Prosecuting Elected Officials for Corruption: A Tale of Four Governors

As Phil and Rick pointed out a few months ago, America’s domestic anti-bribery laws and the attendant court interpretations are, for lack of a better term, a hot mess. In principle, the crime of bribery is straightforward: To secure a conviction, the prosecutor need only convince the jury that (1) there was some agreement (explicit or otherwise) whereby (2) the official would receive something of value (3) in exchange for using his official position in some manner. Unfortunately, though, that burden of proof often becomes far more complicated when the alleged bribe recipient is a high-ranking elected official. When a politician regularly solicits campaign contributions and simultaneously wields political influence to the benefit of constituents, it is often hard to see where politics ends and corruption begins. And after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in cases like Citizens United and Skilling, prosecutors are left wondering when the corrupting influence of money on politics can still be prosecuted as “corruption.”

Today, I want to step back from this confusion and distill a few lessons that I believe still hold true for any US prosecutor investigating an elected official for bribery. To do that, I consider allegations that have been made against four past and present governors — Rod Blagojevich (Illinois), Andrew Cuomo (New York), Don Siegelman (Alabama), and Robert McDonnell (Virginia) — and ask one loaded question: what does it take to prove that an elected official misused his position in exchange for something of value?

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Anticorruption Bibliography — February 2015 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.

A Workable Conflict of Interest Law

My January 28 post on conflict of interest complained that the laws of many countries were unduly vague making it next to impossible for officeholders to know what constitutes an unlawful conflict of interest.  Matthew noted in his comment that lawmakers commonly face a dilemma in such situations.  They can either write a rule that clearly specifies what is prohibited, but which can then be easily circumvented, or draft a broadly drawn standard that covers a wider range of conduct but at the cost of vagueness.  (Click here for more on the rules versus standards dilemma.)

Matthew asked how legislators can resolve the tension between these two conflicting objectives. I recommend that the law distinguish between two types of conflict of interest.

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Guest Post: Why Debarment Is Different–A Reply to Professor Stephenson

Richard Bistrong, a writer, speaker, and blogger on anti-bribery compliance issues, contributes the following guest post:

As the recent OECD Foreign Bribery Report made clear, debarment (prohibiting the defendant company or individual to engage in future government contracting) is very rarely used as a sanction in foreign bribery cases, most likely because prosecutors worry that debarment would be an excessive penalty that would often do too much collateral damage to innocent parties. I have argued that debarment can and should be used more frequently, and that the legitimate concerns about disproportionate punishment can be addressed by using various forms of “partial debarment.” In a recent post, Professor Stephenson draws attention to a number of potential shortcomings to my proposal. While I agree with some of his points, I think he understates the ways in which debarment—as distinct from fines or other monetary penalties—can have a distinctive deterrent effect on foreign bribery, and why partial debarment might therefore often be appropriate.

Let me try to clarify where Professor Stephenson and I disagree, where we may disagree, and why partial debarment is a sanction that government enforcers ought to employ more often. Continue reading

Combating Corruption via Constitutional Courts: South Africa as a Model?

Can a constitutional court function as an effective anticorruption advocate? South Africa’s Constitutional Court (the “ConCourt”) has taken on exactly such a role. Perhaps the high water mark of the ConCourt’s efforts to combat corruption came in Glenister v. President of South Africa, a 2011 case in which the court found the Constitution contained an implied governmental obligation to establish an effective anticorruption unit. The ConCourt’s track record on anticorruption is admittedly not perfect. The legislature has yet to fully give effect to Glenister, and the declining power of parliamentary moderates may impede full implementation of the decision. Perhaps more troubling, in 2013, two ConCourt justices refused to testify before a tribunal investigating claims that, on behalf of President Jacob Zuma, a lower court judge allegedly requested that the two justices issue Zuma-friendly rulings. Nonetheless, in addition to its watershed decision in Glenister, the ConCourt has found against Zuma in several cases, despite six of its eleven justices being appointed by him. When combined with its continued insistence that the anticorruption unit must be truly indenpedent, the ConCourt’s past successes in changing government behavior suggest that it may yet succeed in forcing parliament to act on Glenister.

Overall, then, the story of the South African ConCourt’s role in fighting corruption appears to be an optimistic one. The ConCourt’s example seems to demonstrate that not only can a constitutional court be an anticorruption tool, it can be such a tool even in an incredibly unfriendly political environment. Indeed, the South African ConCourt’s success may suggest that in systemically corrupt environments, the courts–and the Constitutional (or Supreme) Court in particular–may be the best hope for reformers seeking bulwark against corruption and an instrument of change.

On closer examination, however, it appears that the South African ConCourt’s success may not be easy to replicate elsewhere. The South African ConCourt has managed to attack corruption, despite the political and institutional odds stacked against it, due to a set of unusual, perhaps unique, circumstances.

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Banning the Appearance of a Conflict of Interest: Another Misguided Ethics Rule

Last week I wrote about the problems arising from laws which make “conflicts of interest” illegal but which do not define “interest.”  As I explained, the harm that results from leaving “interest” undefined, or vaguely defined, is of several kinds:  Public employees have no way to know when they should avoid making or participating in a decision; authorities can easily slant enforcement of the law to serve their own ends; and the ease with which charges of conflict of interest can be leveled in the court of public opinion undermines public confidence by creating the impression that conflicts of interest are ubiquitous.

Making “the appearance of a conflict of interest” illegal can do as much, if not more, harm. Continue reading

Dear Governments: Please Don’t Make Private Certification the Touchstone of an Adequate Anti-Bribery Program!!!

A little while back, I posted a couple of critical commentaries (here and here) about the efforts underway to develop an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard for corporate anti-bribery programs (ISO 37001), modeled on the already-existing UK standard developed by the British Standard Institute (BS 10500). (For those unfamiliar with these organizations or what they do, these standards are developed by a private consortium, and then private firms conduct–for a fee–audits of companies and provide a “certification” that the company is in compliance with the standard. These standards in the past have dealt with technical or quality control issues — the proposed anti-bribery standard is, to the best of my knowledge, the first ISO standard to deal with a legal issue of this type.) Without rehashing my earlier posts here, I raised questions both about how these certifications were supposed to work in practice, and about what they were for. I raised but dismissed the possibility that law enforcement might treat ISO/BS certification as an adequate indicator that a firm had a satisfactory compliance program (or that absence of ISO/BS certification as an indicator the compliance program was inadequate). I dismissed the possibility because lots of people (including those who work in the compliance certification business and those involved with the development of the ISO standard), assured me that such certification was not intended to have that kind of dispositive legal significance (even if it might be relevant to the law enforcement agency’s inquiry).

I would have left the matter there, and probably not written about it again, but for some remarks at last December’s World Bank International Corruption Hunters Alliance meeting. On a panel about “Fighting Transnational Bribery,” Detective Inspector Roger Cook, with the Operations area in the City of London Police’s Economic Crime Directorate, spoke with great enthusiasm about BS 10500, the model for the proposed ISO 37001. (This is perhaps unsurprising given that, as I just learned from his City of London police bio, he “contributed to the development and implementation of … BS 10500 and the developing ISO 37001.”) I don’t have a transcript or a video, nor am I a trained stenographer, but I tried to copy down Detective Inspector Cook’s remarks on this topic as close to verbatim as possible, and they went (according to my notes) more or less like this:

[If you’re a company, the BS 10500 standard] is going to give you a lot of comfort. Simply by getting accredited, then you have those adequate procedures that the UK Bribery Act requires companies to have [(that is, to satisfy the affirmative defense to the strict liability offense of failure to prevent foreign bribery)]. If the company has BS 10500 [certification], we’re not going to look much further, as long as they’re applying it properly. And an ISO standard [ISO 37001] is also in the works, about 18 months away. Think how good that would be, if every company going for a public contract were accredited. [We should] make that [certification] a condition for public contracts.

Now, Detective Inspector Cook was speaking in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the City of London Police or the British government. And he is not affiliated with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which has principal responsibility for bringing enforcement actions under the UK Bribery Act. But I nonetheless found these remarks quite troubling, so perhaps it’s worth restating the reasons why private anti-bribery certification or accreditation, according to something like the proposed ISO standard, should not be considered necessary or sufficient to establish the compliance defense under the UK Bribery Act, and should not be considered necessary or sufficient to engage in government contracting. Continue reading

Prosecuting GSK: How to Deal with Being Second in Line

As followers of the anticorruption blogosphere know, China recently fined British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) $490 million for bribing Chinese doctors and hospital administrators. There is no need rehash here what many others have already said: this case is likely a watershed moment marking China’s emergence as a force in the global fight against corruption.

But there is another aspect of the story that has gone unnoticed: With rare exceptions, the U.S. Government’s corporate FCPA settlements have either preceded any foreign enforcement action (e.g., Total) or been announced as part of a coordinated global settlement (e.g., Siemens). But China’s prosecution of GSK has put U.S. regulators in a relatively unfamiliar position: that of the second mover. And in doing so, China has forced the Department of Justice to confront a difficult question: Should it care that China has already fined GSK for the same conduct that DOJ is investigating.

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Guest Post: Collective Action by Multinational Companies–A Recipe for Fighting Corruption in Emerging Markets

GAB is pleased to welcome back Gönenç Gürkaynak, the managing partner and head of the Regulatory and Compliance Department at ELIG, Attorneys-at-Law (Istanbul), who contributes the following guest post:

In too many countries, particularly emerging markets, corrupt public officials and getting rich by taking bribes, and they often seem immune from domestic law enforcement due to their influence over the judiciary. In such situations, collective action by the private sector—in cooperation with civil society—may be the key to changing the rules of this corrupt game. In particular, multinational companies (MNCs) can and should act collectively to require their intermediaries (e.g., distributors, agencies, etc.) to comply with stringent anticorruption rules. Considering that MNCs working in foreign jurisdictions act mostly through intermediaries (e.g. distributors, agencies, etc.) and that, according to the recent OECD Foreign Bribery Report, three-quarters of foreign bribery cases involve intermediaries, using collective action to targeting corruption by local intermediaries can help choke off the supply of bribes that corrupt public officials are so keen to extract.

The collective action strategy suggested here is designed for settings in which many MNCs, as well as large local companies, work with a limited number of local intermediaries that provide assistance in dealing with a sector or government agency prone to corruption; the approach is most effective when other potential intermediaries might be able to compete with the more established intermediaries if given the opportunity. In such a setting, the collective action approach—perhaps initiated by the MNCs, perhaps facilitated by some third party like a civil society organization—could work as follows: Continue reading

Corruption Reform in Ukraine: Too Much, Too Soon?

On October 26, Ukrainians headed to the polls to vote in parliamentary elections that international observers labeled free and fair. On the eve of this election, the Economist nicely summed up the precariously fragmented Ukrainian state in a cartoon: a Ukrainian maiden, in the grips of a snake labeled corruption, fending off a menacing Russian bear. Indeed, corruption has plagued the functioning of the Ukrainian government on multiple fronts. Aleksandr Lapko wrote about corruption in procurement that leaves conscripted Ukrainian soldiers without the proper equipment to fight the separatists: in his words, “corruption can be as deadly as a bullet.” Former President Viktor Yanukovych’s ill-managed estate stands as a monument to both the corruption that riddled his former government and to the hopelessness of many Ukranians, Lapko included, in solving this seemingly intractable problem.

Ukraine’s leadership is eager to shed this troubled legacy of corruption and remake its government in a new, more European image. Obama hailed the October 26 elections as a positive step in that direction. President Petroshenko called out corruption as the nation’s central concern in his inaugural address to the new Parliament on November 26. Unfortunately, Ukraine seems to be following in Russia’s and other corruption-plagued countries’ ill-fated footsteps in its quest to distance itself from the post-Soviet corruption plague. By attempting to do too much to fight corruption with untested, newly created institutions, Ukraine may ultimately end up doing too little. Continue reading