Argentinian Judicial Reform: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

On February 1, 2022, several thousand demonstrators marched on the streets of Buenos Aires to demand judicial reforms. The march was supported by Kirchnerist groups (so-called because of their support for former Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) and by President Alberto Fernández, a Kirchner ally who has been pushing for judicial reforms since his inauguration in 2019. Frustrations with Argentinian courts, however, transcend partisan divides. Polls indicate that about 70% of Argentinian adults believe the judiciary is corrupt, which is not very surprising given the recent string of high-profile judicial corruption scandals. Just last year, Judge Walter Bento was indicted and charged with running a large-scale corruption network. Likewise, in 2019, Judge Raúl Reynoso was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bribery and narcotrafficking. Judge Carlos Soto Dávila was similarly indicted in 2019 for accepting bribes in drug trafficking cases. Not only is there extensive evidence of judicial corruption, the Argentinian judiciary seems entirely ineffective at holding Argentina’s notoriously corrupt political class accountable: appallingly, only 1% of all corruption cases in Argentina ever result in an actual sentence.

In light of the Argentinian judiciary’s clear corruption and legitimacy problems, judicial reform seems like a step in the right direction. However, President Fernández’s plans for transforming Argentina’s judiciary, which he rearticulated this March, may actually worsen corruption rather than rectify it.

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Civil Society Organizations Can Help Fight Corruption in the COVID-19 Response. But Only if Governments Let Them

Corruption in the health sector—a longstanding problem that may cost $500 billion per year globally—has become an even more salient concern in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus swept the globe, many governments responded by sidestepping traditional procurement safeguards in the interest of speeding up emergency responses. While it was important to provide relief as quickly as possible, the relaxed regulations allowed corruption to thrive, leading to numerous scandals. To illustrate with just a few of the many, many possible examples: Bolivia’s Minister of Health was detained for allegedly purchasing 179 unusable ventilators at twice their original price; Indonesia’s Minister for Social Affairs was suspected of having pocketed US$1.1 million in funds relating to COVID-19 aid; and senior leaders and wealthy individuals in numerous countries, including Canada, Peru, Argentina, Spain, and Poland, jumped the queue to get access to vaccines. Much of this health sector corruption arises due to a lack of transparency and accountability in the governing systems. Especially in the midst of what seems like a never-ending pandemic, working towards combatting this type of corruption is especially salient as citizens are relying on the government for more health-related needs.

Anticorruption advocates have long argued that civil society organizations (CSOs) can and should play an important role in monitoring government activities and promoting accountability in the health context and elsewhere. A particularly encouraging example of the constructive role that CSOs can play, in the specific context of the COVID-19 response, comes from Argentina. Last year, the Argentine chapter of Transparency International, known as Poder Ciudadano, launched a COVID-19 Public Procurement Observatory, which uses open-source information to make procurement deals available to the public. Using this monitoring tool, Poder Ciudadano carried out an exhaustive survey of public purchases and contracting that took place within the COVID-19 emergency procurement framework. By December 2020, Poder Ciudadano had tracked more than seven hundred procurement activities valued at US$200 million. In addition to its work in monitoring COVID-related procurement, Poder Ciudadano worked with other CSOs to ensure transparency and equity in vaccine distribution. Using information provided by the Ministry of Health, these CSOs ensured daily publication of information about the numbers of vaccine shipments, their distribution, and who had been vaccinated. These transparency measures help prevent improper favoritism and other departures from the official vaccine distribution plan.

This example is both encouraging and instructive. The Poder Ciudadano case highlights how CSOs can be effective in promoting accountability and transparency in procurement and distribution. But this example also underscores that in order to play this role, CSOs in developing countries need outside funding, partnerships, and resources, as well as the support and cooperation of their governments. CSOs can play a vital role, but only if they have the right kind of help.

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Guest Post: Illicit Enrichment Laws and the Presumption of Innocence

GAB is pleased to welcome this guest post by Andrew Dornbierer of the Basel Institute on Governance, author of the recently released open-access book Illicit Enrichment: A Guide to Laws Targeting Unexplained Wealth.

Laws targeting illicit enrichment are increasingly prevalent. To date, at least 98 jurisdictions have some form of illicit enrichment law. While the design and scope of these laws vary—some are criminal laws that can be used to convict individuals who control assets disproportionate to their lawful income, while others are civil laws that allow governments to seize assets whose lawful origins cannot be adequately explained—the common characteristic of all illicit enrichment laws is that they do not require prosecutors to secure a conviction for the underlying criminal conduct that allegedly produced the illicit wealth. Rather, illicit enrichment laws only require that the government show that the person enjoyed an amount of wealth that cannot be explained by reference to their lawful sources of income.

This characteristic serves as the primary point of attack for many critics. They claim that by not requiring a state to prove criminal activity, illicit enrichment laws effectively reverse the burden of proof, requiring the targets of the enforcement action to prove their innocence. And some countries have resisted adopting illicit enrichment laws for this very reason. While the UN Convention Against Corruption includes a specific article recommending that state parties consider adopting illicit enrichment laws, during negotiations “many [national] delegations indicated that they faced serious difficulties, often of a constitutional nature, with the inclusion of the concept of the reversal of the burden of proof.” Similar concerns were raised during the drafting of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption (IACAC), and while in the end this convention did include a provision calling on states parties to adopt illicit enrichment laws, the United States filed a particularly clear reservation to this provision when it joined, noting that because “[t]he offense of illicit enrichment … places the burden of proof on the defendant,” such an offense “is inconsistent with the United States Constitution and fundamental principles of the United States legal system.” And in Ukraine, in February 2019 the Constitutional Court of Ukraine invalidated the local illicit enrichment law on the basis that it was inconsistent with the presumption of innocence.

Is there any truth to the claim that illicit enrichment laws unfairly place a burden of proof on the defendant, and thus violate the presumption of innocence?

The short answer is no.

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Guest Post: Mercosur’s New Framework Agreement Is an Asset Recovery Landmark, But Significant Flaws Remain

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mat Tromme, Director of the Sustainable Development & Rule of Law Programme at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, who contributes the following guest post:

In asset recovery, international collaboration is key. In December 2018, four Mercosur countries—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—adopted a new kind of landmark framework agreement to collaborate in investigations and sharing of forfeited assets resulting from transnational organized crime, corruption, and illicit drug trafficking. The agreement’s provisions on law enforcement collaboration are important but not groundbreaking, as many countries collaborate in investigations, including through Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) agreements. This framework agreement can be seen as a direct application of Article 57(5) of the UN Convention Against Corruption, which calls on state parties to “give consideration to concluding agreements or mutually acceptable arrangements, on a case-by-case basis, for the final disposal of confiscated property.”

Where the new framework agreement is particularly novel and innovative is in its provisions on asset return. While there are a number of technical details, the big picture is that any of the four countries may lay claim to a portion of the assets, so long as that country played a role in its forfeiture, irrespective of where the assets are located. The framework agreement provides (in Articles 7 and 8 in particular), that the asset shares will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, with each country’s share to be based principally on that country’s role in the investigation, prosecution, and forfeiture of the assets. Other factors that may be considered include the nature of the forfeited assets, the complexity and significance of international cooperation, and the extent to which cooperation led to the forfeiture.

To the best of my knowledge, this sort of framework agreement is rare, the only other recent example is the “Framework for Return of Assets from Corruption and Crime in Kenya (FRACCK)”, a multilateral non-binding initiative for the return of assets between the Governments of Kenya, Jersey, Switzerland and the UK. There had been calls to establish a similar initiative in Latin America going back several years (see here and here). The framework agreement has the potential to set a precedent by institutionalizing the return of assets across borders, not only improving the asset recovery and return process in Latin America, but also serving as an example for other regional collaboration agreements in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. Indeed, the 3rd African Anti-Corruption Day (held last week, on July 11th) was organized on the theme of finding a “Common African Position on Asset Recovery.” According to the African Union, the purpose of this is to advocate for Africa’s unity in demanding the recovery and return of stolen assets, and making the return process transparent and accountable.

While the approach and ambition of the agreement is laudable, the framework agreement has three important shortcomings: Continue reading

Video: CAPI Panel on “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America”

Recent developments in the fight against corruption across Latin America seem to have prompted an increasing number of conferences, workshops, and similar events that focus on this issue. (I was able to participate in one such event at Rice University’s Baker Center a few months back.) Last month, Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) held another, similar event that may be of interest to those who follow these developments (indeed, perhaps of even greater interest to those who haven’t been following them, but would like to get up to speed). The panel, entitled “Anti-Corruption Efforts in Latin America: Perspectives from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico,” was moderated by Daniel Alonso (Managing Director of Exiger), and featured four senior lawyers from the region: Eloy Rizzo Neto (Brazil), Gustavo Morales Oliver (Argentina), Diego Sierra (Mexico), and Daniel Rodriguez (Colombia). The video of the discussion can be found here. And here’s a quick overview of the discussion, with corresponding time markers for the video: Continue reading

Reforming Procurement Processes: It’s About More than Law

Last week’s post explained why some Latin American nations’ crackdown on corruption was doing more harm than good.  The law in these countries gives government no choice but to terminate a public contract whenever corruption is detected. Canceling a contract just after the winning bidder has been selected, before the winner has started work, is one thing.  It is quite another to bring the construction of a power plant or road to a screeching halt mid-way through the project. Mandatory termination in these cases can impose enormous costs on those who had nothing to do with the corruption, not least of which are taxpayers stuck with a half-built project.

The post was based a recent Inter-American Development Bank staff paper. The authors showed how costly mandatory termination laws have been in Peru and Colombia and described how several Latin governments were searching for alternatives to address corruption when it is found to have tainted a public contract now underway.  As policymakers do, let’s hope they consider more than just reforming their procurement law. For as Argentine lawyer and law professor Hector Mairal writes in a first-rate analysis of what ails Argentina’s procurement law, law is but one piece of the procurement equation. Continue reading

Guest Post: To Combat Corruption, Argentina Must Insist on Meritocratic Hiring in the Civil Service

Today’s guest post is from Professor Ignacio A. Boulin Victoria of the Universidad Austral School of Law (Buenos Aires, Argentina) and Fulbright Scholar Eliana Kanefield.

Currently, over 3.9 million people work for the public sector in Argentina, constituting nearly 27% of Argentina’s workforce—the third-highest proportion in Latin America and the Caribbean (after only Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago), and well above the regional average of 18%. Working in the public sector in Argentina has substantial advantages, including strong employment security (it is extremely difficult to be fired from public sector positions in Argentina) and substantially higher salaries than comparable jobs in the private sector. It’s thus unsurprising that the competition for public sector jobs is fierce. To take just one example, when the Province of Mendoza created 114 new public sector positions, there were more than 30.000 applicants.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with the multitude of advantages public sector workers enjoy, this system gives rise to a structural problem: the system largely serves politicians’ friends and family. Officially, entry into the public sector is governed by a set of robust requirements and competitive examinations. But this is a façade. In reality, most people who get a job in the public sector do so because they have the right connections. They are usually friends, relatives, or members of the same political party of the person doing the hiring. An example of the clear disregard for the standards and systems in place is that, as of 2017, only 2% of senior management public sector employees had passed the “demanding” entry examinations and requirements designated by the government, and only 6% of these positions were filled through an open and fair recruitment procedure (compared to 90% in Chile). From 2015 to 2017, the proportion of senior public sector management positions filled by people who met the official professional requirements mandated by the job description decreased from 32% to 18%, while the proportion of these professionals who had education beyond a high school degree decreased from 72% to 66%. Admittedly, some of the public servants hired outside of the regular process do have the right qualifications, but even in those cases there’s still the inherent unfairness that potential applicants without connections don’t have the opportunity to compete for these jobs.

This failure of meritocracy worsens Argentina’s corruption problem, in three ways: Continue reading

Guest Post: What To Make of Latin America’s Wave of Anticorruption Prosecutions?

Today’s guest post is from Professor Manuel Balan of the McGill University Political Science Department:

There seems to be a surge in corruption prosecutions of current or former presidents throughout in Latin America (see, for example, here, here, and here). In the last year we have seen sitting or former presidents prosecuted for corruption in Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama. In Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned from the presidency amid corruption probes, and the last three former presidents are either facing trial or serving time for corruption. Argentina may soon join this list as a result of the so-called “Notebook Scandal,” which has triggered a fast-moving investigation that has already snared 11 businessmen and one public official, and is getting closer to former President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (Argentina’s former vice-president Amado Boudou was also sentenced to almost six years in prison for corruption in a separate case.) Indeed, it now seems that Latin American presidents are almost certain to be prosecuted for corruption at some point after leaving office, if not before. My colleagues and I have documented the growing trend of prosecution of former chief executives in the region since democratization in the 1980s: Out of all presidents who started their terms in the 1980s, 30% were prosecuted for corruption. Of those that entered office in the 1990s, 52% were or are being currently prosecuted for corruption. In the group of presidents that began their terms in the 2000s, 61% underwent prosecution for corruption. And, remarkably, 10 out of the 11 presidents elected since 2010 who have finished their mandates either have been or are currently being prosecuted for corruption.

The explanation for this trend is not entirely clear. It’s probably not that Latin American presidents have become more corrupt. Some have suggested that the uptick in corruption prosecutions is a reaction, by the more conservative legal establishment, against Latin America’s “Left Turn.” But the trend towards increased prosecution is hardly limited to the region’s self-identified leftist leaders; in fact, left and non-left leaders are nearly equally likely to be prosecuted for corruption. Part of the explanation might have something to do with changes in prosecutorial and judicial institutions, media, or public expectations—the reasons are still unclear, and likely vary from country to country. Whatever the explanation, is this trend something to celebrate? Some observers say yes, arguing that the anticorruption wave sweeping Latin America is the result of Latin American citizens, fed up with corruption and taking to the streets in protest, putting pressure on institutions to investigate and punish corrupt politicians.

While I wish I could share this optimism, I think it’s likely misplaced. Continue reading

What Chinese Cuisine and Deferred Prosecution Agreements Have in Common

As Kees noted Monday, the use of American-style deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) to resolve corporate corruption cases short of trial is on the rise.  The United Kingdom, France, Argentina, and most recently Singapore now permit prosecutors to suspend or even drop altogether the prosecution of a firm for a corruption offense in return for the accused firm paying a fine, adopting measures to prevent future offenses, and cooperating with ongoing investigations.  Australia and Canada are on the verge of approving DPAs, and influential voices in India and Indonesia are urging their adoption too.

Apostles say DPAs allow governments to realize the benefits of a criminal conviction without the need for a lengthy, expensive, arduous trial against a well-funded corporate defendant where defeat is always a risk.  Former U.K. Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith told a New Delhi audience last October that once India begins using DPAS, companies would start coming forward and admit wrongdoing.  During the recent debate in Singapore one commentator observed that DPAs “provide an incentive to corporate entities to confront criminal conduct within their ranks,” and a group of Indonesian professors claim DPAs will be particularly valuable in their country.   In Indonesia, conviction of a corporation provides no assurance the defendant will not commit the same offense again while, they write, a DPA does.

DPA evangelists are about to learn what DPAs have in common with Chinese cuisine.  The first-time visitor to China soon discovers that Chinese food in China is unlike Chinese food at home.  Beef broccoli tastes much different outside China than in. Connoisseurs of DPAs will shortly find that what American prosecutors are able to cook up looks much different when prepared abroad.     Continue reading

Adjusting Corruption Perception Index Scores for National Wealth

My post two weeks ago discussed Transparency International’s newly-released 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), focusing in particular on an old hobby-horse of mine: the hazards of trying to draw substantive conclusions from year-to-year changes in any individual country’s CPI score. Today I want to continue to discuss the 2017 CPI, with attention to a different issue: the relationship between a country’s wealth and its CPI score. It’s no secret that these variables are highly correlated. Indeed, per capita GDP remains the single strongest predictor of a country’s perceived corruption level, leading some critics to suggest that the CPI doesn’t really measure perceived corruption so much as it measures wealth—penalizing poor countries by portraying them as more corrupt, when in fact their corruption may be due more to their poverty than to deficiencies in their cultures, policies, and institutions.

This criticism isn’t entirely fair. Per capita income is a strong predictor of CPI scores, but they’re far from perfectly correlated. Furthermore, even if it’s true that worse (perceived) corruption is in large measure a product of worse economic conditions, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the CPI as such, any more than a measure of infant mortality is flawed because it is highly correlated with per capita income. (And of course because corruption may worsen economic outcomes, the correlation between wealth and CPI scores may be a partial reflection of corruption’s impact, though I doubt there are many who think that this relationship is so strong that the causal arrow runs predominantly from corruption to national wealth rather than from national wealth to perceived corruption.)

Yet the critics do have a point: When we look at the CPI results table, we see a lot of very rich countries clustered at the top, and a lot of very poor countries clustered at the bottom. That’s fine for some purposes, but we might also be interested in seeing which countries have notably higher or lower levels of perceived corruption than we would expect, given their per capita incomes. As a crude first cut at looking into this, I merged the 2017 CPI data table with data from the World Bank on 2016 purchasing-power-adjusted per capita GDP. After dropping the countries that appeared in one dataset but not the other, I had a 167 countries. I then ran a simple regression using CPI as the outcome variable and the natural log of per capita GDP as the sole explanatory variable. (I used the natural log partly to reduce the influence of extreme income outliers, and partly on the logic that the impact of GDP on perceived corruption likely declines at very high levels of income. But I admit it’s something of an arbitrary choice and I encourage others who are interested to play around with the data using alternative functional forms and specifications.)

This single variable, ln per capita GDP, explained about half of the total variance in the data (for stats nerds, the R2 value was about 0.51), meaning that while ln per capita GDP is a very powerful explanatory variable, there’s a lot of variation in the CPI that it doesn’t explain. The more interesting question, to my mind, concerns the countries that notably outperform or underperform the CPI score that one would predict given national wealth. To look into this, I simply ranked the 167 countries in my data by the size of the residuals from the simple regression described above. Here are some of the things that I found: Continue reading