Highway Robbery: Preventing Corruption in U.S. Infrastructure Investment

Last November, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a $1.2 trillion package that earmarks $110 billion for repairing and rebuilding roads and bridges. This is the single largest investment in U.S. roads and bridges since the construction of the interstate highway system in the mid twentieth century. And though it is a federal project, much of the money will be distributed to state governments, which will determine how best to use the money to address their infrastructure needs. As state governments receive the IIJA money, we can expect the states to launch a public tender frenzy.

In all the extensive discussion and debate over the IIJA, there has been relatively little focus on the corruption risks inherent in this sort of spending program—even in an affluent, reasonably well-governed country like the United States. After all, corruption in large construction projects, and infrastructure projects like roadbuilding in particular, is all too common. Unfortunately, the IIJA’s design exacerbates rather than reduces these corruption risks. While it is too late to address those flaws in the statute, there are some measures that the federal government can and should adopt now to mitigate the inherent corruption risks. Continue reading

Italy: Safe Haven for Bribe Payers?

That a nation with the third-largest economy in the European Union and the eighth-largest in the world would be countenancing bribery in today’s world seems beyond the pale. Yet an analysis of recent case law and record of convictions shows just that.  Done by the Italian NGO ReCommon and submitted on a confidential basis to the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery, it concludes that it is “nigh on impossible to obtain a conviction in Italy for international corruption.”  

The group’s conclusion rests not only on Italy’s dismal record of convictions of Italian companies and nationals for bribing foreign public officials, but decisions in three recent cases. All raise a virtually insurmountable hurdle to a conviction for bribery. In any case. No matter whether the bribe-taker is an official of a foreign government or of the Italian government. In all three, courts have ruled that to prove bribery, the prosecution must show there was an express agreement to bribe.

In today’s world, just how many businesses send a letter to an official saying “I will pay you X in return for your providing the company Y”? As an American Supreme Court justice observed some 40 years ago, were the law to impose such a requirement, it could be easily frustrated “by knowing winks and nods.” Yet an express agreement to bribe is exactly what Italian judges now demand to convict bribe-takers and payors. Why has the Italian judiciary, historically one of the most renowned in the civil law world, decided to frustrate the prosecution of bribery cases?

Italy’s compliance with the OECD Antibribery Convention will shortly be reviewed by peer nations. It simply cannot be found in compliance so long as its courts require an express agreement to bribe to find defendants guilty. The OECD reviewers should follow ReCommon’s analysis, which in the public interest is revealed here, and condemn the recent turn in Italian law making the nation a safe haven for bribery.

The Weaponization of Anticorruption Law: Why Italy’s Legge Severino Must Be Reformed

Back in 2012, the Italian legislature passed an anticorruption statute known as the Legge Severino. This law institutes a six year prohibition on holding elected office for politicians with felony convictions carrying sentences over two years. If convicted on an “abuse of power” charge, the prohibition on officeholding is extended to eight years. The law, which was enacted in part to effectuate Article Six of the United Nation’s Convention Against Corruption, was hailed at the time as a positive step on the road to a less corrupt Italy. (Famously, this provision initially barred Silvio Berlusconi from office after he was sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion.) The logic behind passing laws of this sort (which also exist elsewhere) is fairly clear, especially in a country like Italy which has struggled with endemic political corruption: intuitively, those who have abused the public trust by committing serious criminal offenses should not be allowed to hold elected office.

But a recent case in Calabria, involving Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano, the former mayor of the town of Riace, highlights problems with the law—in particular, how the law can be weaponized to take down politicians who are fighting corruption and organized crime. Continue reading

Corruption’s War on the Law

“Corruption’s War on the Law” is the headline on an article Project Syndicate just published. There former French magistrate and corruption fighter Eva Joly recounts the fate of those who have dared to confront powerful networks of corrupt officials and those who corrupt them.  Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by accomplices of those she was investigating. So was Rwandan anti-corruption lawyer Gustave Makonene. So too was Brazilian anticorruption activist Marcelo Miguel D’Elia.

After a second attempt on his life, Nuhu Ribadu, first chair of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the country’s premier anticorruption agency, famously remarked:

“When you fight corruption, it fights back.”

In her article, Mme. Joly, who received numerous threats for investigating and ultimately convicting senior French officials for corruption, explains that violence is just one way corruption “fights back.”  The most recent head of Nigeria’s EFCC was arrested and detained on trumped up charges of corruption. Ibrahim Magu has been suspended from office pending further proceedings, proceedings unlikely to be held this century.

At the same, Nigerian anticorruption activist Lanre Suraju is, as this blog reported last week, being charged with “cyberstalking” for circulating documents from a court case that implicate associates of the current Attorney General in a the massive OPL-245 corruption scandal. This form of intimidation, which Nigerians have dubbed “lawfare,” has now been exported to Europe. Italian prosecutors are being subjected to both criminal charges and administrative action for having the nerve to prosecute one of Italy’s largest companies for foreign bribery (here).

President Biden has declared the global fight against corruption to be a national priority, and he will shortly host a democracy summit where Brazil, Italy, Malta, Nigeria, and Rwanda will be represented at the highest level. Might he remind them which side of the fight they should be on?

Why Italy Should Not Prioritize Anticorruption in Spending Covid Recovery Funds

The Covid-19 pandemic has been an economic disaster as well as a public health disaster, and massive public spending will be needed to promote recovery. In Europe, the EU is projected to spend up to €1.8 trillion on pandemic recovery. One of the biggest recipients of these EU funds will be Italy, the EU’s hardest-hit member state. Currently, Italy is poised to receive €123 billion in loans and €69 billion in grants between now and 2026. Provision of these funds has already started; the first tranche of €25 billion arrived this past June. This funding will support Italy’s Covid recovery plan, known as the Piano Nazionale di Ripresa e Resilienza (PNRR), which—in the name of territorial cohesion—will allocate 40% of the funds to the Italian south.

If history is any guide, a massive amount of that money will be misallocated, misspent, or outright stolen by corrupt public officials colluding with organized crime groups. The mafias have a long history of bribing Italian officials for lucrative public contracts. Between 2014 and 2020, Italy received €77 billion from the EU for use in structural and investment funds; 60% of those funds were “fraudulently requested or obtained,” often by organized crime, with the 85% of that fraud occurring in the South. Much of the fraud occurs when illegitimate companies request funds in the form of loans and grants; the companies either don’t exist or are liquidated upon receipt of the funds.  

But we needn’t look only to history: Italy’s three most powerful crime syndicates—Cosa Nostra in Sicily, the Camorra in Campania, and the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria—are already bribing Covid response officials, winning fraudulent contracts, and plundering businesses in receipt of PNRR funds. As the EU money pours in, we can expect that these mafia groups will use their corrupt networks to siphon off a staggering percentage of the EU Covid relief funding.

What should European policymakers do in response? It’s tempting to insist—as anticorruption activists have in this and other contexts—that the EU and Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government adopt enhanced oversight and transparency measures, to better ensure that funds are spent appropriately. But that would be a mistake. Right now, the priority must be on promoting a swift economic recovery. Attaching burdensome anticorruption requirements to the public spending needed to support that recovery will slow the process down too much. This is, I realize, a bitter pill to swallow. Many readers will instinctively resist the idea that the EU and the Italian government might bankroll Italy’s most powerful mafias (to the tune of up to €200 billion). But if Italy is to recover from the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the priority must be the swift delivery of recovery funds, even if this means that much of the money will be intercepted by the mafia.

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Is Italy Backtracking on the Fight Against Foreign Bribery?

Press reports, informed commentary, and the recent acquittal of ENI and Royal Dutch Shell despite overwhelming evidence they bribed Nigerian officials provide alarming evidence that Italy’s commitment to curbing foreign bribery is waning.

That commitment was never that strong to begin with. Although bound by the OECD Antibribery Convention to investigate and prosecute foreign bribery cases, in 2011 the OECD Working Group on Bribery found Italy had done little to comply. In the decade since ratifying the convention, only a few dozen cases had been brought, almost all against individuals for small-time bribery, and most had ended in acquittals. This dismal record was not surprising, the Working Group observed, given no one had been trained on how to investigate foreign bribery cases, and no public prosecutor’s office specialized in such cases.

The one bright spot the Working Group found was the Milan office of the public prosecutor.  It had aggressively pursued foreign bribery cases, opening by far the lion’s share of cases, including all those where a corporation was involved. Its future is now in doubt.

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Guest Post: Corporate Criminal Liability and Corruption in Italy — Early Findings from an Ongoing Research Project

In Italy, as in many other countries, little data is available to evaluate the effect of the corporate liability regime — on deterring corporate crime and on the companies themselves. A research project supported by the Milan-based Fondazione Centro Nazionale di Prevenzione e Difesa Sociale (the National Center for Social Protection and Defense Foundation or CNPDS) has set out to fill the void. Coordinated by Professors Stefano Manacorda and Francesco Centonze, the project has enlisted Italian judicial institutions and the private sector in the collection of empirical data.

For the first time the Ministry of Justice, the Office of the General Public Prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Cassation, and two business associations, — Confindustria, which represents more than 150,000 Italian companies, and Assonime, representing the Italian companies listed on the Italian stock market, — are collaborating to gather information on the impact of a law.  Below Marco Colacurci of the Università della Campania and Pierpaolo Astorina of the Università di Bergamo, two assistant Professors involved in the project, explain the data they are gathering and summarize what they have learned so far about corporate liability for corruption.

Their findings will likely be of great interest not only to GAB readers but to the OECD, which will soon assess Italy’s compliance with the Anti-Bribery Convention. Thanks to Professors Colacurci and Astorina for sharing their work with GAB and to Professor Stefano Manacorda for facilitating it.

Twenty years have passed since Italy introduced liability for companies (the liability is formally administrative but modelled on the criminal features). Possible reforms to the legislation are now a matter of intense debate.. Anniversaries indeed represent valuable occasions to reflect on what works and what does not, and the same goes for Legislative Decree n. 231/2001. Conferences and seminars are underway in Italy both to celebrate the law that introduced the direct liability of corporations for crimes committed by individuals acting for them, and, at the same time, to highlight the critiques that have emerged over the years.

These latter have several aspects, such as the under-use of international standards in the creation and judicial evaluation of compliance programs, the intense discretionary powers of public prosecutors and criminal judges, the lack of recognition of pretrial diversion mechanisms apt to stimulate effective forms of corporate cooperation, the failure to consider the size and organizational complexity of companies, and the list could go on.

Most of all, and despite the growing attention which scholars (and law firms) have been directing towards liability over the last two decades, the praxis seems to show that prosecutions for corporate crimes are rare. Consequently, judgments too are rare, and decisions acknowledging the adequacy of the compliance programs adopted by indicted companies are scarce. This could reflect a degree of indifference in this area, on the part of the public prosecutors’ offices or, alternatively, could be interpreted as a sign of the preventive effects of the Decree 231.

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Guest Post: How Not To Balance Efficiency and Integrity in Public Procurement–The Case of Italy

Today’s guest post is from Roberta De Paolis, a Ph.D. researcher in criminal Law at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies.

In designing an effective public procurement system, a key challenge is striking the proper balance between ensuring efficiency and promoting integrity. But emergency situations make it hard to maintain an appropriate balance, as the response to the global Covid-19 pandemic has again demonstrated. When confronted with an urgent situation, governments often allow the need for speed to trump the interest in transparency and oversight, and thus grant public procurement authorities exemptions from the ordinary rules and monitoring procedures.

If one wants to find a good example of how not to address the challenge of striking the right balance between these competing interests, one need look no further than Italy. Rather than design a system that can ensure an appropriate degree of integrity without stifling efficiency, while at the same time building in adequate flexibility to handle urgent situations appropriately, the Italian public procurement system is characterized by a set of overly rigid, stifling baseline rules, from which the government has created a set of overly broad discretionary exceptions to address situations in which the application of the usual rules is untenable.

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Castles of Corruption

Owning a castle has never been easier. In 2017, Italy’s State Property Agency made international headlines by announcing that the country would be giving away over a hundred castles for free. The only catch? Takers must promise to restore the dilapidated structures and turn them into tourist sites. (The program builds on an existing initiative in which the Agency gives historical federally-owned properties to local authorities for restoration.) At first glance, this program looks like a win for everyone. The Italian federal government no longer has to deal with crumbling historic castles, the properties will be cleaned up and made available to tourists, and lucky entrepreneurs and local governments can reap the profits. Unfortunately, however, there are reasons to worry that this program, like so many other castle restoration initiatives, will end up sapped by corruption, money laundering, collusion, and nepotism.

 Corruption and related malfeasance is quite common in the context of castle ownership and restoration. This is not all that surprising, given that corruption is a perennial issue within the construction industry as a whole. All of the usual problems in that sector—including bribery in the bidding process, collusion to funnel work to friends and family, embezzlement, and the substitution of substandard materials—apply in the specific context of castle restoration. On top of that, real estate has long been a favorite of those involved in money laundering due to the lower scrutiny that real property transactions receive, at least in comparison to stock or other commodities. But in addition to these familiar risk factors, castle restoration projects have several additional distinctive features that make them even more vulnerable to corruption than comparable construction projects and real estate transactions:

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Guest Post. Corruption Victims: Law and Practice in Italy, Russia, other European States

Earlier this month, I asked readers for help on a UNODC project examining the compensation of corruption victims.  UNCAC article 35 requires states parties to ensure those injured by “an act of corruption” can initiate “legal proceedings. . . to obtain compensation.” In 2017, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that virtually all 187 convention parties say their laws permit those injured by corruption to bring an action to recover damages. Yet few cases appear to have been brought.  The project seeks answers to three questions: Are there really few cases? If so, why? And what can be done to increase the number?

My thanks to the several readers who replied.  Thanks especially to Mjriana Visentin. An Italian lawyer with a Master’s Degree from the International Anticorruption Academy, Mjriana has been working on human rights and anticorruption for several years, most recently in Russia. She was kind enough to respond to my query with a thoughtful analysis reflecting both her experience representing victims of human rights abuses and corruption in Russia – categories which often overlap in practice – and current law on recovery of damages for corruption in Italy, other European states, and the European Court of Human Rights.  A valuable contribution to the global discussion on corruption victim compensation, it is below.  

Probably it would be useful to differentiate between types of corruption before discussing if victims did (or could) claim compensation.  If we are talking for example of extortion by a public official, I think that an analysis of the national case law will likely show a large number of individuals who were granted victim status and sought compensation.  [Editor’s note: a point I had not appreciated. I have subsequently learned that upon a conviction for extortion in Sri Lanka, defendants reportedly are required to return the bribe to the victim.  Example cases solicited from there or other jurisdictions.

As for other types of corruption, the situation may be more blurred.

Reviewing the laws of a number of European state members, I have seen that corruption still tends to be framed either as a victimless crime or crime against the state. This affects the view that potential victims have of themselves.

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