Some Realistic Steps to Address Corruption in Cambodia’s Prisons

Prisons are perfect environments for corrupt activity (see here and here), even in countries that are generally not corrupt. A captive, marginalized, and powerless population is at the mercy of an armed, empowered group for everything from safety to basic food and water supplies. In Cambodia, a deeply corrupt country to begin with, prison corruption impacts every aspect of incarcerated life. Prison conditions are abysmal; water and food are scarce and are often unsafe to consume; prisons are severely overcrowded; and prisoners are subject to beatings and sexual abuse by other prisoners and guards. The Cambodian NGO Licadho found that “[t]here is a price tag attached to every amenity imaginable [in prison], from sleeping space to recreation time. Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.” Even release from prison at the end of a sentence can be contingent on paying bribes.

These conditions constitute clear, and awful, violations of the human rights of prisoners. Cambodian prison corruption also threatens to undermine Cambodia’s already shaky justice system: As long as prisons are seen as institutions of corruption, torture, and injustice, as opposed to centers of rehabilitation, they will never escape the image left behind by the Khmer Rouge.

There aren’t a lot of feasible solutions, however. Both financial resources and political will to address prison corruption are very limited. Major reforms that would address fundamental problems, such as the lack of an independent judiciary, are hard and expensive, and the current government is not open to them. Nevertheless, there are a range of more modest reforms, which are both less expensive and more politically feasible, that could reduce corruption in prisons and improve the situation of many prisoners. Consider three such low-hanging fruit:

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To Gauge McDonnell’s Impact, Menendez—Not Skelos or Silver—Is the Case To Watch

In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell had been convicted for accepting loans, gifts, vacations, and other valuable items from a businessman. In return, Governor McDonnell allegedly promised or performed a number of “official acts,” mostly in connection with trying to help the businessman get state government support for a nutritional supplement his company was developing. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction on the grounds that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on what conduct could count as an “official act” (the “quo” in a quid pro quo) under the federal bribery statute. In particular, the trial court had instructed the jury that “official acts” could include things like helping the businessman by arranging meetings with state government decision-makers, hosting an event to promote his business, or suggesting that subordinates speak to him. The Supreme Court ruled that this definition of “official act” was too broad, since it encompassed almost any act a government official takes.

How much did McDonnell change the landscape for federal corruption prosecutions in the United States? Some worry that it has already had a large and unfortunate impact, and point to recent developments in New York: Last July, a little over a year after the McDonnell decision, a federal appeals court relied on McDonnell as the basis for vacating the conviction of Sheldon Silver, the former New York State Assembly Speaker who was found guilty in 2015 for taking millions in payments in return for supporting legislation and directing grants that helped the payers. And just last month, another panel of that appellate court also relied on McDonnell in vacating the conviction of former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who was convicted in 2015 (along with his son Adam) for bribery, extortion, and conspiracy. According to prosecutors, Skelos had promised votes and taken actions benefitting three companies in exchange for providing his son with consulting fees, a job, and direct payments.

Skelos’ and Silver’s convictions were seen as a victory for federal prosecutors, and a much-overdue effort to clean up the notoriously corrupt New York state government. Many commentators pointed to the recent appellate court rulings vacating those convictions as evidence of McDonnell’s broad and malign effects on efforts to clean up corruption (see, for example here , here, and here). But while the vacations of these convictions are a setback for anticorruption advocates, they do not actually reveal much about the reach of McDonnell, nor are they likely to materially change the fates of Skelos and Silver. The much more important case to watch—the one that will be a better indicator of McDonnell’s long-term impact— is the trial of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez. Continue reading

Guest Post: Refining Corruption Surveys To Identify New Opportunities for Social Change

GAB is delighted to welcome back Dieter Zinnbauer, Programme Manager at Transparency International, who contributes the following guest post:

Household corruption surveys, such as Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) are primarily, and very importantly, focused on tracking the scale and scope of citizens’ personal bribery experience and their general perceptions about corruption levels in different institutions. More recently, the GCB has branched out into questions about what kind of action against corruption people do or do not take, and why. The hope is that better understanding what motivates people to take action against corruption will help groups like TI develop more effective advocacy and mobilization strategies.

In addition to these direct questions about why people say they do or don’t take action against corruption, household surveys have the potential to help advocacy groups in their efforts to mobilize citizens in another way as well: by identifying inconsistencies or discrepancies between what people’s experience of corruption and their perceptions of corruption. The existence of these gaps is not in itself surprising, but learning more about them might help advocates craft strategies for changing both behavior and beliefs. Consider the following examples: Continue reading

Curbing Corruption in Development Projects: Memo for the World Bank Board of Governors

The wAnnual meetingsorld’s finance ministers serve as the governors of the World Bank and meet this weekend to review the Bank’s activities over the last year and set policy for the coming one.  The annual meeting is the first since the OECD released a remarkable document, one that subtly but unmistakably  damns the development community for failing to curb corruption in the projects it finances. In skillfully-crafted prose that points the finger at no one miscreant while charging all with dereliction of duty, the OECD’s Council for Development identifies weaknesses large and small in the corruption prevention efforts of both bilateral and multilateral development organizations and urges major reforms.  Corruption in development projects not only defeats the reason development aid is provided but, as the council stresses, many times leaves the recipient worse off than had no aid been extended in the first place.

The Bank’s Board of Governors should make the report and its recommendations the focus of their meeting. For two reasons. Continue reading

Another Way To Improve the Accuracy of Corruption Surveys: The Crosswise Model

Today’s post is yet another entry in what I guess has become a mini-series on corruption experience surveys. In the first post, from a few weeks back, I discussed the question whether, when trying to assess and compare bribery prevalence across jurisdictions using such surveys, the correct denominator should be all respondents, or only those who had contact with government officials. That post bracketed questions about whether respondents would honestly admit bribery in light of the “social desirability bias” problem (the reluctance to admit, even on an anonymous survey, that one has engaged in socially undesirable activities). My two more recent posts have focused on that problem, first criticizing one of the most common strategies for mitigating the social desirability bias problem (indirect questioning), and then, in last week’s post, trying to be a bit more constructive by calling attention to one potentially more promising solution, the so-called unmatched count technique (UCT), also known as the item count technique or list method. Today I want to continue in that latter vein by calling attention to yet another strategy for ameliorating social desirability bias in corruption surveys: the “crosswise model.”

As with the UCT, the crosswise model was developed outside the corruption field (see here and here) and has been deployed in other areas, but it has only recently been introduced into survey work on corruption. The scholars responsible for pioneering the use of the crosswise model in the study of corruption are Daniel Gingerich, Virginia Oliveros, Ana Corbacho, and Mauricio Ruiz-Vega, in (so far) two important papers, the first of which focuses primarily on the methodology, and the second of which applies the method to address the extent to which individual attitudes about corruption are influenced by beliefs about the extent of corruption in the society. (Both papers focus on Costa Rica, where the survey was fielded.) Those who are interested should check out the original papers by following the links above. Here I’ll just try to give a brief, non-technical flavor of the technique, and say a bit about why I think it might be useful not only for academics conducting their particular projects, but also for organizations that regularly field more comprehensive surveys on corruption, such as Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer.

The basic intuition behind the crosswise model is actually fairly straightforward, though it might not be immediately intuitive to everyone. Here’s the basic idea: Continue reading

Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes

In July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra became Prime Minister of Thailand after her party (founded by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) won a decisive electoral victory. One of her principal campaign promises was to establish a program to purchase rice from farmers at above-market prices then store the rice to reduce supply. The hope was that doing so would increase world prices—because of Thailand’s position as the leading global rice exporter—ultimately allowing the government to sell at a profit. Shortly after the election, Yingluck’s government implemented this program, and it worked well for a few months—until other global players increased their supply of rice, causing Thailand to lose billions of dollars in the process. This economic debacle was entirely predictable—and indeed was predicted by many experts. And the program itself was beset by allegations of fraud and corruption in its implementation.

But should the failure of the rice-buying program be the basis of a criminal charge of corruption and a prison sentence against Yingluck herself, in the absence of evidence that she was directly involved in any embezzlement, bribery, or other more conventional forms of graft? Section 157 of Thailand’s Penal Code allows for just such a prosecution, as this section makes it a crime for a public official to either dishonestly or “wrongfully discharge or omit to discharge a duty so as to expose any person to injury.” And last month, the Thai Supreme Court found Yingluck (out of power since she was deposed by a military coup in 2014) guilty and sentenced her to five years in prison. She fled the country before the verdict.

Thailand is not alone in adopting anticorruption laws that criminalize not only dishonest conduct (bribery, embezzlement, conflict of interest, etc.), but also negligence or incompetence. When India updated its anticorruption law in 1988, it added a new provision that makes it a criminal offense for a public official to “obtain for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” This broad offense was interpreted by a state High Court to not require any proof of dishonesty or criminal intent, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s premier anticorruption agency) has routinely employed the provision in grand corruption cases to avoid the problem of having to prove corrupt intent. In perhaps the most high-profile such prosecution, the agency went after an ex-Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh was the Minister of Coal at a time when the Government decided to liberalize allocation of coal-blocks and to sell mining rights to private parties. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office reported the policy had caused losses worth billions of dollars because the rights had been sold for too little, through a process that was too ad hoc to be considered legal. Dr. Singh was subsequently charged under India’s broad law, though his trial has currently been stayed while his challenge to the constitutionality the law is pending before India’s Supreme Court. (There are clearly concerns in other quarters about the breadth of this statute: In 2016 a Select Committee of the Upper House of India’s Parliament submitted a report that suggested India eliminate this offense. Parliament hasn’t yet acted on this recommendation, but there are signs that it has some support.)

Is it appropriate to enact broad anticorruption laws that allow government officials to be convicted for dereliction of duty, acting in a manner contrary to the public interest, and the like? Anticorruption activists and prosecutors may find such statutes appealing: It is easier to secure convictions of elected officials who are suspected of corruption, but where it is too difficult to prove the specific intent necessary for traditional corruption offenses. But in fact these broad laws are likely to do more harm than good, and countries like Thailand and India would be better off without them. There are three main reasons for this: Continue reading

The Link Between Corruption and the Global Surge of Populism

“Populism” has been defined in many different ways, but the context in which the term is most frequently used today aligns with the definition proposed by Cas Mudde in The Populist Zeitgeist: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’” This formulation certainly captures the political style of the leaders discussed at last month’s Harvard Law School conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World,” including Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Jacob Zuma in South Africa. And it certainly captures the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

A couple of previous posts have provided an overview of the Populist Plutocrats conference agenda and information about the video recording (see here, here and here). In this post, I want to use the conference discussions as a jumping-off point for thinking more generally about how populism relates to systemic corruption—both as a consequence and as a cause.

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