Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?

The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence. Continue reading

Hiding in Plain Sight: How the Federal Elections Commission Can Use Existing Disclosures To Detect Campaign Finance Fraud

Last August, U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted for misuse of campaign funds for personal benefit. The Justice Department alleges that Hunter conspired with his wife, whom he appointed campaign manager, to steal from his campaign to support their lavish lifestyle: the campaign spent $15,000 on airline tickets and hotel rooms for Hunter’s children and relatives, a $14,000 Thanksgiving trip to Italy, and for other expenses like $700 for seven adult and five children’s tickets to see “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Though Representative Hunter’s conduct is only now being investigated, the allegations of improper spending go back to 2009, and many of the expenses now under scrutiny were detailed in his campaign’s filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). FEC filings are public records, readily available and searchable (via simple keyword searches on the FEC’s webpage) to anyone interested in looking. For example, Representative Hunter is a “vaping” enthusiast (even smoking his e-cigarette in Congress). Using the FEC’s webpage and a simple search for the words “cigar,” “smoke,” and “tobacco,” I found that Representative Hunter’s  2015-16 campaign expenditures include hundreds of dollars of spending at a cigar lounge, smoke shop, and tobacco company in his home district. Similar search results through the FEC website show all sorts of eyebrow-raising transactions.

So why weren’t the problems detected earlier? The problem, in cases like this, is not that the FEC doesn’t have enough information to identify suspicious activity—it’s that it has too much information. The FEC has massive amounts of data, making the detection of fraud a needle-in-the-haystack problem. The FEC relies largely on complaints and referrals to guide its enforcement process, with the result that enforcement remains anemic.  In 2017, for example, the FEC levied administrative fines in 215 matters totaling under $2 million, despite having data on 23.4 million line-item disbursements and 34.5 million individual contributions, not even counting electioneering communication transactions and the massive data on political action committees (PACs).

Waiting for referrals, or screening data by hand, is not an effective way for the FEC’s roughly 300 employees to detect corruption or fraud in campaign finance. There are no silver-bullet solutions; fraud detection is a fundamentally difficult, especially when fraudsters take steps to cover their tracks. But there are some steps the FEC can take to better monitor fraudulent expenditures to identify suspicious cases early on:

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When Are Quid Pro Quo Campaign Contributions Corrupt? When Are They an Embodiment of Democracy?

Recent developments in the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court have been dramatic, to say the least. As I type this, most of the discussion of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination has focused on allegations that, while in high school, he and a friend sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl. Events are moving so fast that by the time this post is published (which will likely be a few days from now, since I typically write these things in advance), there may be more new developments. But I actually don’t want to talk here about the issues that have (rightly) taken center stage with respect to this nomination. Rather, I want to discuss another controversy connected to Kavanaugh’s nomination that had been getting a fair bit of press until it was overshadowed by the disclosure of the sexual assault allegations. That controversy concerned a coalition of civil society groups in Maine that used crowdfunding to raise over $1 million, and declared that they would donate these funds to the opponent of Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine the next time she is up for re-election (in 2020) if she votes to confirm Judge Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is that corrupt? Senator Collins and several of her political allies think so. Senator Collins denounced the campaign as “bribery or extortion.” Other commenters agreed (see here and here). And a group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) wrote to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to call for an investigation of the groups that organized the crowdfunding campaign, alleging that conditioning a campaign donation to Senator Collins’ opponent on whether Senator Collins supports Kavanaugh is “an illegal attempt to influence an elected official’s specific vote” in violation of 18 U.S.C. §201(b), the section of the federal bribery statute that makes it a crime to “directly or indirectly, corruptly … offer[] … anything of value to any public official … with intent to influence any official act.” It’s perhaps worth noting that although FACT describes itself as a “non-partisan ethics watchdog,” its ethics complaints are targeted overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) at Democrats, and it is funded entirely by an anonymous trust fund (a so-called “pass-through”) favored by ultra-wealthy conservative donors, including Charles Koch. So reasonable people might take FACT’s own conclusions with more than a grain of salt. Still, though, the allegation that the grassroots campaign targeting Collins is engaging in illegal “bribery,” though in my view wrong as a matter of both law and ethics, is worth taking seriously, because it highlights some of the fundamental problems with the regulation of campaign finance in the United States—in particular the use of a “corruption” paradigm to address what’s mainly a political equality problem. Continue reading

An Amazing Database: DIGIWHIST Strikes Again

DIGIWHIST has struck again.  It has just released the latest version of its extraordinary data set covering political financing, disclosure of officials’ finances, conflict of interest, right to information, and public procurement in 34 European states plus the European Union.  With the laws on each subject along with an assessment of how thoroughly they address area, it is a real treat.

At least for the kind of people who read GAB (that means you, dear reader).

The database is part of an EU-funded digital whistleblowing project (DIGIWHIST).  The project’s aim is to improve trust in governments and the efficiency of public spending across Europe by providing civil society, investigative journalists, and civil servants with the information and tools they need to both increase transparency in public spending and enhance the accountability of public officials.  For those working in developing states, it is an invaluable resource, showing how different developed countries and those making the transition to a market economy deal with critical issues involving public integrity and transparency.  Thanks to the EU for supporting such a great project and congratulations to those whose hard work produced such a useful resource.

India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

Thoughts from the Menendez Trial: Preventing Corruption from the Start

Last fall’s corruption trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) ended rather anticlimactically, with the presiding judge declaring a mistrial after the jury announced that it couldn’t reach a decision, and the Department of Justice eventually deciding not to retry him. Senator Menendez had been accused of taking donations and gifts from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for advocating for visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, the award of a government contract, and the resolution of a Medicare billing dispute. Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled on the broader implications of the Menendez case for other bribery prosecutions (on this blog here, and elsewhere here and here).

But putting aside the specifics of the case, what caught my eye about the allegations against Senator Menendez was a background feature of U.S. law that seems to have gone largely undiscussed: It’s perfectly legal (and normal) for non-constituents to contribute to political candidates. In other words, even if you are barred from voting for a candidate because you live outside that candidate’s district, you can still express your support by pulling out your checkbook. That lack of constraint on donations seems to invite the very kind of corruption the government alleged in the Menendez case, because it allows a wealthy donor to find and purchase his or her own “personal United States senator.”

I’m certainly not the first person to voice the concern that allowing non-residents to contribute to political candidates may facilitate corruption. Two states—Alaska and Hawaii—have recognized the risk posed by allowing non-residents to contribute to political candidates. They’ve responded by limiting those donations. But in the Lower 48 and in all federal elections, there are no differential limits on contributions from people residing outside the state, so long as they are American citizens or permanent residents. (Alaska’s law is currently facing a First Amendment challenge from an aspiring donor whose gift was returned because the candidate he supported had already reached the out-of-state contribution limits. A federal judge upheld the law as a “closely drawn” effort by the state to prevent “quid pro quo corruption or its appearance,” but the would-be donor has appealed.) Putting aside the constitutional defenses of the sorts of laws that Alaska and Hawaii have adopted (which you can find in the amicus briefs filed in the Alaska case here, here, and here), there are strong policy reasons for limiting contributions by people living outside a state or district—not least because such limits, as the judge in the Alaska case noted, can be a useful tool for preventing corruption or its appearance:

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Can Sri Lanka Clean Up Its Elections?

Schools bags, school books, seed and fertilizer, clothes, sewing machines, clocks, calendars, and mobile phones – these are just some of the items that were distributed to the public during the 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential election campaign as “election bribes”. Indeed, this election was plagued by widespread violations of election law and the blatant misuse of state resources, including the illegal display of cut-outs, distribution of money during political meetings, the use of vehicles belonging to state institutions for propaganda purposes, and the construction of illegal election offices. Moreover, overall spending on election activities by the two main candidates was colossal. Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa (the losing candidate) is reported to have spent over 2 billion Rupees (approximately US$13 million) of public funds on his advertising campaign alone, excluding the cost of production, while the winning candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, is reported to have had a budget of 676 million Rupees (approximately US$ 4.4 million) for electronic and print media.

In this context, reports that the Cabinet of Sri Lanka has unanimously approved a proposal to amend the country’s election laws in order to place more controls on campaign-related expenditures is good news. Such reform would address a gaping void in the existing legal framework: although Sri Lanka has laws prohibiting vote-buying and similar practices, there are currently no laws regulating campaign finance. The specifics of the approved Cabinet Memorandum are still not publicly available, and it is therefore not yet possible to offer a detailed evaluation of the proposed changes. Nonetheless, given what we already know about election campaigns in Sri Lanka—especially regarding the corruption risks associated with the lack of adequate regulation—it is possible to offer a few general observations and recommendations. Continue reading