Some Thoughts on the Trump-Tillerson FCPA Exchange

Dexter Filkins’ terrific New Yorker piece on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month included an anecdote about an exchange between Tillerson and President Trump concerning the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the basic gist: In February 2017, shortly after Tillerson was sworn in as Secretary, he was meeting with Trump about an unrelated personnel matter when Trump launched into a tirade about the FCPA, and how it put US businesses at an unfair disadvantage. (That Trump holds this view is no surprise: He had expressed similar criticisms of the FCPA in public prior to his election.) But Tillerson pushed back, using an anecdote about how, when Tillerson was CEO of Exxon, senior officials from Yemen had demanded a $5 million bribe to close a deal that Exxon was pursuing in that country. Tillerson told Trump that he refused to pay, and made it clear to the Yemenis that this wasn’t how Exxon does business—and in the end Exxon got the deal anyway. According to Mr. Filkins’ source, “Tillerson told Trump that America didn’t need to pay bribes—that we could bring the world up to our own standards.”

Though it’s only a minor part of Filkins’ piece, the alleged exchange about the FCPA has attracted a fair bit of attention and commentary over the past month (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), much of it expressing or implying concern about this further evidence of President Trump’s hostility to the FCPA. It’s slightly puzzling that this anecdote is attracting more attention now, since the alleged exchange (which took place in February) was actually reported in early March—though Filkins’ piece has a little bit more detail (like the name of the country involved). Perhaps it’s because a news item about the FCPA was drowned out in early March by more pressing and immediate matters. (Trump issued the second version of his travel ban two days before the March report about the Trump-Tillerson FCPA exchange, and the federal district judge in Hawaii issued its injunction temporarily blocking enforcement of the ban a week later.) And perhaps the renewed attention to this item also has something to do with recent reports of an increasingly strained relationship between Trump and Tillerson.

Ultimately, though, it’s not so important to figure out why this anecdote is getting more attention now than it did back in March. The more interesting question is what, if anything, it reveals about the state of thinking—in government and the private sector—about the FCPA. There’s only so much that one can or should draw from a single vignette, but I do think it invites a few observations: Continue reading

French Court Convicts Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Obiang for Laundering Grand Corruption Proceeds

GAB is pleased to publish this account and analysis by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative of the decision in the criminal trial for money laundering of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang. Their earlier posts on the trial are here, here, here, here, here, herehere, and here.

court roomIn the first ever peacetime conviction of a high-ranking, incumbent office holder by the court of another state, a Paris criminal court has convicted Equatorial Guinean First Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue of laundering monies from corruption in Equatorial Guinea in France.  The historic decision, announced by the 32nd Chamber of the Tribunal Correctionnel de Paris on Friday, October 27, was tempered by the reality the court faced in finding a senior official of another country guilty of violating French law.  While it unconditionally awarded Transparency International – France, which as a “civil party” helped investigate the case, €10,000 in moral and €41,081 in material damages, and ordered seizure of much of the €150 million in assets Teodorin holds in France, it suspended (sursis) the three- year prison sentence and €30 million fine it imposed on Teodorin so long as the VP stays out of trouble for five years.   It also stayed the part of the asset seizure order confiscating the obscenely extravagant 101-room property on Avenue Foch Teodorin owns pending the outcome of proceedings before the International Court of Justice where, as explained in a previous post, the EG government is claiming the assets belong to it rather than to Teodorin.

The President of the Tribunal, Mrs Benedicte de Perthuis, detailed the reasoning supporting the ruling in a 45 minute oral explanation accompanying the judgement.  She explained that the three judge court rejected all Teodorin’s procedural and substantive defenses, including a claim asserting Teodorin’s immunity from criminal prosecution on the basis of his position as  First Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea.  She noted on the latter that his nomination as First Vice-President had conveniently occurred after his indictment by the French Courts, and the Tribunal ruled that his new functions could not be equated to those of a Head of State or Minister of Foreign Affairs (officials who, under ICJ precedent, would indeed enjoy immunity from this kind of a prosecution).

The verdict sends a clear message that grand corruption and the related offense of money laundering are no longer risk-free enterprises in France.  Continue reading

Populist Plutocrats Conference–Video Update

Sorry for yet another follow-up post on last month’s Populist Plutocrats conference, but I wanted to let interested readers know that, in addition to the unedited recording of the full conference, the good people at the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center have made available edited videos of each of the conference, which you can access from the conference webpage. I’ll also post the conferennce schedule with the video links below, in the hopes that you will also be able to get to the videos directly from here, but if the links below don’t work you can get the videos from the Stigler page by following he link above. Continue reading

How Transparent Should Prosecutors Be About Investigations Into High-Level Corruption?

Today’s post is going to be one of those ones where I raise a question that I’ve been puzzling over, without having much to offer in the way of good answers.

Here’s the question: How open and transparent with the public should the officials investigating serious allegations of high-level corruption be about the progress of their investigations?

To be sure, no competent investigator or prosecutor would or should be completely transparent, as doing so might well tip off the targets of the investigation to what the investigators know, their investigative and legal strategies, and so forth. But even with that constraint, there’s a fairly broad range of options. Investigators could be absolutely tight-lipped about everything. Or they could hold regular press conferences covering significant developments in the case (and perhaps even going further to comment on the larger issues that the investigation implicates). Or something in between.

I was prompted to think more about this question in part by an exchange I had with Jose Ugaz at last month’s Harvard conference on Populist Plutocrats. I was asking Mr. Ugaz about his experience serving as Peru’s Ad Hoc State Attorney investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption in the Fujimori regime, and in particular how he dealt with concerns that his investigation might be perceived as politicized. Those who are interested can watch the video of our exchange (which starts around 7:15:55), but the key part of Mr. Ugaz’s response (slightly edited for clarity) ran as follows: Continue reading

Getting Serious (and Technical) About Procurement Corruption: The Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project

For corruption fighters, public procurement is notable for two reasons. One, it is damnably complex. Two, it is often permeated with corrupt deals.  The latter makes it a critical target of anticorruption policy, the former a tough nut to crack. The thicket of laws, regulations, standard bidding documents, and practices that govern procurement means civil society groups advocating counter corruption measures are often at sea.  Lacking expertise on this bewildering set of rules, they can do little more than campaign in general terms for reform, urging steps like “greater transparency” or “tougher penalties” for corrupt activities.

But as anyone knows who has tried to persuade a government of uncertain will and commitment to adopt effective anticorruption policies, the devil is in the details.  Unless one has mastered the details of public procurement, a government can do all sorts of things to “improve transparency” or “crack down on procurement scofflaws” that are nothing but public relations gambits. So it is a pleasure to report that civil society organizations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have joined to form the Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project, which provides a way for staff to master the details of the public procurement and to thus be able to present detailed proposals for rooting corruption out of their nation’s public procurement systems.    Continue reading

Guest Post: Transparency International UK’s Pledge Tracker–Amateur Research or Different Objectives?

Last week, GAB Editor-in-Chief Matthew Stephenson published a post sharply criticizing Transparency International UK’s new “Pledge Tracker,” which evaluates how well countries are living up to the pledges they made at the May 2016 London Anti-Corruption Summit. GAB is delighted to have the opportunity to publish the following reply from Robert Barrington, the Executive Director of Transparency International UK:

“A slapdash, amateurish collection of arbitrary, often inconsistent judgements, unsupported by anything that resembles serious research.” Not since I was taken to task over an undergraduate essay by an eminent professor at Oxford have I had work for which I was responsible receive quite such a stinging critique.  On that occasion, I could not escape a sense that my world view differed from that of the professor, and that—irrespective of the detail—was the root of our misunderstanding.

So is Professor Stephenson’s assessment of TI-UK’s Pledge Tracker merited? Here is my overall assessment: he is right on some but not all of the detail; he is wrong on most but not all of the big picture. At the root of the difference is the question of whether this is an index in which countries are compared with each other according to a consistent global standard, or whether it is the presentation of individual country assessments by local civil society organizations of their own country’s progress against their own country’s commitments. Continue reading

Did the McDonnell Decision Legalize Putting Public Officials on Retainer? Menendez’s Challenge to the “Stream of Benefits” Theory

In my post two weeks ago, I argued that in order to assess whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the McDonnell case would have a major impact on public corruption prosecutions—and in the slightly-hyperbolic words of some commentators, whether the decision “legalized public corruption”—the case to watch is the trial of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Since most of the case law coming out of the McDonnell decision has focused on the definition of “official acts” in the context of quid pro quo bribery, many of those watching the Menendez trial expected it to center on how the court interpreted “official acts,” and whether Menendez’s actions qualified. But the case took an unexpected twist: the same day I published my post, Judge William Walls zeroed in on McDonnell’s effect on the prosecution’s stream of benefits theory of corruption—a key part of the government’s case.

According to the “stream of benefits” theory of corruption, prosecutors can establish an implicit quid pro quo by showing that a series of bribes were made to keep an official “on retainer,” so the donor can benefit from the official’s service as needed. In other words, on this theory, the government does not need to connect a specific individual gift to a specific individual act. Instead, the government can show that the private party provided a series of payments or gifts to the public servant over time, in exchange for the public servant being “on call” to perform official acts in return as needed. On this theory, the specific official act (the “quo”) doesn’t need to be known or contemplated at the time of the bribe (the “quid”). In Menendez, prosecutors invoked that theory, and attempted to show that the many favors Dr. Salomon Melgen did for Senator Menendez over a period of several years—such as rides on his private plane and trips to luxury resorts in the Caribbean—were offered in exchange for a series of actions Menendez took to lobby the executive branch on Dr. Melgen’s behalf. (The government alleges other charges against Menendez, such as making false statements on financial disclosure forms related to the bribery, but the stream-of-benefits bribery allegations are the heart of the case.)

Senator Menendez’s defense team—drawing on an argument developed in a Cato Institute reportmoved to dismiss the case, arguing that McDonnell narrowed the scope of “official act” so much so that the public official must agree to perform a “specific and focused” act rather than a “broad policy objective,” meaning that the theory that a public official is kept “on retainer” in exchange for a series of favors cannot stand. Judge Walls said he was not sure that the stream of benefits theory was still viable after the McDonnell ruling, and asked the parties to brief the issue over the weekend, even saying to the DOJ lawyers that “if stream of benefits still lives, then you’ve got a chance.” Commentators accordingly rang the alarm bells, worried what extending McDonnell this far would mean for public corruption cases (see here and here).

Judge Walls eventually ruled last Monday that McDonnell did not prevent prosecutors from arguing a stream of benefits theory, concluding instead that the issue of whether there was a quid pro quo was a question of fact for the jury to decide. This was the right decision. Indeed, it’s troubling that the judge took the issue as seriously as he seemed to, as the idea that a fair reading of McDonnell requires outright rejection of the stream of benefits theory seems farfetched. Continue reading