“Petty” Corruption Isn’t Petty

Grand corruption attracts plenty of attention—from activists, the mainstream media, and other commentators (including on this blog)—and for good reason. While the media may simply be riveted by the decadent lifestyles of corrupt actors, the anticorruption community has increasingly recognized the devastating impact that kleptocrats and their cronies can have. No doubt, this attention to grand corruption is welcome and recent successes in fighting it are laudable. At the same time, though, this increased focus on grand corruption carries with it the risk of making smaller, more everyday forms of corruption—sometimes called “petty” corruption—seem less consequential.

Yet so-called “petty” corruption remains widespread, and its aggregate impact should not be underestimated. By way of example, consider the most recent results from the Transparency International (TI) Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey of citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, which found that one-third of people who used a public service paid a bribe in order to do so. In other words, for these 90 million people, their ability to access a government service to which they were entitled was conditioned upon an extralegal payment—and that’s just accounting for this one region.

Even as the anticorruption community rightly focuses attention on combatting grand corruption, we can’t forget the real havoc wreaked by smaller-scale corruption. So-called “petty” corruption is not a petty concern. Rather, it’s a serious, pervasive problem that deserves just as much sustained attention as does politicians buying collector cars and oceanfront properties with assets from their secret offshore bank accounts. At the risk of repeating familiar points, it’s worth reviewing the ways in which small-scale corruption has, cumulatively, a range of incredibly destructive effects:

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“Right to Information” or “Right to Intimidation”? The Unfulfilled Promise of India’s Right to Information Act (RTI)

On July 18, 2017, Rajesh Savaliya, a 31-year-old activist, left his home in Surat, India to visit a friend’s construction site. The next day, he was found severely injured on the side of a highway, and doctors pronounced him dead later that day. Mr. Savaliya was murdered because of his attempts to expose corruption in his hometown schools, including the education mafia extracting money from students and schools operating without proper licenses and approval letters. As part of his campaign to expose this corruption, Mr. Savaliya had filed multiple requests for information about the local schools pursuant to India’s Right to Information Act (RTI). Sadly, Mr. Savaliya’s story is not unique: Since 2005, over 60 activists have been killed, and hundreds of others have been assaulted or harassed, for filing RTI requests.

Freedom of Information laws like India’s RTI Act can be a powerful pro-transparency tool for combating corruption and mismanagement in government. The RTI Act, which was adopted following a nationwide grassroots campaign, provides every Indian citizen the right to request information from a public authority—a right which is invoked by 4–6 million citizens each year. Yet the RTI Act is unlikely to be effective in exposing serious corruption—especially in cases where criminal elements have infiltrated or coopted state organs—unless those filing RTI requests are adequately protected and insulated from intimidation.

Not only are current protections for RTI requesters inadequate, but India seems, if anything to be moving in the wrong direction. Early this year, as a part of a package of proposed updates to the rules governing the RTI Act, India’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) proposed a new rule (Rule 12), which would allow RTI requestors to withdraw their appeals of decisions refusing disclosure, and would also require all such appeals to terminate upon the death of the requestor. Proposed Rule 12 has been widely criticized (see here, here, and here), in part because these changes would further incentivize threats and violence against RTI requesters like Rajesh Savaliya. As the Human Rights Initiative noted, “Draft Rule 12 will only legitimize such attacks and embolden vested interests who wish to keep corruption and maladministration under wraps.”

Instead of adopting counterproductive measures like Draft Rule 12, the DoPT and Indian Parliament should instead amend the Act and governing rules to better promote the safety and security of RTI requesters. Here are three potential changes—in order of likelihood of success and impact—that would serve this objective:

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Dispatches from the UNCAC Conference of States Parties, Part 2: International Enforcement of Anticorruption Agreements

Last month, the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) Conference of States Parties (COSP) was held in Vienna, Austria. In addition to the formal meetings of government representatives, the COSP also featured a number of panels, speeches, and other side events, at which leading experts discussed and debated a range of anticorruption topics. GAB is delighted that Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professor Juliet Sorensen and her student Kobby Lartey, who attended the COSP, have offered to share highlights of some of the most interesting sessions in a series of guest posts. Today’s post is the second in that series.

The COSP panel on “Corruption and International Laws and Judgments” generated candid conversations about the role of international laws and judgments in the fight against corruption. Moderated by Bart Scheffers of the Open Society Foundation, the panel included one of us (Juliet Sorensen), along with Transparency International’s Gillian Dell; the Helsinki Committee’s Harry Hummel; and France Chain of the OECD. Continue reading

Best Wishes for the New Year

As the year ends I want to thank the 86, 826 individuals from 209 jurisdictions who visited GAB this year.  A special thanks to those who offered comments or clarified my often-feeble efforts to alert readers to new developments or alternative approaches to fighting the common enemy.

See you in 2018.

Dispatches from the UNCAC Conference of States Parties, Part 1: Revisiting the Jakarta Principles of Anti-Corruption Agencies

Last month, the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) Conference of States Parties (COSP) was held in Vienna, Austria. In addition to the formal meetings of government representatives, the COSP also featured a number of panels, speeches, and other side events, at which leading experts discussed and debated a range of anticorruption topics. GAB is delighted that Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professor Juliet Sorensen and her student Kobby Lartey, who attended the COSP, have offered to share highlights of some of the most interesting sessions in a series of guest posts. Today’s post is the first in that series.

Though specialized anticorruption agencies (ACAs) are dismissed by some as redundant or ineffective, last month’s COSP panel on “Revisiting the Jakarta Principles: Strengthening Anti-Corruption Agencies’ Independence and Effectiveness” made a strong case for ACA’s importance to the fight against corruption. (The Jakarta Principles are drawn from a 2012 statement drafted by anticorruption practitioners and experts from around the world; these broad, aspirational principles help anticorruption to protect themselves, and to offer inspiration for their work.) The panel, which included ACA commissioners from Indonesia, France, Romania, and Burkina Faso, as well as representatives from Transparency International, the UNODC, and UNDP, the panel highlighted the diverse struggles and successes of member states’ ACAs. Continue reading

Preemptive FOIA Suits Chill Transparency Across the U.S.

Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs) have been strong anticorruption tools in the United States for decades. Though the federal government and the 50 state governments each have their own version of FOIA, the basics are similar across the board: these statutes require the publication of certain government documents and allow any citizen to request the disclosure of unreleased records, and the government must provide that information, subject to certain important exemptions (for example, exceptions related to national security, personal privacy, and internal government deliberations). If the government agency does not answer a FOIA request within a certain period of time, set by the statute, the requester can file a FOIA lawsuit to force the agency to respond.

At the federal level, FOIA requests were one of the tools used to uncover former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private charter planes for government travel, leading both to his resignation and to increased scrutiny on travel by other Cabinet members. The federal FOIA also played a key role during the Clinton Administration in uncovering corruption at the Department of Agriculture. Though the state-level FOIA laws get less attention, they have also played an important role in exposing corruption and related misconduct. In Virginia, for example, requests under the state FOIA helped build the corruption case against former Governor Bob McDonnell. Similarly, Michigan’s FOIA statute helped reveal information that led to charges against Detroit’s mayor for misconduct and obstruction of justice.

However, a new threat has recently emerged to the effectiveness of these laws, particularly at the state level. State and local governments have begun responding to state FOIA requests by suing the requester to ask the court for a so-called “declaratory judgment” that the agency is not obligated to release the information requested. These preemptive FOIA suits put one of the most powerful anticorruption tools in the United States at risk.

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Fake News: An Emerging Threat to Anticorruption Activists

The reputation of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (ANTAC), a Ukrainian anticorruption NGO, was called into question in May 2017, when a video featuring a report from the American “News24” network appeared on YouTube; the video reported on investigations into the finances of Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of the ANTAC board. A few months later, in September 2017, Ukraine’s NewsOne featured a live broadcast of a sitting of the US Congressional Committee on Financial Issues in relation to alleged corruption in the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU). The hearing focused largely on the conduct of Valeriya Hontareva, who had championed reforms of the banking sector to prevent misuse of the system by business tycoons. The panelists suggested that Ms. Hontareva was herself corrupt and being investigated by the US Congress.

Reports that leading figures fighting for more integrity in Ukraine might themselves be corrupt are, of course, disturbing. What’s even more disturbing is the fact that both of these stories were completely fabricated. News24 does not exist. The news anchor who appeared in the purported News24 video was an American actor named Michael-John Wolfe, hired through the site Fiverr.com. As for the broadcast of the hearing before the “US Congressional Committee on Financial Issues”—there is no such committee. The so-called “hearing” was in fact a private event organized by lobbyists (including former congressman Connie Mack), held in a room in the basement of the US Capitol without the attendance of any current members of Congress. (Representative Ron Estes (R-KS) sponsored the room’s booking, apparently in violation House ethics guidelines.)

Although attempts to tarnish the reputations of activists and reformers are not new, the two incidents described above reveal that anti-anti-corruption forces are beginning to deploy the “fake news” tactics that garnered so much attention in recent elections, especially though not exclusively in the United States. And while in these incidents fake news was used as an offensive strategy, fake news has also been deployed defensively, for example by the wealthy and influential Gupta family in South Africa, to shake off allegations of corruption.

Although these efforts in Ukraine seem clumsy and easily exposed, it is likely that fake news will be an increasingly difficult challenge for anticorruption efforts in the years to come. The fake news phenomenon threatens to undermine anticorruption efforts in a variety of ways: Continue reading