The Significance of Mexico’s Upcoming Referendum on Lifting Former Presidents’ Immunity from Prosecution

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) has repeatedly assailed Mexico’s former presidents as corrupt. However, despite his attacks, AMLO has said that he does not want to pursue criminal actions against his predecessors. Therefore, AMLO raised eyebrows this past September when he called for a referendum that asks citizens to vote on the question whether “the relevant authorities should, in accordance with the applicable laws and procedures, investigate and if appropriate punish, the presumed crimes committed by former presidents,” specifically naming former presidents Enrique Peña Nieto, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, and Felipe Calderón. Opponents challenged the referendum as unconstitutional, on the grounds that Mexico’s Constitution prohibits popular consultations on matters involving guarantees like the presumption of innocence and due process. However, Mexico’s Supreme Court narrowly held, by a 6-5 vote, that the referendum would be constitutional, but voted 8-3 to modify it. The Court altered the language by deleting the reference to the ex-presidents and the phrase “presumed crimes” so that the referendum now reads: “Do you agree or not that the relevant authorities should, in accordance with the constitution and legal framework, undertake a process of clearing up political decisions taken in previous years by politicians, with an aim to guaranteeing justice and the rights of possible victims?” Mexico’s lower house of Congress approved the revised referendum and set the date of the vote for August 2021. AMLO, however, wants the referendum to be held in June 2021, during Mexico’s midterm elections.

Seizing on the vagueness of the referendum and AMLO’s hostility towards his predecessors, AMLO’s opponents have attacked him for attempting to undermine the judicial system and seek political revenge by having a public vote on whether to prosecute and convict former presidents. Other critics have argued the referendum, which is both vaguely worded and non-binding, will not have any real impact, and amounts to little more than political virtue signaling intended to boost AMLO’s party in the upcoming midterm elections.

To a certain extent, I agree with the latter criticism. AMLO’s primary motivation in promoting this referendum is likely political: He wants to (re)create a positive association between his party and the fight against corruption. It’s probably not a coincidence that the push for the referendum comes at a time when one of Mexico’s biggest corruption scandals is unfolding, with former President Peña Nieto accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. It’s probably also not a coincidence that AMLO wants to hold the referendum vote on the same day as the 2021 midterm elections. Despite having won power in a landslide in 2018, AMLO and his party are currently in political trouble. Mexico continues to face economic stagnation and high crime, and AMLO’s administration has failed to control the coronavirus. As for AMLO’s promise to rid his country of corruption—a major component of his presidential campaign—he hasn’t made much progress here either. AMLO’s anticorruption credentials have been further tarnished by a leaked video showing AMLO’s brother receiving packages of money from a government functionary that were used to strengthen AMLO’s political party ahead of the 2018 election. It seems that AMLO is attempting to divert attention from his political and policy failures by introducing a referendum that will focus attention on the corruption of prior administrations.

But just because there is a political motivation behind the referendum does not mean that the referendum won’t have a meaningful impact. It likely will, whichever way it comes out.

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Kyrgyzstan’s Elimination of Immunity for Ex-Presidents is No Win for Anticorruption

Last October, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan ruled that Kyrgyzstan’s law granting legal immunity to ex-presidents was unconstitutional on the grounds that Article 16 of the Kyrgyz Constitution makes all people equal before the law. Because the Kyrgyz immunity law was one of the broadest and most protective in the world, those of us who care about corruption might cheer this ruling as a win in Kyrgyzstan’s fight against corruption. However, viewed in context, the ruling portends problems for Kyrgyzstan’s nascent democracy and may even be counterproductive in the fight against corruption itself.

Many countries have ex-presidential immunity regimes. The downside of such laws—which exist throughout Central Asia and in countries as diverse as Burundi, France, and Uruguay­—is that, by making it difficult or impossible to prosecute a former president, these laws eliminate one of the most important deterrents to executive corruption. Kyrgyzstan’s law was especially problematic in this respect, as the immunity granted to ex-presidents was unusually broad—covering not merely conduct related to the former president’s exercise of her or his official duties, but any act committed during the term of office, with no exceptions even for high treason or other grave crimes. The Kyrgyz immunity law also protected an ex-president’s property, and it blocked searches and interrogation in addition to prosecution, thus stymying investigations even where the ex-president was just a witness. For these reasons, getting rid of the immunity law might seem like a step forward in the fight against corruption.

However, laws that grant immunity to ex-presidents also have an upside, especially in authoritarian states or fragile democracies. These laws may ease and encourage peaceful political transitions, because with no threat of prosecution, a sitting president may be more willing to peacefully cede power. One might therefore be worried about the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on Kyrgyzstan’s fledgling electoral democracy. Those worries would be well founded given the political context in which the Supreme Court rendered its decision.

To understand why requires understanding recent events in Kyrgyz politics, and in particular how the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the ex-presidential immunity law appears to be part of a larger campaign by the current President to suppress political opposition led by his predecessor:

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The US Can (Probably) Charge Bribe-Taking Foreign Officials as Conspirators or Accomplices in FCPA Cases

Given everything else that’s happening related to corruption right now (much of it awful), perhaps it’s a mistake for me to be spending so much time thinking about fairly narrow doctrinal issues related to applications of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). But my reflections on the recent court of appeals decision in US v. Hoskins (which held that a foreign national could not be charged as an accomplice or co-conspirator in an FCPA violation based on conduct occurring abroad) have gotten me thinking about—and questioning—what I had assumed was a well-settled and straightforward conclusion that the foreign official who takes a bribe from a person or entity covered by the FCPA cannot be charged with aiding and abetting, or conspiring to commit, that FCPA violation.

That conclusion—that bribe-taking foreign officials may not be charged as accomplices or co-conspirators in FCPA cases—was announced by a US court of appeals in 1991 in a case called United States v. Castle. In Castle, according to the allegations (which for present purposes I’ll assume to be true), two private US businessmen paid a $50,000 bribe to two Canadian government officials in order to win a contract to provide public buses to the provincial government. The US government charged the American citizens with violating the FCPA—which, if the facts are as alleged, they clearly did. The Canadian officials cannot directly violate the FCPA, which by its terms prohibits only covered entities from giving (or promising or offering) bribes to foreign public officials; the FCPA does not criminalize the act of taking a bribe. But in the Castle case, the US government tried to get around this problem by charging the Canadian officials with conspiracy to violate the FCPA, pursuant to the federal conspiracy statute, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 371. That section makes it a separate crime (“conspiracy”) for “two or more persons [to] conspire … to commit any [federal] offense,” as long as “one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy.” According to the U.S. government’s theory of the case, once the Canadian officials agreed with the US businessmen to accept money in exchange for a public contract, they had all conspired to commit a federal crime, and once the US businessmen took action in furtherance of this conspiracy (by paying the money), all the parties, including the Canadian officials, were liable as co-conspirators. The US district judge rejected that theory, and the court of appeals affirmed, simply endorsing and reprinting (with one minor correction) the district judge’s ruling.

Since Castle, so far as I can tell, this principle that the US government can’t prosecute bribe-taking foreign officials as conspirators in an FCPA violation (or, similarly, as accomplices to an FCPA violation under another statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2(a)), seems to have become generally accepted, largely unchallenged by the US government, and treated as clearly correct as matter of legal doctrine. And it matters a great deal as a policy matter: If the Castle ruling had gone the other way, than the FCPA—complemented by the general conspiracy and complicity statutes—would give the US government a very powerful tool, for better or worse, to prosecute bribe-taking foreign government officials, at least those with sufficient ties to the US to establish personal jurisdiction (an important qualification I’ll return to later). I’d always assumed, without much reflection, that Castle was rightly decided. But after some digging into the case law, prompted largely by the more recent decision in Hoskins, and re-reading the Castle opinion, I think that Castle’s broad holding is doctrinally incorrect. If certain other conditions hold, a bribe-taking foreign official can be guilty as an accomplice to or co-conspirator in an FCPA violation, even though the foreign official could not directly violate the FCPA. Continue reading

No Swords, But an Absolute Shield: India’s Over-broad Judicial Immunity Against Corruption Prosecutions

Over the past four decades, India’s “activist” higher judiciary (the state High Courts and the federal Supreme Court) has significantly altered the balance of power between branches of government. This has been done by liberalizing the rules on who can petition the court for relief, as well as expanding the scope of the judicial relief that can be provided. Today it is entirely normal for the Court to take up the task of monitoring the execution of government policies as well as the progress of criminal investigations. But this expansion of judicial power has not been matched by a coequal expansion of oversight mechanisms to ensure that judicial power is not abused—a significant problem given the serious corruption problem in India’s courts (see also here). Certain problems with the court system have attracted the attention of both commentators and the Parliament, including the Chief Justice’s unfettered power to assign cases to different judges and the system for appointments and impeachment. Surprisingly, far less attention has been paid to another instance of no oversight over the judicial branch: the doctrine of judicial immunity.

Across countries, judicial officers are conferred broad judicial immunity to allow courts to fearlessly perform their functions. Significantly though, in most countries this protection applies only to acts in furtherance of the “judicial function”; for acts outside that scope, judges are subject to the law just like ordinary citizens. Not so in India. In 1991, the Indian Supreme Court created a rule that no criminal investigation whatsoever could begin against a member of the higher judiciary without first “consulting” the Chief Justice of India (or, if allegations are against the Chief Justice, consulting with any other Supreme Court Justice). According to the Court, this rule was needed to protect judges from “frivolous prosecution and unnecessary harassment.”

Such a broad judicial immunity rule makes no sense, either generally or in the Indian context. While it’s reasonable to prevent a judge from being prosecuted for how she decided a case, it makes no sense to protect her for having murdered somebody, or for taking a bribe. Indeed, in addition to its other obvious problems, this broad judicial immunity rule creates serious difficulties for efforts to fight endemic judicial corruption in India. Continue reading

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

Broken System: The Failure to Punish High Level Corruption at the UN

“Is bribery business as usual at the UN?”

So asked U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and with good reason. Notwithstanding the UN’s protestations to the contrary, recent years have seen a succession of UN corruption scandals. Among the most infamous is the Iraqi Oil-for-Food case, in which Saddam Hussein, in collaboration with UN staff members, earned billions of dollars through kickbacks and illegal oil smuggling. Corruption in some UN peacekeeping operations is high, with new corruption cases coming to light on a regular basis. And last October, new charges of corruption were brought against (among others) a former UN General Assembly President and another UN diplomat who allegedly were engaged in an important bribery scheme.

Each time a new corruption case is exposed, the UN’s public reaction is the same: the Secretary-General states that the organization is treating the matter with the utmost seriousness and initiates an internal investigation or audit, while at the same time the organization attempts to “sweep the matter under the rug” by claiming that senior UN officials were unaware of the problem, and that this was an isolated incident involving a few bad apples, not the UN system itself. Yet given the frequency of UN corruption scandals, it is about time that the organization stops pretending that this is just a “few bad apples” problem, and try to understand why it faces these situations with such frequency.

The natural place to start is with the UN’s system for investigating and sanctioning corrupt practices, in particular the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). OIOS performs internal audits and investigations into reported violations of UN regulations, rules, and administrative issuances, and is also authorized to initiate proactive investigations to assess potential fraud risks in “high-risk areas.” OIOS’s mandate is strictly limited to administrative fact-finding; it does not conduct criminal investigations, and indeed the UN has no criminal jurisdiction over its personnel. But as an employer, the UN can impose disciplinary sanctions in response to wrongdoing or take other administrative measures. In the UN context, these administrative sanctions are particularly important because UN staff members, officials, and diplomats are granted immunity from local prosecutions, and therefore domestic prosecutions in the countries where the corruption took place can be difficult unless these immunities are waived. In such circumstances, a strong internal anticorruption system within the UN itself is even more essential to avoid impunity.

Yet although the OIOS looks good on paper, critics both outside the organization (see, for example, here and here) and inside as well, have said that the OIOS is not doing an adequate job investigating corruption and fraud. There are at least three reasons for this: Continue reading

The Corruption Conviction of Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen were found guilty September 4 of accepting thousands of dollars in luxury goods, an expensive vacation, and $120,000 in loans in return for using the powers and perquisites of the governor’s office to promote a local businessman’s products.  Although proving a public servant took a bribe is never easy, the McDonnell conviction shows that it is not impossible.  It also shows what prosecutors can do to ease their task. Continue reading