About Matthew Stephenson

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Anticorruption Bibliography–August 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.

Corruption and Deadly Accidents

After last week’s catastrophic explosion in Beirut—which killed over 150 people, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless—Lebanese citizens are rightly demanding a full investigation of the incident and accountability for those responsible. The official reports so far have stated that the source of the blast was an abandoned Russian cargo ship carrying a large quantity of ammonium nitrate; it is not clear why that vessel and its dangerous cargo, which arrived at the port in 2013, were allowed to remain for so long despite repeated warnings about the dangers. Some commentators have expressed skepticism about the official account, and suggested that the blast was caused by illegal munitions being smuggled through Lebanon. We do not yet know, and may never know, the full story.

Much of the coverage of the incident has emphasized the widespread corruption of the Lebanese government, and many Lebanese protestors have emphasized this same theme. It is not yet clear whether corruption had much directly to do with this incident. The official account so far suggests negligence and mismanagement rather than intentional malfeasance. But the instinct to suspect corruption is entirely understandable, because there is ample evidence that corruption is often a significant contributing cause of many deadly accidents. Indeed, while much of the public discussion about the costs of corruption, particularly by donor agencies and international institutions, focuses on macroeconomic outcomes (such as per capita income, GDP growth rates, and economic inequality) or on other measures of human development (such as education, literacy, and health), corruption is also a significant contributing cause of avoidable accidental deaths. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–August 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. As has been true for the past couple of months, most of the newest items relate to the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including further evidence that federal bailout money has flowed to businesses owned or closely connected to President Trump’s family and cronies, and White House pressure to include in the next coronavirus relief package an unrelated $1.75 billion for the renovation of the FBI headquarters building located across the street from Trump’s D.C. hotel. One item, though, actually concerns events that took place over two years ago, but were only disclosed this past month: Apparently the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, acting at President Trump’s request, tried (unsuccessfully) to use his influence to get the British Open held at Trump’s Scotland golf course.

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.)

There’s No Panacea for Corruption. So We Can All Stop Pointing That Out.

I’m taking another one of my periodic breaks from semi-serious commentary to make a mostly frivolous, slightly snarky point about the way we talk and write about corruption. Here’s my plea for today:

Every sensible person would presumably agree that there’s no panacea (that is, no single cure-all) for corruption. But our community appears to have developed—perhaps as a kind of reflexive, semi-defensive verbal tick—the tendency to declare that whatever anticorruption measure we happen to be talking about is “not a panacea” for corruption. Thus we are told repeatedly, for example, that:

  • Transparency is not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, here, and here);
  • Anticorruption agencies are not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, here, and here);
  • New technologies are not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, here, and here);
  • Democracy is not a panacea for corruption (see here, here, and here);
  • Privatization is not a panacea for corruption (see here and here).

Other things that the literature has declared “not a panacea” for corruption include higher public sector salaries, international courts, more women in the public sector, EU membership, codes of corporate ethics, unexplained wealth orders, and economic sanctions.

Since we all agree (or should agree) that there is no panacea for corruption, we probably don’t need to keep saying that any individual measure is not a panacea. Of course it isn’t. There isn’t one. Done.

While this post is mainly meant as a gentle admonition (with the finger pointed at myself as much as anyone else) to be more mindful about trotting out tired clichés and banal statements of the obvious, I do think there’s something intriguing about how many of us working in this field (again, very much including myself) so frequently feel the subconscious compulsion to add what would seem to be an unnecessary caveat when discussing this or that anticorruption measure. Why do we do this? Perhaps we recognize the all-too-frequent tendency of advocates to make exaggerated claims on behalf of their preferred reform, and we want to reassure our audience that we are more nuanced and sophisticated? (I imagine, for example, that those advocating for greater use of modern information technology don’t want to be mistaken for naïve techno-utopians.) Or perhaps we worry, perhaps with justification, about managing the expectations of our audience, lest the failure of a proposed reform to eradicate the corruption problem be treated as evidence that the reform didn’t help, leading to greater cynicism and frustration?

Then again, maybe there’s no subject-specific explanation. Maybe it’s just a bad habit. In any event, I propose that we retire the phrase. Please allow me to be so bold as to officially declare in this blog post, on behalf of the anticorruption community, that there is no panacea for corruption. So, going forward, we don’t need to say it anymore. Just throw in an unexplained hyperlink to this post as soon as you introduce the anticorruption measure you want to discuss, without feeling the need to insert the “not a panacea” qualification. You’re welcome.

New Podcast, Featuring Danielle Brian

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Danielle Brian, the Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a U.S. civil society watchdog organization that focuses on investigating, exposing, and preventing government corruption, fraud, and waste, and more broadly lobbies for systemic reforms to improve accountability and integrity in the U.S. government.

The interview begins with a conversation about POGO’s history and current work, and discusses POGO’s somewhat “hybrid model,” which combines investigation work on specific cases with a broader policy reform agenda. Ms. Brian provides, as an encouraging example of how groups like POGO can have a positive impact, POGO’s work in promoting significant reform in the regulations governing payments to oil and gas companies. She describes the case study as a useful illustration of a successful advocacy campaign, but also emphasizes that one of the lessons from this and other cases is that genuine reform takes time and requires patience. We then turn to several other challenges that anticorruption advocacy groups like POGO face, including how to maintain a reputation for nonpartisanship and how to balance the interest in engaging with the government and publicly criticizing the government. Ms. Brian and I also touch on a number of more specific issues, including concerns about corruption in the allocation of coronavirus relief funds, questions about whether or how to frame lobbying or other influence activities as “corrupt,” and the so-called “revolving door” problem.

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.

One other note: KickBack will be going on holiday in August, but we’ll be back with a new episode on September 7.

Anticorruption Bibliography–July 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.

Guest Post: The Impending Reckoning on the U.S. Government’s Expansive Theory of Extraterritorial FCPA Liability

Today’s guest post is from Roxie Larin, a lawyer who previously served as Senior Legal Counsel for HSBC Holdings and is now an independent researcher and consultant on corruption, compliance, and white collar crime issues.

The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is a powerful tool that the U.S. government has wielded to combat overseas bribery—not just bribery committed by U.S. citizens or firms, but also bribery committed by foreign nationals outside of U.S. territory. (The FCPA also applies to any individual, including a non-U.S. person or firm, who participates in an FCPA violation while in the United States, but this territorial jurisdiction is standard and noncontroversial.) The FCPA, unlike many other U.S. statutes, does not require a nexus of the alleged crime to the United States so long as certain other criteria are satisfied. For one thing, the statute applies to companies, including foreign companies, that issue securities in the U.S. In addition, the FCPA covers non-U.S. individuals or companies that act as an employee, officer, director, or agent of an entity that is itself covered by the FCPA (either a U.S. domestic concern or a foreign issuer of U.S. securities), even if all of the relevant conduct takes place outside U.S. territory.

In pursuing FCPA cases against non-U.S. entities for FCPA violations committed wholly outside U.S. territory, the agencies that enforce the FCPA—the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—have pushed the boundaries of this latter jurisdictional provision. They have done so in part by stretching to its limits (and perhaps beyond) what it means to act as an “agent” of a U.S. firm or issuer. (The FCPA provisions covering foreign “officers” and “employees” of issuers and domestic concerns are more straightforward, but also more rarely invoked. It’s rare for the government to have evidence implicating a corporate officer, and the employee designation doesn’t help unless the government is either able to dispense with notions of corporate separateness, given that foreign nationals are typically employed by a company organized under the laws of their local jurisdiction.) Until recently, the government’s expansive agency-based theories of extraterritorial jurisdiction had neither been tested nor fully articulated beyond a few generic paragraphs in the government’s FCPA Resource Guide. In many cases, foreign companies affiliated with an issuer or domestic concern have settled with the U.S. government before trial, presumably conceding jurisdiction on the theory that the foreign company acted as an agent of the issuer or domestic concern. (This concession may be in part because a guilty plea by a foreign affiliate is often a condition for leniency towards the U.S. company.) Hence, the government has not had to prove its jurisdiction over these foreign defendants.

But there was bound to be a reckoning over the U.S. government’s untested theories of extraterritorial FCPA jurisdiction, and the SEC and DOJ’s expansive theories are increasingly being tested in court cases brought against individuals who, sensibly, are more prone to litigating their freedom than companies are their capital. And it turns out that the U.S. government’s expansive conception of “agency” may be difficult to sustain in cases where the foreign national defendant—the supposed “agent” of the U.S. firm or issuer—is a low- or mid-level employee of a foreign affiliate, and even more difficult to sustain so where the domestic concern is only an affiliate and not the parent company. Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Franz von Weizsäcker and Niklas Kossow

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Christopher Starke interview Franz von Weizsäcker (from the German Agency for International Development (GIZ)) and Niklas Kossow (form the Hertie School of Governance) about how new technologies, particular distributed ledger technology like Blockchain, can be used to curb corruption. Franz and Niklas first describe how they became interested in this topic and then, after providing a basic introduction to how distributed ledger technology works, they discuss both the opportunities and the challenges associated with deploying these new technologies to curb corruption.

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.

Guest Post: How President Ramaphosa Can Begin Rebuilding Public Trust in South African Government

Today’s guest post is from Larry Kirsch, an economist who is currently the Managing Partner of IMR Health Economics.

The South African government, like many governments around the world, faces daunting challenges due to the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic collapse, and civil unrest. Addressing these problems requires not only decisive action by leaders, but also a sufficient reservoir of public trust. Without such trust, a leader’s call for civic sacrifice and solidarity may not receive the desired response. Unfortunately, South African citizens do not currently have much trust in their government. The leading international survey of trustworthiness, the Edelman Trust Barometer, reported this past January that trust in government among South Africans ranked lowest among the 28 countries surveyed—lower than Russia and Argentina and well below India and China.

Part of this lack of trust is due to chronically stressed economic conditions, as well as extreme structural inequalities. But citizens’ trust has been further undermined by South Africa’s endemic corruption. The corruption of former President Jacob Zuma and his closest cronies (especially the rapacious Gupta family) was well-documented in a a November 2016 report issued by the Office of the Public Protector, then headed by the highly-regarded Thuli Madonsela. That report, entitled The State of Capture, also emphasized the burden of corruption on everyday citizens, documenting, for example, how corruption had contributed to the dysfunctions in vital public services and state owned enterprises.

Will the relatively new government of President Cyril Ramaphosa be able to galvanize trust and obtain the degree of public support needed to deal with the grave threats facing South Africa? On the one hand, President Ramaphosa’s public statements, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa in early March, have been decisive, inclusive, and progressive, particularly in relation to the call for solidarity and the government’s commitment to the apportionment of healthcare, work, food, and other public support on the basis of need. But if President Ramaphosa truly wishes to begin a ”radical” restructuring process based on principles of fairness, social cohesion, and inclusive growth, he will have to deal squarely with the persistence of the culture of corruption, as well as with broader concerns about government openness and public accountability. And his stirring speeches have so far not included much information on how his administration intends to tackle these crucial issues.

One important element of a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the South African government’s integrity—and with it citizen trust in that government—would be for President Ramaphosa to personally back robust implementation of South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). Continue reading

Guest Post: The Coalition for Integrity’s New Report on How To Ensure Oversight of U.S. Coronavirus Response Funds

Today’s guest post is by Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity, a civil society advocacy organization focused on corruption in the United States.

The U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act), enacted in late March to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, provides over $2 trillion in various forms of relief, including over $600 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans to small businesses, and approximately $500 billion in additional discretionary Treasury Department loans. To ensure appropriate allocation of these funds, and to reduce the risks of corruption, fraud, and other forms of misappropriation, transparency and oversight are essential. Indeed, we have already seen the perils of a lack of transparency in awarding the PPP loans. Instead of prioritizing businesses who were in danger of failing without an injection of cash, many large chains and other well-funded companies received loans. Further, there are reports that businesses owned by members of Congress received money under the program, which raises conflict of interest concerns.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has resisted even relatively modest measures to assure transparency and accountability in the allocation of CARES Act funds. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin previously announced that the names of PPP recipients would not be made public, making the misguided claim that the identity of PPP loan recipients is the companies’ confidential and proprietary information. But taxpayer have a right to know where their money is going (a principle the U.S. vigorously applies when sending foreign aid dollars overseas). Eventually Secretary Mnuchin relented to pressure to change course, and agreed to provide information regarding PPP loans in excess of $150,000. Yet the administration’s resistance to transparency and oversight has continued, as demonstrated by alarming reports that the Treasury Department’s Office of General Counsel has issued a legal opinion claiming that the Department has no obligation to provide key information to oversight officials, including the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), about the CARES Act’s PPP and discretionary business loan programs.

These reports underscore the importance of keeping up the pressure on Congress and the Administration to take appropriate steps to ensure genuine transparency and accountability in the allocation of pandemic response funds. Congress in particular may need to add new legal provisions to address the flaws in the oversight system. The Coalition for Integrity recently released a new report, entitled Oversight is Better than Hindsight: Anti-Corruption Recommendations for the CARES Act, which documents the current oversight gaps in the CARES Act and presents a set of recommendations on how best to close those gaps. These recommendations include, among others: increasing appropriations for oversight bodies, enacting for-cause removal protections for Inspectors General, enhancing whistleblower protections, requiring the Federal Reserve to comply with Sunshine’s Act meeting transcript or recording requirements, and appointing a chairperson to the Congressional Oversight Commission. The report also highlights a number of measures that the Administration can and should take, including better and more effective cooperation with the oversight bodies, creating a public-facing website with detailed information on contracts awarded under the stimulus program (as was done by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversaw the stimulus funding enacted in response to the 2007-2008 financial crisis), and ensuring more generally that agencies are responsive rather than resistant to requests and recommendations from oversight bodies.

Effective oversight is not a partisan political issue. Misuse of stimulus money will compound the country’s collective misery at a time when millions are already suffering from the grave health and economic effects of the pandemic. In this context, insufficient public transparency and a lack of full cooperation with oversight bodies should worry us all.