U.S. to Honor Corruption Fighters from Afghanistan, Angola, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Ukraine

Afghanistan NGO leader Khalil Parsa, Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, Guatemalan judge Claudia Escobar, Malaysian civil society activist Cynthia Gabriel, and Ukrainian investigative journalist Denys Bihus will share the 2017 Democracy Award for their work promoting democracy in their countries.  Bestowed annually by the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. democracy promotion agency, the ceremony will be held June 7 at the U.S. Capitol.  Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will both speak.

This year’s award is significant for three reasons.  In the wake of concerns Trump Administration rhetoric has raised about America’s commitment to human rights and democracy, Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi’s participation is a reminder that a strong, bipartisan consensus on these basic, universal values remains deeply embedded in U.S. political culture.  Second is the recognition by the National Endowment, perhaps the world’s leading advocate of democracy, that the fight against corruption is an essential element in building a democratic state.  Finally, the award is one more sign that those fighting corruption at home are not alone, that the international community supports them and stands with them.

More on the ceremony, biographies of each recipient, and the National Endowment’s democracy promotion work here.

Jared Kushner May Have Violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Recent media reports – which would be even more sensational if we weren’t getting so desensitized to Trump-related scandals – indicate that prior to Trump’s inauguration, his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner had private meetings with Russian government officials, including both Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of a Russian state-owned bank (and a close associate of Vladamir Putin). We still don’t know (and may never know) the precise contents of the meeting, but based on circumstantial evidence, several of the media reports discuss speculations Kushner and his Russian government contacts discussed the possibility of extending financing to business ventures owned by Kushner or his family (including, most notably, a financially struggling office building at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan), if Kushner would help to persuade his father-in-law, the President-Elect of the United States, to lift the sanctions that the U.S. had imposed on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine.

Again, we don’t yet know whether this is true. But let’s suppose for a moment that some version of that story is approximately correct: that during conversations with Russian government officials, Jared Kushner proposed or endorsed the idea that he would try to persuade his father-in-law to lift the Russia sanctions, and that Kushner did so because he believed (or was told) that if he did, a Russian state-owned development bank would provide valuable financing for his family’s business.

If that’s what occurred, then even nothing further came of these discussions, then there’s a very good argument that Jared Kushner committed a criminal violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Though there’s been quite a bit of discussion in the reports so far about various federal laws that Kushner may or may not have been broken in connection with these meetings (such as the little-used Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from interfering with U.S. diplomacy). But I haven’t seem much discussion of the FCPA angle. So even though it might still seem unrealistic to imagine that FCPA charges will be brought, let me elaborate a bit on why I think there’s a plausible case for an FCPA violation here, if the evidence supports the characterization of the meetings sketched above: Continue reading

China Should Go After Bribe Takers in FCPA Cases

As other contributors to this blog have noted (see here, here, here, here, and here), in transnational corruption prosecutions there is a huge disparity in the enforcement of corruption laws against bribe-givers (the “supply side”) and bribe-takers (the “demand side”). For example, corporations have been penalized under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for bribes they allegedly paid to foreign officials, but the foreign officials implicated in these enforcement actions have largely remained untouched under their respective countries’ legal and political regimes. The reasons why demand-side governments have not stepped up and investigated officials who have been implicated in FCPA cases may include the lack of political will, the lack of capacity, and lack of inter-governmental cooperation. The particular reasons likely vary from country to country.

The People’s Republic of China is one of the demand-side countries that has demonstrated such a disparity. In 2016, for example, the SEC concluded 26 FCPA-related enforcement actions, 14 of which were related to corruption in China. In the same year, the DOJ published 24 FCPA-related enforcement actions as well as five declinations under its pilot program, and ten of these cases involved China. (Note that there were some overlap between the DOJ and the SEC’s enforcement actions.) Yet there has been no report about China initiating investigations into any of the officials implicated in these cases. This suggests a failure, or missed opportunity, in China’s otherwise aggressive and wide-ranging anticorruption campaign. If the government officials who take bribes can escape without any consequences, even as the bribe-paying firms are penalized, it will be very hard to effect fundamental changes to corrupt business and cultural norms, which eventually will become roadblocks to the Chinese economy’s healthy and sustainable development. Furthermore, unlike other countries, China does not seem to face significant structural obstacles that prevent it from acting on these FCPA cases. It has the political will and capacity, and it has been collaborating with the U.S. government on other matters, such as bringing back corrupt fugitives from the U.S. It seems to be just a matter of awareness or choice. This post urges the Chinese government to take a look into the government officials implicated in the FCPA cases.

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Anticorruption Bibliography–May 2017 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.

Guest Post: Trump’s Pledge To Enforce the Global Magnitsky Act–A Skeptical View

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a research expert with the Free Russia Foundation, contributes today’s guest post:

Earlier this month the White House sent a letter to Congress pledging a commitment to the “robust and thorough enforcement” of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA). The GMA, which grew out of a similar 2012 law that focused only on Russia, allows the executive branch to impose certain sanctions—including visa bans and freezing of U.S. assets—on any foreign citizen who commits gross human rights violations or who retaliates against whistleblowers who expose corruption. After Trump won the election, many feared that his administration would shelve meaningful enforcement of the GMA. (After all, the Obama Administration had also been reluctant to implement the original Magnitsky Act aggressively, and did so only under pressure from Congress.) In light of those low expectations, the White House’s statement was taken by many as an encouraging sign.

But many activists and NGOs fighting corruption, in Putin’s Russia and elsewhere, remain rightly skeptical. After all, Trump’s praise and upbeat rhetoric about corrupt authoritarian leaders—not only Putin, but President Erdogan or Turkey and President Duterte of the Philippines—naturally call into question the Administration’s seriousness about aggressive GMA enforcement. Consider further the fact that, despite the overwhelming evidence coming out of Chechnya that its president Ramzan Kadyrov has authorized massive abuses against the LGBT community and opened what is amounting to prisons for gays, there are no signs that the Trump Administration is considering adding Kadyrov to any open sanctions lists, despite not only recent events, but his long track record of corruption and human rights abuses.

Moreover, the White House’s statement in support of the GMA might be an attempt to create the appearance of taking a firm stand against corruption and human rights abuses, to diminish political momentum for more consequential actions. Specifically in regard to Russia, the latest statement about the GMA should also be understood in the context of the broader scandal regarding the Trump team’s ties to Russia. This scandal has, if anything, intensified anti-Russian sentiment in Congress. Not only have leading Senators and Representatives come out in strong support of sustaining existing sanctions against Russia, but there are now a half-dozen initiatives under consideration in Congress that would both codify and expand these sanctions. In such context, it might actually be useful to Trump (and arguably his Russian friends) to appear to be taking firm measures against Russia and other kleptocrats, while resisting adoption or implementation of more meaningful responses. The recent White House statement pledging robust enforcement of the GMA fits that narrative. After all, rhetoric aside, neither the original Magnitsky Act nor the GMA create more than a small headache for Trump and Russians. Only few really high level names have been sanctioned under those initiatives. Financial sanctions (particularly restrictions on long-term loans) are what matters for the Kremlin most. Indeed, Russian leadership might even be happy to have the Magnitsky laws in place if those restrictions are relaxed.

 

Venezuelans Out Kleptocrats’ Kids

Those cursed to live in a country where leaders are stealing the nation’s resources wholesale are rarely able to stop them.  Calling the police, complaining to the prosecutor, or appealing to the legislature is pointless: in a kleptocracy the thieves control the machinery of the state.  Speaking out is futile.  Those who do are quickly silenced — imprisoned if they not become the victim of state-sponsored assassination.

So it is particularly welcome to report that the citizens of Venezuela, the latest nation to become victim of massive, “grand” corruption by its leaders, recently hit upon a way to strike back. Even better is how they are doing it: using the social media posts of the kleptocrats’ kids. The Twitter account VVsincensura (“Venezuelans uncensored”) scours the internet collecting posts by the children of Venezuela’s kleptocrats showing them living the high life in Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, and the like while the nation sinks ever deeper into a state of penury.  From videos of the Caracas mayor’s daughter surfing in Australia to pictures of a former state official’s offspring helicoptering around the Middle East, VVsincensura regularly, indeed sometimes hourly, tweets out evidence of how well one’s kids can vacation, dine, and tour when the government picks up the tab.  Particularly galling are photos of an ex-Minister of Health’s children sightseeing in China while the country experiences a medical emergency because it has no money to pay for basic medicines and hospital supplies.

Venezuela’s kleptocrats are yelping over the outing of their kids (example here).  More significantly, the steady stream of snapshots showing them, drink in hand, languishing by a fancy pool or on white sands beach while the mass of Venezuelans scrounge for life’s basic necessities is starting to have an impact — both in Venezuela and abroad.

Within in Venezuela VVsincensura has stripped the last shred of legitimacy from the thieves ruling the country.  Their claim to power is that they speak for Venezuela’s poor.  But as more and more pictures of their kids in private jets, on luxurious beaches, or in five star restaurants circulate, that claim has become a dark national joke.  It has also pumped new life to Venezuela’s beleaguered domestic opposition.  The only thing now keeping the kleptocrats in power is the security forces, and one has to ask how many pictures of generals’ sons and daughters living it up in Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo will it take before front-line soldiers begin deserting en masse.

Outside Venezuela the vulgar display of wealth by kids of kleptocrats has become so revolting that it has begun to spark action. At this writing some 30,000 Australians have signed a petition demanding that their government revoke the student visa of Lucía Rodríguez, daughter of Caracas’ mayor and niece of the Foreign Minister.  Rodríguez, ostensibly a student at a pricey Sydney University (tuition $18,000), is shown riding the waves off a Sydney beach in one VVSincensura post and enjoying a lifestyle far removed from that of an ordinary student in others. In the meantime, her father earns less than a $1,000 a year as mayor while preaching the virtues of an austere life to his constituents.

The Australian government should heed its citizens’ plea and send Rodríguez home, and that civil society in other nations hosting the kids of Venezuela’s kleptocrats should file similar petitions.  Denying kleptocrats the ability to send their kids abroad would remove one incentive for them to rob their nation blind.  More importantly, perhaps if the kids are penned up in Venezuela they will begin to realize just how hard life is for the great majority and how much responsibility their parents bear for making it so. Who knows, a few uncomfortable conversations around the family dinner table might prompt some of the thieves to go straight? For if a parent craves anything, it is their child’s love and respect.

While a single Twitter account might seem a feeble weapon to fight kleptocracy, VVSincensura shows that this is not so.  That when aimed at the right target, it can be a powerful weapon for combatting grand corruption. The ostentatious, revolting display of wealth by kleptocrats’ kids VVSincensura features reveals in a dramatic way the evil of grand corruption.  It is a tactic deserves widespread emulation — by citizens of other kleptocracies and anticorruption activists everywhere.

Wake Me Up When the Walmart Case Actually Settles

Big news in the world of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Enforcement! According to a report earlier this month in Bloomberg, the U.S. government’s investigation into allegations that Walmart’s subsidiaries abroad (particularly in Mexico, India, Brazil, and China) engaged in extensive bribery of public officials, is about to wrap up! “People familiar with the matter” report that the settlement is nearing finalization, and that Walmart will end up paying penalties that are much smaller than the U.S. government originally sought. All of us FCPA nerds should be on pins and needles awaiting the imminent announcement of the settlement, which should come out any day now…

… or maybe not. Maybe this time the news is for real, and we’re about to see a settlement announcement, in which case there will certainly be something important to write about. But at the moment, what I find more interesting is the succession of stories, spread out over a nearly two-year period, that suggested that a Walmart settlement was just around the corner. To recap:

  • In October 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to unnamed “people familiar with the probe,” the Walmart matter was about to be wrapped up–and the fine was going to be much smaller than originally predicted, because it turned out (according to the WSJ’s sources) that the FCPA violations were not as serious or widespread as had been previously reported.
  • Almost exactly one year later, in October 2016, Bloomberg reported (on the basis of conversations with “three people familiar with the matter”) that, contrary to the previous WSJ report, although the US government encountered difficulties making out the FCPA violations in Mexico (not so much because of lack of evidence of misconduct, but rather because the most egregious conduct was outside of the statute of limitations), the government had evidence of misconduct elsewhere, and was seeking a penalty of around $600 million. According to that report, Walmart was still resisting, but the report nonetheless indicated that the administration was “working to wrap up an agreement before a new administration takes over in January [2017].”
  • Approximately nine months later, Bloomberg’s latest report states that, “according to people familiar with the matter,” Walmart is preparing to settle the case for $300 million – about half of what the government sought.

Now, though my initial reaction, given this history, is to take reports of imminent settlement with a grain of salt, I hasten to add that none of these reports are inconsistent with each other, or with the claim in the most recent report that a settlement announcement is imminent. Indeed, one could reconstruct roughly the following timeline of events, which I think is probably the best way to understand what’s going on: Continue reading