Chill Out: Fine-Tuning Anticorruption Initiatives to Decrease Their Chilling Effect

Who is “harmed” by aggressive anticorruption crackdowns? The most obvious answer is corrupt bureaucrats, shady contractors, and those who benefit from illicit flows of money. And while there are concerns about political bias and other forms of discrimination in the selection of targets, in general most of us rightly shed few tears for corrupt public officials and those who benefit from their illicit acts. But aggressive anticorruption crackdowns may have an important indirect cost: they may have a chilling effect on legitimate, socially beneficial behavior, such as public and private investment in economically productive activities. Although chilling effects are often discussed in other areas, such as with First Amendment rights in the United States, there is little discussion of it in the anticorruption context. That should change.

For example, in Indonesia, recent efforts to crack down on corruption appear to have stunted simultaneous measures to grow the economy through fiscal stimulus. As this Reuters article relates, “Indonesian bureaucrats are holding off spending billions of dollars on everything from schools and clinics to garbage trucks and parking meters, fearful that any major expenditure could come under the scanner of fervent anti-corruption fighters.” Nor is Indonesia the only example. In April 2014, Bank of America estimated that China’s corruption crackdown would cost the Chinese economy approximately $100 billion that year. One can challenge that estimate (as Matthew has discussed with respect to other figures used in reports on the cost of China’s anticorruption drive), but the more general notion that aggressive anticorruption enforcement can have a chilling effect on both public and private investment, which in turn can have negative macroeconomic impacts, is harder to rebut.

Taking this chilling effect seriously does not imply the view that corruption is an “efficient grease” or otherwise economically beneficial. The point, rather, is that although corruption is bad, aggressive measures to punish corruption may deter not only corrupt activities (which we want to deter) but also legitimate activities that might entail corruption risks, or be misconstrued as corruption. So, if we think that corruption is bad but that anticorruption enforcement might have an undesirable chilling effect, what should we do? Continue reading

What a Difference a Year Makes… or Does It? Revisiting Kenya’s Anticorruption Task Force and Assessing its Legislative Proposals

In spring 2015, at the behest of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenyan Attorney General Githu Muiagai formed the Task Force on Review of Legal, Policy and Institutional Framework for Fighting Corruption. The group’s goal was to assess the existing framework for combatting corruption in Kenya and to recommend reforms that would promote ethics and integrity while making it easier to fight corruption going forward. Yet for months, very little seemed to be happening, aside from meetings, a speech by President Obama to the Kenyan people on the subject, and some discussion of purported proposals in the press. (I examined one such proposal related to whistleblowers in an earlier post.)

The Task Force released its final report in October 2015 and President Kenyatta received the report the following month, the same week seventy-two government officials were arraigned on corruption charges. In general, the Task Force found (not surprisingly) a high correlation between discretionary power exercised by state actors and corruption. The Task Force said the fight against corruption was more about increasing enforcement of existing laws (although it did not recommend combining the investigative and prosecutorial roles as proposed legislation discussed in Rick’s earlier post would). But the report also proposed three major new legal frameworks, which mirror provisions in U.S. law, that the Taskforce report said would help reduce corruption in the country: Continue reading

Is it Legal in the U.S. To Buy Delegate Votes at Party Nominating Conventions?

As bizarre as the U.S. presidential campaign has been so far, it may get even more so this summer. There is a chance (although maybe not a probability) that the Republican Party will have its first contested convention since 1976. If no candidate has a majority of delegates on the first ballot, then many “bound delegates” can switch their vote to any candidate for the nomination (here is a brief primer on how a contested convention might work). If that happens, might some candidates (or, more likely, their surrogates) actually try to buy delegates’ votes—offering them cash or other crude material inducements in exchange for support? Donald Trump recently told a friend—apparently (and hopefully) in jest—he would “buy the delegates” if he did not obtain a majority in the primaries.

Such conduct would certainly be corrupt in the traditional sense. Believe it or not, however, such vote buying might not be against the law. Buying votes in a federal election is certainly illegal. But, as a recent Bloomberg article explained, “There is nothing in the [Republican National Committee]’s rules that prohibits delegates from cutting a deal for their votes, and lawyers say it is unlikely that federal anti-corruption laws would apply to convention horse-trading. (It is not clear that even explicitly selling one’s vote for cash would be illegal.)” Similarly, when respected former Republican National Committee counsel Ben Ginsberg was recently asked whether an unbound delegate to the convention could legally accept a suitcase full of cash in exchange for a vote for a candidate for the nomination, Ginsberg replied, “That is a great legal question that I’m not sure there’s an answer [to]. It’s not official [] action.” (Ginsberg did, however, emphasize that most lawyers “would not want to be defending somebody who just took a suitcase of cash for a vote at a convention.”)

So while outright vote buying at a contested convention is not exactly likely, it’s a serious enough concern to make it worthwhile to assess the risks, the current law that might apply, and the steps that Congress and the political parties can take to do something about this concern. Continue reading

Fixing Perpetually Corrupt Institutions—The Philadelphia Story

Often in the anticorruption world we grapple with the question of how to deal with perpetually corrupt institutions. One example is the Philadelphia City Commission and its elected commissioners. In recent years, Anthony Clark, the Chair of the City Commission got paid despite not showing up to work, while other commissioners have engaged in overt patronage politics, such as doling out jobs to family members and steering city contracts to businesses and institutions run by family members (leading to the federal indictment of the daughter of the long-serving former Chair on corruption charges). And although credible voter fraud charges in Philadelphia are uncommon, the Commission has not done a particularly good job of administering elections, its primary job. For example, in 2012 more than 27,000 registered voters were somehow left out of the official polling books, and had to cast provisional ballots.

Things with the elected Philadelphia City Commissioners have gotten so bad that some (including the Committee of Seventy, a good governance group in Philadelphia, and the city’s two largest newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News) have called for abolishing the elected positions altogether. The Committee of Seventy has called for replacing the elected City Commissioners with an appointed board of professions to administer Philadelphia’s elections, although its plan is short on details.

This proposal relates to a larger issue with which anticorruption reformers in many jurisdictions struggle: which positions should be elected, and which should be appointed? When is democratic accountability the solution, and when is it the problem? There is no one right answer, of course—it all depends on context. Yet in the specific context of the Philadelphia City Commission, the instinct to eliminate the democratic process is premature for two reasons. Continue reading

A Step in the Wrong Direction: How Term Limits Could Increase Corruption

The recent federal corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, longtime New York legislative leaders, have rightly led many to offer suggestions for preventing political corruption by elected officials. In two posts on this blog, Sarah suggested a mechanism for creating additional parties to make elections more competitive, and, in an earlier post, she proposed limiting New York legislators’ opportunity to take on additional employment. Others have suggested increasing legislator pay, amending campaign finance laws to close the “LLC loophole,” and increasing enforcement, including with independent ethics officers. This list is far from exhaustive.

One other “fix” that comes up again and again: term limits for legislators. Soon after the corruption scandal involving Silver and Skelos hit the news, a New York Post opinion piece called for term limits. And since Silver and Skelos were convicted, the calls have continued for term limits as part of a package of reforms (see, for example, here, here, and here). Although no one asserts that term limits are the silver bullet for ending corruption, many claim that term limits can play a constructive role as part of a comprehensive anticorruption package. But I am not convinced that term limits actually reduce the likelihood of corruption. Not only are term limits unlikely to be much help, but—as others have also argued (see here and here)—term limits might even increase corruption. Here’s why:

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To Catch Big Fish, the World Bank’s Integrity Vice Presidency Should Pay for Tips

The World Bank’s Integrity Vice President (“INT”), responsible for investigating corruption and fraud in World Bank projects, recently released its Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Update. INT had a busy year, opening 323 preliminary investigations, of which 99 were selected for full investigation, and closing 81 investigations, with three-quarters finding evidence of sanctionable conduct. (A primer on how INT conducts external investigations is here.) Some of INT’s recent cases, such as those brought against Alstom SA and SNC-Lavalin, involve large companies. Yet despite these examples, the data in the Annual Report raises questions about whether INT is sufficiently effective in uncovering corruption and fraud by large companies. The evidence suggests not: The firms debarred in FY 2015 are mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises—minnows, not sharks. The longest debarment leveled was for thirteen years on N.C. Sanitors and Service Corporation, essentially for paying public officials in Liberia and falsely claiming it collected trash that it never picked up. The challenged contract was worth about $350,000—not exactly a break-the-bank amount, especially considering the largest contracts the World Bank awarded last year were worth $438 million, $98 million, and $53 million (excluding government-awarded contracts funded by World Bank loans).

Perhaps large corporations with World Bank contracts and governments officials administering large World Bank loans are not engaging in corruption—but I doubt it. It’s much more likely that INT does not have the information that it would need to investigate and seek to sanction large companies. According to people familiar with INT’s intake system, while INT gets thousands of tips a year through its phone and online tip lines, many of which prove valuable (either individually or when aggregated), relatively few tips relate to large contracts where the amount of money at stake enhances the harm from corruption and bribery. INT should therefore develop methods to get actionable information on fraud and corruption related to large projects. My suggestion: pay for information.

One reason why INT may receive few tips about large contracts is that INT currently only offers confidentiality to protect whistleblowers. When it comes to large contracts, the likelihood that a whistleblower will face repercussions if her tip is revealed increases, changing the cost-benefit analysis of reporting. Some potential whistleblowers with actionable information might need some sort of additional material incentive to offset the potential risks. A well-structured system using payments to induce reporting might therefore increase the amount of actionable information INT receives about large-contract corruption.

What would such a system look like? How should it be designed? While this is not the place to lay out the proposal in all its details, the essential elements might work as follows: Continue reading

Coordination by Legislation: Is Regional Anticorruption Legislation in the East African Community a Good Idea?

This past September, at a meeting of the East African Association of Anti-Corruption Authorities, Daniel Fred Kidega, the Speaker of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) announced that the regional legislature planned to consider a series of anticorruption and whistleblower bills (also reported here). (The EALA is the legislative body of the East African Community, a treaty organization to which Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda are members.) According to the Speaker’s remarks, “[t]he Laws passed by EALA supercede those of the Partner States on matters within the purview of the Community.”

Details on the legislation are scant, and movement on this proposal does not seem imminent. (Drafts of the proposed legislation are not available on the EALA website, nor could I find them through other sources. And at the mid-October EALA session, anticorruption does not appear to have been on the agenda.) Furthermore, the EAC Treaty does not provide the EALA all of the legislative power the Speaker’s statements suggest, because, according to Article 63 of the EAC Treaty, acts of the EALA only become effective law for member states if each of the five Heads of State “assents” to the measure. Nonetheless, given the interest in East Africa and elsewhere in greater international cooperation on anticorruption efforts, it’s worth reflecting on whether regional anticorruption legislation such as that proposed by Speaker Kidega is a good idea.

I tend to think not. While regional coordination, particularly through conventions, can be an effective way to strengthen anticorruption efforts (as Rick previously discussed in a comment on this post), it is not a good idea in every circumstance (as Matthew noted in a recent post in the context of proposals for a ASEAN Integrity Community). Although the EAC might be able to perform a helpful goal-setting and coordinating role (something akin to an UNCAC or African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption), the proposal for the EALA to enact more binding regional anticorruption legislation involves more risks than benefits.

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