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

A Few Thoughts on the Passage of the U.S. Corporate Transparency Act

[Note: I drafted the post below earlier this week, before yesterday’s shocking events in the U.S. Capitol. I mention this only because it might otherwise seem odd, and perhaps a bit tone-deaf, to publish a commentary on new corporate transparency rules when we just saw an attempted insurrection incited by the siting U.S. President. I don’t really have anything to say about the latter events (at least nothing that others haven’t already said), so I decided to go ahead and publish the post I planned to publish today anyway.]

Last week, as I suspect many readers of this blog are well aware, the United States Congress enacted one of the most significant anticorruption/anti-money laundering (AML) reforms in a generation. The Corporate Transparency Act (CTA), which was incorporated as part of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), will require—for the first time in the United States—that corporations, limited liability companies, and similar entities will have to provide the U.S. government (specifically, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)) with the identities of the ultimate beneficial owners of those entities. That beneficial ownership information, though not made publicly available, will be provided to law enforcement agencies, as well as to financial institutions conducting due diligence (with customer consent). This reform will make it substantially harder for kleptocrats and their cronies—as well as other criminals, including human traffickers and terrorists—to conceal and launder their assets in the United States through anonymous shell companies, and will make it substantially easier for law enforcement to “follow the money” when investigating possible criminal activity.

This important reform has already gotten a ton of coverage in the anticorruption/AML community (see here, here, here, and here), as well as the mainstream media (see here, here, here, and here), though mainstream coverage has understandably been overshadowed by both the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump’s attempts to subvert the recent election. And we’ve had quite a bit of discussion of the issue on GAB prior to the passage of the NDAA (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here). So, I’m not sure I really have that much to add to what others have already said. Nevertheless, it felt strange to allow this landmark event to go entirely undiscussed on GAB, so at the risk of self-indulgence, I’d like to throw out a few additional thoughts and observations related to the CTA. Continue reading

The U.S. Qualified Opportunity Zone Program Is Vulnerable to Corrupt Manipulation by Politically-Connected Investors. Here’s How To Fix It.

The U.S. federal government’s Qualified Opportunity Zones Program, a program established as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, is supposed to drive investment to certain low-income neighborhoods (so-called “qualified opportunity zones,” or QOZs) by allowing investors to defer (or, in the case of sufficiently long-term investments, to avoid) capital gains taxes on their investments in these areas. The process of designating QOZs works as follows: First, the U.S. Department of the Treasury provides each state with a list of eligible “economically distressed” neighborhoods. This list is based on census data, but, importantly, it includes not only neighborhoods located in poor census tracts, but also neighborhoods that are adjacent to poor neighborhoods, or that overlap (even slightly) with areas designated as “empowerment zones” under a Clinton-era redevelopment initiative. Next, each state governor has the authority to nominate up to 25% of these eligible neighborhoods for designation as QOZs. The governors’ lists are then submitted to the Treasury Secretary, who has the final authority to certify these neighborhoods as QOZs. As of July 2020, 8,700 neighborhoods had been designated as QOZs.

Many have questioned the wisdom and efficacy of the QOZ program on a variety of grounds, with some characterizing the program as little more than a new form of tax avoidance for the wealthy that fails to address structural poverty. Even if one puts those concerns to the side, there are serious concerns that the existing QOZ program—and in particular, the process for selecting QOZs described above—has been corrupted by wealthy interests, who are able to exploit their political connections to get certain areas designated as QOZs, even when professional staff deem such designations inconsistent with the established program criteria. Consider just a few high-profile examples: Continue reading

Guest Post: Lessons from the Campaign for the UK Bribery Act

Today’s guest post is from Robert Barrington, who is currently Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, and who previously worked for Transparency International’s UK chapter (as Director of External Affairs from 2008-2013, and as Executive Director from 2013-2019).

The United Kingdom Bribery Act (UKBA) was enacted into law just over a decade ago, on April 8th 2010. This overhaul of UK law on transnational bribery was the culmination of a dozen years of vigorous campaigning by civil society advocacy groups, including Transparency International’s UK chapter (TI-UK). I was TI-UK’s Director of External Affairs for the final couple of years of that campaign, and I thought it might be helpful to reflect on some of the key lessons we learned in the course of the campaign for the UKBA. I explored these issues at greater length in a lecture marking the tenth anniversary of the UKBA, but in this post I want to focus on three of the most important lessons that we learned from the campaign for the UKBA, lessons that I hope will be useful to other civil society organizations engaged in similar campaigns elsewhere. Continue reading

The CICIG Crisis in Guatemala: How the Trump Administration Is Undermining US Anticorruption Leadership

Back when Donald Trump was first elected, a lot of people—me included—worried about the implications of his presidency for US leadership in the global fight against corruption. Some of the dire predictions have not (yet) come to pass; for example, so far US enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) does not seem to have abated despite Trump’s well-documented and ill-informed hostility to that statute. But even if US enforcement of the FCPA has proceeded without much discernible effect (so far), there are other, less easily measurable respects in which the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, and its own cavalier disregard for ethics, may be undermining US leadership on anticorruption issues, and consequently undermining anticorruption efforts and bolstering those who would seek to undermine such efforts.

As just noted, much of this effect is diffuse and hard to observe directly, but there are a few examples where the Trump Administration and its allies are undermining the global fight against corruption is more evident. Perhaps the most striking and disheartening is the situation unfolding in Guatemala, ably documented in a compelling piece by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy’s FP Blog earlier this month. Long story short: The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress appear to be supporting, or at least tacitly accepting, the efforts of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to shut down Guatemala’s UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which has proved instrumental in fighting high-level corruption in Guatemala, and forced the resignation of President Morales’s predecessor, Otto Perez Molina. President Morales campaigned on an anticorruption platform, but he now wants to shut CICIG down, apparently because it’s investigating his own family members and associates. And the US, which had supported CICIG in the past and pressured President Molina to renew its mandate when he was inclined to terminate it to protect himself, seems to be backing Morales rather than CICIG.

I won’t go into all the details here, as the story is ably laid out in Mr. Lynch’s excellent piece. I’ll just highlight some themes that emerge from the reporting that Mr. Lynch and others have done, which illustrate connections—some direct, some indirect—between the Trump Administration’s approach to government and the dissipation of US leadership on anticorruption issues, as illustrated by the CICIG debacle. Continue reading

Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?

The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence. Continue reading

What Would Senator Warren’s Anticorruption Bill Really Mean for Advocacy Groups? 

Last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced her Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, a 300-page blueprint for how to counter the structural enablers of public corruption in the United States. Included among her many proposals (which are detailed at length here) is a set of new lobbying regulations. Many civil society groups—most notably Oxfam—have praised the bill for bringing “an end to lobbying as we know it.” This enthusiasm is understandable, as few professions are decried with the special fervor Americans reserve for lobbyists. The very word conjures up images of slick, well-heeled, sleazy political operators who manipulate and corrupt the political system for their corporate clients. But of course lobbyists are a much more diverse group. Some lobbyists work for big pharma, banks, or the gun industry, but others work for the girl scouts, the environment, or the poor. Indeed, some work within anticorruption organizations. And so while there are many things to like about Senator Warren’s bill, including many of the proposed new lobbying regulations, it’s a bit odd that none of the anticorruption organizations that have praised the bill (see, for example, here and here) appear to have acknowledged (at least publicly) how the bill’s lobbying restrictions would affect their own work.

With that in mind, there are at least four aspects of the Warren bill that should concern anticorruption groups and other civil society advocacy organizations:

Continue reading

The Flawed and Flimsy Basis for the American Bar Association’s Opposition to Anonymous Company Reform

In last week’s post, I raised the question of why the American Bar Association (ABA), which represents the U.S. legal profession, so strenuously opposes even relatively modest measures to crack down on the use of anonymous companies for money laundering and other illicit purposes. In particular, the ABA has staked out a strong, uncompromising opposition to the bills on this topic currently under consideration in the U.S. House (the Counter Terrorism and Illicit Finance Act) and in the Senate (the TITLE Act). As I noted in my last post, the substance of the ABA’s objections (summarized in its letters here and here) appear, at least on their surface, unpersuasive as a matter of logic, unsupported by evidence, or both. This, coupled with the fact that many ABA members strongly disagree with the ABA’s official position on this issue, made me wonder how the ABA’s President and Government Affairs Office had come to take the position that they had.

After doing a bit more digging, and talking to several knowledgeable people, I have a tentative answer: The ABA’s opposition to the currently-pending anonymous company bills is based on an aggressive over-reading of a 15-year-old policy—a policy that many ABA members and ABA committees oppose but have not yet been able to change, due to the ABA’s cumbersome procedures and the resistance of a few influential factions within the organization.

Why does this matter? It matters because the ABA’s letters to Congress deliberately give the impression that the ABA speaks for its 400,000 members when it objects to these bills as against the interests of the legal profession and contrary to important values. But that impression is misleading. There may be people out there—including, perhaps, members of Congress and their aides—who are instinctively sympathetic to the anonymous company reforms in the pending bills, but who might waver, for substantive or political reasons, if they think that the American legal profession has made a considered, collective judgment that these sorts of reforms are undesirable. The ABA’s lobbying documents deliberately try to create that impression. But it’s not really true. The key document setting the policy—the one on which the ABA’s House of Delegates actually voted—was promulgated in 2003, hasn’t been reconsidered or updated by the House of Delegates since then, and doesn’t really apply to the currently-pending bills if one reads the document or the bills carefully.

I realize that’s a strong claim – one could read it as disputing the ABA President’s assertion, in her letters to Congress, that she speaks “on behalf of” the ABA and its membership in opposing these bills. And I could well be wrong, and remain open to correction and criticism. But here’s why I don’t think the ABA’s current lobbying position should be read as reflecting the collective judgment of the American legal profession on the TITLE Act or its House counterpart: Continue reading

Regulatory Discretion and Corruption in the FDA

In the United States, the regulatory agency responsible for ensuring safe food and medicine, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has been marred by numerous scandals – from a 2016 insider trading prosecution to a 2009 politicized medical device approval to a 2013 ProPublica investigation that found the FDA overlooked fraudulent research and let potentially unsafe drugs stay on the market. These scandals have, understandably, undermined public confidence in the FDA. What’s the explanation for these problems? Why is there such a large public perception of corruption, and so many questionable incidents, at the FDA?

Much of the explanation has to do with institutional design: Corruption blooms where transparency and accountability are lacking, yet the FDA has vast discretion over the regulations it sets, incredibly loose restrictions on the money it can receive from industry, and little public accountability. The following steps can be taken to reform the FDA, in the interest of rooting out corruption and restoring public confidence in the agency:

Continue reading

Why Did Trump’s Anticorruption Rhetoric Resonate? Three Hypotheses

OK, I know I said in last week’s post that I would eventually get back to blogging about topics other than Trump, but not yet. After all, Trump’s election—a political and moral crisis on so many dimensions—poses distinctive challenges for the anticorruption community, in at least two different (though related) respects. The first concerns the consequences of a Trump Administration for US anticorruption efforts, both at home and abroad, a topic I’ve already blogged about (see here and here). The second issue concerns the role that anticorruption sentiments and rhetoric played in Trump’s victory. After all, Trump positioned himself (ironically, outrageously) as an anticorruption candidate, denouncing Secretary Clinton as “crooked Hillary” and pledging to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.

It’s no surprise that the mainstream anticorruption community are perturbed, to put it mildly, by the effective deployment of anticorruption rhetoric by a racist xenophobic ultra-nationalist bully. While this is hardly a new phenomenon—see, for example, Katie King’s post on Hungary last year—the Trump victory has forced the anticorruption community to confront it head on. Indeed, at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Panama a couple of weeks back, the appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric by right-wing populists—especially though not exclusively Trump—was a constant subject of hallway conversation, even if relatively little of the IACC’s formal program dealt directly with this issue. (In fairness, many of the IACC speakers did find a way to raise some of these concerns in their presentations, and the organizers also managed to add a last-minute session, in which I was able to participate, discussing this topic.) What are we to make of this? What lessons should the anticorruption community—as well as others aghast at the success of Trump and other right-wing demagogues—take away from Trump’s successful appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t, and won’t pretend to. But I do think it would be helpful to lay out what I view as the three main competing hypotheses: Continue reading