Learning from Defeat: The Menendez Case

Last Friday, the Department of Justice asked for another chance to try U.S. Senator Robert Menendez on corruption charges, requesting that the court “set the case for retrial at the earliest possible date.”  The first trial resulted in a mistrial.  Ten of the 12 jurors held out for acquittal, saying prosecutors had produced no “smoking gun.”  Yet the prosecution did indeed have a smoking gun – irrefutable proof the Senator broke the law – which it did in fact show the jury.

Prosecutors can learn much about trying corruption cases from the failure to convict Menendez the first time.  Not, as one commentator claims, that America’s anticorruption laws are so flawed only the most flagrant violators need fear them.  The lessons have nothing to do with America’s anticorruption laws, which are hardly in bad shape. Nor its system of 12 citizens determining the facts in a criminal case.  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.

Continue reading

(Why) Is the Walmart Case Taking So Long?

So this might not be the most important question in the world, but I’ve been wondering why the U.S. Government’s investigation into Walmart’s alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (or, more accurately, FCPA violations committed by Wal-Mart’s Mexican subsidiary, Walmex) has yet to produce a final settlement.

A quick and somewhat simplified recap (for those among our readers who don’t obsessively follow every FCPA case in the pipeline): In April 2012, two New York Times reporters broke a blockbuster story about how Wal-Mex had been systematically paying bribes to scores of Mexican officials to get permits for new stores (often circumventing local environmental protection and historical preservation regulations in the process), and—perhaps even more damningly—about how Walmart’s senior leadership, upon learning of the bribery allegations from an internal whistleblower and preliminary internal investigation, had decided to cover up the problem and reject its own compliance department’s calls for a thorough investigation. (Walmart tried to get out in front of the story by including a disclosure of possible FCPA problems in its December 2011 FCPA filing, though that disclosure downplayed the seriousness of the issue.) The original New York Times story, along with a follow-up story published in April 2012, netted the two reporters a Pulitzer Prize. Those reports, along with Walmart’s December 2011 disclosure, prompted the Department of Justice Securities & Exchange Commission to begin investigating Walmart for FCPA violations.

That was back in April 2012. It’s now three and a half years later, and there’s still no resolution of the case; the investigation is still ongoing—something that has prompted grumbling in some quarters about both the length and cost of the investigation (see here and here). Why is this taking so long?

This is a question I’ve heard several people raise at various conferences and meetings. I don’t have any good answers, but I thought I’d throw out a few hypotheses: Continue reading

Guest Post: The Potentially Perverse Effects of Campaign Finance Disclosure Laws

Professor Michael Gilbert from the University of Virginia Law School contributes the following guest post:

Since at least the 1970s, proponents of campaign finance regulations in the United States and elsewhere have supported mandatory disclosure of monies spent on politics.  Notwithstanding some significant loopholes, those proponents have in many respects gotten their way in the United States and many other countries. Much of the enthusiasm for disclosure is based on the notion that it helps combat a certain kind of corruption—the exchange of campaign support for policy favors. Publicizing the flow of money to politicians exposes illicit relationships and quid pro quos.  In Justice Brandeis’s famous phrase, “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”

This logic is correct but incomplete.  Disclosure does indeed provide information that officials and the public can use to combat corruption.  But, as Ben Aiken and I argue in a new paper, corrupt actors can also use that information to overcome an impediment to illegal exchanges:  lack of trust.  Private parties cannot sign enforceable contracts with politicians for quid pro quos. Instead, they must trust one another—if I give you the money today will you deliver the vote tomorrow?  That need for trust means that both sides to a potentially corrupt exchange must assess one another’s credibility. Disclosure laws can, perversely, help foster that undesirable trust. After all, disclosure of campaign donations reveals which parties reward compliant politicians; this same disclosure, combined with politicians’ voting records, reveals which politicians reward their financial supporters most consistently.  Through those channels disclosure can bring conspirators together and reduce the uncertainty that inheres in illegal transactions.  As a colleague put it, “disclosure is like match.com for criminals.” Continue reading

Is It Unconstitutional To Compel Extractive Industry Firms To Publish What They Pay?

Publish What You Pay” (PWYP) is the slogan of the international civil society movement to promote transparency and accountability in the extractive industry sector (oil, gas, minerals, etc.). The idea is to get firms to disclose what they pay to governments, and to get governments to disclose what they receive, in connection with extraction projects. Viewing voluntary programs like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative as insufficient, the PWYP movement has been pressing for mandatory disclosure requirements. But would such requirements violate the right to free speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

That question may seem absurd. Requiring truthful disclosures by commercial firms of payments to foreign governments may or may not be an effective anticorruption measure, but is it even plausible that such requirements would violate the constitutional guarantee of free speech? I think the answer should be no. But alas, as is often the case, it’s not clear that my view is shared by the federal judges who are likely to decide this issue. Indeed, there are worrisome signs that the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals may endorse an absurdly expansive conception of the First Amendment that would block any effective PWYP mandate. Continue reading