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

Announcement: New York Activists Soliciting Comments on Proposed Constitutional Amendment to Create a Public Integrity Commission

While most of the posts on this blog focus on national-level corruption, we’ve also had quite a few posts on corruption in certain subnational jurisdictions—and for one reason or another, we’ve had a particularly large number on corruption in New York State (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here). While New York is by most accounts not among the most corrupt states in the U.S. (see here and here), corruption there has attracted a great deal of attention given New York’s social, political, and economic importance—and the egregiousness of some of the state-level corruption that has been discovered or alleged in New York state politics.

Is institutional reform the answer? Last year, GAB contributor Kaitlin Beach argued that U.S. states should follow Australia’s example by establishing anticorruption agencies (ACAs) at the state level, and it seems some New York activists have been thinking along similar lines (though perhaps without the explicit foreign inspiration). A coalition of nongovernmental organizations—including Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity, the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Government Ethics, and the New York chapters of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the Public Interest Research Group—has, under the auspices of the “Committee to Reform the State Constitution,” been developing a proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution that would create a new “Commission on State Government Integrity,” that would assume the responsibilities (now dispersed among various other state organs) for investigating and penalizing ethics violations (as well as other forms of workplace misconduct) for both the legislative and executive branches, and for administering and enforcing campaign finance laws.

The full text of the draft of the proposed amendment is available here. I have not yet had an opportunity to read it carefully and form my own opinion. But I wanted to post an announcement about this proposal expeditiously, because the Committee to Reform the State Constitution is actively soliciting comments on its draft, and has requested that such comments be submitted by March 9th (a week from this Friday). Many of this blog’s readers may have relevant expertise—and perhaps also a useful comparative perspective—that may be helpful to these New York activists as they develop and refine their proposal. I encourage any of you out there with an interest in the institutional design of anticorruption agencies to take a look at the current draft proposal and to submit comments, if you have something potentially useful to contribute. Comments should be emailed to comments@detercorruption.info.

Guest Post: How District Attorneys Can Avoid Conflicts of Interest in Campaign Fundraising

Jennifer Rodgers, Executive Director of the Columbia University Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), and Izaak Bruce, CAPI Research Fellow, contribute the following guest post:

Last fall, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance received quite a bit of negative press for his handling of potential cases involving some high-profile potential defendants. In one case, Vance declined to bring sexual assault charges in 2015 against Harvey Weinstein despite a detailed victim account. In another case, back in 2012, Vance ultimately decided not to criminally charge members of the Trump family for making false and misleading statements to promote one of their real estate ventures, again despite what on the surface appeared to be credible evidence of wrongdoing. Of course, prosecutors have to make difficult judgment calls all the time about what cases to bring, often based on information that outsiders do not have access to and/or are not in a good position to judge. But what made these cases so troublesome to many was the suggestion or insinuation of improper influence. The New York County DA is an elected position, and in both the Weinstein case and the Trump case, the attorneys who successfully convinced Vance not to bring charges also made hefty donations to Vance’s reelection campaign.

Vance and his supporters insist that there was no impropriety, let alone a quid pro quo, and rightly point out that DAs raise substantial campaign contributions from many attorneys. But the reports were nonetheless deeply troubling, not least because these incidents evince a more general problem. In a couple of cases, DAs have been convicted for accepting campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for favorable defendant outcomes; much more common, however, is the appearance of impropriety caused by campaign donations from individuals involved in cases before the district attorney’s office; these are problematic even if no underlying crime is proved. And of course there is always the possibility of unconscious bias when a DA makes decisions about criminal cases that involve a campaign donor, even if the DA believes his or her decision making is unaffected. Yet despite these obvious problems, there are very few legal limits on donations by individuals to district attorneys, either in New York or elsewhere. In New York, for example, campaign contributors can give a DA candidate up to the maximum amount (almost $50,000 in New York County) with no regard for whether those contributions might lead to a conflict of interest or an unconscious bias on the part of the district attorney. And there is virtually no guidance for DAs on how to handle these potential or apparent conflict-of interest issues.

To help address this problem, my organization, the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at Columbia Law School, recently released a report on DA fundraising practices. DA Vance, to his credit, specifically requested this review, which included an examination of his own campaign fundraising practices. In conducting its review, CAPI considered the donation acceptance policies of DA Vance’s campaign, and analyzed contributions to his campaigns over his three election cycles, paying particular attention to contributions from attorneys. CAPI conducted research into applicable laws, regulations, and guidance for DAs, and lawyers generally, in this area, and interviewed numerous stakeholders on the topic, including DAs, election regulators, good governance groups, and legal ethics experts, to learn from their experiences and solicit their views. After conducting this review, the report offered seven recommendations for DAs to follow to avoid actual and potential conflicts of interest and biases. While these recommendations are geared to DAs in New York, they are instructive for elected prosecutors all over the United States: Continue reading

For the Love of Money: Capitalizing on Corrupt Officials’ Opulent Spending Habits to Fight Corruption

Corruption is notoriously difficult to track and discover, not least because both sides in a corrupt exchange have strong incentives to avoid getting caught. So how can enforcement officials, journalists, and anticorruption activists catch corrupt actors? Pay close attention to flagrant and excessive spending by public officials. After all, most people who benefit from corruption, whether they are officials receiving bribes or industrialists benefitting from the government action they purchased, do it for the money. And what’s the point of taking on so much personal risk to make more money if you can’t spend it on nice things? This is why you’ll see Chinese officials wearing wristwatches worth four times their annual salary and presidents spending millions on designer clothes and shoes and other luxury goods. The additional risk of being caught seems to be outweighed by the perceived social benefits of public displays of wealth. Throwing lavish weddings and banquets seems to be a particularly common trap that captures this phenomenon. The very public nature of these events, the massive guest lists, and the attendance of well known figures all but guarantee public scrutiny. But current and former government officials just can’t seem to help themselves. For example, in the middle of India’s recent anticorruption crackdown a former government minister held a lavish wedding for his daughter at a cost of over $75 million. This is in a country where a former state chief minister and potential prime minister was recently sentenced to four years in prison, banned from politics for a decade, and fined $16 million after an investigation sparked by an astonishingly opulent wedding she hosted.

Over the past decade, the spending habits of dozens of high-ranking officials have produced a number of viral news stories and have, in some cases, led to effective enforcement actions. The fact that people are willing to spend their corruptly acquired wealth so publicly, in spite of the risks involved, provides enforcement officials and anticorruption advocates with a unique and important opportunity in three respects:

Continue reading

Video: Columbia Law School Proxy Debate on McDonnell’s Bribery Appeal

As regular GAB readers know, we’ve had quite a bit of discussion on this blog about the case of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, and I’ve been particularly adamant in my views that the conviction ought to be affirmed. (See here, here, here, and here.) The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in McDonnell’s case tomorrow morning, and if anything interesting happens I may write about it again. In the meantime, while there won’t be a live audio or video of the Supreme Court argument, anyone who’s dying to hear some live debate about the legal argument is in luck! (Well, sort of.) A couple weeks ago the Columbia Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity hosted (in collaboration with the Columbia Federalist Society) a debate on the McDonnell case between John Malcolm, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and yours truly.

The full video is here. From my perspective, the most important exchange is at 47:13-50:38, where I put to Mr. Malcolm the question whether a federal crime would have been completed if the businessman (Jonnie Williams) and Governor McDonnell agreed that Mr. Williams would provide Governor McDonnell with valuable items (cash or the equivalent), and in exchange—as part of a quid pro quo—the governor would use his influence to get state medical institutions to perform expensive medical studies on the product Mr. Williams’ company produced. Mr. Malcolm concedes that the answer is yes: In that hypothetical example the “official act” element would be satisfied, so long as the quid pro quo is proved. (I make that initial point at 30:59-31:50 of the video and restate it, in the context of the adequacy of the jury instructions, at 34:57-35:32. But, again, the most important part of the exchange is at 47:13-50:38.)

To me, that concession ought to be the end of the argument. Mr. Malcolm’s argument, like that of Governor McDonnell’s lawyers, boils down to the claim that the particular steps that the governor took to try (unsuccessfully) to bring about those tests weren’t official acts (a conclusion, by the way, that I think is just wrong, but put that aside). But that doesn’t matter, because in this case there was an express quid pro quo involving a specific official act. Of course I’ve got my own strongly-held views on this. I leave it to interested readers to watch the video, and read the Supreme Court transcript once it’s available, and decide what you think.

One more aspect of the debate worth noting: In attempting to distinguish the McDonnell case from the Bob Menendez case and certain hypothetical examples I raised (see 38:53-40:25), Mr. Malcolm suggested, as a distinction, that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply if the subject of the quid pro quo is a matter that is not yet pending before the government (see 42:15-45:52 and 45:55-46:21). I didn’t have time to respond to that suggestion during the event itself, nor is it (to my knowledge) an argument that McDonnell’s lawyers have raised in their briefs, but for what it’s worth, I think the claim is inconsistent with the relevant statutes. Notably, 18 U.S.C. 201(a)(3) defines “official act” as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit” (emphasis added). Seems clear to me that a promised act can still be “official” even if the matter concerns an action that is not yet pending, but that may be pending in the future, or that could be brought before an official, even if it has not yet been. I suspect Mr. Malcolm may have been improvising a bit here–neither of us had the statute in front of us or committed to memory. In any event, the difficulties in a holding that the federal bribery statutes don’t apply as long as the subject of the quid pro quo is not yet formally pending before the government at the time the bribe takes place ought to be too obvious to belabor.

Guest Post: The Blagojevich Case and the Line Between Corruption and Horse-Trading

Jennifer Rodgers and Jacob Watkins, respectively Executive Director and Program Coordinator for the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), contribute the following guest post:

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently back in the news, but this time for something he didn’t do wrong, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 5 of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich was convicted in 2011. The appellate court’s decision hinged upon the distinction between illegal corruption and legal (if distasteful) political horse-trading, an issue recently touched upon in the decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to uphold former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s public corruption convictions (which Matthew discussed here). The outcome of the Blagojevich appeal shows that under current U.S. law, whether or not a public official’s deal-making is illegal depends upon what exactly the official is bargaining for. Political horse-trading–exchanging one official act for another official act–is not a crime under U.S. federal law, but exchanging an official act for a private benefit is. The decision in the Blagojevich provides a useful opportunity for thinking more generally about how the law ought to draw that difficult line. Continue reading

Guest Post: “Global Cities–Joining Forces Against Corruption” Conference Recap, Part 2

Jennifer Rodgers and Gabriel Kuris, the Executive Director and Deputy Director, respectively, of the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), have provided a two-part series of guest posts summarizing CAPI’s conference on “Global Cities–Joining Forces Against Corruption”, which we previously advertised on GAB. This is the second of the two posts. (Part 1 can be found here.)

The CAPI “Global Cities” conference featured two speakers who discussed their own experience working to promote strong municipal anticorruption enforcement, though there could hardly be a wider gulf in the circumstances they currently face. Commissioner Mark Peters of the New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) talked about about his office’s strong history of combating not only corruption but waste and mismanagement in NYC government, and Lev Pidlisetskyy of Ukraine’s Parliament gave an inside account of the incredible challenges his brand-new political party faces in fighting the massive and entrenched corruption left over from the Yanukovich era by instituting reforms in the judiciary, decentralizing authority, and engaging the public through new transparency tools

The panel discussion on “Engaging the Public: Mobilizing Citizens, Civil Society, and the Media” looked at the how cities can effectively partner with outside entities to better fight corruption. Athanasios Tsiouras of the Athens Mayor’s Office described Athens’ sophisticated and award-winning online platform for disbursing important information and collecting citizen complaints. Jose Ramon Amieva of the Mexico City Mayor’s Office spoke about major efforts to streamline local government processes like obtaining permits and licenses. And Fuad Khoury, the Comptroller General of Peru, discussed his office’s unique Young Auditors Program, which enlists students and teachers nationwide to help root out corruption, waste, and inefficiency. Dick Dadey, of Citizens Union of the City of New York, provided a civil society perspective, encouraging city governments to utilize networks of good government groups to make change. And Jeri Powell of New York City’s DOI took a historical view, emphasizing the importance of gaining the public’s trust in fighting corruption.

The next panel, “Game Changing Cases: An Inside Look at Breakthrough Investigations” featured prosecutors from all over the world discussing some major law enforcement successes, as well as the challenges they confront. A leading prosecutor from Venice explained a highly successful case in which 50 defendants, including a sitting mayor, were arrested for corruption offenses. New York federal prosecutors generated a lively discussion by describing a bribery case against a sitting state legislator, charged after another legislator agreed to cooperate with authorities and wear a recording device during his interactions with his colleague. A leader from the Catalan antifraud office described working on a variety of cases that help local officials build their own integrity systems. And a Malaysian prosecutor explained how a major case, built up during an extensive and lengthy investigation, was derailed by a defendant’s suicide while in custody.

Finally, “Ensuring a Clean Clean-Up: Fighting Fraud in the Wake of Disaster” provided an illuminating and instructive look at corruption risks related to major events that city governments should plan for to avoid making a bad situation worse. A member of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana spoke about how his office got up and running in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and what they would do differently today. Steve Lee, the Acting Director of the Department of Consumer Affairs of New Jersey, drew practical lessons from what kinds of consumer frauds his office has handled since Hurricane Sandy. And Alan Brill from Kroll provided a fascinating look at how easily criminals can steal unwitting citizens’ identities by setting up bogus free wifi sites, and how we can better protect ourselves against this kind of fraud.

From Perth to Barcelona, from Lima to Toronto, cities have become crucial battlefields in the fight against corruption. The citizens of the world’s growing urban majority are demanding fair and honest services from local governments, putting cities on the vanguard of public integrity enforcement and innovation. CAPI’s inaugural Global Cities conference made a compelling case that the international anticorruption community can learn from the voices of the local practitioners, policymakers, and public citizens working to clean up city halls worldwide. Interested readers can learn more about the conference from the online  videos, presentation slideshows, and other conference materials. And don’t forget to register now for CAPI’s upcoming online discussion forum on which we’ll soon be dissecting what we learned at Global Cities in greater detail with the participants!