Heightened Transparency of Stock Trading by Public Officials Could Help Convey Reliable Information in Crises that the Public Deserves to Know

On February 7, 2020, there were 34,876 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, but none in the United States. On that day, Fox News published a reassuring opinion piece co-authored by Republican Senator Richard Burr, arguing that the US is prepared to face any outbreak. Around February 13, a couple of days before the first confirmed cases in the US were discovered and before the stock markets began to plunge, Burr sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of stocks, many of which were in the hotel industry. Senator Burr’s stock sale was not public at the time; the sales were first reported by ProPublica only a month later.

We do not yet know whether Senator Burr’s decision to dump his stocks was based on confidential government information to which he had special access. On the one hand, new information on the Covid-19 pandemic was coming out every day, and perhaps Senator Burr was simply one of many investors who changed their minds regarding the outbreak and were lucky to exit the market in time. On the other hand, Senator Burr is the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was receiving regular briefings on the coronavirus situation, so the suspicions towards him are understandable. (It also didn’t help matters that a few weeks after the publication of his op-ed Senator Burr told wealthy donors in a closed-door meeting that the Covid-19 outbreak “is probably more akin to the 1918 pandemic,” but never revised his previous public reassurances.) Whether justifiably or not, Senator Burr was harshly criticized (including on this blog), with many calling for his resignation, and he has been sued for insider trading by a shareholder of one of the companies whose stocks he dumped. In addition to the criticism leveled at Senator Burr, several commentaries, including Cristina’s post on this blog, have argued that this incident demonstrates the need to amend the 2012 STOCK Act to impose stricter limitations on the freedom of senior US government officials, including Members of Congress, to trade in stocks.

My perspective is somewhat different. While I acknowledge the legitimate concerns that motivated calls to strengthen prohibitions on stock trading by government officials, in my view regulation should be more focused on ensuring the transparency of those trades, rather than on further limiting or blocking stock trading.

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Guest Post: COVID-19 and Corruption–Two Risks and One Opportunity

Today’s guest post is from Peter Glover, Program officer for the Center for International Private Enterprise’s Anti-Corruption and Governance Center.

The immediate consequences of COVID-19 are visible and visceral for everybody, even as some feel the effects more than others. In addition to reshaping everyday life, COVID-19 will also transform global governance—including with respect to corruption and related issues. In this post I want to emphasize three ways that the COVID-19 pandemic will interact with corruption: Continue reading

Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Update

A couple weeks back, I said I was thinking about trying to collect and collate the ever-increasing number of commentaries on the relationship between corruption and the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Several readers wrote to encourage me to continue, so I’m doing another update. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, since commentaries in on the corruption-coronavirus connection, like the virus itself, seem to be growing at an exponential rate. I certainly don’t make any claims to comprehensiveness (and thus I beg the forgiveness of anyone whose contributions I’ve neglected to include in the list below). But here are some new pieces I came across, followed by a chronological list of corruption-coronavirus commentaries to date: Continue reading

Guest Post: Measures To Counter Corruption in the Coronavirus Pandemic Response

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global health challenge the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. The outbreak demands swift and bold action not only in the direct response to the pandemic, but also in ensuring that monies are correctly spent, that companies do not profit unfairly from misfortune, and that power is not abused by our leaders.

Two weeks ago, I published a commentary on this blog that identified some of the critical corruption risks associated with the response to the coronavirus pandemic. In today’s post, I turn from a diagnosis of the risks to some possible solutions. In particular, I want to highlight four types of measures that will help to mitigate some of the corruption risks that were identified in my previous post. Continue reading

The Continuing Controversy Over the Destination of the Petrobras Penalties: The Coronavirus Crisis Has Ended One Debate, But May Start Another

As most readers of this blog are likely aware, the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras has been at the center of a massive bribery scandal in Brazil, and the main focus of Brazil’s so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) Operation. That Operation uncovered evidence that between 2006 and 2014, corporations paid kickbacks to senior Petrobras officials for inflated contracts, and the Petrobras officials funneled a substantial portion of those illicit proceeds to the political parties in the government’s coalition. These revelations lead to legal actions not only in Brazil, but also in the United States. Because Petrobras issued securities in the U.S., and because U.S. law imposes criminal liability on a corporation for the conduct of the corporation’s employees, Petrobras was potentially liable under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), because Petrobras officers had facilitated corruption abroad (that is, in Brazil). In September 2018,Petrobras signed a non-prosecution agreement (NPA) with the United States Department of Justice, according to which the company would pay over US$850 million in penalties. But, crucially, only 20% of that penalty would be paid to the United States; the remaining 80%, according to the terms of the NPA, was to be paid by Petrobras “to Brazil.”

This provision sparked great controversy and debate in Brazil over the destination of that money—a debate that seems to have been ended (for now) by the coronavirus crisis. The root of the problem is that under Brazilian law, Petrobras (the corporate entity) was considered victim of the bribery scheme, not a perpetrator. So, from a Brazilian perspective, it was hard to comprehend why the company should be obligated to pay for crimes that harmed it. Indeed, in many of the Car Wash cases resolved in Brazil, penalties recovered from other entities (such as the firms that paid kickbacks) were transferred to Petrobras. But under the NPA with U.S. authorities, Petrobras was required to pay over US$650 million to Brazil. What Brazilian entity or entities should get that money? And who should decide on the allocation?

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

As regular readers of this blog are aware, since May 2017 we’ve been 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.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most significant updates this month concern the ways in which the financial interests of the Trump Organization may intersect with the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic In particular:

  • There is some suspicion that the Trump administration’s slow and equivoval response to the pandemic may have been influenced by President Trump’s desire to avoid hurting the hospitality industry, one of the Trump Organization’s major lines of business. Media reports suggest that President Trump pushed for an end to social distancing by mid-April in part because of the adverse effect social distancing has had on his own hotels and resorts.
  • Critics also highlighted the fact that the 30-day ban on travel from Europe that President Trump announced on March 11 initially excluded the United Kingdom and Ireland, where Trump owns hotels and golf courses, though a few days later the Administration extended the travel restrictions to cover both countries.
  • President Trump’s financial interests may also have influenced the administration’s response to the pandemic’s economic costs. In early March, President Trump mentioned the possibility of a bailout for the hotel industry, and later that month, as Congress and the administration were negotiating an economic relief package, President Trump refused to rule out the possibility that his personal properties would accept relief funds under this package. The stimulus as passed, however, banned President Trump’s properties from receiving government support.
  • The Trump Organization has substantial outstanding loans from Deutche Bank (estimated to be in the neighborhood of $350 million). The Organization has asked Deutsche Bank to delay payments on those loans given the economic distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Critics have noted that this creates an inherent and troubling conflict of interest, given the power that the President has to affect Deutsche Bank’s interests (especially since a number of federal investigations of Deutsche Bank are ongoing.

A 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.)

New Podcast, Featuring Taryn Vian

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This episode is particularly timely, as it features an interview with Taryn Vian, a professor at the University of San Francisco whose research focuses on the links between corruption and public health. Unsurprisingly, much of our discussion revolves around the current coronavirus pandemic, and how to address and manage the corruption challenges associated with the current health emergency. But our broad-ranging conversation also covers the corruption-health connection in more normal times (including issues like informal payments to doctors and embezzlement or misappropriation of medical supplies), as well as lessons learned from corruption in previous public health emergencies, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2013-2016.

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.

Congressional Corruption During the Coronavirus Crisis: The U.S. Must Do More to Eradicate Insider Trading in Congress

Four U.S. Senators have been accused of trading stocks based upon non-public information about the coronavirus outbreak. The most disturbing cases appear to be Republican Senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler. Senator Burr, who as Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee attended a daily confidential briefing on the pandemic, divested between $628,033 and $1.72 million from industries hardest hit by coronavirus restrictions, including two major hotel chains. Senator Loeffler, who attended a confidential meeting about the coronavirus on January 24th, divested $1.275 million to $3.1 million from industries most hit, while also purchasing stock in teleconferencing companies. (Two other Senators, Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Jim Inhofe, both also made significant stock sales during this time, but Senator Feinstein’s funds are in a blind trust, and Senator Inhofe has said his financial decisions are made by his financial advisors without consulting him.)

This is not the first time that concerns have been raised about Members of Congress corruptly taking advantage of their privileged access to inside information to enrich themselves, though the fact that Senator Burr engaged in these transactions shortly after having co-authored a piece claiming that “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus” makes his case particularly egregious. In 2004, a quantitative study found that the investment portfolios of U.S. Senators consistently outperformed the market, a result that at least suggests that Senators were using non-public information to inform their investment decisions. In response to this concern, in 2012 Congress enacted a bipartisan bill called the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act. (Senator Burr, it should be noted, was one of only three Senators to vote against it.) The main purpose of the STOCK Act was to expressly affirm that Members of Congress and their staffers were covered by the general prohibition on insider trading. The Act also increased transparency by requiring that Members of Congress and senior staff release financial disclosures within 45 days of major trades.

The STOCK Act was a step in the right direction, but it does not do nearly enough to prevent federal legislators from using their privileged positions to enhance their own wealth. To eliminate this form of corruption, the law should impose much more aggressive, prophylactic restrictions.

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More Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Perhaps unsurprisingly, folks in the anticorruption community have started to generate a fair amount of commentary on the links between the coronavirus pandemic and corruption/anticorruption; these pieces approach the connection from various angles, including how corruption might have contributed to the outbreak and deficiencies in the response, the importance of ensuring adequate anticorruption safeguards in the various emergency measures being implemented to address both the public health crisis and the associated economic crisis, and concerns about the longer term impact on institutional integrity and checks and balances. Last week I posted links to four such commentaries. Since then, we’ve had two commentaries on the corruption-coronavirus relationship here on GAB (yesterday’s post from Sarah Steingrüber, and last week’s post from Shruti Shah and Alex Amico). Since then, I’ve come across some more, and I thought it would be useful to provide those additional links, and perhaps to try to start collecting in one place a list of commentaries on corruption and coronavirus. The new sources I’ve come across are as follows:

In case it’s helpful to readers, I may start to compile and regularly update a list of corruption-coronavirus resources. The ones I’ve got so far (including those noted above):

I’m sure there are more useful commentaries, and many more to come over the coming weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep a comprehensive list, but I’ll do my best to provide links to the resources I’m aware of, so if you know of useful pieces on the corruption-coronavirus link, please send me a note.

Thanks everyone, and stay safe.

Guest Post: Coronavirus and the Corruption Outbreak

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption.

It was never a question of if, but when, and now here we are. What’s worse is that we were warned. We are in the midst of a major global pandemic with nations all over the world declaring national emergencies, health systems struggling to cope or bracing themselves for the onslaught, and ordinary people trying to make sense of a barrage of sometimes conflicting information. The World Health Organization and national governments around the world recognize that slowing the spread of the coronavirus (more accurately, the SARS-CoV-2 virus) and helping those who are already suffering—both physically and economically—will require swift and bold action.

Unfortunately, that urgency significantly increases the risk that the response to the coronavirus pandemic will unleash a wave of corruption, one that not only threatens to undermine the effectiveness of the response thus ensuring greater loss of life, but could persist much longer than the outbreak itself, debilitating health systems long term.

In emergency situations, when lives are at stake, it is all too easy to rationalize the subordination of concerns about things like accountability and transparency, and to disregard or ignore any anticorruption infrastructure that may currently be in place. It’s hard to focus on holding leaders accountable when government action is desperately needed to save lives. But ignoring the risks of abuse of power during a crisis would be a grave mistake, and in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, at least three such risks are especially serious: Continue reading