Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes

In July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra became Prime Minister of Thailand after her party (founded by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) won a decisive electoral victory. One of her principal campaign promises was to establish a program to purchase rice from farmers at above-market prices then store the rice to reduce supply. The hope was that doing so would increase world prices—because of Thailand’s position as the leading global rice exporter—ultimately allowing the government to sell at a profit. Shortly after the election, Yingluck’s government implemented this program, and it worked well for a few months—until other global players increased their supply of rice, causing Thailand to lose billions of dollars in the process. This economic debacle was entirely predictable—and indeed was predicted by many experts. And the program itself was beset by allegations of fraud and corruption in its implementation.

But should the failure of the rice-buying program be the basis of a criminal charge of corruption and a prison sentence against Yingluck herself, in the absence of evidence that she was directly involved in any embezzlement, bribery, or other more conventional forms of graft? Section 157 of Thailand’s Penal Code allows for just such a prosecution, as this section makes it a crime for a public official to either dishonestly or “wrongfully discharge or omit to discharge a duty so as to expose any person to injury.” And last month, the Thai Supreme Court found Yingluck (out of power since she was deposed by a military coup in 2014) guilty and sentenced her to five years in prison. She fled the country before the verdict.

Thailand is not alone in adopting anticorruption laws that criminalize not only dishonest conduct (bribery, embezzlement, conflict of interest, etc.), but also negligence or incompetence. When India updated its anticorruption law in 1988, it added a new provision that makes it a criminal offense for a public official to “obtain for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” This broad offense was interpreted by a state High Court to not require any proof of dishonesty or criminal intent, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s premier anticorruption agency) has routinely employed the provision in grand corruption cases to avoid the problem of having to prove corrupt intent. In perhaps the most high-profile such prosecution, the agency went after an ex-Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh was the Minister of Coal at a time when the Government decided to liberalize allocation of coal-blocks and to sell mining rights to private parties. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office reported the policy had caused losses worth billions of dollars because the rights had been sold for too little, through a process that was too ad hoc to be considered legal. Dr. Singh was subsequently charged under India’s broad law, though his trial has currently been stayed while his challenge to the constitutionality the law is pending before India’s Supreme Court. (There are clearly concerns in other quarters about the breadth of this statute: In 2016 a Select Committee of the Upper House of India’s Parliament submitted a report that suggested India eliminate this offense. Parliament hasn’t yet acted on this recommendation, but there are signs that it has some support.)

Is it appropriate to enact broad anticorruption laws that allow government officials to be convicted for dereliction of duty, acting in a manner contrary to the public interest, and the like? Anticorruption activists and prosecutors may find such statutes appealing: It is easier to secure convictions of elected officials who are suspected of corruption, but where it is too difficult to prove the specific intent necessary for traditional corruption offenses. But in fact these broad laws are likely to do more harm than good, and countries like Thailand and India would be better off without them. There are three main reasons for this: Continue reading

For the Love of Money: Capitalizing on Corrupt Officials’ Opulent Spending Habits to Fight Corruption

Corruption is notoriously difficult to track and discover, not least because both sides in a corrupt exchange have strong incentives to avoid getting caught. So how can enforcement officials, journalists, and anticorruption activists catch corrupt actors? Pay close attention to flagrant and excessive spending by public officials. After all, most people who benefit from corruption, whether they are officials receiving bribes or industrialists benefitting from the government action they purchased, do it for the money. And what’s the point of taking on so much personal risk to make more money if you can’t spend it on nice things? This is why you’ll see Chinese officials wearing wristwatches worth four times their annual salary and presidents spending millions on designer clothes and shoes and other luxury goods. The additional risk of being caught seems to be outweighed by the perceived social benefits of public displays of wealth. Throwing lavish weddings and banquets seems to be a particularly common trap that captures this phenomenon. The very public nature of these events, the massive guest lists, and the attendance of well known figures all but guarantee public scrutiny. But current and former government officials just can’t seem to help themselves. For example, in the middle of India’s recent anticorruption crackdown a former government minister held a lavish wedding for his daughter at a cost of over $75 million. This is in a country where a former state chief minister and potential prime minister was recently sentenced to four years in prison, banned from politics for a decade, and fined $16 million after an investigation sparked by an astonishingly opulent wedding she hosted.

Over the past decade, the spending habits of dozens of high-ranking officials have produced a number of viral news stories and have, in some cases, led to effective enforcement actions. The fact that people are willing to spend their corruptly acquired wealth so publicly, in spite of the risks involved, provides enforcement officials and anticorruption advocates with a unique and important opportunity in three respects:

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The OAS Did Not Do Enough to Intervene in Nicaragua’s Corrupt Election

Last Sunday, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega won his third term in office, alongside his running mate—who also happens to be his wife—Rosario Murillo. For months, critics have been calling out the Nicaraguan election as a classic example of a corrupt, rigged election. The voting system was entirely controlled by Ortega’s party. The husband-wife ticket ran unopposed, and not for lack of actual opposition within the country. Indeed, over the summer, the Ortega-influenced Supreme Court blocked an opposition candidate from running against the incumbent. Though there were protests within the country expressing disapproval of Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime, it is difficult to say how much opposition there was to the election because the reported number of votes cast was surely inflated by the Ortega administration.

This hardly came as a surprise, as this type of one-sided election is nothing new in Nicaragua. What might be more of a surprise is the apparent lack of outrage, or even concern, by the international community, particularly the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional body that is tasked with, among many other goals, promoting democracy in Latin America. In mid-October, the OAS published a press release that noted the OAS was going to enter into a “dialogue” with the government of Nicaragua concerning the country’s electoral process. There were no further details in the press release, and the “constructive exchange” between the organization and Ortega’s government did not seem to go anywhere. The press release didn’t even explicitly say that Nicaragua’s election was corrupt or undemocratic. The OAS did send election observers to Nicaragua, but OAS election observation missions these days are mostly a formality—the OAS sends observers to nearly every Latin American election, and these missions are notoriously ineffective, ranging from 20 to 100 observers and lasting only 20 days on average. In the case of Nicaragua’s election, the observers were present for just three days.

Even though the OAS has only limited power, it is nonetheless capable of delivering strong, symbolic messages in the face of corrupt, anti-democratic institutions. The OAS has a long history of issuing reports, especially those that highlight human rights abuses, and the OAS has condemned subversion of the democratic process in other countries, such as Venezuela. Even if purely symbolic, a pronouncement condemning the Nicaraguan election would demonstrate that the regional coalition denounces corrupt practices, and such symbolism could help support internal protestors or critics who might otherwise feel alone. Yet the OAS failed to do so, choosing instead to issue a half-hearted, ambiguous press release . Why?

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A Victory for the Government, Justice, and Common Sense, in the Bob McDonnell Appeal

Over the past year, we had a few posts (from Jordan, Rick, and myself) about former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s appeal of his federal bribery convictions. All of us took the position that McDonnell’s main argument on appeal—that his actions on behalf of a local businessman were not “official acts” (and that the loans and lavish gifts this businessman provided were merely for “ingratiation and access”)—was inconsistent both with the governing law and with the facts as presented in the trial record. (Lots of people, though, including two distinguished criminal law experts on my faculty, took the contrary position.) The issue is important not just for U.S. political and legal junkies, but also because the McDonnell appeal raises more general issues about how we think about the line between illegal corruption and legal (though perhaps sleazy) political wheeling & dealing.

As many readers are no doubt aware, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit decided the case earlier this month. And while courts don’t always get it right, this time they did: The three-judge panel unanimously rejected all of McDonnell’s arguments, and cogently explained why in this case the evidence was more than sufficient to support a corruption conviction. Indeed, while there are indeed hard questions about the appropriate line between legal and illegal forms of private influence on public officials, the McDonnell case was not even particularly close to that line.

A few quick observations about the Court of Appeal’ opinion: Continue reading

Prosecuting Elected Officials for Corruption: A Tale of Four Governors

As Phil and Rick pointed out a few months ago, America’s domestic anti-bribery laws and the attendant court interpretations are, for lack of a better term, a hot mess. In principle, the crime of bribery is straightforward: To secure a conviction, the prosecutor need only convince the jury that (1) there was some agreement (explicit or otherwise) whereby (2) the official would receive something of value (3) in exchange for using his official position in some manner. Unfortunately, though, that burden of proof often becomes far more complicated when the alleged bribe recipient is a high-ranking elected official. When a politician regularly solicits campaign contributions and simultaneously wields political influence to the benefit of constituents, it is often hard to see where politics ends and corruption begins. And after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in cases like Citizens United and Skilling, prosecutors are left wondering when the corrupting influence of money on politics can still be prosecuted as “corruption.”

Today, I want to step back from this confusion and distill a few lessons that I believe still hold true for any US prosecutor investigating an elected official for bribery. To do that, I consider allegations that have been made against four past and present governors — Rod Blagojevich (Illinois), Andrew Cuomo (New York), Don Siegelman (Alabama), and Robert McDonnell (Virginia) — and ask one loaded question: what does it take to prove that an elected official misused his position in exchange for something of value?

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