Chart: The biggest corporate fines of the past 20 years

A visual analysis of regulatory penalties in the U.S. puts the financial sector in an unflattering light.
April 7, 2021, 10:30 AM UTC

Four decades ago, as a young researcher at Fortune, Philip Mattera was asked to help report the cover story for the Dec. 1, 1980, issue, titled “How Lawless Are Big Companies?” While plowing his way through records from various government regulators to compile a dossier on actions taken by agencies against the Fortune 500, Mattera had an idea: What if he could build a central source for the information?

Mattera, now 67, began realizing that dream in 2015 when he created an online database as research director and the head of the Corporate Research Project for Good Jobs First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog. Today Mattera’s open-access, searchable “Violation Tracker” provides a wide-ranging record of financial penalties, such as fines and settlements, incurred by companies and nonprofits operating in the U.S. from 2000 to the present. The data is taken from more than 300 sources, including federal and state agencies and state attorneys general.

To conduct a visual analysis of the records contained in the Violation Tracker, we first screened for all entries $5 million and above. Then we sorted each case by the type of violation and the industry of the company involved. One note on the methodology of the Good Jobs First tracker: In the case of mergers, penalties accrued prior to the transaction are transferred and attributed to the acquiring company.

A couple of observations grab the eye immediately: BP’s $20.8 billion settlement in 2015 for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is the largest single entry in the tracker, but the financial industry is, by far, responsible for the biggest share of penalties.

Below, we have presented the data from the tracker in two ways. The first set of charts shows every entry that passed our screen represented as a bubble corresponding to the size of the penalty and grouped by industry. The $8.3 billion settlement agreed that Purdue Pharma agreed to with the Department of Justice last year related to its sales and marketing of opioids stands out in the health care industry.

The second set of charts, below, shows the annual amount of regulatory penalties grouped by industry over the past two decades. Again the financial sector stands out for the sheer volume of violations punished, with a sharp spike during the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 followed by a wave of penalties few years later.

“One of the things we’re trying to accomplish with this is to add a dose of reality to all the talk about corporate social responsibility,” Mattera says. “A lot of it is based on self-reporting by companies that is often self-congratulatory.”

In that sense, the challenge the tracker puts to companies is simple, Mattera says: “You may say you’re doing great, but what’s your actual track record?”

A version of this article appears in the April/May issue of Fortune with the headline, “Painting a picture of corporate misdeeds.”