Uzbekistan’s Own Donald Trump

Donald Trump owes much of his success as a real estate developer to an easy relationship with the anti-money laundering laws, and he continues to profit from his investments while President thanks to an even easier relationship with conflict of interest norms.  Reports out of Uzbekistan suggest Jahongir Artykhodjaev, mayor of the capital city Tashkent, has followed a Trumpian-like path to wealth and power.  Like Trump, Artykhodjaev has looked past how investors in his real estate projects came into their money; like Trump, while in public office he has steered government contracts to companies he owns, and like Trump, when called on his dual role as businessman and government officials, he claims to have distanced himself from his business empire upon taking office.

The main difference (besides hair color) between Trump and Artykhodjaev is that independent prosecutors are examining whether Trump broke rather than simply bent anti-money laundering and conflict of interest laws. By contrast, after accounts in the international press (here and here) exposed Artykhodjaev’s Trumpian proclivities, senior Uzbek officials called a press conference where they leapt to his defense, going so far as to deny there is any Uzbekistan law that Artykhodjaev could have broken. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–February 2019 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking 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, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. The February 2019 update is now available here

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 Case for State-Level Anticorruption Prosecutions in the U.S.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a huge role in the prosecution of state-level public corruption: Over the past five years, federal prosecutors have obtained the convictions of approximately 1,700 corrupt state and local officials for corruption-related offenses. Examples range from prominent and powerful figures like Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, to low-level functionaries like Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, Jr., two former members of the School Board of Donna, Texas.

The federal government’s primacy in prosecuting state and local corruption is no accident. One of the stories of American law enforcement in the 20th century, especially though not exclusively in the anticorruption context, is the expanding role of the federal government, an expansion that was in part a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of state law enforcement. Most states in the U.S. elect both prosecutors and judges, and concerns that these elected officials were under-resourced, incompetent, partisan, or captured by local influence-peddlers contributed to the rise of federal criminal law enforcement. The federal government’s role in prosecuting state and local corruption blossomed in the 1970s, with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices taking the lead, supported by a new DOJ Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s offices were considered more independent and less vulnerable to capture than local law enforcement, were generally better resourced than their state and local counterparts, and were able to focus those resources on picked cases.

This system has worked well and achieved considerable success. Many argue—with justification—that the federal government’s central role in prosecuting state and local corruption was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of corrupt political machines at the subnational level. But today, it’s important for state prosecutors to do more to supplement, and in some cases perhaps supplant, federal anticorruption prosecutions. If the story of the 20th century was a distrust of states to police their own politicians, the early 21st century story may be that we can no longer completely trust the feds to do it either. There are three main reasons why, going forward, we may need to rely increasingly on the states:

Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–January 2019 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking 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, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. The January 2019 update is now available here. There are a number of important (and disturbing) additions to this month’s update. Most notably:

  • Federal prosecutors are now investigating a range of possible legal violations related to Trump’s inauguration committee, which raised a record amount ($107 million) for President Trump’s inauguration. According to reports, there is evidence that much of this money was raised from questionable sources, and that much of it was spent in ways that brought windfall profits to the Trump Organization–in violation of various federal laws. In particular, on the fundraising side, it seems that both domestic and foreign interests donated heavily to the inaugural committee with the apparent intent of influencing US policy. And on the spending side, the inauguration committee spent heavily at Trump Organization properties, apparently at above-market rates. Though the investigation is ongoing, there’s at least suggestive evidence that the inauguration committee might have been a surreptitious way for interest groups and foreign governments to funnel money directly to the Trump family.
  • Previous editions of this tracking project have noted concerns about the Trump Organization’s past and current business dealings in the Dominican Republic. A recent Global Witness report suggests that although the Trump Organization claims that its current business in the Dominican Republic is a continuation of an older deal that started before Trump took office, in fact the Trump Organization and its local partner are pursuing an entirely new development project, in clear violation of President Trump’s pledge that the Trump Organization would not pursue any “new foreign deals” during his presidency.
  • Jared Kushner and his family stand to benefit personally from a federal program–the “Opportunity Zone” program–that offers large tax breaks to developers who invest in low-income neighborhoods. This program was heavily promoted by Ivanka Trump, Kushner’s wife, and though neither of them will play a direct formal role in determining which neighborhoods will be designated “opportunity zones” eligible for tax credits, there is an obvious conflict of interest concern, especially since the Kushner family owns multiple properties in areas that have already been designated as opportunity zones–including neighborhoods that are actually quite affluent.

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.

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

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking 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, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. The December 2018 update is now available here.

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.

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

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking 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, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. It looks like our approach is catching on, given that this past month the New York Times published a similar compendium (which the authors described as “the definitive list”) of Trump-related corruption and conflict-of-interest allegations. It’s not clear whether the NYT plans to regularly update this compendium–if they do, then we might wind down the Trump COI tracker here at GAB, given the NYT‘s much wider reach and greater resources. But for now, we’re going to keep plugging away with our monthly updates. The October 2018 update is now available here. The most notable additions since the previous update include:

  • Reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may have been involved in a shady property development deal that entails negotiations and transactions with parties connected to firms over which the Interior Department has regulatory authority.
  • Renewed and intensified concern about President Trump’s past and present business ties to Saudi Arabia, in light of the administration’s tepid response to the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, apparently by Saudi intelligence agents.
  • President Trump’s intercession with Japanese officials on behalf of his campaign donor and supporter Sheldon Adelson, in connection with the latter’s interest in a lucrative license to operate a casino in Japan.

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.

Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?

The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence. Continue reading