“Ghost Money”: Assessing the Risks of State-Sponsored Bribery

Back in 2014, the New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency had been paying the office of then-President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai tens of millions of dollars in cash for more than a decade. Afghan officials termed these payments “ghost money,” a convenient term that I adopt here—though some might simply call it bribery. This case was hardly unique. Indeed, the practice of engaging in state-sponsored bribery in the interests of national security appears to be a longstanding and global one: Over last half-century or more, the CIA has reportedly made cash payments to heads of state from Angola to Zaire in exchange for favors.

U.S. officials have defended this controversial practice. One former CIA operations officer even went so far as to say that state-sponsored bribery serves a productive role in the anticorruption fight: where the CIA is asked “to monitor the level of corruption in a place like Afghanistan,” “it only makes sense that U.S. operatives would have to talk to, and if necessary, bribe those involved in the corruption to find out what is going on.”

Yet even if one sets aside the question of whether ghost money itself presents the same normative concerns as regular bribery by private parties (an issue previously discussed on this blog), ghost money raises more problems than it solves for the anticorruption fight. In particular, the U.S. practice of making ghost money payments in places like Afghanistan likely has three significant adverse collateral consequences: Continue reading

The OECD Convention’s Article Prohibiting the Politicization of Foreign Bribery Enforcement Is in Desperate Need of Clarification

Article 5 of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention provides that the policing of foreign bribery by Convention Parties shall not be influenced by (1) “considerations of national economic interest,” (2) “the potential effect upon relations with another State,” or (3) “the identity of the natural or legal persons involved.” Collectively, these mandates are known as the “Article 5 factors.” Article 5 is intended as a safeguard against the politicization or instrumentalization of foreign bribery laws. It is therefore vital to impartial foreign bribery enforcement, as well as to the integrity of foreign bribery enforcement generally.

The most well-known instance of an alleged Article 5 breach is the United Kingdom’s decision in 2006 to stop investigations into bribes paid by BAE Systems to public officials in Saudi Arabia. Then-Attorney General Peter Goldsmith argued that this decision was justified because the investigation could have damaged national security interests, as Saudi Arabia had threatened to end counterterrorism cooperation with the UK if the investigation continued. Goldsmith expressly denied that terminating the investigation for this reason constituted a breach of Article 5 because, as he put it, the decision to join the OECD Convention didn’t mean that the UK had “agreed to abandon any consideration of national security. [The Convention] certainly doesn’t say that and I don’t believe that’s what we could have intended or any other country could have intended.” The UK’s decision to suspend the BAE investigation, though challenged in court, was ultimately upheld.

More recently, the OECD has called attention to two other potential Article 5 breaches. First, an OECD news release stated that Turkey’s Article 5 compliance was in doubt due to inexplicably low level of foreign bribery enforcement, which the release suggested might be partly due to improper economic or political considerations. Second, another OECD news release raised concerns that Canada may have breached Article 5 by cancelling investigations into allegations that SNC Lavelin had bribed Libyan officials—a decision that observers believed was motivated by a desire to protect Canada’s national economic interests.

While it is encouraging to see the OECD adopt a more assertive approach to recognizing Article 5 breaches than it has in the past, these statements serve as stark reminders that there is not really an effective means for enforcing Article 5. And unfortunately, the uncertainty surrounding the meaning of Article 5 complicates the task of achieving Article 5 compliance. Continue reading

Guest Post: How a Social Movement Changed Spanish Attitudes Toward Corruption

Today’s guest post is from Elisa Elliott Alonso, who works at the OECD Water Governance Program:

The graph below chronicles the percentage of Spanish Citizens who named the economy (grey line) and fraud/corruption (blue line) as one of the three most important problems facing the country, during the period leading up to and following the economic downturn of 2008. Unsurprisingly, after the Spanish economy crashed, some 50% of the citizens of Spain noted that the economy was one of the most important issue affecting them, and this concern remained predominant for the next three years, though it started to decline a bit after 2011. As for corruption and fraud, prior to the crash concerns about these issues hardly registered, except for a brief spike in 1993, an uptick came in the immediate aftermath of a slew of highly publicized corruption scandals, and dissipated quickly) Even after the 2008 crash, concern about corruption rose only slightly increased from 2008 to 2012. That big change came in 2013, when the news broke that important members of the conservative PP party were allegedly involved in the Gürtel case, one of the most serious recent corruption scandals to rock Spain. More interesting is the fact that Corruption has remained a top concern of Spanish citizens ever since. There’s been a bit of tapering off since concern over corruption reached its peak in late 2014, but more than 20% of Spanish citizens still list corruption as one of the country’s most serious problems, roughly the same number of name the economy.

Why is this? Or, to put the question more generally, what kind of changes need to take place within a collective society’s ethos in order to bring about engaged citizen awareness and opposition to corrupt activities? Continue reading

Guest Post: Expert Interviews on Corruption Control in Latin America

Today’s guest post is from Columbia University Professor Paul Lagunes, who this year is also a Visiting Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy:

Elections in Latin America are freer and fairer than they used to be, and, with rare exceptions, political power in the region is no longer monopolized by a single individual, junta, or party. From Chile to Mexico, legal reforms have promoted higher levels of government transparency and citizen participation. But in spite of these improvements, the region continues to grapple with systemic corruption. Not only are individuals asked to pay bribes by lower-level government officials, but scandals such as Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) in Brazil, La Estafa Maestra (“The Master Fraud”) in Mexico, and La Línea (“The Line”) in Guatemala have revealed grand corruption at the most senior levels, making the fight against corruption a top priority for the region.

Prompted by these concerns, I contributed to organizing a conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on corruption control in Latin America, which has already been featured (with links to the conference videos) on this blog. Some of the conference panelists stayed long enough that we were able to interview them about their important work. Tony Payan, my colleague at the Baker Institute and an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues, agreed to conduct the interviews.

The videos of these interviews are now publicly available, and are well worth viewing for those interested in hearing a diverse range of perspectives on the corruption challenges currently facing Latin America. In this post I will provide links to the interviews as well as a brief summary of their content. (There’s also an online website, where you can find all the interviews, here.) Continue reading

Managing Anticorruption Compliance Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation

Lawyers and businesses today are concerned with data privacy issues like never before—not only because of the mounting number of data privacy scandals, but also because of new regulations, most importantly the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR, which was adopted in 2016 and became applicable in May 2018, reformed the entire personal data protection system in the EU by setting new rules of data protection and privacy. Moreover, the GDPR applies not only to entities that operate within the EU, but also to all entities established in the EU when operating outside the EU, as well as to entities established outside the EU when they are offering their goods and services inside the EU or monitoring individuals from the EU. The GDPR thus has global reach, as well as stringent penalties for violations.

The GDPR has implications for many different fields, and anticorruption is no exception. This is especially true for corporations conducting internal investigations of possible bribery by firm employees or agents, and when conducting due diligence on potential partners. Much of the data collected in these corporate investigations will include “personal data” as defined and regulated by the GDPR. For this reason, some commentators have warned that the effect of the GDPR on traditional corporate anticorruption investigations will amount to “a collision of galactic proportions.”

That may by hyperbole, but it is certainly the case that the GDPR will impose important new obligations that influence how companies handle anti-bribery compliance issues, both in the context of internal investigations and in the context of due diligence. Continue reading

The Orban Effect, or Why the EU Needs to Take a Hard Line on Anticorruption Backsliding

After Viktor Orban’s election to the Hungarian premiership in 2010, he set Hungary on a course to become an “illiberal democracy.” As part and parcel of that vision, Orban began to increase corruption in Hungary, building a new class of oligarchs (including his family and friends) dependent on crony capitalism. Indeed, Orban’s Hungary is now one of the most corrupt states in Europe (see here, here, and here), with government and EU funds regularly misappropriated, wasted, or flat-out stolen. And while one must always be careful about drawing strong conclusions from changes in a country’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) score, it’s certainly notable that Hungary has dropped 10 spots on the CPI ranking since 2011, the first full year of Orban’s rule. These developments are not only worrisome in and of themselves, but many worry that Orban’s approach—not only his far-right politics, but the entrenched oligarchic corruption he has fostered—might become normalized not only in Hungary but throughout the region.

That worry is well-founded. Orban’s ideas have not been contained to Hungary. The spread of the “illiberal state” and of corrupt quasi-authoritarian oligarchy has precipitated a crisis across Europe. What should international actors—particularly the EU—do in response? Two things:

Continue reading

Guest Post: An Austrian Political Corruption Scheme was Caught on Video–But Most Probably Aren’t

Today’s guest post is from Jennifer Kartner, an anticorruption researcher who recently received her Ph.D. in political science from Arizona State University:

On Friday, May 17, 2019, the German newspapers Der Spiegel and the Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung released an explosive video showing two key politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, scheming with a woman who claimed to be a wealthy Russian citizen. Their meeting took place in July 2017, a few months before the October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections. In the video, Strache and Gudenus discuss how, with the help of the woman, they could ensure that the FPÖ wins the upcoming elections. The plan was that the Russian would buy 50% of the Austrian newspaper Die Kronen Zeitung—a newspaper reaching a third of all Austrian news consumers—before the elections, and then she would ensure that the already-populist newspaper would drum up more support for the FPÖ. (Mr. Strache estimates in the video that the newspaper takeover would help push the FPÖ’s expected vote share from 27 to 34 percent.) Once the FPÖ won the election, FPÖ elected officials would return the favor by helping the oligarch win contracts for public construction projects; all she had to do was to establish a construction company that could plausibly compete with the Austrian firm Strabag. The three meeting participants also talked about the possibility of privatizing the Austrian public broadcast station ORF, and Mr. Strache spoke of wanting to build a media landscape “just like Viktor Orbán built in Hungary.” But the deal never actually came together. Die Kronen Zeitung didn’t change owners, the FPÖ came in third in the parliamentary elections and ended up entering into a coalition government with the center-right ÖVP, and Strabag continues to win the majority of public construction contracts in Austria.

The political backlash in response to the publication of the video was swift and severe. An estimated 5,000 people came out to protest on the streets. A day after the publication, Mr. Strache resigned from his Vice-Chancellorship, as well as his other political and party positions, and issued a public apology, and a couple of days after that, all remaining FPÖ ministers in the government were fired or resigned in protest. While Austrian authorities are still debating whether they can charge Mr. Strache for any criminal activities, the public’s response shows that, regardless of the legal ramifications, ordinary citizens view this behavior as corrupt.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing things about this affair is that if the parties had gone through with their plan, and the secret video had never been leaked, neither the authorities nor the public would likely have ever had any reason to suspect a complex corruption scheme behind it. To see this, suppose for the moment that the scheme went ahead as planned. Would anyone have caught on? The answer is likely no: Continue reading