The Independence of U.S. Law Enforcement is Under Attack. Here’s What Congress Can Do About It.

The politicization of the institutions of justice, particularly those associated with criminal law enforcement, is one of the greatest threats to the rule of law and the integrity of government. Corrupt leaders in democracies and autocracies alike seek to undermine any check on their power, thus ensuring impunity for themselves and their allies, and may also try to weaponize criminal investigations to harass and discredit political opponents. For many years, most Americans viewed this sort of threat to the integrity of the institutions of justice as something that only happened abroad, or in the distant past. Not so anymore. Under the Trump Administration, the corruption and politicization of law enforcement institutions is a significant threat to American democracy.

That President Trump lacks respect for the independence and integrity of law enforcement has been evident for some time, at least since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump dismissed Comey in part to the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election, and in part because Comey wouldn’t pledge his personal loyalty to the president.) In the last month, the situation appears to be getting even worse. As has been widely reported in the media, President Trump publicly criticized the Department of Justice (DOJ) for seeking a high sentence in the case of Trump associate Roger Stone; Attorney General Bill Barr claimed that President Trump didn’t issue any specific instructions regarding the case (and complained about the President’s tweeting), but Barr nonetheless recommended a much lower sentence that the DOJ’s own prosecutors had originally requested. Barr recently made the highly unusual decision to install an outside prosecutor to oversee the case against President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In another troubling move that didn’t get as much press attention, in early February Barr issued a memo saying that any FBI investigations into 2020 candidates or their campaigns would require the Attorney General’s approval.

Trump has asserted that he had the legal right, as President, to intervene in criminal cases. This is a contested claim, to say the least. Some argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, the President has ultimate control not only over general DOJ policy, but over decision-making in individual criminal prosecutions. However, others assert that this is not so, and that the Constitution actually imposes certain limits the President’s control over individual prosecutions—most importantly, that the President cannot seek to affect a criminal case out of corrupt or self-interested motivations.

Putting the legal debate to one side for now, and assuming that Congress—if not now, then at some point in the future—would like to establish new safeguards to insulate the DOJ and FBI from the corrupting influence of an unscrupulous president, what might Congress do? I suggest three steps that Congress might take:

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New Podcast Episode, Featuring Debra LaPrevotte

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This week’s episode features an interview with Debra LaPrevotte. After a long and distinguished career with the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), where she specialized in asset seizure cases (among other things), Ms. LaPrevotte joined The Sentry, an international non-governmental organization that fights war cries and other atrocities in sub-Saharan Africa by “following the money”–shining a light on how kleptocrats and their cronies try to hide the assets that they amass from their illegal and exploitative activities. In the interview, Ms. LaPrevotte discusses here work on asset seizure at the FBI, her work on tracking and exposing kleptocratic assets for The Sentry, and her reflections and insights regarding broader controversies and policy questions related to the asset recovery and return process.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast 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 Prisons Corrupt – And What To Do About It

In May 2014, Kelvin Melton orchestrated a kidnapping scheme. The perpetrators assaulted the victim with a stun gun, took him from his home, and sent texts to his family demanding ransom. Throughout this time, Melton continued to give instructions to the kidnappers via cell phone. Fortunately, law enforcement was able to thwart the plot and recuse the victim. These facts alone make for a gripping crime. But the story had an extra twist: Melton, the mastermind behind the kidnapping, was in a prison cell the entire time, serving a life sentence for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill; the target of the kidnapping scheme was the father of the prosecutor who put Melton behind bars. Melton was able to orchestrate the crime while behind bars because he had been able to obtain a contraband cell phone from a guard.

While the facts of this case are sensational, the phenomenon of inmates corrupting prison guards in order to obtain contraband is far from unusual. In the wake of Melton’s crime, the FBI launched a new program—Operation Ghost Guard—to root out corruption by correctional officers. The first major case out of the program came in 2016, when the FBI indicted nearly 50 former and current correctional officers for accepting bribes from inmates in exchange for contraband. Over the course of a two-year undercover investigation, federal officials learned how inmates and guards in Georgia formed their own crime syndicate. Guards would bring in liquor, tobacco, and cell phones in exchange for thousands in bribe money. Inmates, in turn, would use the cell phones to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and identity theft. Outside of the prison, guards were using their badges to facilitate drug deals. The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia called the levels of corruption “staggering.” And Georgia is not alone; New York state prison officials are currently under investigation by the FBI as well.

The issue of prison corruption is not unique to the U.S. Prior posts on this blog have explored how Brazilian inmates were able to bribe guards in order to facilitate large-scale drug and weapons trading within the complex, and how incarcerated drug lords in the Philippines bought off guards in order to live in comparative luxury behind bars. In the United Kingdom, the widespread practice of bribes in exchange for drugs or cell phones led the penal system to be called “institutionally corrupt” by a report issued by the country’s own Metropolitan police. How do these acts of corruption come about in the first place? And what can we do about them? In her earlier post on prison corruption in the Philippines, Bea Paterno focused on the need for better monitoring and oversight. That’s surely part of the solution, but we also need to pay attention to other aspects of the prison environment, including the guards’ working conditions and the ways in which they interact with inmates. Continue reading

FIFA’s Faustian Bargain: Corruption for the Cup?

In a Road to Damascus twist, on Tuesday FIFA President Sepp Blatter asked the Swiss government to launch a criminal investigation into corruption related to Qatar being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. This unprecedented move comes on the heels of a week of backlash to the FIFA Ethics Committee’s final conclusion on the Qatar question: “The potentially problematic facts and circumstances identified by the report concerning the Qatar 2022 bid were, all in all, not suited to compromise the integrity of the 2018/2022 bidding process as a whole.”  These “potentially problematic facts” include a swath of bribes (“improper payments”) paid by Mohamed bin Hamman, a chief supporter of the Qatari bid and former Asian Football Confederation president, which the report concludes were not directly related to securing the Cup, as well as payments by Qatari officials themselves, which made a “negative impression” but did not technically fall afoul of FIFA rules. The Committee’s decision was quickly and repeatedly slammed as a farce, and was followed by strong calls for the investigative report upon which it was based to be made public. Blatter adamantly refused to release the report, which made it all the more surprising when he seemed to go a step further by calling for the Swiss Office of the Attorney General to investigate. Should a criminal investigation proceed, not only would the government’s findings be made public, but corrupt FIFA officials would find themselves facing something entirely new: the pinch of handcuffs rather than a pinch to their finances.

While FIFA lodging the criminal complaint should be applauded, singing halleluiahs over Blatter’s conversion to the church of anticorruption would be a bit premature. In fact, this may be his most strategic move yet.

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Guinean, American Anticorruption Investigators Tear Up the “Best Private Mining Deal of Our Generation”

The mining mogul Benny Steinmetz was once feted for the “best private mining deal of our generation,” after his company secured Africa’s richest iron ore deposit in Simandou, Guinea. Today, the deal “lies in ruins.” A two-year investigation by Guinea’s government has found that Steinmetz’s firm BSGR used corrupt practices to win its mining rights from Ahmed Sekou Touré, Guinea’s former dictator, . The company has now been stripped of these rights. Meanwhile, the FBI has Steinmetz on tape authorizing millions of dollars in payments to the wife of a former Guinean dictator. A BSGR associate, Frederic Cilins, has pled guilty to obstructing an FCPA inquiry into the mining deal in a Manhattan court; Swiss prosecutors are looking to question Steinmetz himself. Perhaps unbelievably for Benny Steinmetz, anticorruption authorities around the world have responded furiously to a clandestine deal in an overlooked, West African backwater.

Four takeaways from these incredible developments, after the jump.

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