Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?

The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence. Continue reading

South Africa Exhibits the Pitfalls of Private Prosecutions for Corruption

In March 2018, after several years of investigation stemming from allegations of corruption and mismanagement, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced that it would not pursue charges against former South African Revenue Service Commissioner Tom Moyane. But this was decision short lived. A few weeks later, the NPA abruptly reversed course, explaining that it had reopened its investigation into Moyane and was reconsidering its decision not to prosecute. In the interim, the South African civil rights group Corruption Watch had publicly requested from the NPA a certificate of nolle prosequi—a document formally affirming the NPA’s decision not to prosecute. Obtaining such a certificate was a preliminary and necessary legal step for Corruption Watch to launch its own private prosecution of Moyane—which, under South African Law, Corruption Watch would have been able to do if the NPA formally declined to prosecute. Corruption Watch was calling NPA’s bluff, saying, in effect, “prosecute Moyane or else we will.”

Corruption Watch’s implicit threat stems from Section 7 of South Africa’s Criminal Procedure Act (CPA), which permits a citizen to criminally prosecute another person or entity if the NPA formally declines to prosecute. These prosecutions are similar to civil suits but with all the trial rights and potential penalties associated with a state prosecution. Moreover, at any time during a private prosecution the NPA may request permission from the supervising court to step back in and take over the case. South Africa is not unique in this regard: There are provisions for private prosecutions in other countries—especially Commonwealth countries—including the UK, Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, as well as in China and Israel.

Many commentators in the international community have been optimistic about the potential of private prosecutions, particularly in combating corruption (see here, here, and on this blog here). And forces inside South Africa have been especially enthusiastic; in 2017, the South African civil society organization AfriForum launched its own dedicated private prosecutions unit focused on prosecuting corrupt government officials, with other organizations expressing similar interest. Much of this optimism stems from sheer frustration with the current prosecution regime in South Africa, a country that has long been plagued by selective prosecution, especially in the area of corruption.

South Africa could certainly use more pressure on the NPA to act; the country would also benefit from more resources, whatever the source, devoted to investigating and prosecuting corruption cases. And the fact that the threat of private prosecution appears to have spurred the NPA to action in the Moyane case is encouraging. Nevertheless, South Africa’s recent flirtation with private prosecutions actually illustrates why countries—including and perhaps especially South Africa—should be cautious about embracing organized, comprehensive private prosecution regimes to supplement traditional state prosecution. Continue reading

Guest Post: To Be Effective, Public Company Ownership Registries Must Be Linked

Today’s guest post is from Louise Russell-Prywata, Program Manager at OpenOwnership, a global non-governmental organization that promotes greater corporate transparency by making it easier to publish and access data on company ownership.

Danske Bank’s Estonian branch appears to have enabled international money laundering on an enormous scale, with Danske Bank currently investigating  about $236 billion in suspicious transactions (including, but not limited to, the notorious “Azerbaijani Laundromat” in operation from 2012-2014). Yet while money laundering on this scale may be unusual, the mechanisms that allowed funds to flow undetected from countries such as Russia, through Danske Bank Estonia, and into jurisdictions including the UK, are quite familiar. One of the most important of these techniques is the use (and abuse) of anonymously-owned companies.

If we want to stem the tide of money laundering through corporate vehicles, then public registers of the every company’s “ultimate beneficial owners” (UBOs) are an important part of the solution. Publicly available information would decrease reliance on whistleblower allegations to uncover money laundering, and companies themselves would benefit by reducing the costs of due diligence. There has been significant progress to implement public UBO registers in some countries, including the UK and Ukraine, and several other countries have committed to adopting UBO registers in future. There is already some evidence that these registers can make a difference. For example, following the requirement for UBO disclosure for Scottish Limited Partnerships (SLPs), the number of new incorporations fell dramatically; this is encouraging, as SLPs have featured prominently in several grand corruption cases. However, the Danske Bank revelations highlight that the power of national registers in isolation is limited.

To effectively deter and detect corruption and money laundering, public UBO data from different countries needs to be linked in a manner that is useful for law enforcement, investigative journalists, and others. The data from different registers must be compatible, so that it would be possible, for example, to ascertain whether the Ms. Doe owning Doe Holdings Ltd. registered in the UK, is the same Ms. Doe owning Doe’s Ltd. in Cayman Islands. This is important because a money-laundering trail rarely leads neatly from source jurisdiction straight to a company whose UBO is listed in a public register. Criminals and their associates tend to create a complex chain of legal entities to hide the illicit origin of their funds. This was the case in the Azerbaijani Laundromat, for example. Linking together UBO information from different jurisdictions would make it far easier to “follow the money” in grand corruption and money laundering cases. While law enforcement in some cases have powers to do this now, in practice the process can be complex and expensive, and it is not easily possible to link information at scale. Continue reading