Are Financial Declaration Systems Creating Opportunities for Corrupt Extortion?

One of the most popular reform measures for combating public corruption is the establishment or strengthening of requirements that public officials regularly file declarations of assets and income sources. Mandatory financial disclosure rules are not exclusively about fighting corruption, of course, but anticorruption is certainly one of their principal justifications. Requiring public officials to formally submit and update income and asset declarations, and attaching meaningful penalties for false or misleading declarations, is thought to help suppress corruption in at least three ways:

  • First, identifying assets and income sources makes it easier to identify, and hopefully to avoid, conflicts of interest.
  • Second, public officials who report suspicious asset growth during their time in office might attract unwanted scrutiny from law enforcement investigators—and also, if the declarations are public, from journalists and activists. Submitting false reports or finding clever ways to hide assets are of course possible, but are costly and risky.
  • Third, precisely because corrupt public officials will often lie on their financial declarations in order to avoid scrutiny, these mandatory disclosure laws can sometimes provide the hook to hold corrupt officials legally or politically accountable even when it is impossible to prove the underlying corruption. We might not be able to nail the corrupt official for bribe-taking or embezzlement, but if we can show that he owns substantial undeclared assets, we can still nail him for lying on his financial declarations.

There are important ongoing debates about the appropriate design of financial disclosure systems, including questions about whether the disclosures should be public or kept confidential, who should be required to submit disclosures (and how often), what sort of information should be required (and at what level of detail), whether and how declarations should be independently verified, the appropriate institution to manage the system, and the appropriate penalties for noncompliance (see also here). And the efficacy of mandatory financial disclosures in reducing corruption is still unsettled (see here, here, here, here, and here). Nevertheless, the basic anticorruption case for some form of mandatory financial disclosure system seems strong. Both domestic anticorruption activists and the international community therefore regularly push for the creation of such systems where they do not already exist, as well as for the strengthening and expansion of existing systems.

While acknowledging the uncertainties and complexities of the issue, I find the basic case for some form of (strong) mandatory financial declaration system persuasive. That said, I’ve recently had some interesting conversations with a couple of experts who have highlighted a potential problem that I confess I hadn’t previously thought about or seen discussed in the published literature: In countries where corruption is widespread and institutional checks are weak, the government agents who administer the financial disclosure system could abuse their power to extort bribes from the public officials who are subject to the declaration requirements. Continue reading

Fighting Police Corruption in Nigeria: An Agenda for Comprehensive Reform

Nigeria has a serious problem with police corruption, at all levels. At the top, senior police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds. To take just one example, in 2012, the former Inspector General of Police, Sunday Ehindero, faced trial for embezzling 16 million Naira (approximately US$44,422). Meanwhile, at the lower levels, rank-and-file police officers regularly extort money from the public, and crime victims must pay bribes before the police will handle their cases. As a 102-page report by Human Rights Watch documented, police extortion is so institutionalized that Nigerians are more likely to encounter police demanding bribes than enforcing the law. No wonder Nigeria’s police force was ranked as the worst of those included in the 2016 World Internal Security and Police Index, and that Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer survey found that a staggering 69% of Nigerian citizens think that most or all police officers are corrupt.

To combat such a deep-rooted and systemic problem, bold and comprehensive reforms are needed. What would an effective reform agenda look like? Here is an outline of the most important reforms that are needed, drawing on international best practices but also tailored to Nigeria’s particular circumstances: Continue reading

“Passive Bribery”: Not a Trivial Abuse of Language At All

Yesterday Matthew wrote that using “passive bribery” to describe a public official’s acceptance of a bribe was an abuse of language.  His complaint: “passive” suggests a bribe taker is less culpable than a bribe payer: “’Passive bribery,’” he explained, “sounds less bad, and less serious, than ‘active bribery,’ even though most people would view the two parties to the bribe transaction as equally culpable.”

Calling bribe-taking “passive” is indeed an abuse of language. But it is not, as Matthew’s headline reads, “An Almost Entirely Trivial Complaint.” Nor is the abuse “No big deal” as he writes in the post.  To see why, consider two different “passive bribery” scenarios. Continue reading

Corruption and Federal Pensions: A Case for Rewriting the Hiss Act

David Lee, an employee of the Department of Homeland Security, was tasked with investigating a foreign businessman accused of sex trafficking.  Instead of doing his job, however, he did something very different: He solicited and received $13,000 in bribes to report that that the foreign in question was not involved in criminal activity.  This case is not that unusual. In the last ten years, according to a report by the New York Times, immigration enforcement officials have taken over $5 million in bribes. They’ve sold green cards, ignored illegal activity, and even given information to the very drug cartels they are tasked with combating.

Shockingly, however, even after these officials are fired, they remain eligible for federal pensions. This is not unusual, but rather typical: most federal employees convicted of bribery remain eligible for their government pensions.  This was not always the case: The original 1954 version of a statute called the Hiss Act (named for Alger Hiss, a State Department employee who was convicted of passing state secrets to a communist agent) prohibited the payment of a federal pension to a former federal employee who had been convicted of federal law offenses related to bribery and graft, conflict of interest, disloyalty, national defense and national security, and more generally to the exercise of one’s “authority, influence, power, or privileges as an officer or employee of the Government.” In 1961, however, Congress amended the law to prohibit the payment of pensions only for convictions for serious national security-related offenses. The reason for the change was the view that the original version of the Hiss Act went too far, leaving former federal officials (who had already been punished with termination, fines, and imprisonment), as well as their innocent spouses and children, facing the possibility of destitution. The additional punishment supposedly did not fit the crime, unless the crime directly concerned the national security of the United States.

The impulse not to over-punish is commendable, but the 1961 amendment to the Hiss Act was an overcorrection. The law should be amended to find a middle ground between the 1954 and 1961 versions. The federal government should have the authority to at least limit, and occasionally bar, pensions to certain public officials who have been convicted of a corruption-related offenses such as bribery and extortion. The case for doing so is as follows:

Continue reading

Guest Post: The Blagojevich Case and the Line Between Corruption and Horse-Trading

Jennifer Rodgers and Jacob Watkins, respectively Executive Director and Program Coordinator for the Columbia University Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI), contribute the following guest post:

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently back in the news, but this time for something he didn’t do wrong, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals vacated 5 of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich was convicted in 2011. The appellate court’s decision hinged upon the distinction between illegal corruption and legal (if distasteful) political horse-trading, an issue recently touched upon in the decision by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to uphold former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s public corruption convictions (which Matthew discussed here). The outcome of the Blagojevich appeal shows that under current U.S. law, whether or not a public official’s deal-making is illegal depends upon what exactly the official is bargaining for. Political horse-trading–exchanging one official act for another official act–is not a crime under U.S. federal law, but exchanging an official act for a private benefit is. The decision in the Blagojevich provides a useful opportunity for thinking more generally about how the law ought to draw that difficult line. Continue reading