Defining Corruption: How Readers’ Views Align with Courts and Other Authorities

There has been a vigorous debate on the blog about the definition of corruption with distinguished academics and practitioners weighing in on what they argue constitutes corrupt behavior by a public official.

Readers will recall that in early November I asked what they thought. I described six cases where a court, ethics agency, or public opinion had decided whether certain conduct was corrupt, and without revealing how the authority ruled, readers were invited to say what they thought. A number did, often with thoughtful explanations supporting their view.

Below is how their answers compare with the authority who made the decision. As the tabulated replies show, readers are far tougher when it comes to ruling conduct corrupt than courts or even the most important court of all, the court of public opinion. The rationale behind the authority’s decision follows. Comments invited.

CaseCN.C.
1. Vanuatu majority government provides MPs positions in return for vote against no confidence measure. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT34
2. U.S. Senate seat in return for appointment to cabinet. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT52
3. Oakland Mayor oversees redevelopment funds to neighborhoods that could include his own. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT (technicality)13
4. Independent New South Wales MP resigns seat in return for job in public service. Public Opinion: CORRUPT51
5. Appointee in newly elected Kentucky government asks for share of fixed commission government pays for insurance. Court ruling: NOT CORRUPT50
6. Canadian PM lobbies national development bank to loan to hotel abutting golf course he has part interest in. Ethics counsellor: NOT CORRUPT40

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Corruption’s War on the Law

“Corruption’s War on the Law” is the headline on an article Project Syndicate just published. There former French magistrate and corruption fighter Eva Joly recounts the fate of those who have dared to confront powerful networks of corrupt officials and those who corrupt them.  Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by accomplices of those she was investigating. So was Rwandan anti-corruption lawyer Gustave Makonene. So too was Brazilian anticorruption activist Marcelo Miguel D’Elia.

After a second attempt on his life, Nuhu Ribadu, first chair of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the country’s premier anticorruption agency, famously remarked:

“When you fight corruption, it fights back.”

In her article, Mme. Joly, who received numerous threats for investigating and ultimately convicting senior French officials for corruption, explains that violence is just one way corruption “fights back.”  The most recent head of Nigeria’s EFCC was arrested and detained on trumped up charges of corruption. Ibrahim Magu has been suspended from office pending further proceedings, proceedings unlikely to be held this century.

At the same, Nigerian anticorruption activist Lanre Suraju is, as this blog reported last week, being charged with “cyberstalking” for circulating documents from a court case that implicate associates of the current Attorney General in a the massive OPL-245 corruption scandal. This form of intimidation, which Nigerians have dubbed “lawfare,” has now been exported to Europe. Italian prosecutors are being subjected to both criminal charges and administrative action for having the nerve to prosecute one of Italy’s largest companies for foreign bribery (here).

President Biden has declared the global fight against corruption to be a national priority, and he will shortly host a democracy summit where Brazil, Italy, Malta, Nigeria, and Rwanda will be represented at the highest level. Might he remind them which side of the fight they should be on?

Letter to Nigerian Attorney General Malami from Civil Society: Stop Harassing Anticorruption Activist

Civil society organizations are poised to write Nigerian Attorney General Abubakar Malami asking he dismiss criminal charges against long-time Nigerian anticorruption activist Olanrewaju Suraju. His crime? Circulating documents implicating an associate of the Attorney General in the alleged payment of $1 billion by oil giants Royal Dutch Shell and ENI in return for rights OPL-245, Nigeria’s most lucrative offshore oil block.  

Not only is a criminal indictment for Suraju’s conduct absurd on its face, the Community Court of Justice for the Economic Community of West African States, whose decisions are binding on Nigeria, has declared the cyberstalking law under which he is being charged in violation of the African Peoples and Human Rights Charter.  

The text of the letter is below. Concerned NGOs and individuals are invited to add their names. Use the “Contact” function at the top of the page. Alternatively, letters supporting Nigerian activists’ freedom to urge that those responsible for corruption be brought to justice can be sent to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari through info@statehouse.gov.ng

Dear Attorney-General Abubakar Malami:

Our attention has been drawn to press reports of an indictment, approved by your office, against Olanrewaju Suraju, chair of the anti-corruption and human right group HEDA, for alleged cyberstalking.[1]

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Guest Post: Lessons from Athenians’ Efforts to Define Corruption

Gab readers have been treated to a lively and valuable debate in past weeks on precisely what we mean when we say that someone or some behavior is “corrupt.” Many readers have joined the discussion. Responding to my request for their views by offering comments and analyses of six real world cases where a court, ethics commission, or legislature has been asked to decide whether the conduct of a public official was corrupt.

I had promised to post “the right answers” to the six, or at least the answers the court, commission or legislature gave this week. I am putting it off to share the guest post below by classics scholar and American attorney Kellam Conover. Drawing on the dissertation that garnered him a PhD. in Classics from Princeton, he explains how citizens of ancient Athens decided when an official’s conduct was corrupt. What he takes from their method provides the only way I see for arriving at genuine right answers – not only to the six cases I presented but to the general issues of how to define corruption and how to measure our progress in overcoming it. Many thanks Kellam.

I have read with great interest the fascinating discussion that has unfolded recently among Bo Rothstein, Matthew Stephenson, Robert Barrington, Paul Heywood, and Michael Johnston.  The questions they raise about how to define corruption, how to link up theory with practice, and how to measure success are all ones I have grappled with since writing my dissertation on Bribery in Classical Athens

As a historian, I’ve spent far more time describing corruption than prescribing solutions.  But I hope a few observations from ancient Athens will be helpful to others.  First, in my view corruption defies definition because it is an inherently political claim that changes with different social and political contexts.  Second, and as a result, it may be fruitful to augment anti-corruption programs with institutions specifically designed for articulating, contesting, and legitimating evolving political norms.  Finally, I offer one potential metric of success:  i.e., whether patterns of corruption in a polity have grown less disruptive over time.

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Conference on Empirical Approaches to Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crimes

The Central Bank of the Bahamas hosts the Third International Research Conference on Empirical Approaches to Anti-money Laundering and Financial Crimes this January 20 and 21 in Nassau. 

Countering the laundering of the proceeds of corruption and other financial crimes has become a critical issue at both the national and international level. Enormous time and attention has been devoted to putting an end to money laundering and enormous sums spent complying with existing laws and directives. Few, however, are happy with the results to date. 

The principal reason for the failure of anti-money laundering laws is the lack of a sound empirical base on which to build an enforcement regime, a point their critics have made at since Reuter and Truman’s 2004 Chasing Dirty Money. The conference is an important step towards remedying our lack of knowledge about how such basic issues as how money launderers works, where the risks are the greatest, and what are the most effective means for reducing them. Details on attending either in person or online here. Current list of speakers and papers follows.

[Submissions to last week’s poll on the definition of corruption still being received.  It is not too late to enter with the chance to win a lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate.]

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Defining Corruption: What Do Readers Say?

Recent posts have treated readers to a discussion of what corruption means.  Professor Rothstein suggested coming at it from its opposite and offered “impartiality” so corruption would mean the absence of impartiality or bias. [Note: I had flubbed Prof. Rothstein’s view in the original text as per his comment below.] Professor Johnson argued that at its core corruption is about an imbalance of power and suggested tying the definition to notions of “justice.” Transparency International’s “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” was also examined.

I think it time for GAB readers to be heard. Rather than asking which one of these definitions they prefer, or whether they have another candidate, however, I thought it more interesting to see how a definition of corruption helps them judge actual conduct in the real world. 

Below are six cases where at least some have alleged corruption was afoot. What say, GAB readers? Do any of the cases described below involve corruption as you define it?

A yea or nay on each in a comment to this post will suffice. Extra credit for explaining how one of the definitions proffered helped you decide. Lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate to the best entry or entries. How each played out in court and in the court of public opinion will be revealed in a future post.

Case 1. To defeat a motion of no confidence, Vanuatu’s Unity of Change government offered two MPs parliamentary appointments in return for withdrawing their support for the motion.  Another MP was offered the position of Minister of Health, and a fourth Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries. All four accepted the offers, and the government defeated the motion. Bribery?

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Is Italy Backtracking on the Fight Against Foreign Bribery?

Press reports, informed commentary, and the recent acquittal of ENI and Royal Dutch Shell despite overwhelming evidence they bribed Nigerian officials provide alarming evidence that Italy’s commitment to curbing foreign bribery is waning.

That commitment was never that strong to begin with. Although bound by the OECD Antibribery Convention to investigate and prosecute foreign bribery cases, in 2011 the OECD Working Group on Bribery found Italy had done little to comply. In the decade since ratifying the convention, only a few dozen cases had been brought, almost all against individuals for small-time bribery, and most had ended in acquittals. This dismal record was not surprising, the Working Group observed, given no one had been trained on how to investigate foreign bribery cases, and no public prosecutor’s office specialized in such cases.

The one bright spot the Working Group found was the Milan office of the public prosecutor.  It had aggressively pursued foreign bribery cases, opening by far the lion’s share of cases, including all those where a corporation was involved. Its future is now in doubt.

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New Research on the Effect of Income and Asset Disclosures

GAB readers have recently been treated to a vigorous back-and-forth on the efficacy of anticorruption laws. Gothenburg University Professor Rothstein sharply questions their value whereas GAB editor-in- chief Matthew Stephenson and Sussex Professor and anticorruption practitioner Robert Barrington take issue with such a sweeping claim, Professor Barrington pointing to the U.K. 2010 Bribery Act as an example of an effective legal reform.

In today’s Guest Post, George Washington University Assistant Professor David Szakonyi offers additional evidence that anticorruption laws make a difference — and in a surprising place: the Russian Federation. Exploiting a 2015 change in law that required those running for local office to disclose their income and assets (the kind of natural experiment the Nobel committee lauded when awarding this year’s prize in economics), he shows how disclosures affected different individuals’ willingness to seek office.

Professor Szakonyi is also a co-founder of the Anti-Corruption Data Collective. His academic research focuses on corruption and political economy in Russia, Western Europe, and the United States. He is a Research Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

There are few anti-corruption reforms as widespread as mandating officials submit income and asset disclosures. According to the World Bank, 161 out of 176 countries surveyed have some sort of disclosure system in place. Yet there still is deep skepticism that forcing public officials to disclose their personal wealth makes much of an impact. Officials have every incentive to lie on their forms, and many fail to submit them entirely. Others stash their assets in the names of relatives or cloak their ownership in offshore chains out of the reach of those tasked with oversight. In brief, verification is tough. Given all the opportunities for evasion, are disclosures anything more than an anti-corruption paper tiger?

My forthcoming paper at the American Journal of Political Science provides some encouraging evidence: requiring income and asset disclosures deters those prone to corruption from seeking office. The case studied is Russia, which perhaps surprisingly has one of the most comprehensive anti-corruption disclosure laws on the books anywhere in the world. Each year over 2 million public officials must submit detailed reports to oversight commissions about their income and assets, as well as those of their spouses and dependent children. A portion of every official’s disclosure is posted online for the general public to access.

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Beneficial Ownership Disclosure Mandates and the Legitimate Privacy Interest in Anonymously-Owned Real Estate

In a forthcoming article in the Notre Dame Law Review, Professors Reid Weisbord of Rutgers Law School and Stewart Sterk of the Cardozo Law School examine the trade-offs posed by requiring the public disclosure of the beneficial owners of real estate. While promoting real estate ownership transparency and curbing criminals’ ability to use anonymously-owned real estate, there are clear disadvantages to making the home addresses of all citizens public, the recent murder of a federal judge’s son at the family home by a disgruntled litigant who found their address online the most patent.

As Professors Weisbord and Sterk explain, a common law trust is one way citizens can keep their home address private, but as they also say, the Pandora Papers shows how easy it is for corrupt officials and criminals of all kinds to use a trust to thwart law enforcement. As Congress considers legislation to end trust abuses, the two urge lawmakers not to lose sight of the downsides of requiring the unrestricted public disclosure of the home addresses of all citizens.  At GAB’s request, Professor Weisbord summarized the relevant portion of their article for GAB readers. The Notre Dame article and an earlier article by Professor Weisbord prompted by publication of the Panama Papers should be required reading for those struggling with how to ensure criminals cannot hide from law enforcement through the use of anonymous corporations, trusts, and other “offshore vehicles,” while protecting judges, victims of domestic or sexual abuse, or others with a legitimate need to keep their home address private.

On October 3, 2021, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (“ICIJ”) published the findings of a massive worldwide investigation that painstakingly reviewed nearly 12 million confidential financial documents, a collection now known as the Pandora Papers. In keeping with its prior bombshell investigations, including the Panama and Paradise Papers, the ICIJ has once again exposed a trove of secret financial transactions by a global cohort of world leaders, politicians, and billionaires who have offshored assets by covertly acquiring or storing property in foreign countries. There can be legitimate reasons for individuals to secretly acquire property abroad, but such transactions are also notoriously used to launder money and defraud creditors or tax collectors by evading the jurisdictional reach of the individual’s domestic legal system.

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In Pari Delicto & Parens Patriae: Latin All Corruption Fighters Should Know

In pari delicto, Latin for “of equal fault,” is a legal doctrine that prevented the government that succeeded Saddam Hussein’s from recovering hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from those involved in Saddam and cronies’ corruption. It has deterred other governments taking power after a kleptocrat’s fall from attempting to recover damages as well. Parens patriae, Latin for another legal doctrine, is one way around the result in pari delicto dictates in kleptocracy cases.

Corruption hunters thus have good reason to learn Latin. At least enough to ensure that those who profit from a kleptocrat’s reign don’t escape reckoning when there is a regime change.

The barrier in pari delicto raises to a government recovering damages from a kleptocrat’s accomplices was first revealed in a suit the post-Saddam government filed in 2008.

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