About Matthew Stephenson

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Guest Post: What Can Reformers Learn from the Populists?

Today’s guest post is from Michael Johnston, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Colgate University.

Few recent political trends have attracted as much concern as the rise of populism and illiberal democracy. Figures like Orbán (in Hungary), Duterte (in the Philippines), Bolsonaro (in Brazil), and Trump (in the U.S.), along with their enablers and sycophants, have disrupted democratic norms and processes in their home countries and encouraged similar movements elsewhere. They have emboldened corrupt and self-dealing actors while weakening and intimidating countervailing political forces. While populists frequently rail against a corrupt and decadent old order, promising to restore citizens to a position of power and sovereignty that in most instances they never actually enjoyed, these leaders seem to have little concern for those citizens after winning their votes. Indeed, perhaps we shouldn’t call these figures “populist” at all, given their tendency to abuse and mislead the very citizens they claim to represent. “Authoritarian nationalist” might be a more accurate label. But whatever we call them, they seem determined to undermine checks and balances and meaningful accountability, as well as the political trust and informal norms on which well-functioning governments depend.

This is bad news for those working to check corruption, as these populist/authoritarian nationalists’ undermining of accountability and institutional checks fosters a pervasive atmosphere of impunity. But might there also be important lessons that the anticorruption community can learn from these movements? I suggest that there are. Indeed, populist followings are telling us something important, something directly relevant to reform, if we listen closely. Continue reading

Trump’s New Executive Order on the Civil Service Poses a Grave Corruption Threat

Last week, President Trump issued a new Executive Order that, if implemented, could dramatically change the U.S. federal civil service—and in so doing threatens to subvert one of the most important bulwarks against corruption in all of U.S. law.

First, a quick synopsis of what the order does: Federal civil service laws are complex, but simplifying a bit, the bulk of U.S. civil service positions fall under something called the “competitive service” (also known as the “merit system”), in which hiring is based on competitive examinations administered by the Office of Personnel Management. Furthermore, those holding competitive service positions can only be removed for good cause (that is, they can’t be fired at will), and removals of such officials are reviewable by an independent commission called the Merit Systems Protection Board. Also importantly, those in the competitive service are entitled to union representation. Not all federal positions have these protections; the most senior civil servants are part of a different system (the “Senior Executive Service”), and there are a number of other relatively narrowly drawn exemptions for particular classes of jobs, typically those for which hiring by competitive examination is not practical (the “excepted service”). President Trump’s new Executive Order would shift from the competitive service to the excepted service any position that has “a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character.” If that sounds very broad, it’s because it is. The Executive Order, if implemented, could shift tens of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands, of federal civil service positions out of the competitive service, thus giving the President the authority to fire the holders of those positions at will, as well as the authority to replace them with political appointees.

It’s not entirely clear whether the new order is legal. The relevant statute does contain a provision that allows the President to create “necessary exceptions” from the merit system insofar as “conditions of good government warrant.” Past presidents have exercised this authority, though to the best of my (limited) knowledge, President Trump’s Executive Order is unprecedented in both the breadth of its coverage and the thinness of its proffered justifications. That might matter, because there are a handful of prior court opinions (though none at the Supreme Court level) that suggest that the President’s authority to exempt positions from the merit system is not unlimited. It’s also not certain whether the Executive Order will ever go into effect. If Joe Biden wins next week’s election, he could reverse the order as soon as he’s inaugurated, and it’s unclear whether the Trump Administration will be able effect any actual reclassifications under the order prior to inauguration day. (The order itself calls on all agencies to prepare a preliminary list of affected positions by inauguration day, but it’s possible that agencies might move faster and reclassify some positions before then.)

For purposes of the present post, I want to put those issues aside. I also will put aside, for now, broader questions of whether the Executive Order would worsen the politicization of federal agencies or undermine their overall quality (themes I’ve explored in other work). Instead, my objective here is to elaborate on why this Executive Order, if implemented, poses such a significant corruption threat. To do that, let’s consider three forms of corruption (or corruption-facilitating practices) that the civil service merit system is meant to constrain, and the impact that this Executive Order would have on each: Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring James Wasserstrom (Part 2)

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, James Wasserstrom, with whom I did a podcast episode last month, returns for a second interview. In our first conversation, Mr. Wasserstrom and I talked about his experience as a whistleblower exposing corruption at the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in 2007, and the aftermath. In this week’s episode, Mr. Wasserstrom discusses his work as a special advisor on anticorruption issues at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, where he served from 2009 to 2014. He talks about the importance of anticorruption work in ensuring stability and security, the challenges he faced in convincing senior military and diplomatic officials of the need to take corruption seriously, and why it’s important, in situations like Afghanistan, to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption and to use strict conditionalities on aid to compel governments to adopt meaningful improvements in transparency, accountability, and integrity. He also compares his experiences in Afghanistan with his prior work in Kosovo, as well as work he’s done since on promoting anticorruption and good governance in Ukraine.

You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Anticorruption Bibliography–October 2020 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.

Interview on the History of Corruption in the U.S. (and Corruption in the Trump Administration)

As regular readers likely know, a little while back I did a post on a new working paper of mine, jointly authored with Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, on corruption and anticorruption in U.S. history. A few weeks ago, Harvard Law Today (the alumni magazine put out by my employer and alma mater) published a short interview I did about what we learned from this research project. In addition to discussing the history, the interviewer also asked some questions regarding the current situation in the U.S. with respect to corruption, especially in connection with the evidence this blog has been collecting of the Trump Administration’s conflicts of interest and efforts to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. It’s a brief interview, and there may not be much in here that will be news to those who read the working paper or follow these issues closely, but I figured I’d share the interview in case some folks out there might find it of interest. The interview also includes a link to a lecture I delivered a year ago on broad themes related to corruption and anticorruption.

Reforming the US AML System: Some Proposals Inspired by the FinCEN Files

Last week, I did a post with some preliminary (and under-baked) reflections on the so-called “FinCEN Files” reports by BuzzFeed News and the Independent Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These stories relied in substantial part on a couple thousand Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that had been filed with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and leaked to a BuzzFeed journalist in 2018. The documents, and the reporting based on them, highlight the extent to which major Western banks assist suspected kleptocrats, terrorists, and other criminal actors move (and launder) staggering amounts of money all over the world, and highlight the deficiencies of the existing anti-money laundering (AML) system.

What can we do to rectify this depressing state of affairs? Much of the commentary I’ve seen so far (both in the FinCEN Files stories themselves, and commentary on the reporting from other sources) emphasizes the need for more individual criminal liability—putting bankers in jail, not just fining banks. Even when banks are threatened or hit with penalties, the argument goes, this doesn’t really have much of a deterrent effect, partly because even what seem like very large monetary sanctions are dwarfed by the profits banks stand to make from assisting shady clients with shady transactions, and partly because the costs of monetary sanctions are mostly passed on to the bank’s shareholders, and don’t really hurt the individuals responsible (or the managers who tolerate, or turn a blind eye to, misconduct).

I’m quite sympathetic to both of these arguments, though with a couple of important caveats. Caveat number one: The absence of individual prosecutions of bankers is sometimes attributed to the fecklessness—or, worse, the “soft” corruption—of federal prosecutors, but as I noted in my last post, I tend to think that the more significant obstacle is the fact that it is very difficult in most cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the that bankers or other intermediaries had the requisite level of knowledge to support a criminal money laundering conviction. Caveat number two: I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss the idea that levying significant monetary penalties on banks can affect their behavior. After all, these institutions are motivated overwhelmingly by money, so hitting them in the pocketbook is hitting them where it hurts. The problem may be less that monetary sanctions are inherently ineffectual in this context, but rather that they are too low and too uncertain to have a sufficient impact on incentives and behavior.

In that vein, I want to suggest a few legal reforms that might make the U.S. AML system function more effectively. I acknowledge that these are “inside the box” ideas, insofar as they seek to make the existing framework more effective rather than to drastically transform that system. That may make these proposals feel unsatisfying to some, though I suspect the proposals will seem radical, even outlandish, to others. I should also acknowledge that I am not at all an AML expert, so it’s quite possible that the discussion below will contain errors or misunderstandings of the law or the system. But, in the spirit of trying to stimulate further discussion by those who really understand this field, let me throw out a few ideas. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Frederik Obermaier

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Christopher Starke welcome back to the podcast Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier of the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, who is also affiliated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. A year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Obermaier on the podcast about his work breaking the Panama Papers story, which shed unusual light on how corrupt officials and other criminals use anonymous companies to launder the proceeds of their illegal activity. In the new episode, Mr. Obermaier discusses the so-called FinCEN Files (which I blogged about last week): the leak of over two thousand suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed with the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). Mr. Obermaier explains why and how the FinCEN Files reveal how badly broken the international anti-money laundering (AML) system is, the likely reasons for the ineffectiveness of the system, how the ICIJ and its journalistic collaborators handled such a sensitive story, and the possible political implications of the stories based on the FinCEN Files reporting.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

The most significant new additions are primarily due to some very good pieces of investigative reporting.

  • The first, and more widely covered, is the New York Times reporting on several years of President Trump’s federal income tax returns, including the returns from his first two years in office. The returns shed light on many troubling aspects of the President’s finances, including the exceptionally low tax rates he has paid, evidence of multiple instances of possible fraud (still under investigation by the IRS), and his deep personal indebtedness, which plausibly raises security and other risks. The tax returns also provide significant corroborating evidence of the extent to which President Trump and his businesses have continued to earn substantial income from both private firms and foreign governments, giving rise to extraordinary conflict-of-interest concerns, as well as possible (indeed, likely) violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
  • Second, Dan Alexander’s new book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business, covers in much greater depth, and with significant original reporting, the same themes that we’ve been trying to keep track of here, namely the ways that President Trump has sought to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. A terrific and troubling Vanity Fair article summarizes some of the most significant findings, including compelling evidence that the government of Qatar rented office space in a building 30% owned by President Trump for no apparent purpose other than to influence the U.S. government’s Middle East policy.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

FinCEN Is Seeking Public Input on Proposed Amendments to Its AML Regulations. AML Advocates Should Comment!

In my last post, I discussed the so-called “FinCEN Files” (leaked Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by banks with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)), and the reports from BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) based on those leaked documents. This reporting highlighted serious weaknesses in the current anti-money laundering (AML) system, both in the United States and globally. Perhaps coincidentally (but perhaps not), just a couple of days before the FinCEN Files stories went public, FinCEN issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), seeking public comment on various proposed changes to its current regulations implementing the AML provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). The comment period will remain open until November 16th, 2020. Of course, it’s never clear how seriously federal agencies will take public comments, but in at least some circumstances sophisticated comments, supported by evidence and analysis, can move the needle, at least somewhat, on agency policy. So, I very much encourage those of you out there in ReaderLand, especially those of you who work at organizations that have expertise in this area and might be well-positioned to submit the sort of detailed, substantive comments that stand a chance of making some practical difference, to submit your comments before that deadline. (Comments can be submitted through the federal government’s e-rulemaking portal, referencing the identification number RIN 1506-AB44, and the docket number FINCEN-2020-0011, in the submission. The link above goes directly to the comment section for this rule, though, so you don’t need to enter that info again if you follow the link.)

The full ANPRM is not that long, but let me provide a very quick summary, highlighting the main proposal under consideration and the specific questions on which FinCEN is seeking public input. Continue reading

The FinCEN Files: Some Scattered Preliminary Thoughts

As most readers of this blog are likely well aware, last week BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a bombshell story about international money laundering through major financial institutions. The collection of stories—more of which are likely in the works—is based on an analysis of a large trove of leaked documents from the U.S Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which the journalists reporting on the case have dubbed the “FinCEN Files.” These files consist of so-called Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), which are documents that, pursuant to a U.S. statute called the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), banks and certain other institutions are legally required to file with FinCEN whenever the bank has reason to suspect that a transaction it’s handling involves money laundering or some other criminal activity, or simply lacks an apparent lawful purpose. The bank does not inform its customer that it’s filing a SAR—indeed, the BSA prohibits banks from doing so. FinCEN can use SARs to detect and investigate financial crime, and may share SARs with other law enforcement agencies in the context of an investigation, but otherwise SARs are supposed to remain strictly confidential. However, in October 2018 a FinCen employee leaked over 2,100 SARs to a BuzzFeed reporter. (While BuzzFeed and ICIJ do not identify their source, it is almost certain that this former employee, who pled guilty last January to illegally leaking the documents, is the source.) Journalists with BuzzFeed and the ICIJ analyzed these documents and have published multiple stories (see, for example, here and here) about what these documents reveal regarding the global anti-money laundering (AML) regime, together with a subset of the actual SARs. (The journalists released only those SARs that support reporting in specific stories, principally SARs that pertain to known criminal figures. They are not publishing a database of all the SARs in their possession due to concerns about privacy of the individuals involved, many of whom are not currently accused of any wrongdoing.)

The picture that these stories paint of the global AML regime is not a pretty one. While the stories are lengthy and detailed, and discuss many different aspects of the overall issue, if I had to try to distill all this reporting into a simple punchline, it would go something like this: The leaked SARs reveal that the major banks repeatedly handled huge and highly suspicious transactions for corrupt kleptocrats, organized crime groups, terrorists, fraudsters, sanctions evaders, and others, and relatively little was done, by the government or the banks, to stop it. As the ICIJ puts it, “The FinCEN Files show trillions in tainted dollars flow freely through major banks, swamping a broken enforcement system.” Or as BuzzFeed puts it, the FinCEN files reveal “how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions,” while “the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”

I’m still working my way through all the FinCEN Files stories, and I’m certainly no expert on money laundering or banking regulation. (I come to this issue sideways, from an interest in anticorruption, rather than any professional expertise in AML as such.) But, in the interest of getting some ideas down in writing and perhaps stimulating some further conversation on what we can learn from the FinCEN Files reporting, let me share a few scattered, somewhat disconnected preliminary observations. Continue reading