Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Anti-Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

On the same day as President Trump’s swearing in, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released a memorandum elaborating upon why President Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a Senior White House Advisor did not violate the federal anti-nepotism statute (5 U.S.C. § 3110). That statute prohibits a public official (including the President) from appointing or employing a relative (which the statute defines as including a son-in-law or daughter-in-law). The OLC reasoned that despite the seemingly clear prohibition in 5 U.S.C § 3110, another federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 105(a), exempted positions in the White House Office from the anti-nepotism law. The OLC recognized this conclusion was a departure from its own precedent, but with the aid of some selective reading of legislative history, the OLC argued that lawmakers intended to allow the president “total discretion” in employment matters when it passed 3 U.S.C. § 105(a). (For non-specialists, see this primer for an explanation of these and other federal laws and regulations which could be relevant for addressing corruption in the Trump Administration.)

Somewhat predictably, the OLC memo generated debate among legal commentators (see here, here, here, and here). Yet even if the legal arguments were not entirely convincing, the OLC ended with a practical point that was echoed by many of the commentaries: given that President Trump will seek Mr. Kushner’s advice, regardless of whether he is a formal employee, it would be better for Mr. Kushner to be formally employed as a White House advisor, and thus subject to the applicable conflict-of-interest (COI) and financial disclosure rules. The same argument applies to Ivanka Trump, who also recently became an employee of the White House.

Some anticorruption advocates, myself included, were persuaded at the time by the OLC’s practical point. It would be best if the President did not make major policy decisions on the advice of radically unqualified relatives. But unfortunately, he is going to turn to them for advice. Given that baseline, we should prefer those family members occupy formal appointments, where at least they will be constrained by the COI statute and disclosure rules. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we should never have been persuaded. The COI statute and the disclosure rules turn out to be ineffective devices for preventing corruption in the Trump era. While the disclosure rules did encourage Mr. Kushner to make some divestments, they do not contain enough details to identify potential conflicts. And when there are conflicts, the COI statute is unlikely to be enforced, either because Attorney General Jeff Sessions will choose not to, or because the White House will grant a waiver.

Continue reading

Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

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

Why Does the SEC Enforce the FCPA?

Donald Trump’s nomination of Jay Clayton to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has attracted some attention and concern from the anticorruption community. That concern is due mainly to a report issued by a New York Bar Foundation committee, chaired by Mr. Clayton, which criticized the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for its alleged adverse and asymmetric impact on U.S. corporations. Though it remains to be seen how strongly committed Mr. Clayton is to the views expressed in the report, the concern is understandable given that the SEC is one of the two agencies—along with the Department of Justice (DOJ)—that is responsible for enforcing the FCPA. This controversy also highlights another, broader question that some FCPA critics have raised: Why is the SEC even involved in FCPA enforcement in the first place?

Congress created the SEC in 1934 through the aptly named Securities Exchange Act to enforce federal regulations regarding the trade of securities after they have been issued. The main impetus for the SEC’s creation was the belief that an under-regulated securities market helped drive the 1929 stock market crash. However, over the past 80 years, the SEC has expanded into other areas of enforcement—such as FCPA enforcement—that seem tentatively tied to the SEC’s original mandate. Some have argued that due to resource limitations, it does not make sense for the SEC to pursue vigorous FCPA enforcement at the expense of diverting resources from protecting investors. In pushing this point, some critics also point out that the SEC’s major regulatory fumbles of the past decade coincide with the escalation of FCPA enforcement activity—which perhaps suggests that expanding the SEC’s responsibilities beyond its original mandate has indeed weakened the agency.

The reasons for the SEC’s involvement in FCPA enforcement are partly historical, as explained further below. But beyond that, despite the critics’ complaints, in fact FCPA enforcement remains a valuable use of the SEC’s resources in the 21st century.

Continue reading

When Lunch is a Bribe: American and Korean Law Compared

It is the rare businessperson or lobbyist who takes a politician or bureaucrat they barely know to lunch just for the pleasure of their company.  Lunch-buyers may enjoy the food (particularly if the money comes out a corporate pocket) and not all politicians and bureaucrats are self-centered bores.  But face it: the main reason bureaucrats and politicians world-wide are wined and dined by people they hardly know is because they are in positions of power and the meal-buyers want to influence them — perhaps to persuade them to purchase the lunch-buyer’s product for their ministries, maybe to change their minds about pending legislation.  Yet as obvious as the reason for picking up a lunch the tab is, in the Republic of Korea, and many American jurisdictions as well, on its face the law provides that if lunch-buyers admit why they paid for lunch, they and their luncheon companion go to jail.

That despite these laws Seoul’s upscale restaurants and their counterparts in many American state capitols continue to do a brisk lunchtime business suggests many lunch-buying businesspersons and lobbyists and their government guests regularly deny the obvious.  It would be one thing if lawmakers had intended to turn this group into liars and hypocrites, but they did not.  It is instead an unintended consequence of laws actually meant to permit public servants to take lunch with those having business with them. Continue reading

Sextortion Victims Are Not Guilty of Bribery

On this blog, I have repeatedly called for the anticorruption community to put greater emphasis on fighting sexual corruption around the world. I have argued that a police officer demanding sex in order to perform (or not perform) an official function is a form of bribery; in a few cases, officials have been charged with and convicted of bribery or official misconduct for sexual corruption.

Characterizing this sort of sexual coercion as bribery, however, raises a potential problem: In typical monetary corruption cases, it is possible to prosecute the bribe giver as well as the bribe receiver. Does that mean that the private citizen (almost always a woman) from whom sexual favors are extorted by a public official could be deemed to have “paid” an unlawful bribe? Unfortunately, the idea of charging victims of sexual corruption with bribery is not too far-fetched. In one New York case, two police officers demanded sex from a female motorist if she wanted to avoid arrest (for drugs found in her car); at the officers’ trial, the jury was instructed that the woman was an accomplice as a matter of law to bribe receiving. The appellate court wrote that the test for whether the woman can be considered an accomplice is whether she “theoretically could have been convicted of any crime based on at least some of the same facts that must be proven in order to convict the defendant.” And because the woman in this case acquiesced to the officers’ demands, she met the definition of an accomplice to bribe receiving. (She was not charged, but according to the court she could have been.)

Thus one potential concern with heeding the call to treat so-called “sextortion” as a corruption offense (that is, soliciting a bribe) is that it could lead to greater use of anti-bribery laws to charge the women from whom sex is extorted. (For example, suppose an American businesswoman had sexual relations with a foreign procurement officer as a quid pro quo for receiving a government contract; the businesswoman in this case could conceivably be charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.) It will be crucial to ensure that this never happens. This can be accomplished through a generous interpretation of coercion as a defense to bribery, informed by the existing American jurisprudence on sexual harassment in the employment setting.

Continue reading

The Supreme Court’s McDonnell Opinion: A Post-Mortem

I’m a bit late to the party, but I thought I should perhaps say something about last month’s unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision to vacate the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, on the grounds that the trial judge had not properly instructed the jury on the meaning and scope of the term “official act” in the relevant anti-bribery statutes. (As readers of this blog are likely aware, I thought that McDonnell’s conviction ought to be affirmed. This is not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court’s views differ from my own, nor will it be the last.) There has already been a spate of helpful commentary on the decision—including a succinct summary of the opinion’s likely impact from the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, and an insightful commentary from Daniel Richman and Jennifer Rodgers on the NYU Compliance & Enforcement Blog (a new blog that’s worth following). I’m not sure I have all that much new to add, but let me throw in my two cents.

While it would have been satisfying to see McDonnell get his just desserts, what happens to McDonnell himself is less important that the broader impact of the decision on the enforcement of anti-bribery laws more generally. So what does the Supreme Court’s opinion portend for anti-bribery enforcement in the U.S. going forward? After reading the opinion, my reaction is mixed. On the one hand, the decision rests on fairly narrow grounds, which might well cabin its impact on the mine-run of federal bribery prosecutions. On the other hand, the Court’s opinion both bespeaks an unrealistic view of how senior politicians exert influence over policy, and places undue weight on concerns about chilling (allegedly) desirable conduct. Continue reading