Will Congressional Republicans Hold Trump to the Standard to Which They are Held?

It is no surprise House and Senate Republicans are finding it difficult to defend President Trump’s mixing political business with official business in his dealings with Ukraine. From the day they are elected, members are warned to keep the two separate lest they run afoul of the federal bribery law.  Nor should it be a surprise that President Trump would mix the two, for by his own admission, as a New York City real estate developer he frequently did.

House and Senate Ethics Committee Manuals both tell members “the federal bribery statute makes it a crime for a public official . . .  to ask for . . .  gifts, money, or other things of value in connection with the performance of official duties.”  The “connection” between the request and the duty performed need not be an explicit quid pro quo — contrary to what some Trump defenders say.  Were that the standard, as Justice Kennedy explained in a landmark case, an official could easily escape sanction by resort to “knowing winks and nods.” Continue reading

Must the IMF Quantify Grand Corruption? A Friendly-But-Skeptical Reply to Global Financial Integrity

The World Bank and IMF held their annual meetings last week, and it appears from the agenda that considerable attention was devoted to corruption—an encouraging sign that these organizations continue to treat this problem as both serious and relevant to their work. But does addressing the corruption problem effectively require that these organizations make more of an effort to quantify the problem? In a provocative post last week on Global Financial Integrity’s blog, Tom Cardamone (GFI’s President) and Maureen Heydt (GFI’s Communications Coordinator) argue that the answer is yes. In particular, they argue that the IMF should “undertake two analyses”: First the IMF “should conduct an annual assessment of grand corruption in all countries and publish the dollar value of that analysis.” Second, the IMF “should conduct an opportunity cost analysis of [] stolen assets”—calculating, for example, how many hospital beds or vaccines the stolen money could have purchased, or how many school teachers could have been hired.

This second analysis is more straightforward, and dependent on the first—once we know the dollar value of stolen assets (or grand corruption more generally), it’s not too hard to do some simple division to show how that money might otherwise have been spent. So it seems to me that the real question is whether it indeed makes sense for the IMF to produce an annual estimate, for each country, of the total amount stolen or otherwise lost to grand corruption.

I’m skeptical, despite my general enthusiasm for evidence-based policymaking/advocacy generally, and for the need for more and better quantitative data on corruption. The reasons for my skepticism are as follows: Continue reading

International Scholars, Stay in Your Lane: The Risks of Uninformed Foreign Commentary on Corruption Cases

Last June, a group of international scholars and jurists published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde arguing that former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula), who was convicted and imprisoned in a case related to the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anticorruption investigation, did not receive a fair trial, and was the victim of political persecution. A couple months later, a slightly revised version of the article, styled as an open letter to the Brazilian people and Supreme Court, appeared in the Brazilian media, where it made quite a splash. The letter, which was republished on GAB last month, was signed by prominent US scholars, including Susan Rose-Ackerman and Bruce Ackerman, as well as lawyers, professors, and former judges from numerous Latin American and European countries. Echoing accusations leveled by The Intercept and other media outlets, the letter claimed that presiding judge Sergio Moro (now Justice Minister) conducted the proceedings in a partial fashion and directed the prosecution “in contempt for fundamental rules of the Brazilian procedure.” Judge Moro, the letter asserts, “manipulated substantial assistance plea bargaining mechanisms, oriented the prosecution service works, required the substitution of a prosecutor, and directed the prosecution’s public communication strategy.” Furthermore, the letter states that the Judge “wiretapped Lula’s lawyers” and “disobeyed an order from an appeal judge to release Lula”. The letter also contended that there was no material evidence of Lula’s corruption, and that his arrest, prosecution, and conviction were all prompted by the illicit political motive of excluding him from the 2018 presidential elections. In light of all this, the letter asserted that the Brazilian Supreme Court has a duty to release Lula and nullify his conviction.

These accusations are largely baseless, or at least presented in an extremely one-sided fashion that parrots what have become the standard talking points of Lula’s supporters. The Car Wash prosecutors effectively debunked the texts’ main arguments in a rebuttal also published on this blog. (The blog also published a response from Lula’s lawyers that rehashed the same talking points and alluded to as-yet-undisclosed evidence, but that didn’t otherwise counter the prosecutors’ clear documentation of the open letter’s many errors.) What most troubled me about the original article and the open letter was less the fact that these arguments were being advanced—again, by now they’re familiar pro-Lula talking points—but the fact that the texts were signed not only by lawyers, but also by renowned law and political science professors. Lawyers are expected to act as advocates. But scholars are supposed to be more judicious, more scrupulous about evidence, and more circumspect about making bold, aggressive claims on subjects whose factual and legal particularities they don’t fully understand. Continue reading

DRC Government Members to Post Ethics Code on Office Wall, Resign if They Violate It

The newly installed government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has taken a major, and for the DRC, unprecedented step in the fight against corruption.  At their September 18 swearing in ceremony, each member signed an “Acte d’Engagement,” a one-page letter to Prime Minster Ilunga Ilunkamba containing an ethics code each agrees to observe.  Although the code’s provisions are nothing out of the ordinary, what is out of the ordinary is that ministers of the DRC would publicly commit to them. This represents an important milestone in the effort of the Prime Minister and President Félix Tshisekedi to arrest the corruption that has plagued the mineral-rich but desperately poor nation for so long.

Even more out of the ordinary, the signers pledge to resign if they are found to violate any code provision. Most unusually, they agree to post a copy of the letter in their office and to circulate it to their immediate staff and the civil servant they oversee. The one-page letter with code is written in non-technical, easily understandable prose. Ministers cannot excuse a violation by claiming they did not understand it, and its wide circulation and posting in the ministers’ offices increases the chances they will be held to it.

There is no reason why the governments of other nations where corruption is endemic should not follow the DRC’s lead.  They too should require leaders to publicly commit to a strong ethics code and to post a copy of the code and their pledge to honor it on the wall of their office.  This will remind them and all who meet with them of that commitment.

A translation of the commitment letter/code that each DRC government member signed follows. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Kevin Davis

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Professor Kevin Davis, of the New York University Law School, about his new book, Between Impunity and Imperialism: The Regulation of Transnational Bribery (OUP 2019). As the book’s provocative title suggests, Professor Davis has a mixed assessment of the current legal framework on the regulation of transnational corruption (a framework dominated by rules set by the OECD countries, especially the United States), recognizing the progress that has been made in ending impunity, but at the same time highlighting the costs and limitations of the current system, especially from the perspective of developing countries. In addition to our general discussion of his critique–including the reasons for his use of the term “legal imperialism”–we also discuss a number of more specific legal questions, including individual vs. corporate liability for corruption, the nullification of contracts tainted by bribery, the asset recovery framework, and victim compensation more generally.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

If You Don’t Think Trump’s Financial Conflicts of Interest Matter, Consider the Kurds

Yesterday I posted a note regarding the update of this blog’s project on tracking the various ways in which President Trump and his family may be attempting to use the presidency for private financial gain, how the associated conflicts of interest might influence or distort U.S. policy. In light of recent events, I thought that perhaps it might be appropriate to highlight, and elaborate upon, a few items on that list that may be cause of particular concern:

  • President Trump has extensive business interests in Turkey, including a Trump Tower in Istanbul. This is not a new observation; the potential conflict of interest that this might create has been extensively documented (see here, here, and here), though in light of recent events these business connections have received renewed and intensified scrutiny (see, for example, here, here, and here). Indeed, then-candidate Trump acknowledged back in December 2015 that, “I have a little conflict of interest [in Turkey], because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.” Indeed, the Trump Towers Istanbul, which the Turkish conglomerate Dogan Holding developed, pays licensing fees to the Trump Organization. The Erdogan government can, and previously has, imposed substantial costs on Dogan Holding, and there are credible reports that the Erdogan Administration believes that this ability to put “pressure on Trump’s business partner [in Turkey]” gives the Turkish government the ability “to essentially blackmail the president.” Let that sink in for a moment.
  • In addition, entities close to the Turkish government have gotten in the habit of spending heavily at Trump properties in the U.S. Most notably, the American Turkish Council and the Turkey-U.S. Business Council have held multiple events at the Trump Hotel in D.C. (see here and here), attended by senior administration officials, with these events estimated to pay the Trump Organization well over $100,000 per event. (It’s also worth noting here that the Turkey-U.S. Business Council is headed by the founder of the consulting company that paid former national security advisor Michael Flynn $530,000 for lobbying work.)

It’s impossible to prove whether any of this directly affected President Trump’s foreign policy decisions regarding Turkish interests. But as Turkish forces continue to bombard the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria—an assault against loyal U.S. allies that was only possible because President Trump acquiesced in President Erdogan’s request/demand that U.S. forces clear out and make the attack possible—it’s hard not to wonder whether crucial U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS have been betrayed by the American Commander-in-Chief so that he can protect his financial interests.

This makes the stakes of the corruption concerns related to this presidency, including those implicated in the Emoluments Clause lawsuits brought against the administration, seem all the more pressing. The strategic and tactical wisdom of those suits, and their legal viability, is a complicated question on which my own views have evolved over time (see here, here, and here). But to characterize the issues raised by those suits as a minor distraction, as former New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse did back at the start of the Trump presidency, is a hot take that hasn’t aged well. Here’s what Greenhouse had to say in that January 2017 Council on Foreign Relations roundtable discussion:

I think [the Emoluments Clause] lawsuit is a distraction…. I mean, it seems to me, what we need—we, as concerned citizens—need to focus on are the policy outcomes … emanating from this White House and not, you know, who’s paying the rack rate at the Trump hotel. I mean, that just doesn’t do it for me. (Laughter.) Maybe I’m missing something, but, you know, I think we need to focus on what really matters here.

Note to Ms. Greenhouse: Corruption and conflicts of interest at the highest levels of government “really matters.” Such corruption is often deeply connected to policy outcomes. I’m not sure anyone who follows these issues closely, and who cares about things like our national security policy and our treatment of vital and loyal allies, is laughing much about this now.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2019 Update

The recent and still-unfolding scandal involving President Trump’s apparent pressure on Ukraine to investigate and/or provide dirt on his political rivals has to some degree overshadowed many of the other ethical concerns about President Trump’s behavior in office, including a slew of credible allegations that the President, his family members, and close associates have been using the presidency to advance their personal financial interests. (That said, the Ukraine scandal has also drawn greater attention to at least one aspect of this problem, as it did not go unnoticed that in the now-infamous phone July 25 phone conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky, the latter went out of his way to emphasize how much he enjoyed staying in a Trump hotel in New York, which is consistent with longstanding fears that those hoping to influence Trump will give their patronage to his businesses.)

Back in May 2017, GAB began tracking and cataloguing credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Until May 2019, we’d been updating that report on a monthly basis. The tracker hadn’t been updated for several months since then, partly due to my own lack of organization, and partly because there are now a number of other higher-profile, better-resourced projects with a similar goal. (Among these, I particularly recommend the those from the Sunlight Foundation and from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.) But I think GAB’s somewhat distinctive approach to organizing and describing these concerns might still have sufficient added value that we’re restarting our regular updates to the Trump conflict-of-interest tracker. The newest update is now available here.

A previously noted 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.