New Podcast, Featuring Monika Bauhr

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Monika Bauhr, Associate Professor of Political Science and former head of the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg. During our conversation, Professor Bauhr discusses her research work in three key areas: (1) the impact of pro-transparency reforms (particularly the adoption of freedom of information laws) on corruption; (2) the disaggregation of the broad category “corruption” into different types of corruption (such as “need” corruption versus “greed” corruption); and (3) the relationship between gender and corruption, in particular what factors might account for the apparent correlation between greater representation of women in elected office (or the business or political elite more generally) and lower (perceived) corruption levels.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Despite Predictions of Doom, McDonnell v. United States Has Not Derailed U.S. Anticorruption Prosecutions

In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case called McDonnell v. United States, which unanimously vacated the corruption conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell, according to prosecutors, had accepted a variety of gifts and other benefits from a businessman in exchange for using his influence as governor to help that businessman obtain assistance from various state agencies. The federal statute at issue made it a crime for a public official to perform (or offer to perform) an “official act” in exchange for something of value. But the problem, as the Supreme Court saw it, was that the jury in McDonnell’s case was told an “official” act could include something like setting up a meeting, making an introduction, or speaking favorably about a project to the government official responsible for making the relevant decision. This understanding of “official act,” the Supreme Court said, was too broad. An “official act,” the Court held, involves “a formal exercise of governmental power,” and while this could include ordering or pressuring another official to take or refrain from some action, other activities, like “[s]etting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event—without more—does not fit that definition of ‘official act.’”

How big a deal was the McDonnell decision? In the immediate aftermath of the decision, many anticorruption activists decried the holding as permitting “[a]ctions by U.S. politicians that look wrong, smell wrong and raise profound ethical issues.” Indeed, many critics characterized the McDonnell decision as having effectively “legalized” all but the most egregious and clumsy forms of bribery (see, for example, here, here, here, and here.) However, as Professor Stephenson observed on this blog at the time, the McDonnell holding could be read more narrowly. The opinion did make prosecutors’ job somewhat more difficult in holding that merely setting up a meeting or speaking with subordinates would not, without more, count as “official acts,” but the opinion did not appear to rule out the possibility that an official act might include, for example, ordering or pressuring a subordinate to take some specific action on behalf of the bribe-payer. The jury instruction in McDonnell had been (in the Supreme Court’s view) overly broad, but most corruption prosecutions would probably still be able to proceed, so long as the jury was properly instructed. Professor Stephenson acknowledged at the time, though, that this “glass-half-full” view of McDonnell was only one possible reading, and that the decision might end up sweeping much more broadly in practice.

Now, over three years since McDonnell, what can we say about the decision’s impact? In the initial aftermath of the decision, it did indeed seem that McDonnell would prove a major impediment to corruption prosecutions. In the McDonnell case itself, the government decided not to retry McDonnell. This might be read as a tacit admission that under the Supreme Court’s newly-announced understanding of “official act,” the government probably wouldn’t be able to get a conviction. Furthermore, the decision was seen as triggering a string of significant defeats for public integrity prosecutors. For example: The government failed to obtain a guilty verdict against New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez on federal corruption charges (the trial ended in a hung jury, and the government subsequently dropped the case); a federal appeals court, citing McDonnell, vacated two hard-won guilty verdicts for corruption against the prominent New York politicians Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos; and federal prosecutors in New York decided not to pursue charges after a long public corruption investigation into New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, because of “the high burden of proof, the clarity of existing law” and the challenge of proving corruption without “evidence of personal profit.” The De Blasio case is especially pertinent given that two men, Harendra Singh and Jona S. Rechnitz, pled guilty to giving De Blasio’s campaign and Political Action Committee tens of thousands of dollars in return for the mayor helping them negotiate favorable settlements for businesses that owed the city millions in rent and property charges. Even with these two witnesses, prosecutors dropped the case because they appeared unsure Mayor De Blasio took an “official action” as defined in McDonnell.

But these initial indicators did not develop into a larger trend, and McDonnell has not turned out to be as much of an impediment to federal corruption prosecutions as some critics feared. Subsequent government prosecutions and court decisions have made this clear. Consider the following examples: Continue reading

Will the Swiss Condone Torture in the Rush to Return Assets to Uzbekistan?

Allegations of torture have dogged the planned return of stolen assets from Switzerland to Uzbekistan for years (here). In a recent interview, a cellmate of one of the alleged torture victims has given the claims new life.  And should give Swiss citizens and their government pause before proceeding with any return.

The assets to be returned are the several hundred million dollars in bribes paid to Gulnara Karimova for the grant of mobile phone licenses in Uzbekistan, something within her power as daughter of the country’s then president.  She stashed most of the money in Switzerland, and when the scheme was exposed, Swiss prosecutors promptly opened a money laundering case against Gulnara and her accomplices. From the outset, the Swiss government made it clear that, if and when defendants were found guilty, the laundered funds would be returned to Uzbekistan.

A breakthrough came in 2018 when Gayane Avakyan, one of Gulnara’s accomplices, signed a Swiss Summary Penalty Order confessing to her role in the money laundering scheme and giving up any claim to the laundered funds.  The order was signed while she was serving time in an Uzbekistan prison, and because of multiple, credible reports that torture is commonly practiced in Uzbek prisons, questions were immediately raised about whether torture or the threat of torture was used to get Avakyan to sign.  A prison cellmate now says she was in fact subjected to a particularly harsh form of torture while incarcerated. Continue reading

Aggressive Criminal Law Enforcement Is Insufficient to Combat Systemic Corruption. But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Necessary.

This will be a super-short blog post that makes a super-short point. Here goes:

Let me start by stating the following proposition: Effective enforcement of anticorruption rules, including criminal law enforcement, against individual wrongdoers is necessary but not sufficient to combat systemic corruption.

Both parts of that proposition are important, and I believe correct:

  • Punishing individual wrongdoers is necessary to combat systemic corruption because without individual accountability, it’s not possible to deter those who might be tempted to abuse their entrusted power for private gain, and the absence of individual accountability will likely perpetuate the belief that powerful elites are above the law, feeding the sense of hopelessness or resignation or cynicism that contributes to the vicious cycle that perpetuates systemic corruption.
  • Punishing individual wrongdoers is not sufficient to combat systemic corruption because widespread corruption is generally the product of systems, institutions, and cultures that create the incentives and opportunities to behave corruptly, and without addressing these root causes of corruption, even the most aggressive anticorruption enforcement efforts will be ineffective.

I don’t think either of those claims should be controversial. But I’ve noticed that in debates over anticorruption efforts in various countries, people sometimes commit the logical fallacy—usually by implication rather than expressly—of treating the second claim (that criminal law enforcement is not sufficient to combat systemic corruption) as if it negated the first claim (that criminal law enforcement is necessary to combat systemic corruption). The argument is usually phrased something like this: “Country X is cracking down on corruption and aggressively enforcing its anticorruption laws and putting people in jail. But this is a mistake, because combating systemic corruption actually requires broad-based institutional reforms. The focus should therefore be on institutional reform, not on aggressive criminal law enforcement.”

I agree that criminal prosecutions alone can’t solve the corruption problem, and recent history is littered with examples of anticorruption “crackdowns” that failed to produce lasting change. And there’s certainly an important question as to where the emphasis should be—it’s entirely possible that in many countries there’s too much focus on criminal prosecutions and too little attention to other types of reform. But it’s not an either/or tradeoff, and it troubles me that the (correct) observation that criminal prosecutions are insufficient is so often deployed rhetorically to imply that aggressive criminal law enforcement is not necessary or appropriate. (I noted something like this argument in a previous exchange concerning Ukraine, and more recently encountered it in a discussion of the Car Wash Operation in Brazil, but I’ve heard basically the same line in conversations about many other countries.) Recognizing the importance of structural reform shouldn’t obscure the fact that effective enforcement of anticorruption laws, and the imposition of individual accountability, is also a vital part of the anticorruption agenda. After all, while there are plenty of punishment-focused anticorruption crackdowns that failed to produce systemic change, I can’t think of any successful efforts to get rampant corruption under control that didn’t involve a hefty dose of aggressive enforcement of the laws against corruption, including prosecution and punishment.

The Alleged Police Misconduct in the Netanyahu Corruption Investigations Illustrates Why Police Should Err on the Side of Caution

In corruption investigations, witness testimony is often crucial. After all, corrupt acts usually take place in secret, and the parties involved rarely leave behind records documenting their illegal deeds. It should therefore come as no surprise that an essential part of the corruption investigations into Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the law enforcement authorities’ attempt to obtain incriminating testimony from those with (allegedly) first-hand knowledge of the corrupt actions, and to turn some of them into “state’s witnesses” (defined by Israeli law as “an accomplice who testifies on behalf of the prosecution after a benefit has been given or promised [to] him [or her],” usually in the form of immunity from prosecution or other alleviations). These efforts have met with some success (see here, here, and here).

However, according to Israeli news outlets whose reporters have gotten access to leaked police transcripts, the Netanyahu investigators may have gone too far. These transcripts suggest that police investigators tried to convince two key witnesses, who themselves were suspected of involvement in the corrupt schemes, to replace their defense attorneys – apparently because these defense attorneys had been advising their clients not to sign a state’s witness agreement (see here and here). (In Israel, defense attorneys are not present in the interrogation room, as suspects do not have a right to have their lawyers present during an interrogation.) One of the witnesses did indeed hire a new attorney and signed a state’s witness agreement, though we can’t be sure if the police investigators’ “suggestion” that he do so was the reason. If the police did pressure these suspects to fire their lawyers, it would be illegal, as Israel’s Supreme Court has held that police may not attempt to interfere with a suspect’s relationship with, or trust in, her attorney. In addition, the transcripts suggest that the police may have illegitimately pressured one of the witnesses during his arrest, threatening that lack of cooperation might result in negative consequences to him and others, and employing highly controversial interrogation tactics (see herehere, and here). At this stage, we do not yet know for sure what actually transpired, and Israel’s Attorney General has ordered that the claims of police misconduct be investigated.

The leaked transcripts and the allegations of severe police misconduct have generally been greeted with wide public criticism that transcended political boundaries. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supporters and party members, including the Minister of Justice, have (unsurprisingly) been most critical, arguing that the police’s actions offer more proof of Netanyahu’s “persecution” by law enforcement authorities, a claim that has been promoted by Netanyahu almost since the beginning of his investigations (see here and here). Putting that harsh (and unproven) last claim to one side, it’s definitely the case that police investigators have been zealous in their pursuit of Netanyahu and his alleged co-conspirators, and the police may have been, at the very least, pushing the boundaries of what the law allows. This, in my view, is a mistake. To be clear, I do not mean to argue simply that the police should not break the law. That is true, but not many people would claim that the police should disregard the law when fighting corruption. But there’s another view out there, espoused by a considerable number of “tough on corruption” proponents, that law enforcement authorities should “push the envelope” as much as possible, doing everything they can even if their actions are sometimes to be deemed illegal by courts. According to this view, there is no place for softness in the interrogation room, and the police sometimes need to be willing to operate right at the edge of what the law will permit. It is this attitude that I want to argue against.

And this is not only because we should care about the rights of suspects and the fairness of criminal investigations. Indeed, “tough on corruption” proponents ought to worry the most about forms of police aggressiveness that come close to, and may cross, the line into police misconduct. In the Netanyahu case, to stick with that example, the police investigators’ alleged overreach may also prove to be counterproductive to anticorruption efforts, not only putting the investigation in jeopardy but producing long-term adverse consequences for effective anticorruption law enforcement. From the perspective of anticorruption policy, there are a few practical reasons why the police, while investigating allegations of corruption, should fully respect the rights of witnesses, and err on the side of caution: Continue reading

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Flawed and Irrelevant Defense to Bribery Allegations

After three years of investigations, it’s likely that Benjamin Netanyahu will soon become Israel’s first sitting prime minister to be indicted. The indictment, which has already been published by the Attorney General though not yet submitted to the court, accuses Netanyahu of several crimes of corruption. One of the most serious allegations (commonly referred to as “Case 4000”) is that when Netanyahu served as both Prime Minister and the Minister of Communications, he took steps to promote a deregulation of the telecom sector that would greatly benefit Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, one of Israel’s largest telecom firms. In particular, Netanyahu is alleged to have pushed for a decision allowing Bezeq to merge with another Israeli telecom giant. In return, Netanyahu allegedly received favorable media coverage from a news company controlled by Mr. Elovitch during two general elections.

Netanyahu has yet to submit a formal statement of defense to the charges, but given his countless press releases and interviews, it’s easy to predict what he will say. In particular, Netanyahu and his spokespersons have repeatedly argued that “decisions Netanyahu made regarding the telecom giant when he was communications minister were reasonable, had the support of the ministry’s professionals and were approved by the legal gatekeepers” (emphasis added). It’s not clear at this stage whether it is in fact true that the professionals in the Ministry of Communications also supported the merger. But suppose it were true. Why would it matter? Why would this be a defense to the bribery charges? Netanyahu and his supporters have remained vague, perhaps intentionally so, on this point. But there seem to be three possible arguments that he might advance as to why the Ministry professional staff’s (alleged) agreement with his position supplies a defense to the bribery allegation. None of these arguments has merit, and the court should dismiss all of them.

Continue reading

Anticorruption Bibliography–November 2019 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.