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