Petty Corruption, Grand Corruption, and the Politics of Absolution

My post last month offered some reflections on Professor Giovanni Orsina’s interesting observations, at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, about how the wide-ranging Clean Hands (mani pulite) investigations in Italy may have contributed to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi—first by creating a power vacuum, and second by contributing to the delegitimation of professional politicians and traditional political organizations. Today I want to pick up on another thread of Professor Orsina’s analysis, echoed and amplified by his co-panelist, the journalist Beppe Severgnini. Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini’s insight is that is that part of the secret to Berlusconi’s success – and the apparent willingness of many Italian voters to overlook his corruption and other misdeeds – is what for lack of better terminology I’ll call the “politics of absolution.” Here’s how Mr. Severgnini describes the phenomenon (see 57:34 on the video):

[A] populist plutocrat [like Berlusconi] is warm, empathetic, admits his sins – and forgives yours. It’s a very smart thing because he admits his huge sins, and he forgives your little sins…. [To] every shopkeeper who gave 50 Euros to the local policeman, … Berlusconi [said] “OK, don’t worry, this is not important.” … The smart thing, and the very subtle thing [is that by saying,] “I forgive you for those 50 Euros,” … in a way I buy your [acquittal of] me, [even though for me] it was 50 billion, not 50 Euro…. I forgive you the small things, so you forgive me for the big things – and maybe you vote for me. And that’s exactly the psychological trick, and it works extremely well.

Professor Orsina’s analysis is similar, emphasizing the contrast between Berlusconi’s forgiving, indulgent populism and what many voters perceived as the arrogant moralization of his chief opponents on the Italian left (at 45:20):

[The Italian left said to the voters,] “This is a corrupt country, this is a country that must be … corrected, … and we are those who can … teach the Italians how to behave.” Now, this was perceived as extremely arrogant…. On the other side, [Berlusconi] was saying, “Come on, guys! You are good! This is a great country…. I am in no position to tell you what to do…. What I want to do is to create the conditions for you to do what you want to do because what you want to do is good.” Of course there was no match…. Now, of course, when Berlusconi was telling the Italians, “You’re good, you can do whatever you want,” he was wrong. And when the left was telling the Italians, “We should behave better,” they were right…. [But] this [is] … why Berlusconi won the elections and the left lost.

I lack the expertise to assess, or even to intelligently discuss, whether this analysis of Italian politics is correct. But it strikes me as plausible, and moreover, if the diagnosis is accurate in this or other contexts, then understanding the politics of absolution may have at least two implications for efforts to combat corruption. Continue reading

“Petty” Corruption Isn’t Petty

Grand corruption attracts plenty of attention—from activists, the mainstream media, and other commentators (including on this blog)—and for good reason. While the media may simply be riveted by the decadent lifestyles of corrupt actors, the anticorruption community has increasingly recognized the devastating impact that kleptocrats and their cronies can have. No doubt, this attention to grand corruption is welcome and recent successes in fighting it are laudable. At the same time, though, this increased focus on grand corruption carries with it the risk of making smaller, more everyday forms of corruption—sometimes called “petty” corruption—seem less consequential.

Yet so-called “petty” corruption remains widespread, and its aggregate impact should not be underestimated. By way of example, consider the most recent results from the Transparency International (TI) Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey of citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, which found that one-third of people who used a public service paid a bribe in order to do so. In other words, for these 90 million people, their ability to access a government service to which they were entitled was conditioned upon an extralegal payment—and that’s just accounting for this one region.

Even as the anticorruption community rightly focuses attention on combatting grand corruption, we can’t forget the real havoc wreaked by smaller-scale corruption. So-called “petty” corruption is not a petty concern. Rather, it’s a serious, pervasive problem that deserves just as much sustained attention as does politicians buying collector cars and oceanfront properties with assets from their secret offshore bank accounts. At the risk of repeating familiar points, it’s worth reviewing the ways in which small-scale corruption has, cumulatively, a range of incredibly destructive effects:

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Guest Post: Going Beyond Bribery? Improving the Global Corruption Barometer

Coralie Pring, Research Expert at Transparency International, contributes today’s guest post:

Transparency International has been running the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – a general population survey on corruption experience and perception – for a decade and a half now. Before moving ahead with plans for the next round of the survey, we decided to review the survey to see if we can improve it and make it more relevant to the current corruption discourse. In particular, we wanted to know whether it would be worthwhile to add extra questions on topics like grand corruption, nepotism, revolving doors, lobbying, and so forth. To that end, we invited 25 academics and representatives from some of Transparency International’s national chapters to a workshop last October to discuss plans for improving the GCB. We initially planned to focus on what we thought would be a simple question: Should we expand the GCB survey to include questions about grand corruption and political corruption?

In fact, this question was nowhere near simple to answer and it really divided the group. (Perhaps this should have been expected when you get 25 researchers in one room!) Moreover, the discussion ended up focusing less on our initial query about whether or how to expand the GCB, and more on two more basic questions: First, are citizen perceptions of corruption reflective of reality? And second, can information about citizen corruption perceptions still be useful even if they are not accurate?

Because these debates may be of interest to many of this blog’s readers, and because TI is still hoping to get input from a broader set of experts on these and related questions, we would like to share a brief summary of the workshop exchange on these core questions. Continue reading

French Court Convicts Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Obiang for Laundering Grand Corruption Proceeds

GAB is pleased to publish this account and analysis by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative of the decision in the criminal trial for money laundering of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang. Their earlier posts on the trial are here, here, here, here, here, herehere, and here.

court roomIn the first ever peacetime conviction of a high-ranking, incumbent office holder by the court of another state, a Paris criminal court has convicted Equatorial Guinean First Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue of laundering monies from corruption in Equatorial Guinea in France.  The historic decision, announced by the 32nd Chamber of the Tribunal Correctionnel de Paris on Friday, October 27, was tempered by the reality the court faced in finding a senior official of another country guilty of violating French law.  While it unconditionally awarded Transparency International – France, which as a “civil party” helped investigate the case, €10,000 in moral and €41,081 in material damages, and ordered seizure of much of the €150 million in assets Teodorin holds in France, it suspended (sursis) the three- year prison sentence and €30 million fine it imposed on Teodorin so long as the VP stays out of trouble for five years.   It also stayed the part of the asset seizure order confiscating the obscenely extravagant 101-room property on Avenue Foch Teodorin owns pending the outcome of proceedings before the International Court of Justice where, as explained in a previous post, the EG government is claiming the assets belong to it rather than to Teodorin.

The President of the Tribunal, Mrs Benedicte de Perthuis, detailed the reasoning supporting the ruling in a 45 minute oral explanation accompanying the judgement.  She explained that the three judge court rejected all Teodorin’s procedural and substantive defenses, including a claim asserting Teodorin’s immunity from criminal prosecution on the basis of his position as  First Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea.  She noted on the latter that his nomination as First Vice-President had conveniently occurred after his indictment by the French Courts, and the Tribunal ruled that his new functions could not be equated to those of a Head of State or Minister of Foreign Affairs (officials who, under ICJ precedent, would indeed enjoy immunity from this kind of a prosecution).

The verdict sends a clear message that grand corruption and the related offense of money laundering are no longer risk-free enterprises in France.  Continue reading

The U.S. Combating Global Corruption Act Is a Worthwhile Proposal that Deserves More Attention

I know a lot of what I write on this blog is pessimistic, critiical, or both, but every once in a while it’s nice to call attention to some positive, encouraging developments. In this spirit, I was heartened to read that a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators last week introduced a new bill, the “Combating Global Corruption Act of 2017” (CGCA), that strikes me as quite a good idea overall. Yes, I realize that most bills like this never make it out of committee, let alone get enacted into law. And yes, the bill has a number of problems, some of which might be fixable through the amendment process but others of which are more inherent. But on the whole, it seems to me that this is the sort of bill that the U.S. anticorruption community ought to support.

Here’s a quick summary of what the bill would do, why I think it’s basically a sound idea, and (because I can’t help myself) a few of its problems and difficulties. (The full text of the bill can be found at the link above, and a press release about it from Senator Cardin’s office is here.) Continue reading

Appearances Can Be Revealing: The Trump Administration’s Corruption Perceptions Problem

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (also known as the “Muslim Ban”), numerous media outlets published articles highlighting the fact that Trump’s order excluded several predominantly Muslim countries where the Trump organization conducts business (see here, here and here). The implication was that this exclusion was intentional, and demonstrates the extent to which Trump’s business ventures create conflicts of interest that influence his policy decisions. Although this explanation is plausible, another likely explanation is that the list of countries targeted by the ban tracked the visa waiver program restrictions Congress passed in 2015 and the Obama administration expanded in 2016 (see here).

Were the limitations on the ban driven by corruption or policy priorities? We don’t know—and that’s the problem. Even if Trump’s executive order had no connection with his business, Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest and unwillingness to divest from foreign holdings casts a shadow of corruption over any decision made by the administration. The fact that every decision Trump makes could be tainted with the appearance of self-interest, regardless of whether his administration actually is doing what it believes is in the public’s interest, is incredibly damaging, delegitimizing, and destabilizing. This is why we have ethics rules for government officials that seek to prevent not only corruption, but also the appearance of corruption. Trump’s failure to clear his presidency of any potential conflicts of interest has a few particularly pernicious effects:

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Public Trust Theory: A Way Citizens Can Combat Resource Corruption?

Public trust theory derives from the sovereign’s duty to act as the guardian of certain interests for the benefit of the nation as a whole. In the United States it serves as the basis for citizen suits to vindicate environmental rights, and it has been incorporated into the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights which provides in article 21 that the wealth derived from a nation’s resources is for “the exclusive interest of the people . . . [and in] no case shall a people be deprived of it.”  Could it be used by civil society to combat grand corruption in the allocation of land and natural resources?

That is the question Elmarie van der Schyff, a professor of law at South Africa’s North-West University, addresses in a new paper prepared for the Open Society Justice Initiative’s project examining how civil society can help spark more anticorruption enforcement actions.  After carefully parsing South African law governing civil suits for damages, Professor van der Schyff concludes that “public-trust theory has a supportive role to play” in helping South Africans recover damages for injuries sustained when corruption infects the distribution or use of the nation’s natural resources.  Her thoughtful analysis shows how citizens of other states can use the principles that underlie the public trust doctrine to bring damage actions too.

Professor van der Schyff’s paper is the sixth in a series commissioned by the Open Society Justice Initiative on civil society and anticorruption litigation.  It follows earlier ones on i) standing by GAB editor-in-chief Matthew Stephenson, ii) civil society litigation in India by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy Director Arghya Sengupta, iii) private suits for defrauding government by Houston Law School Professor David Kwok, iv) private prosecution in the U.K. by Tamlyn Edmonds and David Jugnarain, and v) damages for bribery under American law by this writer.