Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

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Framing the Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic as an Issue of Systematic Corruption

Over the past few years, in the United States, the issue of sexual assault on university campuses has become increasingly prominent—the subject of student protests across the country, exposés in the mainstream press, and widely-released documentary films (see here and here). The issue is not simply that such assaults happen, but that universities are failing in their basic duties to protect students and to discipline those who commit assaults. There are many theories as to why universities are reluctant to more aggressively investigate and sanction offenders, but many assert that a root cause is the university administrators’ concern about losing public face and, worse, money. This fear is especially acute among those universities with large, renowned varsity sports teams: College athletes are disproportionately responsible for sexual assaults, but expelling or otherwise sanctioning them would cost the university money and public support.

This phenomenon—university administrators’ worries over the financial and reputational success of athletics programs leading to improper or insufficient responses to sexual assault allegations against athletes—can and should be framed as a form of systemic institutional corruption. I recognize that framing this as a problem of corruption——rather than one of negligence or callousness—is unconventional and perhaps controversial, even for people who are outraged at universities’ inadequate response to sexual assault. After all, using the language of “corruption” implies insidious motives. Yet the label is not only an apt description of the problem, but using that vocabulary, and that diagnosis, suggests alternative approaches for fixing the problem.

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The OAS Did Not Do Enough to Intervene in Nicaragua’s Corrupt Election

Last Sunday, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega won his third term in office, alongside his running mate—who also happens to be his wife—Rosario Murillo. For months, critics have been calling out the Nicaraguan election as a classic example of a corrupt, rigged election. The voting system was entirely controlled by Ortega’s party. The husband-wife ticket ran unopposed, and not for lack of actual opposition within the country. Indeed, over the summer, the Ortega-influenced Supreme Court blocked an opposition candidate from running against the incumbent. Though there were protests within the country expressing disapproval of Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime, it is difficult to say how much opposition there was to the election because the reported number of votes cast was surely inflated by the Ortega administration.

This hardly came as a surprise, as this type of one-sided election is nothing new in Nicaragua. What might be more of a surprise is the apparent lack of outrage, or even concern, by the international community, particularly the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional body that is tasked with, among many other goals, promoting democracy in Latin America. In mid-October, the OAS published a press release that noted the OAS was going to enter into a “dialogue” with the government of Nicaragua concerning the country’s electoral process. There were no further details in the press release, and the “constructive exchange” between the organization and Ortega’s government did not seem to go anywhere. The press release didn’t even explicitly say that Nicaragua’s election was corrupt or undemocratic. The OAS did send election observers to Nicaragua, but OAS election observation missions these days are mostly a formality—the OAS sends observers to nearly every Latin American election, and these missions are notoriously ineffective, ranging from 20 to 100 observers and lasting only 20 days on average. In the case of Nicaragua’s election, the observers were present for just three days.

Even though the OAS has only limited power, it is nonetheless capable of delivering strong, symbolic messages in the face of corrupt, anti-democratic institutions. The OAS has a long history of issuing reports, especially those that highlight human rights abuses, and the OAS has condemned subversion of the democratic process in other countries, such as Venezuela. Even if purely symbolic, a pronouncement condemning the Nicaraguan election would demonstrate that the regional coalition denounces corrupt practices, and such symbolism could help support internal protestors or critics who might otherwise feel alone. Yet the OAS failed to do so, choosing instead to issue a half-hearted, ambiguous press release . Why?

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