Civil Non-Prosecution Agreements: A Promising New Tool for Advancing Brazil’s Anticorruption Agenda

In late 2019, the Brazilian Congress passed an “anti-crime package” which included, among other things, an amendment to the Administrative Improbity Act that authorized a new form of “civil non-prosecution agreement” (known by its Portuguese initials, ANPC). Under an ANPC, prosecutors can reach civil agreements with individuals who voluntarily disclose their corrupt acts, thus avoiding the usual judicial proceedings for determining penalties under the Improbity Law. (To be clear, ANPCs are used to resolve civil matters and impose administrative sanctions, rather than to resolve criminal cases.) More recent amendments to the Improbity Act have strengthened this mechanism by giving prosecutors greater discretion to reach settlements with individuals accused of improbity.

This reform is a major change to the traditional Brazilian approach to administrative sanctions, which historically bars the settlement of any case involving corruption or improbity. That said, Brazil has already expanded the use of settlement agreements in other contexts. For example, in the context of enforcing criminal laws against corporations, the 2014 Clean Company Act (CCA) authorized so-called “leniency agreements,” under which prosecutors may offer to lower penalties to companies that self-disclosure wrongdoing and cooperate with the investigation. The ANPC mechanism is similar but different in a couple of important respects. First, the ANPC applies to individuals rather than firms. Second, while the CCA authorizes leniency agreements only in cases where the company discloses information about other unlawful activities and thus helps the investigation, an ANPC may be issued as long as the individual agrees to reform her own conduct, even if she does not provide additional information that is useful in ongoing investigations. On the other hand, similarly to leniency agreements, the enforcement authorities need not seek judicial approval to resolve a case via ANPC, so long as the agreement is reached before the beginning of a judicial proceeding. (If a formal proceeding has already begun, then the judge would still need to sign off on the termination of that proceeding.)

Although ANPCs have yet to be used on large scale, this tool holds great promise for substantially improving Brazil’s effective enforcement of its anticorruption laws, for several reasons:

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How To Improve Whistleblower Protection in Malaysia

Malaysia’s poor reputation on corruption took a serious hit with the 2015 scandal concerning the 1Malaysia Development Board (1MDB), and things have not improved much since then. If the Malaysian government is serious about cleaning up the country, and improving its international reputation, it needs to do more than just hold accountable those responsible for 1MDB and other scandals. Looking forward, Malaysia must also improve its legal framework for the detection and prevention of corruption. In this regard, as leading anticorruption advocacy organizations have emphasized, stronger whistleblower protection is essential. Most forms of corruption are hard for outsiders to detect, and those with first-hand knowledge of possible wrongdoing will be reluctant to report what they know unless they have, at a bare minimum, sufficient protections against retaliation.

Malaysia does already have a dedicated whistleblower statute, the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010 (WPA2010). But while the existence of this law is a good first step, its provisions are not satisfactory. Even the government has acknowledged this: Noting the gaps and weakness of the current statute, the Minister for Parliament and Law recently placed the question of amending the WPA2010 on Parliament’s agenda. As Parliament takes up this vital question, the following improvements to the law should be high priorities:

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The Future of FCPA Enforcement After KT Corp.

Earlier this year, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) settled a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) case with KT Corporation, the largest telecommunications operator in South Korea. The facts of the case, as described in the settlement documents, are cinematically scandalous: From at least 2009 through 2017, high level executives at KT maintained enormous slush funds in off-the-books accounts and physical stashes of cash, from which they made illegal political contributions and paid off government officials in both Korea and Vietnam. In their home country, they frequently used these slush funds to pay for substantial unreported gifts, entertainment, and campaign donations to members of the Korean National Assembly who were serving on committees that addressed issues of public policy directly related to KT’s business. Furthermore, after the South Korean press reported on the slush fund allegations back in 2013—reporting that led to a Korean criminal prosecution of KT’s president for embezzlement—the company simply shifted its tactics for filling its slush funds: Rather than siphoning off inflated executive bonuses, KT had its Corporate Relations (CR) Group purchase gift cards, which were then converted into cash to replenish the slush funds. In genuine “cloak and dagger” style, a member of the CR Group would meet the corrupt gift card vendor in the parking lot behind the KT building and receive a paper bag containing a large envelope of cash.

In a magnificent understatement, the Chief of the SEC’s FCPA Enforcement Unit noted that KT “failed to implement sufficient internal accounting controls with respect to key aspects of its business operations,” and that in the future, the company’s leaders should “be sure to devote appropriate attention to meeting their obligations under the FCPA.” But this was not simply a case of a company failing to keep its financial records up to date. Rather, there was a complete and total collapse of any semblance of a culture of compliance at KT. The fact that executives at the highest levels of this corporation, including the president and the CR Group, were directly responsible for these bribery schemes indicates that the culture of this corporation was corrupt, thorough-and-through; bribery was an indispensable component of its business model, and continued even after the company’s president was prosecuted. Yet because KT cooperated with the SEC’s investigation, the SEC only required KT to pay a paltry $6.3 million in combined disgorgement and civil penalties; the SEC also put the company on a two-year probation, during which KT must update the SEC every six months on its compliance measures, though it is unclear what, if anything, will happen if KT somehow mishandles the recommended compliance improvements.

This outcome is unacceptable. If the U.S. government is serious about its intention to deter future misconduct, it must ensure that civil penalties for FCPA violations cannot simply be seen as an “acceptable cost of doing business.” Over the past few years, SEC and DOJ leadership have repeatedly emphasized the importance of anticorruption enforcement and have suggested a desire to reverse the trend of steadily declining FCPA enforcement actions. If deterrence of corrupt corporate conduct is truly a priority for the SEC and the DOJ, then now would be a good time to start substantially ramping up FCPA investigations and enforcement actions, especially in cases of companies like KT that have exhibited the incorrigible culture of brazen corruption.

There are two substantial objections to the call to ramp up FCPA enforcement actions against foreign companies and dramatically stiffen penalties for violations, but on closer inspection neither is compelling. Continue reading

Humanitarian Aid Corruption in Regime-Held Syria: How Should the International Donor Community Respond?

In response to the humanitarian disaster caused by Syria’s ongoing civil war, international aid has poured into the country, to the tune of over $40 billion since 2011. Yet 14.6 million people (out of a total Syrian population of approximately 18 million) remain in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. One of the main reasons that so many people remain in need is the Assad regime’s systematic co-optation and corrupt diversion of international aid. The regime has required that foreign donors partner with one of two local Syrian organizations—the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and Syria Trust for Development (founded and run by President Assad’s wife); these government-affiliated organizations can then deliver aid money “out of sight” of the international organizations that sent that money, thereby obstructing aid workers’ ability to ensure that aid is distributed based on need. The government also mandates that all international organizations in Damascus hire local personnel hand-selected by the regime who supervise all programming and select which beneficiaries receive aid. These tools enable the Assad regime to use aid for political purposes, and to corruptly divert tens of billions of aid to politically connected elites, many of whom are responsible for the human rights violations that made humanitarian aid necessary to begin with.

For those whose top priority is to help suffering Syrians, it may be tempting to ignore or downplay the corrupt diversion of humanitarian aid—to view it as the unpleasant but inevitable cost of doing relief work in a country ruled by a despot. But continuing with the status quo is not a viable option. Right now, the aid pouring into Syria is helping the regime much more than it is helping suffering civilians, and it would be irresponsible to ignore this fact. Does this mean the international community should simply suspend humanitarian aid to Syria altogether? That option is also unpalatable. For one thing, it would impose grave costs on Syrian civilians: Even if the regime steals or misdirects up to 90% of incoming humanitarian aid, the 10% that ordinary Syrian civilians currently receive is still better than nothing. Furthermore, a decision to halt aid completely could also send the message that the international community does not think helping Syrian civilians is worth the hassle.  

If neither continuing the current approach to delivering humanitarian aid nor suspending aid altogether is acceptable, what should the international donor community do? There is no good answer to this question, but as the humanitarian crisis in Syria shows no sign of abating, the international community must do what it can to find ways to get aid to the citizens who need it most. There are a few measures that, while imperfect, might be helpful:

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From “Final Period” to “Business as Usual”: Why Has AMLO’s Ambitious Promise to Combat Mexican Corruption Faltered

In 2018, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) won a landslide victory in Mexico’s presidential election, and his leftist Morena Party won a large majority in Congress. AMLO and Morena campaigned on a populist platform that promised a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the other three being Mexican Independence, the Liberal Reformation, and the Revolution); this Fourth Transformation would, they claimed, eliminate historic government abuse and tackle widespread government corruption. Now, more than halfway through AMLO’s six-year term, the credibility of that anticorruption rhetoric has dramatically faded. Not only has AMLO’s government failed to deliver on his promise to usher in a new era of clean government, but in many respects his administration has been moving in the wrong direction.

Understanding the ways in which AMLO’s approach to governance has undermined rather than strengthened Mexico’s fight against corruption is crucial to getting the country back on track. Four problems with the AMLO regime’s approach to anticorruption are especially significant: Continue reading

Time to Make the OECD Antibribery Convention an Antikleptocracy Convention Too

Confiscating assets acquired through corruption is a critical part of the fight against corruption. If those who would profit from corruption know they will be denied the benefit of their wrongdoing, there is no incentive to be corrupt.

As Justin explained Monday, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given asset confiscation a major boost. Many of Putin’s superrich backers, oligarchs or kleptocrats, became wealthy through corrupt deals, and the seizure of their mega-yachts, mansions and other properties now located outside Russian territory offer the West a way, albeit indirectly, to pressure Putin to end the aggression. Italian, German, and other Western prosecutors are thus now aggressively invoking domestic forfeiture statutes to confiscate them.

But as the Washington Post reports today, with the help of pricey lawyers and other enablers (here and here), the oligarchs have hidden their assets inside complex legal thickets of offshore companies that make confiscation hard if not impossible. In response, last Thursday President Biden asked Congress to give U.S. prosecutors new powers to cut through this underbrush (here).

The President’s initiative is welcome. But it also invites the obvious question: Why shouldn’t other Western nations follow suit?  All are united in their opposition to the war and desire to make Putin’s associates suffer consequences. Why shouldn’t every Western state ease the task their prosecutors face to the rapid seizure of oligarchs’ assets? And indeed to the seizure of any asset corruptly obtained or unlawfully possessed found in their territory?

The most straightforward way to realize this goal would be to amend the OECD Antibribery Convention.

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The Anticorruption Campaigner’s Guide to Asset Seizure

Anticorruption campaigners have long argued that Western governments should be more aggressive in freezing and seizing the assets of kleptocrats and corrupt oligarchs. While targeting illicit assets has been part of the West’s anticorruption arsenal for many years, attention to this tactic has surged in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border into Ukrainian territory, not only did Western governments impose an array of economic sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals close to the Putin regime, but also—assisted by journalists who identified dozens of properties, collectively worth billions—Western law enforcement agencies began seizing Russian oligarchs’ private jetsvacation homes, and superyachts.

Many people who are unfamiliar with this area—and even some who are—might naturally wonder about the legal basis for targeting these assets. And indeed, the law in this area has some important nuances that are not always fully appreciated in mainstream media reporting and popular commentary. Continue reading

How the U.S. Supreme Court Might Undermine Longstanding Safeguards Against Pay-to-Play Corruption

A campaign finance case currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Federal Election Commission (FEC) vs. Cruz, could have serious implications for corruption in the United States. The essential facts of the case are these: Just a day before Senator Ted Cruz’s narrow victory in the 2018 Senate election, Cruz personally lent $260,000 to his campaign. Under federal campaign finance law, contributions to a candidate’s campaign that come in after the election has already occurred can be used to repay up to $250,000 in personal loans a candidate has made to their own campaigns, but no more. Therefore, Cruz’s campaign reimbursed him only $250,000, not the full $260,000. Cruz challenged the cap on reimbursing a candidate’s personal loans from post-campaign donations as an unconstitutional limit on political speech in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

If Cruz wins—and he very well might—the result could be a substantial increase in bribery of U.S. elected officials. As many commentators have noted (see here, here and here), allowing a victorious candidate to have their loans repaid by private interests is a recipe for quid pro quo corruption. After all, this money goes into an elected official’s pocket, and the fact that the contributions are made after an election increases the likelihood that a post-election donor knows that the recipient will be in a position to do him official favors. But the risks that this case poses to anticorruption law go beyond the particular activity at issue in the case itself. There is a very real risk that the Supreme Court will use this case to further limit the sorts of interests that can justify campaign finance restrictions of any sort, thereby jeopardizing seemingly well-established and recognized limitations on political spending that have long been justified on the grounds that they prevent corruption and its appearance.

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Argentinian Judicial Reform: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

On February 1, 2022, several thousand demonstrators marched on the streets of Buenos Aires to demand judicial reforms. The march was supported by Kirchnerist groups (so-called because of their support for former Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) and by President Alberto Fernández, a Kirchner ally who has been pushing for judicial reforms since his inauguration in 2019. Frustrations with Argentinian courts, however, transcend partisan divides. Polls indicate that about 70% of Argentinian adults believe the judiciary is corrupt, which is not very surprising given the recent string of high-profile judicial corruption scandals. Just last year, Judge Walter Bento was indicted and charged with running a large-scale corruption network. Likewise, in 2019, Judge Raúl Reynoso was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery and narcotrafficking. Judge Carlos Soto Dávila was similarly indicted in 2019 for accepting bribes in drug trafficking cases. Not only is there extensive evidence of judicial corruption, the Argentinian judiciary seems entirely ineffective at holding Argentina’s notoriously corrupt political class accountable: appallingly, only 1% of all corruption cases in Argentina ever result in an actual sentence.

In light of the Argentinian judiciary’s clear corruption and legitimacy problems, judicial reform seems like a step in the right direction. However, President Fernández’s plans for transforming Argentina’s judiciary, which he rearticulated this March, may actually worsen corruption rather than rectify it.

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How the U.S. Should Tackle Money Laundering in the Real Estate Sector

It is no secret that foreign kleptocrats and other crooks like to stash their illicit cash in U.S. real estate (see here, here, here and here).  A recent report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) found that more than US$2.3 billion were laundered through U.S. real estate in the last five years, and half of the reported cases of real estate money laundering (REML) involved so-called politically exposed persons (mainly current or former government officials or their close relatives and associates). The large majority of these cases used a trust, shell company, or other legal entity to attempt to mask the true owner of the property.

Shockingly, the U.S. remains the only G7 country that does not impose anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations on real estate professionals. But there are encouraging signs that the U.S. is finally poised to make progress on this issue. With the backing of the Biden Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Criminal Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) that proposes a number of measures and floats different options for tightening AML controls in the real estate sector. The U.S. is thus approaching a critical juncture: the question no longer seems to be whether Treasury will take more aggressive and comprehensive action to address REML; the question is how it will do so. And on that crucial question, I offer three recommendations for what Treasury should—and should not—do when it finalizes its new REML rules:

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