Guest Post: A Bleak Future for Indonesia’s Anticorruption Commission?

GAB is pleased to welcome back Sofie Arjon Schütte, Senior Advisor at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, to contribute today’s guest post:

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its acronym KPK, was established during Indonesia’s reformation period in the early 2000s, and quickly became one of the world’s most powerful and independent anticorruption commissions. When the KPK began operations in 2004, a government regulation granted the agency substantial autonomy in its human resources management system, which the KPK used to ensure the integrity and competence of its staff. This control over personnel is considered good practice by international standards for anticorruption agencies, especially in environments where the existing state apparatus, and in particular law enforcement, is part of the corruption problem. And in Indonesia’s case, the KPK’s success in ensuring a competent and honest staff has been crucial to the agency’s track record of success—a track record that includes bringing more than 700 cases, the large majority of which resulted in guilty verdicts against members of Indonesia’s national and regional political elite.

But the KPK’s threat to vested interests has provoked strong resistance. This resistance has taken many forms, from judicial hostility, orchestrated demonstrations and threats, personal attacks on members of the organization, stalling the agency’s budget, and attempts to curtail its authority and autonomy through other legislative changes. The most devastating development was a new KPK Law, adopted in 2019, that was pushed through the legislature in rapid time without public input. This law effectively stripped the KPK of autonomy in important investigative functions and in its human resources management (here and here). Under the law, by September 2021 the KPK is to be integrated into the state apparatus, and its employees must become regular civil servants.

Allegedly as part of this process of integrating KPK employees into the regular civil service, the government recently required all KPK officials to take a specially concocted “national vision exam.” To be clear, neither the 2019 KPK Law nor its implementing regulations explicitly require such a test, which differs from the standard civil service entrance exam that all civil servants must take. Rather, this special test was developed by the National Civil Service Agency in collaboration with the Indonesian Armed Forces and Intelligence Service specifically to determine which KPK officers were radical and lacked neutrality and integrity and therefore presumably unfit for future civil service.

Seventy-five KPK employees failed this special exam. That may not seem like a big deal, both because 75 people amounts to less than 6% of the KPK’s current staff of over 1,300 employees, and because it might seem that failing a civil service exam is a reasonable ground for dismissal. But as the names of those who failed the test, and more details about the questions and the process, were made public, many critics have raised legitimate concerns. Indeed, even before the test was administered, the KPK employees’ union (which, by the way, will cease to exist after the conversion of the KPK into a regular civil service agency) warned that such a test could be misused to legitimize the marginalization or dismissal of KPK officers that handle strategic cases or hold strategic positions in the agency. And now that the results have come out, there are reasons to believe these fears were well-founded.

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Rethinking Presidential Obstruction of Justice

One of the greatest powers that can be granted to a national chief executive is jurisdiction over law enforcement. From the French President’s authority over the Ministry of Justice to the American President’s authority over the Department of Justice (DOJ), a number of states entrust their chief executive with significant control over the nation’s top law enforcement bodies. While these oversight powers are often exercised to achieve legitimate aims, problems arise when an executive uses his authority to shield himself or his associates from legal accountability. Such misuse of the chief executive’s authority over law enforcement is itself corrupt—an abuse of the president or prime minister’s public power to protect his private interests—and can foster the culture of impunity that allows other forms of corruption to thrive. But policing this sort of improper interference is challenging.

One possible limit on corrupt presidential interference with law enforcement is the fact that such interference may itself be a crime. In the United States, for example, it is a felony—known as “obstruction of justice”—for a government official to “corruptly” use the power of his or her office to “obstruct” a “pending or contemplated official proceeding” (such as a trial or investigation). But as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into former President Donald Trump made clear, the current version of the obstruction of justice statute may be inadequate to check this form of presidential corruption.

For starters, it’s not clear whether the obstruction of justice statute, as currently written, even applies to a sitting president. (Scholars have disagreed on this point, with some arguing that the current statute does not apply to the president—see here and here—and others arguing to the contrary that it does.) That problem, though, has an easy fix: As Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith’s recent book has argued, Congress can and should amend the statute to state explicitly that a sitting president can commit obstruction of justice. Another difficulty is that, as Robert Mueller’s report stressed, under current DOJ policy, a sitting president cannot be criminally indicted. This too could be changed. The deeper and harder problem is that because in the U.S. system the president may legitimately seek to influence the conduct of criminal investigations, and because the president’s motives may be ambiguous or mixed, it is very hard, perhaps impossible, to prove that the president’s actions with respect to a pending or contemplated official proceedings were “corrupt.” Take President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. The Mueller Report concludes that President Trump fired Director Comey to save his presidency (which seems like a corrupt motive). Yet some claim that President Trump also had other, more legitimate reasons for firing Director Comey, including concerns about partisan bias in Comey’s investigations. And even if one contests that claim in this particular case, it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which a President moved to impede an investigation that both threatened the president’s personal interests and that the President thought was unwise or improper.

How should the law treat such cases, if the goal is to ensure that a U.S. President is not above the law, while simultaneously giving the President appropriate latitude oversee federal law enforcement?

How Reliable Are Global Quantitative Corruption Statistics? A New U4 Report Suggests the Need for Caution

Those who work in the anticorruption field are likely familiar with the frequent citation of quantitative estimates of the amount and impact of global corruption. Indeed, it has become commonplace for speeches and reports about the corruption problem to open with such statistics—including, for example, the claim that approximately US$1 trillion in bribes are paid each year, the claim that corruption costs the global economy US$2.6 trillion (or 5% of global GDP) annually, and the claim that each year 10-25% of government procurement spending is lost to corruption. How reliable are these quantitative estimates? This is a topic we’ve discussed on the blog before: A few years back I did a couple of posts suggesting some skepticism about the US$1 trillion and US$2.6 trillion numbers (see here, here, here, and here), which were followed by some even sharper criticisms from senior GAB contributor Rick Messick and guest poster Maya Forstater.

This past year, thanks to the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, I had the opportunity to take a deeper dive into this issue in collaboration with Cecilie Wathne (formerly a U4 Senior Advisor, now a Project Leader at Norway’s Institute for Marine Research). The result of our work is a U4 Issue published last month, entitled “The Credibility of Corruption Statistics: A Critical Review of Ten Global Estimates.” (A direct link to the PDF version of the paper is here.)

In the paper, Cecilie and I identified and reviewed ten widely-cited quantitative estimates concerning corruption (including the three noted above), tried to trace these figures back to their original source, and assess their credibility and reliability. While the report provides a detailed discussion of what we found regarding the origins of each estimate, we also classified each of the ten into one of three categories: credible, problematic, and unfounded.

Alas, we could not rate any of these ten widely-cited statistics as credible (and only two came close). Six of the ten are problematic (sometimes seriously so), and the other four are, so far as we can tell, entirely unfounded. Interested readers can refer to the full report, but just to provide a bit more information about the statistics we investigated and what we found, let me reproduce here the summary table from the paper, and also try to summarize our principal suggestions for improving the use of quantitative evidence in discussions of global corruption: Continue reading

Johnston and Fritzen: The Conundrum of Corruption

Michael Johnston had done it again.  A — if not the — dean of corruption studies has a new book out.  This one a collaboration with a real dean, Scott Fritzen, professor at the University of Oklahoma and dean of its College of International Studies. The two’s The Conundrum of Corruption: Reform for Social Justice, just published in an affordable paperback edition from Routledge, is an invaluable guide to the latest learning on corruption, chronicling the rise of the international anticorruption movement, what has been learned, and what those lessons say about how to carry the fight against corruption forward.

But warning. Readers looking for an inventory of “best practices,” anticorruption “toolkits,” flashy technological innovations, and game-changing carrots and sticks will be disappointed.  Not a one is to be found.  Instead, Johnston and Fritzen explain why practitioners’ two decade plus search for such “silver bullets” has fallen flat and what corruption should concentrate on instead.

Some highlights. The role of cross-national measures of corruption like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and whether they have outlived their usefulness. The value of principal-agent analysis and how it can be misused. What civil society can do.

Among those for whom the book is a must read are members of what the authors term the “anticorruption industry.” (Those in development agencies, international organizations, foundations, and academia know who you are.) And those who uttered the phrase “political will.” No one should ever, ever again use it until they have read what the authors say about this much abused and misunderstood term.

Those engaged in the fight against corruption, those teaching the next generation of corruption fighters, or those simply looking for an authoritative guide to the issue will want to make room on their shelf for what is sure to become a classic work on the subject.

The “Big Government Causes Corruption” Zombie Shambles On

I don’t make a practice of responding to opinion columns in mainstream newspapers, especially when they’re not specifically or primarily about corruption. But the opening of Bret Stephens’ piece in yesterday’s New York Times caught my eye, mainly because the column used corruption in the Greek health care system as the “hook” for an argument that President Biden’s ambitious plans for an expanded social safety net will lead to American decline. Here’s how Stephens opens his column:

Years ago, Alexis Tsipras, the party leader of Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, surprised me with a question. “Here in the United States,” the soon-to-be prime minister asked me over breakfast in New York, “why do you not have this phenomenon of passing money under the table?”

The subject was health care. Greece has a public health care system that, in theory, guarantees its citizens access to necessary medical care.

Practice, however, is another matter. Patients in Greek public hospitals, Tsipras explained, would first have to slip a doctor “an envelope with a certain amount of money” before they could expect to get treatment. The government, he added, underpaid its doctors and then looked the other way as they topped up their income with bribes.

Take a close look at any country or locality in which the government offers allegedly free or highly subsidized goods and you’ll usually discover that there’s a catch.

What is the point of opening with this anecdote (other than not-so-subtly alerting the reader that the author is the sort of important person who has chit-chats with world leaders)? The implication, so far as I can tell, seems to be that countries that provide free or heavily subsidized social welfare benefits tend to be more corrupt.

There is, however, an important problem with this argument: It’s not true.

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A Jordanian Anticorruption Agenda

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – a small, arid swath of land that its Western-educated monarch jokes is “between Iraq and a hard place” – teems with corruption. Most Jordanians often have no choice but to pay bribes for public services. Members of the government and the royal family regularly siphon money from public contracts and foreign aid projects. And the Kingdom’s nepotistic political system does little to hold prominent politicians and businessmen accountable when they leverage their ties to the royal family to steal disproportionate amounts of resources or redirect government funds. Corruption, it seems, crowns the Kingdom.  

It is unsurprising, then, that claims of corruption permeated news of the recent rift between King Abdullah II and his half-brother, Prince Hamzah. After Prince Hamzah’s purported involvement with a conspiracy to undermine Jordan’s national security and destabilize the existing political regime led to his house arrest, he released a video claiming that his unjust detention was for speaking out against government corruption.

Although the international media has covered the dynamics of the royal family and the possibilities of a Jordanian descent into civil war, little has been written about the ways in which King Abdullah’s government can respond to the accusations of corruption and take back leadership. Given that Prince Hamzah – among others – nearly always couches criticism of the Jordanian government in terms of corruption, such a response is necessary. If the current government wants to signal its seriousness in fighting corruption, it should aggressively pursue an anticorruption agenda with five key elements: 

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Walking Free on Stolen Time, Najib Sees 1MDB Appeal Prospects Improve

When $681 million ended up in the personal bank account of then-Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak, he thought it was a political donation from the King of Saudi Arabia. Sure, it’s strange that the King transferred such a large sum directly into Najib’s personal account as opposed to that of a government institution, and yes, such a personal donation to a foreign leader was an unprecedented move by the Saudi royals. But the late King had assured Najib that some sort of donation was coming his way, so why not over half a billion dollars? Perhaps Najib would’ve examined the transfer a little more closely if he wasn’t so accustomed to lavish gifts. Indeed, when the financial anomaly came to light and the police raided his properties, that’s what filled the nearly 300 boxes the police discovered: gifts! The 567 luxury handbags (including a $219,000 Birkin bag) stuffed with $30 million in cash, the 423 designer watches, the 234 pairs of sunglasses, 14 tiaras, and 12,000 pieces of jewelry—all gifts from friends and admirers. So of course Najib was shocked—shocked!—to discover that the $681 million that appeared in his bank account actually came not from the Saudi royals, but from 1MDB, a government-run strategic development company where he served as chairman. Poor Najib was simply the unwitting victim of a network of 1MDB officers who embezzled $4.5 billion from the fund, kept comparatively meager amounts for themselves, and then deviously planted the lion’s share of the loot in Najib’s accounts to implicate him as the mastermind behind their corruption.

Unconvinced? You’re in good company. Neither was the trial court that convicted Najib last July on seven criminal charges including money laundering, criminal breach of trust, and abuse of power for his role in the 1MDB scandal, the world’s largest kleptocracy scheme. Najib faces 12 years in prison and a $49 million fine if this verdict is upheld. (And this is only the first case—he faces another 35 criminal charges in related cases.)

But alas, there is a very real possibility that Najib’s conviction will be set aside on appeal. Not because his account of how the $681 million ended up in his account has gotten any more plausible (despite Najib’s new legal strategy), but because Najib and his party—which is now back in power—are drawing out the process as best they can in order to give themselves sufficient time to subvert the judicial process and manipulate public opinion.

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Guest Post: A Response to Commentary on the FACTI Panel Report and Recommendations

Today’s guest post is from Bolaji Owasanoye, the Chair of Nigeria’s Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission, and a member of the UN High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity (the FACTI Panel).

A few weeks ago, Professor Matthew Stephenson published two posts on this blog (see here and here) that offered some reactions to the report and recommendations of the UN High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity (the FACTI Panel), on which I served as a member. I want to first thank Professor Stephenson for his serious discussion of the report. Critical engagement on the Panel’s recommendations is very welcome, and indeed Panel members are keen to continue engagement with researchers, policymakers, and the wider public in order to accomplish our shared purpose: strengthened systems for financial integrity. Now isn’t the time for the lowest common denominator approach but instead for governments to be ambitious and thus unlock the large resources currently being drained aggressively from public finances.

Professor Stephenson generously concluded that “the FACTI Panel has done us all a useful service by providing a document that can serve as the focus for discussion and debate over this vitally important topic.” That said, on a few recommendations he called for more detail, and on an even smaller number he found what he considered as faults with the recommendations. It is on only some of these final few, and within my own area of expertise, that I want to respond to points Professor Stephenson raised. In particular, I want to explain my understanding of the Panel’s thinking in three areas: standards for settlement in bribery cases, strengthening asset recovery, and the use of escrow accounts.

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Guest Post: Adverse Selection – Civil Society Support for Honest Judges and Prosecutors in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador

Corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador continues unabated. Proof can be found at the U.S.-Mexican border. Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorians remain willing to risk the treacherous journey to the border and the uncertainties of a U.S. asylum application to escape corruption’s daily hardships.

Critical to taming that corruption, and the flow of refugees it produces, are honest, courageous prosecutors and judges willing to pursue corruption cases no matter who is implicated. In all three countries, a new generation of professionals is coming forward to take on this challenge, but corrupt elites are at work blocking their appointment.  Fortunately, civil society organizations across the region are engaged in countering these efforts, pushing their governments and citizens to see that honourable men and women take the bench or join the public prosecutor’s office and that those who aren’t don’t.

In this guest post, Kristen Sample reviews what civil society in the three nations has accomplished, what more it can do, and how the international community can help.  Now Governance Director at the National Democratic Institute, Kristen has worked on political integrity and civil society strengthening programs in Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia for more than 15 years. The research behind the post was conducted for Open Society Foundations and the Washington Office on Latin America with support from the National Democratic Institute and the Due Process of Law Foundation.

On January 26, Mynor Moto was elected by the Guatemalan Congress to fill a vacancy on the Constitutional Court despite being under investigation by an elite unit in the public prosecutor’s office.  Civil society was emphatic in its criticism of Moto and the selection process. The new U.S. Administration weighed in as well, asserting that Moto’s presence on the court “threatens the rule of law…and debilitates the integrity of the court.” 

Moto’s swearing in was blocked and is now on hold indefinitely thanks to a February 1 arrest warrant prosecutors issued. He has chosen to flee rather than contest the charges.

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New Podcast, Featuring Patrick Alley

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Patrick Alley, a director and co-founder of Global Witness. Global Witness, as many readers are likely aware, is a leading global advocacy organization focused on the inter-related issues of human rights violations, environmental degradation, and grand corruption. At the start of our conversation, Patrick discusses the founding of Global Witness and how his interest in environmental protection in developing countries like Cambodia led him, and the organization, to a greater focus on corruption and illicit financial flows. He then turns to a more in-depth discussion of how Global Witness seeks to raise awareness and prompt remedial action to address these and related problems, including the importance of forming effective–and sometimes surprising–partnerships You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior 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.