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

Can Indirect Questioning Induce Honest Responses on Bribery Experience Surveys?

As I noted in my last post, bribery experience surveys – of both firms and citizens – are increasingly popular as a tool not only for testing hypotheses about corruption’s causes and effects, but for measuring the effectiveness of anticorruption policies, for example in the context of assessing progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals’ anticorruption targets. Bribery experience surveys are thought to have a number of advantages over perception-based indicators, greater objectivity chief among them.

I certainly agree that bribery experience surveys are extremely useful and have contributed a great deal to our understanding of corruption’s causes and effects. They’re not perfect, but no indicator is; different measures have different strengths and weaknesses, and we just need to use caution when interpreting any given set of empirical results. In that spirit, though, I do think the anticorruption community should subject these experience surveys to a bit more critical scrutiny, comparable to the extensive exploration in the literature of the myriad shortcomings of corruption perception indicators. In last week’s post, I focused on the question of the correct denominator to use when calculating bribery victimization rates – all citizens, or all citizens who have had (a certain level of) contact with the bureaucracy? Today I want to focus on a different issue: What can we do about the fact that survey respondents might be reluctant to answer corruption questions truthfully?

The observation that survey respondents might be reluctant to truthfully answer questions about their personal bribery experience is neither new nor surprising. Survey respondents confronted with sensitive questions often have a tendency to give the answer that they think they “should” give (or that they think the interviewer wants to hear); social scientists call this tendency “social desirability bias.” There’s quite robust evidence that social desirability bias affects surveys on sensitive topics, including corruption; even more troubling, the available evidence suggests that social desirability bias on corruption surveys is neither constant nor randomly distributed, but rather varies across countries and regions. This means that apparent variations in bribery experience rates might actually reflect variations in willingness to truthfully answer questions about bribery experience, rather than (or in addition to) variations in actual bribery experience (see here, here, and here).

So, what can we do about this problem? Existing surveys use a range of techniques. Here I want to focus on one of the most popular: the “indirect questioning” approach. The idea is that instead of asking a respondent, “How much money does your firm have to spend each year on informal payments to government officials?”, you instead ask, “How much money does a typical firm in your line of business have to spend each year on informal payments to government officials?” (It’s perhaps worth noting that the indirect questioning method seems more ubiquitous in firm/manager surveys; many of the most prominent household surveys, such as the International Crime Victims Survey and the Global Corruption Barometer, ask directly about the household’s experience rather than asking about “households like yours.”) The hope is that asking the question indirectly will reduce social desirability bias, because the respondent doesn’t have to admit that he or she (or his or her firm) engaged in illegal activity.

Is that hope justified? I don’t doubt that indirect questioning helps to some extent. But I confess that I’m skeptical, on both theoretical and empirical grounds, that indirect questioning is the silver bullet solution for social desirability bias that some researchers seem to suggest that it is. Continue reading

Building Booms and Bribes: The Corruption Risks of Urban Development

Windfall gains often create opportunities for corruption. The big inflow of money increases the opportunities and incentives for kickbacks and bribery as a means to capture new funds. Well-known examples of this phenomenon include disaster relief efforts, resource booms, and humanitarian aid. Yet the concern is not limited to those contexts. Changes in the price and value of land in a given area can also create the opportunity for windfall, and associated corruption risks.

The corruption risks in the land sector and real estate industry have been discussed broadly as pervasive; routine land administration and land grabbing provide ample opportunities for corruption to flourish where land governance is weak. Yet these discussions sometimes overlook another sort of corruptogenic windfall in land markets, one that is often hiding in plain sight: the effects of gentrification of urban centers. Experiences from cities around the world exemplify three common ways in which these windfall gains from gentrification provide opportunity for corruption. Continue reading

Death by Corruption: The Nepal Earthquake

Although press reports attribute the growing death toll in Nepal to the April 25 earthquake, earthquakes were in fact the proximate cause of very few fatalities.  Nepalese did not die from shaking ground but, as news footage shows, because they were crushed by falling buildings.  The link between earthquakes, collapsing buildings and fatalities has been known for centuries if not millennia as has the solution: codes setting standards that ensure all structures can withstand the shock of a quake.  Since 1994, Nepal’s building code has contained several provisions requiring buildings to be earthquake proof, but as the New Zealand consultant who helped develop the ’94 code told Bloomberg News, drafting a quakeproof code is easy, “the hard thing is to get implementation.”

That is where corruption makes its appearance.  Builders can find many ways to bribe around building codes, and judging from New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley’s May 1 story, Nepalese builders found them all.  The collapsed buildings in Katmandu “exposed not only flaky concrete and brittle pillars, but also a system of government enforcement rotted by corruption and indifference. . . . Residents and building experts say the corruption is an open secret . . . .  The developers and landlords who slap up the buildings . . . know they will rarely be punished by officials, who are often happy to look the other way for a price.”

The earthquake – corruption – death nexus is a predictable part of post-quake reporting.  Stories similar to Buckley’s appeared following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2008 one in China’s Sichuan province, the 2001 quake in the Indian state of Gujarat, and the 1999 one in the Marmara region of Turkey.  But as with the Nepal story, they were based on anecdotes and impressions.  Is corruption really why so many buildings become coffins once a quake strikes?  And if it is, what can be done to curb it? Continue reading