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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Guest Post: Whistleblower Protection in Kosovo–An Unlikely Success Story of Civil Society Collective Action and International Support

Today’s guest post is from Nedim Hogic, a PhD candidate at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, and Arolda Elbasani, Visiting Scholar at New York University. The research on which this post is based was sponsored by Kosovo Open Society Foundation.

In Kosovo, as in the rest of the Balkans region more generally, anticorruption initiatives and institutional solutions have typically been top-down efforts based on templates recommended by international actors and hastily approved by a circle of local political allies. Few of those international initiatives have proved successful, often because the new laws provided enough discretion for political interests to thwart effective implementation. Hence, Kosovo, like much of the rest of the Balkans, seems trapped in a continuous yet futile cycle of international-sponsored institutional- and capacity-building measures, which have not delivered.

The 2018 amendments to Kosovo’s law on the protection of whistleblowers suggests a more promising model of legislative drafting. The amended law stands out for its collaborative and open mode of drafting, involving various international, governmental, and civil society actors, a welcome contrast to the more prevalent pattern of top-down, and largely futile, approach to legal and institutional reform. Continue reading

Guest Post: Evaluating the Personal Privacy Objections to Public Beneficial Ownership Registries

Today’s guest post is from Adriana Edmeades-Jones and Tom Walker of The Engine Room:

The abuse of anonymous companies to facilitate corruption, tax evasion, and other sorts of criminal activity has prompted reformers to call for corporations and other legal entities to provide governments with accurate information on the true (or “beneficial”) human owners of these companies. Transparency advocates have argued that governments should not only compile such beneficial ownership registries, but should make them public.Public beneficial ownership registries, according to their proponents, would increase the efficiency of financial investigations, ease the due diligence burden on companies investigating supply chains and corporate counterparties, and enable media civil society to scrutinize more effectively who owns and controls what among the global corporate elite. Opponents have advanced multiple objections to creating public beneficial ownership registries, including questions about their accuracy and effectiveness, as well as concerns about the effect on individual privacy, and the associated risks that such public registries could facilitate “identity theft, cybercrime, and blackmail.”

How seriously should we take the “personal privacy” objection to public beneficial ownership registries? In a new report, OpenOwnership, The Engine Room, and the B Team propose a framework to evaluate this issue, borrowing from the structured analysis of international human rights law. Crucially, under international human rights law not every interference with personal privacy qualifies as a violation of an individual’s privacy rights. A violation only arises if the interference with privacy lacks a legitimate justification. Determining whether an interference with privacy is justified, in turn, entails addressing three questions: (1) Is the interference lawful (that is, consistent with generally-accepted standards governing personal information)? (2) Is the interference necessary to advance some legitimate aim? (3) Is the degree of interference proportionate to the legitimate end sought?

Application of these three criteria in turn suggests that an appropriately-designed public beneficial ownership registry would not violate individual privacy rights: Continue reading

Brussels v. Bucharest: The Kövesi Case and the Future of EU Anticorruption Policy

Last week Matthew suggested that the Romanian government’s fierce opposition to Ms. Laura Cordruta Kövesi’s candidacy to head the European Public Prosecutors’ Office is a good reason why she should be chosen.  Ms. Kövesi led Romania’s anticorruption agency, the Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie (DNA), until fired last July for what many observers believe was her refusal to back-off prosecuting senior members of the ruling party.  That her own government, one of Europe’s more corrupt, so opposes her, Matthew argued, is a sign that it knows, and fears, how effective she would be as Europe’s chief prosecutor.

In today’s guest post, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi offers a different perspective  – on why Ms. Kövesi is a candidate for the position and her government’s opposition to her selection and goes on to explain how the controversy arises from the European Union’s ham-handed intervention into Romanian politics, an intervention that has set back the country’s fight against corruption.  Professor Mungiu-Pippidi spear-headed several widely-praised anticorruption movements in Romania before becoming director of the European Research Centre for Anticorruption and State-Building and Professor at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance. She is the author most recently of The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Build Control of Corruption. Cambridge University Press will soon release her Europe’s Burden: Promoting Good Governance across Borders.

The Western media obsessed over Laura Codruta’s Kövesi’s firing as chief of the Romanian anticorruption agency at the demand of the Romania’s Justice Minister. It is again obsessing about her now that she is the European Parliament’s candidate for the job of European Public Prosecutor (EPP). That institution was recently created at the instance of another Romanian, former Justice Minister Monica Macovei, currently an independent Member of European Parliament who, as Romanian Justice Minister, first appointed Ms. Kövesi. Having fired Ms. Kövesi, the Romanian government is now attacking her candidacy, publicizing allegations of misconduct while she ran the agency and calling for her to be questioned about them at precisely the time she is scheduled to appear before the European Parliament on her nomination.

Whether the European Union needs a new, union-wide public prosecution office is itself open to debate. Ms. Kövesi’s selection as one of three finalists to head the office is even more questionable.  It appears to be Europe’s way of taking revenge on the Romanian government for firing her.  Continue reading