New “CurbingCorruption” Website on Sector-Specific Anticorruption Reform Strategies

Here at GAB we’re always delighted to welcome more platforms to the online community devoted to discussing, and hopefully making some progress toward addressing, the corruption problem. And so it’s with great pleasure that I commend to all of our readers a new website, CurbingCorruption. The brainchild of Mark Pyman, and developed by him with assistance from several other distinguished anticorruption specialists, CurbingCorruption seeks to provide concrete anticorruption advice tailored to specific sectors (such as construction, education, health, fisheries, etc.) The website is still a work-in-progress, but that’s actually one of the things I found so exciting and innovative about it: The idea, as I understand it, is to use what’s already on the site as a foundation, but to “crowdsource” additions and revisions by inviting users to contribute their own experiences, insights, and suggestions, and eventually for the website to be managed by collaborative groups of users, with different teams focused on different sectors. The site also welcomes inquiries.

This seems like an exciting, innovative experiment in accumulating and synthesizing knowledge about “what works” in anticorruption. I have no idea whether this experiment will be successful—efforts to create online knowledge repositories have had a mixed track record, or so I’ve been told—but I do hope it takes off, and I encourage GAB readers to check it out and perhaps to get involved.

Settling Foreign Bribery Cases: Suggested Guidelines

At the request of the OECD Secretary-General, a High Level Advisory Group produced a report in October 2017 on how the OECD could strengthen its work combating corruption and promoting integrity.  One recommendation was that the organization “create and publish model guidelines” for member states to follow when settling cases arising from the bribery of a foreign public official.  Noting concerns (discussed in many posts on this blog and elsewhere) that pretrial settlements can let defendants off too easy, the advisory group cautioned that the guidelines should be “consistent with the requirement for effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions under the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.”

Earlier this year, Professor Tina Søreide of the Norwegian School of Economics and former Siemens General Counsel Peter Solmssen organized a multinational group of defense lawyers, prosecutors, academics, and civil society activists to suggest guidelines.  “Principles for the Implementation and Use of Non-Trial Resolutions of Foreign Bribery Cases” together with a set of explanatory notes were released last week.  The principles, the explanatory notes, and a letter transmitting the documents to the OECD are here.

Professor Søreide, Mr. Solmssen, and the others involved in developing the principles welcome reader comments.

“Say It Ain’t So, Sergio!”: Judge Moro’s Apointment to the Bolsonaro Cabinet Is a Setback for Brazil’s Struggle Against Corruption

Two weeks ago, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil. Likely no single factor explains Bolsonaro’s success, but as I noted in a previous post, disgust at the corruption of the Worker’s Party (the PT), which had been exposed by the so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigation, likely played a significant part. The Lava Jato operation has brought to light shocking levels of corruption, mainly though not exclusively at Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras, and has led to the convictions of scores of businesspeople and politicians. Some of the key figures involved in the Lava Jato operation, including prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol and Judge Sergio Moro, have become national heroes, at least in some quarters. But their popularity is by no means universal. The fact that Lava Jato has investigated and convicted so many PT politicians, including former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), has led some PT members and sympathizers to accuse the investigators, prosecutors, and judges involved in the Lava Jato operation as engaged in a politically-motivated right-wing conspiracy against Lula, the PT, and the left generally. On this account, Lula is a “political prisoner,” and the impeachment and removal of his successor, President Dilma Rousseff, was a “coup.”

Many people, me included, have pushed back hard against the notion that the Lava Jato operation is a politically-motivated conspiracy. The evidence that has come too light seems incontrovertible, and while critics have identified a number of questionable decisions by the prosecutors and judges (criticisms I’m not in a position to evaluate on the merits), the notion that it’s all a politically motivated sham are baseless. Overall my impression, shared by many other domestic and international observers, is that the Lava Jato operation has been conducted with great professionalism. Yes, it’s true that the operation has targeted many PT figures, but Lava Jato has gone after politicians from across the political spectrum, and if PT politicians seem to make up a disproportionate share, this is most likely because the PT had held the presidency from 2003 to 2016, first under Lula and then under Dilma. Furthermore, many of us in the international community, along with a number of Brazilian anticorruption scholars and activists, worried that these unsubstantiated attacks on the integrity of Lava Jato—attacks that go beyond challenging individual decisions or rulings—would do serious damage to the longer-term development of an effective set of institutional checks and balances in Brazil. One doesn’t need to subscribe to a naïve view that prosecutors and judges are entirely “neutral” to recognize the importance of developing institutions of justice that are not, and are not perceived as, partisan or “political” in the crude sense.

It’s in that context that I was so disheartened to learn last week that Judge Moro had accepted President-Elect Bolsonaro’s appointment to serve as Minister for Justice. I have no reason to doubt Judge Moro’s integrity or to believe that he accepted this job for any reason other than because he believes it will give him an opportunity to serve his country. But I nonetheless fear that it was a mistake, one that will set back Brazil’s ongoing efforts to develop more robust anticorruption institutions. Continue reading

When Justifiable Anger Leads to Bad Policy: The Unintended Consequences of Colombia’s Anticorruption Referendum

Last August, Colombia held a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures. Despite the fact that six of these measures had previously been proposed in, but failed to pass out of, the lower house of the legislature, popular support for the measures was overwhelming: each measure received 99% “Yes” votes. The referendum did not pass, however, because even though more people voted “yes” on the referendum than voted for the current President, under Colombian law the referendum would only pass if a quorum of 12.1 million citizens voted, and the 11.6 million voters who turned out fell short of that number. Nonetheless, proponents of the referendum declared it a success because it has put public pressure on Colombia’s political leaders to implement these measures. And indeed, President Duque has convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018.

Is this a good idea? It’s certainly the case that Colombia needs to do more to combat corruption, which is estimated to cost Colombian taxpayers at least $17 billion a year. But it’s not clear that all of the proposed solutions, though doubtless well-intended, are good public policy. I won’t attempt a comprehensive review of all seven measures here. I’ll put to one side discussion of those measures that focus on improving transparency (for example, by publicizing government budgets, legislators’ voting records, and public officials’ tax returns and asset declarations) or on making penalties more severe (for example, requiring those convicted of corruption to serve their full sentences, and nullifying government contracts with parties convicted of corruption). Rather, I want to address two measures that target Colombian legislators: one of these measures would impose a three-term limit, while the other would substantially cut legislators’ pay.

These two measures appear to reflect understandable public anger at how legislators have abused their positions for private gain. But this retributive impulse may produce bad policy. Indeed, both term limits and salary cuts are likely to prove counterproductive in the fight against corruption in Colombia.

Continue reading

Open Contracting and the Withholding of Commercially Sensitive Information: the U.S. Experience

U.S. courts and federal agencies have grappled for more than 40 years with the question of what information in a government contract should be made public and what should be withheld as “commercially sensitive.” The anticorruption community now seeks an answer to that same question.  The Open Contracting Partnership, the leading advocate for the full disclosure of every contract let by every government, acknowledged in July there should be an exemption from disclosure for such information, and a Center for Global Development working group followed in October with draft principles for determining what is commercially sensitive.

Getting the correct answer is critical, particularly for developing nations, precisely the countries where advocates believe open contracting will make the greatest difference and where the push for open contracting laws is felt the most.  Too narrow an exemption, one that would result in the release of genuinely sensitive information, will discourage companies from bidding on public tenders.  On the other hand, if the exemption is too broad, contractors can use commercial sensitivity assertions to hide information showing whether a contract was awarded fairly and honestly and whether the public is getting value for its money.

Though far different than conditions in these countries, the American experience nonetheless offers lessons to those urging developing nations to embrace open contracting. The most important being that it counsels more caution than many open contracting advocates might at first think is warranted. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 2018 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. It looks like our approach is catching on, given that this past month the New York Times published a similar compendium (which the authors described as “the definitive list”) of Trump-related corruption and conflict-of-interest allegations. It’s not clear whether the NYT plans to regularly update this compendium–if they do, then we might wind down the Trump COI tracker here at GAB, given the NYT‘s much wider reach and greater resources. But for now, we’re going to keep plugging away with our monthly updates. The October 2018 update is now available here. The most notable additions since the previous update include:

  • Reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may have been involved in a shady property development deal that entails negotiations and transactions with parties connected to firms over which the Interior Department has regulatory authority.
  • Renewed and intensified concern about President Trump’s past and present business ties to Saudi Arabia, in light of the administration’s tepid response to the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, apparently by Saudi intelligence agents.
  • President Trump’s intercession with Japanese officials on behalf of his campaign donor and supporter Sheldon Adelson, in connection with the latter’s interest in a lucrative license to operate a casino in Japan.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?

The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence. Continue reading