Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes

In July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra became Prime Minister of Thailand after her party (founded by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) won a decisive electoral victory. One of her principal campaign promises was to establish a program to purchase rice from farmers at above-market prices then store the rice to reduce supply. The hope was that doing so would increase world prices—because of Thailand’s position as the leading global rice exporter—ultimately allowing the government to sell at a profit. Shortly after the election, Yingluck’s government implemented this program, and it worked well for a few months—until other global players increased their supply of rice, causing Thailand to lose billions of dollars in the process. This economic debacle was entirely predictable—and indeed was predicted by many experts. And the program itself was beset by allegations of fraud and corruption in its implementation.

But should the failure of the rice-buying program be the basis of a criminal charge of corruption and a prison sentence against Yingluck herself, in the absence of evidence that she was directly involved in any embezzlement, bribery, or other more conventional forms of graft? Section 157 of Thailand’s Penal Code allows for just such a prosecution, as this section makes it a crime for a public official to either dishonestly or “wrongfully discharge or omit to discharge a duty so as to expose any person to injury.” And last month, the Thai Supreme Court found Yingluck (out of power since she was deposed by a military coup in 2014) guilty and sentenced her to five years in prison. She fled the country before the verdict.

Thailand is not alone in adopting anticorruption laws that criminalize not only dishonest conduct (bribery, embezzlement, conflict of interest, etc.), but also negligence or incompetence. When India updated its anticorruption law in 1988, it added a new provision that makes it a criminal offense for a public official to “obtain for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” This broad offense was interpreted by a state High Court to not require any proof of dishonesty or criminal intent, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s premier anticorruption agency) has routinely employed the provision in grand corruption cases to avoid the problem of having to prove corrupt intent. In perhaps the most high-profile such prosecution, the agency went after an ex-Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh was the Minister of Coal at a time when the Government decided to liberalize allocation of coal-blocks and to sell mining rights to private parties. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office reported the policy had caused losses worth billions of dollars because the rights had been sold for too little, through a process that was too ad hoc to be considered legal. Dr. Singh was subsequently charged under India’s broad law, though his trial has currently been stayed while his challenge to the constitutionality the law is pending before India’s Supreme Court. (There are clearly concerns in other quarters about the breadth of this statute: In 2016 a Select Committee of the Upper House of India’s Parliament submitted a report that suggested India eliminate this offense. Parliament hasn’t yet acted on this recommendation, but there are signs that it has some support.)

Is it appropriate to enact broad anticorruption laws that allow government officials to be convicted for dereliction of duty, acting in a manner contrary to the public interest, and the like? Anticorruption activists and prosecutors may find such statutes appealing: It is easier to secure convictions of elected officials who are suspected of corruption, but where it is too difficult to prove the specific intent necessary for traditional corruption offenses. But in fact these broad laws are likely to do more harm than good, and countries like Thailand and India would be better off without them. There are three main reasons for this: Continue reading

State-Level Anticorruption Commissions: What the U.S. Can Learn from Australia’s Model

Australia does not currently have a dedicated national-level anticorruption agency (ACA), though the question of whether to create one has been on the table since 2014 (see here, here, and here). Yet Australia has plenty of experience with ACAs—at the state level. Australia’s first, and still most prominent, state-level ACA was the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in New South Wales (the state including financial capital Sydney), which will mark its thirtieth anniversary next year. The ICAC, led by an independent commissioner, has independent investigatory powers over almost all state-level government officials and is charged with both exposing public sector corruption and educating the public about corruption. Queensland and Western Australia followed suit with their Corruption and Crime Commissions, established in their current forms in 2001 and 2003 respectively. The states of Victoria, South Australia, and tiny Tasmania all instituted independent agencies in recent years as well. Even the 250,000-strong Northern Territory resolved to start its own ACA after several high-profile scandals, and the Australian Capital Territory (the Canberra-sized equivalent of Washington, DC) has discussed creating its own anticorruption body. The permeation of Australia with state-level agencies is essentially complete.

Thus, in true laboratories-of-democracy fashion, Australian states have tried, solidified, and publicized the model of creating an independent investigatory group focused on the issue of corruption. Could U.S. states do the same? Easily. Should they? Yes, for at least three reasons:

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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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Is China’s Anticorruption Crusade Reaching a Turning Point? Towards What?

In April 2014, a post on this blog claimed that the People’s Republic of China’s anticorruption campaign was reaching a turning point, and suggested that the campaign might be “significantly curtailed” in light of troubling signs of economic slowdown and strong pushback from other senior Party leaders. This prediction seemed reasonable at the time, yet more than three years later, the campaign shows no signs of winding down: Reports on senior government officials’ downfalls or corrupt fugitives’ repatriation from overseas still hit headlines on an almost daily basis. A recent development, however, does suggest that China’s anticorruption campaign might be reaching a different sort of turning point—turning from a near-exclusive emphasis on aggressive enforcement to institutional reforms that address the root causes of corruption.

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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

Reducing Corruption in the Use of Development Aid: The Payment by Results Model

Corrupt diversion of development aid in recipient countries affects both the efficacy of the intended development programs and the willingness to supply aid in donor countries. Mismanagement of development funds has spurred debate over the ability of our current aid models to achieve development goals (improved healthcare, poverty alleviation, etc.). Many possible solutions for reducing corruption’s effect on development have been tested over the years with varying degrees of success. Various approaches have been tried, including conditioning aid or loans on “good governance” policy reforms, allocating development aid to local governments or local NGOs rather than national institutions, improving oversight and tracking of aid money, and supplying loans exclusively to countries that already have relatively favorable corruption scores (called performance-based lending). Each of these models has its own limitations: Conditionality is often viewed as an affront to sovereignty and has not been terribly effective. The local approach does not address governance issues, and local actors have not always proved to be less corrupt. Oversight of funds is important but costly and imperfect. Performance-based lending seems to leave behind many poor countries that cannot jump the corruption “hurdle.”

In searching for alternative models for distributing aid in light of the aid-corruption paradox, some donors have turned to yet another approach: payments by results (PbR). PbR has been supported by the Center for Global Development (see here and here) and has gained significant traction in the past two years by bilateral donors, such as the UK and Norway, and multilateral donors, such as the World Bank. The basic premise of PbR is that payment to the recipient depends on achieved results. The donor and recipient first define the desired outcomes (e.g., increased TB vaccinations, construction of an infrastructure project, etc.) and determine the amount that the donor will give once the desired outcome is met. The donor may provide some money up front to implement the program, but the rest of the payment is contingent upon performance: The recipient carries out the project independently, the donor measures the results, and, if the results meet the agreed-upon objective, the donor releases the remaining funds. This approach stands in contrast to the traditional input model, in which a donor gives the recipient money for inputs and provides a detailed action plan along with significant oversight for achieving results. Continue reading

Cash Crunch: How Will India’s Supreme Court Respond to Modi’s Radical Move?

Last November 8th, the same day the United States elected a kleptocrat to its highest office, an executive on the other side of the world—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—launched what Larry Summers called “the most sweeping change in currency policy that has occurred anywhere in the world for decades.” Prime Minister Modi’s surprise “demonetization” drive gave citizens fifty days to exchange all 500 and 1000 rupee notes (valued at about 8 and 15 USD respectively). Modi’s radical move, which will remove approximately 86% of all currency in circulation, is an attempt to combat endemic petty corruption, money laundering, terrorist financing, and tax   evasion (only 2% of Indians pay income tax). Prime Minister Modi was elected on an anticorruption platform in 2014, and pledged during his campaign to target hidden cash (so-called “black money”). Yet the demonetization campaign came as a surprise. Indeed, it probably had to be a surprise, lest those hiding fortunes in cash would have been able to prepare for the policy change.

While the Indian public generally supports aggressive anticorruption efforts, it would be hard to exaggerate the disruption resulting from demonetization. The real estate and wedding industries run largely on cash, as do most small businesses. And the demonetization program has hit regular citizens hard: People have been waiting in lines for hours to exchange their cash, which can be especially difficult for the four-fifths of women who don’t have a bank account. In the short term, consumption, the stock market, and growth forecasts have all plummeted and the agricultural sector is expected to suffer as well. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged the campaign would cause pain for many honest people, but believed it was worth it, stating that black money and “corruption are the biggest obstacles in eradicating poverty.” (Since then, the official justification for the campaign appears to have shifted to an attack on the cash economy as a whole, rather than a campaign against black money specifically.)

The fate of the demonetization program now lies with India’s judiciary: Continue reading