Band-Aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes: The West Virginia Supreme Court Needs To Address Its Corruption Problem

The headlines wrote themselves: a $32,000 couch (complete with $1,000 worth of throw pillows). A $10,000 payment to a private attorney to “ghostwrite” a court opinion. Illegal overpayments to former colleagues in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public outcry erupted in late 2017 when news broke that the justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) had spent lavishly on office renovations. Further investigations revealed that some justices had used state-owned vehicles and government credit cards for personal use. Three of the justices were accused of scheming to overpay retired judges who were contracted by the judiciary to fill in on the trial courts in times of vacancy or high caseloads. But the most brazen allegations were leveled against Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who was convicted of wire fraud and obstructing an investigation into his enriching himself at taxpayer expense—despite the modest fame and fortune he (ironically) earned as the author of a book on political corruption in West Virginia.

The pervasiveness and diversity of the misdeeds on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals over the past few years suggest that the corruption was in many ways a cultural problem. But it’s worth noting that the most serious allegations of corruption were likely not actually criminal. A quirk in West Virginia’s law gave the Supreme Court near-total control over its own budget, paving the way for the unchecked spending. Likewise, the intentional overpayments to retired judges reeked of cronyism but may or may not have been illegal; while a statute capped payments to part-time judges, the judiciary still arguably retained ultimate control how and how much to spend.

In response to the revelations of corruption, West Virginia’s government settled on two aggressive solutions. First, in August 2018 the West Virginia House of Delegates approved 11 articles of impeachment against the four justices still on the court and scheduled trials for each of them before the State Senate to determine if they should be removed from office. (The normally five-member court was already down a justice, who resigned in July a few weeks before pleading guilty to federal fraud charges.) The impeachment proceedings were met with outrage by some commentators (see here, here, and here), who saw them as a partisan power grab. Questionable motives aside, the results of the impeachment charges were still a mixed bag: one justice resigned from the Supreme Court before her trial. Another was acquitted of all charges but formally censured by the State Senate in a lopsided vote. The other two justices escaped any impeachment trial after an interim slate of state Supreme Court justices threw out the impeachment charges against their fellow justices on technical grounds. Chief Justice Loughry resigned following conviction in federal court (that makes three resignations overall, if you’re keeping count), and the legislature backed down from further impeachments. Second, after the impeachments, West Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that wrested control over the judiciary’s budget away from the Supreme Court, giving the legislature the power to cap the judiciary’s annual spending, so long as the total amount is no less than 85% of the previous year’s budget.

But even if these measures work precisely as planned, the problem in West Virginia is far from solved. The damage to the judiciary’s legitimacy has been severe. A common refrain states that judges “like Caesar’s wife, must not only be virtuous but above suspicion.” And Chief Justice Loughry—of all people—echoed this same bold claim in his book: “Of all the criminal politicians in West Virginia, the group that shatters the confidence of the people the most is a corrupt judiciary…. It is essential that people have the absolute confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our system of justice.”

Unfortunately, the remedies implemented thus far serve only the short-sighted goals of stopping yesterday’s corruption. What is missing in the aftermath of the West Virginia scandals is a concerted effort on rebuilding trust in the judiciary. As previous scandals in the public and private sectors suggest, regaining trust in the judiciary requires public remedial actions by the judiciary itself. Replacing certain justices and adding high level legislative oversight may have been appropriate, even essential, measures, but they don’t necessarily help the court restore its integrity and repair its tarnished reputation. Moreover, focusing exclusively on these externally-imposed remedies may send a signal that the judiciary can’t be trusted to handle its own affairs. This makes it all the more imperative that the judiciary take the initiative in addressing its cultural problem and rebuilding public trust in the courts. A willingness to accept responsibility for past mistakes and engage in transparent self-evaluation will be critical as the West Virginia Supreme Court begins its new term this month. In particular, there are two steps the Court could take that would be helpful: Continue reading

Putting Anticorruption Up for a Vote: The Challenge of Designing Effective National Referendums

One of the biggest challenges in the fight against corruption is getting people in power to reform the very system from which they currently benefit. Over the past year, we have seen anticorruption advocates in Colombia and Peru attempt to bypass this hurdle using national popular referenda on anticorruption measures.

In Peru, the referendum on December 9, 2018 came on the heels of the massive Odebrecht scandal, which implicated all of Peru’s living former Presidents. Current President Vizcarra and his supporters originally proposed a referendum containing three anticorruption reforms: banning the immediate reelection of legislators and executives, reforming the system by which prosecutors and judges are appointed, and instituting new campaign finance regulations. The required legislative approval of the referendum took several months, and during this process the legislature added another proposal (not supported by President) to create a second legislative chamber. In the end, the three original reforms passed, and the proposed bicameral legislature failed after a successful “Yes, yes, yes, no” campaign by the President and his supporters.

Colombia’s referendum also came in response to the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal. On August 28, 2018, Colombia had a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures that aimed to improve transparency in governance, institute legislative term limits, and cut legislator pay. Six of the seven measures proposed in the referendum had previously failed in the lower house of the Colombian legislature, but 99% of voters approved all seven measures in the referendum. Though the total number of citizens voting fell just short of the quorum required for the referendum to be binding, President Duque convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018. The President proposed eight measures inspired by the referendum to the legislature, but momentum has stalled as legislators look to modify the proposals or avoid voting on them. With no clear deadline for if and when they will be passed, their fate is now uncertain.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Colombian referendum was not without its faults, specifically with respect to the inclusion of counterproductive retributive measures. More generally, while a national referendum may seem like an ideal way to bypass conflicted legislators, a referendum poses serious three risks that need to be addressed if one hopes to use this lawmaking mechanism to combat corruption:

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How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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Defending Those Who Expose Corruption: Defamation Safe Harbor Legislation to Protect Investigative Journalists

In May 2017, Russian journalist Dmitry Popkov, who investigated corruption in local governments, was shot five times and found dead in his backyard. The perpetrators were never identified. In October 2017, a car bomb killed Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been investigating possible corruption by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Although three suspects were charged with carrying out the attack, the masterminds behind the plot were never found. And in February 2018, an unidentified hitman killed Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, both 27, in the couple’s newly-purchased home. Kuciak was in the middle of an investigation of the Italian organized crime group ’Ndrangheta and its corrupt ties to Slovakia’s governing political party SMER. Slovak officials arrested seven suspects allegedly connected to the ’Ndrangheta and the murder, but did not find enough evidence to file charges and released them 48 hours later. Although weeks of mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the Slovak Prime Minister, the perpetrators of Kuciak’s murder were never held accountable.

Sadly, these are not the only such incidents. Reporters Without Borders states that last year 39 journalists were murdered because “their reporting threatened political, economic, or criminal interests.” And in many of these cases, despite government assurances of a thorough investigation—and despite a 2013 United Nations Resolution that urges Member States to conduct “impartial, speedy and effective investigations” of journalist murders—the perpetrators are never brought to justice. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, these murders are often associated with sophisticated crime syndicates that leave few traces for investigators to follow, and an effective investigation would require significant resources and expertise beyond the capacity of many governments. (In some cases, such as Caruana Galizia’s murder, assistance from Dutch forensic experts and the FBI enabled local authorities to arrest suspects linked to the attack, but this is not regular practice.) Perhaps more importantly, resolving the murders of journalists who expose public corruption is not always in the interest of government officials, at least when doing so might provide further evidence of the government’s corrupt acts and expose officials implicated in the journalist’s work.

Given these weaknesses, many corrupt officials and associated criminal networks may conclude that killing a journalist before a story is published may be an effective way to eliminate it altogether. Sadly, this is indeed often the case. But not always: One of the striking things about the recent case in Slovakia is the decision of Kuciak’s employer, the news website Aktuality, to publish his unfinished article. And it appears that this decision to publish, not just the murders themselves, contributed to the massive public outcry and political backlash that has already forced the Prime Minister and several other high-level officials to resign.

Publishing a journalist’s unfinished article is not common practice for newspapers; it was likely done in the Kuciak case because the investigation was almost finished. Usually newspapers are hesitant to publish due to fear of defamation lawsuits, which are a drain on the publication’s resources and reputation. So-called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are filed in jurisdictions with strong defamation laws in order to intimidate journalists and media outlets, and prevent them from publishing certain articles. Some members of the European Parliament have been pushing the European Commission to protect investigative journalism by adopting anti-SLAPP measures.

Another reform measure, which hasn’t yet been part of the conversation, would be to create a special exception to defamation laws that would apply when a media outlet publishes a story, on a matter of public concern, by a journalist who was murdered before the story was complete. In other words, countries should enact a “safe harbor” from the ordinary operation of defamation laws in these special circumstances—one that would allow for the expedient dismissal of defamation suits against media outlets that publish the incomplete work of a murdered journalist.

Creating such a safe harbor would have a number of important advantages, and only very limited downsides:  Continue reading

How Can an Anticorruption Agency Repair Its Reputation After a Scandal? Lessons from Ghana

Corruption-plagued countries often create independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) to ensure the integrity of other institutions. But sometimes ACAs get caught up in their own scandals—scandals that can undermine their credibility and hard-won public trust. ACAs may be particularly at risk because of the threat they pose to powerful elites, who will always be on the lookout for ways to undercut ACAs. Of course, ACAs should be attuned to these risks and to put measures in place to minimize them. But no preventative system is perfect. What to do when it fails? When an ACA’s reputation has been besmirched by an internal corruption scandal, what can the agency do to restore public trust?

Ghana’s experience may offer some lessons. In 2008, Ghana established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which is responsible for anticorruption enforcement, among other things. CHRAJ has done much good work, from conducting investigations of corruption allegations to producing conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of conduct. But in 2011, the CHRAJ was rocked by an internal scandal when it was revealed that Lauretta Lamptey, then chief of the CHRAJ, had misappropriated public funds to renovate her official residence, to pay hotel bills, and to upgrade her air tickets. The scandal “dented the image of the CHRAJ both nationally and internationally” and jeopardized public trust in the CHRAJ and the willingness of Ghanaian citizens to report corruption cases to the commission.

Damage control was absolutely crucial—and seems to have been largely successful. According to the US State Department’s Ghana 2016 Human Rights Report, public confidence in the CHRAJ is again high. The CHRAJ’s relative success in restoring credibility after its internal corruption scandal suggests a few guidelines for how an ACA can respond effectively in this sort of situation:

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