Preemptive FOIA Suits Chill Transparency Across the U.S.

Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs) have been strong anticorruption tools in the United States for decades. Though the federal government and the 50 state governments each have their own version of FOIA, the basics are similar across the board: these statutes require the publication of certain government documents and allow any citizen to request the disclosure of unreleased records, and the government must provide that information, subject to certain important exemptions (for example, exceptions related to national security, personal privacy, and internal government deliberations). If the government agency does not answer a FOIA request within a certain period of time, set by the statute, the requester can file a FOIA lawsuit to force the agency to respond.

At the federal level, FOIA requests were one of the tools used to uncover former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private charter planes for government travel, leading both to his resignation and to increased scrutiny on travel by other Cabinet members. The federal FOIA also played a key role during the Clinton Administration in uncovering corruption at the Department of Agriculture. Though the state-level FOIA laws get less attention, they have also played an important role in exposing corruption and related misconduct. In Virginia, for example, requests under the state FOIA helped build the corruption case against former Governor Bob McDonnell. Similarly, Michigan’s FOIA statute helped reveal information that led to charges against Detroit’s mayor for misconduct and obstruction of justice.

However, a new threat has recently emerged to the effectiveness of these laws, particularly at the state level. State and local governments have begun responding to state FOIA requests by suing the requester to ask the court for a so-called “declaratory judgment” that the agency is not obligated to release the information requested. These preemptive FOIA suits put one of the most powerful anticorruption tools in the United States at risk.

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Watching the Watchmen: Should the Public Have Access to Monitorship Reports in FCPA Settlements?

When the Department of Justice (DOJ) settles Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases with corporate defendants, the settlement sometimes stipulates that the firm must retain a “corporate monitor” for some period of time as a condition of the DOJ’s decision not to pursue further action against the firm. The monitor, paid for by the firm, reports to the government on whether the firm is effectively cleaning up its act and improving its compliance system. While lacking direct decision-making power, the corporate monitor has broad access to internal firm information and engages directly with top-level management on issues related to the firm’s compliance. The monitor’s reports to the DOJ are (or at least are supposed to be) critically important to the government’s determination whether the firm has complied with the terms of the settlement agreement.

Recent initiatives by transparency advocates and other civil society groups have raised a question that had not previously attracted much attention: Should the public have access to these monitor reports? Consider the efforts of 100Reporters, a news organization focused on corruption issues, to obtain monitorship documents related to the 2008 FCPA settlement between Siemens and the DOJ. Back in 2008, Siemens pleaded guilty to bribery charges and agreed to pay large fines to the DOJ and SEC. As a condition of the settlement, Siemens agreed to install a corporate monitor, Dr. Theo Waigel, for four years. That monitorship ended in 2012, and the DOJ determined Siemens satisfied its obligations under the plea agreement. Shortly afterwards, 100Reporters filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the DOJ, seeking access to the compliance monitoring documents, including four of Dr. Waigel’s annual reports. After the DOJ denied the FOIA request, on the grounds that the documents were exempt from FOIA because they comprised part of law enforcement deliberations, 100Reporters sued.

The legal questions at issue in this and similar cases are somewhat complicated; they can involve, for example, the question whether monitoring reports are “judicial records”—a question that has caused some disagreement among U.S. courts. For this post, I will put the more technical legal issues to one side and focus on the broader policy issue: Should monitor reports be available to interested members of the public, or should the government be able to keep them confidential? The case for disclosure is straightforward: as 100Reporters argues, there is a public interest in ensuring that settlements appropriately ensure future compliance, as well as a public interest in monitoring how effectively the DOJ and SEC oversee these settlement agreements. But in resisting 100Reporters’ FOIA request, the DOJ (and Siemens and Dr. Waigel) have argued that ordering public disclosure of these documents will hurt, not help, FCPA enforcement, for two reasons:  Continue reading

What a Difference a Year Makes… or Does It? Revisiting Kenya’s Anticorruption Task Force and Assessing its Legislative Proposals

In spring 2015, at the behest of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenyan Attorney General Githu Muiagai formed the Task Force on Review of Legal, Policy and Institutional Framework for Fighting Corruption. The group’s goal was to assess the existing framework for combatting corruption in Kenya and to recommend reforms that would promote ethics and integrity while making it easier to fight corruption going forward. Yet for months, very little seemed to be happening, aside from meetings, a speech by President Obama to the Kenyan people on the subject, and some discussion of purported proposals in the press. (I examined one such proposal related to whistleblowers in an earlier post.)

The Task Force released its final report in October 2015 and President Kenyatta received the report the following month, the same week seventy-two government officials were arraigned on corruption charges. In general, the Task Force found (not surprisingly) a high correlation between discretionary power exercised by state actors and corruption. The Task Force said the fight against corruption was more about increasing enforcement of existing laws (although it did not recommend combining the investigative and prosecutorial roles as proposed legislation discussed in Rick’s earlier post would). But the report also proposed three major new legal frameworks, which mirror provisions in U.S. law, that the Taskforce report said would help reduce corruption in the country: Continue reading

Is Sunlight Really a Good Disinfectant? The Equivocal Evidence on Freedom of Information Laws and Corruption

Government transparency is widely considered to be one of the most important means for combating public corruption, a sentiment nicely captured by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous observation (in a somewhat different context) that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” For this reason, many anticorruption activists lobby for the adoption of strong freedom of information (FOI) laws—laws that not only obligate the government to regularly publish certain types of information, but also to respond promptly to citizen requests for a wide range of government records and documents. The thinking is that government corruption is easier to detect when citizens, civil society organizations, and the media can scrutinize information about government operations.

I count myself firmly in the camp of those who tend to believe that FOI laws are useful anticorruption tools, especially given the strong evidence that citizen and media access to government information can indeed help reduce corruption and hold officials accountable (see, for example, here, here, and here). And because of this, I would expect the evidence to indicate that when a country (or sub-national jurisdiction) adopts a stronger FOI law, corruption should decrease afterwards. But I’ve been looking into the research on this recently, and most of the results don’t fit well with my expectations. Long story short, the (admittedly limited) quantitative empirical evidence does not find a strong correlation between the adoption of a strong FOI law and a subsequent decrease in corruption; if anything, the evidence actually seems to suggest that the adoption of a strong FOI law may be followed by an increase in (perceived or detected) corruption.

Does this mean that FOI laws are ineffective or even counterproductive? I don’t think so, for reasons I’ll lay out in a moment. But I do think it’s worthwhile—especially for those of us who are inclined to support broad FOI laws—to consider the evidence carefully and reflect a bit on what it might mean. Continue reading

Canada, Camembert, and Controversy: How to Save the Canadian Senate

On Monday, October 19th, Canadians voted in the first new Prime Minister in over a decade. The Liberal party walloped the reigning Conservative party, capturing 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, while the Conservatives retained only 29% of the seats. But the Canadian public’s desire for change is not limited to the House of Commons. The Canadian Senate, the unelected chamber of “sober second thought,” has been rocked by an expenses scandal reminiscent of the 2009 MP expense scandal in the United Kingdom (see here), and the ongoing series of minor expense scandals in the United States (see here).

In late 2012 it was revealed that four Canadian Senators – Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy, and Mac Harb – used their Senate expense accounts for personal and private business. As a product of these revelations, all four resigned or were removed from office, and all four have been indicted on criminal charges. In the response to the unfolding scandal, Auditor General Michael Ferguson launched an investigation into the finances of all Canadian Senators and found about 840,000 dollars in suspect claims. His investigation pointed to a systematic failure on the part of Senators to provide appropriate documentation for their expenses and to “prioritize consideration of the cost [of their expenses] to taxpayers.” (As with most proper scandals, there have been moments of levity in addition to frustration. Ferguson’s audit report suggested Canadian Senators should not claim per diem meals when other food had been made available, but Senator Nancy Ruth took umbrage at the suggestion that she was obligated to eat a free airplane breakfast consisting of, in her words, “ice-cold Camembert with broken crackers.”)

Partly as a result of this scandal, faith in the Canadian Senate is at an all-time low. Before his defeat, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had stopped nominating new Senators. In 2014, the Liberal party kicked all of its Senators out of the party’s ranks, thereby converting them to “independent” Senators. The NDP, Canada’s third largest party, has long called for abolishing the chamber entirely. What, then, should be done to reform Canada’s beleaguered Senate? Ferguson’s audit report offers several promising proposals for addressing the concerns about Senator integrity  But the problems with the Senate as an institution run deeper, and will likely call for more thorough reform (even if abolition of the Senate is politically and legally infeasible). Continue reading

Guest Post: Using FOIA to Get Evidence on Bribe Takers

Ignacio A. Boulin Victoria, Professor of Public Law at Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (Argentina) and co-founder of the human rights group CLADH, contributes the following guest post, proposing a new legal strategy for acquiring information about bribe-taking public officials:

In a recent post, Richard Messick observed–correctly–that although in the last 10-15 years we have seen greater enforcement by so-called “supply-side” countries against bribe-paying firms, “demand-side” governments have not been willing—or able—to go after the bribe-taking public officials. Rick further observes that once a bribe-paying firm has reached a settlement with a supply-side enforcer (say, the U.S. Department of Justice), it should be much easier for the demand-side government to prosecute the corrupt officials on the other side of the transaction. But we see very little of this. Rick attributes the failure to go after the bribe takers to a combination of factors: lack of capacity on the part of demand-side governments, lack of political will, and lack of information about the settlements with supply-side governments.

Those factors are all important, but Rick overlooks one salient fact about these settlements between bribe-paying firms and supply-side governments: often the public settlement documents do not reveal nearly enough information about the bribe transactions to enable the demand-side governments to take action (unless they undertake substantial and costly additional investigation). In the US, for example, the press release announcing the resolution of a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act matter often looks like this: no names regarding who received the money, no precise time concerning when, no specific department within the agency that received the money. Even if the U.S. government has provided more detailed information about the transactions to demand-side governments, the lack of public disclosure means that if the demand-side government takes no action, local activists lack the ability to use “naming and shaming” techniques effectively.

To go after the bribe-takers effectively–and to put pressure on demand-side governments to do so–we need the names, the dates, and the details of the corrupt transactions.  How do we get them?  I propose a novel (and admittedly aggressive) use of freedom of information laws, like the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Here’s how it would work:

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