Guest Post: How District Attorneys Can Avoid Conflicts of Interest in Campaign Fundraising

Jennifer Rodgers, Executive Director of the Columbia University Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), and Izaak Bruce, CAPI Research Fellow, contribute the following guest post:

Last fall, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance received quite a bit of negative press for his handling of potential cases involving some high-profile potential defendants. In one case, Vance declined to bring sexual assault charges in 2015 against Harvey Weinstein despite a detailed victim account. In another case, back in 2012, Vance ultimately decided not to criminally charge members of the Trump family for making false and misleading statements to promote one of their real estate ventures, again despite what on the surface appeared to be credible evidence of wrongdoing. Of course, prosecutors have to make difficult judgment calls all the time about what cases to bring, often based on information that outsiders do not have access to and/or are not in a good position to judge. But what made these cases so troublesome to many was the suggestion or insinuation of improper influence. The New York County DA is an elected position, and in both the Weinstein case and the Trump case, the attorneys who successfully convinced Vance not to bring charges also made hefty donations to Vance’s reelection campaign.

Vance and his supporters insist that there was no impropriety, let alone a quid pro quo, and rightly point out that DAs raise substantial campaign contributions from many attorneys. But the reports were nonetheless deeply troubling, not least because these incidents evince a more general problem. In a couple of cases, DAs have been convicted for accepting campaign contributions as bribes in exchange for favorable defendant outcomes; much more common, however, is the appearance of impropriety caused by campaign donations from individuals involved in cases before the district attorney’s office; these are problematic even if no underlying crime is proved. And of course there is always the possibility of unconscious bias when a DA makes decisions about criminal cases that involve a campaign donor, even if the DA believes his or her decision making is unaffected. Yet despite these obvious problems, there are very few legal limits on donations by individuals to district attorneys, either in New York or elsewhere. In New York, for example, campaign contributors can give a DA candidate up to the maximum amount (almost $50,000 in New York County) with no regard for whether those contributions might lead to a conflict of interest or an unconscious bias on the part of the district attorney. And there is virtually no guidance for DAs on how to handle these potential or apparent conflict-of interest issues.

To help address this problem, my organization, the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) at Columbia Law School, recently released a report on DA fundraising practices. DA Vance, to his credit, specifically requested this review, which included an examination of his own campaign fundraising practices. In conducting its review, CAPI considered the donation acceptance policies of DA Vance’s campaign, and analyzed contributions to his campaigns over his three election cycles, paying particular attention to contributions from attorneys. CAPI conducted research into applicable laws, regulations, and guidance for DAs, and lawyers generally, in this area, and interviewed numerous stakeholders on the topic, including DAs, election regulators, good governance groups, and legal ethics experts, to learn from their experiences and solicit their views. After conducting this review, the report offered seven recommendations for DAs to follow to avoid actual and potential conflicts of interest and biases. While these recommendations are geared to DAs in New York, they are instructive for elected prosecutors all over the United States: Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–February 2018 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our February 2018 update is now available here.

A few highlights from the most recent update:

  • Some end-of-first year statistics:
    • During his first year in office, President Trump spent 121 days (approximately one-third of his presidency) at properties owned by the Trump Organization.
    • Trump hotels and resorts earned more than $1.2 million from bookings by Republican political groups in 2017, despite having earned less than $100,000 per year from these groups in the previous 15 years.
    • On at least 35 separate occasions, members of the Trump Administration used the government platform to promote the Trump brand.
    • Trump Organization companies sold $35 million worth of real estate in 2017, mostly to secretive buyers making the purchases through anonymous shell companies. Prior to Trump’s winning the Republican nomination, fewer than 4% of Trump Organization real estate sales were to secret buyers using this tactic. Since President Trump won the nomination, that number has jumped to 70%, and stayed there throughout his first year in office.
  • The Administration recently waived sanctions against several criminally-convicted banks–sanctions that would have barred these banks from managing pension funds and individual retirement accounts. While the grant of such waivers is not unusual, some expressed concern that one of the banks granted the waiver, Deutsche Bank, has lent President Trump billions of dollars, and also provided sizable loans to Jared Kushner, raising at least the appearance of a possible conflict of interest.
  • While many coastal states applied for exemptions from the Trump Administration’s decision to lift prohibitions on offshore drilling, the Administration granted only one exemption–for Florida. The Administration has not been able to offer a coherent explanation as to why Florida is differently situated from other states, such as California, leading many to speculate that the exemption was granted in part for political reasons (the Florida Governor is a Republican), and in part because of the Trump family’s personal financial interest in protecting Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
  • Shortly before President Trump and Jared Kushner made their first diplomatic trip to Israel, one of Israel’s largest financial institutions made a $30 million investment in the Kushner family’s real estate company, raising questions about whether the financial ties between Kushner and Israel might skew his diplomatic priorities and strategy.
  • A Trump Tower project in India is apparently attempting to attract buyers by advertising that the first 100 people who purchase units will be able to have a meet-and-greet with Donald Trump, Jr.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that 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.

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 Dismissal of the CREW v. Trump Emoluments Lawsuit: Some Quick Reactions

As those who follow the debates swirling around President Trump’s extensive conflicts-of-interests are likely aware, last month a United States District Court dismissed, on jurisdictional grounds, a lawsuit asserting that President Trump’s business interests put him in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s foreign and domestic Emoluments Clauses. The opinion came down over a month ago, but I was traveling at the time and didn’t have a chance to read it until recently. There was plenty of informed commentary in the immediate wake of the decision (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), and I recognize that further discussion may not be that useful. But since I had posted several times about the case last year, I thought it might be worth saying a few words about what we might take away from the opinion and its impact.

For those whose memory of the details of the case is a bit fuzzy, a brief recap: The Foreign Emoluments Clause prohibits any official of the U.S. government from accepting any “present [or] emolument” from a foreign government, while the Domestic Emoluments Clause prohibits the U.S. President from receiving any “emolument” from the U.S. government or any state government during his or her term of office. The Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit asserting that President Trump was in violation of both clauses. The complaint alleged that several of Trump’s businesses—from which he did not divest—solicited and received the patronage of foreign governments, in contravention of the Foreign Emoluments Clause, and that Trump companies had received business and/or benefits from both federal and state government entities, thereby offending the Domestic Emoluments Clause. The CREW suit, which was later joined by several co-plaintiffs who compete economically with Trump hotels and restaurants, asked the court to enjoin President Trump from continued or future violations of the Emoluments Clauses, and to order him to release his financial records in order to be sure that no such violations took place.

I’m sympathetic to CREW’s arguments on the merits (though I recognize that there are important arguments on the other side, which I admit I haven’t fully worked through – see here and here). But I feared that the lawsuit was likely to be dismissed—not on the merits, but on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. Indeed, I thought such a dismissal was almost certain. I also fretted that CREW’s decision to bring the case might be a serious strategic error: My worry was that the near-inevitable dismissal of the suit on jurisdictional grounds would give most of the public the misleading impression that the underlying claims of improper behavior were meritless, and that pro-Trump media outlets would foster that misimpression, with the net result that concern about Trump’s conflicts of interest would dissipate rather than intensify. My concerns somewhat but not fully abated when the additional plaintiffs (competing restaurants, hotels, and their employees) joined the suit. I thought that these additional plaintiffs, unlike CREW itself, were more likely to have “standing” (one of the requirements for the court to have jurisdiction), but that other jurisdictional problems might still stop the court from reaching and deciding the question whether President Trump is in violation of the Constitution.

So, now that the decision is out, what should we think of it, and what can we learn from it? My own reaction is, perhaps, a bit paradoxical: After reading the opinion and the subsequent commentary and news coverage, I’m even more convinced than I was before that this lawsuit and others like it will be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, but I’m less concerned that pursuing these suits is a strategic mistake (though there are still questions about whether it’s a worthwhile use of scarce advocacy resources, or of the court system). Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–January 2018 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our January 2018 update is now available here.

There were relatively few major new developments, though there are some changes and modifications throughout to reflect more recent coverage of some of the allegations, as well as some more detail on concerns about foreign governments currying favor with the administration through favorable treatment of Trump-affiliated businesses (most notably in Indonesia and Panama).

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that 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.

The U.S. Is Making a Mistake by Withdrawing from the EITI

Last month, the Trump Administration announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The decision was not wholly unexpected, especially since the Department of the Interior announced last spring that it would no longer host regular talks among a group of U.S. stakeholders that included representatives from the industry as well as activists and government representatives — one of the requirements of membership in the EITI. Nonetheless, the U.S. decision to withdraw from the EITI is a significant setback to the fight against corruption and misgovernance in the resource sector.

To understand the likely impact of the U.S withdrawal from the EITI, it’s useful first to review what the EITI is—both its mechanics and its objectives. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–December 2017 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our December update is now available here.

There were relatively few major new developments, though there are some changes and modifications throughout to reflect more recent coverage of some of the topics and controversies included. One major story involving possible links between the Trump Organization’s Panama hotel and money laundering, drug trafficking, and other criminal activity (dubbed “Narco-a-Lago” and a recent Global Witness report) is not included in our tracking document because the Panama allegations so far appear to concern conduct that took place before Trump became president. While we do not intend to minimize the seriousness of these or similar allegations, our project here is to focus on ways that President Trump and his close associates may be exploiting the power of the presidency for personal gain.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that 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.