Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen? Why Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s New Anticorruption Enforcement is Not Superfluous

In March 2019, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)—the US federal regulator of commodity markets—issued a new Enforcement Advisory concerning foreign bribery in the commodities sector. According to the Advisory, the CFTC will presumptively decline to pursue civil monetary penalties against parties that timely and voluntarily self-report acts of foreign corruption that would otherwise violate the Commodities Exchange Act (CEA), so long as the self-reporting party fully cooperates, provides appropriate remediation, and there are no other aggregating factors. Of course, this Advisory implies that when these conditions are not satisfied, the CFTC will seek to impose sanctions in foreign bribery cases. And indeed, only a couple of months after the Advisory was published, the CFTC informed Glencore, a Swiss mining and trading company, that it was being investigated for corrupt practices that violated the CEA. The CFTC’s new Advisory and the Glencore investigation are a wakeup call for all market participants, especially broker-dealers and future commission merchants, that the CFTC is serious about cracking down on foreign corruption in the commodity trading sector.

This is notable because typically we think of the US addressing foreign bribery through the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which is enforced by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Yet while bribing foreign officials would indeed violate the FCPA, such conduct could also amount to violations of the CEA or its implementing regulations whenever commodity prices in the US are affected by the foreign corrupt practices: in such cases, the bribery could qualify as a form of prohibited fraud, false reporting, or market manipulation. For example, a commodities trader could violate CFTC regulations if it uses bribes to secure swaps or derivative contracts. Likewise, a company that paid bribes to foreign officials for purposes of monopolizing crude oil production in order to increase the commodity price and manipulate benchmarks for related derivative contracts would be in violation of the CEA’s anti-manipulation provision. The possibility of CFTC enforcement raises concerns about “piling on,” with duplicative penalties levied by separate US agencies for the same underlying conduct, but to address that concern CFTC Enforcement Director James McDonald has emphasized that the CFTC would “will give dollar-for-dollar credit for disgorgement or restitution payments in connection with other related actions.”

Of course, that only raises another question: Why not just leave the foreign bribery problem to the DOJ and SEC to address through FCPA enforcement actions? Does CFTC enforcement in the foreign bribery context really add any value? The answer to that latter question is likely yes, for at least two reasons:

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Transparentizing the Commodity Trading Sector: Why Trading Companies Must be Subject to Mandatory Payments Disclosure

Commodity trading companies (CTCs) mainly operate as middlemen in a business model called “transit trade,” where CTCs administer the delivery chain for primary economic products (energy, metals, agriculture, etc.) from the extraction site to the ultimate buyers. Though CTCs rarely have physical possession of these commodities, the CTCs are the ones that typically build connections with foreign officials and politicians, pre-finance extraction activities by indebted governments (often through loans pledged on future commodity deliveries), and sell raw materials across the globe. Because of CTCs’ frequent interaction with foreign governments and state-owned enterprises, their complex structure, and the opacity of the commodities market, the corruption risks—particularly in the markets for “hard” commodities like oil, gas, or minerals—are especially large, as a few recent cases have highlighted (see, for example, here, here, and here). Politically exposed persons (PEPs) also take advantages of the opacity in commodity trading to launder illicit proceeds derived from corruption.

Yet in stark contrast to the focus on the corrupt activities of those companies engaged directly in extractive activities, as well as by the ultimate purchasers “upstream,” corruption by CTCs has not received much attention. This oversight should be corrected, in part by covering CTCs under the “Publish What You Pay” (PWYP) laws of their home countries—laws that usually only mandate payment disclosures relating to exploration, extraction, and processing, and that often explicitly exclude payments related to “commodity trading-related activities.” This exclusion is a mistake, as there are at least two good reasons to apply PWYP rules to CTCs: Continue reading

The New Frontier: Using Artificial Intelligence To Help Fight Corruption

In January 2018, scientists from Valladolid, Spain brought a piece of inspiring news to anticorruption advocates: they created an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can predict in which Spanish provinces are at higher risk for corruption, and also identifies the variables that are associated with greater corruption (including the real estate tax, inflated housing prices, the opening of bank branches, and the establishment of new companies, among others). This is hardly the first example of computer technology being used in the fight against corruption. Governments, international organizations, and civil society organizations have already been mining “big data” (see, for example, here and here) and using mobile apps to encourage reporting (see, for example, here and here). What makes the recent Spanish innovation notable is its use of AI.

AI is a cluster of technologies that are distinct in their ability to “learn,” rather than relying solely on the instructions specified in advance by human programmers. AI systems come in several types, including “machine learning” (in which a computer analyzes large quantities of data to identify patterns, which in turn enables the machine to perform tasks and make predictions when confronted with new information) and more advanced “deep learning” systems that can find patterns in unstructured data – in hundreds of thousands of dimensions – and can obtain something resembling human cognitive capabilities, though capable of making predictions beyond normal human capacity.

AI is a potentially transformative technology in many fields, including anticorruption. Consider three examples of the anticorruption potential of AI systems:

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Integrity Pacts: A Contractual Approach to Facilitate Civic Monitoring of Public Procurement

Public procurement is one of the highest risk areas for corruption. A public project contaminated with corruption is a recipe for disaster: ordinary citizens suffer from substandard facilities and services; competitive companies lose out when the bidding is rigged; and government money vanishes without making a difference. To rein in procurement corruption in, improving transparency and civic monitoring is vital. That’s why an “integrity pact” (IP)—a legally-binding contractual provision that commits all parties to comply with anticorruption best practices from the time the tender is designed to the completion of the project—can be such a useful tool.

An IP is more than a demonstration of commitment to avoid corruption practices on the part of its signatories. An IP contains obligations for bidders and government authorities, among other things, to refrain from offering or accepting bribes and to disclose all contract expenses and commissions; the IP also sets out sanctions for non-compliance, such as termination of the contract, liability for damages, or debarment from future public contracts. Perhaps most importantly, an IP creates a monitoring process where an Independent External Monitor—which can be an individual, a civil society organization, or a group with combined expertise and technical support—independently scrutinizes the deal for any anomaly or violation of the IP, and ensures proper implementation of the contract and the satisfaction of all stakeholders’ obligations. To execute these functions, the monitor is entrusted to examine government tender documents, bidders’ proposals, and evaluator’ assessment reports of the bids, to visit construction sites and contractor offices, and to facilitate exchange with the local communities and public hearings.

IPs have previously been used in public procurement projects in many countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Portugal, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Greece, Italy, India, and many others. It’s notable that many of the states that have embraced IPs are countries where governments have a long track record of corruption and abuse of power. IPs have at least three roles to play to help facilitate transparency and civic monitoring so as to safeguard the competitiveness and fairness of the procurement process:

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How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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The Missing Piece in UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order Mechanism

All of a sudden politicians, public figures, and oligarchs – such as Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Ignor Shuvalov and former Nigerian Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke – have to explain how they are able to afford the swanky apartments in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood on their modest official salaries. This is due to the UK’s new Criminal Finances Act (CFA), which came into force in February and is meant to crack down on the flow of dirty money into the UK—a flow that has given London in particular a reputation as a “Death Star” of global kleptocracy. Most notably, the CFA adds a new investigative tool, the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO), into the civil recovery regime. Originally proposed by Transparency International UK a few years ago, a UWO is an order granted by the High Court in cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe (1) the respondent owns some property worth more than £50,000; (2) either the respondent is a politically exposed person (PEP), or the respondent or a person connected to the respondent has been involved in a serious crime; and (3) respondent’s lawfully earned income would not be sufficient to obtain the property in question. If there are reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three conditions is satisfied, the High Court may issue an order requiring the respondent to provide information regarding the nature of her interests in the property in question and how she was able to lawfully obtained such property. If the respondent is unable to provide a reasonable explanation, the UK Government can subsequently initiate the civil forfeiture process and seize these assets.

Lauded as “a powerful new weapon in[] the anti-corruption arsenal,” UWOs are expected to be particularly helpful when there is no conviction against the respondents in their countries of origin, or when efforts to get a corrupt foreign government to cooperate with investigations have led to naught. Moreover, even though UWOs are a civil enforcement mechanism, the information they uncover may be useful in pursuing criminal investigations, and if respondents recklessly or knowingly make false statements or mislead the enforcement body in responding to an order, they may be criminally prosecuted. There’s already some evidence that the new law will make a difference: In March, a month after the promulgation of the CFA, two UWOs were issued requiring a tycoon in Central Asia to explain how he is able to afford real properties in the UK totaling £22 million.

Yet notwithstanding the enthusiasm for UWOs in some quarters, the effectiveness of the UFO mechanism is likely to be hampered by an important missing piece in the UK’s anticorruption framework, namely an effective means for ensuring genuine transparency regarding the beneficial ownership of real and movable property. Without knowing who really owns what, the new law is unlikely to realize its full potential, and indeed may not make much difference outside of a handful of cases involving particularly careless criminals.

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How Can an Anticorruption Agency Repair Its Reputation After a Scandal? Lessons from Ghana

Corruption-plagued countries often create independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) to ensure the integrity of other institutions. But sometimes ACAs get caught up in their own scandals—scandals that can undermine their credibility and hard-won public trust. ACAs may be particularly at risk because of the threat they pose to powerful elites, who will always be on the lookout for ways to undercut ACAs. Of course, ACAs should be attuned to these risks and to put measures in place to minimize them. But no preventative system is perfect. What to do when it fails? When an ACA’s reputation has been besmirched by an internal corruption scandal, what can the agency do to restore public trust?

Ghana’s experience may offer some lessons. In 2008, Ghana established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which is responsible for anticorruption enforcement, among other things. CHRAJ has done much good work, from conducting investigations of corruption allegations to producing conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of conduct. But in 2011, the CHRAJ was rocked by an internal scandal when it was revealed that Lauretta Lamptey, then chief of the CHRAJ, had misappropriated public funds to renovate her official residence, to pay hotel bills, and to upgrade her air tickets. The scandal “dented the image of the CHRAJ both nationally and internationally” and jeopardized public trust in the CHRAJ and the willingness of Ghanaian citizens to report corruption cases to the commission.

Damage control was absolutely crucial—and seems to have been largely successful. According to the US State Department’s Ghana 2016 Human Rights Report, public confidence in the CHRAJ is again high. The CHRAJ’s relative success in restoring credibility after its internal corruption scandal suggests a few guidelines for how an ACA can respond effectively in this sort of situation:

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