Lacey Act Corruption-Based Risks Should Prompt Wood Importers to Branch Out

The Lacey Act, a century-old U.S. statute, provides a unified set of penalties for possession of illegally procured animals or plants from the U.S. and, after amendments five years ago, those procured in violation of foreign laws as well. The Act was envisioned as a conservation statute, not an anticorruption statute; big cats (Siberian tigers) rather than big cronies were named as the motivation behind a recent prosecution under the new amendments. Yet in finalizing that case—involving retailer Lumber Liquidators’ purchase and import of illegally sourced wood—the Department of Justice (DOJ) seemed to suggest that companies could be held to a higher standard of diligence where they source natural goods from countries with high levels of corruption. In announcing Lumber Liquidators’ agreement to plead guilty to various Lacey Act charges for importing timber procured in violation of foreign logging laws, the DOJ emphasized the company’s failure to address red flags that the imports were illegally acquired. Those flags included that the imported wood came from a region known “to carry a high risk of [timber] being illegally sourced due to corruption and illegal harvesting.” Furthermore, the case suggests heightened scrutiny when natural resource products travel through intermediary agents whose countries also suffer from corruption or lack of robust enforcement of laws against illegal logging and the like. (In the Lumber Liquidators case, Russia was the source of the stock in question, and China was the intermediary seller’s base.)

The fate of Lumber Liquidators should put companies sourcing wood from regions with entrenched corruption on alert. The DOJ’s statement, if it is carried forward, foreshadows positive results. The Lacey’s Act’s potential in the fight against corruption is significant, straightforward, and good for everyone. A Bloomberg analysis notes that enforcement of foreign laws benefits U.S. producers as well as combatting foreign corruption. The Sierra Club emphasizes the role that corruption plays in global illegal logging and the Lacey Act’s role in “leading the fight” against it. The Natural Resources Defense Council blog also advocated the role of the Act in helping “countries establish rule of law and crackdown on corruption.” Such commentary highlights a second takeaway from the DOJ order: to reach the corruption-combatting potential of the statute, wood sourcing companies need to allow the Lacey Act threat to improve compliance in their source nations, rather than leaving for greener pastures. Indeed, using the Lacey Act to incentivize companies to “engage their supply chain” to avoid forestry corruption is both achievable and worthwhile:

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Welcome (Back) to The Jungle: Why Privatization of Meat Inspections Will Increase Corruption and Threaten Food Safety

Over a century ago, the tales of squalid meat production in Upton Sinclair’s famous novel The Jungle shocked the United States, contributing to a public outcry that ultimately led to regulations requiring a government inspector to examine every single meat carcass intended for human consumption. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) is responsible for the inspection regime. The established assessment program requires multiple FSIS inspectors to be on-site, performing a process of continual, carcass-by-carcass inspection during slaughter. The system is far from perfect and has never been a stranger to scandal (see here, here, and here). Yet it has been seen as vital to safeguarding public health from foodborne illnesses, including e.coli and salmonella outbreaks. It is also backed by a robust legal regime designed to insulate the inspectors from bribery and other forms of improper influence.

Unfortunately, throughout its history, FSIS has faced pressure to favor in-house inspectors over government inspectors in the name of creating a “flexible, more efficient” system. The most recent experiment with limiting the role of FSIS inspectors is HIMP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-Based Inspection Management Program), a program being piloted in a handful of pork plants and set to be proposed as a final regulation soon. (The related New Poultry Inspection System is being phased in now despite legal challenges.) HIMP uses in-house staff to conduct most of the inspections, particularly early on. A limited number of FSIS personnel do paperwork oversight and spot checks at particular points on the line.

However one chooses to balance competing calls for efficiency and safety, this is a short-sighted idea. Government inspectors and regulatory personnel are not perfect, but they are covered by anti-bribery laws and whistleblower protections that in-house inspectors are not, making them a safer bet for the safety of the meat supply. Filth and disease garner headlines, but civil society should continue to fight for an active role for government inspectors for another reason—public corruption is easier to fight than private influence. Even if one agrees that government inspectors are less efficient (a questionable proposition, despite how often it’s repeated), there are a number of laws and regulations in place designed to prevent (or expose) the corruption of these inspectors by the meat industry; there is no comparable regulatory regime in place to prevent equivalent corruption, or other forms of more subtle improper influence, from distorting the decisions of in-house private inspectors. Consider a few key areas of separation:

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The Internal Revenue Service’s (Potential) Role in Combating Foreign Bribery

The uptick in FCPA investigations in recent years is well-known. The two agencies responsible for FCPA enforcement—the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—now have special units focused on FCPA cases. Both have been aggressively pursuing cases against corporations and (increasingly) individuals. But there is a third U.S. agency that can and should be more involved in the fight against transnational bribery: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The IRS already has some role in FCPA cases, though the extent of that involvement is not entirely clear. Recently, its joint investigative role has been mentioned in a few high-profile matters. Notably, criminal FCPA charges against Vicente Eduardo Garcia (an SAP regional director who in August pled guilty to an FCPA violation involving bribery for Panamanian government contracts) were investigated cooperatively by the FBI and IRS, a fact that some commentators cautioned signaled a need for companies to increase FCPA compliance efforts through additional channels. IRS Criminal Investigation was also involved in the case against Hewlett-Packard Russia, which last year pled guilty to violating the FCPA, and even the (non-FCPA but bribery-related) investigation of FIFA started with the IRS. Beyond investigation, the IRS can bring separate tax charges related to incidents of bribery or other inappropriate payments. A 2014 settlement included a multi-million-dollar forfeiture to the IRS, apparently the first such forfeiture in an FCPA settlement, though the exact reason for the forfeiture was not revealed.

Several observers have speculated that the last decade’s increase in FCPA actions could lead to an increase in tax-related actions. Up until now it has been relatively rare for FCPA actions to include associated tax charges, but the 2014 settlement might be one indication that the relative scarcity of tax involvement could change. The IRS can further develop its responsibility in FCPA investigations with an expanded formal cooperative role, if indeed it does not have one already, in DOJ or SEC prosecutions. This would be a positive step, since there are two major advantages to FCPA investigations assisted, or tax charges brought, by the IRS:

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A Trade-Anticorruption Breakthrough?: The Trans-Pacific Partnership’s Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter

The full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), released earlier this month, is already generating plenty of discussion. One of the proposed agreement’s most striking features is the full chapter on transparency and anticorruption, Chapter 26. The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) had earlier stated that its objectives in negotiating the TPP included addressing transparency, accountability, and corruption; at the time I thought this was simply a negotiating ploy or marketing strategy, but it looks like I was wrong. As USTR’s summary of the “good governance” steps of Chapter 26 correctly notes, the TPP “includes the strongest anti-corruption and transparency standards of any trade agreement.” Indeed, Chapter 26–which appears to modeled in part on draft language that Transparency International had proposed for inclusion in a different trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership–could mark an important and unprecedented step towards using trade agreements to promoting and harmonize international anticorruption efforts.

Here are a few points that are or could be particularly important features of Chapter 26:

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Can’t See the Forest Because of the (Missing) Trees: How Satellite Imagery Can Help Fight Illegal Logging

Illegal logging is one of the gravest threats to the environment, and to the people (and countries) that depend on forest resources. Global Witness’s 2013 Annual Review describes industrial logging as a force that “drives land grabs, promotes corruption, contributes to climate change, fuels conflict and human rights abuses, and threatens over one billion people who rely on forests for their livelihoods and well-being.” The problem has been documented with surprising depth. Prominent examples include investigative work done by Global Witness (including two short films, Inside Malaysia’s Shadow State, which shows undercover interviews with members of then-Chief Minister of Sarawak Taib Mahmud’s family and legal team advising a “foreign investor” how to use bribery and fraud to illegally clear land for a palm oil plantation, and Rubber Barons, which documents land grabbing by a Vietnamese rubber firm), as well as other groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency, which recently recounted how army officials protect Chinese loggers’ passage into Myanmar, despite new laws entirely banning foreign exports of logs. In the popular media, NPR’s All Things Considered and The New Yorker looked at illegal logging in Russia and allegations of its yield being sold by major U.S. retailers, while The Economist called out HSBC’s involvement with dirty loggers. The issue is not confined to developing economies—a World Bank paper enumerated the breadth and variety of possible illegal acts surrounding the logging industry and its products worldwide, noting that practically all involve corruption. The problem, then, appears well-known and reported but remains widespread, possibly getting worse.

Illegal logging remains persistent largely because of pervasive corruption. A number of proposals have already laid out systems to address forestry corruption. Possibilities include land tenure arrangements that give management to local or indigenous groups, certification schemes for wood products, and a variety of monitoring and transparency mechanisms. A 2009 World Bank report provided a “comprehensive framework” involving five principal parts, each with a number of sub-components. Scholars, NGOs, and international organizations have noted the need for technology to increase monitoring capabilities. Technological developments may offer the key to progress in the fight against illegal logging—allowing circumvention of (or greater pressure on) the corrupt government officials who ignore, or sometimes participate in or profit from, the unlawful destruction of forests.

A previous post discussed one such technology, isotope provenancing, used to identify the origin of wood. This technology, however, has its limits. (For example, it does not help when forests are razed not to harvest the timber, but to clear the land for other uses, such as palm oil and rubber plantations.) Other new technologies can help show how corruption in the logging industry happens, working forward from the site of the problem instead of tracing back from imported products. One of the most promising tools—satellite imaging—is in fact already available, and could be very effective if deployed more appropriately and aggressively.

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Should the TPP Address Corruption? If So, How?

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) says it is trying to include anticorruption pledges in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. According to USTR, it not only wants “commitments to promote transparency, participation, and accountability” in trade issues (commitments USTR claims it has already had some success securing recently), but also more general “commitments discouraging corruption . . . among public officials.” It’s not entirely clear what USTR means, particularly with respect to this latter suggestion that it is going to push for more general anticorruption pledges in the TPP. Maybe it doesn’t mean much – it might just be feel-good rhetoric, with little connection to what’s actually going on in the closed-door TPP negotiations. But suppose that USTR is sincere, and that it genuinely hopes to include some sort of anticorruption language in the final TPP deal. Is this a good idea? If so, what sorts of anticorruption commitments would be appropriate in a mega-regional trade agreement like the TPP?

The idea of incorporating anticorruption measures into trade deals is hardly novel. (See this panel summary for some high-level background). Last year, Colette’s post on this blog recommended adopting Transparency International’s suggested anticorruption measures for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (the T-TIP), though she also opposed addressing corruption through the multilateral WTO regime. Other commentators and civil society groups have pressed for the incorporation of anticorruption measures in other regional free trade agreements (for example, see here and here). With respect to the TPP, these prior discussions suggest several considerations that USTR negotiators should keep in mind if they are serious about pushing for more anticorruption language in this agreement: Continue reading