Are Financial Declaration Systems Creating Opportunities for Corrupt Extortion?

One of the most popular reform measures for combating public corruption is the establishment or strengthening of requirements that public officials regularly file declarations of assets and income sources. Mandatory financial disclosure rules are not exclusively about fighting corruption, of course, but anticorruption is certainly one of their principal justifications. Requiring public officials to formally submit and update income and asset declarations, and attaching meaningful penalties for false or misleading declarations, is thought to help suppress corruption in at least three ways:

  • First, identifying assets and income sources makes it easier to identify, and hopefully to avoid, conflicts of interest.
  • Second, public officials who report suspicious asset growth during their time in office might attract unwanted scrutiny from law enforcement investigators—and also, if the declarations are public, from journalists and activists. Submitting false reports or finding clever ways to hide assets are of course possible, but are costly and risky.
  • Third, precisely because corrupt public officials will often lie on their financial declarations in order to avoid scrutiny, these mandatory disclosure laws can sometimes provide the hook to hold corrupt officials legally or politically accountable even when it is impossible to prove the underlying corruption. We might not be able to nail the corrupt official for bribe-taking or embezzlement, but if we can show that he owns substantial undeclared assets, we can still nail him for lying on his financial declarations.

There are important ongoing debates about the appropriate design of financial disclosure systems, including questions about whether the disclosures should be public or kept confidential, who should be required to submit disclosures (and how often), what sort of information should be required (and at what level of detail), whether and how declarations should be independently verified, the appropriate institution to manage the system, and the appropriate penalties for noncompliance (see also here). And the efficacy of mandatory financial disclosures in reducing corruption is still unsettled (see here, here, here, here, and here). Nevertheless, the basic anticorruption case for some form of mandatory financial disclosure system seems strong. Both domestic anticorruption activists and the international community therefore regularly push for the creation of such systems where they do not already exist, as well as for the strengthening and expansion of existing systems.

While acknowledging the uncertainties and complexities of the issue, I find the basic case for some form of (strong) mandatory financial declaration system persuasive. That said, I’ve recently had some interesting conversations with a couple of experts who have highlighted a potential problem that I confess I hadn’t previously thought about or seen discussed in the published literature: In countries where corruption is widespread and institutional checks are weak, the government agents who administer the financial disclosure system could abuse their power to extort bribes from the public officials who are subject to the declaration requirements. Continue reading

Ukraine’s Cynical Efforts to Mandate Public Asset Disclosures for Anticorruption Advocates Must Be Stopped

In 2016, under pressure from anticorruption organizations, Ukraine’s parliament passed the “On Prevention of Corruption” law, which required high-level government officials and other civil servants to disclose their income and assets in a public online database. A year later, however, the parliament—in what seems to have been an act of retaliation—adopted an amendment to that law, and required all individuals who “carry out activities related to the prevention and counteraction of corruption” to also declare their assets by April 1, 2018, or face potential penalties (including fines or imprisonment of up to two years). The amendment, in other words, imposes on anticorruption advocates the same financial disclosure requirements that many of these advocates had insisted on imposing on Ukrainian public officials.

Imposing this disclosure requirement on anticorruption advocates was rationalized as promoting transparency, since foreign money often supports anti-graft work in Ukraine. Some have claimed that anticorruption activists are themselves corrupt and work with anticorruption organizations to enrich themselves. More generally, the amendment seems to be motivated by an impulse toward retaliation (or a version of fairness): The message seems to be, “If you people think these requirements are appropriate for us, then you should be willing to put up with them too.”

But anticorruption workers do not hold public office and are not supported by taxpayer money, and there is no good reason to subject them to the same demanding disclosure standards that are entirely appropriate for public servants. This obvious distinction is further reason to believe that this amendment is yet another measure in line with previous government efforts to discredit anticorruption activists. Imposing the disclosure requirement has been roundly criticized both domestically and internationally, with activist organizations also arguing that the amendment violates Ukraine’s Constitution (particularly rights to freedom of speech, association, and employment). Even Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the bill a “mistake,” and in July 2017 he submitted to parliament two draft laws that eliminate the asset disclosure obligation for individual anticorruption activists—but place even more stringent reporting requirements on anticorruption organizations. These draft laws drew further criticism, and as the April 1, 2018 asset disclosure deadline approached and passed, Ukraine’s parliament has refused to consider any changes to the law.

Leaving in place the requirement that those who help fight corruption must make the same kind of public asset disclosures as government officials will sabotage and chill anticorruption work. It is vital that domestic activists and the international community keep up the pressure on Ukraine to eliminate this requirement altogether, and to do so soon in order to remove the cloud of uncertainty that has fallen over all anticorruption advocacy since the April 1 deadline passed. The disclosure requirement as it stands threatens to undermine the fight against corruption in Ukraine in at least three ways: Continue reading