Best Practices for a “Database of Deals”

Last month, Joseph Percoco, former aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud and soliciting bribes for nearly $300,000 in connection to several multimillion-dollar economic development contracts in upstate New York. Next month, Alain Kaloyeros, the former President of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, will similarly go to trial on federal bid rigging, fraud, and bribery charges related to the upstate economic development project the “Buffalo Billion.” As I previously wrote, these are two of six high-profile corruption trials in New York this year—cases that have already generated calls for ethics reform (see here, here, and here). While similar calls for reform after the high-profile convictions of former New York state legislators Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos were largely ignored, one modest proposal seems particularly promising: creating a public database of businesses and organizations that are awarded state economic development contracts and grants.

New York state and local governments spend over $8 billion on economic development programs each year, the most of any state in the country. However, little clarity exists about which companies receive subsidies, the value or amount of these subsidies, the employment and investment commitments tied to these subsidies, and whether these commitments are being met. This opacity not only makes it difficult to assess the successes and failures of development programs, but also creates opportunities for the type of corruption that ensnarled Mr. Percoco and Mr. Kaloyeros. Creating a database of all public economic development benefits (including grants, loans, or tax abatements) would increase transparency and accountability. Such a “Database of Deals” would provide a central source for authorities to monitor and flag irregularities, increasing public confidence in the procurement process, and deterring corruption by individuals who know that the public can assess the return on investment for each economic development project.

The recently passed 2019 New York State Budget included billions of dollars in new appropriations for economic development, yet bi-partisan legislation creating a “Database of Deals” was dropped from the budget the day before it passed. However, the New York state legislature still has several months to pass similar legislation. Moreover, six other states—including Florida, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin—have created and implemented similar searchable databases after calls for greater transparency and accountability. If and when New York, and other states, create similar databases, there are certain “best practices” that they ought to follow, to maximize the effectiveness of these databases in deterring corruption.

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The “Master of the Roster”: Reforming the Role of the Chief Justice of India

“There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution have been assigned by the chief justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rational basis for such assignment.” This sharp critique of the Supreme Court of India was not leveled by a losing appellant or civil society group, but rather by Justice Jasti Chelameswar. On January 12, 2018, Justices Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur, and Kurian Joseph, the four most senior justices of the Supreme Court of India (other than the Chief Justice), took the extraordinary step of speaking to the public about their concern with bias in how Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra was assigning cases. The four justices accused Chief Justice Misra of selectively setting benches to shape the outcome of particular cases, which not only cuts against the rule of law and fundamental fairness, but also implicates broader concerns of judicial corruption. In publically criticizing the assignment practices of the current Chief Justice, these Justices set off an unprecedented institutional crisis for the court. Stabilizing the institution and combating corruption and bias requires serious action, including reducing the unilateral power the CJI has over case assignment.

To appreciate the significance of the CJI’s power of case assignment, and the ways this power can be abused, a bit of background on the Court is necessary. The Supreme Court of India is comprised of the CJI and up to 30 justices, although it currently only has 24 serving justices. The Court hears cases in division benches (comprised of two or three justices), and these division benches come together to form a constitutional bench (comprised of five or more justices) to settle fundamental questions of law. The CJI has the sole authority to set up division benches and assign cases, resulting in the label of the CJI as the “master of the roster.” That authority can be—and allegedly has been—abused. For example, in the Prasad Educational Trust case, although allegations of bribes paid to fix the outcomes of Supreme Court cases implicated Chief Justice Misra, he nonetheless listed the case in front of himself and several relatively junior Justices. When asked by an attorney in the case to recuse himself, the Chief Justice refused and threatened to hold the attorney in contempt.

In response to the criticisms leveled by his four colleagues regarding biased assignment of cases, Chief Justice Misra took a striking step of publicizing, for the first time, the Supreme Court’s roster, which details which types of cases will be heard by which justices. The publically released roster system, which took effect on February 5 and was recently altered, assigns cases based on subject category to different justices. For example, the Chief Justice himself is assigned, among other categories, social justice matters, election matters, contempt of court matters, habeas corpus matters, and public interest litigation (PIL) cases. The roster details subject categories for the twelve most senior justices of the Supreme Court, and there are overlapping categories (e.g. criminal matters, civil matters, etc.) between the justices. But while publication of the roster certainly makes the assignment process more transparent, it nevertheless falls short of addressing the CJI’s unchecked power and discretion in allocating cases for four primary reasons:

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New York State of Corruption: An Opportunity for Reform Amidst a Year of Reckoning

What do Joseph Percoco, George Maziarz, Edward Mangano, Sheldon Silver, Alain Kaloyeros, and Dean Skelos all have in common? Each of these New York public officials will go to trial on corruption charges over the next six months. The slew of trials kicks off today with the trial of Joseph Percoco, a former advisor to Governor Cuomo who is accused of taking over $300,000 from companies in a pay-to-play scheme for influence in the Cuomo administration. Next up, on February 5, George Maziarz goes to trial for filing false campaign expenditure reports in an attempt to conceal almost $100,000 in payments to a former Senate staff member who had quit amid sexual harassment allegations. March 12 brings the trial of Ed Mangano, the former Nassau County Executive charged with bribery, wire fraud, and extortion for receiving almost $500,000, free vacations, furniture, jewelry, home renovations, and other gifts as bribes and kickbacks. Sheldon Silver will be re-tried on April 16, after his conviction for obtaining nearly $4 million in bribes was vacated last year following the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States. In May, the former President of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Alain Kaloyeros will stand trial for the same bribery scheme that ensnared Mr. Percoco. And finally, on June 18, Dean Skelos will be re-tried after his conviction on bribery charges was, like Mr. Silver’s, overturned in light of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision.

These six trials—all involving high-profile public officials, bribery and extortion charges, high stakes, and large sums of money—will receive considerable amounts of attention from the media and public, and will certainly provide much fodder for blogs like this one. While every month from January to June will bring a trial with its own drama and complexities, we can step back at the outset and consider what these trials collectively mean for corruption and ethics reform in New York. The trials will undeniably shake the public’s trust in public officials. Will these trials fuel cynicism that makes New Yorkers less likely to participate in the political process—or might these trials instead spark optimism that creates the political momentum for ethics reform?

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“Instead of Europeanizing Kosovo, We Have Balkanized EULEX”: The Need for Continued Localization in the EU’s Largest Mission

The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX)—the EU’s largest, costliest, and most ambitious mission—has operated in Kosovo for almost a decade with the goal of assisting the country’s judicial authorities and law enforcement agencies in tackling organized crime, corruption, and other threats to the country’s stability. To date, the 800-person mission—which consists of police officers, prosecutors, judges, and has its own power of arrest and prosecution—has resulted in over 40,000 court judgments and the investigation of over 400 war crimes. Yet allegations of corruption have dogged the project. Three years ago, Maria Bamieh was dismissed from her position as a EULEX prosecutor when she alleged corruption within the Mission, including a €300,000 bribe accepted by a EULEX judge. While a subsequent investigation and report by Professor Jean-Paul Jacqué (on behalf of the EU) dismissed Ms. Bamieh’s specific allegations, the report recommended that EULEX be reformed to better deal with corruption—a problem that, the report noted, remained “omnipresent in Kosovo.” Allegations of corruption were re-ignited in late 2017, when EULEX’s Chief Judge, Malcolm Simmons, resigned after alleging “several cases of corruption at the heart of the mission.” The accusations and counter-accusations between Judge Simmons and EULEX are complicated, and it is not my objective here to try to evaluate their credibility. In brief, Judge Simmons’ most serious allegation is that senior EULEX officials pressured him to convict Deputy Prime Minister (and former Kosovo Liberation Army commander) Fatmir Limaj, in order to prevent Mr. Limaj from taking part in the Kosovan election. (Judge Simmons also leveled other accusations, including an improper romantic relationship between a judge and a Kosovan jurist, and that a fellow judge had hacked his email.) The Mission swiftly responded that Judge Simmons himself was “the subject of a series of independent investigations into serious allegations against him,” with an EU official acknowledging that Judge Simmons is subject to five investigations and “allegations that Simmons interfered in some of the most important verdicts” in recent years. While it remains to be seen which allegations (if any) are true, the situation appears to be lose-lose for the EULEX mission.

The current EULEX mandate expires on June 14, 2018. The controversy swirling around Judge Simmons’ resignation, coupled with the upcoming discussions as to whether to renew EULEX’s mandate, provides a timely opportunity to reassess a flaw that has plagued EULEX since its inception: an actual and perceived lack of trust and accountability between the mission and local Kosovan judicial and law enforcement authorities. If EULEX’s mandate is renewed this year, steps should be taken to address this problem.

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“Right to Information” or “Right to Intimidation”? The Unfulfilled Promise of India’s Right to Information Act (RTI)

On July 18, 2017, Rajesh Savaliya, a 31-year-old activist, left his home in Surat, India to visit a friend’s construction site. The next day, he was found severely injured on the side of a highway, and doctors pronounced him dead later that day. Mr. Savaliya was murdered because of his attempts to expose corruption in his hometown schools, including the education mafia extracting money from students and schools operating without proper licenses and approval letters. As part of his campaign to expose this corruption, Mr. Savaliya had filed multiple requests for information about the local schools pursuant to India’s Right to Information Act (RTI). Sadly, Mr. Savaliya’s story is not unique: Since 2005, over 60 activists have been killed, and hundreds of others have been assaulted or harassed, for filing RTI requests.

Freedom of Information laws like India’s RTI Act can be a powerful pro-transparency tool for combating corruption and mismanagement in government. The RTI Act, which was adopted following a nationwide grassroots campaign, provides every Indian citizen the right to request information from a public authority—a right which is invoked by 4–6 million citizens each year. Yet the RTI Act is unlikely to be effective in exposing serious corruption—especially in cases where criminal elements have infiltrated or coopted state organs—unless those filing RTI requests are adequately protected and insulated from intimidation.

Not only are current protections for RTI requesters inadequate, but India seems, if anything to be moving in the wrong direction. Early this year, as a part of a package of proposed updates to the rules governing the RTI Act, India’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) proposed a new rule (Rule 12), which would allow RTI requestors to withdraw their appeals of decisions refusing disclosure, and would also require all such appeals to terminate upon the death of the requestor. Proposed Rule 12 has been widely criticized (see here, here, and here), in part because these changes would further incentivize threats and violence against RTI requesters like Rajesh Savaliya. As the Human Rights Initiative noted, “Draft Rule 12 will only legitimize such attacks and embolden vested interests who wish to keep corruption and maladministration under wraps.”

Instead of adopting counterproductive measures like Draft Rule 12, the DoPT and Indian Parliament should instead amend the Act and governing rules to better promote the safety and security of RTI requesters. Here are three potential changes—in order of likelihood of success and impact—that would serve this objective:

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India’s Demonetization One Year Later: A Failed Tool to Combat Corruption

One year ago, in an unscheduled live televised address, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that within weeks the ₹500 and ₹1000 banknotes would become worthless. Prime Minister Modi framed this so-called “demonetization” policy as part of the battle against corruption and illicitly-obtained “black money,” which had “spread their tentacles” through the India economy. The Prime Minister identified two ways that demonetization would combat corruption. First, the surprise devaluing of currency would leave criminals, including corrupt officials, with millions of rupees’ worth of currency that would suddenly become worthless, and those holding large stashes of black money would be unwilling or unable to exchange it without having to explain where the money came from. Second, going forward, demonetization would make it more difficult to hold, transport, or exchange large quantities of cash (particularly since the Indian government was demonetizing the two largest notes in circulation); as the Prime Minister emphasized, “[t]he magnitude of cash in circulation is directly linked to the level of corruption.”

One year out, it is increasingly clear that India’s demonetization experiment imposed tremendous social and economic costs but failed to achieve either of these objectives (see here, here, and here). A closer examination of the reasons for this failure may help us understand both the potential and limits of demonetization as a tool to combat corruption and the underground economy.

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