family for four years.
I like to think that Cordelia Kokori shamed Noto that day. Forced to reply to her directly, Noto dramatically changed its stance. “I can’t imagine what you and your family are going through,” said Noto. “I will be in Nigeria this fall and I will bring up the case of your father and other political prisoners.” Shortly afterwards, a new military leader took power in Nigeria and proceeded to free all political prisoners. Frank Kokori was one of the first released.
Three years later, EMC held its 2001 AGM. Prior to the meeting, EMC had received its first shareholder resolution but the company, whose business is data storage, lost it. “It fell through the cracks,” the hand-wringing EMC spokesman Mark Frederick told Reuters. One hopes this is not indicative of how EMC’s database storage products actually keep data safe.
This was not the only way EMC slighted its own shareholders. In an extraordinary breach of AGM etiquette, EMC did not provide shareholders with open microphones. Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management was forced to approach the stage and shout questions to EMC’s top management.
Not long after this fiasco of an AGM, Boston Globe business columnist Steve Bailey tied EMC to legislation that would have allowed companies to replace their annual face-to-face shareholder meeting with just an on-line version. Conveniently, this would allow companies like EMC to completely cocoon their CEO from awkward direct questions by shareholders. Bailey reported that the chief sponsor of this bill, state senator David Magnani, was also the state law-maker most amply blessed in campaign contributions from former EMC chairman Richard Egan. Bailey quoted Magnani stating: “I am their senator.”
EMC’s paid legislative friends nearly succeeded in slipping this appalling bill through the Massachusetts legislature. Fortunately, corporate watchdogs United for a Fair Economy and the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America noticed the bill and staged a last-minute press conference at the State House to block it. Anne Parry and Cheryl Smith of Trillium Asset Management joined Stefanie Haug of Walden Asset Management and Amy Domini of Domini Social Investments in speaking out against the bill. Stung by the criticism, the legislature dropped from the bill the provision allowing companies to eliminate their face-to-face AGM’s.
EMC has mysteriously lost resolutions, blocked comments at its AGM, and funded politicians who propose legislation that would take away the traditional right of shareholders to directly question top management at shareholder meetings. Can this company be trusted to run a fair AGM in the absence of laws protecting shareholder rights?
When we defend the right of shareholders to question CEO’s at annual meetings, we also defend the right of those affected by corporations to speak truth to power. We defend brave souls like Cordelia Kokori.