The Right Amount of Legislative Immunity

It many ways, legislative or parliamentary immunity seems an anathema to the fight against public corruption. Legislative immunity shields legislators from prosecution for acts taken within their legislative ambit, sometimes even shielding them when those actions are corrupt. As my earlier post on Senator Menendez hints, even when it seems clear that legislators’ actions are not protected, the very existence of legislative immunity gives legislators room to argue and prolong their court cases – all the while continuing to serve in the legislature. Legislative immunity can undermine public confidence in lawmaking and perpetuate a sense of impunity in public officials.

That said, there is a reason most democracies have some form of legislative immunity: not because individual legislators should be shielded from prosecution, but because the legislature as an institution should be protected from intrusion and second-guessing by prosecutors and the judiciary. Of particular concern are politically-motivated prosecutions brought by the government against legislators from opposing parties. Turkey provides a recent example. This past May, Turkey’s legislature voted to lift parliamentary immunity and pave the way for prosecution of pro-Kurdish legislators accused of supporting terror (see here). While concerns about terrorism are very real in Turkey, this move falls clearly within President Erdogan’s broader efforts to consolidate power and move away from democratic rule.

Ultimately, both concerns about impunity and legislative independence are valid. The question is how to strike the appropriate balance. Legislative immunity can take many forms, and there is likely no single “best” model. The most appropriate form of legislative immunity will likely depend instead on a range of contextual factors. Here I consider several critical ones:

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Sextortion Victims Are Not Guilty of Bribery

On this blog, I have repeatedly called for the anticorruption community to put greater emphasis on fighting sexual corruption around the world. I have argued that a police officer demanding sex in order to perform (or not perform) an official function is a form of bribery; in a few cases, officials have been charged with and convicted of bribery or official misconduct for sexual corruption.

Characterizing this sort of sexual coercion as bribery, however, raises a potential problem: In typical monetary corruption cases, it is possible to prosecute the bribe giver as well as the bribe receiver. Does that mean that the private citizen (almost always a woman) from whom sexual favors are extorted by a public official could be deemed to have “paid” an unlawful bribe? Unfortunately, the idea of charging victims of sexual corruption with bribery is not too far-fetched. In one New York case, two police officers demanded sex from a female motorist if she wanted to avoid arrest (for drugs found in her car); at the officers’ trial, the jury was instructed that the woman was an accomplice as a matter of law to bribe receiving. The appellate court wrote that the test for whether the woman can be considered an accomplice is whether she “theoretically could have been convicted of any crime based on at least some of the same facts that must be proven in order to convict the defendant.” And because the woman in this case acquiesced to the officers’ demands, she met the definition of an accomplice to bribe receiving. (She was not charged, but according to the court she could have been.)

Thus one potential concern with heeding the call to treat so-called “sextortion” as a corruption offense (that is, soliciting a bribe) is that it could lead to greater use of anti-bribery laws to charge the women from whom sex is extorted. (For example, suppose an American businesswoman had sexual relations with a foreign procurement officer as a quid pro quo for receiving a government contract; the businesswoman in this case could conceivably be charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.) It will be crucial to ensure that this never happens. This can be accomplished through a generous interpretation of coercion as a defense to bribery, informed by the existing American jurisprudence on sexual harassment in the employment setting.

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Anticorruption Bibliography–July 2016 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.

ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ’: The Laotian Approach

The American Supreme Court’s recent decision that confusion over what constitutes corruption entitles former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to a new trial again illustrates how critical it is that “corruption” be precisely defined.  As Matthew explained yesterday, the Court in McDonnell ruled that the definition the jury was given to decide whether the former governor had broken the law was too broad.  The justices feared that were such a definition allowed to stand, public servants would shy away from doing their duties for fear they could be accused of “corruption.”  While Matthew argues that in McDonnell this fear was misplaced, there are instances where it is not.  Take Indonesia.  Bureaucrats there are refusing to spend billions of dollars on legally approved projects ranging from schools and hospitals to garbage trucks and parking meters because they fear it would open them to investigation for the vaguely defined corruption crimes as “abuse of office.”

As I have argued on this blog, the problem begins with the term “corruption.”  As passed down from Latin to Old French and into English, the word carries the idea of something that has spoiled or become impure.  Milk left in the heat too long sours or is “corrupted.” But while there is no mistaking when milk has gone sour, the endless debates over whether such (lawful) practices as private donations to political candidates are “corrupt” shows that when applied to politics and government, “corruption” is in the eye of the beholder.

But not all languages derive their expression for “corruption” from Latin, and thus not all languages are saddled with the subjective meaning the Latin imparts to the modern-day term.  Take ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ – the Laotian term for corruption. Continue reading

The Supreme Court’s McDonnell Opinion: A Post-Mortem

I’m a bit late to the party, but I thought I should perhaps say something about last month’s unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision to vacate the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, on the grounds that the trial judge had not properly instructed the jury on the meaning and scope of the term “official act” in the relevant anti-bribery statutes. (As readers of this blog are likely aware, I thought that McDonnell’s conviction ought to be affirmed. This is not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court’s views differ from my own, nor will it be the last.) There has already been a spate of helpful commentary on the decision—including a succinct summary of the opinion’s likely impact from the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, and an insightful commentary from Daniel Richman and Jennifer Rodgers on the NYU Compliance & Enforcement Blog (a new blog that’s worth following). I’m not sure I have all that much new to add, but let me throw in my two cents.

While it would have been satisfying to see McDonnell get his just desserts, what happens to McDonnell himself is less important that the broader impact of the decision on the enforcement of anti-bribery laws more generally. So what does the Supreme Court’s opinion portend for anti-bribery enforcement in the U.S. going forward? After reading the opinion, my reaction is mixed. On the one hand, the decision rests on fairly narrow grounds, which might well cabin its impact on the mine-run of federal bribery prosecutions. On the other hand, the Court’s opinion both bespeaks an unrealistic view of how senior politicians exert influence over policy, and places undue weight on concerns about chilling (allegedly) desirable conduct. Continue reading

When Should We Put Anticorruption Agencies in the Constitution?

To fight corruption more effectively, many countries have created specialized government institutions that focus primarily on corruption issues. Most common are specialized anticorruption agencies (ACAs) with investigative and/or prosecutorial functions, although some countries have also created specialized anticorruption courts, special coordinating bodies, or other entities. This trend has generated a great deal of debate, both about whether to create such specialized bodies at all and about how they should be designed (for example, whether ACAs should combine prosecutorial and investigative power). Absent from much of this debate, however, is a discussion of the means countries should use to create these specialized bodies—in particular, whether these specialized anticorruption bodies should be enshrined in the nation’s constitution, or should be created by ordinary law.

Anticorruption bodies vary quite a bit on the extent to which they are constitutionalized. Most existing ACAs and other anticorruption institutions—including many considered highly successful—are not mandated by the constitution. For example, Indonesia’s anticorruption agency (the KPK) and its anticorruption courts (the Tipikor courts) were created by ordinary legislation, as was Belgium’s anticorruption investigation body and Spain’s anticorruption prosecutor’s office. However, in other countries specialized anticorruption bodies are explicitly established (or required) by the constitution. For example, the Philippines’ anticorruption court, the Sandiganbayan, is enshrined in that country’s 1987 constitution. Indeed, the trend (if one can be discerned) seems to be in the direction of constitutionalization. Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted in 2014, includes a specialized anticorruption investigation body. Egypt’s 2014 constitution similarly includes a specialized anticorruption prosecutor. Mexico’s 2015 amendments constitutionalized three types of anticorruption agencies (investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial), as well as a coordinating body.

But should these agencies be constitutionalized? And if so, when? Continue reading

Building Booms and Bribes: The Corruption Risks of Urban Development

Windfall gains often create opportunities for corruption. The big inflow of money increases the opportunities and incentives for kickbacks and bribery as a means to capture new funds. Well-known examples of this phenomenon include disaster relief efforts, resource booms, and humanitarian aid. Yet the concern is not limited to those contexts. Changes in the price and value of land in a given area can also create the opportunity for windfall, and associated corruption risks.

The corruption risks in the land sector and real estate industry have been discussed broadly as pervasive; routine land administration and land grabbing provide ample opportunities for corruption to flourish where land governance is weak. Yet these discussions sometimes overlook another sort of corruptogenic windfall in land markets, one that is often hiding in plain sight: the effects of gentrification of urban centers. Experiences from cities around the world exemplify three common ways in which these windfall gains from gentrification provide opportunity for corruption. Continue reading