Canadian Legislation to Permit Use of Stolen Assets for Humanitarian Relief

Ontario Senator Ratna Omidvar has introduced legislation to allow the Canadian government to use frozen assets for humanitarian end. The Frozen Assets Repurposing Act (Loi sur la réaffectation des biens bloqués) would authorize the Attorney General or a designee to request the court where an asset is frozen to seize it. If after a hearing the court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the asset is “associated with a foreign national who is responsible for or complicit in” corruption or human rights violations, the asset would be liquidated and the proceeds paid into the court. The court may then distribute the funds to any person, organization, or foreign state for a “just and appropriate” purpose.

The Senator’s bill solves a problem both Canada and the European Union faced in the wake of the Arab Spring.  Canada’s federal government and EU executive both had the power to freeze assets where there was evidence that they were obtained through corruption. But the law allowed them to do no more.  The laws of both assumed the governments from which the assets had been stolen would initiate return proceedings in accordance with chapter V of UNCAC.  But thanks to some combination of a lack of capacity and political wherewithal, successor governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen did not. The freezes either ended and the funds went back to the crooked leader or they remain frozen indefinitely.

Although the legislation leaves it to the court to decide how to use the confiscated funds, Senator Omidvar’s bill explicitly states that consideration be given to helping foreign states accommodate refuges. She suggests for example that the frozen funds of Venezuela’s corrupt rulers could be distributed to Colombia and other neighboring countries to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans who have sought refuge in them.

The confiscation process follows that in the U.K.’s Unexplained Wealth Order law. The holder of the asset would be given the opportunity to show he or she had obtained it through lawful means.  Only if the holder failed to convince the court that it was would confiscation follow.

The legislation was inspired by this 2018 World Refugee Council paper.  The Senator’s “Make Corrupt Foreign Officials Pay,” an article in the online journal Policy Options Politique, makes a strong case for its enactment.  The arguments are not Canada-specific. Perhaps legislators in other countries where the corrupt hide their money will be inspired to copy her bill?  The text is here.

Australian Lawyers and Real Estate Agents: Kleptocrats’ Best Friends?

Government officials who steal “vast quantities” of their citizens’ money need help hiding the loot.  The first generation of kleptocrats — the Ferdinand Marcoses, Mobutu Sese Sekos, and Sani Abachas of the world – showed that the preferred way is to retain someone to surreptitiously move the money into a safe haven abroad and then invest it in assets that cannot be traced back to them.  The anticorruption community calls these accomplices to grand corruption “enablers,” for they enable corrupt officials to hide their money.

The international community has begun cracking down on this professional class of crooks.  The primary means has been through making them subject to domestic anti-money laws.  Just as the laws of virtually all countries require banks and other financial institutions to take particular care (“enhanced due diligence”) before accepting as a customer current or former senior government officials or their family members or close associates and to report any suspicious transaction these “politically exposed persons” conduct, the Financial Action Task Force recommendations 22, 23, and 28 require the same from lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and others with the professional skills required to hide stolen assets. FATF has no power to compel countries to transpose these recommendations into domestic law.  It relies instead on the peer pressure generated by regular, highly publicized reports on individual nation’s compliance with them.

That system has now ground to a halt. According to the Financial Review, the reason is fierce opposition from Australian lawyers and real estate agents to what a FATF review of Australian compliance with the anti-money laundering recommendations would reveal. For 13 years the two have blocked the extension of the Australian anti-money laundering rules to their activities; last November a scheduled FATF review was about to finally call them out.  It was then suddenly cancelled. The only explanation given was that FATF had decided “to temporarily pause the start of all scheduled follow-up assessments pending the outcomes of the strategic review of FATF currently underway.”  Although FATF acknowledged discussing the review at its February 2020 meeting, no details about what the review would cover or when it would be completed was provided.  In the meantime, professions in the United States, Canada, and other nations (here, here, and here) who oppose extending anti-money laundering rules to their activities can breathe easier.  So can kleptocrats wanting to tap their expertise in hiding money.

Review of Søreide and Makinwa “Negotiated Settlements in Bribery Cases: A Principled Approach”

The resolution of foreign bribery cases through some type of out-of-court agreement has spread from the United States to other OECD nations.  The latest figures show that close to 80 percent of foreign bribery prosecutions by OECD nations have been settled short of a full trial on the merits.  Settlements free prosecutors to pursue additional violations, but there is the ever-present risk the defendant will get off too easy, that the settlement terms will not deter the defendant or others from continuing to bribe officials of a foreign government.

The OECD’s Working Group on Bribery in International Business Transactions is now developing standards to ensure that settlements will provide the “effective, proportionate, and dissuasive criminal penalties” the OECD Antibribery Convention mandates. As it proceeds, it will find Negotiated Settlements in Bribery Cases: A Principled Approach, a new volume from Elgar edited by anticorruption scholars Tina Søreide and Abiola Makinwa, an invaluable guide.  In 12 chapters, the cross-disciplinary, multinational group of experts the editors assembled review the use of settlements in the United States, the experience of other nations and the World Bank with settlements, ways to judge whether a settlement serves the public interest, and recommendations for gauging whether a particular settlement passes the public interest test. Continue reading

Barring Corrupt Officials from Entering the United States: A Guide to the Process

Since 2004 it has been American policy to deny entry into the United States of corrupt foreign officials and their immediate families. President George W.  Bush initiated the policy by presidential order, and in 2008 Congress added its voice, enacting legislation barring “foreign kleptocrats involved in the extraction of natural resources” from entering the United States.  Beginning in 2012, the Congressional ban was extended to include all those involved in “significant corruption,” and in 2014 the provision was expanded again to cover foreign officials involved in “a gross violation of human rights.” The following year Congress clarified that designations may be made publicly or privately.

The first public designation was made in 2018 (Albanian judge and prosecutor Adriatik Llalla), and since then more than 150 individuals from over 30 countries have been publicly barred from entry — either for corruption or human rights violations.  Although the State Department web site does not keep a running list of those who have been barred, the NGO Human Rights First does. A spreadsheet available on its website can be sorted by country, crime, date, and other fields and includes links to each State Department sanctions announcement. It is updated whenever new sanctions are announced

The Department encourage civil society activists, foreign diplomats, and others with information relevant to the designation process to contact it. The best way is through its personnel in the field as designations typically arise from recommendations made by U.S. embassy staff.

Two excellent descriptions and discussions of the visa denial policy by analysts at the Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service are here and here.

The Human Right First spreadsheet, “U.S. Government Public Section 7031(c) Sanctions Designations to Date,” can be accessed here.

GAB contributor Daniel Binette’s recommendations for greater clarity in how visa denial decisions are made is here.

Where the Real Blame for Letting Bridgegate Defendants Off Lies: Part II — the Congress

Anticorruption advocates roundly condemned the Supreme Court for its May 7 Bridgegate decision overturning two New Jersey officials’ corruption convictions for conduct even their lawyer admits was wrong (examples here, here, and here).  But as explained in a previous post on Bridgegate, so named because the case involved closing bridge entry ramps to create traffic jams, the Court is not to blame for the result.  The immediate cause was Bridgegate prosecutors pushing beyond the limits the Court has ruled current law sets on their power to police state and local corruption.

It is Congress, though, that bears the lion’s share of the blame for the outcome. Congress needs to clarify when state and local officials can be prosecuted under federal law for corruption.  Until it does, more Bridgegates, cases where the Court rebuffs federal prosecutors’ expansive view of their power to prosecute state and local corruption, are in store.  As with Bridgegate, the result will be that corrupt officials get off scot free while the American public is left to question their government’s commitment to fighting corruption. Continue reading

Where the Real Blame for Letting Bridgegate Defendants Off Lies: Part I

The Supreme Court continues to bear the blame for two political operatives getting off scot free for an admitted blatant abuse of power: creating nightmarish traffic jams for residents of a small New Jersey town because its mayor had not endorsed their boss’ reelection as governor.  Though the record showed the stunt endangered the lives of some and inconvenienced thousands and their lawyer admitted it was an abuse their power as state officials to cause the jams, the Court acquitted them on all charges.  Its decision in the Bridgegate case, so named because the traffic jams were created by blocking two lanes of the bridge the residents used to commute to New York City, is indeed the immediate reason defendants escaped sanction.

But that ruling was the inevitable consequence of earlier decisions by the other branches of government.  For decades Congress has ignored the Court’s warning that the hodgepodge of federal laws used to prosecute state and local officials for corruption is Constitutionally infirm.  And for decades, and despite some spectacular earlier reversals by the Court, the Executive branch has continued to rely on these statutes to prosecute state and local corruption.

Those genuinely interested in fighting corruption need to stop denouncing the Court and focus their energies instead on these two branches of government.  Below is what they should demand of the Executive.  Part II of this post will explain what they should demand of Congress. Continue reading

Law Profs: Stop the Overheated Rhetoric About Bridgegate

As Matthew explained yesterday, last Thursday the Supreme Court ruled that a political dirty trick, generating a traffic jam for a town’s residents after their mayor refused to support the reelection of the state’s governor, while an abuse of power, does not constitute fraud under federal criminal law. The Court’s unanimous decision in “Bridgegate,” so named because the traffic jam was created by closing two of the three lanes residents use to drive across the George Washington Bridge, was authored by former Harvard Law School Dean and Obama Solicitor General Justice Elena Kagan.  That the decision was unanimous and written by a member of the Court’s liberal wing are two of several clues in the Court’s opinion showing it is no part of a Trump-inspired plot to legalize public corruption. Washington Post readers, however, could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. For Michigan Law School Professor Leah Litman wrote in the paper’s March 10 edition that the Court’s decision is the latest in “a string of failed corruption cases” that has made it “almost impossible to put a crooked politician in jail.”

This is plain nonsense. Continue reading

The Murky Business of Asset Recovery for Hire

Premium Times and Finance Uncovered offered yesterday a glimpse of the lucrative business of asset recovery for hire.  A story posted on the websites of both the Nigerian paper and the London NGO (here and here) reports that the Nigerian government has hired Johnson & Johnson, a small Lagos-based law firm, to recover as much as several hundred of millions of dollars stolen from it through corrupt oil deals.  In return the firm will be paid five percent of whatever is recovered.  Johnson & Johnson, which apparently “won” the contract through an unsolicited proposal, has partnered with an investor who will pick up the firm’s cost to recover the money in return for a 300 percent return on its investment.

The Johnson & Johnson deal is not the first time the Nigerian government has turned to a private firm to recover stolen assets.  To recoup what General Sani Abacha stole while head of state in the nineteen nineties, it hired Geneva lawyer Enrico Monfrini. His take of the recovery was only four percent, not Johnson & Johnson’s five, but he still came out rather well.  For the 3,000 hours per year he told Swiss journalist Sylvain Besson he and his colleagues put in to recover $600 million of Abacha funds, which works out to roughly one lawyer working full-time and one-half time each year, his firm was paid $24 million (4% x $600 million).

Ever since UNCAC put the recovery of stolen assets on the international agenda, private contractors have been lining up to help developing country governments recover assets.  While there have been some successes, they have, as the Abacha case shows, come at a very high price.  Are they worth what the governments are being charged?  Are there better, cheaper alternatives? Continue reading

Corruption Risks in Infrastructure Projects Using Design-Build Contracts

For over a decade, state and local governments in the United States have been moving to streamline the procurement of roads, bridges, and other public works.  Traditionally, they contracted with one firm to design the project, and then, though competitive bidding, let a contract to a second firm to build it. For many projects, public authorities are now replacing this design-bid-build method of contracting with the design-build method of contracting.  One contract is awarded, competitively, to a single firm both to design and to build the facility.

Design-build contracts offer several advantages over a design-bid-build contract.  Three are most important for public procurements. One, accountability is centralized. If a problem arises during construction of a design-bid-build project, the builder can claim the fault lies not with it but with the firm that designed the project.  Two, design-build contracts are usually fixed-price, meaning the price is set before work begins.  With a design-bid-build contract, the cost varies with the amount of materials used and often as a result of problems arising during construction.  Finally, design-build projects take less time to complete.  With design-bid-build, no work begins until after the design is finished.  With design-build, preliminary construction work – clearing the site, levelling the terrain – can begin while the project is being designed.

These advantages have not been lost on less developed nations and donor organizations.  The number and size of public infrastructure projects the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the other development banks are financing that use design-build are on the rise.  According to its 2018 Annual Review of Procurement Activities, the largest contract the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development funded in 2017 was a € 274 million design-build contract for an ore enrichment project in Kazakhstan.

But donors and developing countries should not ignore the major disadvantage of design-build contracts compared to design-bid-build contracts: corruption.  Blame for what many consider the most egregious public corruption scandal in American history has been attributed to the abuses that arose from a design-build contract, and indeed, corruption concerns spurred the United States to replace design-build contracts for public works with the more transparent contracting method today known as design-bid-build. Continue reading

An Inside View of Corruption in a Tax and Customs Agency

Information derived from the direct observation of corrupt behavior provides insights no other source can match.  From first-hand reports of the number and amount of bribes Indonesian truck drivers paid to traverse different provinces, Barron and Olken reached important conclusions about centralized versus decentralized bribery schemes. Data Sequiera and Djankov gathered from South African and Mozambican clearing agents on bribery at their nations’ ports and border posts allowed the two to show how differences in tariff rates and uncertainties over the expected bribe amount affected firms’ behavior. The resourcefulness these and other researchers displayed in compiling direct evidence of corruption and the thoughtful, sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions their analysis yielded are summarized in this first-rate review essay by Sequiera.

As rich a source of learning on corruption as it is, collecting direct observation data is no mean feat.  Those committing corruption crimes don’t generally invite nosy observers to watch and record their actions. That is why it was especially welcome when a friend and colleague shared the parts of an interview with the head of a Latin American customs and tax agency that touched on corruption. The agency head’s insider view, though informed by training as a professional economist and a background in academia, offers nothing close to what readers can take from Barron and Olken, Sequiera and Djankov, and other full-blown academic studies.  Nonetheless, what he reports raises interesting, provocative issues of use to reformers and to those looking for hypotheses worth testing.

The portion of the interview dealing with corruption, anonymized to protect the source, is below.  Would other insiders please come forward?  Again, it is doubtful your observations will be anywhere near as valuable as the data the Barrons, Olkens, Sequieras, and Djankovs of  the world have so cleverly and painstakingly collected, but in an information scarce environment, all contributions are welcome. GAB would be more than happy to publish what you have observed about corruption in your organization with safeguards to protect your identity. Continue reading