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

Can Political Opposition Decrease Corruption? Evidence from Brazilian Municipal Governments

The idea that checks and balances in the government—such as legislative oversight of the executive branch—can reduce corruption is intuitive, but quantitative empirical evidence for or against this hypothesis is relatively scant. Moreover, the effect of a separation of powers on the extent of corruption may depend on whether the same political party or faction controls both branches of government, or whether different factions control the legislature and the executive. Indeed, some legal scholars have argued that the true separation of powers is not between branches of government, but rather the political parties in the government, and that the traditional view of the separation of powers—ambition counteracting ambition—only works if different branches are controlled by different political parties. But the likely effect of such partisan separation on corruption is not entirely clear: If the legislature is controlled by a party or coalition opposed to the party that controls the executive branch, this could mean increased legislative oversight and lower corruption, but alternatively, increased opposition may simply drive the executive to bribe the opposition to go along with his or her agenda, leading to more corruption.

Carlos Varjão and I investigate this the question empirically in our recent working paper, “Political Opposition, Legislative Oversight, and the Performance of the Executive Branch.” We focus on municipal governments in Brazil, which are particularly suitable for this sort of study for a number of reasons: there are many municipalities with a similar overall government structure, there’s a wealth of data on various forms of corruption (mainly embezzlement, procurement fraud, and over-invoicing) from Brazil’s public audit reports, and there’s considerable variation in both the level of corruption and the political control of the branches of the municipal governments. Our findings are striking and unambiguous: increased representation of the political opposition in the local legislature is associated with more legislative oversight of the executive, less executive branch corruption, and better public service delivery. Continue reading

Do the Lava Jato Leaks Show Illegal or Unethical Behavior? A Debate Between Brazilian Legal Experts

As readers of this blog are likely well aware, last month The Intercept published a series of articles, in both Portuguese and English, that called into question the fairness, legitimacy, and motivations of the Lava Jato (or “Car Wash”) anticorruption operation in Brazil. These articles were based on private text messages between prosecutors and then-Judge Sergio Moro (and among members of the prosecution team) that The Intercept obtained from an anonymous source (widely suspected to be an outside party who hacked prosecutors’ cell phones). The revelations raise a number of questions about the Lava Jato operation, including whether the leaked text messages demonstrate that Judge Moro violated Brazilian law and/or ethical codes, and if so whether these breaches would invalidate the convictions of at least some of the Lava Jato defendants, most notably former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula).

Shortly after the first set of Intercept stories came out, I offered my own perspective on the implication of the leaked text messages (see here and here). But on the specific question of whether these text messages were unlawful or unethical, I was and remain uncertain, not least because evaluating this particular question requires expertise in Brazilian law. To help shed further light on this topic, and to assist others in understanding the complex legal and ethical questions at stake, today’s blog post features a point-counterpoint debate between two Brazilian legal experts with opposing perspectives on this question:

  • First, Ademar Borges de Sousa Filho (a Professor of Law at IDB-Brasilia and a practicing defense attorney) makes the case that the text messages disclosed by The Intercept demonstrate that Judge Moro behaved unethically and unlawfully, and that his lack of impartiality requires the nullification of the conviction of Lula (and possibly other Lava Jato defendants, though any such decisions would need to be made on a case-by-case basis).
  • Next, Luciano Benetti Timm (the National Consumer Protection Secretary at the Brazilian Ministry of Justice and Professor of Law at FGV São Paulo) presents a rebuttal, arguing, first, that the unauthenticated text messages obtained by The Intercept are not legally admissible, and that even if they were, they do not demonstrate any illegal partiality, or unethical behavior, by Judge Moro, and therefore do not provide grounds for questioning the convictions of Lula (or any other Lava Jato defendant).

Before proceeding, I should note that there are a number of other legal and political issues that are being hotly debated inside and outside of Brazil related to the Lava Jato case, Lula’s conviction, and related matters. The pieces below do not address these other issues, because I specifically requested Professor Borges and Professor Timm to focus narrowly on the question of the legality/ethics of the communications between Judge Moro and the Lava Jato prosecutors. I hope that readers find the debate below useful and enlightening on this issue. Continue reading

Just How Damning Are the Lava Jato Leaks? Some Preliminary Reflections on The Intercept’s Bombshell Story

[Note: My thinking on the issues discussed in this post has evolved somewhat. For the update, see here.]

Two days ago, The Intercept published a collection of dramatic reports (here, here, and here) regarding the long-running Brazilian investigation into high-level corruption. That investigation, known as the Lava Jato (Car Wash) operation, which began as in inquiry into money laundering and associated offenses at the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras, has led to the prosecutions and convictions of scores of powerful business leaders and senior politicians—including, most notably, the conviction and imprisonment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (known as Lula). That conviction prevented Lula from competing in the presidential election in 2018, an election that was one by far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Anger on the Brazilian political left over Lula’s conviction, as well as the impeachment and removal of his successor Dilma Rouseff, has provoked accusations that the Lava Jato operation is really a right-wing conspiracy, and that the Lava Jato task force—the special team of prosecutors led by Deltan Dallagnol—and Sergio Moro, who presided over the most significant Lava Jato trials, including Lula’s, are politically biased enemies of the Left who are engineering a kind of coup d’etat through the judicial system. Many people, both in Brazil and internationally (me included), have pushed back against these accusations.

The Intercept’s recent reports assert that the critics were right all along. The evidence for this consists mainly of a huge quantity of data (texts, emails, and video and audio recordings) from a cell phone—almost certainly Mr. Dallagnol’s, based on the fact that all of the reported exchanges involve him. The Intercept has published a set of stories (some in English, some in Portuguese) based on a small portion of this material, mainly text message exchanges; the reporters emphasize that more is likely to emerge as they and other journalists review more of the leaked/hacked data. The big story here is that, according to the Intercept’s reporting, these text messages provide evidence of serious ethical breaches, particularly by then-Judge Moro, as well as evidence that the prosecutors knew their case against Lula was not strong, and, most damningly, that the task force prosecutors were motivated by partisan antipathy toward Lula and his party (the Worker’s Party, or PT), despite their claims to the contrary.

What to make of this? The news is clearly bad for the Lava Jato operation, the task force, and those of us who have supported the operation and defended it against various accusations and attacks. The question I want to address here is: Just how bad is it? My tentative answer is that, while the Intercept’s reports reveal some very upsetting, disappointing, and in some cases likely unethical conduct, the leaked text messages quoted in these first reports are not as damning as either the Intercept or other preliminary reports have made them appear. In this post (which will be longer than usual), I’ll try to work through the various allegations and associated texts and do my best to assess which revelations are most serious, which least so, and where we really need more evidence before making even a preliminary judgment. Continue reading

Guest Post: Expert Interviews on Corruption Control in Latin America

Today’s guest post is from Columbia University Professor Paul Lagunes, who this year is also a Visiting Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy:

Elections in Latin America are freer and fairer than they used to be, and, with rare exceptions, political power in the region is no longer monopolized by a single individual, junta, or party. From Chile to Mexico, legal reforms have promoted higher levels of government transparency and citizen participation. But in spite of these improvements, the region continues to grapple with systemic corruption. Not only are individuals asked to pay bribes by lower-level government officials, but scandals such as Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) in Brazil, La Estafa Maestra (“The Master Fraud”) in Mexico, and La Línea (“The Line”) in Guatemala have revealed grand corruption at the most senior levels, making the fight against corruption a top priority for the region.

Prompted by these concerns, I contributed to organizing a conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on corruption control in Latin America, which has already been featured (with links to the conference videos) on this blog. Some of the conference panelists stayed long enough that we were able to interview them about their important work. Tony Payan, my colleague at the Baker Institute and an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues, agreed to conduct the interviews.

The videos of these interviews are now publicly available, and are well worth viewing for those interested in hearing a diverse range of perspectives on the corruption challenges currently facing Latin America. In this post I will provide links to the interviews as well as a brief summary of their content. (There’s also an online website, where you can find all the interviews, here.) 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

To Advance its Anticorruption Agenda, Brazil Must Reform its Conflict of Interest Laws

In the past five years, Brazil made significant advances in its anticorruption agenda, including both an aggressive effort to prosecute high-level politicians and business executives, and also a series of legislative reforms. But Brazil has not yet done enough to regulate conflicts of interest within the public administration.

One good example of the weakness of current regulation is the controversy involving the appointment of Leticia Catelani—a businesswoman who supported President Bolsonaro’s election campaign—to the Executive Board of Apex, the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency. Apex is a state-owned entity in charge of promoting Brazilian exports. Ms. Catelani owns a company with a significant export business, raising concerns that she might use her Apex position to improperly favor her own business. (A group of Apex employees have filed a lawsuit challenging her nomination, and a formal complaint has also been filed with the Ethics Commission of the Presidential Office (CEP) asking for her removal.) Though this is but one recent illustration; the issue is much more general, and indeed it is likely that under the Bolsonaro administration concerns about conflicts of interest will increase.

Unfortunately, the existing mechanisms for controlling conflicts of interests in the federal administration—principally the 2013 Conflicts of Interest Act (COI Act) are inadequate and must be reformed. The COI Act applies to senior officials and ministers of state within the federal government. The Act lists a number of situations that trigger conflict-of-interest concerns, and it also requires public officials to file annual reports about their private assets and activities. The Act empowers the CEP to investigate cases, issue guidelines, clarify doubts, and grant waivers. But the current system is inadequate in several respects, and the overall system for dealing with conflicts of interest is in urgent need of reform. Three points in particular should receive special attention:

Continue reading