New Podcast, Featuring Tommy Thomas

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Tommy Thomas, who served as the Attorney General of Malaysia in 2018-2020, and who in that capacity headed the investigation and prosecution of cases arising out of the so-called 1MDB corruption scandal. Our conversation covers both the 1MDB scandal and the broader political and economic circumstances that contributed to and facilitated this and similar sorts of corruption. We also discuss Malaysia’s anticorruption institutions, the factors that are most important to ensuring the independence and effectiveness of these institutions, and possibilities for reform. Toward the end of the interview, Mr. Thomas explains recent political developments, including those that led up to his resignation in early 2020, and also touches on the challenges of finding and recovering stolen assets. 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.      

India’s Agriculture Reform Bills May Not Be Perfect, But They Can Help Fight Rampant Corruption

India’s farmers are up in arms, and have been for several months. In the midst of a cold Delhi winter, tens of thousands are braving tear gas, batons, and water cannons to protest a set of three new agricultural bills passed by the Modi government late last year. The government promises that these bills will bring about much needed reform in India’s agricultural sector, eliminating corruption in the state-run system and increasing the payout to farmers. Unfortunately, in its usual fashion, the Modi government opted to set aside federalist principles and run roughshod over democracy in introducing the reforms, contributing to the barrage of protests it now faces. And farmers have good reason to complain: the reforms signal an eventual, although not immediate, end to the government’s price floors (the “minimum support price” or MSP) for select crops. While India’s MSP system needs reform, the new bills offer insufficient protections and oversight, thus potentially enabling big business and middlemen, working with corrupt officials, to drive prices so low as to make small-scale farming impossible.

Despite these genuine and serious problems, the main reforms at the heart of these bills would do a lot of good—not least because these reforms would make major strides in addressing corruption as it exists now. And while the Modi government’s high-handed rollout of the bills has already done a great deal of damage, in terms of substance, a few key modifications to the bills could address the most serious concerns about the corrupt exploitation of farmers that the bill might otherwise foster. 

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Sunday’s Election Will Not Be Peru’s Reckoning with Corruption

It has been a dramatic five years in Peru since the last presidential election.

A series of standoffs between the executive and legislative branches have seen one dissolution of Congress and three attempts at impeachment of the president. Two former presidents have been arrested for their involvement in the Odebrecht corruption scandal, and a third committed suicide moments before the police arrived to arrest him. Keiko Fujimori, the opposition leader and two-time presidential runner-up, was arrested for corruption, released, and is now running for president once more.

This turbulence came to a head last October, when Peru was engulfed in its biggest political crisis in a generation. Martín Vizcarra, the former president who had served for two and a half years since Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in 2018 in the face of a vote-buying scandal, was himself impeached by Congress following credible but unproven allegations that he had accepted bribes earlier in his career. Congress appointed Manuel Merino, the president of the Congress who spearheaded the campaign to impeach Vizcarra, as interim president. Peruvians, outraged at the abrupt removal of a president who enjoyed considerable public support for his commitment to anticorruption reform, took to the streets to protest. They were met with police violence, and two young Peruvians were killed. Merino relented, resigning the presidency after a five-day tenure, and Congress appointed Francisco Sagasti – a moderate who had voted against impeaching Vizcarra – to serve out the final months of the term until the April 11 election.

The magnitude of the public’s mobilization against Merino’s interim presidency was seen by many observers (myself included) as a decisive turning point in the Peruvian people’s willingness to tolerate a corrupt political class. The country’s public health and economy have been ravaged by Covid-19. If there were a perfect moment for a meaningful anticorruption movement to sweep from the bottom to the top – for Peruvian voters to have a sort of “day of reckoning” with systemic corruption – April 11 seemed like that moment.

But now, on the eve of the election, this reckoning looks doubtful to arrive.

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Commentary on the FACTI Panel’s Report and Recommendations (Part 2)

This post is the second in a two-part series on the report and recommendations of the UN’s High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda (the FACTI Panel). In its report, published this past February, the Panel issued 35 recommendations (grouped into 14 categories) for addressing the problem of illicit financial flows. Of those 35 recommendations, 8 principally concerned tax matters, but the other 27 are directly relevant to corruption—especially though not exclusively grand corruption, which often involves cross-border flows of illicit money. I decided that it might helpfully contribute to the conversation about these topics to respond directly with a bit of commentary on each of those 27 recommendations. My last post covered the first 13, and this post will cover the remaining 14. With that prologue out of the way, let’s dive in. Continue reading

Wickedly, Willfully, Fraudulently, Knowingly, and Corruptly

These are the words the court used in convicting Charles Bembridge of the criminal offense of misconduct in public office. Bembridge, an accountant in the receiver and paymaster general’s office of the British armed forces, had failed to report that certain entries in the account books had been omitted. While his conduct didn’t match up with any crime on the statute books, it was, the court said, “contrary to his duty” in an “office of trust,” and thus constituted a crime at common law “misconduct in public office.”

Bembridge appealed, arguing the unfairness of convicting him of the heretofore unknown crime. But with concern about corruption in government growing, then Chief Justice Mansfield had no trouble finding what he had done wrong criminal:

“Here there are two principles applicable: first that a man accepting an office of trust concerning the public, especially if attended with profit, is answerable criminally to the King for misbehaviour in his office: this is true, by whomever and whatever way the officer is appointed […]

Secondly, where there is a breach of trust, fraud or imposition, in a matter concerning the public, though as between individuals it would only be actionable, yet as between the King and the subject it is indictable. That such should be the rule is essential to the existence of the country.”

The 1783 decision in King v. Bembridge creating the offense is a prosecutor’s dream. It is also civil libertarians and human rights defenders’ nightmare.

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Commentary on the FACTI Panel’s Report and Recommendations (Part 1)

This past February, the United Nation’s cumbersomely-named “High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda”—which, thankfully, everyone simply refers to as the FACTI Panel—released its report on Financial Integrity for Sustainable Development. The report (which was accompanied by a briefer executive summary and an interactive webpage) laid out a series of recommendation for dealing with the problem of illicit international financial flows. Though the report states that it contains 14 recommendations, most of these have multiple subparts, which are really distinct proposals, so by my count the report actually lays out a total of 35 recommendations.

I had the opportunity to interview one of the FACTI panelists, Thomas Stelzer—currently the Dean of the International Anti-Corruption Academy—for the KickBack podcast, in an episode that aired last week. Our conversation touched on several of the report’s recommendations. But this seems like a sufficiently important topic, and the FACTI Panel report like a sufficiently important contribution to the debates over that topic, that it made sense to follow up with a more extensive analysis of and engagement with the FACTI Panel’s recommendations.

Of the 35 distinct recommendations in the report, eight of them (Recommendations 2, 3B, 4A, 4B, 4C, 8A, 11A, and 14B) all deal with tax matters (such as tax fairness, anti-evasion measures, information sharing among tax authorities, etc.). While this is an important topic, it is both less directly related to anticorruption and well outside my areas of expertise. So, I won’t address these recommendations. That leaves 27 recommendations. That’s too much for one post, so I’ll talk about 13 recommendations in this post and the other 14 in my next post.

I should say at the outset that, while some of my comments below are critical, overall I am hugely grateful to the members of the FACTI Panel for their important work on this topic. The Panel’s report should, and I hope will, prompt further discussion and careful consideration both of the general problem and the Panel’s specific recommendation. Part of that process is critical engagement, which includes a willingness to raise concerns and objections, and to probe at weak or underdeveloped parts of the arguments. I emphasize this because I don’t want my criticisms below to be mistaken for an attack on the Panel or its report. Rather, I intend those criticisms in a constructive spirit, and I hope they will be so interpreted.


With that important clarification out of the way, let’s dig in, taking each recommendation in sequence.

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To Fix the United States’ Corrupt Border Agency, Defeat Its Union

Immigration reform is likely to be a high priority for the Biden Administration, and while most of the attention will focus on substantive reforms and enforcement strategy, the agenda should also include rooting out corruption in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency charged with protecting the United States’ land borders. CBP is the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency. It is also among its most corrupt. Border Patrol agents and CBP officers are regularly arrested—at a much higher rate than other federal law enforcement personnel—for a variety of corrupt activities, including accepting bribes, smuggling drugs, collaborating with organized crime groups, and selling government secrets. (In one case, a Border Patrol agent even gave a cartel member a literal key to a border gate.) All told, U.S. border guards accepted an estimated $15 million in bribes over the 2006–2016 period. Senior CBP officials have estimated that as many as 20% of CBP employees may be corrupt, and almost half of CBP personnel say that they’ve witnessed four or more acts of misconduct by their colleagues in the preceding three years.

The story of CBP’s corruption has been well told, including in voluminous investigative reporting, an advisory panel report, and congressional hearings. Yet little has changed. And this is not because nobody has figured out what policy reforms could make a difference. Indeed, experts who have studied the problem have laid out, clearly and consistently, a package of recommendations that would make a substantial difference. That package includes two main elements. First, CPB must devote more resources to monitoring and investigating CBP personnel. For example, the agency should hire substantially more internal affairs investigators; subject exiting personnel to regular reinvestigations (including periodic polygraph examinations); and equip all officers and agents with body cameras and mandate their consistent use. Second, leadership must reform CBP’s culture, which too often tolerates bad actors and punishes whistleblowers, and must provide better training in how to respond to misconduct.

The failure to address the CBP’s corruption problem, then, has not been due to a lack of viable, feasible reforms. The main problem is political—perhaps most importantly, the entrenched opposition of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the powerful union that represents Border Patrol agents. The NBPC has systematically blocked efforts to crack down on corruption. Indeed, according to James Tomsheck, who led CBP’s internal affairs unit from 2006­–2014, NBPC leadership opposed each and every one of his integrity proposals over his eight year tenure. (For example, the union opposed CBP’s initiative to proactively identify corrupt officers and agents through polygraphing.) If the Biden Administration is serious about rooting out CBP corruption, it will need to take on the NBPC.

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Rethinking the Hatch Act in a Post-Trump World

In the United States, the Hatch Act has long served as bulwark against the corrosive intersection of partisan politics and government power. Signed into law in 1939, the Hatch Act was designed to combat the corruption associated with the so-called “spoils system,” in which politicians dole out valuable government jobs to their supporters, and those supporters are in return expected to use their government positions to benefit their political patrons. Civil service laws that create a “merit system” attack the spoils system from one direction, by making politically-motivated hiring and firing more difficult. Laws like the Hatch Act complement these efforts by prohibiting government employees from engaging in partisan political activities. More specifically, the Hatch Act prohibits any federal officer or employee (other than the President or Vice President) from engaging in political activity while acting under his or her “official authority or influence.” (This prohibition, as interpreted, covers any sort of partisan political activity while on the job, including displaying political paraphernalia, distributing campaign materials, and soliciting campaign contributions.) Penalties for violating the Hatch Act can include fines, demotion, suspension, removal from office, and temporary debarment from future federal service.

Since its enactment, compliance with the Hatch Act has generally been quite good. But that changed in January 2017, when President Trump took office. Throughout the Trump years, rampant violations of the Hatch Act plagued the federal government. High-level Trump Administration officials like Ivanka TrumpJared KushnerMike PompeoKellyanne Conway, and Stephen Miller, among many others, engaged in likely Hatch Act violations, with no significant consequences. This exposed an uncomfortable truth: At least for high-level political appointees, the Hatch Act’s enforcement mechanisms are too week, and the penalties too negligible, to deter officials uninterested in complying with the law. Indeed, past compliance with the Act was likely more the product of government norms than fear of punishment.

Just to be clear, the situation is likely quite different for career civil servants who serve in government regardless of which political party holds the White House. With respect to these individuals, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the government, the Hatch Act’s prohibitions are strictly enforced, and the penalties are stiff. But for senior political appointees, the Trump Administration exposed glaring weaknesses in the Hatch Act’s efficacy, when the Administration has little interest in adhering to conventional norms of ethics and integrity. Two types of reform are needed:

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