Something Is Rotten from the State of Denmark

In this year’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) rankings, Denmark yet again topped the list (tied with New Zealand) as the world’s cleanest country. But the CPI has well-known limitations—including the fact that it focuses on corruption within countries while excluding how country’s nationals behave abroad. And in this latter context, Denmark performs rather poorly. Danish companies have faced numerous credible allegations of paying bribes worth hundreds of millions of dollars in dozens of countries (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Several of those countries have been sanctioned by the World Bank and the European Union. Yet Danish companies have largely escaped suffering any consequence within Denmark for their corrupt practices abroad. Of the thirteen major allegations of foreign bribery brought in the last decade by Danish authorities against Danish companies, several closed without adequate investigation, and none resulted in any prosecution. No wonder that Denmark’s last report card on from the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Working Group—released in 2015—found Denmark’s performance in enforcing its laws against foreign bribery to be deeply wanting. Yet six years and many public commitments later, Denmark has done very little (other than publishing a three-page “How to avoid corruption” pamphlet) to address its shortcomings in this area.

So, what’s stopping the “least corrupt” country in the world (at least, according to the CPI) from tackling its foreign bribery problem? If allegations of foreign bribery are widespread and credible, why have Danish companies continued to enjoy effective domestic impunity? There are two ways to answer this question, one of which focuses on the legal deficiencies in Denmark’s criminal code, which make it hard for prosecutors to bring winning cases, and the other of which focuses on the reasons why Denmark hasn’t changed these laws, notwithstanding critical commentaries and advice from organizations like the OECD.

Continue reading

Sunshine or Sunset? The Latest Threat to Freedom of Information in Mexico

In a country beset by extreme and seemingly intractable corruption, Mexico’s National Institute for Access to Information (INAI)—which runs Mexico’s freedom of information system—has stood out as an unusually effective mechanism for promoting transparency, accountability, and integrity. The INAI’s effectiveness stems from its binding legal authority and independence, as provided by constitutional provisions passed in 2013. The Institute can and has compelled other government agencies to improve their information disclosure policies, and, perhaps most significantly, the INAI can override other government agencies’ denial of information access requests. The INAI has substantial leverage to ensure greater government compliance by way of meaningful fines and effective injunctions for noncompliance. The INAI also moves lightning fast; the INAI regularly satisfies its statutory obligations to respond to requests within twenty business days and to deliver documents within thirty. The INAI does not charge search fees, and all uncovered information is available to the wider public. Citizens can challenge decisions to withhold information, and they routinely prevail.

The INAI’s broad freedom of information mandate makes the agency a powerful actor in exposing corruption (see, for example, here, here, and here). Perhaps most notably, the Institute enabled discovery of former President Pena Nieto’s secret mansion (“the White House Scandal”), the diversion of over $400 million allotted to public services, and embezzlement in public-private ventures in Mexico’s vast energy sector. More broadly, despite all the well-known deficiencies of Mexico’s anticorruption institutions, the INAI has been globally lauded for its role in government transparency.

Given this, why is Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly referred to by his initials “AMLO”), who ran and won on an anticorruption platform, so keen on eradicating the agency? In a press conference earlier this year, AMLO proposed decommissioning all of Mexico’s independent agencies, singling out the INAI as an especially egregious example of bloated bureaucracy. His rationale boils down to three main arguments: (1) the INAI hasn’t ended corruption, (2) the INAI costs too much, and (3) the INAI’s functions can be provided by the Secretariat of Public Functions (SFP), a non-independent body that performs federal government audits and reports directly to the president. These arguments are unconvincing, to say the least.

Continue reading

In Mexico, Justice Will Remain a Family Matter

Judicial corruption in Mexico is a pervasive problem. And while high-level scandals tend to grab the headlines (see, for example, here, here, and here), much of the corruption is more pedestrian. While the causes of Mexico’s judicial corruption problem are various and complex, one persistent contributing factor is the endemic nepotism throughout the judiciary.

Of the more than 50 types of position in the judicial branch (including both judgeships and various administrative positions), only two—federal circuit and district court judgeships—use a competitive merit-based hiring process. For the rest, judges can choose whom they please, with little oversight. Moreover, once hired, these individuals have an insurmountable advantage in promotion in the judiciary, given that most job postings (and, informally, judgeships) require that the candidate have previous experience in the judicial branch. And even with respect to circuit and district judgeships, which are supposed to be filled through an open and merit-based competitive selection process run by a body called the Federal Judicial Council (CJF), in practice the CJF often creates “special” vacancies with different criteria (in effect, lower standards).

As a result of all this, nepotism in judicial hiring and promotion is pervasive, as judges are able to secure positions for friends and family. At least 51% of Mexico’s judges and magistrates are related to someone else working in the judiciary, with that number as high as 80% in some states. (To take one particularly egregious but not totally anomalous example, in one judge’s chambers, 17 employees were related to the judge.) This nepotism is not only corrupt in itself, but it also contributes to other forms of corruption. For one thing, corrupt judges can appoint those who will participate in, or at least be complicit in, corrupt practices—in some cases appointing individuals recommended by organized crime groups. But even when such deliberate wrongdoing is not the issue, untrained or unprofessional judicial bureaucrats and judges are more susceptible to corruption, and more likely to create the kinds of delays and inefficiencies in the system that both invite and obscure corrupt actions.

There hadn’t been much appetite in the Mexican Government to address the judicial nepotism problem until reform-minded President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar took office. Since February 2020, both men have been enthusiastically lobbying for a judicial reform package deemed the most ambitious since 1994. This bill, overwhelmingly passed by the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies in recent months, is a behemoth, with a variety of significant structural changes to the judicial branch. Among these many reforms are several measures designed, at least in part, to address the problem of judicial nepotism: Continue reading

Checked or Choked? How the Congressional Response to the Abscam Investigation Undermined the FBI’s Ability to Root Out High-Level Corruption

On February 2nd, 1980, the FBI announced the results of a massive sting operation, codenamed “Abscam,” conducted against members of the U.S. Congress. At the time, this was the largest FBI political corruption operation ever conducted: two years in the making, involving over a hundred agents and hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating costs. The details of the operation were so outlandish they sound like they could have been lifted from a Hollywood movie. The FBI recruited an international con artist named Melvin Weinberg for “creative direction” of the operation, and then had agents pose as wealthy Arab sheiks (hence the name of the operation, a contraction of “Arab scam” or “Abdul scam”) that came a-calling to Capitol Hill to purchase favors and votes. The operation took place on Key West yachts and in Atlantic City casinos, in limousines and on chartered jets, where the “sheiks” lured politicians to glitzy affairs with offers of $50,000 for a favorable licensing deal or immigration waiver. They had astonishing success. Not only were the approached targets receptive, several actively recruited other elected officials to the bribery scheme. Congressmen were caught on tape accepting paper lunch bags stuffed with cash, paired with made-for-movie dialogue such as: “Money talks in this business,” “I’m no Boy Scout,” and “I got larceny in my blood. I’ll take [the bribe] in a goddamn minute.” Weinberg and the FBI reckoned that the sting easily might have nabbed a great deal more Congressmen if the FBI hadn’t run out of bribe money and the press hadn’t scored an early scoop. What followed was a flurry of resignations, hearings, and criminal trials. After the dust settled, six representatives and one senator had been convicted of bribery and conspiracy. Despite controversy over the ethics of the FBI’s methods, every conviction was upheld on appeal.

The fact that these convictions stuck is a reflection of the fact that although the undercover FBI agents involved in Abscam got very close to the line that separates legal deception from unlawful entrapment, the FBI had been scrupulous about staying on the right side of that line: all tapes were immediately reviewed to ensure that agents had not improperly induced wrongdoing; the cash transfers were witnessed and monitored by Justice Department attorneys; and judges signed warrants and sanctioned the FBI’s methods. Nevertheless, Congress—perhaps unsurprisingly—thought that the FBI had gone too far. At hearings before House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights and the Senate Select Committee to Study Undercover Activities, Members of Congress aired grievances over FBI undercover procedures, and argued that while undercover investigations could be valuable, the FBI had gone too far, and had engaged in a wildly inappropriate exploratory fishing expedition.

Now, Congress’s actions may not have been purely self-serving. A few years prior to Abscam, a Senate select committee, known as the Church Committee, revealed significant FBI abuses, documented in a whopping fourteen reports that laid out intelligence agency abuses in extraordinary detail. Some suggest—controversially—that Abscam was the FBI’s retaliation against Congress for this public excoriation.

Whatever Congress’s motives, in the decade following Abscam, Congress circled the wagons, pressuring the Department of Justice to implement internal reforms by way of proffering dramatic legislative packages staunchly opposed by Attorneys General. The “compromise” result was a series of restrictive guidelines for undercover and sting operations, guidelines that effectively bar the FBI from ever again conducting an operation similar to Abscam.

Continue reading

South Korea’s Moment for Chaebol Reform is Now

In late 2016, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office following revelations of massive corruption in her government. While the scandal included plenty of sensational and salacious material, the core accusations involved improper quid pro quo relations between the Park administration and several chaebols—the massive, dynastically controlled business conglomerates that are the cornerstones of the South Korean economy. Following impeachment, President Park and several senior officials in her administration were arrested, tried, and convicted for a variety of offenses, including bribery, abuse of power, and coercion. In the aftermath of this massive scandal, new President Moon Jae-in swept into office with a commanding majority and a pledge to clean up the mess by instituting strong anticorruption reforms.

However, most of President Moon’s anticorruption initiatives have received mixed reviews at best. For example, President Moon’s proposed Anti-Corruption Agency, though authorized by parliament in December 2019, has yet to be established, and has been roundly criticized for its potential to be used to suppress political opponents. And President Moon’s attempt to exert more centralized control over prosecutors was derided by critics as a retaliatory measure against prosecutors investigating government corruption. But perhaps the greatest disappointment of the Moon administration’s approach to anticorruption is its reluctance to target the root of the country’s most serious corruption problem: the unchecked power of the chaebols. Though President Moon announced chaebol reform as a platform priority, his actions since his election have borne little fruit.

That chaebols were at the center of the Park administration scandal is neither surprising nor unusual. Indeed, chaebols have been at the center of South Korea’s most significant grand corruption cases, and they are routinely implicated in scandal after scandal after scandal. But neither the chaebols themselves nor their senior executives face a meaningful risk of significant liability. Even when prosecutors bring cases, chaebols and their executives benefit from judicial leniency, a phenomenon that has been documented both anecdotally and quantitatively. Indeed, South Korean high courts are infamous for overturning stricter lower court sentences in favor of what has come to be known as the “three-five” rule, available exclusively for chaebol executives: a guilty chaebol executive typically receives a three-year prison sentence, suspended for five years, and subsequently commuted—meaning that the executive serves no prison time. There are two likely explanations for this unusual and counterproductive judicial leniency toward chaebols and their executives. Continue reading