President Biden: Fighting Corruption Core U.S. National Security Interest

Last Thursday President Biden officially declared what corruption fighter have long known:

“Corruption corrodes public trust; hobbles effective governance; distorts markets and equitable access to services; undercuts development efforts; contributes to national fragility, extremism, and migration; and provides authoritarian leaders a means to undermine democracies worldwide.  When leaders steal from their nations’ citizens or oligarchs flout the rule of law, economic growth slows, inequality widens, and trust in government plummets.”

Memorandum on Establishing the Fight Against Corruption as a Core United States National Security Interest

Biden then did what no corruption fighter could. He issued a National Security Memorandum making “countering corruption . . . a core United States national security interest.”   To that end he pledged “to promote good governance; bring transparency to the United States and global financial systems; prevent and combat corruption at home and abroad; and make it increasingly difficult for corrupt actors to shield their activities.”

The Biden memo directs the most senior member of his government to develop a presidential strategy to fight corruption both within the United States and abroad that targets precisely the issues the global anticorruption community, including this Blog, have identified as critical. They are measures to: combat illicit financial flows; increase asset recovery efforts and the return of stolen assets to victim states; target grand corruption by leaders of foreign states; strengthen civil society, the media, and other agents of accountability; incorporate anticorruption measures into foreign assistance programs; pressure international agencies and organizations to focus on the demand side of bribery; and enhance U.S. assistance to foreign law enforcement agencies investigating and prosecuting corruption.

That the Biden memo reads like the anticorruption community’s wish list should come as no surprise. Before taking up his post as Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan was a member of the community in good standing (some of his writings on corruption here, here, and here), and in his first interview after being named the president’s top adviser on foreign policy he said his goal was “to rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy, and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system.”

The headline on a column on the prospects for success of the Biden initiative by the Washington Post’s leading foreign affairs commentator captures what I suspect are GAB readers’ sentiments: “Biden’s anti-corruption plan appears to have some teeth. Here’s hoping they bite.”

The U.S. State Department’s New International Anticorruption Champions Awards Are a Winning Strategy in the Fight Against Corruption

This past February, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken launched one of the first foreign policy initiatives of the new Biden administration: the inaugural International Anticorruption Champions Awards. After receiving nominations from U.S. embassies around the world, the State Department honored a dozen individuals who made significant contributions to combatting corruption in their home countries. The recipients of the International Anticorruption Champions Awards were diverse in every sense of the word. They spanned six continents, represented national and local governments, state-owned companies, and non-governmental organizations. The awardees came from countries big and small, were young and old, and a third were women.

These awards added to a growing movement to provide formal international recognition to those who are leading the fight against corruption in their home countries. Transparency International has recognized such individuals and organizations through their Anti-Corruption Awards semi-annually since 2013, and the United Nations’ Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Center established the annual International Anti-Corruption Excellence Award in 2016. But, importantly, the International Anticorruption Champions Awards mark the first time that one sovereign country—and a major global power at that—officially recognized and honored anticorruption advocacy in other countries.

While it might be tempting to dismiss these awards as empty symbolism (or worse), this would be a mistake. That the U.S. government has created these awards, and apparently intends to continue to issue them annually, is a significant positive contribution to the global fight against corruption, for several reasons.

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Guest Post: An Anticorruption Agenda for the Biden Administration

Today’s guest post is from Lucinda A. Low and Shruti Shah, respectively Acting Chair and President of the Coalition for Integrity, a U.S. based non-governmental organization focused on fighting corruption. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and should not be attributed to the organization..  

The United States has a long history, across administrations of both parties, of showing leadership internationally in the fight against corruption. The passage and enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) has served as an example for other countries to adopt their own transnational anti-bribery laws. Additionally, the United States has championed international anti-bribery efforts in multilateral organizations and worked to build coalitions to root out all types of corruption. For the last several years, however, U.S. has faltered. In order to reestablish the U.S. as a global leader against corruption, and to get its own house in order, the Biden Administration and the new Congress should embrace an ambitious agenda that includes the following elements: Continue reading

Guest Post: Trump’s Pardons and Putin’s Palace Show Why Biden Must Tackle Corruption at Home and Abroad

Today’s guest post is from Joe Powell, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the Open Government Partnership.

The corruption continued to the end. A cast of convicted fraudsters, tax dodgers, and money launderers littered President Trump’s final pardon list. One clemency went to Elliott Broidy, a former top fundraiser for Mr. Trump who had been implicated in illegal lobbying in connection with Malaysia’s multi-billion dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal. Trump’s final official act as President, taken minutes before the official transfer of power, was to pardon the tax evading ex-husband of one his favorite Fox News hosts, Jeanine Pirro.

None of this was remotely surprising after four years in which ethics, conflict of interest, and the rule of law did not seem to apply to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Contrast this with the extraordinary act of bravery from Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who despite being jailed on his return to Moscow after his near-fatal poisoning, released a viral documentary last week about the construction of President Putin’s palace on the Black Sea. The film, which within days had racked up nearly 100 million views, details the corruption, bribery, and opaque corporate structures used to fund what Navalny claims is the world’s most expensive real estate project, with an estimated price tag of at least $1.4 billion. The funds come from Putin’s oligarch friends who dominate the top positions in many of Russia’s biggest companies, and drain state resources that could improve the lives of ordinary Russians. A single gold toilet brush and toilet paper holder, purchased for one of Putin’s wineries near the palace, cost more than the average annual state pension in Russia. No wonder Putin is so desperate to silence Navalny.

What ties Trump’s pardons and Putin’s palace together is the insidious effect of corruption on democracy. Globally, corruption has been one of the main drivers of 14 years of consecutive decline in civil and political liberties around the world. This democratic recession has affected long-standing and emerging democracies alike, and has spurred street protests and civil society campaigns in many countries. Hungary is a textbook example. Prime Minister Orbán has used state funds for patronage, ensuring that only close supporters receive high value government contracts, and threatening to veto the European Union budget over any checks on his power. Throughout the world, dark money has increasingly fueled online disinformation and a decline in press freedom, which has made accountability harder to achieve.

To turn the tide on this democratic backsliding, a major global effort to combat corruption is needed. President Biden is well placed to help lead the charge. Continue reading

Is the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program Working?

The 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (GMA), inspired by the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia after his discovery of $230 million in tax fraud orchestrated by the Russian government, stands as the boldest authorization of U.S. economic sanctions in the fight against corruption. Executive Order 13818, issued in December 2017, designated the first sanctioned parties under GMA, enabling asset freezes and travel bans.

Since then, approximately 150 individuals and entities worldwide have been sanctioned for corruption under the GMA. (The GMA also allows for sanctions against human rights violators, and such authority was exercised to target 75 more individuals and entities.) The list includes current and former government officials—or those acting on their behalf—in Cambodia, China, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Iraq, Latvia, Lebanon, Mexico, Nicaragua, Serbia, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, and Uzbekistan, among others. The designations include familiar names in the anticorruption community such as Gulnara Karimova, former Uzbek first daughter convicted of embezzlement and other corruption totaling more than $1.3 billion, Dan Gertler, the Israeli billionaire who earned millions of dollars through underpriced mining contracts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angel Rondon Rijo, a Dominican lobbyist central to Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht’s $4.5 billion Latin America-wide bribery-for-contracts scheme. Other sanctioned parties include the former Gambian president and first lady for misappropriating $50 million in state funds, a former Mexican judge and a former Mexican governor who took bribes from drug cartels, and a Sudanese businessman who, along with senior South Sudanese government officials, embezzled millions of dollars from a government food program.

The GMA represents a new era of so-called “smart sanctions.” Instead of limiting transactions with an entire country—as in the case of U.S. sanctions programs targeting Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria—these individualized sanctions are designed to maximize harm and minimize collateral economic damage by restricting only bad actors’ access to global commerce, not that of entire populations. This approach is catching on outside the United States, with Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union recently announcing their own GMA-esque sanctions, while other countries, like Australia and Japan, are actively considering adopting similar programs.

Yet, a fundamental question remains: is the GMA working?

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In Their Push for Investigations, Did Trump’s Associates Break Ukrainian Law?

The U.S. political news for the last month has been dominated by the explosive and fast-developing scandal involving reports that President Trump and his associates—including not only U.S. government officials but also Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other private citizens—have been engaged in an ongoing behind-the-scenes campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to pursue criminal investigations that would benefit President Trump politically. In particular, President Trump, Mr. Giuliani, and others pushed Ukraine to investigate supposed wrongdoing by Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as alleged Ukraine-based interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats. (There is no credible evidence to support either allegation, and experts in President Trump’s administration repeatedly warned him against these unfounded conspiracy theories, to no avail.) The pressure brought to bear by President Trump and his associates on Ukrainian officials appears to have included not only general statements of interest in these allegations—allegations that the Ukrainian authorities viewed as baseless—but also included implicit or explicit threats that failure to comply would lead to various forms of retaliation, both symbolic (the refusal to invite newly-elected President Zelensky to the White House) and tangible (the withholding of desperately needed military aid).

While the main ramifications of this scandal are political rather than strictly legal, the U.S. media extensively discussed whether President Trump and his associates may have violated any U.S. laws, and commentators have suggested a number of potential legal violations. For example, asking a foreign entity for dirt on a domestic political rival might violate the provision of U.S. campaign finance law that makes it illegal to “solicit … a contribution or donation [to an election campaign] … from a foreign national,” where “contribution or donation” includes not only money but any other “thing of value.” President Trump and his associates may also have violated domestic anti-corruption law (the federal anti-bribery statute and/or the anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act) in conditioning the performance of an official act (such as the transfer of military aid) on the receipt of something of value from Ukrainian government officials (investigations into political rivals). Private citizens like Mr. Giuliani may have violated the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for private citizens, without the authority of the United States, to correspond with any foreign government or foreign 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.” And of course, the attempts to conceal all of these interactions may have amounted to obstruction of justice.

The focus in the U.S. media on whether President Trump and his associates may have violated U.S. law is entirely understandable, but seems incomplete. Strangely absent from the conversation is any mention, let alone sustained exploration, of the question whether any of President Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. At least this seems strange to me. Imagine that the situation were reversed. Suppose, for example, that a Chinese businessman, nominally a private citizen but known to have close ties to President Xi, approached the U.S. Attorney General and said something like, “We know your administration is anxious to cut a trade deal and would also like China’s assistance in addressing the North Korea situation. I’m sure President Xi could be persuaded to help you out. But you should help China out too. There’s a dissident, now an American citizen, who’s been writing a lot of damaging lies about President Xi, and he’s gaining a following in China and stirring unrest. Why don’t you publicly announce that the U.S. government is investigating him for running a ring of child prostitutes? That would really help us out.” If a story like this came out, I’m quite sure the U.S. media would be abuzz with discussions about which U.S. laws this businessman might have broken, and whether he might be prosecuted in U.S. courts if U.S. authorities managed to arrest him. But in the Ukraine case, we may have something similar—a private citizen (Giuliani) with close ties to a foreign political leader (Trump) apparently told senior political and law enforcement officials (the Ukrainian President and Prosecutor General) to pursue a bogus criminal investigation in exchange for that foreign government’s cooperation on important issues—and nobody seems to be even raising the possibility that this might violate Ukrainian law.

By the way, when I say nobody is talking about this, that apparently includes Ukrainian media and civil society. I don’t read Ukrainian and I’m by no means a Ukraine expert, but I have some friends and other contacts there, and they tell me that while the story is big news in their country, there hasn’t been any discussion about whether Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. That gives me pause, and makes me think that perhaps I’m totally off base in thinking there’s even an interesting question here. Nonetheless, at the risk of looking foolish (something that’s happened plenty of times before, I admit), I want to use this post to float this topic and see what others think. Continue reading