US Anticorruption Policy in a Trump Administration Revisited: An Evaluation of Last Year’s Doom-and-Gloom Predictions

Almost exactly one year ago, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I published a deeply pessimistic post about the likely future of U.S. anticorruption policy under a Trump presidency. As I acknowledged at the time, “the consequences of a Trump presidency are potentially so dire for such a broad range of issues–from health care to climate change to national security to immigration to the preservation of the fundamental ideals of the United States as an open and tolerant constitutional democracy–that even thinking about the implications of a Trump presidency for something as narrow and specific as anticorruption policy seems almost comically trivial.” That statement is, alas, still true. But what about the impact on anticorruption specifically? In my post last year, I made a bunch of predictions about the likely impact of a Trump presidency on corruption, anticorruption, and related issues. What did I get right and where did I go wrong?

This may seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it’s often useful to go back and assess one’s own forecasts, not only in the interests of accountability and self-criticism, but also because examining where we got things right and, more importantly, where we went wrong can help us do a better job in the future. Of course, one difficulty in assessing my own predictions is that many of them concerned longer-term effects that we can’t really assess after one year (really 9+ months). And in some cases the predictions concern things that it’s hard to assess objectively. But it’s still a useful exercise. So, here goes: Continue reading

Day Three of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the 3rd day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

court room

Much of the third day of Teodorin’s trial was taken up with a lengthy, and highly misleading, “explanation” by defense counsel of United States of America v. One White Crystal-Covered “Bad Tour” Glove And Other Michael Jackson Memorabilia, a civil forfeiture action the US Department of Justice filed and later settled that involved property Teodorin owned in California.  The Paris hearing began at 1:30 pm, Wednesday, June 22, with the three judges filing into the august Chambre des Crieés of the Tribunal Correctionnel of Paris.  The Presiding Judge asked the civil parties and the defense counsel to comment on the background to the case she had reviewed the preceding day.  While the civil parties’ counsel had little to say, the defense had much to say — little of which was accurate. Continue reading

Will the Trump Administration Realize that Fighting Extremism Requires Fighting Corruption?

That corruption breeds extremism is one of the abiding lessons of the last decade plus.  Whether it is Nigeria, Egypt, Somalia, Tunisia, Iraq, Afghanistan or Uzbekistan, allowing what a recent Carnegie Endowment report terms “acute, systemic” corruption to fester is the equivalent of putting out a welcome mat for extremists, home-grown and foreign. Eleven days after President Trump takes office, the world will see whether his national security team has absorbed this lesson.

January 31, 2017, is the day the Trump Administration must tell an American judge whether it will continue negotiations with the Government of Uzbekistan over the return $850 million in bribes paid in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act the Department of Justice has frozen.  Following a Bush Administration policy continued by the Obama Administration, the U.S. government position has been that such funds should go back the country of origin only if:

  1. the government take steps to curb grand corruption and
  2. the monies are used to improve the lives of ordinary citizens.

Candidate Trump called the FCPA a “horrible” law. On the 31st the world will see what that means in practice.  He could, as I explain here an article for the U.S. newspaper The Hill, tell the judge he has decided to turn the money over to the Uzbek government without strings.  That result would certainly show how horrible he thinks the FCPA is.  It would also ease the task the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Jihad Union, and the other radical groups in Central Asia have set of overthrowing the endemically corrupt Uzbek government.

Will the Trump Administration realize that fighting extremism requires fighting corruption? Visit this blog February 1 for at least the first answer to the question.

The U.S. Government’s New Anticorruption Proposals: A Cause for Cynicism, Optimism, or Both?

Last Thursday, two United States cabinet departments – the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice – issued separate but thematically related announcements (see here and here) regarding new initiatives to combat corruption, money laundering, and related malfeasance:

  • Treasury announced the finalization of a new Customer Due Diligence (CDD) rule (discussed previously on this blog), which would require that financial institutions collect and verify the personal information of the beneficial owners of accounts held at those institutions. Treasury also announced a proposal for new regulations that would require certain foreign-owned entities (single-member limited liability companies (LLC)) to obtain a tax ID number and report comply with the associated reporting requirements—a move that would close a loophole that currently allows these entities to shield the foreign owners of non-U.S. assets.
  • Treasury also announced that it plans to send draft legislation to Congress (the text of which does not yet seem to be publicly available) that would require companies to know and report accurate beneficial ownership information at the time of a company’s creation, and to file this information with the Treasury Department.
  • Justice also submitted proposed legislation to Congress that would give the Department new investigative powers (including the use of administrative subpoenas, rather than slower and less flexible grand jury subpoenas, for money laundering investigations, enhanced authority to access foreign bank and business records, and the ability to restrain property based on a request from a foreign country for 90 rather than 30 days). The draft legislation would also creating a mechanism to use and protect classified information in civil asset recovery cases, and would expand the scope of the money laundering offense to include, as a sufficient predicate offense, any violation of foreign law that would be a violation of U.S. law if committed in the United States.

I have not yet had time to review the final CCD rule or the proposed LLC rule, and as I noted above, I don’t think the full text of the legislative proposals is yet available. So I’m not yet in a position to comment on the substance, but at least on the surface, all this seems encouraging. It’s possible to take the cynical view that most of this doesn’t mean very much or represent genuine progress. And I’ll admit part of me is inclined to embrace the cynical view. But on the whole, I do think that last week’s announcements are genuinely encouraging, and signal the possibility of building greater political momentum for real progress.

First, though, the reasons for cynicism: Continue reading

When Should Governments Keep Stolen Assets?

The Swiss government agreed in early March to return $321 million to the Nigerian government that was stolen by the late Sanni Abacha during his kleptocratic reign as the country’s president.   The agreement provides that the funds will be used for programs to benefit the Nigerian people in “an efficient and accountable way” and, to ensure the funds do indeed go to such programs, the World Bank will monitor their use.

World Bank oversight is one way to ensure returned assets are not again stolen, and in the case of Nigeria — a relatively open society with an elected government, a lively, unconstrained media, and a vibrant civil society – World Bank monitoring, when coupled with these conditions, may be sufficient to guarantee the funds are put to good use.  But what about in closed societies?  Those without elections, free media, an independent civil society.  Countries where the same tight-knit, authoritarian group which stole the assets in the first place remains in power?  Is there any way to ensure stolen assets returned to these countries will be used to benefit the nation’s citizens rather than going straight back into the pockets of the thieves? Continue reading

Is the Kleptocracy Initiative Worth It?: A Tentative Yes

The New York Times ran a very nice piece last week (with a GAB mention!) about the U.S. Department of Justice’s Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, and its ongoing efforts to seize foreign assets held by corrupt foreign leaders (and their cronies) in the United States. We’ve already had a lot of blog commentary on some of the issues associated with the Kleptocracy Initiative (see here, here, here, here, and here). But I wanted to pause for a moment to consider a question raised in the NYT piece: Is the effort worthwhile, given its resource costs and the relatively modest successes to date? The answer is not obvious; as Rick (quoted in the article) put it: “In terms of really helping the global anticorruption struggle, I wonder if this is the highest use of resources.” (Rick further suggests that the DOJ’s resources would be better spent on assisting countries pursuing their own anticorruption and asset recovery cases.)

Rick is right to raise these questions about the Kleptocracy Initiative—but my instincts are different from his. Even if it is the case, as the NYT reports, that the DOJ has so far only been able to recover around 8% of the assets it has gone after under the Kleptocracy Initiative, this still strikes me as a good use of DOJ resources. Here’s why: Continue reading

Asset Recovery and the Department of Justice’s Discretion to Return

The U.S. Department of Justice’ trumpets its so-called “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative,” which seeks to freeze and seize illicit assets stashed by corrupt foreign leaders in the United States. When Attorney General Eric Holder had introduced the Initiative before the African Union in 2010, he described it as a program for recovering public funds for “their intended – and proper use”. For his audience, “proper use” was no doubt understood as implying return of the looted assets to the victim countries. Yet over the past few years, these expectations have been eroded, as the US has proved reluctant to turn over seized asses, and the DOJ’s public statements regarding asset return now increasingly incorporate qualifying language to the effect that forfeited assets will be returned to the originating jurisdiction “where appropriate“. This is inequitable and harmful to global anticorruption efforts. Continue reading