Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why is Corruption So Boring? (Part 1)

In 2010, a group of talented young musicians from across the globe gathered in Nairobi, with the financial support of Transparency International and Jeunesses Musicales International. Their mission: to write and record a viral hit that would not only communicate the gravity of corruption to young people (a crucial demographic for anticorruption activists), but would also make them want to share the tune with their friends. The diverse band of artists left the studio with “Against Corruption,” a reggae jam complete with Lebanese Arabic hip-hop verses and flamenco-tinged guitar riffs. You can watch the music video here, or listen to the audio here.

Despite its all-star cast and catchy hook, however, the big budget music video has been viewed just over 600 times. This kind of failure to turn big anticorruption dollars into effective campaigns that generate excitement, activism, and action on the ground isn’t unique. The anticorruption community’s proposed revolution may well be broadcast, but its soundtrack will be probably be, dare I say, boring. And as a result, few will tune in.

Why is that? What makes it so much easier to capture an audience’s imagination when speaking about issues like the refugee crisis or modern-day slavery than to tell the story of corruption, whose effects are similarly destructive?

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Corruption and Federal Pensions: A Case for Rewriting the Hiss Act

David Lee, an employee of the Department of Homeland Security, was tasked with investigating a foreign businessman accused of sex trafficking.  Instead of doing his job, however, he did something very different: He solicited and received $13,000 in bribes to report that that the foreign in question was not involved in criminal activity.  This case is not that unusual. In the last ten years, according to a report by the New York Times, immigration enforcement officials have taken over $5 million in bribes. They’ve sold green cards, ignored illegal activity, and even given information to the very drug cartels they are tasked with combating.

Shockingly, however, even after these officials are fired, they remain eligible for federal pensions. This is not unusual, but rather typical: most federal employees convicted of bribery remain eligible for their government pensions.  This was not always the case: The original 1954 version of a statute called the Hiss Act (named for Alger Hiss, a State Department employee who was convicted of passing state secrets to a communist agent) prohibited the payment of a federal pension to a former federal employee who had been convicted of federal law offenses related to bribery and graft, conflict of interest, disloyalty, national defense and national security, and more generally to the exercise of one’s “authority, influence, power, or privileges as an officer or employee of the Government.” In 1961, however, Congress amended the law to prohibit the payment of pensions only for convictions for serious national security-related offenses. The reason for the change was the view that the original version of the Hiss Act went too far, leaving former federal officials (who had already been punished with termination, fines, and imprisonment), as well as their innocent spouses and children, facing the possibility of destitution. The additional punishment supposedly did not fit the crime, unless the crime directly concerned the national security of the United States.

The impulse not to over-punish is commendable, but the 1961 amendment to the Hiss Act was an overcorrection. The law should be amended to find a middle ground between the 1954 and 1961 versions. The federal government should have the authority to at least limit, and occasionally bar, pensions to certain public officials who have been convicted of a corruption-related offenses such as bribery and extortion. The case for doing so is as follows:

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Guest Post: How Will Nationalist Election Outcomes in the US and UK Affect Foreign Anticorruption Enforcement?

Professor Rachel Brewster of Duke Law School and Mat Tromme, Project Lead & Senior Research Fellow at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, contribute today’s guest post, which is based on discussions at a recent Bingham Center-Duke Law School FCPA Roundtable:

In the past year, we have twice seen voters make a significant turn toward nationalism. In June 2016, in a move that was largely motivated by protectionist views, the UK voted to leave the EU, and in November, the United States elected Donald Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” promise. What do these developments mean for US and UK enforcement of their respective laws against overseas bribery (the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and UK Bribery Act (UKBA), respectively)? Many worry that, insofar as government leaders view anticorruption laws as harming their country’s international competitiveness (a dubious assumption), then nationalistic fervor can lead to weaker enforcement. This is a reasonable concern in both countries—but a more careful analysis of the situation suggests uncertainty is greater in the UK than it is in the US.

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The Obiang Trial: Lessons from a Decade-long Legal Battle

The trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang before a French court for what is in effect kleptocracy is by any measure a giant step forward in the fight against grand corruption.  Indeed, it is such a significant milestone that GAB has, thanks to the Open Society Justice Initiative’s Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz, provided readers in-depth reports of how it is unfolding (here, here, here, here, here, here).

Criminal trials are the result of a long and complex process meant to protect a defendant’s rights, and frustratingly, these human rights safeguards provide wealthy defendants, no matter their guilt, with many opportunities to derail a case.  In Teodorin’s case, not only does he have apparently limitless resources to spend on lawyers to pursue every legal defense to the nth degree, but the government of Equatorial Guinea, a family enterprise run by his father, has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Teodorin from facing justice: naming him an ambassador to try and create a defense of diplomatic immunity, claiming that property he bought is state-owned and thus immune from legal challenge, and even filing an action against the French government in the International Court of Justice.

As Shirley and Ken draft the next installment in their series, this is an opportune time to stand back and examine how these many obstacles were overcome.   How did it come to pass that a senior official of the government of Equatorial Guinea is being held accountable before a criminal court in Paris for the wholesale theft of his nation’s wealth?  And more importantly, what can be done to ensure the Obiang trial is no fluke?  That the hundreds, if not thousands, of public officials who have stolen massive amounts from the people of their countries also find themselves in court answering for their crimes.

Thankfully, a fine paper answering these questions is now available. Authored by French attorney Maude Perdriel-Vaissière, a critical actor in shepherding the Obiang case through the French legal system, it recounts how a small, dedicated band of civil society activists overcame the many legal and political obstacles to bring Obiang before the bar of justice.  Continue reading

Anticorruption Bibliography–July 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.

State-Level Anticorruption Commissions: What the U.S. Can Learn from Australia’s Model

Australia does not currently have a dedicated national-level anticorruption agency (ACA), though the question of whether to create one has been on the table since 2014 (see here, here, and here). Yet Australia has plenty of experience with ACAs—at the state level. Australia’s first, and still most prominent, state-level ACA was the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in New South Wales (the state including financial capital Sydney), which will mark its thirtieth anniversary next year. The ICAC, led by an independent commissioner, has independent investigatory powers over almost all state-level government officials and is charged with both exposing public sector corruption and educating the public about corruption. Queensland and Western Australia followed suit with their Corruption and Crime Commissions, established in their current forms in 2001 and 2003 respectively. The states of Victoria, South Australia, and tiny Tasmania all instituted independent agencies in recent years as well. Even the 250,000-strong Northern Territory resolved to start its own ACA after several high-profile scandals, and the Australian Capital Territory (the Canberra-sized equivalent of Washington, DC) has discussed creating its own anticorruption body. The permeation of Australia with state-level agencies is essentially complete.

Thus, in true laboratories-of-democracy fashion, Australian states have tried, solidified, and publicized the model of creating an independent investigatory group focused on the issue of corruption. Could U.S. states do the same? Easily. Should they? Yes, for at least three reasons:

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Improving Mutual Legal Assistance: Lessons from Asia

Back in 2014, Rick called for further analysis of mutual legal assistance (MLA) processes and potential reforms that would promote responsiveness to MLA requests in anticorruption cases (and others). As a follow-up, I wanted to highlight the findings of a recent report from the Asian Development Bank (ADB)/Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and the Pacific. The report, entitled “Mutual Legal Assistance in Asia and the Pacific: Experiences in 31 Jurisdictions,” provides examples of various obstacles to effective MLA, which I have sorted into two general categories: legal and practical. Continue reading