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.

The FCPA Is Not an All-Purpose Anti-Foreign-Illegality Law

A few months back, Adam Davidson did a terrific New Yorker piece on the Trump Organization’s shady business dealings in Azerbaijan, focusing on evidence of corruption, money laundering, and sanctions evasion in connection with the Trump Organization’s licensing deal for a Trump Tower in Baku, the country’s capital. While I greatly admired the piece, I nonetheless criticized one aspect of it: the argument that the Trump Organization’s licensing deal ran afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), an allegation which, it seemed to me, wasn’t adequately supported by the otherwise impressive body of evidence assembled in the piece. While I recognize that a piece written for a general audience can’t get too lost in the technical legal weeds, I do think that it’s important to convey an accurate sense of what the FCPA does, and what it doesn’t do.

I was reminded of this a couple weeks back when I read an otherwise incisive essay by the political commentator Heather Digby Parton (whose work I very much admire) on Ivanka Trump’s shady business dealings and possible legal violations. Though Ms. Parton’s piece focused mainly on the Trump Ocean Club in Panama (dubbed “Narco-a-Lago” in an excellent Global Witness report), she also brought up Mr. Davidson’s reporting on the Azerbaijan project, and repeated the suggestion that the Trump Organization’s involvement in this project likely violated the FCPA. In making this case, Ms. Parton states:

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act requires that American companies not make profits from illegal activities overseas, and simply saying you didn’t know where the money was coming from isn’t good enough…. Courts have held that a company needn’t be aware of specific criminal behavior but only that corruption was pervasive.

I hate to be nitpicky, especially when it involves criticizing a piece I generally agree with by an author I admire, but this is simply not a correct statement of the law. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 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 November update is now available here. A few highlights from the most recent update:

 

  • The Republican tax plan, strongly supported by President Trump, would result in enormous benefits to President Trump, his businesses, and his family. While it is difficult to assess the degree to which President Trump’s personal financial interests–as opposed to a general ideological/policy preference for cutting taxes on the super-rich–may have influenced the tax plan, the concern (which, as Jacob recently pointed out, is exacerbated by President Trump’s lack of transparency regarding his past tax returns) is a real one.
  • A relatively minor but nonetheless troubling report involves the Chinese government’s attempts to get the United States to return billionaire Guo Wengui, who has applied for asylum in the U.S. After Trump supporter Steve Wynn, who relies on Chinese government permits to operate his casinos in Macau, delivered (and apparently endorsed) a message from the Chinese government asking for Guo’s return, Trump initially agreed that he should be sent back, but changed his mind after aides informed him that Guo was a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. In this case, improper financial interests seem to have played a role in both sides of the debate within the U.S. government on Guo’s case.
  • The recent “Paradise Papers” revelations, reported by the International Consortium of Investigative journalists, have suggested that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s conflict of interest may go beyond what had already been reported: The leaks from the Appleby law firm indicate that Secretary Ross maintained an interest in a shipping company that received significant revenue from a Russian company co-owned by Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law.
  • As has been widely-reported, Puerto Rico initially granted a substantial no-bid contract for the repair of the island’s power grid to a tiny firm located in the hometown of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, despite the firm’s lack of capacity and experience. While Secretary Zinke insists that he had nothing to do with the contract, the governor of Puerto Rico has called for cancellation of the contract, and several federal agencies are investigating.
  • President Trump is breaking with past practice by personally interviewing candidates for U.S. Attorney positions in New York and Washington, D.C., which has raised concerns given that these offices would have jurisdiction over substantial portions of the Trump Organization.

We will continue to monitor and report on allegations that Trump, or his family and close associates, are seeking to profit from the presidency. As we are always careful to note, while we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed 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.

US Anticorruption Policy in a Trump Administration Revisited: An Evaluation of Last Year’s Doom-and-Gloom Predictions

Almost exactly one year ago, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I published a deeply pessimistic post about the likely future of U.S. anticorruption policy under a Trump presidency. As I acknowledged at the time, “the consequences of a Trump presidency are potentially so dire for such a broad range of issues–from health care to climate change to national security to immigration to the preservation of the fundamental ideals of the United States as an open and tolerant constitutional democracy–that even thinking about the implications of a Trump presidency for something as narrow and specific as anticorruption policy seems almost comically trivial.” That statement is, alas, still true. But what about the impact on anticorruption specifically? In my post last year, I made a bunch of predictions about the likely impact of a Trump presidency on corruption, anticorruption, and related issues. What did I get right and where did I go wrong?

This may seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it’s often useful to go back and assess one’s own forecasts, not only in the interests of accountability and self-criticism, but also because examining where we got things right and, more importantly, where we went wrong can help us do a better job in the future. Of course, one difficulty in assessing my own predictions is that many of them concerned longer-term effects that we can’t really assess after one year (really 9+ months). And in some cases the predictions concern things that it’s hard to assess objectively. But it’s still a useful exercise. So, here goes: Continue reading

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

Some Thoughts on the Trump-Tillerson FCPA Exchange

Dexter Filkins’ terrific New Yorker piece on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month included an anecdote about an exchange between Tillerson and President Trump concerning the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). For those who haven’t seen it, here’s the basic gist: In February 2017, shortly after Tillerson was sworn in as Secretary, he was meeting with Trump about an unrelated personnel matter when Trump launched into a tirade about the FCPA, and how it put US businesses at an unfair disadvantage. (That Trump holds this view is no surprise: He had expressed similar criticisms of the FCPA in public prior to his election.) But Tillerson pushed back, using an anecdote about how, when Tillerson was CEO of Exxon, senior officials from Yemen had demanded a $5 million bribe to close a deal that Exxon was pursuing in that country. Tillerson told Trump that he refused to pay, and made it clear to the Yemenis that this wasn’t how Exxon does business—and in the end Exxon got the deal anyway. According to Mr. Filkins’ source, “Tillerson told Trump that America didn’t need to pay bribes—that we could bring the world up to our own standards.”

Though it’s only a minor part of Filkins’ piece, the alleged exchange about the FCPA has attracted a fair bit of attention and commentary over the past month (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), much of it expressing or implying concern about this further evidence of President Trump’s hostility to the FCPA. It’s slightly puzzling that this anecdote is attracting more attention now, since the alleged exchange (which took place in February) was actually reported in early March—though Filkins’ piece has a little bit more detail (like the name of the country involved). Perhaps it’s because a news item about the FCPA was drowned out in early March by more pressing and immediate matters. (Trump issued the second version of his travel ban two days before the March report about the Trump-Tillerson FCPA exchange, and the federal district judge in Hawaii issued its injunction temporarily blocking enforcement of the ban a week later.) And perhaps the renewed attention to this item also has something to do with recent reports of an increasingly strained relationship between Trump and Tillerson.

Ultimately, though, it’s not so important to figure out why this anecdote is getting more attention now than it did back in March. The more interesting question is what, if anything, it reveals about the state of thinking—in government and the private sector—about the FCPA. There’s only so much that one can or should draw from a single vignette, but I do think it invites a few observations: Continue reading