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:

  • First, criminal prosecutions carry immense expressive value and signal to society that certain acts ought to be condemned. The message sent to society, when a court convicts a senior official for a policy failure absent any showing of dishonesty, is not likely to be that the government will not tolerate corruption, but rather that prosecutors and judges have broad power to jail leaders that they don’t like. This is only worsened by the inherently subjective nature of the crime in question. These prosecutions also blur the lines between genuinely dishonest conduct and policy mistakes, undermining the special condemnation that ought to be reserved for the former. On balance, even if prosecutions for dereliction of duty might enable prosecutors to convict leaders suspected of actual but unprovable graft, in the long term such prosecutions will only worsen the respect for rule of law in societies troubled by corruption in governance.
  • Second, and connected to the first point, such broad offenses raise the very real risk of politically motivated prosecutions. In countries where voters are angry about corruption, politicians often stress increased anticorruption prosecutions to show their commitment to reform. What better way to show such commitment then by attacking the alleged corruption of the previous regime? And this is much easier to do when the prosecutors (influenced by the new government) need not actually prove dishonesty, but need only find some alleged failure to fulfill a duty, or some act not in the “public interest.” Not only are partisan witch-hunts contrary to the rule of law, they also don’t always make for sound cases, and can ultimately dilute both the strength of using the courts as an anticorruption force and the faith of the public in the integrity of the institutions of justice.
  • Third, broad anticorruption laws that effectively criminalize negligence are likely to have an undesirable chilling effect on decision-making by public officials. When elected officials take bold moves they already run a risk of alienating their electorate and losing a re-election. Add to that the specter of eventual criminal liability once they’re out of office, and it officials are likely to become too timid to try anything even slightly bold or controversial. This fear of risk trickles down to any official tasked with implementing government policy.

To be sure, elected officials owe a duty to the citizenry to act in the public interest. If they fail to do so, and the failure can be proven to be due to dishonesty or greed, then more narrowly-drawn laws against bribery, embezzlement, and conflict of interest would apply. For serious errors that are made in good faith – or even in those cases where there’s suspicion of wrongdoing but it can’t be proved – there’s an alternative remedy already in place: elections. The political process is of course imperfect. Many Thais were likely frustrated that Yingluck didn’t seem to pay a serious political cost for the failure of the rice-buying scheme, and may have been relieved both by the coup that removed her from power and by her eventual conviction for dereliction of duty. But in the long term, the democratic process offers a better safeguard than allowing for politicians to be sent to jail for mistakes.

7 thoughts on “Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes

  1. There are two categories of actions by a public official: (a) doing something that you are not supposed to do, and (b) not doing something that you are supposed to do. Obviously, the first part is corruption, how do we treat the second part?

    • I’d be a bit restrained in calling the first part corruption outright unless I know what is it that the official was “not supposed to do”. Like this post suggests, I think the second part is best dealt with by democratic processes of elections and / or impeachment when we are dealing with elected officials. If officials are unelected, then the machinery must be efficient enough to remove them. If it is not, then we need to examine whether that is motivated by bad faith or just governmental inertia which is more common than generally assumed.

      But, I’d say the most interesting area is the overlap between your two categories – and when we can’t say for sure where the conduct falls. I don’t know how best to address that conduct and would love to hear your thoughts!

  2. Pingback: Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes | Matthews' Blog

  3. Abhinav, thanks so much for this post. I agree overall with you conclusions, but I wanted to raise some questions about how this works in practice and whether any results from laws such as these have been measured. For instance, where a political party or group in power is accused of “wrongfully discharg[ing] a duty,” and that political group has influence over the prosecutors, do these laws make a difference in the practical reduction of corruption? Do you know if the effectiveness of these laws have been measured?

  4. So I don’t know of any studies looking at this process. I can speak for India, though, having worked there. The Indian setting has an anti-corruption investigating agency that does not have any autonomy, and is commonly derided as being an instrumentality of the government. This nexus doesn’t reduce corruption but definitely tilts the balance in favor of a particular kind of cases being chased – i.e. those against political opponents.

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