Governor Brown’s Missed Opportunity to Promote Political Transparency and Fight Trumpian Corruption

Last month, Republicans announced their plan for a comprehensive overhaul of the United States federal tax code, the first in decades. In characteristic fashion, President Trump promised, “I don’t benefit. I don’t benefit.” To clarify his point, he added, “I think very, very strongly, there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.” Lest those statements left any doubt, Trump later claimed, “I’m doing the right thing and it’s not good for me, believe me.” Notwithstanding the President’s promises, a New York Times analysis found that Trump could save over a billion dollars if his plan were to be passed into law. Seemingly responding to this reality, Trump later amended his sales pitch by claiming that “everybody benefits” from tax reform.

Tax reform fits squarely into the third category of conflicts tracked by this blog: government regulatory and policy decisions that benefit Trump and his family businesses. Americans deserve to know how the President would personally stand to gain if his proposal became law. Yet the extent of Trump’s conflict of interest remains unknown, and unknowable, because of his widely-criticized refusal to release his tax returns.

Unfortunately, California Governor Jerry Brown squandered an opportunity to force Trump to shed some light on his personal finances when he vetoed the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, which had passed both houses of the state legislature with overwhelming support. The Act would have required all aspiring Presidential candidates to provide their tax returns to the California Secretary of State (who would then publish them online) before the candidate’s name could appear on the California primary election ballot. In his veto message, Governor Brown explained that while he “recognize[d] the political attractiveness—even the merits—of getting President Trump’s tax returns,” he worried about the “political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner.” Brown identified two specific concerns about the bill: its constitutionality and the potential “slippery slope” it might create.

Brown’s arguments ring hollow. They seem particularly unjustified in a time in which state action is one of the few viable bulwarks against Trump’s corruption. Fortunately, other states, including Massachusetts and New York, are considering similar proposals. Those states can do better than California. Here’s why they should: Continue reading

Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Anti-Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

On the same day as President Trump’s swearing in, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released a memorandum elaborating upon why President Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a Senior White House Advisor did not violate the federal anti-nepotism statute (5 U.S.C. § 3110). That statute prohibits a public official (including the President) from appointing or employing a relative (which the statute defines as including a son-in-law or daughter-in-law). The OLC reasoned that despite the seemingly clear prohibition in 5 U.S.C § 3110, another federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 105(a), exempted positions in the White House Office from the anti-nepotism law. The OLC recognized this conclusion was a departure from its own precedent, but with the aid of some selective reading of legislative history, the OLC argued that lawmakers intended to allow the president “total discretion” in employment matters when it passed 3 U.S.C. § 105(a). (For non-specialists, see this primer for an explanation of these and other federal laws and regulations which could be relevant for addressing corruption in the Trump Administration.)

Somewhat predictably, the OLC memo generated debate among legal commentators (see here, here, here, and here). Yet even if the legal arguments were not entirely convincing, the OLC ended with a practical point that was echoed by many of the commentaries: given that President Trump will seek Mr. Kushner’s advice, regardless of whether he is a formal employee, it would be better for Mr. Kushner to be formally employed as a White House advisor, and thus subject to the applicable conflict-of-interest (COI) and financial disclosure rules. The same argument applies to Ivanka Trump, who also recently became an employee of the White House.

Some anticorruption advocates, myself included, were persuaded at the time by the OLC’s practical point. It would be best if the President did not make major policy decisions on the advice of radically unqualified relatives. But unfortunately, he is going to turn to them for advice. Given that baseline, we should prefer those family members occupy formal appointments, where at least they will be constrained by the COI statute and disclosure rules. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we should never have been persuaded. The COI statute and the disclosure rules turn out to be ineffective devices for preventing corruption in the Trump era. While the disclosure rules did encourage Mr. Kushner to make some divestments, they do not contain enough details to identify potential conflicts. And when there are conflicts, the COI statute is unlikely to be enforced, either because Attorney General Jeff Sessions will choose not to, or because the White House will grant a waiver.

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Three Valuable Additions to the Anticorruption Literature

March was a great month for the anticorruption community: two books and one report appeared that, in contrast to much that is published on corruption and related topics, are useful, insightful, and worthy of a careful read.

1) There is now no better introduction to the field of corruption studies than Ray Fisman and Miriam Golden’s Corruption: What Everyone Needs to Know, published in late March by Oxford University Press in an affordable paperback edition.  In nine readable chapters the authors summarize the main issues – what corruption is, why it is so harmful, the challenge of measurement, the forces behind it, and most importantly what can be done to reduce it.  The only group of readers that the book will disappoint is opportunistic politicians looking for quick and easy fixes.  There are, the authors remind readers at several points, “no easy fixes for a problem that been around for millennia.”

Theirs is not a counsel of despair, however.  Policy reforms can make a difference: higher salaries for public servants, the creation of an independent anticorruption agency, a “big bang” approach like Georgia’s wholesale dismissal of traffic police are three that are featured.  But such reforms can backfire, they warn, without complementary changes in the larger environment.  Wage hikes must be accompanied by more stringent enforcement of antibribery laws else the result may simply be to raise the bribe price. Quoting Gabe Kuris’ ISS study, they caution that anticorruption agencies will succeed only if they have built “alliances with citizens, state institutions, media, civil society, and international actors.”  With perhaps the disastrous results from disbanding the Iraqi army in mind, they discuss what could have befallen Georgia had its traffic police been let go under different circumstances.

Specialists will find nits to pick.  John Githongo never chaired the Kenyan anticorruption agency (he ran a unit in the President’s office); corporate interests are not the only ones that capture government agencies (labor and environmental interests can exercise undue influence over policy too); Switzerland long ago scrapped anonymous, numbered accounts.  But these are quibbles in what otherwise has to rank as the best one volume introduction to corruption and what can be done to fight it.

2) In the decade plus since my former World Bank colleagues Joel Hellman, Geraint Jones, and Daniel Kaufmann first advanced the idea that in some countries the forces of corruption are so powerful that they can be said to have “captured” the state’s policymaking machinery, the notion of “state capture” has been booted around academic and policymaking circles. Unfortunately not always with the greatest definitional or analytical clarity with the result that there is now a confusing mass of writing on what it means for a state to be captured and how it can be freed.  Thanks to the OECD, those looking for a source that makes sense of the welter of material on state capture now have a single volume to consult.  Preventing Policy Capture: Integrity in Public Decision Making, available here (free to read online, $20 to download) continues the high standards one has come to expect from OECD publications on governance, nicely synthesizing the massive literature Hellman and colleagues have inspired.

Just as Fisman and Golden warn that isolated interventions will not reduce corruption, the OECD authors stress that freeing a state from the bonds of corrupt interests requires a set of “actions that complement and reinforce each other.”  If anything, anti-capture policies are even trickier to implement than anticorruption policies, for, as the OECD warns, if not carefully constructed they can compromise fundamental democratic values of free expression and the right to petition government.  One of the volumes many strengths is that it never loses sight of these risks.

3) Perhaps the most salutary result of the international anticorruption movement is the spotlight it has cast on the massive theft of resources from poor countries by corrupt leaders.  There is no better guide to what has been dubbed “kleptocracy” than Cambridge Professor J.C. Sharman’s The Despots Guide to Wealth Management, just out in an inexpensive paperback edition from Cornell University Press.  The author of the leading text why tiny offshore jurisdictions were for so long able to help tax evaders and drug lords hide their money, Professor Sharman explains why kleptocracy — a practice wealthy nations once tolerated and one still facilitated by their banks, lawyers, and accountants — is now widely condemned.

Despite the sea change in attitudes, and accompanying changes in domestic and international law, however, corrupt money still gushes out of developing countries. Wealth Management is laden with pithy summaries explaining why efforts to halt the flow have failed. (Sanctioning international banks in the hopes concerns about a loss of reputation will deter them doesn’t work since “they appear to have little reputation left to lose.”)  Most importantly, Professor Sharman offers realistic recommendations for ending what has now become the most visible, and detestable, consequence of grand corruption.

 

Good News in the Anticorruption War

I had planned to write a reply, and partial rebuttal, to last week’s posts by Matthew and Travis on ethics, corruption, and Donald Trump.  The more I tried to come up with something to say, however, the more depressed I grew.  Instead, as a tonic — for this writer and perhaps others born or living in Trumplandia — what follows is instead good news on the global anticorruption front –

Laos: Shedding Fancy Government Vehicles that Smack of Corruption.  A December decree orders all government officials to trade their government-bought Mercedes, BMWs, Lexus, and other high-end vehicles for more modest means of transport.  Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and President Bounnhang Vorachit have both returned their BMW 7 Series and now drive Toyota Camry 2.5 cars instead. Other ministry and party officials must follow suit. (Details here.)

The Netherlands: Civil Society Attacks Money Launderers.  SMX Collective, a grassroots organization of Dutch and Mexican activists, academics, artists, journalists, curators and researchers concerned about the extreme impunity and violence suffered by Mexican people, has filed a complaint with the Dutch Public Prosecutor demanding the Dutch Bank Rabobank be charged with money laundering for its role in aiding Mexican drug cartels.  Vigorous pursuit of banks and other intermediaries for facilitating corrupt activities is urgently required, and Dutch civil society’s complaint is a welcome sign and an example others should copy.  For an English language summary of the complaint, click on “Continue Reading” at the bottom of the page.

France & Peru: Former Heads of State in Anticorruption Dock.  Prosecutors are pursuing charges against former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for campaign finance violations (NYT account here; Le Monde here) and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo for accepting a bribe (AP/NYT here; El Comercio here).  Neither case seems political.  Both have been brought by career law enforcement authorities who have no apparent ax, political or otherwise to grind.  The two may ultimately be found innocent by their nations’ courts, but the fact that high office in the two countries does not automatically carry with it immunity from prosecution for corruption crimes has to be considered very good news.

All three stories lifted my spirits.  I trust it will help other readers recognize that despite the fact President Trump is unlikely to fall over corruption claims (nicely explained by New Yorker writer James Surowieki here), the war against corruption is proceeding apace.

Summary in English of SMX complaint:  Continue reading

The Role of Corruption in the Syrian Civil War

Many forces spurred on the development of the Syrian Civil War, a conflict that has likely led to the deaths of over half a million people, as well as the displacement of ten million more. While fighting was sparked by protests within Syria, a reflection of the larger wave of discontent in the Middle East and North Africa that spurred the so-called Arab Spring, the uniquely destructive path of Syria’s internal instability is tied to more specifically Syrian problems, including rule by a minority religious group – the Alawites – over a mostly Sunni country, early and continued support by Russia to maintain the Assad regime, a partially autonomous Kurdish minority in the north, and the rise of Sunni rebel groups including ISIS. While these larger points are important, another, more mundane factor is often overlooked: the pervasive corruption of the Assad regime, which contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in at least three ways:

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Large-Scale Land Acquisitions: Opportunities for Corruption

Recent years have seen a significant rise in large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors, generally for agricultural or extractive purposes. Many of these land deals, termed “land grabs,” have had injurious effects on local populations who are often pushed off of their land without their informed consent. (For a description of contemporary land grabs and a land grab bibliography, see here.) Foreign companies and governments secure the majority of these land deals in poorer countries, where large tracts of land can be purchased cheaply, and where many of the local inhabitants do not have the means to contest the deals through the legal system. The land is frequently used for agriculture or production of “flex crops” (such as soy or palm oil), which are then sold abroad, rather than to the host country. Therefore, land grabs can result in not only the displacement of local communities, but also the reallocation of these vital resources to external actors, rather than to the inhabitants of the host country.

Large-scale land deals are often facilitated by corrupt practices perpetrated by the foreign purchaser and/or the host government, through the transactions themselves or through weak institutions. Last November, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and Global Witness released a report that details the opportunities for corruption at each stage of large-scale land acquisitions, as well as the current legal frameworks for addressing this corruption. As noted in the report, corruption can occur in each of the six phases of a land deal: Continue reading

The Crucial Role of Corporate Boards in Ensuring Corporate Integrity

Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheat has cost the company dearly. Last October, Volkswagen reached a US$16.5 billion dollar settlement with the US government, and the value of Volkswagen’s stock today is worth about 50% of what it was before the scandal – a US$60 billion drop in the company’s valuation. Criminal charges against several senior managers, including chairman Hans Dieter Poetsch, are still pending. Countless customers are furious, while many employees fear for their jobs as Volkswagen scrambles to cut its costs. (Some background on the scandal, as well as a regularly updated timeline, can be found here.)

What started as a “simple cheat” became a slippery slope for the whole company. Volkswagen failed to create a culture of corporate integrity; the institutional checks and balances that are supposed to prevent something like this from happening were purposefully or ignorantly subverted, and the company created all the wrong incentives. As Alison Taylor has argued on this blog, these are the perfect ingredients for a corrupt corporate culture.

Who to blame for this mess (and, similarly, many other corporate messes)? Just as “a fish rots from the head down,” a company’s board of directors must take responsibility for creating or allowing a toxic corporate culture that permits cheating and other unethical and illegal behavior. Continue reading