Fighting Corruption Isn’t Rocket Science

Space, the final frontier, sure is expensive to explore. Every launch, every mission, can cost billions of dollars in research, materials, and overhead. And partly because of this, government space agencies may be especially susceptible to corruption. After all, these agencies are responsible for enormous projects with thousands of moving parts (literally and figuratively), but are monitored principally by committees that lack the scientific knowhow to conduct effective oversight. Embezzlement, overspending, bribery, and other crimes are easy to miss. Not only is corruption easily buried by bureaucratic or technical minutiae, it’s also extremely costly, as mistakes can result in the loss of valuable equipment or even human life. Even when corruption causes things to go wrong, the fact that space missions are inherently risky and complex may make it difficult to recognize when a malfunction is due to malfeasance.

Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation responsible for space flights, serves as a cautionary tale. For years, Roscosmos funds have been embezzled though contracting bids— officials were bribed to make fake deals and artificially inflate costs, allowing hundreds of millions of dollars to evaporate and a few Soyuz rockets to accidentally explode. (In 2014 alone, corruption and other malfeasance caused Roscosmos to lose roughly US$1.8 billion.) After Russian anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny called out the “astronomic” levels of corruption and mismanagement at the Vostochny space center (one of President Putin’s pet projects), multiple criminal investigations resulted in the conviction and sentencing of fifty-eight officials for fraud and abuse of office.

Though the record of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is not nearly as egregious, neither is it pristine. Suspicions regarding bribes by private contractors to NASA officials have existed for decades. For instance, back in the mid-1990s, a controversial FBI sting operation implicated dozens of contractors that allegedly paid bribes to NASA employees in hopes of determining which commercial experiments would be selected for the International Space Station. Representative John Conyers, who chaired the Committee on Government Operations in the House of Representatives at the time, pinned the blame on “NASA’s dismal record of contract mismanagement and faulty financial controls.” And the problems haven’t gone away: just last year, NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight Doug Loverro resigned amid allegations for improper contacts with Boeing regarding the contracts for NASA’s moon lander program. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has raised numerous concerns about NASA’s procurement system, and NASA attributed the Taurus XL launch failures, worth $700 million, to faulty materials provided by a contractor that falsified thousands of certifications for their aluminum products.

Though NASA has since taken some measures to curb against the potential for this sort of corruption (such as the installation of a Chief Financial Officer and the Acquisition Integrity Program), the risks are still significant, especially as NASA ponders a return to crewed missions by way of billion dollar contracts. These risks are further exacerbated by the agency’s even greater reliance on private sector contractors to compensate for the decline in the agency’s budget. There are therefore several additional steps that NASA can and should take to further safeguard integrity in the procurement process.

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Can Slovakia’s New Anticorruption Movement Avoid Common Pitfalls?

In late February 2018, news that Slovakian anticorruption journalist Jan Kuciak was shot to death at home—the first murder of a journalist in Slovakia’s modern history—shocked the country and world. Slovakians demanded that the government, controlled by the corruption-plagued Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) party, investigate the brazen attack and hold the perpetrators accountable. Tensions escalated in the days following Kuciak’s murder after his last unpublished story surfaced, exposing connections between advisors to SMER-SD Prime Minister Robert Fico and a prominent Italian organized crime syndicate. Fico resigned shortly thereafter, a development which proved to be the beginning of the end of SMER-SD’s twelve-year reign. By the February 2020 general election, voters decisively ousted SMER-SD in favor of the emerging anticorruption-focused Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (OLaNO).

Much of OLaNO’s appeal stems from party leader and current prime minister Igor Matovic, a self-made media mogul. His signature communication method was posting videos exposing graft to social media (similar to Russian anticorruption hero Alexei Navalny, whom this blog recently discussed here). In one of Matovic’s most widely viewed videos, he filmed himself in Cannes outside the luxury home of a former SMER-SD politician holding signs saying “Property of the Slovak Republic” and alleging that the home was illegally bought with taxpayer money. Matovic also traveled to Cyprus and posted a video of mailboxes belonging to shell corporations connected to Penta, a multi-million-euro investment group; the video claimed that Penta had used the companies to evade 400 million euros in taxes. Each of Matovic’s videos garnered several hundred thousand views in a country of less than 5.5 million, which helps explain why the February 2020 election boasted Slovakia’s highest voter turnout in 20 years.

Now, just one year into its mandate, OLaNO and its coalition are hard at work rooting out corruption. The government arrested and prosecuted dozens of current and former public officials involved in graft. Those targeted include high-level figures, such as the former Finance Minister, the head of the State Material Reserves Administration, the Director of the Agricultural Paying Agency, and more than a dozen judges, including a member of the Supreme Court and the former Deputy Minister of Justice. OLaNO is also pursuing a number of legislative efforts, including aggressive judicial reform.

Can Matovic and OLaNO finally cleanse Slovakia’s reputation as the corruption “black hole of Europe”? Maybe. But while the story of an outsider stepping forward in the wake of a national scandal and securing electoral victory with an anticorruption political agenda may be a first in Slovakia’s modern history, it is not an unknown tale on the world stage—and (spoiler alert!) the story often doesn’t have a happy ending. To be sure, difficult political dynamics and entrenched domestic corruption can hamper even the most earnest anticorruption efforts. Nevertheless, examples from other countries provide some cautionary tales of how populist leaders elected on anticorruption platforms can sometimes lose their way, and offer some lessons that Matovic, OLaNO, and their supporters should take to heart going forward. Three lessons in particular stand out:

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Guest Post: Trump’s Pardons and Putin’s Palace Show Why Biden Must Tackle Corruption at Home and Abroad

Today’s guest post is from Joe Powell, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the Open Government Partnership.

The corruption continued to the end. A cast of convicted fraudsters, tax dodgers, and money launderers littered President Trump’s final pardon list. One clemency went to Elliott Broidy, a former top fundraiser for Mr. Trump who had been implicated in illegal lobbying in connection with Malaysia’s multi-billion dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal. Trump’s final official act as President, taken minutes before the official transfer of power, was to pardon the tax evading ex-husband of one his favorite Fox News hosts, Jeanine Pirro.

None of this was remotely surprising after four years in which ethics, conflict of interest, and the rule of law did not seem to apply to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Contrast this with the extraordinary act of bravery from Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who despite being jailed on his return to Moscow after his near-fatal poisoning, released a viral documentary last week about the construction of President Putin’s palace on the Black Sea. The film, which within days had racked up nearly 100 million views, details the corruption, bribery, and opaque corporate structures used to fund what Navalny claims is the world’s most expensive real estate project, with an estimated price tag of at least $1.4 billion. The funds come from Putin’s oligarch friends who dominate the top positions in many of Russia’s biggest companies, and drain state resources that could improve the lives of ordinary Russians. A single gold toilet brush and toilet paper holder, purchased for one of Putin’s wineries near the palace, cost more than the average annual state pension in Russia. No wonder Putin is so desperate to silence Navalny.

What ties Trump’s pardons and Putin’s palace together is the insidious effect of corruption on democracy. Globally, corruption has been one of the main drivers of 14 years of consecutive decline in civil and political liberties around the world. This democratic recession has affected long-standing and emerging democracies alike, and has spurred street protests and civil society campaigns in many countries. Hungary is a textbook example. Prime Minister Orbán has used state funds for patronage, ensuring that only close supporters receive high value government contracts, and threatening to veto the European Union budget over any checks on his power. Throughout the world, dark money has increasingly fueled online disinformation and a decline in press freedom, which has made accountability harder to achieve.

To turn the tide on this democratic backsliding, a major global effort to combat corruption is needed. President Biden is well placed to help lead the charge. Continue reading

What Made Alexei Navalny an Anticorruption Icon?

On August 20, 2020, former Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny fell ill while on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. He slipped into a coma and was immediately evacuated to Berlin, where doctors discovered that Navalny had been poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent. While the Kremlin has denied any involvement, the chemical nerve agent used on Navalny was similar to the one that Russia was accused of using to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018.

A Kremlin-orchestrated attempt on Navalny’s life was hardly surprising. For the past decade, Navalny has been making a name for himself as one of the leading figures opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Navalny has denounced United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves” and has organized campaigns to unseat Putin-affiliated politicians across the country. Furthermore, Navalny’s investigative journalism has uncovered government corruption, and he has used these exposés to advocate for political reform and to bolster his own popularity, especially among the younger generation. Navalny’s success in exposing corruption highlights several interesting and unique tactics and personal attributes that allowed him to be an effective advocate in a country that routinely punishes government opposition.

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Guest Post: When It Comes To Attitudes Toward Corruption, Russians Are More Like Americans Than You Think

Today’s guest post is from Marina Zaloznaya, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa and author of, The Politics of Bureaucratic Corruption in Post-Transitional Eastern Europe:

Russia and corruption have been dominating the news recently – with the reporting from Washington and Moscow converging in an unusual way. Ongoing accusations against Trump Administration officials resonate even more strongly when linked to Russia, a country most Americans view as rife with corruption. Indeed, many Americans think that Russian citizens are perfectly comfortable with the systematic corruption of political and business elites.

This is a myth. Yes, it is true beyond doubt that corruption is common in Russia – much more so than in the United States – affecting hundreds of thousands of people. But this is not because Russians are systematically more tolerant of corruption than are Americans. Continue reading