A Cultural Defense to Bribery? The Solomon Islands’ Approach

Gift-giving usually has positive connotations as an expression of love, respect, friendship, gratitude, or celebration. However, when the recipient is a public official, there is always the concern that the “gift” is nothing but a thinly-veiled bribe. For this reason, countries around the world have placed restrictions on the character and value of gifts that public officials are allowed to accept. But in societies where giving gifts – including, perhaps especially, to powerful or influential figures – is an important part of the culture, treating all (sufficiently large) gifts as unlawful bribes is more than usually challenging. Indeed, a recurring question for anticorruption reformers is whether or how anti-bribery law should make allowances for local cultural norms and practices, especially those related to gift-giving. This question – often framed as one of “cultural relativism” – frequently comes up in the context of developing countries (such as Indonesia or various Pacific islands), though it is not exclusive to such countries (see, for example, discussion of this same issue in South Korea).

One country that has recently faced the challenge of regulating cultural gift-giving to and by public officials is the Solomon Islands – a small state in the Pacific Ocean consisting of over nine hundred islands, a population of about 600,000, and a rich and fascinating history. For years, the Solomon Islands has been dealing with pervasive corruption at all levels of government, most notably in natural resources management, which has had disastrous ramifications for the country’s economic development (see here, here, and here). Like other Pacific islands, the Solomon Islands is home to a practice of traditional gift-giving to and by public officials, which in many other jurisdictions could be viewed as legally problematic. According to a local custom (as explained in an official government document), public officials, as members of their community, are “expected to contribute to community events such as weddings, funerals, feasts or church gatherings” and are “obligated to reciprocate with gifts if and when they visit communities and are presented with gifts.”

In July 2018, as part of a comprehensive national anticorruption scheme, the Solomon Islands’ Parliament enacted the much anticipated Anti-Corruption Act (ACA). The ACA is especially notable, and unusual, in its approach towards customary gifts and bribery. Instead of capping the monetary value or limiting the type of gifts which public officials are allowed to accept, the ACA introduced a new cultural defense to the offence of bribery of public officials. According to this defense, a public official who accepts or solicits something of value, as well as the individual who offers or gives it, is not guilty of bribery if the defendants can prove that their respective acts were conducted: (1) “in accordance with custom,” (2) “openly, in the course of a traditional exchange of gifts,” and (3) “for the benefit of a community or group of people and not for an individual.” According to Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela, the ACA’s cultural defense is required as part of the government’s obligation “to respect our customs and traditional cultures” as “a multi-ethnic post conflict country.” However, the cultural defense has been criticized by many, including the Parliament’s Bills and Legislation Committee (see here and here) and Transparency Solomon Islands, which referred to this defense as “a good example of bad law.”

In this post, I do not attempt to answer the question whether the Solomon Islands’ customary gift giving should be criminalized. I do wish to argue, however, that even if we assume that local gift-giving customs are worth protecting, the ACA’s cultural defense to bribery in its current form is highly susceptible to misuse and may undermine the government’s anticorruption efforts. Both the Solomon Islands and other jurisdictions that might be considering a similar cultural defense should take heed of four significant problems with the defense as currently written: Continue reading

AMLO Cannot Put a “Final Period” in Mexico’s History of Corruption Without Addressing the Past

The trial and conviction of the notorious drug lord “El Chapo” has shed new light on the rampant corruption that exists at even the highest levels of the Mexican government. To take just a couple of the most startling examples: During the trial, a witness testified that Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100 million bribe from El Chapo, while another cartel member testified that he paid at least $3 million dollars to the Public Security Secretary of former president Felipe Calderon and at least $6 million dollars to President Calderon’s head of police. In other countries these accusations would have shaken citizens to their very core. But in Mexico, long perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, citizens have sadly grown accustomed to allegations of this nature, and the revelations from the El Chapo trial were met with little more than a shrug.

That doesn’t mean that Mexicans don’t care about corruption. Quite the opposite. Indeed, frustration at this flagrant culture of corruption was one of the key factors that helped Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to capture his constituents’ faith and votes. AMLO has promised to eradicate corruption through a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the previous three were Mexico’s independence from Spain, the liberal reforms of the 1850s, and the 1910-1917 revolution). Yet despite these sweeping promises, AMLO has decided not to investigate the allegations against his predecessors that have emerged in the El Chapo trial. In fact, AMLO’s stance has been not to prosecute any officials for corruption that took place in the past, before he took office. (AMLO has wavered on this position—though only slightly—after receiving backlash during his campaign; he has since stated he would prosecute past corruption offenses only if the administration has no choice due to “internal pressure” from citizens.) AMLO has justified his opposition to investigations and prosecutions of past corruption crimes by using the language suggesting the need for a fresh start. He speaks of a need to put a “final period” on Mexico’s history of corruption, and to “start over” by not focusing the past.

But how can one eradicate corruption by granting numerous “Get Out of Jail Free” cards? AMLO’s support of a de facto amnesty for corrupt ex-Mexican officials’ casts doubt on the seriousness of his pledge to eradicate corruption. Rather than simply saying that it’s time to turn over a new leaf, AMLO should demand accountability for grand corruption, and he should start by ordering a full independent investigation into the veracity of the corruption allegations that came to light during the El Chapo trial. Continue reading

India’s Futile Attempt to Root Out Sextortion Through Anticorruption Legislation

A recent series of brutal rape cases in India, which attracted international media coverage and provoked domestic protests, seems to have finally prompted India’s government to take more seriously the problem of sexual violence. For instance, India’s Parliament has created a number of new sex-related crimes—stalking, disrobing, voyeurism—and is now considering an executive order introducing the death penalty for rapists of children under the age of 12. Strikingly, even India’s new anticorruption legislation—the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act, 2018 (Amendment)—tries to address the sexual violence problem as well. The Amendment, passed in July 2018, introduced a number of changes to the country’s thirty-year-old anticorruption legislation (the PCA), which criminalizes bribery involving public officials. Among the changes is an expansion of what corruption and bribery can entail, to include not just money or material goods, but also sexual favors. Previously, the PCA had defined bribery as providing a “financial or other advantage” to public officials, but in response to criticism that this language was too narrow, the Amendment replaced this phrase with the term “undue advantage,” and further specified that “undue advantage” is not restricted to those advantages that are “pecuniary” or “estimable in money.” This means that the law, while not explicitly mentioning sex, now apparently covers the offer, request, or extortion of sexual favors as something covered by the criminal prohibition on bribery of or by a public official.

On its face, expanding the scope of the anticorruption legislation to include corrupt sexual extortion, or “sextortion,” seems to be a move in the right direction. And indeed there’s a good case to be made that recognizing the extortion of sexual favors not only as a crime of sexual assault, but also as a form of public corruption, is compelling. But in fact, by implicitly treating sextortion as essentially the same as the extortion of monetary bribes, the Amendment will do little to combat sextortion as a form of corruption, and in fact is likely to do more harm than good. There are three interrelated reasons for this: Continue reading

2018: Five Great Reads on Corruption

 

Twenty eighteen produced many fine analyses of corruption and how to fight it. The five books pictured above, four by journalists and one by a former Nigerian Finance Minister, are among the best.  Combing in-depth reporting with thoughtful analyses, all merit a place on corruption fighters’ book shelf. Continue reading

Expediting Corruption: The Dangers of Expediters in Licensing Markets

The scheme was as simple as it was brazen, and as brazen as it was frightening. On April 24, 2018, a New York City jury convicted attorney John Chambers of bribing New York Police Department (NYPD) personnel in exchange for gun permits for his numerous clients. Calling himself a “gun license expediter,” Mr. Chambers acted as an intermediary for individuals hoping to pass the necessary background check and obtain the mandatory permit in order to legally own a firearm in the city. But in a decentralized scheme involving numerous individuals inside and outside the police department, NYPD officers approved hundreds of licenses while skipping background checks, shortening license suspensions, and waving through applications containing glaring red flags—including improperly approving licenses for individuals convicted of illegal weapons possession. In return, the officers received expensive gifts, tickets to sporting events, lavish vacations, envelopes stuffed with cash—and even free guns.

At the center of the web of bribery were so-called “gun license expediters” like Chambers, who advertised their ability to help clients navigate the demanding and complex process of obtaining, renewing, or retaining a handgun license in New York City. Several of the expediters indicted in the scandal were retired police officers who had served in the NYPD Licensing Division, bribing former colleagues after leaving the police force in order to open their own expediting businesses. Fees varied depending on the difficulty and timing of the requests, but clients were routinely charged thousands of dollars per license—on top of the hundreds of dollars in mandatory city-imposed application fees. By leveraging experience, relationships, and sometimes illegal gifts, expediters such as Chambers were able to not only expedite but also to influence the outcome of applications.

In response to the revelations, the NYPD announced substantial changes to its licensing program. First and foremost, the department barred any expediter from physically visiting the Licensing Division on behalf of a client—instead requiring that all applicants appear in person to submit their own paperwork. (Expediters, however, would presumably not be barred from contacting members of the Licensing Division or directing their clients whom to talk to when they arrive.) Second, the department mandated that all gun permit approvals could only be made by the top two officers in the unit. Despite these seemingly sweeping changes, the new policies sidestep the root causes of corruption in this instance—which reveal the danger of expediters in general. Continue reading

A Border Patrol Surge Will Lead to a Border Corruption Surge

The United States Customs and Border Protection service (CBP) is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States—and one of the most corrupt. CBP employs 59,000 people, of whom almost 20,000 are Border Patrol agents. Every day, these agents process over a million incoming U.S. travelers, 300,000 vehicles, and 78,000 shipping containers. On any given day they might seize over 5,000 pounds of narcotics and apprehend nearly 900 people at or near U.S. borders. Yet according to “conservative [] estimate[s],” about 1,000 Border Patrol agents—5% of the total—violate their official duties in exchange for bribes. To take just a handful of some of the most egregious examples: One CBP agent permitted smugglers to bring over 612 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. in exchange for $1,000 for each kilo he waved through his checkpoint. Another allowed 1,200 pounds of marijuana to enter into the U.S. in exchange for $60,000. Yet another CBP agent permitted vehicles containing undocumented immigrants to enter the U.S. at a price of $8,000-10,000 per vehicle.

In response to this widespread corruption, the Department of Homeland Security convened an independent Integrity Advisory Panel in 2015. But the Panel’s 2016 report fell on deaf ears, as almost none of its 39 recommendations were implemented. Instead, in line with his hardline stance on immigration, President Trump signed a 2017 executive order mandating hiring an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents and “appropriate action to ensure that such agents enter on duty . . . as soon as practicable.”

Increasing the number of agents by 25% without devoting significant resources to combat the pervasive corruption in CBP is a terrible idea, and is likely to exacerbate current corruption problems, for three reasons: Continue reading

Mixed Messages from the UK’s First Contested Prosecution for Failure to Prevent Bribery

In February 2018, the UK secured its first ever contested conviction of a company for “failure to prevent bribery.” Under Section 7 of the UK Bribery Act (UKBA), a company or commercial organization faces liability for failing to prevent bribery if a person “associated with” the entity bribes another person while intending to obtain or retain business or “an advantage in the conduct of business” for that entity. Following an internal investigation, Skansen Interior Limited (SIL)—a 30-person furniture refurbishment contractor operating in southern England—discovered that an employee at its firm had agreed to pay nearly £40,000 in bribes to help the company win contracts worth £6 million. Company management fired two complicit employees and self-reported the matter to the National Crime Agency and the City of London police. The Crown Prosecution Service ultimately charged SIL with failing to prevent bribery under Section 7. Protesting its innocence, SIL argued that the company had “adequate procedures” in place at the time of the conduct to prevent bribery; SIL, in other words, sought to avail itself of the widely-discussed “compliance defense” in Section 7(2) of the UKBA, which allows a company to avoid liability for failing to prevent bribery if the company can show that it “had in place adequate procedures designed to prevent persons associated with [the company] from undertaking” the conduct in question.

The case proceeded to a jury trial. The verdict? Guilty. The sentence? None. In fact, SIL had been out of business since 2014, so the judge had no choice but to hand down an absolute discharge—wiping away the conviction.

The hollow nature of the government’s victory has led some commentators to call the prosecution “arguably unprincipled” or even a “mockery of the UK criminal process.” Indeed, the bribing employee and the bribed individual had already separately pleaded guilty to individual charges under UKBA Sections 1 and 2, respectively, and the remaining shell of a corporation had no assets or operations. Other commentators pointed out that precisely because the company was dormant it would have been unable to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), lacking assets to pay financial penalties or compliance programs to improve. Putting aside arguments about the wisdom or fairness of pursuing a prosecution in these circumstances, the SIL case sheds light on Section 7(2)’s “adequate procedures” defense. While the UK government has secured a few DPAs for conduct under Section 7—beginning with Standard Bank Plc in 2015—SIL is the first case in which the Section 7(2) “adequate procedures” defense was tested in front of a jury.

While the government argued that it prosecuted the case primarily to send a message about the importance of anti-bribery compliance programs, the UK government’s actions in the SIL case ultimately sends mixed messages to companies and may have counterproductive effects. Continue reading