The Financial Weapon: Expanding Magnitsky Sanctions to Attack Corruption

Economic sanctions targeted at individual wrongdoers can be a potent weapon in the fight against global corruption. The United States’ 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (GMA) authorizes the President to impose targeted sanctions on corrupt foreign officials and their associates. And the GMA has had successes in deterring corruption: As earlier posts on this blog have highlighted, the GMA has prompted countries to strengthen their anticorruption laws and has prompted businesses to cut ties with corrupt individuals. Yet despite these successes, Magnitsky sanctions remain a relatively underused anticorruption tool. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has only sanctioned around 200 people as part of its Magnitsky programs, and most of these individuals have been sanctioned for human rights abuses rather than corruption per se.

GMA sanctions can and should be scaled up by an order of magnitude, with a greater focus on targeting corrupt actors. The U.S. should be imposing GMA sanctions on several thousand people, not just a couple hundred. As the Biden Administration has recognized, global corruption increasingly threatens national and international security. In light of this, the Administration should use the GMA to impose sanctions on not only the most egregious of kleptocrats but those who engage in more modest—but still significant—forms of corruption. Continue reading

The Anticorruption Campaigner’s Guide to Asset Seizure

Anticorruption campaigners have long argued that Western governments should be more aggressive in freezing and seizing the assets of kleptocrats and corrupt oligarchs. While targeting illicit assets has been part of the West’s anticorruption arsenal for many years, attention to this tactic has surged in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border into Ukrainian territory, not only did Western governments impose an array of economic sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals close to the Putin regime, but also—assisted by journalists who identified dozens of properties, collectively worth billions—Western law enforcement agencies began seizing Russian oligarchs’ private jetsvacation homes, and superyachts.

Many people who are unfamiliar with this area—and even some who are—might naturally wonder about the legal basis for targeting these assets. And indeed, the law in this area has some important nuances that are not always fully appreciated in mainstream media reporting and popular commentary. Continue reading

The Unfulfilled Promise of the UK’s Anticorruption Innovations

When it comes to the fight against global corruption, the United Kingdom presents a paradox. On the one hand, the UK has long enjoyed a reputation as relatively “clean.” The country gets good marks on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and the Financial Action Task Force considers the UK a world leader in preventing money laundering. Yet, at the same time, the UK—and London in particular—is well-known as a popular laundromat for dirty money and a haven for kleptocrats.

It would be tempting to say that the UK cares about suppressing corruption at home but is indifferent (or worse) to how its nationals and its policies affect corruption abroad. But that is too simple, because in some respects the UK has been an innovator in the fight against transnational bribery and illicit wealth, and has often taken the lead in enacting new and more powerful anticorruption and anti-money laundering tools. Over the past dozen years, three such innovations are especially notable: the 2010 UK Bribery Act (UKBA), the 2016 legislation mandating a public registry of the beneficial owners of all private companies registered in the UK, and the 2017 Criminal Finances Act authorizing unexplained wealth orders (UWOs)—court orders that require the owners of UK assets to prove that the funds used to purchase those assets came from legitimate sources, with the assets frozen and eventually seized if the owner is unable to do so.

Yet the paradox continues: While the UK received well-deserved praise for enacting these measures, in practice all three have been far less effective than proponents hoped. The reasons for these failures are different, but they share common threads. Continue reading

Lessons from the U.S. College Admissions Scandal: Why Universities Need to Embrace Anticorruption Measures

In 2019, a college admissions corruption scandal made headlines in the United States and around the world. Richard Singer, who masterminded the scheme, promised wealthy parents that he could get their children coveted places at Stanford, Yale, USC, and other selective colleges through what he called the “side door.” Rather than donate $45 or $50 million to gain an edge in admissions, parents would pay Singer and his foundation to bribe college coaches to recruit the students as college athletes—even though many of the students had never competed in the sport for which they were allegedly being recruited. U.S. federal prosecutors, in the so-called “Varsity Blues” investigation, uncovered this scheme and indicted more than fifty people (parents, coaches, and others). Many of the defendants pled guilty. This past October, in the first Varsity Blues case to go to trial, a jury found hedge fund magnate John Wilson and former casino executive Gamal Abdelaziz guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, and mail fraud. More trials are likely coming, and more convictions are likely.

Beyond the sensational headlines—which often focused on the wealthy parents, several of whom are celebrities—what broader lessons can we draw from the scandal? When it first broke, many commentators attacked the broader culture of entitlement and privilege in which wealthy parents secure unfair—but in most cases entirely legal—advantages for their children through legacy preferences and favoritism toward big donors. Other commentators drew attention to the hypercompetitive, win-at-all-cost culture fostered by the U.S. college admissions system. Critics pointed to a culture that leads not only to criminal bribery of the sort revealed in the Varsity Blues investigation, but also to less visible forms of dishonesty like college admissions “consultants” who draft essays for pay and students who cheat on college admissions tests, sometimes with the support or complicity of adults.

Those critiques of the U.S. college admissions culture are apt, but there’s another important lesson that emerges from the scandal, one that has received less attention: The scandal highlighted the extent to which universities have failed to address seemingly obvious corruption risks, and failed to implement effective controls for identifying applicants who were bribing their way onto campus. Compared to other large institutions, universities are behind when it comes to establishing effective anticorruption controls.

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Brazil Should Rethink the Corporate Death Penalty for Corrupt Acts

Brazil’s Clean Company Act (CCA), enacted during a time of mass protests against corruption and impunity, was a major step forward in the fight against corporate crime. While the CCA is best known for its imposition of strict civil and administrative liability on legal entities that commit corrupt acts against public administration, the CCA is also notable for its authorization, in extreme cases, of a “corporate death penalty.” More specifically, the CCA requires the dissolution of a corporation or other legal entity when (1) the legal entity is in fact a “shell company” used to conceal illegal acts (such as money laundering, tax evasion, or procurement fraud), or (2) the legal entity was used on a regular basis to facilitate or promote the performance of wrongful acts. Applying the corporate death penalty to shell companies created for the purpose of facilitating or concealing criminal acts is straightforward and not terribly controversial, especially since these shell companies do not engage in any genuine productive activity. The controversy arises with respect to the second category, which can include productive companies.

Applying the extreme sanction of corporate dissolution might seem like appropriately strong medicine for companies, even productive companies, that have been involved in serious and ongoing illegality. In practice, however, this sanction is not working as intended. A much more effective and realistic sanction, at least in the Brazilian context, would be to compel a persistently corrupt (but productive) company’s shareholders to sell their controlling stake in the company—thus preserving the company as a going concern, but placing it under new ownership and management.

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Measuring the Success of Brazil’s 2014 Anticorruption Law

In January 2014, following nationwide protests prompted by concerns about widespread corruption, the Brazilian Congress enacted a new Anticorruption Law. The 2014 Anticorruption Law was a landmark in part because it represented the shift from the traditional focus on individual bribe-takers to the bribe-paying corporations. Although a few prior statutes did address the conduct of alleged bribe payers, the Anticorruption Law both authorized much more stringent penalties on bribe-paying companies (including fines of up to 20% of a company’s gross revenue in the prior year, and even mandatory dissolution of the company in extreme cases), and also adopted a revolutionary strict liability regime for corporate corruption offenses.

More than six years have passed since the Brazilian Anticorruption Law entered into force. Has the law been effective? What do we know so far about its enforcement? On the whole, the enforcement numbers seem rather disappointing, suggesting that the law has not (yet) been deployed aggressively to sanction bribe-paying corporations in most parts of Brazil. Nonetheless, there are a variety of reasons why it would be premature to conclude from these numbers that the law has not been, or will not be, effective.

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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%.