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

Why Italy Should Not Prioritize Anticorruption in Spending Covid Recovery Funds

The Covid-19 pandemic has been an economic disaster as well as a public health disaster, and massive public spending will be needed to promote recovery. In Europe, the EU is projected to spend up to €1.8 trillion on pandemic recovery. One of the biggest recipients of these EU funds will be Italy, the EU’s hardest-hit member state. Currently, Italy is poised to receive €123 billion in loans and €69 billion in grants between now and 2026. Provision of these funds has already started; the first tranche of €25 billion arrived this past June. This funding will support Italy’s Covid recovery plan, known as the Piano Nazionale di Ripresa e Resilienza (PNRR), which—in the name of territorial cohesion—will allocate 40% of the funds to the Italian south.

If history is any guide, a massive amount of that money will be misallocated, misspent, or outright stolen by corrupt public officials colluding with organized crime groups. The mafias have a long history of bribing Italian officials for lucrative public contracts. Between 2014 and 2020, Italy received €77 billion from the EU for use in structural and investment funds; 60% of those funds were “fraudulently requested or obtained,” often by organized crime, with the 85% of that fraud occurring in the South. Much of the fraud occurs when illegitimate companies request funds in the form of loans and grants; the companies either don’t exist or are liquidated upon receipt of the funds.  

But we needn’t look only to history: Italy’s three most powerful crime syndicates—Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Campania, and the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria—are already bribing Covid response officials, winning fraudulent contracts, and plundering businesses in receipt of PNRR funds. As the EU money pours in, we can expect that these mafia groups will use their corrupt networks to siphon off a staggering percentage of the EU Covid relief funding.

What should European policymakers do in response? It’s tempting to insist—as anticorruption activists have in this and other contexts—that the EU and Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government adopt enhanced oversight and transparency measures, to better ensure that funds are spent appropriately. But that would be a mistake. Right now, the priority must be on promoting a swift economic recovery. Attaching burdensome anticorruption requirements to the public spending needed to support that recovery will slow the process down too much. This is, I realize, a bitter pill to swallow. Many readers will instinctively resist the idea that the EU and the Italian government might bankroll Italy’s most powerful mafias (to the tune of up to €200 billion). But if Italy is to recover from the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the priority must be the swift delivery of recovery funds, even if this means that much of the money will be intercepted by the mafia.

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The “Big Government Causes Corruption” Zombie Shambles On

I don’t make a practice of responding to opinion columns in mainstream newspapers, especially when they’re not specifically or primarily about corruption. But the opening of Bret Stephens’ piece in yesterday’s New York Times caught my eye, mainly because the column used corruption in the Greek health care system as the “hook” for an argument that President Biden’s ambitious plans for an expanded social safety net will lead to American decline. Here’s how Stephens opens his column:

Years ago, Alexis Tsipras, the party leader of Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, surprised me with a question. “Here in the United States,” the soon-to-be prime minister asked me over breakfast in New York, “why do you not have this phenomenon of passing money under the table?”

The subject was health care. Greece has a public health care system that, in theory, guarantees its citizens access to necessary medical care.

Practice, however, is another matter. Patients in Greek public hospitals, Tsipras explained, would first have to slip a doctor “an envelope with a certain amount of money” before they could expect to get treatment. The government, he added, underpaid its doctors and then looked the other way as they topped up their income with bribes.

Take a close look at any country or locality in which the government offers allegedly free or highly subsidized goods and you’ll usually discover that there’s a catch.

What is the point of opening with this anecdote (other than not-so-subtly alerting the reader that the author is the sort of important person who has chit-chats with world leaders)? The implication, so far as I can tell, seems to be that countries that provide free or heavily subsidized social welfare benefits tend to be more corrupt.

There is, however, an important problem with this argument: It’s not true.

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New Podcast Episode, Featuring Daniel Freund

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Jonathan Kleinpass interview Daniel Freund, a German representative in the European Parliament, where he serves on the Committee on Budgetary Control and co-chairs the Parliament’s Anti-Corruption Intergroup. Mr. Freund discusses the risks of corruption (or other forms of misappropriation) of EU funds and how to close these loopholes, as well as the use of conditionalities to promote the rule of law. Much of the interview focuses on the challenges posed by states like Hungary, where the Orban regime’s suppression of media freedom and judicial independence has created a situation in which Orban and his cronies are looting the state and enriching themselves to the tune of over one billion Euros per year, as well as entrenching their own power through a system of favoritism and crony capitalism. Mr. Freund discusses the challenges that the Hungarian situation poses for the EU, and the institutional mechanisms that the EU might use to respond this and similar situations.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

How the European Union Can Work with China To Advance Anticorruption Goals in the Western Balkans and Beyond

The European Union has traditionally imposed strict anticorruption rules for its lending and development projects. In the Western Balkans in particular, the EU’s Western Balkans Investment Framework attaches transparency and anticorruption conditions to EU investments. Moreover, the EU has made clear that progress on anticorruption reform is a main requirement for attaining EU membership, a core goal of all countries in the region. The EU’s approach, however, is under increasing pressure given competition from China, which has steadily ramped up its investment in Southeastern Europe—especially in the energy, transport, and telecommunications sectors—via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is willing to invest heavily in the region (largely via loans) without attaching any anticorruption conditions. This approach can be more appealing to many of the region’s (corrupt) public officials, who would like to build infrastructure quickly and under less scrutiny.

Because of competition from China and its demonstrated negative effects on local anticorruption efforts, the EU needs to reevaluate its approach. While last year the EU published a strategic outlook paper labeling China a “systemic rival” and toughened its overall approach to the country, the EU should actively pursue more cooperation with China when it comes to investment in Southeastern Europe. This does not mean that the EU should relax its strict anticorruption and governance conditionalities. The EU still retains considerable leverage in the region, and can and should continue to use this leverage to push an anticorruption agenda. But the EU’s efforts would be more effective if the EU directly engaged with China on this topic. Indeed, the EU may even be able to work with Chinese companies in ways that raise the latter’s integrity standards and safeguards. Continue reading

Albanian Political Leaders Are Using Covert Tactics to Silence Anticorruption Watchdog Groups

Civil society and investigative journalism have long played key roles in exposing corruption, and many CSOs and media watchdogs—especially newer, younger organizations—now make extensive use of social media platforms to engage with the public. In Albania, for example, relatively new organizations like Nisma Thurje and Faktoje frequently expose instances of corruption via Facebook, one of the most popular social media platforms in Albania. However, corrupt politicians are taking notice of these innovative tactics and finding equally innovative ways to silence their critics. In addition to ongoing efforts to censor the media and harass activists (see, for example, here and here), the Albanian elite has undertaken more clandestine efforts to attack civil society and journalists.

One savvy scheme involves Acromax Media GmBH (Acromax), a German digital rights company owned by two Albanians, which has close ties to Albania’s ruling Socialist Party. Acromax has contracts with over 95% of Albanian television stations, with far-reaching rights to take action on its own initiative against alleged copyright violations. For example, when a civil society group like Nisma Thurje posts a story on Facebook about a politician’s corruption, and includes a link to interviews or clips of the politician’s speeches that were originally broadcast on one of those TV stations, Acromax files a complaint with the social media platform alleging a copyright violation—even though re-sharing public content that clearly displays the original source is common practice around the world and does not meet the definition of copyright infringement. Moreover, Acromax only files such complaints with respect to stories that are critical of the government; pro-government posts, including clips from these same channels, are not flagged as intellectual property infringement by Acromax.

Distressingly, even though the claims of intellectual property infringement seem bogus, Facebook has largely complied with Acromax’s demands to take down content. This may be due in part to the European Union’s recent 2019 Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, Article 17 of which makes content-sharing platforms, not just individual content uploaders, liable for intellectual property violations, which in turn has caused Facebook to employ even more automation to deal with its new legal responsibilities. Unfortunately, the automated algorithms currently in use cannot reliably distinguish genuine copyright infringement from legal re-sharing, and the algorithms are sufficiently complex and opaque that it is very difficult for CSOs to challenge the take-down decisions and get their content reinstated. Acromax has exploited these weaknesses in the system to make legitimate civil society watchdogs look like serial copyright infringers. Indeed, Acromax’s harassment campaign has been so successful that two of Nisma Thurje’s founders had personal social media pages shut down because of complaints from Acromax, and Facebook further labeled Nisma Thurje “a dangerous group” and limited the range of Nisma Thurje’s social media capabilities. The technology giant further warned Nisma Thurje that its page would be shut down entirely if Facebook received even one more copyright infringement claim.

Acromax is a well-tuned operation for squelching civil society watchdogs that threaten to expose government wrongdoing, and may serve as a model for similar censorship efforts. Tackling this problem seems daunting, but these are some concrete steps that various actors—including governments, technology companies, and the civil society groups themselves—can take to address this new kind of assault. Continue reading

Even “Tough on Corruption” Proponents Should Worry about “Zero Tolerance” Rules

“Zero tolerance for corruption,” as Professor Stephenson suggested in a 2014 post, is an expression that can be construed in several different ways: from a general attitude that corruption should be considered “a high priority,” to an uncompromising policy mandating that “all feasible measures to minimize corruption must always be used.” In this post I will discuss another common, narrower understanding of “zero tolerance for corruption,” according to which corruption – at least in certain contexts – must always be addressed with a mandatory predetermined harsh sanction. A clear example of such a “zero tolerance” rule is the Colombian and Peruvian law demanding the instant termination of “any public contract tainted by corruption.” Another illustrative example is the EU’s directive mandating debarment from public contracting of any company convicted of offenses of corruption, fraud, or money laundering.

Granted, the potential deterrent value of mandatory harsh sanctions for corruption is substantial. A company aware that any conviction for corruption will inevitably incur severe penalties is more likely to be dissuaded from violating the law. Nevertheless, the costs of this “take no prisoners” approach to anticorruption may be much higher than the actual benefit. Thus, as Rick Messick recently showed, the law mandating termination of corruption-tainted public contracts has proven to have disastrous ramifications for the infrastructure in Peru and Colombia. As it turns out, not only has the nondiscretionary cancellation of corruption-tainted public contracts halted the advancement of existing infrastructure projects, but it has also deterred investors and developers from taking any part in such projects, for fear that they will be cancelled due to “the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.” Similarly, debarment is nothing less than “a death-sentence” for companies whose main business involves public contracts, and its mandatory imposition for even a relatively minor offense may be so draconian as to be counterproductive.

This kind of cost-benefit reasoning, though compelling to some, would not convince many proponents of an unequivocally “tough on corruption” stance. Many anticorruption hardliners believe in maximizing deterrence notwithstanding any associated costs. From this point of view, the end of deterring corruption justifies all necessary means. Yet even for those who take this view, it turns out that “zero tolerance” may not be the ideal approach. Supporters of “zero tolerance” rules assume that adoption of mandatory sanctions for corruption would guarantee that actors in the anticorruption system – judges, prosecutors, and legislators – will adhere to the “zero tolerance” ideal, and that such rules would be sustainable. But these decisionmakers in the anticorruption system may evade the application of “zero tolerance” rules where doing so would lead to sanctions perceived (rightly or wrongly) as patently absurd or unjust. In other words, a “zero tolerance” rule on the books does not guarantee that a “zero tolerance” policy would actually be implemented. Consider the various ways that actors in the anticorruption system may avoid triggering the mandatory sanctions for corruption:

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The European Union Elections and the Future of European Anticorruption Policy

GAB is pleased to welcome back Professor Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, chair of the European Research Centre for Anticorruption and State-Building at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Her many publications include the Cambridge University Press volume A Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Build Control of Corruption and most recently “Romania’s Italian-Style Anticorruption Populism,” in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

Do Europeans care about corruption?  If the results of the May election to the European Parliament are any guide, they do.  Turnout to fill its 751 seats was the highest since the first election in 1979, and polling data shows corruption was a top concern of many voters. A YouGov poll found corruption and migration were what troubled voters the most, and earlier research had shown that respondents’ perceptions of how member governments handled corruption to be a good predictor of their trust of both national-level and European-wide institutions. Party leaders apparently believed these polls. The heads of the major ones all issued pre-election statements denouncing corruption and backing open government (a surprise given their foot-dragging on a parliamentary ethics code and reluctance to commit to greater transparency in the operation of the parliament itself).

Can Brussels solve what voters believe is the problem of corruption in Europe? This very large question can be unpacked into three more manageable ones:

Is Europe in fact as corrupt as Europeans think it is?  Are their perceptions of corruption matched by reality?

Do the results of the May elections indeed reflect a demand for stronger anticorruption policies and better governance?

If Europeans are indeed demanding better governed, less corrupt polities, can the EU’s limited anticorruption instruments satisfy the voters demand? Continue reading

Managing Anticorruption Compliance Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation

Lawyers and businesses today are concerned with data privacy issues like never before—not only because of the mounting number of data privacy scandals, but also because of new regulations, most importantly the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR, which was adopted in 2016 and became applicable in May 2018, reformed the entire personal data protection system in the EU by setting new rules of data protection and privacy. Moreover, the GDPR applies not only to entities that operate within the EU, but also to all entities established in the EU when operating outside the EU, as well as to entities established outside the EU when they are offering their goods and services inside the EU or monitoring individuals from the EU. The GDPR thus has global reach, as well as stringent penalties for violations.

The GDPR has implications for many different fields, and anticorruption is no exception. This is especially true for corporations conducting internal investigations of possible bribery by firm employees or agents, and when conducting due diligence on potential partners. Much of the data collected in these corporate investigations will include “personal data” as defined and regulated by the GDPR. For this reason, some commentators have warned that the effect of the GDPR on traditional corporate anticorruption investigations will amount to “a collision of galactic proportions.”

That may by hyperbole, but it is certainly the case that the GDPR will impose important new obligations that influence how companies handle anti-bribery compliance issues, both in the context of internal investigations and in the context of due diligence. Continue reading

The Orban Effect, or Why the EU Needs to Take a Hard Line on Anticorruption Backsliding

After Viktor Orban’s election to the Hungarian premiership in 2010, he set Hungary on a course to become an “illiberal democracy.” As part and parcel of that vision, Orban began to increase corruption in Hungary, building a new class of oligarchs (including his family and friends) dependent on crony capitalism. Indeed, Orban’s Hungary is now one of the most corrupt states in Europe (see here, here, and here), with government and EU funds regularly misappropriated, wasted, or flat-out stolen. And while one must always be careful about drawing strong conclusions from changes in a country’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) score, it’s certainly notable that Hungary has dropped 10 spots on the CPI ranking since 2011, the first full year of Orban’s rule. These developments are not only worrisome in and of themselves, but many worry that Orban’s approach—not only his far-right politics, but the entrenched oligarchic corruption he has fostered—might become normalized not only in Hungary but throughout the region.

That worry is well-founded. Orban’s ideas have not been contained to Hungary. The spread of the “illiberal state” and of corrupt quasi-authoritarian oligarchy has precipitated a crisis across Europe. What should international actors—particularly the EU—do in response? Two things:

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