Do Corrupt Politicians Deserve a Second Chance?

In 2003, Joe Ganim left his fifth term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in disgrace. A federal jury convicted Ganim on sixteen corruption charges, including racketeering, extortion, bribery, and mail fraud, and he served seven years in prison. Yet five years after his release, Ganim is poised to become mayor again, having won the Democratic Party primary (in overwhelmingly Democratic Bridgeport)—defying the predictions of those who thought his corruption sentence would make a political comeback all but impossible. Yet if Bridgeport were located just across the Connecticut border, in neighboring New York, Joe Ganim would not be allowed to run, because New York—along with several other states such as Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia—has a disqualification law. Such laws prevent officials who have been convicted of corruption-related crimes from running for elected office, for periods ranging from several years to life (depending on the state). We see something like this approach in many other countries as well, though different countries have adopted varied approaches to the question of whether people convicted of crimes – corruption-related or not – can run for office. In Brazil, politicians convicted of certain enumerated crimes, including corruption-related offenses, are barred for eight years pursuant to a 2009 bill (which had been championed by civil society groups). In Canada, those convicted for corrupt acts must wait seven years from the date of conviction before they can run for the House of Commons (the limit for those convicted of other crimes is five years). In France, courts have the discretion to impose, as part of criminal conviction, a period of up to ten years during which the defendant may not vote or run for public office. Other countries, like Denmark and Finland, leaves the matter up to the parliament, which can vote to disqualify someone convicted of an offense showing untrustworthiness or unfitness for public office.

Are disqualification rules of this sort a good idea? Would it be better if Connecticut had a law like New York’s, which would prevent someone like Joe Ganim from running for life? Should other democracies that suffer from widespread public corruption follow the example of countries like Brazil, which have adopted these sorts of disqualification laws? This solution is indeed a tempting one. After all, the Bridgeport race—and numerous elections elsewhere—show that voters will not always prevent those convicted of serious corruption offenses from seeking and winning public office. Yet the experience of countries that have adopted statutory disqualification signals reasons for caution. Although one must be careful about overly broad generalizations, given the extent of variation in government structure and political culture, disqualification laws raise serious risks, and may not be necessary. Continue reading

Announcement: New Edited Volume on “Greed, Corruption and the Modern State”

Please forgive the self-promotion, but some of our readers out there might be interested in the new volume, Greed, Corruption and the Modern State, co-edited by Susan Rose-Ackerman and Paul Lagunes. (I said it’s self-promotion because I have a chapter in the book on the relationship between democratic electoral institutions and corruption.) The publisher’s information page is here, and the online e-book can be found here. Just to save interested readers a bit of time, I’ll list here the contents, with direct links to PDFs of the chapters:

Building Corruption Concerns into Land Registration Systems: A Lesson from Cambodia

The low cost exchange of property is critical for economic growth, assuring that resources flow to those who can put them to their highest use.  But where property rights are insecure, where buyers can’t be sure that they will get an uncontested claim to what they purchase, that easy exchange will not occur.  Hence over the past two decades the World Bank, regional development banks, and many bilateral aid agencies have invested significant resources in helping developing nations strengthen the laws and institutions that secure property rights.  The largest investments have been in titling and registering land.  Land is the principle asset of most citizens in both developed and developing states, and although residents of wealthy countries take it for granted when buying a home that the property registry is accurate and the seller’s documents valid, this is a luxury most citizens in the developing world are denied.

But while building a land titling and registration system in a developing country is an important step in boosting growth and improving citizen well-being, it is time-consuming, costly and can go wrong in many ways.  In a 2014 article in the Asian Journal of Law and Society (earlier version here), New York University’s Leah Trzcinski and Frank Upham show how the failure to consider the vulnerability of the system to corruption derailed a Cambodian project and how greater attention to local context, in particular the high degree of corruption present in many Cambodian institutions, could have made for a far more successful project.   Continue reading

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love SDG 16

A few weeks back, I posted a skeptical commentary about the integration of anticorruption into the new Sustainable Development Goals and associated targets, in particular Target 16.5 (“substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms”). Rick was even harsher. The premise of most of my criticism (and Rick’s) was that progress on Target 16.5 was likely to be measured using changes in countries’ scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). It turns that this premise was (probably) incorrect.

I had based my assumption on the lengthy report released last June by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN)—a report which had been commissioned by the UN’s Inter-Agency Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDG). But as Transparency International Senior Policy Coordinator Craig Fagan helpfully pointed out in his comment on Rick’s post, the more recent official information released by IAEG-SDG in September 2015 does not indicate that the CPI will be used as the principal measure for Target 16.5. Rather, the IAEG-SDG document lists as the proposed indicator the “percentage of persons who had at least one contact with a public official, who paid a bribe to a public official, or were asked for a bribe by these public officials, during the last 12 months.” (The relevant material is on page 225.) This still isn’t finalized, but it certainly appears that the IAEG is poised to endorse an experience/survey-based measure for Target 16.5, rather than the CPI-style perception index.

Is this perfect? No, certainly not. But it’s a lot better than what I’d feared. A few further thoughts on this: Continue reading

All the Stars are Aligned in the Sky(net): Why Chinese Fugitives are Being Extradited

Skynet. To most American audiences, this word is evokes images of the omniscient, malevolent computer in Arnold Schwarzenneger’s classic, The Terminator. But in 2015, Skynet also means something else. Media outlets and the blogosphere (including this blog) are abuzz over Chinese President Xi Jiping’s “Operation Sky Net”: the Chinese government’s efforts to repatriate a “most wanted” list of over 100 Chinese nationals suspected of criminal corruption. (The name “Sky Net” traces its origins to the Chinese idiom, “The sky may look thin and sparse, but it is vast and won’t let you escape.”) Forty of the 100 are suspected of being in the United States—a prime destination chosen for its high standards of living and, more importantly, lack of extradition treaty with China.

It is hardly news that China is doing all it can to repatriate these fugitives abroad, and it is also old news that the U.S. and China have a rocky history when it comes to extradition. As Rick mentioned in a prior post, the United States is extremely reluctant to negotiate a formal extradition treaty with China, and the reasons are plenty: In the U.S. view, China suffers from weak rule of law, lack of due process, and an ignominious record for human rights violations. In addition to precluding the negotiation of an extradition treaty, these factors also stymie case-by-case extraditions. Indeed, until last month, only two Chinese fugitives in the U.S. had been extradited in the previous two decades. All of the above would seem to suggest that China’s recent efforts would be a presumed uphill battle. But in September 2015 alone, two suspected fugitives, Yang Jinjun and Kuang Wanfang, wanted for their separate parts in vast bribery, money laundering, and public corruption schemes, were successfully repatriated to China. What changed?

One way to explain China’s recent success in securing extraditions from the U.S. is that China’s recent requests for assistance in repatriating alleged fugitives involved in corruption crimes have come at a time when the United States has made anticorruption a point of special focus. In short, the stars (in the Sky Net) aligned. Continue reading

Can’t See the Forest Because of the (Missing) Trees: How Satellite Imagery Can Help Fight Illegal Logging

Illegal logging is one of the gravest threats to the environment, and to the people (and countries) that depend on forest resources. Global Witness’s 2013 Annual Review describes industrial logging as a force that “drives land grabs, promotes corruption, contributes to climate change, fuels conflict and human rights abuses, and threatens over one billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods and well-being.” The problem has been documented with surprising depth. Prominent examples include investigative work done by Global Witness (including two short films, Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, which shows undercover interviews with members of then-Chief Minister of Sarawak Taib Mahmud’s family and legal team advising a “foreign investor” how to use bribery and fraud to illegally clear land for a palm oil plantation, and Rubber Barons, which documents land grabbing by a Vietnamese rubber firm), as well as other groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently recounted how army officials protect Chinese loggers’ passage into Myanmar, despite new laws entirely banning foreign exports of logs. In the popular media, NPR’s All Things Considered and The New Yorker looked at illegal logging in Russia and allegations of its yield being sold by major U.S. retailers, while The Economist called out HSBC’s involvement with dirty loggers. The issue is not confined to developing economies—a World Bank paper enumerated the breadth and variety of possible illegal acts surrounding the logging industry and its products worldwide, noting that practically all involve corruption. The problem, then, appears well-known and reported but remains widespread, possibly getting worse.

Illegal logging remains persistent largely because of pervasive corruption. A number of proposals have already laid out systems to address forestry corruption. Possibilities include land tenure arrangements that give management to local or indigenous groups, certification schemes for wood products, and a variety of monitoring and transparency mechanisms. A 2009 World Bank report provided a “comprehensive framework” involving five principal parts, each with a number of sub-components. Scholars, NGOs, and international organizations have noted the need for technology to increase monitoring capabilities. Technological developments may offer the key to progress in the fight against illegal logging—allowing circumvention of (or greater pressure on) the corrupt government officials who ignore, or sometimes participate in or profit from, the unlawful destruction of forests.

A previous post discussed one such technology, isotope provenancing, used to identify the origin of wood. This technology, however, has its limits. (For example, it does not help when forests are razed not to harvest the timber, but to clear the land for other uses, such as palm oil and rubber plantations.) Other new technologies can help show how corruption in the logging industry happens, working forward from the site of the problem instead of tracing back from imported products. One of the most promising tools—satellite imaging—is in fact already available, and could be very effective if deployed more appropriately and aggressively.

Continue reading

Anticorruption Bibliography–October 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.