Nation-Building and Corruption: A Warning from French Vietnam

Nation-building has long been a popular project—albeit a controversial one—among Western nations. Nation-building is a complicated activity, one that requires balancing such a wide variety of considerations, and making hard choices about what areas to prioritize. As a result, anticorruption is sometimes neglected or ignored in the nation-building process. This, however, is a mistake. Unchecked corruption can have devastating effects on nation-building. And while contemporary critics make this point in the context of modern nation-building initiatives, such as U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan, there are also compelling historical illustrations of how tolerance of corruption can help derail the nation-building project. One such lesson comes from the French experience during the First Indochina War.

Though France had held on to Vietnam with ease from the mid-nineteenth century to the early days of World War II, the post-war era spelled trouble for the French Empire in Southeast Asia. The Viet Minh, a burgeoning nationalist force led by Ho Chi Minh, challenged French colonial dominance in the region, eventually securing the support of China and the Soviet Union. By the early 1950s, France’s military campaign against Ho’s guerrilla forces was flailing. So, rather than trying to continue to hold Vietnam as a colonial territory, French leaders decided to create an independent Vietnamese state. In attempting to build this new country, however, French leaders turned a blind eye to a corruption scheme—the so-called “Piastres Affair”—that would gravely weaken this enterprise.

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The “Big Government Causes Corruption” Zombie Shambles On

I don’t make a practice of responding to opinion columns in mainstream newspapers, especially when they’re not specifically or primarily about corruption. But the opening of Bret Stephens’ piece in yesterday’s New York Times caught my eye, mainly because the column used corruption in the Greek health care system as the “hook” for an argument that President Biden’s ambitious plans for an expanded social safety net will lead to American decline. Here’s how Stephens opens his column:

Years ago, Alexis Tsipras, the party leader of Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, surprised me with a question. “Here in the United States,” the soon-to-be prime minister asked me over breakfast in New York, “why do you not have this phenomenon of passing money under the table?”

The subject was health care. Greece has a public health care system that, in theory, guarantees its citizens access to necessary medical care.

Practice, however, is another matter. Patients in Greek public hospitals, Tsipras explained, would first have to slip a doctor “an envelope with a certain amount of money” before they could expect to get treatment. The government, he added, underpaid its doctors and then looked the other way as they topped up their income with bribes.

Take a close look at any country or locality in which the government offers allegedly free or highly subsidized goods and you’ll usually discover that there’s a catch.

What is the point of opening with this anecdote (other than not-so-subtly alerting the reader that the author is the sort of important person who has chit-chats with world leaders)? The implication, so far as I can tell, seems to be that countries that provide free or heavily subsidized social welfare benefits tend to be more corrupt.

There is, however, an important problem with this argument: It’s not true.

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Recovering Damages for Corruption — Bribery Victims

There is no longer any doubt that corruption does enormous harm – to individuals, businesses, governments, and whole societies.  Nor is there any dispute that those harmed should have a right to recover damages for their injuries.  In drafting the UN Convention Against Corruption, governments agreed quickly and without dissent upon what is now article 35. It requires parties to ensure their domestic law permit any person or entity harmed by corruption to “initiate legal proceedings against those responsible for the damage to obtain compensation.”

Yet what evidence there is shows article 35’s promise remains largely unfulfilled.

For the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the StAR Initiative, I am examining just how far there is to go for that promise to be met. With their resources and the help of the International Bar Association, I have reviewed the case law in close to one-third of the 187 UNCAC states parties.  The most common victim recovery cases I find are those where a government agency or state-owned corporation has recovered damages when an employee took a bribe. In a few, courts have also awarded damages to third-parties harmed by the bribery. There are in addition a miscellany of actions I am still digesting covering actions by the competitors of a bribe-payer, consumers, and NGOs.

Below are the bribery victim cases I have located to date. A second post will review the other cases. Reader contributions and comments warmly solicited.

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TI France Demands Dismissal of Gabon Government Claim to be Corruption Victim

TI France is moving to block an audacious, underhanded move by the Gabonese government to frustrate the confiscation of hundreds of millions in assets stolen from its citizens.  The assets are likely to be confiscated as part of the proceedings known as Bien Mal Acquis (wrongfully acquired assets), where French prosecutors are investigating the ruling families of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of the Congo for buying hundreds of millions of euros of French real estate and other properties with corrupt monies. In 2017, in the first case to go to trial, €150 million in French assets were confiscated from Equatorial Guineans First Vice President Teodorin Obiang (here).

Apparently anticipating a similar result, the Gabonese government recently joined the proceedings as a partie civile or civil party.  Under French law, if a court orders the confiscation of the Gabonese ruling family’s assets, the Gabonese government would then have a claim to some if not all of the assets under the theory it is entitled to recover damages suffered by the ruling family’s corruption. A just and reasonable outcome were a democratically elected government committed to its citizens’ welfare in power.

Tragically, for the Gabonese people this is not the case.  The same family responsible for stealing the nation’s wealth, the Bongos, remains in power.  TI France has now moved to have the government’s claim to be a civil party dismissed. This should be an easy decision for the presiding magistrate given how well the Bongo family’s corruption has been documented. 

The continued active participation of civil society in the landmark Bien Mal Acquis case shows how critical it is that anticorruption NGOs to represent those like the citizens of Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of the Congo where their governments make it impossible for corruption victims to bring cases on their own.  The TI Press Release on its move to strike the Gabonese government as a civil party is here. The origins of Bien Mal Acquis and its lessons are discussed here.

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Guest Post: The New French Ruling on Successor Liability Gives French Prosecutors New Leverage to Fight Corruption and Other Corporate Crime

For today’s guest post, GAB is delighted to welcome back Frederick Davis, a member of the New York and Paris Bars and a Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School:

Commentators have aptly observed that US prosecutions of firms for foreign bribery and similar crimes has developed into a “US model of corporate crime deterrence,” a model that is based on aggressive pursuit of corporate entities to induce them to cooperate by “detecting, reporting, and helping prove” criminal acts by individuals in return for a negotiated resolution of the criminal charges against the corporation itself, one that avoids a corporate criminal conviction.

Earlier posts on this blog by myself and by others have noted the absence of this model in France, and the relative ineffectiveness of French prosecutors in pursuing corruption and other forms of corporate crime, in significant part because of the difficulty of proving corporate criminal responsibility under French law. As I noted last year, though, efforts by the Legislature to provide new investigative and prosecutorial tools, by the National Financial Prosecutor to use them, and by the courts in clarifying the principles of corporate criminal responsibility have produced encouraging results. French prosecutors have pursued, and French courts have convicted, both French and non-French corporations for serious crimes. On November 25, 2020, the French Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) took an important additional step by ruling, for the first time, that in an acquisition situation the successor corporation will generally be criminally responsible for acts committed by the acquired company. The decision closes a significant gap in French corporate criminal deterrence, and will have an immediate and positive impact on corporate criminal investigations in France. Continue reading

Guest Post: How France Is Modernizing Its Criminal Procedure and Streamlining Its Resolution of Corporate Crime Cases

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris and New York offices of Debevoise & Plimpton and a Lecturer at Columbia Law School, who contributes the following guest post:

For approximately two decades, at least since 2000, France—a signatory to the 1997 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention — has had laws on the books that emulate the U.S. Foreign Corruption Practices Act (FCPA) by criminalizing bribes to foreign public officials. For most of that time, these laws were not effectively enforced: During the first 15 years after France prohibited foreign bribery, not a single corporation was convicted in France. The reasons for this—previously discussed on this blog by me and others—included the low maximum penalties applicable to corporations, imprecision in French laws relating to corporate criminal responsibility, lengthy investigations (often lasting over a decade) run by investigating magistrates, and the virtual absence of any possibility of a negotiated outcome. In the absence of French enforcement of its laws against foreign bribery, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took it upon itself to investigate and prosecute a number of French corporations for FCPA and other violations. These enforcement actions, which were typically resolved by guilty pleas or deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs), netted aggregate fines and other penalties of over $2 billion, not a penny of which was paid to France.

This situation provoked widespread discussion and debate in France, and eventually led to a number of changes in its criminal procedures. Among the most important were the creation, in 2013, of a National Financial Prosecutor’s office (PNF) with nationwide authority to prosecute a variety of financial crimes, and the adoption, in December 2016, of the so-called Loi Sapin II, which overhauled many of the criminal laws relating to corporate and financial crime, increasing corporate penalties, adopting a new settlement procedure called the Convention Judiciaire d’Intérêt Public (CJIP) closely modeled on the US DPA, and creating a French Anticorruption Agency (AFA) to supervise newly-mandatory corporate compliance programs and issue guidelines for corporate behavior. These reforms have already produced some impressive results, including major settlements (sometimes in cooperation with other countries like the US and UK) with large French and multinational companies (see, for example, here, here, and here).

An interview published this past April with Jean-François Bohnert, who has served since October 2019 as the National Financial Prosecutor, sheds some light on how France’s recent legal and institutional reforms are transforming its enforcement of its laws against foreign bribery and other complex corporate crime. In that interview, M. Bohnert understandably focused on his office’s successes; he was particularly proud of the number of cases his office had handled with a relatively small staff. But to my mind, by far the most interesting and important thing that came out of this interview was the fact that, of the 592 cases handled by the PNF in 2019, 81% were so-called “preliminary investigations” managed exclusively by the PNF, while only 19% were led by investigating magistrates. To someone unfamiliar with the French legal system, the significance of this statistic may not be readily apparent, but in fact it suggests an important change in the French approach to corporate misbehavior. Continue reading

Guest Post: France’s New Asset Recovery Bill Is an Important Step Toward Achieving Victim Compensation

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mat Tromme, Director of the Sustainable Development & Rule of Law Programme at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, who contributes the following guest post:

Where asset recovery is concerned, France is probably best known for the conviction of Teodorin Obiang—the Vice President of Equatorial Guinea and son of the President—for money laundering (the first time that a French court has convicted a serving senior official of a foreign government), which resulted in the court ordering the forfeiture of some of Obiang’s assets, worth around USD 150 million. The decision is still under appeal, and the next hearing is scheduled for December 2019. But even if the conviction and associated forfeiture order are upheld, under existing French law those assets will go to the French state. (It is unclear whether other plaintiffs who can also establish a valid claim on the assets could also benefit from them in any way.) The forfeited funds will not go to the true victims of Obiang’s corruption—the people of Equatorial Guinea.

There are obviously a number of moral and practical questions coming out of this, not least the fact that the French state keeps the looted assets, as French courts remarked. Some countries and commentators argue that in cases of grand corruption like this, the forfeited assets should go back to the country from which the funds were stolen. But in the Obiang case, it would seem nonsensical to suggest that the forfeited assets be transferred to the government of Equatorial Guinea, as that would be tantamount to returning those assets to the Obiang family itself. The challenge, which many have struggled with, is how to return assets to a country in a way that benefits the victim populations when the country’s government is controlled by a kleptocratic political elite and where there is no rule of law. Related to this, it also raises questions about who ought to be considered the victim (the state, or the population?), and, if the latter, how to go about making appropriate compensation.

Earlier this month, the French Senate agreed on a new asset forfeiture bill that would address this problem by amending existing law so that when a French court orders the forfeiture of the illicit assets of a foreign public official or other politically exposed person (PEP), those assets, rather than being forfeited to the State, would instead go into a special fund that seeks to improve living standards of victim populations, improve the rule of law, and fight against corruption in the country where the offenses took place. (The state would, however, be able to retain a portion of the assets, up to a specified limit, to cover the costs of bringing the case in the first place.) Under the proposed bill, assets would be forfeited to the French state only in those cases where it is “absolutely impossible” to return the assets to the victim populations. The bill also calls for greater “transparency, accountability, efficiency, solidarity, and integrity” in the asset return process, principles that civil society had actively pushed for.

Of course, a great many details would still need to be worked out as the bill makes its way through the lower house of the French parliament (the Assemblée Nationale), especially as it’s not altogether straightforward to figure out how best to ensure that the seized funds will benefit the victim populations. The discussions at the Committee level in the Senate evince a preference for channeling forfeited funds through Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) on a case by case basis. But many of the practicalities still need attention, and French legislators have instructed the Conseil d’Etat (a body that provides legal advice to the government and doubles as a supreme court for administrative matters) to advise on the practical implementation of orders to return assets to victim populations. (When the Conseil d’Etat does so, this will itself be an important decision, one that the anticorruption should pay close attention to.)

And there are some other difficulties too, which Senators and their officials have openly acknowledged. As it currently stands, the French Criminal Procedure Code says that the return of assets requires the agreement of the requesting state (which, as discussed above, may not happen where a country is very corrupt), and so the Code will likely need amendments.Moreover, the offenses that would trigger asset forfeitures under the proposed bill are limited to concealment and laundering the proceeds of all crimes, though the Committee report also recognizes there may be difficulties with including any crime within the scope of offenses that can lead to forfeiture. Finally, though the bill focuses on assets seized from PEPs, that term is not actually fully defined in French law.

Despite these concerns, the bill is a significant step in the right direction, and a good illustration of how civil society organizations can inform and influence the asset return process (Transparency International France played a key role in encouraging the Senate to table the Bill, and CSOs and governments are also coming together to address the difficult questions that cases like these raise with respect to victim compensation.) Indeed, civil society involvement will be crucial to ensuring that the law is adopted by the Assemblée Nationale and implemented in a transparent way.

What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

Some Preliminary Thoughts on US v. Hoskins and its Implications for FCPA Enforcement

The US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is aggressively enforced but rarely litigated—most actions are brought against corporate entities that settle with the government. For that reason, any judicial opinion on the FCPA’s meaning, especially one from an appellate court, will attract a great deal of attention.

A couple weeks back, a US federal appeals court based in New York decided such a case, US v. Hoskins. The case addressed the question of whether a foreign national whose relevant conduct took place entirely outside the United States could be charged, not with violating the FCPA, but with conspiracy to violate the FCPA and/or aiding and abetting an FCPA violation. I’m a bit late to the discussion of Hoskins, which has already produced a great deal of commentary in the FCPA blogosphere (see here, here, here, here, and here). But for what it’s worth, here’s my quick summary of what the case is about, followed by some knee-jerk thoughts and observations about its significance. Continue reading

Guest Post: Further Developments on French Law Regarding Anti-Bribery Prosecutions by Multiple States

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris office of Debevoise & Plimpton, who contributes the following guest post:

The Supreme Court of France recently reversed two criminal judgments on the application of the international double jeopardy principle (or ne bis in idem, as the principle is known in Europe and elsewhere) in transnational bribery cases (and others). Taken together with some other recent developments, these developments suggest a renewed determination in France to regain leadership from US prosecutors in enforcing international bribery norms in France.

The ne bis in idem principle limits prosecutors’ power to pursue individuals or companies already convicted or acquitted elsewhere, including in other countries. Several European countries have domestic laws endorsing this principle; in France, the prosecutor is not bound by non-French outcomes if the French prosecution is “territorial” (that is, if an element of the offense took place on French soil) but cannot prosecute a defendant already pursued elsewhere if the only French basis for prosecution would be so-called “extraterritorial” principles (such as French citizenship of the perpetrator or the victim). Separately, a number of Europe-wide treaties, the most effective of which is the Convention Implementing the Schengen Agreement (CISA), have provisions that, with some exceptions, basically mean that no one can be prosecuted twice in Europe for the same offense.

But these provisions do not apply to US prosecutors, who are by far the most aggressive and effective pursuers of cross-border crimes such as overseas bribery. US courts interpret the Double Jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment to mean only that a single sovereign cannot prosecute the same defendant twice for the same offense. Some have argued that the US position creates a tension with Article 4.3 of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, which provides that when more than one country is competent to prosecute, they must consult to “determin[e] the most appropriate jurisdiction for prosecution,” clearly contemplating that only one country prosecute a given defendant for the same acts. But for reasons I have explored elsewhere, as well as in this space here and here, US prosecutors have not followed the spirit of Article 4.3, instead acting as the “final arbiter” of outcomes around the world, not hesitating to bring actions if they deem non-US outcomes insufficient.

Two formally unrelated decisions of the Paris Court of Appeals in 2016 – the ones that the French Supreme Court just vacated – seemed to complicate matter still further: Continue reading