Is the United Kingdom a Corrupt Country? Confronting Parliament’s Conflict-of-Interest Problem

Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently declared that he does not believe the United Kingdom is “remotely a corrupt country.” And indeed, international indexes (such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index) indicate that most observers perceive the UK as having high levels of public integrity. But while the British state may be free from the routine bribery and embezzlement that is common elsewhere, the UK Parliament is awash in conflicts of interest. Such self-dealing by the political class—what many in the UK press have dubbed “sleaze”—suggests that the country suffers more from corruption (albeit a different kind of corruption) than many observers realize.

The most recent “sleaze” scandal—and the one that prompted Prime Minister Johnson’s defense of the UK’s overall record on corruption—involved Conservative MP Owen Paterson, a former Environment Minister. Paterson received hundreds of thousands of pounds consulting for a clinical diagnostics firm and a meat processor, in violation of the UK’s longstanding ban on MPs acting as paid lobbyists. Even more damning, Paterson pressed the government to act against the meat processor’s competitor, and the government awarded the diagnostics testing company a £133 million pound contract despite the company lacking adequate equipment. While this scandal may have revealed especially egregious conflicts-of-interest, it is not an isolated incident. Consider just a handful of additional examples of instances in which MPs earned outside income from positions that would seem to create a serious conflict:

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Defining Corruption: What Do Readers Say?

Recent posts have treated readers to a discussion of what corruption means.  Professor Rothstein suggested coming at it from its opposite and offered “impartiality” so corruption would mean the absence of impartiality or bias. [Note: I had flubbed Prof. Rothstein’s view in the original text as per his comment below.] Professor Johnson argued that at its core corruption is about an imbalance of power and suggested tying the definition to notions of “justice.” Transparency International’s “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” was also examined.

I think it time for GAB readers to be heard. Rather than asking which one of these definitions they prefer, or whether they have another candidate, however, I thought it more interesting to see how a definition of corruption helps them judge actual conduct in the real world. 

Below are six cases where at least some have alleged corruption was afoot. What say, GAB readers? Do any of the cases described below involve corruption as you define it?

A yea or nay on each in a comment to this post will suffice. Extra credit for explaining how one of the definitions proffered helped you decide. Lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate to the best entry or entries. How each played out in court and in the court of public opinion will be revealed in a future post.

Case 1. To defeat a motion of no confidence, Vanuatu’s Unity of Change government offered two MPs parliamentary appointments in return for withdrawing their support for the motion.  Another MP was offered the position of Minister of Health, and a fourth Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries. All four accepted the offers, and the government defeated the motion. Bribery?

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Guest Post: Reforming Sudan’s Asset Declaration System

Today’s guest post is from Haytham Karar, an independent international development consultant based in Khartoum, Sudan.

The pro-democratic revolution in Sudan has ended a long-standing autocracy. However, public sector corruption, which remains widespread, threatens Sudan’s emerging democracy. The culture of using public office for private gain remains deeply entrenched, and the line between public and private roles is not clearly drawn or widely respected. Not only do the same people cycle back and forth through the “revolving door” between public office and the private sector, but many government officials own stakes in, or are otherwise directly connected with, private companies even while serving in government. In fact, many government officials continue to operate private enterprises while in office, even though the Constitution explicitly prohibits this practice. This blurring of public and private roles, and the associated conflicts of interest that arise, have contributed to the corruption and cronyism that continue to pervade the system.

One of the tools that is supposed to help combat these problems is the asset declaration system for public officials. While an asset declaration system is not by itself sufficient, a well-designed and operational asset declaration system is a crucial element in a larger strategy for promoting integrity and anticorruption. Unfortunately, Sudan’s asset declaration system is largely ineffective and in desperate need of reform. The current framework—which was designed under the previous government and was never implemented effectively or fairly—has a number of significant problems. Continue reading

The Emoluments Clause Cases Against Donald Trump: A Post Mortem

Of the many credible corruption and conflict-of-interest allegations against former President Donald Trump, some of the most prominent concerned the income that the Trump Organization earned from parties with interests in influencing U.S. government policy. While the general conflict-of-interest rules that cover most federal officials do not apply to the President, a subset of the Trump Organization’s business dealings—in particular, those involving foreign governments and state governments—at least arguably violated the U.S. Constitution’s two so-called “Emoluments Clauses. (The Foreign Emoluments Clause prohibits any U.S. official from receiving gifts, titles, or “emoluments” from foreign governments, while the Domestic Emoluments Clause prohibits the President in particular from receiving any benefits other than his official salary from federal, state, or local governments.) President Trump’s alleged violations of the Emoluments Clauses triggered three separate lawsuits, filed by different parties in different federal courts, within Trump’s first six months in office. Those cases gradually wound their way through the legal system, with some defeats and some victories, mainly on threshold legal questions.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court brought that whole process to a halt, dismissing petitions for review in two of those pending cases as moot. (The third case had been dismissed by an appeals court, and the Supreme Court declined to review that case last fall.) Thought the Court’s terse, unsigned order included no explanation, the obvious inference is that the Court determined that the Emoluments Clause suits were moot because Donald Trump is no longer President. Importantly, the Court’s mootness order means not only that these suits won’t proceed, but also that the previous legal rulings in the cases under review are vacated, and thus have no precedential value. Legally speaking, it’s as if the cases never happened.

This did not sit well with everyone. Former head of the Office on Government Ethics Walter Shaub described the Court’s dismissal of the cases as “insane,” arguing that the cases are “not moot” because Trump “still has the money.” “When any other federal employee violates the emoluments clause,” Shaub observed, “they have to forfeit the money.” Others involved in the litigation against Trump tried to look on the bright side. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), for example, issued a statement noting that the Emoluments Clause litigation “made the American people aware for four years of the pervasive corruption that came from a president … taking benefits and payments from foreign and domestic governments.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what I think about all this. I don’t have a clear, clean bottom line, but I do have a few scattered thoughts about what we might take away from the denouement of the Emoluments Clause controversy. Continue reading

The Trump Administration and Corruption: A Preliminary Retrospective

As of yesterday at 12 noon, U.S. East Coast Time, Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America.

First, let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

OK, now we can start thinking about what we’ve learned from this traumatic experience. There is no shortage of political and cultural commentary on the Trump era and its implications, and I have little of substance to add to that general discussion. But, given that this is a blog specifically focused on corruption, let me offer a few reflections on the implications of the last four years for corruption and anticorruption in the United States.

At the risk of self-indulgence, I’ll frame this preliminary discussion in terms of my own guesses, as of four years ago, about how the Trump Administration would affect U.S. corruption and anticorruption policy. Immediately after Trump’s election, I wrote a despondent post about why I thought that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the fight against corruption on many different dimensions. Roughly a year later, I did a follow-up post assessing my own predictions, concluding that on some issues my pessimistic forecasts proved inaccurate (for reasons I did my best to assess), while on other dimensions the Trump administration was as bad or worse than I had feared. Now that Trump is finally out of office, it’s a good time for another retrospective assessment—both to understand where things stand now with respect to U.S. policy and leadership on anticorruption issues, and also to see what lessons we might be able to draw from the experience of the past four years. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Jack Goldsmith

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview my Harvard Law School colleague Jack Goldsmith about what the Trump Administration has taught us about the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. system for constraining corruption, conflicts of interest, and other forms of wrongdoing by the President and senior members of the executive branch, as well as what kinds of institutional reforms and policy changes would help prevent such wrongdoing going forward. The conversation centers on Professor Goldsmith’s new book, After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency, co-authored with Bob Bauer. Jack and I discuss the importance of norms in constraining wrongdoing and maintaining the independence of law enforcement bodies, various approaches to addressing financial conflict-of-interest risks in the context of the U.S. president, the challenges (but also the necessity) of relying on political checks, and the debates over whether to prosecute a former president, such as President Trump, for crimes allegedly committed while in office. You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

The most significant new additions are primarily due to some very good pieces of investigative reporting.

  • The first, and more widely covered, is the New York Times reporting on several years of President Trump’s federal income tax returns, including the returns from his first two years in office. The returns shed light on many troubling aspects of the President’s finances, including the exceptionally low tax rates he has paid, evidence of multiple instances of possible fraud (still under investigation by the IRS), and his deep personal indebtedness, which plausibly raises security and other risks. The tax returns also provide significant corroborating evidence of the extent to which President Trump and his businesses have continued to earn substantial income from both private firms and foreign governments, giving rise to extraordinary conflict-of-interest concerns, as well as possible (indeed, likely) violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
  • Second, Dan Alexander’s new book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business, covers in much greater depth, and with significant original reporting, the same themes that we’ve been trying to keep track of here, namely the ways that President Trump has sought to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. A terrific and troubling Vanity Fair article summarizes some of the most significant findings, including compelling evidence that the government of Qatar rented office space in a building 30% owned by President Trump for no apparent purpose other than to influence the U.S. government’s Middle East policy.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–September 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Lebanon Disaster Update: An Excellent and Disturbing OCCRP Report Sheds New Light on the Backstory of the Deadly Explosion

A couple of weeks ago, I did a short post in reaction to the deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 182 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. My post wasn’t really about the Lebanon blast per se—especially because the causes of the explosion, and the role that corruption may have played, were unclear—but rather discussed more generally the direct and indirect ways that widespread corruption can increase the risk of deadly accidents. But I continue to wonder whether, with respect to the Beirut tragedy, it will turn out that corruption (rather than “mere” incompetence) will have been a contributing cause.

We still don’t have all the answers—particularly with respect to the decision-making process within Lebanon itself—but thanks to excellent investigative reporting by an international team of journalists with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we now have a great deal more information about the shadowy and highly suspicious backstory of the abandoned ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in the first place. I don’t think I can do the report justice, but I highly recommend that everyone read it—it’s available here. And to give you a sense of what’s in it, I’ll just quote the main findings summarized at the beginning of the report: Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–August 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here. As has been true for the past couple of months, most of the newest items relate to the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including further evidence that federal bailout money has flowed to businesses owned or closely connected to President Trump’s family and cronies, and White House pressure to include in the next coronavirus relief package an unrelated $1.75 billion for the renovation of the FBI headquarters building located across the street from Trump’s D.C. hotel. One item, though, actually concerns events that took place over two years ago, but were only disclosed this past month: Apparently the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, acting at President Trump’s request, tried (unsuccessfully) to use his influence to get the British Open held at Trump’s Scotland golf course.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)