Lithuania’s Judicial Scandal Shows Why Public Communication Matters Corruption Investigations

This past February 20th, the people of Lithuania awoke to the shocking announcement that the country’s anticorruption body, the Special Investigation Service (STT), and the Prosecutor General’s Office had opened an investigation into alleged bribery, trading in influence, and abuse of power in the Lithuanian judiciary. The scope of the investigation is breathtaking. So far 26 people have been arrested, including a Supreme Court Judge, eight other judges, an assistant to a Supreme Court Judge, and multiple lawyers. The scale of the allegations dominated media coverage in Lithuania and was picked up by news outlets around the world (see, for example, here, here and here). But this was not the only reason that news of this investigation may have come as a shock to many Lithuanians. Before this story broke, it looked like the ongoing efforts to increase Lithuanian citizens’ trust in their courts had finally started to bear fruit. In 2017, for the first time since polling on the issue began in 1996, more Lithuanians trusted than distrusted their judiciary. This increase in trust was due to several factors. It likely helped that the President, Dalia Grybauskaite, made judicial transparency, openness, and efficiency top priorities during her tenure. The judiciary has also worked to reform itself and together these reforms brought a lot of changes, for example by reforming the judicial selection process, introducing rotation of court leadership, increasing openness, introducing an automated system for assigning cases to judges, and a number of other procedural changes. The Council of Judges—a judicial self-governance body—has also promulgated a Courts Anticorruption Program, pursuant to which individual courts (including the Supreme Court) adopt their own concrete anticorruption plans. On top of this, the National Courts Administration (NCA) (the external administrative institution that serves the judiciary and judicial self-government bodies) has worked on increasing communication about the work of the courts by trying to reach out to the explain how the judiciary works, and also encouraging judges to issue explanations about their decisions.

What many now fear, with good reason, is that that the new corruption case will cause the public confidence in the judiciary to collapse. This worry is exacerbated by political dynamics: with elections coming up, many politicians jumped on the bandwagon of attacking corruption in the courts and declaring the need for more reforms—though often without offering any specifics, and sometimes seemingly having no clear understanding of how exactly the judiciary works.

The unfolding drama over judicial corruption in Lithuania highlights the importance of communication between government institutions and the general public—both by the institution under investigation (in this case the judiciary), and by the institutions doing the investigating (in this case the STT and the Prosecutor General). It may seem odd to focus on public relations strategy when the underlying substantive allegations are so serious. But while no one could sensibly claim that better communication is a replacement for, or more important than, substantive action, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the importance of public communication in a case like this.

Consider each of the dimensions of public communication noted previously—by the courts and by the investigators: Continue reading

Combating Corruption in Belize Requires Structural Modifications to the Ombudsman’s Office

In the small Caribbean nation of Belize—as in many small, relatively poor countries with scarce human capital—corruption is an entrenched part of government and society. The country’s small population—less than 400,000—exacerbates issues such as nepotism and conflicts of interest, and make it difficult to hold corrupt actors accountable. Citizens harmed by corruption are understandably reluctant to report these incidents when the people to whom they would have to report are the corrupt actors’ close friends and colleagues—or in some cases the corrupt actors themselves. In an attempt to address this problem, Belize (following suit with the rest of the Caribbean) adopted an Ombudsman Act in 1994 and, pursuant to that Act, established the Office of the Ombudsman in 1999.

There is considerable variation in the role that similarly-named “Ombudsman’s Offices” play in different countries; Belize employs the classical model of an Ombudsman, though the Belizean Ombudsman has a broader human rights and anticorruption mandate than the typical Ombudsman. The Ombudsman can receive complaints from any person who alleges injustice, injury, or abuse by an authority; complaints are handled anonymously, outside of what is perceived as a corrupt system. Additionally, the Ombudsman is responsible for investigating those complaints, and it has investigative powers comparable to a judicial tribunal, which is necessary to secure crucial information from the government. The Ombudsman, which acts independently of the Government of Belize, would ideally play a significant and constructive role in combating corruption.

For these reasons, one might think that Belize’s Ombudsman is well-positioned to take a lead role in anticorruption. Yet it doesn’t seem to be doing so. Citizen complaints to the Ombudsman are relatively infrequent (only 122 new complaints were received in 2017, down from 207 new complaints filed in 2016), and of those complaints, very few concern government corruption. And when it comes to larger anticorruption reform strategy, it’s perhaps telling that the UN’s Project Document on strengthening Belize’s national systems to support the implementation of the UN Convention Against Corruption doesn’t even mention the Office of the Ombudsman as a potential avenue for supporting UNCAC’s implementation.

What could be done to make the Belizean Ombudsman’s Office a more significant and effective player in this small country’s struggle against entrenched corruption? Three things:

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The Case for Abolishing Police Commissioners’ Extendable Terms in Israel

The investigations into corruption allegations against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have received massive attention from the media in Israel and around the world ever since they began in late 2016. In one of the most recent developments, last September Israel’s Minister of Public Security, Gilad Erdan, officially announced his decision not to extend the three-year term of the current head of the Israeli Police, Commissioner Roni Alsheich, by an additional year. Therefore, Alsheich is expected to complete his tenure at the end of this year. Erdan ascribed his decision not to extend Alsheich’s tenure to “differences of opinion and divergent approaches on various issues, some of them substantial and weighty, and which had a significant impact on the public’s trust in the police.” Opposition members and commentators, however, claimed that this decision was driven by the fact that Alsheich has been (or has been perceived as) leading the investigations into Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to the critics, Erdan, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, was acting to please influential senior members of the Likud, as well as Netanyahu himself – an allegation that Erdan denied.

The facts of this particular case are murky. There is no solid evidence to show that Erdan’s decision not to extend Alsheich’s term was related to the latter’s involvement in the Prime Minister’s corruption probe. (In fact, even critics of Erdan’s decision do not seem to claim that Alsheich’s commissionership was flawless.) Nevertheless, this incident highlights a larger institutional flaw in Israel’s current practice of appointing police commissioners for three years with the option for extension.

Israeli law does not actually specify a fixed length for a police commissioner’s term, nor does it mention anything about the potential for term extension. In fact, Israel’s Police Ordinance says only that the commissioner is to be appointed by the government, per the recommendation of the Minister of Public Security. However, over the years it has become an accepted practice (though not without exceptions) that the police commissioner is appointed for a term of three years, and toward the conclusion of that term, the Minister of Public Security decides whether to recommend that the government extend the commissioner’s term by approximately one additional year. This practice should be abolished. Instead, the law should be amended such that the commissioner would be appointed for a fixed, non-extendable term (except in certain emergency situations) – a proposal that has been advocated by commentators and some members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but so far has gone nowhere.

There are three strong arguments, from the perspective of anticorruption policy, for giving the police commissioner a fixed non-extendable term (at this point, regardless of its exact duration): Continue reading

Giuliani’s Inappropriate Letter to Romania’s President Will Harm Anticorruption Efforts

Romania has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, but in recent years it has been making a concerted effort to bolster its fight against graft. Since 2013, Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), with the support of the ruling political parties, has been convicting roughly 1,000 people on corruption-related charges each year. However, once these anticorruption efforts began ensnaring high-level politicians—including Liviu Dragnea, the head of the biggest party in the Romanian Parliament—the government began to criticize the DNA’s work as biased, overzealous, and unfair. This conflict has been escalating, most dramatically in late 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to protest an overnight decree that pardoned those serving sentences of five years or less for corruption-related crimes, and also decriminalized government officials’ corruption offenses involving less than $47,000 (raised to $240,000 in a later draft bill). The protests led to violent clashes with the police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.

Adding to the turmoil, Rudolph Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and current personal attorney of U.S. President Trump, recently wrote a letter to Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, condemning the overreach of the DNA and supporting the government’s efforts to curtail the DNA’s enforcement of anticorruption laws. Giuliani was paid to write the letter by the Freeh Group, a private American firm whose overseas clients include a Romanian businessman convicted for fraud last year, and another Romanian businessman currently under investigation by the DNA for bribery. Giuliani’s letter raises two distinct corruption-related problems. Continue reading

You Are Reorganized! Sierra Leone President Bio’s Ingenious Way of Firing the Anticorruption Commissioner

Leaders fearful that a corruption investigation is closing in on them or colleagues have Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio to thank for coming up with a most ingenious to rid himself of the pesky head of his nation’s anticorruption agency.  While the anticorruption law bars presidents from summarily firing the anticorruption commissioner, requiring first a tribunal to find him or her unfit to serve and then two-thirds of the parliament to agree, President Bio neatly cut through this cumbersome red tape with the following missive his aid sent Anticorruption Commissioner Ade Macauley —   Restructuring letter

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Can the KPK and the Indonesian Public Finally Root Out State-Sanctioned Corruption? Updates from Novanto’s Corruption Scandal

Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), established in 2003, has had many successes, including prosecutions of several former Ministers, the former Governor of Indonesia’s Central Bank, and a former Chief of Police. As of the end of last year, the KPK had tried and convicted a total of 119 members of parliament and 17 governors, among others. Now, the KPK is on the verge of catching one of its biggest fish yet: Setya Novanto, former Speaker of Indonesia’s House of Representatives Speaker. Novanto was finally detained, indicted, and brought to trial at the end of last year for his alleged embezzlement of 2.3 trillion rupiah (approximately US$170 million) from a 5.9 trillion rupiah national electronic identity card (e-ID) project. Novanto allegedly played a central role in allowing the mark up e-ID procurement costs in order to steal millions and redistribute them to the pockets of around 100 public officials, including approximately $7.4 million for himself. Novanto had been implicated in many previous scandals, but had managed to avoid punishment. This time, prosecutors are seeking a jail term of at least 16 years, plus a repayment of $7.4 million he is suspected of plundering. Novanto denied all the allegations and blamed the Interior Ministry, but the evidence, gathered and submitted by the KPK, is against him. With the final judgment to be made soon, the KPK is on the verge of winning one of the biggest corruption cases against a senior politician.

If the KPK wins this case, it would be an important victory, demonstrating the KPK’s power, as an independent anticorruption agency, to hold accountable even the most powerful politicians, and inspiring the Indonesian public to hold politicians to higher ethical standards. At the same time, though, a victory in this case won’t mean that the war against endemic corruption of has been won: the legislature and other powerful state actors will continue to fight back, especially by weakening the power of the KPK. Civil society, and the public at large, must continue to be vigilant to provide the backing the KPK needs to retain its power and independence.

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How Can an Anticorruption Agency Repair Its Reputation After a Scandal? Lessons from Ghana

Corruption-plagued countries often create independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) to ensure the integrity of other institutions. But sometimes ACAs get caught up in their own scandals—scandals that can undermine their credibility and hard-won public trust. ACAs may be particularly at risk because of the threat they pose to powerful elites, who will always be on the lookout for ways to undercut ACAs. Of course, ACAs should be attuned to these risks and to put measures in place to minimize them. But no preventative system is perfect. What to do when it fails? When an ACA’s reputation has been besmirched by an internal corruption scandal, what can the agency do to restore public trust?

Ghana’s experience may offer some lessons. In 2008, Ghana established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which is responsible for anticorruption enforcement, among other things. CHRAJ has done much good work, from conducting investigations of corruption allegations to producing conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of conduct. But in 2011, the CHRAJ was rocked by an internal scandal when it was revealed that Lauretta Lamptey, then chief of the CHRAJ, had misappropriated public funds to renovate her official residence, to pay hotel bills, and to upgrade her air tickets. The scandal “dented the image of the CHRAJ both nationally and internationally” and jeopardized public trust in the CHRAJ and the willingness of Ghanaian citizens to report corruption cases to the commission.

Damage control was absolutely crucial—and seems to have been largely successful. According to the US State Department’s Ghana 2016 Human Rights Report, public confidence in the CHRAJ is again high. The CHRAJ’s relative success in restoring credibility after its internal corruption scandal suggests a few guidelines for how an ACA can respond effectively in this sort of situation:

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