Fighting Corruption Isn’t Rocket Science

Space, the final frontier, sure is expensive to explore. Every launch, every mission, can cost billions of dollars in research, materials, and overhead. And partly because of this, government space agencies may be especially susceptible to corruption. After all, these agencies are responsible for enormous projects with thousands of moving parts (literally and figuratively), but are monitored principally by committees that lack the scientific knowhow to conduct effective oversight. Embezzlement, overspending, bribery, and other crimes are easy to miss. Not only is corruption easily buried by bureaucratic or technical minutiae, it’s also extremely costly, as mistakes can result in the loss of valuable equipment or even human life. Even when corruption causes things to go wrong, the fact that space missions are inherently risky and complex may make it difficult to recognize when a malfunction is due to malfeasance.

Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation responsible for space flights, serves as a cautionary tale. For years, Roscosmos funds have been embezzled though contracting bids— officials were bribed to make fake deals and artificially inflate costs, allowing hundreds of millions of dollars to evaporate and a few Soyuz rockets to accidentally explode. (In 2014 alone, corruption and other malfeasance caused Roscosmos to lose roughly US$1.8 billion.) After Russian anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny called out the “astronomic” levels of corruption and mismanagement at the Vostochny space center (one of President Putin’s pet projects), multiple criminal investigations resulted in the conviction and sentencing of fifty-eight officials for fraud and abuse of office.

Though the record of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is not nearly as egregious, neither is it pristine. Suspicions regarding bribes by private contractors to NASA officials have existed for decades. For instance, back in the mid-1990s, a controversial FBI sting operation implicated dozens of contractors that allegedly paid bribes to NASA employees in hopes of determining which commercial experiments would be selected for the International Space Station. Representative John Conyers, who chaired the Committee on Government Operations in the House of Representatives at the time, pinned the blame on “NASA’s dismal record of contract mismanagement and faulty financial controls.” And the problems haven’t gone away: just last year, NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight Doug Loverro resigned amid allegations for improper contacts with Boeing regarding the contracts for NASA’s moon lander program. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has raised numerous concerns about NASA’s procurement system, and NASA attributed the Taurus XL launch failures, worth $700 million, to faulty materials provided by a contractor that falsified thousands of certifications for their aluminum products.

Though NASA has since taken some measures to curb against the potential for this sort of corruption (such as the installation of a Chief Financial Officer and the Acquisition Integrity Program), the risks are still significant, especially as NASA ponders a return to crewed missions by way of billion dollar contracts. These risks are further exacerbated by the agency’s even greater reliance on private sector contractors to compensate for the decline in the agency’s budget. There are therefore several additional steps that NASA can and should take to further safeguard integrity in the procurement process.

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The ComEd Corruption Scandal is a Wake Up Call for Illinois

In 2020, one of the largest energy companies in America, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), admitted to bribing “Public Official A” for legislation that allowed the company to increase the utility rates ComEd charged to Illinois citizens. Public Official A is almost certainly former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the longest-serving House Speaker in a state legislature in American history. Though Madigan denies wrongdoing and has not yet been charged, the evidence indicates that for close to a decade, ComEd bribed Madigan—for example, by giving Madigan’s allies political patronage jobs and “do-nothing consulting” contracts—in exchange for favorable legislation.

Madigan’s tenure as Speaker exemplifies Lord Acton’s adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. During his time as Speaker, Madigan consolidated power over the legislative process, as well as substantial leverage over how other House members voted. This concentration of influence made him the ideal corruption broker for companies like ComEd. Preventing this sort of corruption from arising in the future will require various reforms, including the empowerment of external watchdogs, such as the currently dysfunctional and ineffective Office of the Legislative Inspector General. But while proposals to reform this office (see here and here) are welcome, genuine structural reform will require addressing the excessive concentration of power in the House Speaker. If Illinois, and similar jurisdictions, hope to tackle the sort of corruption we see in the ComEd scandal, it is essential to ensure greater dispersion of power within the legislature.

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Rethinking the Hatch Act in a Post-Trump World

In the United States, the Hatch Act has long served as bulwark against the corrosive intersection of partisan politics and government power. Signed into law in 1939, the Hatch Act was designed to combat the corruption associated with the so-called “spoils system,” in which politicians dole out valuable government jobs to their supporters, and those supporters are in return expected to use their government positions to benefit their political patrons. Civil service laws that create a “merit system” attack the spoils system from one direction, by making politically-motivated hiring and firing more difficult. Laws like the Hatch Act complement these efforts by prohibiting government employees from engaging in partisan political activities. More specifically, the Hatch Act prohibits any federal officer or employee (other than the President or Vice President) from engaging in political activity while acting under his or her “official authority or influence.” (This prohibition, as interpreted, covers any sort of partisan political activity while on the job, including displaying political paraphernalia, distributing campaign materials, and soliciting campaign contributions.) Penalties for violating the Hatch Act can include fines, demotion, suspension, removal from office, and temporary debarment from future federal service.

Since its enactment, compliance with the Hatch Act has generally been quite good. But that changed in January 2017, when President Trump took office. Throughout the Trump years, rampant violations of the Hatch Act plagued the federal government. High-level Trump Administration officials like Ivanka TrumpJared KushnerMike PompeoKellyanne Conway, and Stephen Miller, among many others, engaged in likely Hatch Act violations, with no significant consequences. This exposed an uncomfortable truth: At least for high-level political appointees, the Hatch Act’s enforcement mechanisms are too week, and the penalties too negligible, to deter officials uninterested in complying with the law. Indeed, past compliance with the Act was likely more the product of government norms than fear of punishment.

Just to be clear, the situation is likely quite different for career civil servants who serve in government regardless of which political party holds the White House. With respect to these individuals, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the government, the Hatch Act’s prohibitions are strictly enforced, and the penalties are stiff. But for senior political appointees, the Trump Administration exposed glaring weaknesses in the Hatch Act’s efficacy, when the Administration has little interest in adhering to conventional norms of ethics and integrity. Two types of reform are needed:

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Guest Post: What the U.S. Congress Must Do To Ensure Adequate Oversight of COVID-19 Relief Spending

Today’s guest post is by Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity, a civil society advocacy organization focused on corruption in the United States.

We are facing an unprecedented crisis, and governments around the world have responded with unprecedented actions. In the United States, Congress has responded to the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis with the $2 trillion CARES Act and the subsequent $484 billion replenishment; still more legislation, allocating even more money for crisis response, is under discussion. When this much money is in play, oversight and fraud prevention are essential. There are already reports of PPP loans meant for small businesses going to larger companies, scammers targeting small business owners, stimulus checks being sent to deceased people, and several other COVID 19 scams. But the current safeguards for preventing fraud, corruption, and abuse in COVID-19 relief spending are woefully insufficient. As negotiations over further relief packages continue, those in Congress who care about government integrity—and the effectiveness of these trillion-dollar programs in achieving their objectives—should insist on correcting these deficiencies. In particular, here are five crucial steps that Congress can and should take to ensure that COVID-19 relief spending helps its intended beneficiaries rather than lining the pockets of grifters and grafters: Continue reading

Guest Post: Measures To Counter Corruption in the Coronavirus Pandemic Response

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global health challenge the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. The outbreak demands swift and bold action not only in the direct response to the pandemic, but also in ensuring that monies are correctly spent, that companies do not profit unfairly from misfortune, and that power is not abused by our leaders.

Two weeks ago, I published a commentary on this blog that identified some of the critical corruption risks associated with the response to the coronavirus pandemic. In today’s post, I turn from a diagnosis of the risks to some possible solutions. In particular, I want to highlight four types of measures that will help to mitigate some of the corruption risks that were identified in my previous post. Continue reading