Lessons from Moldova’s “Theft of the Century”

One year ago today, on April 20th, 2017, a Moldovan businessman named Veaceslav Platon was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His crime? Helping to steal a billion dollars. Between 2012 and 2014, businessmen and politicians siphoned off money from Moldova’s three largest banks in a crime now known as the “Theft of the Century.” While corruption is endemic in many parts of Eastern Europe, the theft in Moldova was spectacular in its size and in the severity of its consequences.

This theft was an economic, social, and political catastrophe for Moldova. The amount of money that disappeared was similar to the amount implicated in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia–but Malaysia’s GPD is 2.3 times the size of Moldova’s. The Moldovan government’s secret bailout of the banks cost $870 million, one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP. As a result of the theft, three of Moldova’s main banks went bankrupt and were liquidated; more banks are still under the supervision of the National Bank of Moldova, and there is persistent instability in the financial sector. And then there’s the human cost. For example, the misuse of money in the State Health Insurance Company’s accounts led to a medicine shortage in 2014-2015. During street demonstrations that ensued after the theft became public, two dozen people were injured. The political fallout from the theft has also been substantial: Confidence in the government was shattered, as every government branch and every major political party seemed implicated. Furthermore, because the party seen as most heavily involved in the theft was a pro-EU party, Moldovan support for joining the EU plummeted. Pro-Russian sympathizers capitalized on the public reaction, and the pro-Kremlin Igor Dodon was elected president in 2016. Dodon has talked about joining the Russia-controlled Eurasian Economic Union, halted participation in NATO exercises, and opposes the opening of a NATO office in Chisinau, Moldova’s capitol.

The investigation into the theft has dragged. More than 40 people have been implicated, and more prosecutions are supposedly in the pipeline, but only a few people have been convicted so far. With Moldova’s 2018 elections looming, now is a good time to look back at the fallout and lessons from the Theft of the Century.

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Guest Post: Structuring Effective Corporate Pay-Back To Help Fight Corruption

GAB is pleased to welcome back Alan Doig, Visiting Professor at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, who contributes the following guest post:

In recent years, there has been a swelling call for a substantial portion of the fines, disgorged profits, and other payments recovered from corporations in foreign bribery cases to be used to fund anticorruption initiatives, particularly those designed to fight corruption in the “victim” countries. If this recommendation were taken seriously, the potential funding resources could be substantial. While the recoveries from corporate settlements are miniscule (and ad hoc) contributions to national treasuries, they often dwarf what even big donor agencies spend. For example, the UNDP’s 2014-2017 GAIN (Global Anti-Corruption Initiative) had a total budget of $16 million, an amount much less than the fine and disgorgement from the first Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) between the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and ICBC Standard Bank in December 2015. Just think how such funds could provide badly-needed resources for anticorruption work, particularly for areas or organizations seeking new sources of funding, or for innovative work, in what is a very competitive environment. Thus while Integrity Action has managed to win competitive funding from soruces as diverse as Google’s Global Impact Challenge and the UK Comic Relief charity, the chair of the Board of Governors of the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) recently bemoaned the fact that IACA’s “last two general budgets never received 90% of the funding that was unanimously agreed upon” by member states, without which there would be no opportunity for the implementation of its ambitious programs.

While corporate settlements would provide a regular and substantial resource beyond the usual multilateral and bilateral donors (and the occasional big private foundation), there are, of course, a number of practical, legal, and political problems with getting countries to agree to divert substantial portions of such settlement funds to support anticorruption efforts. But even assuming these obstacles are overcome, another set of problems remains: Assuming that a given country (say, the US or UK) has decided that a substantial portion of a corporate penalty for bribery should be redirected to fund anticorruption efforts, how should the arrangement be structured? Which entities should be responsible for any settlement funds? Who will make the key decisions? What will be funded, by whom, and for how long? Our limited experience to date illustrates several options that have been attempted so far: Continue reading

NGOs, Like Ceasar’s Wife, Should Be Above Suspicion: Why Indian Nonprofits Need To Take Transparency More Seriously

Soon after India’s new government assumed power in May 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sought permission for arrest and custodial interrogation of journalist and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad for alleged mismanagement of $576,000 by her organization. In October 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued show-cause notices to 10,343 non-profits for not furnishing annual returns, and subsequently cancelled FCRA registrations for around 9,000 of these non-profits, citing “non-response within the stipulated time period.” India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) regulates the inflow of foreign contributions to charitable organizations and is expanding its tentacles and grip under each successive government (see here and here). In April 2015, Ford Foundation, the philanthropic organization whose work in India dates back to 1952, was put on a national security watch list and removed from the prior-permission list in January 2016, constraining its funding capacity. Ford is being targeted primarily for channeling funds to Ms. Setalvad’s NGO that was apparently ineligible to receive funds under FCRA.

As many in the Indian media have pointed out, the government’s aggressive actions against non-profits seems selective—more like a political vendetta than a principled stand against misappropriation of funds. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Ms. Setalvad had sought the conviction of Narendra Modi for alleged human rights abuses during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, or that the case against Ford is linked to its funding for her non-profit. Moreover, in the same month that MHA canceled the FCRA licenses of 9,000 non-profits, an access-to-information query revealed that 401 of the 545 Members of the Parliament’s Upper House had not declared their assets and liabilities – including the Minister of Home Affairs himself. And the government’s tenacious pursuit of non-profits contrasts awkwardly with the practical impunity of those accused of perpetrating India’s three biggest scams (the $27.8 billion coal scam of 2012, the $26.3 billion 2G spectrum scam of 2013, and multi-million Vyapam scam of 2015).

So, when nonprofits, activists, and their supporters accuse the government of applying a double standard, they have a point. Yet, even as we rightly protest the government’s politically motivated vendetta against civil society, it is equally important for India’s non-profits to take a good hard look in the mirror. India has witnessed an unprecedented civil society mobilization against corruption in 2011 and non-profits have spearheaded numerous successful anticorruption initiatives, such as social audits, citizen report cards, and crowdsourcing platforms like I-Paid-a-Bribe.com. Yet the members of India’s vibrant non-profit sector must be sure that they are applying to themselves the same high standards of transparency and accountability that they advocate in the public sphere. Too often, they fall short. Indeed, the accountability practices within India’s non-profits are alarmingly sketchy. Continue reading

Guest Post: Pro-Transparency Organizations Fail To Practice What They Preach

Till Bruckner, freelance journalist and Advocacy Manager for Transparify (an initiative that rates the financial transparency of think tanks and advocacy groups), contributes the following guest post in a private capacity:

“Transparency” is the watchword of the international anticorruption movement, a fact perhaps best illustrated by Transparency International’s choice of name. And partly due to the efforts of TI and many other groups, the world has changed for the better: transparency has become the new norm. Yet many of the anticorruption groups themselves need to wake up to this reality, and become more transparent themselves. Indeed, those of us in the anticorruption community would do a lot better if we started to walk our transparency talk.

This fact was driven home to me in a recent exchange I had with Professor Peter Eigen, the living legend who helped found Transparency International, about his newest venture, the Fisheries Transparency Initiative (FiTI). FiTI aims to curb corruption in international fisheries, and if it works as planned, it could have a positive impact on many issues, including overfishing, food security, and public revenue in developing countries. Somewhat unconventionally, FiTI is financed by the government of Mauritania, whose controversial president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, first announced the initiative. (see my recent article in Foreign Policy for more background.) I asked Professor Eigen about Mauritania’s financial support for the FiTI; he explained that Mauritania was only sponsoring the initial conceptual phase of FiTI, and he persuasively argued that its government would have no undue influence, let alone control, over outcomes. I then asked Professor Eigen how much Mauritania was paying his organization (the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform) in connection with its work on the FiTI project, but he told me he didn’t want to disclose the figure. He explained:

“This is a normal consulting arrangement of our not-for-profit organization with the [Mauritanian] government. We do not feel it would be proper for us to disclose details of contracts. If media or taxpayers want to find out how [the] Government spends its budget, they can ask the Government. This is for FiTI an unimportant side issue.”

Professor Eigen added two more points. First, his organization would at some later point account for the money on its website. Second, he himself would be working “pro bono.”

Summary: There’s no influence peddling; the use of taxpayer funds is a domestic issue; all money will be accounted for; and nobody is lining their pockets. So, everything is okay, right?

No, it’s not okay at all. Here’s why: Continue reading