Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–January 2018 Update

Last 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 January 2018 update is now available here.

There were relatively few major new developments, though there are some changes and modifications throughout to reflect more recent coverage of some of the allegations, as well as some more detail on concerns about foreign governments currying favor with the administration through favorable treatment of Trump-affiliated businesses (most notably in Indonesia and Panama).

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss 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.

Do Mandatory Asset Declarations Reduce Corruption? And If So, How?

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) calls on States Parties to adopt asset declaration and financial disclosure regimes for their public officials (see Article 8, paragraph 5 and Article 52, paragraph 5), and most states have complied with this commitment in one form or another. Indeed, according to a report by the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, there is a continuous upward trend in the number of states that have enacted financial disclosure laws (see Figure 1.1 at page 8). Yet the near-universal popularity of mandatory asset declarations does not mean that this tool is actually effective. True, there have been a few high-profile cases where asset declarations played an important role in anticorruption efforts, such as the impeachment of the Chief Justices of the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as the resignation of the Vice Rectors of a prestigious university in Thailand and the top brass of a state bank in Portugal. But such high-profile cases are rare and may not be representative of the larger picture. In a previous post on this blog, Rick Messick expressed some skepticism about the extent to which asset declarations and other forms of mandatory financial disclosures actually contribute to anticorruption efforts, and criticized what he saw as extravagant and unrealistic claims about the effectiveness of such disclosures as anticorruption tools.

So what does the existing research actually say about the effectiveness of asset declarations on anticorruption efforts? While there are only a few studies on this topic, the evidence they supply nevertheless offers valuable insights.

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Lessons from the “Isolated Capital” Effect for the Fight Against Public Corruption

As numerous commentators have written on this blog and elsewhere, the New York state legislature suffers from a serious corruption problem (see, for example, here and here), with six corruption convictions of government leaders in eleven years, and suspicions that the rot runs much deeper. Would things be any better if New York’s capital were in New York City rather than in Albany? While it’s impossible to say for sure, research suggests—perhaps surprisingly—that the answer might be yes. In an influential paper, Filipe Campante and Qhoc-Anh Do found that, on average, corruption (as measured by federal corruption-related crime convictions per capita) is higher in states where the state capital is more “isolated”—that is, farther from the state’s major population centers. (States with relatively isolated capitals include not just New York (Albany), but also Illinois (Springfield), South Carolina (Columbia), Nevada (Carson City), and Florida (Tallahassee), among others.)

Of course, states are very unlikely to relocate their capitals, but understanding the likely mechanisms that explain Campante and Do’s surprising finding may help us better understand the sorts of policy levers that might help reduce corruption in state government. So why might it be the case that states with more isolated capital cities might have more corruption? Continue reading

Guest Post: Tackling Corruption in Afghanistan’s Education Sector

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who also served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee until November 27, 2017.

One of the successes of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan has been the rise in the numbers of students attending school, especially girls. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, more than 9.2 million children, 39% of them girls, are now enrolled in school (though these statistics continue to be disputed, with alternative enrollment estimates ranging between 6 and 10 million). Yet the Afghan government, the citizenry, and external observers are all well aware that the education system remains beset by endemic corruption. As one parent put it in a focus group discussion: “A suicide attack isn’t the most dangerous thing for us, because a few people will die…. It is the unprofessional and unknowledgeable teachers that are most dangerous for us because they kill the future of Afghanistan.”

A major new report from the Afghanistan Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (known as MEC), carried out at the request of the Minister of Education, evaluates the corruption vulnerabilities across the education system and how they need to be addressed. The study, conducted in cooperation with the Education Ministry, visited 138 schools in nine provinces, and conducted over 500 interviews with a range of stakeholders (including Ministry officials, provincial education officials, teachers, parents, students, and others), as well as 160 focus group discussions. These interviews and focus group discussions assessed a broad range of education corruption issues, including both corruption that arises at the level of schools and districts (such as students paying for advance copies of papers, or teachers using nepotistic influence to avoid having to turn up) and corruption in central government education policy and management (such as corruption in teacher appointments, school construction, and textbook procurement). Some of the report’s main findings are as follows: Continue reading

Corruption Risk Assessments: Am I Missing Something?

Surely one of most salutary developments to result from the intense focus on corruption over the past two decades is the growing use of corruption risk assessments by public and private entities alike.  Risk assessments were first employed in the 17th century to assess the likelihood a steam engine would explode and refined over the years to address risks as varied as the meltdown of a nuclear reactor or climate change.  A corruption risk assessment estimates the chances a government agency or private corporation will experience one or more types of corruption.  Just as assessing the risks of an engine explosion or reactor melt-down is an indispensable prerequisite for designing measures to mitigate if not eliminate these risks, a corruption risk assessment provides the critical information public and private sector decisionmakers need to design practicable corruption prevention programs.

A plethora of guides explaining how to conduct a corruption risk assessment are posted on the internet (examples for the public sector here and here; for the private sector here, here, and here).  All recite the standard method for assessing risks of any kind found in text books and government reports.  First, all conceivable forms of corruption to which the organization, the activity, the sector, or the project might be exposed is catalogued.  Second, an estimate of how likely it is that each of the possible forms of corruption will occur is prepared and third an estimate of the harm that will result if each occurs is developed.  The fourth step combines the chances of occurrence with the probability of its impact to produce a list of risks by priority.

The critical steps are the second and third.  If the estimate of where bribery is likely occur or its impact if it does occur is wrong, prevention efforts will not be properly targeted. That happened to the U.K. insurance firm Aon Limited.  Thinking bribery was more likely to occur in its U.K. operations than those overseas, it put the bulk of its enforcement efforts into preventing bribery in the U.K.  Because, as the U.K. financial regulator found, it “failed properly to assess … the higher risks presented by some of the countries in which [its overseas] divisions operated,” it thus spent little time overseeing its non-U.K. agents.  That mistake was costly.  When it was revealed that many non-U.K. agents had paid bribes, the U.K. Financial Services Authority, the U.S. Department of Justice, and Securities Exchange Commission all brought enforcement actions.

Given the importance of accurate estimates of bribery risk and impact to developing a corruption risk assessment, one would expect “how to” guides to explain ways to improve the accuracy of the estimates.  Especially since risk assessments in other areas do. Continue reading

Petty Corruption, Grand Corruption, and the Politics of Absolution

My post last month offered some reflections on Professor Giovanni Orsina’s interesting observations, at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, about how the wide-ranging Clean Hands (mani pulite) investigations in Italy may have contributed to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi—first by creating a power vacuum, and second by contributing to the delegitimation of professional politicians and traditional political organizations. Today I want to pick up on another thread of Professor Orsina’s analysis, echoed and amplified by his co-panelist, the journalist Beppe Severgnini. Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini’s insight is that is that part of the secret to Berlusconi’s success – and the apparent willingness of many Italian voters to overlook his corruption and other misdeeds – is what for lack of better terminology I’ll call the “politics of absolution.” Here’s how Mr. Severgnini describes the phenomenon (see 57:34 on the video):

[A] populist plutocrat [like Berlusconi] is warm, empathetic, admits his sins – and forgives yours. It’s a very smart thing because he admits his huge sins, and he forgives your little sins…. [To] every shopkeeper who gave 50 Euros to the local policeman, … Berlusconi [said] “OK, don’t worry, this is not important.” … The smart thing, and the very subtle thing [is that by saying,] “I forgive you for those 50 Euros,” … in a way I buy your [acquittal of] me, [even though for me] it was 50 billion, not 50 Euro…. I forgive you the small things, so you forgive me for the big things – and maybe you vote for me. And that’s exactly the psychological trick, and it works extremely well.

Professor Orsina’s analysis is similar, emphasizing the contrast between Berlusconi’s forgiving, indulgent populism and what many voters perceived as the arrogant moralization of his chief opponents on the Italian left (at 45:20):

[The Italian left said to the voters,] “This is a corrupt country, this is a country that must be … corrected, … and we are those who can … teach the Italians how to behave.” Now, this was perceived as extremely arrogant…. On the other side, [Berlusconi] was saying, “Come on, guys! You are good! This is a great country…. I am in no position to tell you what to do…. What I want to do is to create the conditions for you to do what you want to do because what you want to do is good.” Of course there was no match…. Now, of course, when Berlusconi was telling the Italians, “You’re good, you can do whatever you want,” he was wrong. And when the left was telling the Italians, “We should behave better,” they were right…. [But] this [is] … why Berlusconi won the elections and the left lost.

I lack the expertise to assess, or even to intelligently discuss, whether this analysis of Italian politics is correct. But it strikes me as plausible, and moreover, if the diagnosis is accurate in this or other contexts, then understanding the politics of absolution may have at least two implications for efforts to combat corruption. Continue reading

“Petty” Corruption Isn’t Petty

Grand corruption attracts plenty of attention—from activists, the mainstream media, and other commentators (including on this blog)—and for good reason. While the media may simply be riveted by the decadent lifestyles of corrupt actors, the anticorruption community has increasingly recognized the devastating impact that kleptocrats and their cronies can have. No doubt, this attention to grand corruption is welcome and recent successes in fighting it are laudable. At the same time, though, this increased focus on grand corruption carries with it the risk of making smaller, more everyday forms of corruption—sometimes called “petty” corruption—seem less consequential.

Yet so-called “petty” corruption remains widespread, and its aggregate impact should not be underestimated. By way of example, consider the most recent results from the Transparency International (TI) Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey of citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, which found that one-third of people who used a public service paid a bribe in order to do so. In other words, for these 90 million people, their ability to access a government service to which they were entitled was conditioned upon an extralegal payment—and that’s just accounting for this one region.

Even as the anticorruption community rightly focuses attention on combatting grand corruption, we can’t forget the real havoc wreaked by smaller-scale corruption. So-called “petty” corruption is not a petty concern. Rather, it’s a serious, pervasive problem that deserves just as much sustained attention as does politicians buying collector cars and oceanfront properties with assets from their secret offshore bank accounts. At the risk of repeating familiar points, it’s worth reviewing the ways in which small-scale corruption has, cumulatively, a range of incredibly destructive effects:

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