New Podcast Episode, Featuring Kieu Vien

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Nguyen Thi Kieu Vien, the founder and executive director of Towards Transparency, an anticorruption civil society organization based in Vietnam and affiliated with the Transparency International movement. In the conversation, Vien discusses the history of her organization, the corruption challenges facing Vietnam, some of Towards Transparency’s major initiatives, and the promises and limitations of the Vietnamese government’s recent anticorruption reforms. Vien and I also discuss some of the special challenges of operating an anticorruption NGO in an environment like Vietnam, and how Towards Transparency has tried to overcome these challenges in order to achieve meaningful results within the constraints imposed by the political and legal environment.

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.

A Group of International Jurists and Scholars Condemns the Conviction of Former Brazilian President Lula as Unfair and Politically Motivated. A Group of Brazilian Prosecutors Defend Their Conduct, and the Conviction. Read Their Dueling Open Letters Here!

One of the biggest stories in the anticorruption community over the last few months—and one that we’ve featured extensively here on GAB—has been the controversy swirling around the so-called “Lava Jato” (Car Wash) anticorruption operation in Brazil, in light of private text messages among the Lava Jato prosecutors, and between prosecutors and then-Judge Sérgio Moro. These messages were stolen from hacked cell phones and provided to The Intercept, which published a series of stories based on them and also shared them with other media outlines. Critics, including the Intercept journalists, have argued that these messages show unethical conduct, political bias, and due process violations by the Lava Jato prosecutors and by Judge Moro, and that this alleged misconduct demonstrates that the convictions of many of the Lava Jato defendants—most importantly, former President Lula—ought to be thrown out. Others remain unconvinced by the most serious accusations of political bias, and find many of the allegations of misconduct questionable. (For my own, somewhat evolving take on these issues, see here and here, and for a useful debate among Brazilian legal experts, see here.)

Recently, a group of international jurists and scholars weighed in, writing an open letter in which they declared their view that, in light of the evidence revealed by the leaked text messages, Lula did not receive a fair trial and was the victim of political persecution. (An English translation of the letter is available here; the original Portuguese text can be found here.) In response, a group of 20 Brazilian Federal Prosecutors wrote a reply to the open letter’s signatories, arguing that the allegations in the open letter were based on an inaccurate, incomplete, or distorted representation of the facts. The prosecutors’ response letter has not previously been published, but the prosecutors have provided me with that letter and given me permission to post a slightly-revised version here.

I have my own views on the merits of the underlying dispute, which I may go into in a later post, but here I just want to present the two letters side by side, in the hope that this will be helpful to others who have been following this controversy and are trying to better understand the complicated questions at issue. I’ll present this in point-counterpoint format, starting with the English translation of the original open letter (with some corrections to apparent errors or ambiguities in the original translation linked above), and then presenting the prosecutors’ rebuttal: Continue reading

The Legacy of Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity

The most innovative experiment in the fight against corruption in memory ended last week with the closing down of Guatemala’s impunity commission.  Known as CICIG after its Spanish initials, the commission enjoyed tremendous success over its ten plus year life, securing the conviction of dozens of senior military and political leaders, forcing a sitting president and vice president to resign over corruption charges, and most importantly, showing Guatemalans their leaders were not beyond the law’s reach. The commission ceased operating Wednesday after outgoing President Jimmy Morales, whom the commission was investigating for campaign finance violations, refused to renew its mandate.

Although Guatemala’s corrupt elite finally succeeded in killing the commission, the innovation behind the commission’s success is very much alive.  Prompted by CICIG’s success, neighboring Honduras created its own CICIG-like commission, and last Friday, less than 48 hours after CICIG shut down, El Salvador’s newly-elected president established a Salvadorian version of CICIG.  Across the Atlantic, independent of developments in Central America, Ukraine is pioneering a similar ground-breaking approach to fighting corruption which Moldovans are considering copying.

What all four countries have in common is a corrupt ruling class able to stymie the enforcement of the anticorruption laws. CICIG’s creators were the first to recognize that outside pressure alone was never going to change this dynamic.  No matter how much diplomatic and economic pressure the international community brought to bear, Guatemalan investigators, prosecutors, and judges were never going to tame grand corruption by themselves.  Some were themselves corrupt or corruptible; others were honest but unwilling to cross corrupt friends and relatives, and still others feared for their life or the lives of their families if they opened a case.   The CICIG solution? Continue reading

Working Paper on “Corruption as a Self-Reinforcing ‘Trap’: Implications for Reform Strategy”

Last month the Quality of Government (QoG) Institute at the University of Gothenburg published a working paper of mine, entitled Corruption as a Self-Reinforcing “Trap”: Implications for Reform Strategy, as part of their QoG working paper series. Here’s the abstract:

Corruption is widely believed to be a self-reinforcing phenomenon, in the sense that the incentive to engage in corrupt acts increases as corruption becomes more widespread in the relevant community. Leading scholars have argued that corruption’s self-reinforcing property implies that incremental anticorruption reforms cannot be effective, and that the only way to escape a high-corruption equilibrium “trap” is through a so-called “big bang” or “big push.” This widespread view is mistaken. After surveying the reasons corruption might be self-reinforcing (or in some cases self-limiting), this paper demonstrates that corruption’s self-reinforcing property does not imply the necessity of a “big bang” approach to reform, and indeed may strengthen the case for pursuing sustained, cumulative incremental anticorruption reforms.

I hope that some readers might find the paper to be of interest. Constructive criticism and other feedback are of course most welcome!

Making Political Parties Liable for Corruption

When corrupt politicians are caught and convicted, they may suffer a variety of penalties, including fines and incarceration, and the government might also seize assets that were the proceeds of the wrongdoing. But punishing the individual politicians is not enough to deter wrongdoing or to compensate for the harm that the corruption causes. Moreover, even when an individual politician was the only actor who deliberately and intentionally engaged in corrupt criminal activity, that individual politician is not the only one at fault. Politicians’ decisions are affected by norms within a political party— for example, by expectations (sometimes unstated) that politicians will bring in a certain amount of money for campaign funds through graft.

For these reasons, political parties— in addition to the individual politicians— should be held liable for corrupt acts committed by their members in the course of their political activities or official duties. And such liability should attach even if the political parties’ leaders did not specifically know about or overtly endorse the corrupt acts in question.

This may seem like a radical suggestion, but in fact there are many contexts in which the law imposes so-called “vicarious liability” on organizations for acts committed by the organization’s members or agents. For example, the legal doctrine of respondeat superior (Latin for “let the master answer”) says that an employer (or other principal) can be held accountable for the wrongful actions of an employee (or agent), if the wrongful actions were within the normal “scope of employment.” Common examples include suing a hospital for the malpractice of one of its physicians or holding the government financially liable for wrongful conduct by law enforcement officers. (Although respondeat superior derives from English common law, other legal systems, such as those of Brazil and France have broadly similar concepts of vicarious liability.) Similarly, under the law of many jurisdictions, a corporation may be held liable (not only civilly, but also criminally) for acts committed by corporate employees—even if corporate management did not condone or even know about the criminal acts. These vicarious liability doctrines are important because a single employee frequently does not have the resources to redress the wrongs committed, and also because the employer often bears some responsibility for whatever the employee did, due to company culture, training, and incentive schemes. Because of this, economists point out that vicarious liability can be more socially efficient: The organization may be in a better position to detect and prevent wrongful conduct, so placing the liability on the organization can give it the appropriate incentives to take cost-justified measures to prevent the wrongful activity from occurring in the first place.

Although vicarious liability is a well-established legal principle, often used to hold employers responsible for the conduct of their employees, that concept has not yet been extended to hold political parties, as organizations, legally responsible for the corrupt acts of their members. Such an extension may seem radical, and in a sense it is, but it would be justified.

To make this case, I’ll apply the three-pronged standard that Black’s Law Dictionary lays out for respondeat superior liability to be appropriate in the employment context: (1) The individual was an employee when the occurred; (2) The employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment; and (3) The activities of the employee were a benefit to the employer. Continue reading

Fighting Police Corruption in Nigeria: An Agenda for Comprehensive Reform

Nigeria has a serious problem with police corruption, at all levels. At the top, senior police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds. To take just one example, in 2012, the former Inspector General of Police, Sunday Ehindero, faced trial for embezzling 16 million Naira (approximately US$44,422). Meanwhile, at the lower levels, rank-and-file police officers regularly extort money from the public, and crime victims must pay bribes before the police will handle their cases. As a 102-page report by Human Rights Watch documented, police extortion is so institutionalized that Nigerians are more likely to encounter police demanding bribes than enforcing the law. No wonder Nigeria’s police force was ranked as the worst of those included in the 2016 World Internal Security and Police Index, and that Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer survey found that a staggering 69% of Nigerian citizens think that most or all police officers are corrupt.

To combat such a deep-rooted and systemic problem, bold and comprehensive reforms are needed. What would an effective reform agenda look like? Here is an outline of the most important reforms that are needed, drawing on international best practices but also tailored to Nigeria’s particular circumstances: Continue reading

Legal Remedies for Grand Corruption

In too many nations, ruling elites rob the populace on a grand scale, awarding friends and relatives lucrative government contracts, siphoning off revenues from oil and other natural resources, even writing checks to themselves on the central bank.  Curbing such “grand corruption” will require much: an active, informed citizenry; coordinated international action; vigorous diplomacy; shrewd application of international sanctions.

new volume from the Open Society Justice Initiative, pictured below, describes how civil society can mobilize courts of law in the struggle.  It recounts efforts that range from using international tribunals to force government to address corruption, as the Nigerian NGO SERAP’s case before the court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States illustrates, to bringing suit against a kleptocratic ruler in a foreign jurisdiction, as Sherpa and TI-France did against Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodoro Obiang, to the creative use of domestic law doctrines common to most legal systems to force wrongdoers to answer for their crimes in their own courts.

Grand corruption is behind many of the globe’s most pressing problems: massive environmental degradation, gross human rights abuses, large-scale emigration. Taming it must be a priority for the global community.  Legal Remedies for Grand Corruption offers an important set of tools for doing so.

Legal Remedies for Grand Corruption