Connection to the Americas
22 April 1999
HB Fuller Stuck on Itself
by Bonnie Hayskar
A bizarre telephone call I received one night three years ago is finally making sense. On March 19, 1996, a man called me at home and identified himself as Thomas Parker, a former FBI agent working undercover for something called the Emerald Group. His mission: to investigate Minnesota's H.B. Fuller Company. He asked what I knew about Fuller's involvement in the narcotics business.
I didn't know whether to be amused or terrified. Amused because I couldn't believe that a former federal investigator would use such shoddy tactics. Terrified because, if Fuller were a cover for narcotics pushers, I and other children's rights activists would be in harm's way.
In either case, his question intrigued me. Fuller, indeed, had profited for decades from Central American street children inhaling its toxic and addictive products (see "Street kids hooked on Fuller glue," March 1996). Yet the Vadnais Heights-based firm had always denied legal and moral responsibility, putting on an ethical mask for Minnesota and for socially responsible investment firms.
Three years after the strange call, the Emerald Group has resurfaced as author of a Fuller-commissioned report that claims Central American children are not using the company's glues. Parker, just as he told me, turns out to be a former FBI agent who founded Emerald, a Los Angeles-based "international security management and investigative firm," according to his Web dossier.
Fuller is trumpeting Emerald's report in response to a California state lawmaker who wants the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) to withdraw its Fuller investment because the company refuses to take effective action on the glue issue. CalPERS, the nation's biggest public pension fund, is Fuller's 12th largest shareholder.
The lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Richard G. Polanco, told the CalPERS investment committee in November that Fuller "is the only significant supplier of solvent-based shoe glues in Central America. The narcotic solvents in these glues are addictive and toxic to children. They lead to brain damage, unconsciousness and can cause death." Polanco chairs the legislature's Latino caucus, the senate's Business and Professions Committee and the senate's Subcommittee on the Americas. The 800,000 residents of his Los Angeles district include many with first-hand knowledge of Latin America's glue-sniffing pandemic.
Public pressure has led Central America's second-largest producer of solvent-based glue—Henkel Chemical Corporation of Dusseldorf, Germany—to start using a water-based product. Fuller has refused to make such a switch for its industrial glues. "In 1992, H.B. Fuller announced that they would pull their solvent-based glues out of the Central America market wherever they were being misused," Polanco said. But years later, he added, "H.B. Fuller continues to be the largest supplier of toxic, solvent-based shoe glues in Latin America. And the glue-sniffing epidemic continues to grow."
Polanco is appealing to CalPERS's fiduciary responsibility. "I intend to take legislative action as well as initiate a consumer boycott of H.B. Fuller products," he told the committee. "These actions have the potential to harm shareholders [and] the company's future performance."
In a February 19 letter to Fuller, Polanco asked for written responses to three dozen questions about its Central America glue business. He's still waiting for the answers.
Polanco isn't the first to raise questions about glue sniffing. On December 17, the Los Angeles Times described a dramatic increase in Honduran street children following Hurricane Mitch and the "magnetic pull" of shoe glue, the cheapest narcotic available. In 1996, the StarTribune dispatched a reporter and photographer to Guatemala and published their findings, "Latin America glue abuse haunts H.B. Fuller," on the front page.
Amid all the publicity, Fuller has worked hard to maintain its reputation. In a December 28 StarTribune commentary, company chair Tony Andersen urged businesses "to build ethical and social foundations for free-market economies." Andersen co-authored the piece with Robert MacGregor, president of the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility at the University of St. Thomas. MacGregor authored a 1996 Star Tribune commentary, "Critics of H.B. Fuller should look in the mirror," in which he calls the company "an exemplary corporate citizen." MacGregor's center has received funding from the H.B. Fuller Foundation and a foundation named after Andersen's parents, the Elmer and Eleanor Andersen Foundation. Elmer Andersen is a former Minnesota governor and Fuller president.
In a similar vein, both foundations endowed a million-dollar "Andersen Chair in Corporate Responsibility" at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management in 1990. The chair's first occupant was Norm Bowie. Soon after taking the post, Bowie wrote a 30-page paper on behalf of the school, claiming Fuller was socially responsible for lobbying against Honduran legislation aimed at protecting children from glues. Bowie's praise of Fuller, published by the school's Strategic Management Research Center, was used as a text in business schools across the country. (Both the Andersen and Fuller foundations have deducted from their federal taxes for the endowment donations, claiming a "charitable" purpose, according to state records.)
Perhaps Elmer Andersen said it best when he penned a 1983 Princeton Eagle editorial about the arrest of Casey Ramírez, a legendary drug runner and popular resident of Princeton, Minnesota: "He had a winsome style, and seemed happy doing favors for others [and] he endeared himself to some people. But when we think of the sorrows that come to people who get caught up in the drug habit, we feel contempt for those who participated in that traffic in any way whatever. No, we will shed no tears for Casey."
Central Americans can be thankful Fuller's endearing reputation in Minnesota will have little impact on the California lawmaker who's fighting for them. No, they will shed no tears for Fuller.
The Emerald Group
California State Senator Richard G. Polanco
The H.B. Fuller Company
Casa Alianza (Central American-based street children's organization)
PANGAEA resources on street children
Bonnie Hayskar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of PANGAEA, a St. Paul-based book publisher. She has written on street children in Multinational Monitor, Z and Connection to the Americas, and she published Nancy Leigh Tierney's Robbed of Humanity: Lives of Guatemalan Street Children (PANGAEA, 1997). She has met with street children's organizations in four South American nations and every country in Central America.
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