Anticorruption Bibliography–October 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.

FACTI Background Paper: Beneficial Ownership

The United Nations High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda Financing for Sustainable Development (FACTI) is developing reforms to tax and anticorruption laws, asset recovery rules, beneficial ownership disclosure requirements, and other international norms to staunch the outflow of illicit funds from developing nations and speed the return of corrupt monies held abroad (preliminary report here).

A critical issue the panel will address is the reforms necessary to ensure corrupt officials cannot use a corporation, trust, or other legally created entity – a “legal person” in lawyer-speak — to hide their wrongdoing.  Those investigating corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, and other financial crimes must be able to identify the real, natural person – the beneficial owner – behind a legal person if we are to curb the massive theft of assets from poor nations. In his background paper for the panel, Andres Knobel of the Tax Justice Network explains how criminals use legal persons to shield their wrongdoing and the measures required to end these abuses.  Most importantly, his condemnation of the injustice of the current laws governing legal persons serves as a powerful prod to action. His summary of the paper is below and the full text here.

Beneficial ownership: more than transparency, it’s about justice

The Panama Papers revealed the involvement of many public figures in offshore legal vehicles causing turmoil all over the world. But the real scandal wasn’t the data that was revealed. Rather, the scandal was the fact that we needed a leak to obtain data that should have been available in the first place.

Continue reading

Interview on the History of Corruption in the U.S. (and Corruption in the Trump Administration)

As regular readers likely know, a little while back I did a post on a new working paper of mine, jointly authored with Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, on corruption and anticorruption in U.S. history. A few weeks ago, Harvard Law Today (the alumni magazine put out by my employer and alma mater) published a short interview I did about what we learned from this research project. In addition to discussing the history, the interviewer also asked some questions regarding the current situation in the U.S. with respect to corruption, especially in connection with the evidence this blog has been collecting of the Trump Administration’s conflicts of interest and efforts to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. It’s a brief interview, and there may not be much in here that will be news to those who read the working paper or follow these issues closely, but I figured I’d share the interview in case some folks out there might find it of interest. The interview also includes a link to a lecture I delivered a year ago on broad themes related to corruption and anticorruption.

Reforming the US AML System: Some Proposals Inspired by the FinCEN Files

Last week, I did a post with some preliminary (and under-baked) reflections on the so-called “FinCEN Files” reports by BuzzFeed News and the Independent Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These stories relied in substantial part on a couple thousand Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that had been filed with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and leaked to a BuzzFeed journalist in 2018. The documents, and the reporting based on them, highlight the extent to which major Western banks assist suspected kleptocrats, terrorists, and other criminal actors move (and launder) staggering amounts of money all over the world, and highlight the deficiencies of the existing anti-money laundering (AML) system.

What can we do to rectify this depressing state of affairs? Much of the commentary I’ve seen so far (both in the FinCEN Files stories themselves, and commentary on the reporting from other sources) emphasizes the need for more individual criminal liability—putting bankers in jail, not just fining banks. Even when banks are threatened or hit with penalties, the argument goes, this doesn’t really have much of a deterrent effect, partly because even what seem like very large monetary sanctions are dwarfed by the profits banks stand to make from assisting shady clients with shady transactions, and partly because the costs of monetary sanctions are mostly passed on to the bank’s shareholders, and don’t really hurt the individuals responsible (or the managers who tolerate, or turn a blind eye to, misconduct).

I’m quite sympathetic to both of these arguments, though with a couple of important caveats. Caveat number one: The absence of individual prosecutions of bankers is sometimes attributed to the fecklessness—or, worse, the “soft” corruption—of federal prosecutors, but as I noted in my last post, I tend to think that the more significant obstacle is the fact that it is very difficult in most cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the that bankers or other intermediaries had the requisite level of knowledge to support a criminal money laundering conviction. Caveat number two: I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss the idea that levying significant monetary penalties on banks can affect their behavior. After all, these institutions are motivated overwhelmingly by money, so hitting them in the pocketbook is hitting them where it hurts. The problem may be less that monetary sanctions are inherently ineffectual in this context, but rather that they are too low and too uncertain to have a sufficient impact on incentives and behavior.

In that vein, I want to suggest a few legal reforms that might make the U.S. AML system function more effectively. I acknowledge that these are “inside the box” ideas, insofar as they seek to make the existing framework more effective rather than to drastically transform that system. That may make these proposals feel unsatisfying to some, though I suspect the proposals will seem radical, even outlandish, to others. I should also acknowledge that I am not at all an AML expert, so it’s quite possible that the discussion below will contain errors or misunderstandings of the law or the system. But, in the spirit of trying to stimulate further discussion by those who really understand this field, let me throw out a few ideas. Continue reading

FACTI Background Paper: Current Trends in Foreign Bribery Investigation and Prosecution

The United Nations High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda Financing for Sustainable Development (FACTI) will recommend reforms to tax and anticorruption laws, asset recovery rules, beneficial ownership disclosure requirements, and other international norms to staunch the outflow of illicit funds from developing nations and speed the return of corrupt monies held abroad. A link to the panel’s interim report and instructions for submitting comments is here

As explained in an earlier post, the panel’s recommendations will draw on background papers commissioned by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the panel’s Secretariat.  A link to the papers is here

Dr. Abiola Makinwa of the Hague University of Applied Sciences authored a very fine one analyzing trends In the investigation and prosecution of foreign bribery cases (here).  Her summary of the paper is below.

Current Trends in Foreign Bribery Investigation and Prosecution

My paper examines systemic issues, such as lack of political will, profound information asymmetries, and the overarching general insufficiency of traditional criminal punishment as a response to the ‘true costs’ of corruption. I draw attention to Article 39 of the UN Convention against Corruption which calls for cooperation between national authorities and private sector entities as an integral aspect of anti-corruption enforcement. In practice, such cooperation between alleged offenders and prosecuting authorities may result in an agreement or resolution that reduces eventual sanction or penalty. These agreements are variously referred to as non-trial resolutions (NTRs), negotiated settlements, or structured settlements.

I show in the paper how the use of NTRs in foreign bribery cases is spreading across jurisdictions and is dramatically changing the face of anti-corruption enforcement.  While NTRs may be a pragmatic, new mechanism to overcome the limitations of traditional criminal prosecution of foreign bribery, they must not be seen as a get-out-of-jail card or lead to the decriminalization of the grievous crime of foreign bribery. Nonetheless, it is clear that NTRs provide a development-friendly response to foreign bribery enforcement by overcoming historic impunity and lack of enforcement. The most important “development dividend” of NTRs, is, in my opinion, the fact that NTRs shift the focus of anti-foreign bribery enforcement to corruption prevention.

There are 4 KEY arguments that support countries buying into NTR regimes for anti-foreign bribery enforcement.

Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Frederik Obermaier

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Christopher Starke welcome back to the podcast Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier of the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, who is also affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Obermaier on the podcast about his work breaking the Panama Papers story, which shed unusual light on how corrupt officials and other criminals use anonymous companies to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity. In the new episode, Mr. Obermaier discusses the so-called FinCEN Files (which I blogged about last week): the leak of over two thousand suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed with the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Mr. Obermaier explains why and how the FinCEN Files reveal how badly broken the international anti-money laundering (AML) system is, the likely reasons for the ineffectiveness of the system, how the ICIJ and its journalistic collaborators handled such a sensitive story, and the possible political implications of the stories based on the FinCEN Files reporting.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior 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.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

The most significant new additions are primarily due to some very good pieces of investigative reporting.

  • The first, and more widely covered, is the New York Times reporting on several years of President Trump’s federal income tax returns, including the returns from his first two years in office. The returns shed light on many troubling aspects of the President’s finances, including the exceptionally low tax rates he has paid, evidence of multiple instances of possible fraud (still under investigation by the IRS), and his deep personal indebtedness, which plausibly raises security and other risks. The tax returns also provide significant corroborating evidence of the extent to which President Trump and his businesses have continued to earn substantial income from both private firms and foreign governments, giving rise to extraordinary conflict-of-interest concerns, as well as possible (indeed, likely) violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
  • Second, Dan Alexander’s new book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business, covers in much greater depth, and with significant original reporting, the same themes that we’ve been trying to keep track of here, namely the ways that President Trump has sought to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. A terrific and troubling Vanity Fair article summarizes some of the most significant findings, including compelling evidence that the government of Qatar rented office space in a building 30% owned by President Trump for no apparent purpose other than to influence the U.S. government’s Middle East policy.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

FinCEN Is Seeking Public Input on Proposed Amendments to Its AML Regulations. AML Advocates Should Comment!

In my last post, I discussed the so-called “FinCEN Files” (leaked Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by banks with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)), and the reports from BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) based on those leaked documents. This reporting highlighted serious weaknesses in the current anti-money laundering (AML) system, both in the United States and globally. Perhaps coincidentally (but perhaps not), just a couple of days before the FinCEN Files stories went public, FinCEN issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), seeking public comment on various proposed changes to its current regulations implementing the AML provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). The comment period will remain open until November 16th, 2020. Of course, it’s never clear how seriously federal agencies will take public comments, but in at least some circumstances sophisticated comments, supported by evidence and analysis, can move the needle, at least somewhat, on agency policy. So, I very much encourage those of you out there in ReaderLand, especially those of you who work at organizations that have expertise in this area and might be well-positioned to submit the sort of detailed, substantive comments that stand a chance of making some practical difference, to submit your comments before that deadline. (Comments can be submitted through the federal government’s e-rulemaking portal, referencing the identification number RIN 1506-AB44, and the docket number FINCEN-2020-0011, in the submission. The link above goes directly to the comment section for this rule, though, so you don’t need to enter that info again if you follow the link.)

The full ANPRM is not that long, but let me provide a very quick summary, highlighting the main proposal under consideration and the specific questions on which FinCEN is seeking public input. Continue reading