A Cultural Defense to Bribery? The Solomon Islands’ Approach

Gift-giving usually has positive connotations as an expression of love, respect, friendship, gratitude, or celebration. However, when the recipient is a public official, there is always the concern that the “gift” is nothing but a thinly-veiled bribe. For this reason, countries around the world have placed restrictions on the character and value of gifts that public officials are allowed to accept. But in societies where giving gifts – including, perhaps especially, to powerful or influential figures – is an important part of the culture, treating all (sufficiently large) gifts as unlawful bribes is more than usually challenging. Indeed, a recurring question for anticorruption reformers is whether or how anti-bribery law should make allowances for local cultural norms and practices, especially those related to gift-giving. This question – often framed as one of “cultural relativism” – frequently comes up in the context of developing countries (such as Indonesia or various Pacific islands), though it is not exclusive to such countries (see, for example, discussion of this same issue in South Korea).

One country that has recently faced the challenge of regulating cultural gift-giving to and by public officials is the Solomon Islands – a small state in the Pacific Ocean consisting of over nine hundred islands, a population of about 600,000, and a rich and fascinating history. For years, the Solomon Islands has been dealing with pervasive corruption at all levels of government, most notably in natural resources management, which has had disastrous ramifications for the country’s economic development (see here, here, and here). Like other Pacific islands, the Solomon Islands is home to a practice of traditional gift-giving to and by public officials, which in many other jurisdictions could be viewed as legally problematic. According to a local custom (as explained in an official government document), public officials, as members of their community, are “expected to contribute to community events such as weddings, funerals, feasts or church gatherings” and are “obligated to reciprocate with gifts if and when they visit communities and are presented with gifts.”

In July 2018, as part of a comprehensive national anticorruption scheme, the Solomon Islands’ Parliament enacted the much anticipated Anti-Corruption Act (ACA). The ACA is especially notable, and unusual, in its approach towards customary gifts and bribery. Instead of capping the monetary value or limiting the type of gifts which public officials are allowed to accept, the ACA introduced a new cultural defense to the offence of bribery of public officials. According to this defense, a public official who accepts or solicits something of value, as well as the individual who offers or gives it, is not guilty of bribery if the defendants can prove that their respective acts were conducted: (1) “in accordance with custom,” (2) “openly, in the course of a traditional exchange of gifts,” and (3) “for the benefit of a community or group of people and not for an individual.” According to Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela, the ACA’s cultural defense is required as part of the government’s obligation “to respect our customs and traditional cultures” as “a multi-ethnic post conflict country.” However, the cultural defense has been criticized by many, including the Parliament’s Bills and Legislation Committee (see here and here) and Transparency Solomon Islands, which referred to this defense as “a good example of bad law.”

In this post, I do not attempt to answer the question whether the Solomon Islands’ customary gift giving should be criminalized. I do wish to argue, however, that even if we assume that local gift-giving customs are worth protecting, the ACA’s cultural defense to bribery in its current form is highly susceptible to misuse and may undermine the government’s anticorruption efforts. Both the Solomon Islands and other jurisdictions that might be considering a similar cultural defense should take heed of four significant problems with the defense as currently written: Continue reading

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

The Case for Preserving South Korea’s Crackdown on Gifts

In September 2016, South Korea’s Improper Solicitations and Graft Prohibition Act, better known as the “Kim Young-ran Law,” came into effect. The Kim Young-ran Law, regarded by some as the strictest anti-graft law in the world, included important provisions aimed at combating Korea’s deep-seated gift-giving culture that infested the public sector and cultivated corruption (including, for example, the corruption blamed for the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, as well as the scandals that ultimately led to the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in 2017). The law’s provisions on gifts ban public servants, educators, and journalists from receiving free meals worth over 30,000 won ($28), gifts over 50,000 won ($46), and congratulatory or condolence money over 100,000 won ($92)—the so-called “3-5-10” restriction.

Although a majority of the Korean public believes that the Kim Young-ran Law has been effective in reducing bribery, the restrictions on gifts were widely perceived as too strict, with almost two-thirds of surveyed Koreans supporting an amendment that would loosen the 3-5-10 thresholds. In light of this, in December 2017 the legislature revised the law to double the price limits on gifts for agricultural, livestock, and fishery goods to 100,000 won, and to reduce the allowance for congratulatory or condolence money to 50,000 won—so, it’s still a “3-5-10” restriction, though the “5” and the “10” have flipped. However, scholars are concerned that even this alteration of the original rules would set a precedent for changes and exceptions that would defeat the initial spirit and purpose of the Kim Young-ran Law. Indeed, the arguments for relaxing the gift limitations do not withstand scrutiny; it was likely a mistake for South Korea to give in to pressure to amend the law, and it would certainly be a much graver mistake to relax the 3-5-10 thresholds further. Those who believe that the Kim Young-ran law’s limits on gifts are too stringent have advanced three major critiques, but none of them is persuasive:

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Corruption Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

Last summer UCLA Professor Miriam Golden and I did a radio interview on political corruption for a program called The Scholars’ Circle, hosted by Maria Armoudian. I just learned that a recording of the program is available online, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog. The recording can be found here; the discussion about corruption begins at 17:16.

The relatively brief but wide-ranging discussion, skillfully moderated by Ms. Armoudian, touches on five major issues (issues that we’ve also covered on this blog):

  • How should we define corruption, and how can we try to measure it? (at 18:11-26:31 on the recording)
  • Possible factors that might contribute to the level of corruption, including economic development, governance systems (democracy v. autocracy), social norms, and culture (26:32-32:41)
  • Whether and how countries can make the transition from a state of endemic corruption to a state of manageable/limited corruption—as well as the risk of backsliding (32:52-47:32)
  • What will the impact of the Trump Administration be on corruption, and on norms of integrity and the rule of law, in the United States? (47:42-52:02)
  • What are some of the main remedies that can help make a system less corrupt? (52:03-56:34)

There’s obviously a limit to how deep one can go in a format like this, and the program is geared toward a non-specialist audience, but I hope some readers find the conversation useful in stimulating more thinking on the topics we covered. Thanks for listening!

The Swahili Word for Transparency, and the Fallacies of Linguistic Determinism

I recently attended a workshop where participants were debating, among other things, why reform initiatives to promote government transparency and other anticorruption measures in places like sub-Saharan Africa had such a (seemingly) poor track record. In the course of the conversation, a well-known tenured professor declared – as evidence for the proposition that cultural incompatibility explains much of this apparent failure – that “there isn’t even a Swahili word for ‘transparency.’”

I was flummoxed and expressed some confused skepticism, but this professor (who, by the way, is a white Englishman whose CV does not indicate that he speaks Swahili or has ever done any research in a Swahili-speaking country) insisted that this was not only true, but was strong evidence that government transparency was an alien concept in Swahili-speaking societies.

It wasn’t a terribly important part of the discussion — more of an aside — and the conversation swiftly moved on. But the assertion that this linguistic lacuna demonstrates a significant cultural gap–one with important policy implications–has been bugging me ever since, not least because it reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s absurd claim that “in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.” (There is, by the way: svoboda.) So just in case this specific claim about Swahili, or linguistic arguments like this more generally, are an emerging meme in the anticorruption commentariat, I thought it would be worth a quick post to try to nip this nonsense in the bud.

So, what’s wrong with the claim that there’s no Swahili word for transparency? Three things: Continue reading

Culture Matters: How Indonesia Should Account Culture to Eradicate Corruption

Corruption in Indonesia is endemic, permeating all levels of society. As I argued in my last post, Indonesia’s culture of corruption is a result of the corruption of culture: Far too many people see corruption as unsolvable and even “normal,” even though they clearly realize its wrongfulness.

To date, Indonesia’s independent anticorruption agency, the KPK, has pursued a main strategy of prosecuting the “big fish”—the high-ranking officials (including numerous parliament members and powerful politicians) whose corrupt behavior has caused massive damage to the country. Laudable though the KPK’s bold enforcement efforts have been, eradicating corruption requires more than prosecutions. Rather, the KPK needs to complement its aggressive law enforcement with preventive measures designed to change Indonesia’s “culture of corruption” to a “culture of anticorruption.” There are several strategies the KPK could pursue to foster such cultural change:

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The Culture of Corruption and the Corruption of Culture in Indonesia

With over 300 ethnic groups scattered across more than 17,000 of its islands, Indonesia is justly proud of its extremely diverse cultural heritage. But Indonesia is certainly not proud of a different aspect of its culture: a ”culture of corruption” so pervasive that it is not merely associated with grand corruption in the central government, but also infects the daily lives of the citizens through petty corruption, as well as daily harassment by local officials and governmental departments.

When trying to diagnose the root cause of such pervasive corruption, a common knee-jerk response is to focus on the legal system and law enforcement institutions. Yet Indonesia seems to do fairly well on these dimensions: A well-regarded independent anticorruption agency, the KPK, in cooperation with the police and prosecution spearheads enforcement of a comprehensive Anticorruption Law that both considers domestic needs and incorporates principles enshrined in international materials such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Still, corruption persists. Why?

To answer this question, one must look at not only the legal system, but also the society—the people whose conduct the laws are supposed to regulate. Such observation reveals that the “culture of corruption”— society’s permissive, tolerant, and even accepting attitude toward corruption – is perhaps the main culprit responsible for Indonesia’s incurable corruption.

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