State-Level Anticorruption Commissions: What the U.S. Can Learn from Australia’s Model

Australia does not currently have a dedicated national-level anticorruption agency (ACA), though the question of whether to create one has been on the table since 2014 (see here, here, and here). Yet Australia has plenty of experience with ACAs—at the state level. Australia’s first, and still most prominent, state-level ACA was the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in New South Wales (the state including financial capital Sydney), which will mark its thirtieth anniversary next year. The ICAC, led by an independent commissioner, has independent investigatory powers over almost all state-level government officials and is charged with both exposing public sector corruption and educating the public about corruption. Queensland and Western Australia followed suit with their Corruption and Crime Commissions, established in their current forms in 2001 and 2003 respectively. The states of Victoria, South Australia, and tiny Tasmania all instituted independent agencies in recent years as well. Even the 250,000-strong Northern Territory resolved to start its own ACA after several high-profile scandals, and the Australian Capital Territory (the Canberra-sized equivalent of Washington, DC) has discussed creating its own anticorruption body. The permeation of Australia with state-level agencies is essentially complete.

Thus, in true laboratories-of-democracy fashion, Australian states have tried, solidified, and publicized the model of creating an independent investigatory group focused on the issue of corruption. Could U.S. states do the same? Easily. Should they? Yes, for at least three reasons:

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Planning and Zoning Board Corruption: Finding the Missing Whistleblowers

My last post looked at the constant, pernicious corruption and conflict of interest in local land use planning decisions in the United States. Despite shocking stories and a handful of high-profile investigations and prosecutions (see, for example, here and here), little comprehensive work has been done to address the potential for corruption in planning and zoning decisions, even when warning signs abound. Instead, most instances of corruption in land use planning decisions remain undetected, perhaps because the seemingly small stakes make it unlikely that external investigators will scrutinize these decisions too closely.

Yet potential whistleblowers surely see or suspect bribery, conflicted dealings, or other malfeasance in land use planning. Reforms should make it easier for those individuals to come forward, as well as make it more likely that their reports will lead to action. Ideally, these measures would recognize the particular characteristics of land use decisions, such as the challenges posed by the large numbers of local officials involved in planning and zoning. Here are a few suggestions for how to encourage simpler, more consistent reporting:

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In Accordance with a Comprehensive Scam: Bribery and Conflicts in U.S. Land Use Planning

Corruption in land used decisions is widespread. Quid pro quo exchanges are relatively common, as are conflicts of interest, especially in small communities. In 2011, Transparency International released a report on land use that found “[a]round the world more than one out of 10 people reported paying bribes when dealing with ordinary land issues.” The United States is far from immune. Consider just a handful of recent examples: The City of Boston has asked for help from the FBI in its approach to corruption, particularly corruption in zoning boards. In 2008, the Chicago Tribune ran an eight-part series on corruption in Chicago real estate decisions. An earlier case revealed that an Indianapolis city official with sway over the zoning board regularly asking for bribes. The former mayor of Charlotte resigned after bribery accusations, including taking cash for influencing zoning decisions. And in a recent review, Minneapolis found that conflicts of interest are common in its planning and zoning boards.

What makes land use planners so susceptible to corruption, even in countries, like the United States, that are not usually thought of as suffering from endemic bribery? Part of the problem concerns the institutional set-up. In a typical U.S. community, there will often be a Planning Commission, responsible for approval of individual site development or demolition plans, oversight of subdivisions, and review of the area’s Master Plan for zoning and development. (For some insight into what these meetings might look like, the City of Syracuse, New York makes its applications and minutes available online.) The community (city or county) would usually also have a Zoning Board of Appeals or Zoning Board of Adjustment—tasked with creating a Master Plan, reviewing zoning ordinance changes, and providing special permits or variances from zoning requirements.

The risk factors associated with this approach to land-use decisionmaking include excessive autonomy, complexity, and delay:

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Post-TPP Withdrawal: Loss of a Trade-Corruption Milestone?

As promised, President Trump removed the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement soon after he took office in January. The move withdrew the world’s leading economy from the largest regional trade deal ever proposed. It also represented a major step back from what looked like a breakthrough in linking anticorruption and trade. As I discussed in a previous post, the TPP’s anticorruption chapter was an important step towards inclusion of anticorruption commitments in trade deals, making the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP a step backwards for the decades-old movement to incorporate anticorruption provisions in trade agreements.

Yet Trump’s move was not the end of the TPP negotiations. Nor should it be the end of championing an increased role for anticorruption and transparency in trade deals. With the TPP having reached the final stages of negotiation, its Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter can provide an outline for future trade deals that might provide further opportunities for trade-corruption linkage. As outlined in a previous post, the TPP’s chapter on anticorruption made several strides forward, including obligations to join UNCAC and respect other anticorruption instruments. What’s more, the anticorruption provisions were to be made enforceable in trade dispute resolution tribunals (though, as Danielle has previously written, corruption can already support certain actions in trade dispute arbitration). Looking at the strides forward in the draft TPP, there are three key avenues through which the Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter can continue to strengthen international trade deals.

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Watching Out: Cambodian Corruption Video Documentation Where Censorship Fails

Low-cost video, and easier video distribution, simple though it sounds, is emerging as one of the premier corruption-fighting tools. This is especially true for small countries with poor track records in public integrity. Consider Cambodia. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30-year rule has been rife with graft, cronyism, land grabbing, and political violence, the government has been able to keep the extent of this hidden from most of the Cambodian public. Yet video and video-sharing services have proved one form of protest that the reigning government cannot seem to quash.

The most recent video to provoke the ire of the ruling party has low production values and little action. Three men sit at a table, one talking for the majority of the eight-minute run time about a Global Witness report’s allegations of extreme nepotism and cronyism within the ruling family. The man speaking, Kem Ley, was an opposition politician who was assassinated in broad daylight at a gas station convenience store just two days after his remarks. Many commentators immediately suspected the killing was political; these statements themselves spurred lawsuits from the ruling party. Multiple YouTube versions of the video now have several hundred thousand views each, with video news stories covering the killing tallying hundreds of thousands more. Kem’s funeral procession brought out droves of Cambodians, some reports numbering the crowd at two million (in a country of around 15 million people).

Another recent video about an anticorruption campaigner has become extremely popular despite—or perhaps because of—the government’s best efforts to stop it. The video’s subject, Chut Wutty, worked to expose illegal logging in Cambodian forests, logging that often happened with police complicity or direct participation. While accompanying journalists to show them the extent of the illegal deforestation, Wutty was shot and killed by a police officer. The low-budget documentary about his life and death was released this spring. Banned by the government, the film also quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views and gathered plenty of attention.

In a country with state-controlled media, sparse internet connectivity, and extreme poverty, the exposure to corruption-exposing video is ad hoc but growing. Videos like these hold promise for the future of the long-struggling country for several reasons:

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Coming Along for the Ride: Regional Human Rights Courts Should Demand Government Measures to Affirmatively Address Corruption

In an earlier post, I discussed an order by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanding that Brazil investigate and report on prison guards’ corruption. Mandating that a country review its own corruption seems to be a new step for an international judicial body. The approach suggests a way to more closely integrate corruption-related concerns into international human rights work: including corruption-specific mandates within broader holdings. Other international adjudicative bodies, particularly regional human rights courts, should follow this model.

The idea of directly adjudicating corruption through an international court has been floated but also strongly opposed. Some corruption commentators advocate making grand corruption a crime against humanity that could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). As discussed on this blog, Judge Mark Wolf has proposed an independent international anticorruption court, an idea that met with some tempered support and a good deal of opposition (see here, here, and Matthew’s concerns here). I agree that grand corruption does not belong in the ICC or an independent court. To reject grand corruption as a stand-alone offense to be prosecuted in international criminal tribunals is not, however, to reject that corruption should be addressed by international criminal tribunals where it is relevant. Existing bodies like regional human rights courts—the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), and the much newer African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, as well as other, even younger human rights bodies in Southeast Asia and the Middle East—should explicitly address corruption-related issues within the context of the large volume of human rights adjudication already taking place. As other commentators have already discussed, these regional human rights courts can fold corruption into their respective mandates and generate meaningful corruption-related law (see here, here, and here). Indeed, regional human rights bodies are already well-placed to highlight corruption where it emerges and to respond appropriately to both the existing situation and future concerns:

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Mandatory Prison Corruption Report Looks for a Cure in Brazil

In a recent provisional measure (currently only in Spanish), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Brazilian government to take a variety of steps to address human rights violations at the notorious Curado prison complex. Such violations are pervasive: Shockingly, the Curado guards, in exchange for kickbacks or other illicit benefits, essentially handed over control of the prison (and other prisoners) to certain inmates (often the most violent or feared), turned a blind eye to or participated in the complex’s massive drugs and weapons trade, and repeatedly failed to stop prison breaks and riots.

Notably, among the steps in the Court’s order is a demand that the government investigate and report back to the Court on corruption, particularly on weapons and drugs trafficking, among officials at the prison. The Court—like its companion institution, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which investigates and reports to the Court—is not directly tasked with addressing corruption. However, its mandate includes protecting the right to humane treatment. At Curado, the prison guards, as agents of Brazil, affirmatively jeopardized the safety of prisoners with their corruption, and the Brazilian government failed to protect prisoners from abuses stemming from those actions. The Court’s measure, drawing from the Commission’s recommendations, emphasizes that the widespread corruption of the guards and other prison officials was one of the factors that allowed the inhumane conditions in the prison to continue.

The Court’s ruling seems to be one of the first times an international judicial body has ordered a country to undertake a review of corruption within its borders and then be held directly accountable to that international body. Thus, beyond its immediate significance to the Curado situation, the Court’s decision is a milestone in more directly recognizing and addressing corruption as a proximate cause of human rights violations. While this recognition will not by itself resolve the dire situation at Curado, it is an important step forward, and is notable for several reasons:

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