The Bribery Trial of Sitting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Poses Unprecedented Challenges

The criminal trial of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, on multiple corruption charges, opened yesterday, only ten days after the formation of a new government, and after years of police investigations, indictment procedures, and three rounds of early general elections. The trial is an unprecedented event in Israel, and one of the few examples anywhere in the world where a sitting head of government has stood trial on criminal charges in his own country. This situation poses unique challenges. On the one hand, the court must ensure that Netanyahu’s rights, as a criminal defendant, are respected. That said, though, some adjustments will have to be made to secure both the fairness of the trial and the integrity of Israeli executive and judicial branches, given that as the trial unfolds, Netanyahu will continue to serve as Prime Minister.

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Adapting Anticorruption Enforcement to an Age of Populism and Polarization

Shortly after the U.S. Senate acquitted President Clinton in 1999, he apologized for triggering the impeachment process. President Trump, in contrast, declared that his acquittal called for “a day of celebration,” and immediately started firing White House employees who had testified before the House of Representatives. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmert resigned shortly after the police recommended that he should be indicted on corruption charges. In contrast, after Prime Minister Netanyahu was indicted on multiple bribery charges, he infamously said that Israeli citizens should “investigate the investigators,” and even with the trial approaching, Netanyahu shows no signs of considering resignation. Instead, he is currently fiercely promoting legislation to amend several of the Israeli Constitutional Basic Laws in ways that will allow him to remain in office for years to come. These troubling examples illustrate how the resurgence of populism, coupled with increasing polarization, are making it easier for corrupt politicians to evade accountability, even in countries with functional legal and judicial systems. Deep political divisions and strong partisan loyalty are not new, but in the past, it seems there was a degree of overlapping consensus on minimum standards of integrity and propriety, and enough citizens were willing to enforce these standards on a non-partisan basis that leaders would be restrained by political checks—enforced through things like elections and internal party discipline—that could complement judicial processes.

Moreover, leaders like Trump and Netanyahu have acted aggressively to undermine the institutions of justice in order to protect themselves. Both leaders have cavalierly attacked the professionalism and integrity of their country’s law enforcement agencies by suggesting that investigations targeting the leader or his associates are politically motivated “witch hunts.” And both have taken more concrete action to undermine the ordinary operation of the machinery of justice. In the U.S., after his Senate trial acquittal, President Trump intervened to help allies who had been found guilty in cases related to investigations of impropriety by Trump’s 2016 campaign. For example, Trump’s Attorney General ordered the Department of Justice to seek a more lenient sentence for Trump’s former consultant Roger Stone, and Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of several others in a short and unorthodox process. Netanyahu has been even more aggressive in trying to weaken legal institutions in order to protect himself. After being indicted, Netanyahu fired the Minister of Justice and appointed in her place a low-ranking member of his party with no prior ministerial experience. The new Minister’s first action was to appoint a new Solicitor General—the immediate superior of the prosecution team in Netanyahu’s case–through an irregular process and against the recommendation of the non-partisan Attorney General. (Due to the political deadlock, the Minister is part of a caretaker government and could therefore appoint an interim Solicitor General without the approval of the public committee that the law would otherwise require.) On the eve of Israel’s third round of elections, the new Solicitor General decided—against the opinion of the Attorney General and many others—to launch a police investigation into a firm in which Netanyahu’s chief rival Benny Gantz served as a director (obscuring the fact that Gantz himself is not a suspect). More recently, the Minister of Justice gave the unprecedented order to freeze all non-urgent judicial procedures due to the Covid-19 outbreak—a move that indefinitely postpones Netanyahu’s trial. While the Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted or delayed judicial proceedings in many countries, there was no expert opinion supporting such drastic measures in Israel, especially given that Israel has more per capita testing and ventilators capacity than nearly any country on earth. Even now, when newly detected cases are close to zero, a new date for the trial has yet to be set. Moreover, to avoid a fourth round of elections, given the continued deadlock, Netanyahu is now fiercely and unprecedently promoting legislative amendments to Israel’s Constitutional Basic Laws that would allow him to hold onto office for years to come.

When professional, and traditionally non-partisan, law enforcement agencies find themselves under attack by corrupt populists, these agencies often do not respond, presumably due to the belief that the only way to maintain integrity, legitimacy, and professionalism in the face of such attacks is to refrain from commenting on unfounded claims meant to disparage state attorneys and police investigators. There is much to be said for that approach, but at the same time, the institutions of justice can and should do more to counter the attempts of corrupt populists to undermine those institutions in order to remain in power.

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Aggressive Criminal Law Enforcement Is Insufficient to Combat Systemic Corruption. But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Necessary.

This will be a super-short blog post that makes a super-short point. Here goes:

Let me start by stating the following proposition: Effective enforcement of anticorruption rules, including criminal law enforcement, against individual wrongdoers is necessary but not sufficient to combat systemic corruption.

Both parts of that proposition are important, and I believe correct:

  • Punishing individual wrongdoers is necessary to combat systemic corruption because without individual accountability, it’s not possible to deter those who might be tempted to abuse their entrusted power for private gain, and the absence of individual accountability will likely perpetuate the belief that powerful elites are above the law, feeding the sense of hopelessness or resignation or cynicism that contributes to the vicious cycle that perpetuates systemic corruption.
  • Punishing individual wrongdoers is not sufficient to combat systemic corruption because widespread corruption is generally the product of systems, institutions, and cultures that create the incentives and opportunities to behave corruptly, and without addressing these root causes of corruption, even the most aggressive anticorruption enforcement efforts will be ineffective.

I don’t think either of those claims should be controversial. But I’ve noticed that in debates over anticorruption efforts in various countries, people sometimes commit the logical fallacy—usually by implication rather than expressly—of treating the second claim (that criminal law enforcement is not sufficient to combat systemic corruption) as if it negated the first claim (that criminal law enforcement is necessary to combat systemic corruption). The argument is usually phrased something like this: “Country X is cracking down on corruption and aggressively enforcing its anticorruption laws and putting people in jail. But this is a mistake, because combating systemic corruption actually requires broad-based institutional reforms. The focus should therefore be on institutional reform, not on aggressive criminal law enforcement.”

I agree that criminal prosecutions alone can’t solve the corruption problem, and recent history is littered with examples of anticorruption “crackdowns” that failed to produce lasting change. And there’s certainly an important question as to where the emphasis should be—it’s entirely possible that in many countries there’s too much focus on criminal prosecutions and too little attention to other types of reform. But it’s not an either/or tradeoff, and it troubles me that the (correct) observation that criminal prosecutions are insufficient is so often deployed rhetorically to imply that aggressive criminal law enforcement is not necessary or appropriate. (I noted something like this argument in a previous exchange concerning Ukraine, and more recently encountered it in a discussion of the Car Wash Operation in Brazil, but I’ve heard basically the same line in conversations about many other countries.) Recognizing the importance of structural reform shouldn’t obscure the fact that effective enforcement of anticorruption laws, and the imposition of individual accountability, is also a vital part of the anticorruption agenda. After all, while there are plenty of punishment-focused anticorruption crackdowns that failed to produce systemic change, I can’t think of any successful efforts to get rampant corruption under control that didn’t involve a hefty dose of aggressive enforcement of the laws against corruption, including prosecution and punishment.

Essential Reading for Enforcers: The EIB Fraud Investigation Unit and CPS Inspectorate Reports

Enforcing the anticorruption laws is the backbone of the fight against corruption, and improving enforcement agencies’ performance is thus critical.  Two recent reports, one by the European Investment Bank’s Fraud Investigation Unit and a second by the Inspectorate of the United Kingdom’s Crown Prosecution Service, offer a wealth of data, analysis, and tips from which all enforcement agencies can profit.  Highlights from each below.

Fraud Investigations Activity Report 2018.  This latest report of the EIB’s Fraud Investigations Unit documents the Unit’s fight against fraud and corruption in projects funded by the lending arm of the European Union, the world’s largest development finance agency. Compliance and investigative personnel in other bilateral and multilateral financial institutions will find much useful data for benchmarking their performance against the EIB unit. Case studies of different fraud and corruption schemes it has uncovered will help investigators in other institutions spot similar types of wrongdoing.

Most interesting to this reader was the description of the Proactive Integrity Reviews (PIRs) the Fraud Investigation Unit conducts.  All active operations in the Bank’s portfolio are scored each year against 30 risk factors to identify corruption and fraud vulnerabilities, and a PIR conducted on two or three of the operations most at risk.  Of the 27 projects subjected to a PIR, the unit found five, almost 20 percent, where funds have been misused.

Would a similar intensive review of a small number of World Bank, Asian, Inter-American, or African Development Bank produce similar numbers?  Will the new United States International Development Finance Corporation follow the EIB’s lead and institute a similar review?

Case Progression in the Serious Fraud Office. The Serious Fraud Office is the United Kingdom’s version of an anticorruption agency, with investigators, accountants, IT specialists, and prosecutors who work in teams to investigate complex fraud and corruption cases.  Case progression is the U.K. term to describe the time it takes for a team to reach a conclusion about a case, from opening an investigation to a decision either to file a criminal charge or to drop the matter altogether. The Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate recently examined the procedures the SFO uses to ensure cases move through the system in a timely manner.  Other anticorruption agencies wanting to improve their performance will find a wealth of useful information and practical tips. Some of the key observations:

* Recognize that in a lengthy case there will be staff turnover. Maintain a key documents folder for those joining the team so they can get up to speed quickly.

* A unit with the technical skill to decrypt and download data kept on cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices is essential.  But realize that decryption can take enormous time.  Don’t overload the unit by seizing equipment of only secondary or passing interest.

* Periodic review of the progress of each case is essential to ensure deadlines for achieving key objectives or stages in the case are set, and met, and unfruitful lines of investigation abandoned. The SFO exercises oversight in several ways.  How each one works and suggestions for improving each will be of value to any anticorruption enforcement authority.

* The average number of days from the acceptance of a case to charging has been reduced from 41 months to 38 months, or 7.5%.

In Their Push for Investigations, Did Trump’s Associates Break Ukrainian Law?

The U.S. political news for the last month has been dominated by the explosive and fast-developing scandal involving reports that President Trump and his associates—including not only U.S. government officials but also Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other private citizens—have been engaged in an ongoing behind-the-scenes campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to pursue criminal investigations that would benefit President Trump politically. In particular, President Trump, Mr. Giuliani, and others pushed Ukraine to investigate supposed wrongdoing by Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as alleged Ukraine-based interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats. (There is no credible evidence to support either allegation, and experts in President Trump’s administration repeatedly warned him against these unfounded conspiracy theories, to no avail.) The pressure brought to bear by President Trump and his associates on Ukrainian officials appears to have included not only general statements of interest in these allegations—allegations that the Ukrainian authorities viewed as baseless—but also included implicit or explicit threats that failure to comply would lead to various forms of retaliation, both symbolic (the refusal to invite newly-elected President Zelensky to the White House) and tangible (the withholding of desperately needed military aid).

While the main ramifications of this scandal are political rather than strictly legal, the U.S. media extensively discussed whether President Trump and his associates may have violated any U.S. laws, and commentators have suggested a number of potential legal violations. For example, asking a foreign entity for dirt on a domestic political rival might violate the provision of U.S. campaign finance law that makes it illegal to “solicit … a contribution or donation [to an election campaign] … from a foreign national,” where “contribution or donation” includes not only money but any other “thing of value.” President Trump and his associates may also have violated domestic anti-corruption law (the federal anti-bribery statute and/or the anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act) in conditioning the performance of an official act (such as the transfer of military aid) on the receipt of something of value from Ukrainian government officials (investigations into political rivals). Private citizens like Mr. Giuliani may have violated the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for private citizens, without the authority of the United States, to correspond with any foreign government or foreign official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.” And of course, the attempts to conceal all of these interactions may have amounted to obstruction of justice.

The focus in the U.S. media on whether President Trump and his associates may have violated U.S. law is entirely understandable, but seems incomplete. Strangely absent from the conversation is any mention, let alone sustained exploration, of the question whether any of President Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. At least this seems strange to me. Imagine that the situation were reversed. Suppose, for example, that a Chinese businessman, nominally a private citizen but known to have close ties to President Xi, approached the U.S. Attorney General and said something like, “We know your administration is anxious to cut a trade deal and would also like China’s assistance in addressing the North Korea situation. I’m sure President Xi could be persuaded to help you out. But you should help China out too. There’s a dissident, now an American citizen, who’s been writing a lot of damaging lies about President Xi, and he’s gaining a following in China and stirring unrest. Why don’t you publicly announce that the U.S. government is investigating him for running a ring of child prostitutes? That would really help us out.” If a story like this came out, I’m quite sure the U.S. media would be abuzz with discussions about which U.S. laws this businessman might have broken, and whether he might be prosecuted in U.S. courts if U.S. authorities managed to arrest him. But in the Ukraine case, we may have something similar—a private citizen (Giuliani) with close ties to a foreign political leader (Trump) apparently told senior political and law enforcement officials (the Ukrainian President and Prosecutor General) to pursue a bogus criminal investigation in exchange for that foreign government’s cooperation on important issues—and nobody seems to be even raising the possibility that this might violate Ukrainian law.

By the way, when I say nobody is talking about this, that apparently includes Ukrainian media and civil society. I don’t read Ukrainian and I’m by no means a Ukraine expert, but I have some friends and other contacts there, and they tell me that while the story is big news in their country, there hasn’t been any discussion about whether Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. That gives me pause, and makes me think that perhaps I’m totally off base in thinking there’s even an interesting question here. Nonetheless, at the risk of looking foolish (something that’s happened plenty of times before, I admit), I want to use this post to float this topic and see what others think. Continue reading

Guest Post: Indonesian Anticorruption Institutions at Risk, Part 1: The Significance of the KPK’s First Acquittal

GAB is pleased to welcome Simon Butt, Professor of Indonesian Law and Director of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law, the University of Sydney, to contribute a two-part series on recent developments in Indonesia. Today’s post, the first of the two, is a revised and expanded version of an article that Professor Butt originally published on the East Asia Forum.)

Over the past decade or so, Indonesia’s anticorruption commission (the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, or KPK) had managed to deflect numerous efforts of powerful politicians and senior law enforcement figures to reduce its independence and effectiveness. However, last month Indonesia’s national parliament appears to have successfully hobbled the Commission, with the support of President Joko Widodo. The effort to weaken the Commission began with the appointment of a new batch of commissioners, widely condemned as being sympathetic to the regime or likely to be ineffective. This was followed by amendments to the Commission’s founding statute that are clearly designed to render the Commission ineffective in investigating and prosecuting corruption.

An important precursor to these events was the KPK’s first loss in court. Until this past July, the KPK had not, since its establishment in 2003, lost any of the hundreds of cases it had brought to full trial. This was a remarkable achievement in a country renowned for deeply entrenched and widespread corruption at the highest levels, particularly in government institutions and the courts.

But on July 11, 2019, the KPK’s perfect record was broken when a divided three-judge Supreme Court panel voted to acquit Syafruddin Arsyad Temenggung, the former chair of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency. Temenggung had been convicted at trial (in one of Indonesia’s specialized anticorruption courts) for a scheme in which a businessman, Sjamsul Nursalim, overstated the value of assets used to repay government assistance funds he had received after the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis. According to the prosecution, by improperly approving the discharge of Nursalim’s debt, Temenggung caused the Indonesian state to lose 4.5 trillion rupiah (well over USD 300 million). Temenggung’s lawyers argued, among other things, that there was no proof that their client had obtained any benefit from Nursalim in exchange for discharging the debt, and that their client was simply doing his job and had not committed any crime. The trial court rejected these defences, convicted Temenggung, and sentenced him to 12 years’ imprisonment. On the first appeal, the Jakarta High Provincial Court affirmed the conviction and increased the prison sentence to 15 years. But Temenggung then appealed to the Supreme Court, and there he prevailed. At time of writing, the Supreme Court judgment acquitting Temenggung has not yet been made publicly available. Nevertheless, according to media reports, two of the three judges on the panel voted to acquit Temenggung, though for somewhat different reasons, while the third judge would have affirmed the conviction.

Given that the KPK probably lacks a legal basis for asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision, the KPK appears to have now suffered its first defeat in its 15-year history. The loss of this case is a major blow on its own terms, because it was the KPK’s largest-ever case in monetary terms, involving over twice the alleged state loss than its previous largest case. But the significance of this acquittal may be much broader, and raises a number of questions about the future of corruption eradication efforts in Indonesia. Continue reading

Guest Post: U.S. State Ethics Agencies Must Improve Both Enforcement and Transparency

Today’s guest post is from Shruti Shah, President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity (C4I), and Alex Amico, a C4I legal fellow.

Recently, the Coalition for Integrity released a report on Enforcement of Ethics Rules by State Agencies (along with an associated index and map) which examined the performance of state-level ethics agencies across the United States. In addition to providing basic enforcement statistics, the report emphasized two aspects of these agencies’ performance. First, the report looked at how these agencies enforced the ethics laws they were charged with enforcing, to see how aggressively agencies stand up for ethical government within their legal authority. Second, the report examined how transparent the agencies were in that enforcement, and hence how accountable these agencies make themselves to the public. (The report also ranked each state and agency based on their transparency of enforcement). Both of these aspects of agency performance are crucial to creating a culture of honest government and a robust ethics enforcement regime. Some our headline findings with respect to each of these dimensions of performance were as follows: Continue reading

Dispatches from the UNCAC Conference of States Parties, Part 2: International Enforcement of Anticorruption Agreements

Last month, the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) Conference of States Parties (COSP) was held in Vienna, Austria. In addition to the formal meetings of government representatives, the COSP also featured a number of panels, speeches, and other side events, at which leading experts discussed and debated a range of anticorruption topics. GAB is delighted that Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professor Juliet Sorensen and her student Kobby Lartey, who attended the COSP, have offered to share highlights of some of the most interesting sessions in a series of guest posts. Today’s post is the second in that series.

The COSP panel on “Corruption and International Laws and Judgments” generated candid conversations about the role of international laws and judgments in the fight against corruption. Moderated by Bart Scheffers of the Open Society Foundation, the panel included one of us (Juliet Sorensen), along with Transparency International’s Gillian Dell; the Helsinki Committee’s Harry Hummel; and France Chain of the OECD. Continue reading

Who’s at the Wheel of China’s Anticorruption Drive?

Since China’s anticorruption drive kicked off five years ago, it has had a tremendous impact on the country’s politics. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), until recently led by President Xi Jinping’s close ally Wang Qishan, has targeted officials both high and low—so-called tigers and flies. According to the CCDI’s own data, more than 70,000 officials at or above the level of county head have been investigated, and close to two million officials have been punished in some way. The drive has also ensnared a few senior figures who, during their days of freedom, where among the most powerful men in China, including Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai. The CCDI’s power does not stop even at China’s borders: According to official statistics, by the end of August 2017, over three thousand fugitives had been repatriated from more than 90 countries.

But the drive is now shifting gears. Last October, in his speech opening the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress, President Xi laid out plans to “deepen reform of the national supervisory system” and establish a new body, the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), to spearhead anticorruption efforts. The NSC is expected to consolidate and institutionalize the hitherto campaign-style anticorruption efforts of the CCDI. (While the exact structure of the NSC is still unknown, it will be based on lessons learned from pilot projects – the so-called Provincial Supervisory Commissions (PSCs) established in the city of Beijing, as well as Shanxi and Zhejiang provinces.) The new anticorruption system outlined by President Xi for the national level is likely to have four major effects: Continue reading

The Curious Absence of FCPA Trials

As is well known, enforcement actions brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) have expanded dramatically over the past decade and a half. With all this enforcement activity, someone unfamiliar with this field might suppose that the most important questions regarding the FCPA’s meaning and scope are now settled. But as FCPA experts well know, that is not the case; the realm of FCPA enforcement is a legal desert, with guidance often drawn not from binding case law but from a whirl of enforcement patterns, settlements, and dicta. As a result, many of the ambiguities inherent in the statutory language remain unresolved—even core concepts, such as what constitutes a transfer of “anything of value to a foreign official,” lack concrete legal decisions that offer guidance. While some claim that this ambiguity fades when the FCPA is applied to the facts at hand, past analysis shows that this may not always be the case.

The dearth of binding legal precedent in FCPA enforcement stems directly from the lack of FCPA cases that are actually brought to trial. Of course, most white collar and corporate criminal cases—like most cases of all types—result in settlements rather than trials. But a look at the major cases white collar cases going to trial in 2017, and the pattern of FCPA settlements, shows that FCPA trials are uniquely rare. In fact, FCPA cases are resolved through settlements more often than any other type of enforcement actions brought by the DOJ or SEC.

Why is this? Why are FCPA enforcement cases so rarely brought to trial, even compared to other white collar cases? The answer can help explain why FCPA case law is so sparse, and reveal whether this trend may change in the future.

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