Desperate to acquit Donald Trump of impeachment charges, Senate Republicans have seized on Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz’ two part defense. That conviction requires Trump to have committed a crime and that it was no crime for Trump to condition aid to Ukraine and a meeting with its president on Ukraine investigating Trump political rival Joseph Biden. There is but one flaw in Dershowitz’ argument. It is flat wrong. Section 201 of title 18 of the United States Code makes it a crime for a public official to solicit a bribe. And that is exactly what Trump did. Continue reading
Right now, the biggest corruption story in the U.S., and probably the world, concerns efforts by President Trump and his associates, both inside and outside the U.S. government, threaten to withhold U.S. military aid from Ukraine in order to pressure the Ukrainian government into opening investigations that would help Trump politically. It’s clear at this point, except perhaps to the most rabid partisans, that there was indeed a “quid pro quo,” and the discussion has now turned to the question whether, with respect to President Trump specifically, he should be impeached for his conduct related to this episode (the issue that Rick focused on in yesterday’s post), and, with respect to whether Trump, his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani, or anyone else committed any crimes.
On that second question, commentators have suggested a whole range of criminal laws that some or all of the parties involved might have broken, including:
- The section of the campaign finance laws that prohibits the “solicit[ation” from a foreign national of a “contribution or donation” to an election campaign of any “thing of value”;
- The federal anti-bribery statute’s prohibition on any federal public official “directly or indirectly, corruptly demand[ing or] seek[ing] … anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act”;
- The anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act, which prohibits “the obtaining of property for another … under color of official right” (as well as the attempt or conspiracy to do so);
- The wire fraud statute, which prohibits the devising of any “scheme or artifice to defraud” that involves use of any interstate (or international) wire communication (such as a phone call), where the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” is specifically defined elsewhere in the statute as including a scheme “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” (This may seem a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with this corner of U.S. law, but in a nutshell, so-called “honest services fraud” is a theory that when a public official, or some other person in a position of trust, engages in a corrupt scheme to, say, solicit bribes, that individual defrauds her principals by depriving them of her honest services. For an explanation of how this could apply to Trump in the Ukraine case, see here.)
- In the case of Mr. Giuliani and other parties who do not work for the U.S. government, the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from corresponding with any foreign government or foreign government official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”
- Various provisions of Ukrainian law.
In addition to all of these possibilities, which strike me as at least facially plausible given the evidence that has come to light so far, some commentators have suggested that President Trump’s associates, such as Mr. Giuliani, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) (see here and here). This argument hasn’t gotten much traction, in my view for good reason. Even for someone like me, who generally has a more expansive view of the FCPA than do some other commentators, it’s hard to see how the evidence we have so far would suggest a plausible FCPA violation. There are two main reasons for this: Continue reading
For weeks President Trump’s defenders have claimed he did not demand Ukraine investigate the Bidens in return for approving the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. In legal terms, the argument was that there was no exchange of one for the other, no quid pro quo, the cornerstone of the crime of bribery. That defense has now collapsed (here and here). The evidence that Trump sought a “quo,” a personal favor in the form of an investigation of the Bidens, in return for a “quid,” weapons, is overwhelming (here). His defenders have thus now fallen back to a secondary defensive line: there was a quid pro quo but it was merely an “inappropriate” one. It was not, defenders insist, an impeachable quid pro quo.
Whether this new defense will carry the day remains to be seen. No American president has ever faced impeachment for soliciting a bribe. There is thus no standard jurors in a Trump impeachment trial, the 100 members of the United States Senate, can consult in deciding whether Trump’s attempt to use the power of the presidency to obtain a personal benefit is impeachable. But as Senators construct a standard, they might consider the one a 12-person jury of lay people in a criminal trial must use when a public servant is accused of soliciting a bribe. Continue reading
Thanks to the Trump impeachment imbroglio, Americans are brushing up on Latin. Or at least on the Latin phrase quid pro quo. Though Trump’s partisans and opponents are at each other’s throats about virtually everything, a consensus has emerged that if his dealings with Ukraine involved a quid pro quo, he is in trouble. The reason: the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held (examples here and here) that the touchstone of the American federal crime of bribery is the presence of a quid pro quo. If the impeachment investigation were to uncover one in his Ukraine dealings, Trump would be guilty of bribery, one of three crimes, along with treason and high crimes and misdemeanors, for which he can be removed from office under Article II of the U.S. Constitution.
Quid pro quo means “this for that,” the archetypal example being someone who provides “this money” for “that action” by a public official. But the translation misleads by its simplicity, glossing over critical questions which Congress will have to answer in deciding whether Trump should be removed from office for his actions involving Ukraine:
Must the “this for that” be in the form of an explicit agreement? Must, that is, there be a meeting of the minds between the two?
Or is a promise enough? That the payer or the recipient merely asked for something – a payment, the performance of an official act — from the other.
Must the terms of the agreement or promise be express? Stated clearly, leaving nor room for doubt. Explicit? Put into words whether written or not.
The Supreme Court, the lower courts, and academic commentators have wrestled with these questions for decades, and while not bound by their answers in an impeachment proceeding, Congress should surely pay heed to them. The federal judiciary arrived at them not during a white-hot partisan debate, with one eye on the effect of one’s chances for reelection. Instead, the answers were reached after deliberate, studied attention to the facts, to answers reached in previous cases, and to the consequences the answers would have on public servants’ future conduct.
Members of the House and Senate are not the only ones that would profit from a study of the American law of quid pro quo. Prosecutors, judges, and legislators in other nations would as well, for the quid pro quo requirement is part of all nations’ antibribery statutes (expressly stated in article VIII of the InterAmerican Convention Against Corruption and article IV of African Union Convention on Preventing and Combatting Corruption and following directly from the texts of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (article 15), the Council of Europe Criminal Law Convention on Corruption (article 2) and the OECD Antibribery Convention (article 1)). The United States is not the only nation with a bribery jurisprudence (here and here), but thanks to its size, aggressive law enforcement, and quality of its judiciary, its case law applying the quid pro quo standard is surely richer than most if not all.
A primer on it is below. Continue reading
The headlines wrote themselves: a $32,000 couch (complete with $1,000 worth of throw pillows). A $10,000 payment to a private attorney to “ghostwrite” a court opinion. Illegal overpayments to former colleagues in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public outcry erupted in late 2017 when news broke that the justices on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state) had spent lavishly on office renovations. Further investigations revealed that some justices had used state-owned vehicles and government credit cards for personal use. Three of the justices were accused of scheming to overpay retired judges who were contracted by the judiciary to fill in on the trial courts in times of vacancy or high caseloads. But the most brazen allegations were leveled against Chief Justice Allen Loughry, who was convicted of wire fraud and obstructing an investigation into his enriching himself at taxpayer expense—despite the modest fame and fortune he (ironically) earned as the author of a book on political corruption in West Virginia.
The pervasiveness and diversity of the misdeeds on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals over the past few years suggest that the corruption was in many ways a cultural problem. But it’s worth noting that the most serious allegations of corruption were likely not actually criminal. A quirk in West Virginia’s law gave the Supreme Court near-total control over its own budget, paving the way for the unchecked spending. Likewise, the intentional overpayments to retired judges reeked of cronyism but may or may not have been illegal; while a statute capped payments to part-time judges, the judiciary still arguably retained ultimate control how and how much to spend.
In response to the revelations of corruption, West Virginia’s government settled on two aggressive solutions. First, in August 2018 the West Virginia House of Delegates approved 11 articles of impeachment against the four justices still on the court and scheduled trials for each of them before the State Senate to determine if they should be removed from office. (The normally five-member court was already down a justice, who resigned in July a few weeks before pleading guilty to federal fraud charges.) The impeachment proceedings were met with outrage by some commentators (see here, here, and here), who saw them as a partisan power grab. Questionable motives aside, the results of the impeachment charges were still a mixed bag: one justice resigned from the Supreme Court before her trial. Another was acquitted of all charges but formally censured by the State Senate in a lopsided vote. The other two justices escaped any impeachment trial after an interim slate of state Supreme Court justices threw out the impeachment charges against their fellow justices on technical grounds. Chief Justice Loughry resigned following conviction in federal court (that makes three resignations overall, if you’re keeping count), and the legislature backed down from further impeachments. Second, after the impeachments, West Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that wrested control over the judiciary’s budget away from the Supreme Court, giving the legislature the power to cap the judiciary’s annual spending, so long as the total amount is no less than 85% of the previous year’s budget.
But even if these measures work precisely as planned, the problem in West Virginia is far from solved. The damage to the judiciary’s legitimacy has been severe. A common refrain states that judges “like Caesar’s wife, must not only be virtuous but above suspicion.” And Chief Justice Loughry—of all people—echoed this same bold claim in his book: “Of all the criminal politicians in West Virginia, the group that shatters the confidence of the people the most is a corrupt judiciary…. It is essential that people have the absolute confidence in the integrity and impartiality of our system of justice.”
Unfortunately, the remedies implemented thus far serve only the short-sighted goals of stopping yesterday’s corruption. What is missing in the aftermath of the West Virginia scandals is a concerted effort on rebuilding trust in the judiciary. As previous scandals in the public and private sectors suggest, regaining trust in the judiciary requires public remedial actions by the judiciary itself. Replacing certain justices and adding high level legislative oversight may have been appropriate, even essential, measures, but they don’t necessarily help the court restore its integrity and repair its tarnished reputation. Moreover, focusing exclusively on these externally-imposed remedies may send a signal that the judiciary can’t be trusted to handle its own affairs. This makes it all the more imperative that the judiciary take the initiative in addressing its cultural problem and rebuilding public trust in the courts. A willingness to accept responsibility for past mistakes and engage in transparent self-evaluation will be critical as the West Virginia Supreme Court begins its new term this month. In particular, there are two steps the Court could take that would be helpful: Continue reading
In December 2017, a civil society organization that aligns itself with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made good on its threat to submit an impeachment complaint against Conchita Carpio Morales, head of the Philippines’ independent anticorruption agency (ACA), known as the Office of the Ombudsman. This came after President Duterte himself called for the impeachment of Ombudsman Morales, publicly accusing her of engaging in “selective justice” and of being part of a “conspiracy” to oust him. Notably, President Duterte leveled these accusations at a time when the Office of the Ombudsman had opened an investigation into the Duterte family’s alleged hidden wealth, and into a multi-billion peso illegal drug trafficking case that implicates President Duterte’s son. This is hardly a unique case. In Nigeria, Nepal and Ukraine, among other places, conflicts between politicians and ACA heads have resulted in the latter’s actual or threatened removal.
Unfortunately, most countries place the decision whether to remove an ACA head in the hands of their politicians (see here and here). The Chief Executive often plays a key role in removals—sometimes on his or her sole authority (as in Afghanistan, Brazil, Botswana, South Korea, Mexico, Singapore, and Tanzania), or in conjunction with the legislature (as in Uganda and Lithuania) or a judicial body (as in Ghana and Kenya). In most other cases, the power of removal is exercised by parliament or any of its members or ministers, often through an “impeachment” process of some kind. Only Barbados, Bangladesh, and Yemen have removal procedures for ACA heads that are strictly and purely judicial in nature.
While there are, at present, no universally-accepted standards against which ACAs are measured, the non-binding 2012 Jakarta Statement on Principles for Anti-Corruption Agencies lays out principles for states to follow in establishing or maintaining effective ACAs. The Jakarta Statement’s position on appropriate procedures for removing an ACA head may be influential in shaping how at least some countries address this issue. And because the Jakarta Statement is currently being revisited (see here and here), now is an opportune time to consider revising its provision regarding the removal of ACA heads.
It is genuinely alarming how much Donald Trump seems intent—in true kleptocratic/crony capitalist style—on using his position as President to advance the commercial and financial interests of himself, his immediate family members, and their various business enterprises. As I’ve written before, this approach to governance (if you can call it that) has plenty of precedents elsewhere in the world, but it’s a new experience for Americans. One hopes the U.S. electorate will come to its senses and throw the bum out in four years, but that’s a long way away. In the meantime, the hope that the President might be impeached over his possibly unconstitutional conflicts of interest seems profoundly unrealistic: Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and most Republicans actually seem quite happy to accommodate themselves to a Trump Administration if it enables them to advance their policy goals. Even those Republicans who find Trump’s conduct inexcusable are far more worried about a primary challenge supported by Trump’s rabid supporters than they are about the general electorate. For the same reason, proposals for new federal legislation that would strengthen ethical restraints on the President, whatever their symbolic value, are likely dead-on-arrival as practical proposals. Perhaps understandably, some anticorruption advocates have placed their hopes in the federal courts, most notably through lawsuits alleging that the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, though for reasons I have explained in previous posts (see here and here), I’m doubtful that such lawsuits have much chance of success.
This is all very depressing, and I acknowledge that in the short term there’s relatively little that can be done; the ultimate remedy will have to be through the electoral process. Nonetheless, I do think that the ideas of enacting new legislation and pursuing certain forms of litigation do hold some promise as means to impose significant constraints on Trumpian corruption. The problem with the proposals I noted above is that they involve proposed responses at the federal level, and for the most part they target the President himself. There’s an alternative, though: Litigation and legislation at the state level, targeting Trump’s business interests and their potential commercial partners. Though hardly a complete solution, there may be a number of things to do at the state level to constrain at least some of the abuses associated with politically-connected business interests that seek to leverage those political connections for commercial advantage, or to facilitate corrupt or otherwise unlawful conduct. To illustrate, let me note a couple of ideas that other experts have floated about how aggressive state attorneys general (or perhaps private litigants) might make use of existing state laws to target Trumpian corruption: Continue reading