Guest Post: An Austrian Political Corruption Scheme was Caught on Video–But Most Probably Aren’t

Today’s guest post is from Jennifer Kartner, an anticorruption researcher who recently received her Ph.D. in political science from Arizona State University:

On Friday, May 17, 2019, the German newspapers Der Spiegel and the Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung released an explosive video showing two key politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, scheming with a woman who claimed to be a wealthy Russian citizen. Their meeting took place in July 2017, a few months before the October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections. In the video, Strache and Gudenus discuss how, with the help of the woman, they could ensure that the FPÖ wins the upcoming elections. The plan was that the Russian would buy 50% of the Austrian newspaper Die Kronen Zeitung—a newspaper reaching a third of all Austrian news consumers—before the elections, and then she would ensure that the already-populist newspaper would drum up more support for the FPÖ. (Mr. Strache estimates in the video that the newspaper takeover would help push the FPÖ’s expected vote share from 27 to 34 percent.) Once the FPÖ won the election, FPÖ elected officials would return the favor by helping the oligarch win contracts for public construction projects; all she had to do was to establish a construction company that could plausibly compete with the Austrian firm Strabag. The three meeting participants also talked about the possibility of privatizing the Austrian public broadcast station ORF, and Mr. Strache spoke of wanting to build a media landscape “just like Viktor Orbán built in Hungary.” But the deal never actually came together. Die Kronen Zeitung didn’t change owners, the FPÖ came in third in the parliamentary elections and ended up entering into a coalition government with the center-right ÖVP, and Strabag continues to win the majority of public construction contracts in Austria.

The political backlash in response to the publication of the video was swift and severe. An estimated 5,000 people came out to protest on the streets. A day after the publication, Mr. Strache resigned from his Vice-Chancellorship, as well as his other political and party positions, and issued a public apology, and a couple of days after that, all remaining FPÖ ministers in the government were fired or resigned in protest. While Austrian authorities are still debating whether they can charge Mr. Strache for any criminal activities, the public’s response shows that, regardless of the legal ramifications, ordinary citizens view this behavior as corrupt.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing things about this affair is that if the parties had gone through with their plan, and the secret video had never been leaked, neither the authorities nor the public would likely have ever had any reason to suspect a complex corruption scheme behind it. To see this, suppose for the moment that the scheme went ahead as planned. Would anyone have caught on? The answer is likely no: Continue reading

Let Them Speak: Why Brazilian Courts Were Wrong to Bar Press Interviews with an Incarcerated Ex-President

In July 2017, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) was convicted on corruption and money laundering charges. His appeal was denied in January 2018, and he started serving his sentence in April 2018. Although Lula was in jail, his party (the Workers Party, or PT) attempted to nominate him as its candidate for the October 2018 presidential elections. But pursuant to Brazil’s Clean Records Act (which Lula himself signed into law when he was President), individuals whose convictions have been affirmed on appeal cannot run for elective offices. Though Lula and his defenders argued that he should be allowed to run anyway, his candidacy application was denied; ultimately, as most readers of this blog are likely aware, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro defeated the PT’s alterative candidate, Fernando Haddad, in last October’s election.

Perhaps less well known, at least outside of Brazil, is the fact that in the run-up to the election, Lula received several invitations from the press to give interviews. Although there is no clear rule on whether prisoners are allowed to give interviews in Brazil, past practice has been to allow the press to reach out those in jail under the authorization of the prison management. After the prison denied several requests by media organizations to interview Lula, those media outlets turned to the courts, asking for the right to interview Lula. The courts said no. The Brazilian Supreme Court, in an order by Supreme Court Justice Luis Fux, issued a preliminary injunction blocking the interviews stating (in a free translation from Portuguese): Continue reading

What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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More on the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, and the Relationship Between Media/Civil Society Freedom and Corruption

The rest of the anticorruption commentariat (and the mainstream media) may have already moved on from the publication of Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), but I wanted to follow up on my other posts from earlier this month (here and here) to discuss one other aspect of the new CPI. The general overview, press release, and other supporting materials that accompanied the latest CPI stress as their main theme the importance of a free press and a robust, independent civil society in the fight against corruption. As TI states succinctly in the overview page for the 2017 CPI, “[A]nalysis of the [CPI] results indicates that countries with the least protection for press and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also tend to have the worst rates of corruption.” And from this observation, TI argues that in order to make progress in the fight against corruption, governments should “do more to encourage free speech, independent media, political dissent and an open an engaged civil society,” and should “minimize regulations on media … and ensure that journalists can work without fear of repression or violence.” (TI also suggests that international donors should consider press freedom relevant to development aid or access to international organizations, a provocative suggestion that deserves fuller exploration elsewhere.)

Speaking in broad terms, I agree with TI’s position, and I’m heartened to see TI making an effort to use the publicity associated with the release of the CPI to push for concrete improvements on a particular area of importance, rather than simply stressing the bad effects of corruption (such as the alleged adverse impacts on inequality and poverty), or devoting undue attention to (statistically meaningless) movements in country scores from previous years. Whether TI succeeded in leveraging the CPI’s publicity into more attention to the freedom of the media and civil society is another story, but the effort is commendable.

That said, I spent a bit of time digging into the supporting research documents that TI provided on this issue, and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of finding the proffered evidentiary basis for the link between a free press/civil society and progress in the fight against corruption problematic, to put it mildly—even though my own reading of the larger academic literature on the topic makes me think the ultimate conclusion is likely correct, at least in broad terms. That latter fact, coupled with my recognition that the materials I’m evaluating are advocacy documents rather than academic research papers, makes me reluctant to criticize too harshly. Nonetheless, on the logic that it’s important to hold even our friends and allies accountable, and that in the long term promoting more careful and rigorous analysis will produce both more suitable policy prescriptions and better advocacy, I’m going to lay out my main difficulties with TI’s data analysis on the press freedom-corruption connection: Continue reading

New York State of Corruption: An Opportunity for Reform Amidst a Year of Reckoning

What do Joseph Percoco, George Maziarz, Edward Mangano, Sheldon Silver, Alain Kaloyeros, and Dean Skelos all have in common? Each of these New York public officials will go to trial on corruption charges over the next six months. The slew of trials kicks off today with the trial of Joseph Percoco, a former advisor to Governor Cuomo who is accused of taking over $300,000 from companies in a pay-to-play scheme for influence in the Cuomo administration. Next up, on February 5, George Maziarz goes to trial for filing false campaign expenditure reports in an attempt to conceal almost $100,000 in payments to a former Senate staff member who had quit amid sexual harassment allegations. March 12 brings the trial of Ed Mangano, the former Nassau County Executive charged with bribery, wire fraud, and extortion for receiving almost $500,000, free vacations, furniture, jewelry, home renovations, and other gifts as bribes and kickbacks. Sheldon Silver will be re-tried on April 16, after his conviction for obtaining nearly $4 million in bribes was vacated last year following the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States. In May, the former President of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Alain Kaloyeros will stand trial for the same bribery scheme that ensnared Mr. Percoco. And finally, on June 18, Dean Skelos will be re-tried after his conviction on bribery charges was, like Mr. Silver’s, overturned in light of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision.

These six trials—all involving high-profile public officials, bribery and extortion charges, high stakes, and large sums of money—will receive considerable amounts of attention from the media and public, and will certainly provide much fodder for blogs like this one. While every month from January to June will bring a trial with its own drama and complexities, we can step back at the outset and consider what these trials collectively mean for corruption and ethics reform in New York. The trials will undeniably shake the public’s trust in public officials. Will these trials fuel cynicism that makes New Yorkers less likely to participate in the political process—or might these trials instead spark optimism that creates the political momentum for ethics reform?

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Lessons from the “Isolated Capital” Effect for the Fight Against Public Corruption

As numerous commentators have written on this blog and elsewhere, the New York state legislature suffers from a serious corruption problem (see, for example, here and here), with six corruption convictions of government leaders in eleven years, and suspicions that the rot runs much deeper. Would things be any better if New York’s capital were in New York City rather than in Albany? While it’s impossible to say for sure, research suggests—perhaps surprisingly—that the answer might be yes. In an influential paper, Filipe Campante and Qhoc-Anh Do found that, on average, corruption (as measured by federal corruption-related crime convictions per capita) is higher in states where the state capital is more “isolated”—that is, farther from the state’s major population centers. (States with relatively isolated capitals include not just New York (Albany), but also Illinois (Springfield), South Carolina (Columbia), Nevada (Carson City), and Florida (Tallahassee), among others.)

Of course, states are very unlikely to relocate their capitals, but understanding the likely mechanisms that explain Campante and Do’s surprising finding may help us better understand the sorts of policy levers that might help reduce corruption in state government. So why might it be the case that states with more isolated capital cities might have more corruption? Continue reading