When and Why Do Corrupt Politicians Champion Corruption Reform? A Character Study

Can corrupt leaders enact effective anticorruption reform? The brief answer seems to be yes: Leaders who are (perceived as) corrupt can initiate and support effective anticorruption reform efforts. For example, as this blog has previously discussed, President Peña-Nieto (who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and graft) supported constitutional anticorruption reforms in Mexico. Egypt’s current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has similarly launched various anticorruption campaigns, even while fending off numerous corruption allegations.

But why do corrupt leaders institute anticorruption reforms? While there’s no universal explanation, there appear to be at least three archetypes that might help anticorruption activists identify and push unlikely reformers: The Power Player, The Top-Down Director, and The Born-Again Reformer. Continue reading

Shoddy Craftsmanship: How Not to Design an Independent Prosecutor

There is a reason that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has graced the pages of the Global Anticorruption Blog so many times in recent months (see here, here, here, and here): life just isn’t easy for a candidate who campaigns on promises to clean up politics only to drown in allegations once in office. Today I offer another installment in our (entirely unofficial) series on the trials and tribulations of New York’s Governor: “Designed to Fail: Andrew Cuomo’s Interactive Guide to Building an Independent Anticorruption Prosecutor. (Parts Sold Separately).”

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Automatic Government Retention of All Official Emails: An Easy Anticorruption Reform

Former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is currently under fire from Republican opponents and transparency advocates for her (alleged) circumvention of Federal recordkeeping laws. While this particular scandal (or pseudo-scandal) may soon pass, as have numerous other such scandals, the anticorruption community should take this opportunity to voice its support for a badly-needed reform to recordkeeping laws, to ensure that official emails sent by people in a position of public trust should be immutably preserved.

It seems almost too obvious, but “lost” and “misplaced” emails are often a major impediment in corruption investigations. At least three ongoing corruption investigations are touched by email deletions, to say nothing of past investigations:

  1. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo instructed his government to begin purging un-archived emails after 90 days, even as controversy and a Federal investigation swirls around his dismantling of the Moreland Commission. (He has now altered his policy somewhat)
  2. A Federal investigation into hundreds of millions of procurement dollars spent by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) has been dragging on for years, crippled in part by missing emails that were “compromised” before the DRPA could turn them over to the U.S. Attorney. The DRPA (partly overseen by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie whose own history with deleted communications is muddled) lost 18 months worth of emails received by a single key official during a key period of time, due to a “software malfunction” with their in-house email system. DRPA’s Inspector General has since resigned in frustration.
  3. In a glimmer of hope, although recently-resigned Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber instructed members of his government to delete emails ahead of an FBI and IRS corruption probe, they refused to do so.

This is an absurd state of affairs, and entirely unnecessary. There is absolutely no compelling reason to not automatically preserve every email sent and received by civil servants. This is 2015: it is literally more expensive to take the time to actively delete emails than it is to simply keep them. Either governments haven’t realized this yet, or their claim that emails should be deleted for the sake of “efficiency” is in fact a red herring. I suggest the latter. The continued absence of appropriate email preservation rules for public servants, which would be incredibly easy to implement, will continue to frustrate anticorruption efforts. Continue reading

Prosecuting Elected Officials for Corruption: A Tale of Four Governors

As Phil and Rick pointed out a few months ago, America’s domestic anti-bribery laws and the attendant court interpretations are, for lack of a better term, a hot mess. In principle, the crime of bribery is straightforward: To secure a conviction, the prosecutor need only convince the jury that (1) there was some agreement (explicit or otherwise) whereby (2) the official would receive something of value (3) in exchange for using his official position in some manner. Unfortunately, though, that burden of proof often becomes far more complicated when the alleged bribe recipient is a high-ranking elected official. When a politician regularly solicits campaign contributions and simultaneously wields political influence to the benefit of constituents, it is often hard to see where politics ends and corruption begins. And after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in cases like Citizens United and Skilling, prosecutors are left wondering when the corrupting influence of money on politics can still be prosecuted as “corruption.”

Today, I want to step back from this confusion and distill a few lessons that I believe still hold true for any US prosecutor investigating an elected official for bribery. To do that, I consider allegations that have been made against four past and present governors — Rod Blagojevich (Illinois), Andrew Cuomo (New York), Don Siegelman (Alabama), and Robert McDonnell (Virginia) — and ask one loaded question: what does it take to prove that an elected official misused his position in exchange for something of value?

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Preventing the Next Sheldon Silver

Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York State Assembly, was arrested last week on federal corruption charges, sending shock waves through New York’s political circles. He is accused of accepting millions of dollars in disguised bribes for more than a decade. Silver allegedly asked developers with business before the state to spend money on a law firm that, in turn, paid Silver for legal work he never did. He was able to disguise the source of the income for so long because New York, like the vast majority of other states, considers its legislature to be “part time,” freeing up legislators to maintain legitimate outside jobs, as well as their government work.

Such outside payments are ripe for unscrupulous dealings (or, at very least, the appearance of impropriety), and have long been decried by anticorruption forces. Outside payments were a primary focus of Governor Cuomo’s anticorruption Moreland Commission, which the Governor then disbanded under pressure from legislators. Governor Cuomo recently proposed a new commission to look at ways to increase disclosure of outside income and to cap the amount of outside income legislators may receive. While Cuomo’s new proposals would be a good start, they do not go far enough. The time has come to ban outside legal work for state legislators and to compensate them fairly for the full time job the people elected them to do.

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Why Rational Anticorruption Voters Might Not Support the Anticorruption Candidate

As some readers of this blog are likely aware, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout is challenging the Andrew Cuomo, New York’s incumbent governor, in the state’s Democratic primary, to be held tomorrow. One of her main campaign themes is corruption: Her campaign emphasizes corruption in the Cuomo administration both in the narrow sense of raising concerns about unethical and possibly unlawful conduct in New York state government (as well as Governor Cuomo’s controversial decision to disband the Moreland Commission, which had been looking into these issues), and also “corruption” in the broader sense of excessive influence of wealthy interests and the distorting effect this has on politics. Teachout herself concedes that if she wins it would be the “upset of the century,” and indeed most political prognosticators give her virtually no chance of winning. Why not?

It’s true, of course, that Teachout has no prior experience in electoral politics and is up against a savvy and well-funded incumbent. But there’s a bigger problem for her — and for any insurgent anticorruption candidate or party — that derives from the nature of the U.S. electoral system that Nobel Laureate Roger Myerson identified over two decades ago in a technical game theory paper on how electoral institutions affect the success or failure of insurgent anticorruption candidates. Although Myerson’s analysis does not correspond perfectly to the New York primary (for reasons I will explain in a moment), it is nonetheless enlightening–not only for the challenges faced by Teachout, but for anticorruption parties more generally. Continue reading