Planning and Zoning Board Corruption: Finding the Missing Whistleblowers

My last post looked at the constant, pernicious corruption and conflict of interest in local land use planning decisions in the United States. Despite shocking stories and a handful of high-profile investigations and prosecutions (see, for example, here and here), little comprehensive work has been done to address the potential for corruption in planning and zoning decisions, even when warning signs abound. Instead, most instances of corruption in land use planning decisions remain undetected, perhaps because the seemingly small stakes make it unlikely that external investigators will scrutinize these decisions too closely.

Yet potential whistleblowers surely see or suspect bribery, conflicted dealings, or other malfeasance in land use planning. Reforms should make it easier for those individuals to come forward, as well as make it more likely that their reports will lead to action. Ideally, these measures would recognize the particular characteristics of land use decisions, such as the challenges posed by the large numbers of local officials involved in planning and zoning. Here are a few suggestions for how to encourage simpler, more consistent reporting:

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Guest Post: Using Open Data To Combat Corruption—Moving Beyond the Hype

Robert Palmer, the Director of Partnerships and Communication at the Open Data Charter, contributes today’s guest post:

In order to tackle corruption effectively, one first needs to understand the networks that link government officials, businesses, and professional intermediaries, and then work to either dismantle these networks or at least ensure that these webs of connections are not exploited to enrich individuals and undermine good government. Fortunately, these clandestine networks often leave traces in government-held databases, such as company registers, land title deeds, asset disclosures, and other official records. That’s where open data can be helpful. When the government provides easily accessible public information, it makes it easier for government officials, journalists, and citizens to follow financial flows, understand who’s providing government services, and to spot suspect behavior. And that’s why there has been so much enthusiasm about the open data in the anticorruption community. In 2015, for example, the G20 anticorruption working group announced a common approach saying that “Open Data can help prevent, detect, investigate and reduce corruption.”

Yet what’s happening on the ground isn’t living up to this hype. Part of the reason is that, as the Web Foundation and Transparency International found in a recent study of five G20 countries, many countries have made only limited progress toward meeting international commitments on open data. But even where open data is available, relatively few organizations are actually using open data to expose and combat corruption. There are, of course, exceptions, including Global Witness, the data journalists at Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting project, and accountability groups such as BudgIT. Yet the potential for open data to help fight corruption remains largely unrealized.

To help address this shortcoming, the Open Data Charter has spent the last year pulling together a guide for how to use open data to combat corruption. The guide lists 30 types of datasets that could help expose and combat corruption if they are released in the right way, as well as key data standards to ensure consistency and quality between different countries. Of course, the underlying assumptions here are that the types of data listed in the guide can be collected and released by governments in the ways the guide advises, and that there are anticorruption actors who can process this data in ways that are helpful in exposing or preventing corruption. In order to probe these assumptions, the Open Data Charter has teamed up with the Government of Mexico to “road-test” the guide. This will include working out which of the 30 datasets in our guide the government already publishes, which further ones can be released, and how to engage potential users. We’re interested in understanding how if data is released in the right way, users such as journalists, law enforcement, and civil society can process the data and then use it to have an impact on corruption.

Our approach to this piece of work is guided by a real desire to learn what works: what’s helpful to the government and what’s helpful to external stakeholders who want to tackle corruption. We hope to be able to report on our initial findings over August. If you’re interested in learning more, please get in touch with me: robert [at] opendatacharter.org. In the spirit of transparency and collaboration, the guide itself is open to comment here.

Day Four of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang, Part II

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the second part of the 4th day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang by Shirley Pouget of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

As detailed in an earlier post, five witnesses testified June 26, 2017, in support of the corruption charges laid against Equatorial Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang.  Teodorin called but a single witness in his defense: Simon Mann, an assistant to Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been President of Equatorial Guinea for the past 38 years and also happens to be Teodorin’s father.

Mann came into President Obiang’s employ by a strange route.  Hired by a Lebanese businessman to overthrow Obiang, he was captured and jailed.  Mann explained that Obiang later pardoned him and then hired him as an advisor.  When the court asked if he was still employed by Obiang he replied:

“They pay my expenses as well as a per diem.”

He denied, however, that he was being paid to testify. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–July 2017 Update

This past May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our July update is now available here. The most notable new highlight in the new material concerns two developments related to housing subsidies: First, while President Trump’s proposed budget proposed slashing funding for most housing assistance programs, it conspicuously exempts a program that provides payments directly to private landlords–a program from which Trump directly profits due to his ownership stake in a New York housing development that receives subsidies under the program. Second, President Trump appointed an event planner with close ties to his family (but no prior experience in housing policy) to a senior government position responsible for disbursing federal housing funds in New York and New Jersey, where the Trump Organization has substantial real estate holdings.

(Note: While we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Day Four of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the 4th day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang by Shirley Pouget of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Monday, June 26, was the fourth day of trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Obiang on charges amounting to kleptocracy.  After three days of skirmishing about procedural issues, the court finally heard testimony in support of the charges.

court room *Roberto Berardi, who had been in business with Teodorin, told the court that after confronting Teodorin about allegations of corruption leveled by the U.S. Department of Justice he was jailed and held in solitary confinement for almost three years.  The reason, he believes, was to prevent him from talking to U.S. authorities.

*Delfin Mocache Massoko, whose on-line news site Diaro Rombe chronicles the Obiang family’s business dealings, told the court that he and many of his sources had been told “they will pay” for exposing the Obiang’s corruption to the world.

* Tutu Alicante León, an Equatorial Guinean exile who runs EG Justice, detailed the brutality and repression Equatorial Guineans face and deprivation and extremen poverty they live in thanks to the Obiangs’ crimes.  At the court’s request he explained how any assets the court ordered seized from Teodorin could be returned to the country in ways that would benefit its citizens.

* Pedro German Tomo, another Equatorial Guinean exile, testified that when Teodorin was Minister of Agriculture and Forestry he forced logging companies to pay 10,000 francs per square meter of board logged to a company Teodorin controlled and later, when Teodorin took responsibility for infrastructure, any company winning a construction contract had to pay a 10 percent commission to the same company.

* Daniel Lebegue of Transparency International France explained to the court why his organization felt it had no choice but to bring this case against Teodorin.  He said TI-France had consulted extensively with TI chapters in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania before lodging the complaint: “we wanted to go hand in hand with our colleagues from the African Chapters and be sure that our action was right.”

What follows is an account of each witness’ testimony.  No recording or transcript of the proceedings was made.  To GAB’s knowledge, Mme. Pouget’s account of the witnesses’ testimony will therefore serve as the only record.  Anyone who believes there is an error, or who wishes to provide additional context, is urged to post a comment below.    Continue reading

China’s Anticorruption Campaign Adds Popular Culture Entertainment Into its Toolbox

A TV series called In the Name of the People, featuring China’s current fight against high-level government corruption, has gone viral in China. Dubbed the Chinese House of Cards, the show reached an 8% TV viewing rate (the highest in 12 years) and by the end of April 2017, had been watched over 20 billion times across major Chinese online video platforms. The show is widely acclaimed for its quality production, intriguing storylines, and, more importantly, for its bold, vivid depiction of the ugly side of China’s political and social reality. Shows like this are not merely entertainment: popular culture, including TV shows, can be an important tool in the fight against corruption.

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Guest Post: Paris Court Rules That a US FCPA Guilty Plea Precludes Subsequent Prosecution in France

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris office of Debevoise & Plimpton, who contributes the following guest post:

Overseas bribery and similar crimes can often be investigated by prosecutors in more than one country. But does (or should) the resolution of a criminal investigation in one country—say, through a negotiated resolution—bar subsequent prosecutions in other countries for the same underlying conduct? In earlier posts, I have explored some recent rulings that address aspects of this debate over so-called “international double jeopardy” (see here, here and here). A recent decision of the Paris Court of Appeals added an interesting new element to this debate. Faced with a classic situation of parallel prosecutions, the Paris Court held that an individual who had pleaded guilty in the United States for violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) could not be prosecuted under French anti-bribery law—not because of the standard international double jeopardy principle, but rather because, according to the Paris Court, the US proceedings deprived the defendant of the right to defend himself protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The facts of the case are simple: an individual entered into a written plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in which the defendant agreed to plead guilty in a US court to FCPA charges, on which he was subsequently sentenced. He was separately bound over for trial in France under French anti-bribery laws, apparently for the same underlying conduct.  In affirming the dismissal of the French prosecution, the Paris Appellate Court’s reasoning proceeded in two steps: Continue reading