High Costs: Corruption Scandals in America’s Legal Marijuana Industry

The movement to legalize marijuana in the United States has been gaining momentum. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have currently legalized marijuana to some degree, and of those, eleven states and D.C. have legalized recreational use of marijuana.  (Selling, possessing, consuming marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the federal laws against marijuana are rarely enforced, which creates a rather odd situation in the states that have legalized marijuana: those who participate in the marijuana market are still technically engaged in illegal activity, even though that market operates out in the open.) In the absence of uniform federal regulation, those states that have legalized marijuana have adopted different regulatory approaches; most states issue a limited number of licenses to sell or supply marijuana, but have capped the number of licenses in order to limit the amount of marijuana on the market. This makes each license extremely valuable, given that the total value of the marijuana market is estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $52 billion. Additionally, in most states the license evaluation criteria, and the evaluation process, are extremely opaque, and local government officials frequently have substantial discretion regarding who receives these licenses.

Given this combination of factors—state and local officials with the power to issue a small number of extremely valuable licenses through an opaque process—it should come as no surprise that the legal marijuana market has become a hotbed for corruption. Consider just a few examples: Continue reading

U4 Brief on “An International Anti-Corruption Court? A Synopsis of the Debate”

As regular readers likely know, GAB has featured a number of commentaries over the past few years on the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC), modeled on the International Criminal Court, to try senior figures for grand corruption when their domestic justice systems prove unwilling or unable to do so (see here, here, here, here, and here). The idea has attracted a great deal of interest, as well as both support and criticism. To provide a basic overview of the debate so far, a few months ago the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center Centre’s Sofie Schütte and I published a short U4 paper entitled “An International Anticorruption Court? A Synopsis of the Debate.”(The brief is also available in French and Spanish.)  For those out there who are new to this topic, this U4 Brief is meant to provide some general background information and a succinct summary of (1) the strongest arguments in favor of creating an IACC, (2) the strongest criticisms of the IACC proposal, and (3) an overview of some other approaches to the grand corruption and impunity problems. Hope it’s helpful!

Will This Whistleblower Cost Equatorial Guinea its IMF Loan?

Juan Carlos Angue Ondo, pictured below, is the latest individual to reveal details of the grand corruption that plagues Equatorial Guinea.  In recent interviews (here in English and here in Spanish), he describes how the country’s rulers use the judicial system to perpetrate corrupt schemes and maintain their grip on power. The revelations confirm what human rights (here and here) and anticorruption groups (here and here) have said for years: that ideas of judicial independence, due process, and the rule of law are strangers to Equatorial Guinea. 

Angue’s whistleblowing comes at particularly fraught time – both for the nation and for the International Monetary Fund. As blog readers know (here and here), last December the government secured an IMF loan to rescue the economy from recession.  In return, it pledged to take concrete, measurable steps to strengthen the rule of law and combat corruption.  An obvious first step would be to take what Angue claims seriously.  To investigate the allegations, and where warranted prosecute wrongdoers and make needed reforms to laws and judicial institutions. But will Equatorial Guinea’s government do so?

And what will the IMF do if it does not? Halt loan disbursements?  Or sweep the matter under the rug?

The allegations cannot be lightly dismissed. Angue likely knows more about judicial corruption, the absence of the rule of law, and the lack of judicial independence than anyone in Equatorial Guinea. Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Roberto de Michele and Francesco De Simone

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This episode features my interview with Roberto de Michele and Francesco De Simone, who work as work in the state modernization specialists at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In our conversation, we discuss the work that the IDB does on anticorruption, transparency, and related issues, and also how the IDB (or any other entity working in this area) can assess the impact of its projects. We further discuss the relationship between grand and petty corruption, and closely associated questions concerning incremental versus disruptive anticorruption reform strategies. (This discussion includes some discussions of the recommendations of the report prepared by an outside expert advisory group commissioned by the IDB, which Rick discussed shortly after it came out.) Toward the end of the interview, we talk about the impact that scholarly research has had on Roberto and Francesco’s thinking on anticorruption-related topics, and we conclude the interview with a discussion of the current state of corruption in the Americas–considering both the optimistic and pessimistic views of where things are going in the region.

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.

The Independence of U.S. Law Enforcement is Under Attack. Here’s What Congress Can Do About It.

The politicization of the institutions of justice, particularly those associated with criminal law enforcement, is one of the greatest threats to the rule of law and the integrity of government. Corrupt leaders in democracies and autocracies alike seek to undermine any check on their power, thus ensuring impunity for themselves and their allies, and may also try to weaponize criminal investigations to harass and discredit political opponents. For many years, most Americans viewed this sort of threat to the integrity of the institutions of justice as something that only happened abroad, or in the distant past. Not so anymore. Under the Trump Administration, the corruption and politicization of law enforcement institutions is a significant threat to American democracy.

That President Trump lacks respect for the independence and integrity of law enforcement has been evident for some time, at least since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump dismissed Comey in part to the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election, and in part because Comey wouldn’t pledge his personal loyalty to the president.) In the last month, the situation appears to be getting even worse. As has been widely reported in the media, President Trump publicly criticized the Department of Justice (DOJ) for seeking a high sentence in the case of Trump associate Roger Stone; Attorney General Bill Barr claimed that President Trump didn’t issue any specific instructions regarding the case (and complained about the President’s tweeting), but Barr nonetheless recommended a much lower sentence that the DOJ’s own prosecutors had originally requested. Barr recently made the highly unusual decision to install an outside prosecutor to oversee the case against President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In another troubling move that didn’t get as much press attention, in early February Barr issued a memo saying that any FBI investigations into 2020 candidates or their campaigns would require the Attorney General’s approval.

Trump has asserted that he had the legal right, as President, to intervene in criminal cases. This is a contested claim, to say the least. Some argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, the President has ultimate control not only over general DOJ policy, but over decision-making in individual criminal prosecutions. However, others assert that this is not so, and that the Constitution actually imposes certain limits the President’s control over individual prosecutions—most importantly, that the President cannot seek to affect a criminal case out of corrupt or self-interested motivations.

Putting the legal debate to one side for now, and assuming that Congress—if not now, then at some point in the future—would like to establish new safeguards to insulate the DOJ and FBI from the corrupting influence of an unscrupulous president, what might Congress do? I suggest three steps that Congress might take:

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Senator Warren’s Plan to Establish an Independent Task Force to Investigate Trump is a Bad, Bad Idea

Last month, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made a bold anticorruption commitment. She said that, if elected, she would direct the US Department of Justice to establish a special taskforce to investigate the Trump administration for violations of US anticorruption laws—including federal bribery laws, insider trading laws, and public integrity laws. She has has called on every other Democratic presidential candidate to do make the same commitment. Given the egregious corruption of the Trump administration, Senator Warren argues, a special taskforce of this kind is necessary if we are to “move forward to restore public confidence in government and deter future wrongdoing[.]”

Senator Warren—perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate—has put the fight against corruption (both narrowly and broadly defined) at the center of her campaign, and she has generated a range of proposals to combat corruption and strengthen the integrity of US political institutions. She has many good ideas. But this is not one of them. Regardless of whether members of the Trump Administration—including the President, his family members, and members of his cabinet—have engaged in illegal corrupt acts, forming a special DOJ taskforce along the lines proposed by Senator Warren would be a bad idea—bad for the Democratic party, bad for the DOJ, and, most importantly, bad for the United States.

Continue reading

Anticorruption Bibliography–February 2020 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.