Stealing a City: Lessons from Bell, California

In 2010, a corruption scandal rocked the city of Bell, California, as eight top city officials were arrested for what the Los Angeles Country District Attorney called “corruption on steroids.” The officials were charged with misappropriating funds from city government to the tune of $5.5 million, and garnering salaries as high $800,000, more than quadruple the California governor’s salary. In a series of trials that stretched on for more than three years, the mayor ultimately pled no contest to 69 felonies, and the trials of the various city officials have been riddled with allegations of voter fraud, extortion of local businesses, taking of illegal loans from the city, and manipulation of the pension system. Bell officials even used (and likely tampered with) a referendum to change the city’s legal structure to a chartered city which allowed them to raise their own salaries.

The United States generally experiences very low levels of corruption convictions, around 1,000 per year across the nation. One might expect that some level of state, federal, or citizen oversight would have prevented the Bell incident. Yet this massive scandal was only uncovered due to quality investigative journalism by the Los Angeles Times, and only after five full years of consistent wrongdoing by city officials. How did this happen, and how can similar misconduct be prevented in the future?

Continue reading

Reforming the ANDSF Payroll Management System: The Limits of a Technological Solution

In my last post, I discussed the how the problem of “ghost soldiers”—soldiers who are inaccurately listed as on active duty, for purposes of generating salary payments that are then stolen—adversely affects the capacity and readiness of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). To make things worse, not only is the government making salary payments to soldiers who don’t exist, but some ANDSF personnel who do exist are not receiving the full salaries they are due. Approximately 20% of Afghan National Police (ANP) and 5% of Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel are paid in cash through so-called “trusted agents,” who are supposed to facilitate salary payments to ANDSF personnel when electronic funds transfers (EFTs) are not possible, but according to reports, corruption in the system could take as much as half of an employee’s salary. And while most ANDSF personnel receive their salaries via EFT to their personal bank accounts, this only reduces the threat of pilfering in the final distribution stage; it does nothing to correct for errors, either intentional or inadvertent, generated earlier in the process.

What can be done about these problems? The U.S.-led multinational military organization working with the Afghan government to reform and strengthen the ANDSF, known as the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), is applying a technological band-aid that focuses on implementing a set of computerized systems that track personnel and pay. While these measures are helpful, they do not fundamentally change the incentive structures that drive corruption, and so are unlikely to represent a long-term solution, particularly after direct U.S. involvement winds down.

Continue reading

Addressing the Risk of Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector: The Case of the Buhari Plan

North East Nigeria is on the brink of a major humanitarian crisis. The region has historically been marked by poverty and underdevelopment, and more recently has been ravaged by Boko Haram. In an attempt to address both the current crisis and the longstanding poverty of North East Nigeria, on October 26, 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurated the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative (PCNI) to “serve as the primary national strategy, coordination and advisory body for all humanitarian interventions, transformational and developmental efforts in the North East region of Nigeria.” PCNI is chiefly responsible for overseeing and ensuring the execution of the Buhari Plan, a four-volume, roughly 800 page, five-year blueprint for the comprehensive humanitarian relief and socioeconomic stabilization of the North East. Projects include unconditional cash transfers and the deployment of mobile health units and will be linked with the current UNOCHA Humanitarian Response Plan. The total budgetary requirement is 2.13 trillion Naira (approximately US$6.7 billion), of which the Nigerian Federal Government commits an estimated 634 billion Naira and the remaining 1.49 trillion Naira is anticipated to come from “many DFI’s, International Aid Agencies, NGO’s and the Private Sector Stakeholders.” (PCNI also replaced previous initiatives launched under former President Goodluck Jonathan: the Safe Schools Initiative (SSI), which focused on making schools safer for children, and the Presidential Initiative for the North East (PINE), whose aim was to kick start the economies in North East Nigeria and reposition the region for long-term prosperity.)

On the surface, the Buhari Plan sounds like a step in the right direction. But given the controversies over fraud and corruption surrounding PINE, PCNI’s predecessor, there are reasons to worry. Even putting those past issues aside, there is inevitably a high risk of corruption in a large government plans like the PCNI—especially in an environment as notoriously corrupt as Nigeria—and the current mechanisms for mitigating the risk of fraud and corruption are insufficient.

In order to reduce the corruption risks associated with a project like PCNI, the Nigerian government—and the international donors and other stakeholders providing financial support for the project—should focus on reducing the opportunities for corruption in three principal ways: (1) embedding a fraud prevention strategy; (2) employing external, independent auditors; and (3) maintaining transparency of activities and funding flows. To its credit, the Buhari Plan has already integrated aspects of these approaches. Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement: Continue reading

Cracking Down on Corruption in Haitian Customs

Billions of dollars in international aid to Haiti has been lost due to corruption, and this corruption epidemic has hindered many of the good-faith efforts to provide assistance in the wake of disasters. Of the many layers of bribery, fraud, and deceit that plague aid delivery, the one that interests me the most concerns the front-line Haitian Customs officers.

My interest stems in part from personal experience: In August 2016, I was part of a small project to engineer and build a clean water system in Haiti, which required importing equipment and supplies. As a matter of law, the items we were attempting to bring into Haiti were exempt from tax on account of their use in a non-commercial setting and our association with an NGO. Yet despite the fact that this was clearly stated on the Customs form, the Customs officials insisted that we had to pay tax on the goods, told us further that we had to pay in cash directly to the Customs officer, and reduced the tax payment we engaged in bargaining. It seemed like a bribery racket, especially with the insistence on cash payment without giving us an option to make a payment to a government agency officially. Our experience was, alas, typical: Over the past few years, there have been multiple reports of individuals being extorted for cash at Haitian Customs, with officials often unwilling to follow their own guidelines, a situation that seriously hinders the timely provision of non-profit aid.

The Haitian government is aware of the problem, and in 2013 launched a general crackdown. Yet despite a handful of successes—such as the arrest of a prominent Haitian businessman who was involved with multiple Customs officers in a corruption ring that involved contraband and trafficking—the crackdown doesn’t seem to have led to a meaningful reduction of inconsistent and corrupt Customs practices. While additional reforms to the anticorruption laws and improved internal auditing would help, there are a few other steps that the Haitian government could take that would help to combat the sort of corruption that many importers, including my own team, have encountered in Haitian Customs: Continue reading

Guest Post: Corruption Among Development NGOs, Part 1–Getting the Facts

Roger Henke, Chairman of the Board of the Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP), a development grantmaker based in Cambodia, contributes the following guest post (the first in a three-part series):

Compared with media attention to corruption among public officials and corporate interests, corruption in the non-profit sector is virtually ignored (though a recent GAB post on NGO corruption in India is a notable exception). This lack of interest is matched by the absence of sustained substantive debates about the sources of NGO sector corruption and the effectiveness of remedial interventions. My own experience with these issues derives from my involvement with the NGO sector in Cambodia. Corruption within our own house is a regular topic of informal conversation, and also makes it into our periodic sectoral assessments (though often through oblique references to concerns like “weak financial systems” and the “lack of checks and balances”). However, there are no efforts at all to go beyond these anecdotes and self-reported “weaknesses” to gather systematic, externally validated evidence about levels of corruption, let alone about issues like costs of corruption or the way it correlates with characteristics of the NGO sector that would offer entry points for positive change.

Given the comparative importance of development aid channeled through the NGO sector in countries like Cambodia, this lack of attention to NGO corruption is unfortunate. Admittedly, gathering information on local NGO (LNGO) corruption is challenging. Yet there are potentially useful sources of information that have not been exploited. For example, LNGOs are funded by grantmakers, and these grantmakers (often criticized by LNGOs for their cumbersome administrative requirements and time-consuming monitoring visits) are a possible source of data about LNGO fraud and its correlates. Additionally, the audit firms with an LNGO client base are another possible source of information.

In 2014, to test the willingness of grantmakers and audit firms to share information on their LNGO partners and NGO client base, we at SADP piloted a grantmaker and audit firm survey. The results were promising enough to repeat and expand the exercise in 2015. In this second grantmaker survey, 18 out of 26 grantmakers approached agreed to participate, and 13 of those 18 shared LNGO partner-level information (for a sample of 93 LNGOs). The grantmaker survey queried incidence and seriousness of (1) financial management problems, (2) governance problems, and (3) fraud. (In order to maximize participation, the survey prioritized brevity and simplicity over depth of information.) The audit firm survey (in which four of the five firms approached agreed to participate) asked only for some aggregate data (total number of LNGO audited, number of audits that identified fraud, number of audits that flagged serious financial system issues, etc.). Admittedly, neither the sample of grantmakers nor the sample of LNGOs is statistically representative of Cambodia’s NGO sector, but the surveys provide more valid information about corruption in development NGOs in Cambodia than has previously been available. And the quantitative picture emerging from the combination of these two data-sources about the organizational quality of Cambodian LNGOs is both revealing and disheartening. Interested readers should check out the full report; the most important findings are as follows: Continue reading

In the Excitement of the New, Let’s Not Neglect the Tried and True

In my two posts last week (here and here), I attempted to go through all of the 41 country statements submitted by the participants in the London Anticorruption Summit held earlier this month, to see what those statements had to say about four specific issue areas highlighted by the Summit’s joint Communique: (1) accessibility (and possibly transparency) of beneficial ownership information for companies and other legal entities, (2) public procurement transparency, (3) independence, effectiveness, and transparency of national audit institutions, and (4) whistleblower protection (and encouragement). I didn’t originally intend to say much more about this, other than putting the information out there for others to examine, but on writing up the summaries, I was struck by the following observation:

Of the four issue areas I picked out–all of which, again, were prominently featured in the Communique–I would characterize two (beneficial ownership and, to a somewhat lesser extent, procurement transparency) as relatively “new” topics that have generated a lot of excitement. (This is clearly the case for beneficial ownership; public procurement transparency has been on the agenda for much longer, though I put it in this category because a lot of the focus of discussion in this area has been on relatively new initiatives like e-procurement and the Open Contracting Data Standard.) The other two issues I chose to highlight–independent and competent audits of government programs, and adequate protection of (and, preferably, affirmative encouragement for) whistleblowers–have been part of the conversation for considerably longer, though that doesn’t mean we’ve yet seen anywhere near as much movement on either of those issues as we’d like. And, compared to the newness and (relative) sexiness of topics like beneficial ownership registries and e-procurement initiatives, whistleblower protection and audits seem a bit humdrum. (Audits especially. Even I get bored when I hear the word “audit,” and I happen to think they’re really important.)

The thing that struck me, when going through the country statements, was the dramatic lopsidedness of the attention lavished on beneficial ownership and procurement transparency (to say nothing of other topics I didn’t cover, like corruption in sports and improved asset recovery mechanisms), compared to the relative neglect of country commitments in the areas of improving national audit institutions and whistleblower protections. Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 2

This post is the second half of my attempt to summarize the commitments (or lack thereof) in the country statements of the 41 countries that attended last week’s London Anticorruption Summit, in four areas highlighted by the Summit’s final Communique:

  1. Increasing access to information on the true beneficial owners of companies, and possibly other legal entities, perhaps through central registers;
  2. Increasing transparency in public procurement;
  3. Strengthening the independence and capacity of national audit institutions, and publicizing audit results (and, more generally, increasing fiscal transparency in other ways); and
  4. Encouraging whistleblowers, strengthening their protection from various forms or retaliation, and developing systems to ensure that law enforcement takes prompt action in response to whistleblower complaints.

These are not the only subjects covered by the Communique and discussed in the country statements. (Other topics include improving asset recovery mechanisms, facilitating more international cooperation and information sharing, joining new initiatives to fight corruption in sports, improving transparency in the extractive sector through initiatives like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, additional measures to fight tax evasion, and several others.) I chose these four partly because they seemed to me of particular importance, and partly because the Communique’s discussion of these four areas seemed particularly focused on prompting substantive legal changes, rather than general improvements in existing mechanisms.

Plenty of others have already provided useful comprehensive assessments of what the country commitments did and did not achieve. My hope is that presenting the results of the rather tedious exercise of going through each country statement one by one for the language on these four issues, and presenting the results in summary form, will be helpful to others out there who want to try to get a sense of how the individual country commitments do or don’t match up against the recommendations in the Communique. My last post covered Afghanistan–Malta; today’s post covers the remaining country statements, Mexico–United States: Continue reading