Passports for Sale: Why We Should Worry about Golden Visa Programs

In 1984, the government of the small Caribbean island state of Saint Kitts and Nevis had a bright idea for attracting foreign capital: the country would grant permanent resident status to any foreign national who invested a sufficient amount in the country. The idea caught on, and now dozens of countries around the world—including not only small island states, but also major developed economies like the United States and the United Kingdom—have so-called “golden visa” programs. Golden visa programs have proven especially attractive during times of economic hardship, as demonstrated by the spread of these programs across Europe in the wake of the 2008 recession. These European programs are especially notable, as getting a visa in one country in the Schengen visa zone provides access to the other 25 as well. Some states—including EU members Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Malta—even offer investors outright citizenship, rather than simply residency status, in exchange for sufficiently large investments. And due to pre-existing visa waiver agreements, these “golden passports” may allow access to other countries as well. Those with Maltese passports, for example, can travel to the US visa-free.

According to a recent Transparency International-Global Witness report, in the last decade alone, countries with these sorts of programs have “sold” (that is, traded for investment) more than 6,000 passports and nearly 100,000 residency permits. Yet these policies have always been controversial, and are becoming more so. Canada terminated its golden visa program in 2014 (though it continues in Quebec). Last June, the Trump Administration demanded that Congress either terminate or reform the US investor visa program. And the UK abruptly announced it would suspend its program on December 6th, although it reversed course six days later.

Part of the reason for the growing disillusionment with golden visa programs is that their supposed economic benefits haven’t lived up to expectations. Rather than stimulate economic growth and job creation, the investments used to qualify for golden visas are often passive, such as government bonds or real estate. In Portugal, for example, 95% of total investment has been in real estate—6,141 investments compared to just 12 in employment creation. Real estate investments not only offer limited benefits, but may also distort housing markets. In the US, investments have been, in the words of US Senator Chuck Grassley, funneled towards “big moneyed Manhattan interests” rather than “direct investment to rural and high unemployment areas.” Hungary even managed to lose money on its program—$221 million—as it offered investors discounted bonds that were then fully repaid after five years with an additional 2% interest.

But the bigger problem with golden visa programs is their potential to both facilitate and stimulate corruption and money laundering. This problem, which was highlighted both by the TI-Global Witness report mentioned above, as well as another report from the European Commission, takes several forms. Continue reading

Proposed US Legislation Can Solve the Art World’s Money Laundering Problem

The plan was simple: a wealthy client wishing to launder the proceeds of a stock manipulation scheme could do so through a Picasso painting. His accomplice would be Matthew Green, the owner of a prominent London art gallery and son of one of London’s most powerful art dealers. The client would purchase the painting using the illegal proceeds, own the painting for some time to avoid suspicion, and then sell the painting back to Green, who would transfer the original payment back to the client through a US bank—to “clean the money.” It was completely foolproof, except that the client turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.

Why a painting to launder the money? Because the art business is impenetrable by outsiders: it’s a world limited to highbrow art connoisseurs, dealers, and wealthy collectors, where the prices are whatever they want them to be. Here, $9.2 million, although the painting failed to sell at a much lower price estimate years before. And as the defendants in the Green case explained to their client, the art business is “the only market that is unregulated” by the government. It seems that the players in the art world make up their own rules, unchecked by any authority, making this elusive quality of the business the perfect “hotbed” for corrupt activity.

In May 2018—possibly in response to the February 2018 indictment in this case—legislation was introduced in US Congress to tackle the money-laundering problem in the art business (previously described on this blog). The Illicit Art and Antiquities Trafficking Prevention Act (Act) would cover art and antiquities dealers under the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), which requires financial institutions and other regulated businesses to establish anti-money laundering programs, keep records of cash purchases, and report suspicious activity and transactions exceeding $10,000 to government regulators. This legislation has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been vigorously opposed by the art industry. But the objections to the proposal do not withstand scrutiny:

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The Consequences of Zero Tolerance

The chart above shows what happens when policy is based on a slogan. In this case “Zero Tolerance.” Procurement rules in both Peru and Colombia require that any public contract tainted by corruption be terminated immediately. As the Brazilian investigation into construction giant Odebrecht unfolded, it became clear that many projects to build highways, power plants, and other infrastructure projects in the two countries had been corruptly awarded.  Authorities in both countries then did what the law told them they must: cancel the contracts.

Most large infrastructure contracts in Peru and Colombia are in the form of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), and the immediate termination of a PPP can be enormously costly.  Not only to the firms that paid bribes to secure the contract, but to lenders, suppliers, and the hundreds of other contractors on the project who had no knowledge or involvement in the bribery scheme.  The greatest costs are likely be felt by the citizens of Colombia and Peru.  For as the chart shows, the consequence of zero tolerance is a halt to new spending for roads, power, and other essential facilities as investors and project developers shy away from the risk future contracts will be terminated for the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.   

Colombians and Peruvians may today be proud their governments are so tough on corruption neither one will tolerate a speck of it in any contract for infrastructure.  Tomorrow citizens of the two countries may have a different view: when power shortages mean the lights won’t come on and the failure to build new roads and maintain old ones produces horrendous traffic jams.  

Last week the World Bank hosted a presentation by Inter-American Development Bank staff where the issue of why “zero tolerance” is a good slogan but a bad policy was examined and means for addressing infrastructure corruption without producing the results shown in the chart was discussed.  A paper the IDB presenters recently published, the source of the figure above and the basis of their presentation, is here.   A video of the session here.  

The Bolsonaro Administration is Quietly Reducing Transparency in Brazil

Right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated President of Brazil on January 1, 2019. As a candidate, Bolsonaro promised that his regime would break with the large-scale graft of Brazil’s former leaders and would ruthlessly pursue the corrupt and bring them to justice. At the end of January, Justice Minister Sergio Moro released, with much fanfare and press attention, a sweeping anti-crime legislation package that addresses both white collar crime and violent organized crime, and that incorporates some, though not all, of the anticorruption measures proposed by Transparency International. So does this mean that the Bolsonaro Administration is following through on its promise to make the fight against corruption a major priority, and to end the culture of impunity that has shielded Brazilian political elites?

Alas, no. While the anti-crime package (and other high-profile pieces of legislation, like tax reform) have been highlighted by the administration and attracted most of the media attention, less prominent yet equally consequential pieces of legislation related to corruption are being passed with little to no warning or public debate. Here are two examples of major events that have occurred within the first month of the regime that should give anticorruption scholars and the international community pause in their evaluation of the Bolsonaro government’s fight against corruption:

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Kyrgyzstan’s Elimination of Immunity for Ex-Presidents is No Win for Anticorruption

Last October, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan ruled that Kyrgyzstan’s law granting legal immunity to ex-presidents was unconstitutional on the grounds that Article 16 of the Kyrgyz Constitution makes all people equal before the law. Because the Kyrgyz immunity law was one of the broadest and most protective in the world, those of us who care about corruption might cheer this ruling as a win in Kyrgyzstan’s fight against corruption. However, viewed in context, the ruling portends problems for Kyrgyzstan’s nascent democracy and may even be counterproductive in the fight against corruption itself.

Many countries have ex-presidential immunity regimes. The downside of such laws—which exist throughout Central Asia and in countries as diverse as Burundi, France, and Uruguay­—is that, by making it difficult or impossible to prosecute a former president, these laws eliminate one of the most important deterrents to executive corruption. Kyrgyzstan’s law was especially problematic in this respect, as the immunity granted to ex-presidents was unusually broad—covering not merely conduct related to the former president’s exercise of her or his official duties, but any act committed during the term of office, with no exceptions even for high treason or other grave crimes. The Kyrgyz immunity law also protected an ex-president’s property, and it blocked searches and interrogation in addition to prosecution, thus stymying investigations even where the ex-president was just a witness. For these reasons, getting rid of the immunity law might seem like a step forward in the fight against corruption.

However, laws that grant immunity to ex-presidents also have an upside, especially in authoritarian states or fragile democracies. These laws may ease and encourage peaceful political transitions, because with no threat of prosecution, a sitting president may be more willing to peacefully cede power. One might therefore be worried about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on Kyrgyzstan’s fledgling electoral democracy. Those worries would be well founded given the political context in which the Supreme Court rendered its decision.

To understand why requires understanding recent events in Kyrgyz politics, and in particular how the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the ex-presidential immunity law appears to be part of a larger campaign by the current President to suppress political opposition led by his predecessor:

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Swedish Court’s Stunning Acquittal of ex-Telia Executives for Bribery

A Stockholm District Court’s acquittal of three former executives of Swedish telecom giant Telia of bribery shocked the global anticorruption community and has smirched Sweden’s reputation as a clean government champion (original decision; English translation).  Despite overwhelming evidence, the court refused to find the three guilty of paying Gulnara Karimova, daughter of the then president Uzbekistan, over $300 million in bribes for the right to operate in the country.

E-mails showed defendants directed the money to a Karimova shell company, hid their dealings with her from Telia’s board, and knew paying her violated American antibribery law. (Telia subsidiary’s Statement of Facts in the U.S. prosecution.)  Though defendants argued Karimova had no official role in telecom licensing, the evidence showed her father had given her de facto control of the telecom licensing agency.  Perhaps most damning, the court had the sworn statement Telia made in settling the FCPA case arising from the bribery. It there admitted “Executive A . . . a high-ranking executive of Telia who had authority over Telia’s Eurasian Business Area” and “certain Telia executives” had been the principals behind the bribery scheme (Statement of Facts,  ¶s 12, 17, 19, 26, 30, and 34).

The court defended its acquittal of Tero Kivisaari, apparently Telia “Executive A,” Lars Nyberg, CEO when the bribes were paid, and the lawyer who counseled them on two grounds. One, the prosecutor had not provided “hard evidence” of bribery, and two, even if he had, the law then in effect did not reach defendants’ conduct.

Google’s translation of the decision is rough (mutanklagelser, Swedish for bribery, is rendered as “manslaughter”) but not too rough to see through the court’s skewed findings of fact and flimsy legal reasoning. Continue reading

The CICIG Crisis in Guatemala: How the Trump Administration Is Undermining US Anticorruption Leadership

Back when Donald Trump was first elected, a lot of people—me included—worried about the implications of his presidency for US leadership in the global fight against corruption. Some of the dire predictions have not (yet) come to pass; for example, so far US enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) does not seem to have abated despite Trump’s well-documented and ill-informed hostility to that statute. But even if US enforcement of the FCPA has proceeded without much discernible effect (so far), there are other, less easily measurable respects in which the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, and its own cavalier disregard for ethics, may be undermining US leadership on anticorruption issues, and consequently undermining anticorruption efforts and bolstering those who would seek to undermine such efforts.

As just noted, much of this effect is diffuse and hard to observe directly, but there are a few examples where the Trump Administration and its allies are undermining the global fight against corruption is more evident. Perhaps the most striking and disheartening is the situation unfolding in Guatemala, ably documented in a compelling piece by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy’s FP Blog earlier this month. Long story short: The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress appear to be supporting, or at least tacitly accepting, the efforts of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to shut down Guatemala’s UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which has proved instrumental in fighting high-level corruption in Guatemala, and forced the resignation of President Morales’s predecessor, Otto Perez Molina. President Morales campaigned on an anticorruption platform, but he now wants to shut CICIG down, apparently because it’s investigating his own family members and associates. And the US, which had supported CICIG in the past and pressured President Molina to renew its mandate when he was inclined to terminate it to protect himself, seems to be backing Morales rather than CICIG.

I won’t go into all the details here, as the story is ably laid out in Mr. Lynch’s excellent piece. I’ll just highlight some themes that emerge from the reporting that Mr. Lynch and others have done, which illustrate connections—some direct, some indirect—between the Trump Administration’s approach to government and the dissipation of US leadership on anticorruption issues, as illustrated by the CICIG debacle. Continue reading