Guest Post: A Bleak Future for Indonesia’s Anticorruption Commission?

GAB is pleased to welcome back Sofie Arjon Schütte, Senior Advisor at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, to contribute today’s guest post:

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its acronym KPK, was established during Indonesia’s reformation period in the early 2000s, and quickly became one of the world’s most powerful and independent anticorruption commissions. When the KPK began operations in 2004, a government regulation granted the agency substantial autonomy in its human resources management system, which the KPK used to ensure the integrity and competence of its staff. This control over personnel is considered good practice by international standards for anticorruption agencies, especially in environments where the existing state apparatus, and in particular law enforcement, is part of the corruption problem. And in Indonesia’s case, the KPK’s success in ensuring a competent and honest staff has been crucial to the agency’s track record of success—a track record that includes bringing more than 700 cases, the large majority of which resulted in guilty verdicts against members of Indonesia’s national and regional political elite.

But the KPK’s threat to vested interests has provoked strong resistance. This resistance has taken many forms, from judicial hostility, orchestrated demonstrations and threats, personal attacks on members of the organization, stalling the agency’s budget, and attempts to curtail its authority and autonomy through other legislative changes. The most devastating development was a new KPK Law, adopted in 2019, that was pushed through the legislature in rapid time without public input. This law effectively stripped the KPK of autonomy in important investigative functions and in its human resources management (here and here). Under the law, by September 2021 the KPK is to be integrated into the state apparatus, and its employees must become regular civil servants.

Allegedly as part of this process of integrating KPK employees into the regular civil service, the government recently required all KPK officials to take a specially concocted “national vision exam.” To be clear, neither the 2019 KPK Law nor its implementing regulations explicitly require such a test, which differs from the standard civil service entrance exam that all civil servants must take. Rather, this special test was developed by the National Civil Service Agency in collaboration with the Indonesian Armed Forces and Intelligence Service specifically to determine which KPK officers were radical and lacked neutrality and integrity and therefore presumably unfit for future civil service.

Seventy-five KPK employees failed this special exam. That may not seem like a big deal, both because 75 people amounts to less than 6% of the KPK’s current staff of over 1,300 employees, and because it might seem that failing a civil service exam is a reasonable ground for dismissal. But as the names of those who failed the test, and more details about the questions and the process, were made public, many critics have raised legitimate concerns. Indeed, even before the test was administered, the KPK employees’ union (which, by the way, will cease to exist after the conversion of the KPK into a regular civil service agency) warned that such a test could be misused to legitimize the marginalization or dismissal of KPK officers that handle strategic cases or hold strategic positions in the agency. And now that the results have come out, there are reasons to believe these fears were well-founded.

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Rethinking Presidential Obstruction of Justice

One of the greatest powers that can be granted to a national chief executive is jurisdiction over law enforcement. From the French President’s authority over the Ministry of Justice to the American President’s authority over the Department of Justice (DOJ), a number of states entrust their chief executive with significant control over the nation’s top law enforcement bodies. While these oversight powers are often exercised to achieve legitimate aims, problems arise when an executive uses his authority to shield himself or his associates from legal accountability. Such misuse of the chief executive’s authority over law enforcement is itself corrupt—an abuse of the president or prime minister’s public power to protect his private interests—and can foster the culture of impunity that allows other forms of corruption to thrive. But policing this sort of improper interference is challenging.

One possible limit on corrupt presidential interference with law enforcement is the fact that such interference may itself be a crime. In the United States, for example, it is a felony—known as “obstruction of justice”—for a government official to “corruptly” use the power of his or her office to “obstruct” a “pending or contemplated official proceeding” (such as a trial or investigation). But as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into former President Donald Trump made clear, the current version of the obstruction of justice statute may be inadequate to check this form of presidential corruption.

For starters, it’s not clear whether the obstruction of justice statute, as currently written, even applies to a sitting president. (Scholars have disagreed on this point, with some arguing that the current statute does not apply to the president—see here and here—and others arguing to the contrary that it does.) That problem, though, has an easy fix: As Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith’s recent book has argued, Congress can and should amend the statute to state explicitly that a sitting president can commit obstruction of justice. Another difficulty is that, as Robert Mueller’s report stressed, under current DOJ policy, a sitting president cannot be criminally indicted. This too could be changed. The deeper and harder problem is that because in the U.S. system the president may legitimately seek to influence the conduct of criminal investigations, and because the president’s motives may be ambiguous or mixed, it is very hard, perhaps impossible, to prove that the president’s actions with respect to a pending or contemplated official proceedings were “corrupt.” Take President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. The Mueller Report concludes that President Trump fired Director Comey to save his presidency (which seems like a corrupt motive). Yet some claim that President Trump also had other, more legitimate reasons for firing Director Comey, including concerns about partisan bias in Comey’s investigations. And even if one contests that claim in this particular case, it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which a President moved to impede an investigation that both threatened the president’s personal interests and that the President thought was unwise or improper.

How should the law treat such cases, if the goal is to ensure that a U.S. President is not above the law, while simultaneously giving the President appropriate latitude oversee federal law enforcement?

How Reliable Are Global Quantitative Corruption Statistics? A New U4 Report Suggests the Need for Caution

Those who work in the anticorruption field are likely familiar with the frequent citation of quantitative estimates of the amount and impact of global corruption. Indeed, it has become commonplace for speeches and reports about the corruption problem to open with such statistics—including, for example, the claim that approximately US$1 trillion in bribes are paid each year, the claim that corruption costs the global economy US$2.6 trillion (or 5% of global GDP) annually, and the claim that each year 10-25% of government procurement spending is lost to corruption. How reliable are these quantitative estimates? This is a topic we’ve discussed on the blog before: A few years back I did a couple of posts suggesting some skepticism about the US$1 trillion and US$2.6 trillion numbers (see here, here, here, and here), which were followed by some even sharper criticisms from senior GAB contributor Rick Messick and guest poster Maya Forstater.

This past year, thanks to the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, I had the opportunity to take a deeper dive into this issue in collaboration with Cecilie Wathne (formerly a U4 Senior Advisor, now a Project Leader at Norway’s Institute for Marine Research). The result of our work is a U4 Issue published last month, entitled “The Credibility of Corruption Statistics: A Critical Review of Ten Global Estimates.” (A direct link to the PDF version of the paper is here.)

In the paper, Cecilie and I identified and reviewed ten widely-cited quantitative estimates concerning corruption (including the three noted above), tried to trace these figures back to their original source, and assess their credibility and reliability. While the report provides a detailed discussion of what we found regarding the origins of each estimate, we also classified each of the ten into one of three categories: credible, problematic, and unfounded.

Alas, we could not rate any of these ten widely-cited statistics as credible (and only two came close). Six of the ten are problematic (sometimes seriously so), and the other four are, so far as we can tell, entirely unfounded. Interested readers can refer to the full report, but just to provide a bit more information about the statistics we investigated and what we found, let me reproduce here the summary table from the paper, and also try to summarize our principal suggestions for improving the use of quantitative evidence in discussions of global corruption: Continue reading

Johnston and Fritzen: The Conundrum of Corruption

Michael Johnston had done it again.  A — if not the — dean of corruption studies has a new book out.  This one a collaboration with a real dean, Scott Fritzen, professor at the University of Oklahoma and dean of its College of International Studies. The two’s The Conundrum of Corruption: Reform for Social Justice, just published in an affordable paperback edition from Routledge, is an invaluable guide to the latest learning on corruption, chronicling the rise of the international anticorruption movement, what has been learned, and what those lessons say about how to carry the fight against corruption forward.

But warning. Readers looking for an inventory of “best practices,” anticorruption “toolkits,” flashy technological innovations, and game-changing carrots and sticks will be disappointed.  Not a one is to be found.  Instead, Johnston and Fritzen explain why practitioners’ two decade plus search for such “silver bullets” has fallen flat and what corruption should concentrate on instead.

Some highlights. The role of cross-national measures of corruption like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and whether they have outlived their usefulness. The value of principal-agent analysis and how it can be misused. What civil society can do.

Among those for whom the book is a must read are members of what the authors term the “anticorruption industry.” (Those in development agencies, international organizations, foundations, and academia know who you are.) And those who uttered the phrase “political will.” No one should ever, ever again use it until they have read what the authors say about this much abused and misunderstood term.

Those engaged in the fight against corruption, those teaching the next generation of corruption fighters, or those simply looking for an authoritative guide to the issue will want to make room on their shelf for what is sure to become a classic work on the subject.

The “Big Government Causes Corruption” Zombie Shambles On

I don’t make a practice of responding to opinion columns in mainstream newspapers, especially when they’re not specifically or primarily about corruption. But the opening of Bret Stephens’ piece in yesterday’s New York Times caught my eye, mainly because the column used corruption in the Greek health care system as the “hook” for an argument that President Biden’s ambitious plans for an expanded social safety net will lead to American decline. Here’s how Stephens opens his column:

Years ago, Alexis Tsipras, the party leader of Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, surprised me with a question. “Here in the United States,” the soon-to-be prime minister asked me over breakfast in New York, “why do you not have this phenomenon of passing money under the table?”

The subject was health care. Greece has a public health care system that, in theory, guarantees its citizens access to necessary medical care.

Practice, however, is another matter. Patients in Greek public hospitals, Tsipras explained, would first have to slip a doctor “an envelope with a certain amount of money” before they could expect to get treatment. The government, he added, underpaid its doctors and then looked the other way as they topped up their income with bribes.

Take a close look at any country or locality in which the government offers allegedly free or highly subsidized goods and you’ll usually discover that there’s a catch.

What is the point of opening with this anecdote (other than not-so-subtly alerting the reader that the author is the sort of important person who has chit-chats with world leaders)? The implication, so far as I can tell, seems to be that countries that provide free or heavily subsidized social welfare benefits tend to be more corrupt.

There is, however, an important problem with this argument: It’s not true.

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A Jordanian Anticorruption Agenda

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – a small, arid swath of land that its Western-educated monarch jokes is “between Iraq and a hard place” – teems with corruption. Most Jordanians often have no choice but to pay bribes for public services. Members of the government and the royal family regularly siphon money from public contracts and foreign aid projects. And the Kingdom’s nepotistic political system does little to hold prominent politicians and businessmen accountable when they leverage their ties to the royal family to steal disproportionate amounts of resources or redirect government funds. Corruption, it seems, crowns the Kingdom.  

It is unsurprising, then, that claims of corruption permeated news of the recent rift between King Abdullah II and his half-brother, Prince Hamzah. After Prince Hamzah’s purported involvement with a conspiracy to undermine Jordan’s national security and destabilize the existing political regime led to his house arrest, he released a video claiming that his unjust detention was for speaking out against government corruption.

Although the international media has covered the dynamics of the royal family and the possibilities of a Jordanian descent into civil war, little has been written about the ways in which King Abdullah’s government can respond to the accusations of corruption and take back leadership. Given that Prince Hamzah – among others – nearly always couches criticism of the Jordanian government in terms of corruption, such a response is necessary. If the current government wants to signal its seriousness in fighting corruption, it should aggressively pursue an anticorruption agenda with five key elements: 

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