Day Two of the Trial of Teodorin Obiang

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the 2nd day of the trial of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Obiang by Shirley Pouget and Ken Hurwitiz of the Open Society Justice Initiative

The defense suffered several significant setbacks at the second day of Equatorial Guinean Vice President Teodorin Nguema Obiang’s trial for theft of public funds, money laundering, and other charges that together amount to kleptocracy.  As GAB earlier reported, Obiang’s lawyers sought to delay the case on procedural grounds and to block Equatorial Guinean citizens from, as French law permits, participating in the prosecution.  The court refused both requests.

Even worse for the VP, the court displayed a detailed command of the allegations against him along with a determination to see they are presented at trial. Accusations that have appeared in the media, civil society publications, or elsewhere will now be tested in a formal, judicial proceeding.  A finding that they are true, that Obiang did indeed rob the citizens of Equatorial Guinea blind, cannot do anything but embolden courts elsewhere to pursue similar cases while confirming to the world the regime’s pariah status. Continue reading

The Trial of Suspected Kleptocrat Teodorin Obiang: Report on Day One

GAB is pleased to publish this account of the first day of the Obiang trial by Shirley Pouget, a French lawyer observing the proceedings on behalf of the Open Society Justice Initiative

The worldwide fight against grand corruption took a giant stride forward Monday June 19 with First Vice President of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue standing trial for corruptly diverting millions from the national treasury.  Known to cronies as Teodorin, the case appears to be the first ever where a high-level official, while in office, is called to account for grand corruption before a foreign court. The precedent setting case, the culmination of a decade of determined struggle by French and Equatorial Guinean civil society, is being heard before the Tribunal Correctionnel in Paris.

As the trial opened, the courtroom overflowed with journalists, civil society representatives, and Equatorial Guineans in exile: we were all there to see if indeed a powerful politician whose corrupt activities have left his nation in penury would be held to account.  The three judges hearing the case, all women, took their seats at 1:30. The presiding judge opened by recalling that the accused was before the court on charges of misappropriation of public funds, complicity in the misappropriation of public funds, misuse of corporate assets, complicity in the misuse of corporate assets, and the concealment of each of these offences.  She explained that the court had jurisdiction because each offense, or an element of each, was committed in France.  She then expressed concern that defense counsel had only provided answers to the charges a few days before the trial began.

The defense launched into a series of objections to the commencement of the trial that consumed the entire afternoon hearing.  Teodorin’s high-priced lawyers argued that 1) the case should be stayed pending a final decision by the International Court of Justice in a case between France and Equatorial Guinea, 2) the magistrates’ decision to refer the accused for trial was illegal, and 3) a coalition of Equatorial Guineans should not be permitted to participate in the case as a civil party.  They also raised an unexpected claim based on a highly technical reading of the charging document.    Continue reading

At Last: A Kleptocrat Faces Justice

This Monday, June 19, a case against Equatorial Guinean First Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue for looting the nation’s oil wealth opens in a Parisian criminal court. In partnership with the Open Society Foundations Justice Initiative, GAB will provide readers with regular reports on the case’s progress.  Although the Vice President is unlikely to appear in person, the case nonetheless is an important milestone in the world wide struggle to bring to justice rulers who rob their citizens on a massive scale.  It marks the first time, to GAB’s knowledge, a sitting kleptocrat has been called to account.

The case, one of several collectively known as “bien mal acquis” or “ill-gotten goods,” has gone through several twists and turns.  It is a tribute to the hard work, persistence, and dedication of CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Sherpa, TI-France and other individuals and NGOs that it is now finally set for trial.  Vice President Obiang could be sentenced to up to 10 years’ in prison and fined millions of euros if convicted.  While he would surely remain holed up in Equatorial Guinea to duck prison, conviction would likely carry an order confiscating all property he owns located in France, which today is known to include a Parisian mansion valued at 107 million euros along with a collection of Ferraris, Maseratis, and other luxury cars like worth over five million eruos.

The French case is not Obiang’s first brush with the law.  In October 2014, to settle a U.S. case based on his kleptocratic ways, he forfeited a mansion in California and other property worth $30 million.  Obiang is also under investigation in a number of other jurisdictions.

Monday’s hearing begins at 1:30, Paris time.  For those fortunate enough to be in Paris, additional hearings are scheduled for 9:00 am, June 21; 1:30, June 22; 1:30 pm, June 26; 1:30, June 28; 9:00, June 29; 1:30, July 3; 9:00 July 5; and 1:30 July 6.  For those who are not, GAB is the next best alternative.

Venezuelans Out Kleptocrats’ Kids

Those cursed to live in a country where leaders are stealing the nation’s resources wholesale are rarely able to stop them.  Calling the police, complaining to the prosecutor, or appealing to the legislature is pointless: in a kleptocracy the thieves control the machinery of the state.  Speaking out is futile.  Those who do are quickly silenced — imprisoned if they not become the victim of state-sponsored assassination.

So it is particularly welcome to report that the citizens of Venezuela, the latest nation to become victim of massive, “grand” corruption by its leaders, recently hit upon a way to strike back. Even better is how they are doing it: using the social media posts of the kleptocrats’ kids. The Twitter account VVsincensura (“Venezuelans uncensored”) scours the internet collecting posts by the children of Venezuela’s kleptocrats showing them living the high life in Paris, Hong Kong, Sydney, and the like while the nation sinks ever deeper into a state of penury.  From videos of the Caracas mayor’s daughter surfing in Australia to pictures of a former state official’s offspring helicoptering around the Middle East, VVsincensura regularly, indeed sometimes hourly, tweets out evidence of how well one’s kids can vacation, dine, and tour when the government picks up the tab.  Particularly galling are photos of an ex-Minister of Health’s children sightseeing in China while the country experiences a medical emergency because it has no money to pay for basic medicines and hospital supplies.

Venezuela’s kleptocrats are yelping over the outing of their kids (example here).  More significantly, the steady stream of snapshots showing them, drink in hand, languishing by a fancy pool or on white sands beach while the mass of Venezuelans scrounge for life’s basic necessities is starting to have an impact — both in Venezuela and abroad.

Within in Venezuela VVsincensura has stripped the last shred of legitimacy from the thieves ruling the country.  Their claim to power is that they speak for Venezuela’s poor.  But as more and more pictures of their kids in private jets, on luxurious beaches, or in five star restaurants circulate, that claim has become a dark national joke.  It has also pumped new life to Venezuela’s beleaguered domestic opposition.  The only thing now keeping the kleptocrats in power is the security forces, and one has to ask how many pictures of generals’ sons and daughters living it up in Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Sao Paulo will it take before front-line soldiers begin deserting en masse.

Outside Venezuela the vulgar display of wealth by kids of kleptocrats has become so revolting that it has begun to spark action. At this writing some 30,000 Australians have signed a petition demanding that their government revoke the student visa of Lucía Rodríguez, daughter of Caracas’ mayor and niece of the Foreign Minister.  Rodríguez, ostensibly a student at a pricey Sydney University (tuition $18,000), is shown riding the waves off a Sydney beach in one VVSincensura post and enjoying a lifestyle far removed from that of an ordinary student in others. In the meantime, her father earns less than a $1,000 a year as mayor while preaching the virtues of an austere life to his constituents.

The Australian government should heed its citizens’ plea and send Rodríguez home, and that civil society in other nations hosting the kids of Venezuela’s kleptocrats should file similar petitions.  Denying kleptocrats the ability to send their kids abroad would remove one incentive for them to rob their nation blind.  More importantly, perhaps if the kids are penned up in Venezuela they will begin to realize just how hard life is for the great majority and how much responsibility their parents bear for making it so. Who knows, a few uncomfortable conversations around the family dinner table might prompt some of the thieves to go straight? For if a parent craves anything, it is their child’s love and respect.

While a single Twitter account might seem a feeble weapon to fight kleptocracy, VVSincensura shows that this is not so.  That when aimed at the right target, it can be a powerful weapon for combatting grand corruption. The ostentatious, revolting display of wealth by kleptocrats’ kids VVSincensura features reveals in a dramatic way the evil of grand corruption.  It is a tactic deserves widespread emulation — by citizens of other kleptocracies and anticorruption activists everywhere.

Exposing Secret Offshore Bank Accounts: American Law

Kleptocrats, drug traffickers, and other big-time crooks face a common problem: How to hide their money from the authorities while retaining easy access to it.  Yesterday former Senate staffer Elise Bean described one common, low-cost, easy solution and how a recent U.S. law has made it far more difficult for American criminals to turn to it. The solution, create a corporation in another country and then open a bank account in that country in the corporation’s name, is now widely known thanks to the Panama Papers.  What Bean offered in her April 26 testimony before a Congressional committee was a step-by-step explanation of how the scheme works and the U.S. law’s success in making it far harder for Americans to take advantage of it.

Committee members peppered her with questions about the law, its effect, and ways to improve its operation.  About the only question they didn’t ask is why more countries don’t have a similar law.  That would be one for anticorruption advocates to put to legislators in countries lacking one.

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Three Valuable Additions to the Anticorruption Literature

March was a great month for the anticorruption community: two books and one report appeared that, in contrast to much that is published on corruption and related topics, are useful, insightful, and worthy of a careful read.

1) There is now no better introduction to the field of corruption studies than Ray Fisman and Miriam Golden’s Corruption: What Everyone Needs to Know, published in late March by Oxford University Press in an affordable paperback edition.  In nine readable chapters the authors summarize the main issues – what corruption is, why it is so harmful, the challenge of measurement, the forces behind it, and most importantly what can be done to reduce it.  The only group of readers that the book will disappoint is opportunistic politicians looking for quick and easy fixes.  There are, the authors remind readers at several points, “no easy fixes for a problem that been around for millennia.”

Theirs is not a counsel of despair, however.  Policy reforms can make a difference: higher salaries for public servants, the creation of an independent anticorruption agency, a “big bang” approach like Georgia’s wholesale dismissal of traffic police are three that are featured.  But such reforms can backfire, they warn, without complementary changes in the larger environment.  Wage hikes must be accompanied by more stringent enforcement of antibribery laws else the result may simply be to raise the bribe price. Quoting Gabe Kuris’ ISS study, they caution that anticorruption agencies will succeed only if they have built “alliances with citizens, state institutions, media, civil society, and international actors.”  With perhaps the disastrous results from disbanding the Iraqi army in mind, they discuss what could have befallen Georgia had its traffic police been let go under different circumstances.

Specialists will find nits to pick.  John Githongo never chaired the Kenyan anticorruption agency (he ran a unit in the President’s office); corporate interests are not the only ones that capture government agencies (labor and environmental interests can exercise undue influence over policy too); Switzerland long ago scrapped anonymous, numbered accounts.  But these are quibbles in what otherwise has to rank as the best one volume introduction to corruption and what can be done to fight it.

2) In the decade plus since my former World Bank colleagues Joel Hellman, Geraint Jones, and Daniel Kaufmann first advanced the idea that in some countries the forces of corruption are so powerful that they can be said to have “captured” the state’s policymaking machinery, the notion of “state capture” has been booted around academic and policymaking circles. Unfortunately not always with the greatest definitional or analytical clarity with the result that there is now a confusing mass of writing on what it means for a state to be captured and how it can be freed.  Thanks to the OECD, those looking for a source that makes sense of the welter of material on state capture now have a single volume to consult.  Preventing Policy Capture: Integrity in Public Decision Making, available here (free to read online, $20 to download) continues the high standards one has come to expect from OECD publications on governance, nicely synthesizing the massive literature Hellman and colleagues have inspired.

Just as Fisman and Golden warn that isolated interventions will not reduce corruption, the OECD authors stress that freeing a state from the bonds of corrupt interests requires a set of “actions that complement and reinforce each other.”  If anything, anti-capture policies are even trickier to implement than anticorruption policies, for, as the OECD warns, if not carefully constructed they can compromise fundamental democratic values of free expression and the right to petition government.  One of the volumes many strengths is that it never loses sight of these risks.

3) Perhaps the most salutary result of the international anticorruption movement is the spotlight it has cast on the massive theft of resources from poor countries by corrupt leaders.  There is no better guide to what has been dubbed “kleptocracy” than Cambridge Professor J.C. Sharman’s The Despots Guide to Wealth Management, just out in an inexpensive paperback edition from Cornell University Press.  The author of the leading text why tiny offshore jurisdictions were for so long able to help tax evaders and drug lords hide their money, Professor Sharman explains why kleptocracy — a practice wealthy nations once tolerated and one still facilitated by their banks, lawyers, and accountants — is now widely condemned.

Despite the sea change in attitudes, and accompanying changes in domestic and international law, however, corrupt money still gushes out of developing countries. Wealth Management is laden with pithy summaries explaining why efforts to halt the flow have failed. (Sanctioning international banks in the hopes concerns about a loss of reputation will deter them doesn’t work since “they appear to have little reputation left to lose.”)  Most importantly, Professor Sharman offers realistic recommendations for ending what has now become the most visible, and detestable, consequence of grand corruption.

 

How Should the U.S. Anticorruption Community Respond to Trump? Engagement vs. Confrontation

So Donald Trump is now the President of the United States, and has been for almost two weeks. Yes, this is really happening. And yes, this is really frightening. As has been pointed out countless times, Donald Trump poses a unique and unprecedented threat to American political institutions. It’s not mainly the hard-right policies that President Trump and the Republican Congress will push. People can strongly disagree with much of that policy agenda (as I do), but those policy positions are, alas, within the American political mainstream. And it’s not just Trump’s obvious narcissism, racism, and ignorance, bad as those are. On top of all that, Trump seems to view the presidency mainly as an opportunity for personal enrichment, and many of his top-level advisors and appointees seem to have a similar attitude. Notwithstanding his (obviously disingenuous) “drain the swamp” rhetoric, Trump—and many congressional Republicans—seem to have little regard for basic ethical norms and principles. And there are reasonable fears, based on what we’ve seen so far, that much of the Trump Administration’s policy agenda, though couched in familiar conservative market-oriented rhetoric, will in fact be oriented toward enriching the friends and families of senior administration officials, including but not limited to Trump’s own organization.

A democratically elected head of government who ran on a populist platform, but whose agenda seems to be oriented primarily toward using political power to enrich himself and his cronies? This might be a new experience for Americans, but as Professor Palifka pointed out in her post last week, this is a familiar story in many other countries (including Mexico, Ms. Palifka’s lead example). Think Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and countless others. Now that the U.S. seems to be facing a similar situation, the U.S. anticorruption community—which I’ll define loosely as the diverse set of activists, advocacy groups, commentators, researchers, scholars, and others who focus on anticorruption in their professional work—needs to be actively involved in responding.

Unfortunately, the U.S. anticorruption community is not especially well-prepared to deal with this situation. Put aside for the moment that the most prominent international anticorruption advocacy group—Transparency International (TI)—recently voted to strip its U.S. chapter (TI-USA) of its accreditation, triggering an ongoing internal fight that has, I gather, left the chapter in limbo. (That’s a whole other story.) Much more important than any internal organizational drama is the fact that most U.S. anticorruption advocacy groups have typically focused on questions of U.S. anticorruption policy—such as FCPA enforcement, asset recovery, corporate transparency, and the like—not on systemic corruption in the U.S. government itself. True, some groups have in the past positioned themselves as fighting systemic corruption in the U.S. government, but those groups generally use a broad (in my view, overly broad) definition of “corruption” that emphasizes primarily campaign finance and lobbying reform—noble causes, to be sure, but not really the main worry right now. The U.S. anticorruption community faces a challenge that’s more akin to the challenge anticorruption communities have faced (or are still facing) in places like Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Thailand, and South Africa, though perhaps with even higher stakes.

My sense is that many leading figures in the U.S. anticorruption community are already thinking hard, and having many constructive conversations, about how to respond to the unique challenges posed by the Trump Administration. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on a basic strategic question that I’ve seen come up many times in these conversations: Engage or confront? Continue reading