How We Did It: the U.S. Congress’ Exposure of the Grand Scale of Global Corruption

 Over the past two decades the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has laid bare how Gabonese President Omar Bongo, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang, and a gaggle of friends and relatives of the leaders of Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria, Angola, Saudi Arabia, and other countries conspired with large, prestigious banks to hide the enormous sums they stole from their nation’s citizens.  Financial Exposure, the new book by subcommittee investigator and later staff director Elise Bean, recounts how Democrats and Republicans united not only to document egregious cases of grand corruption but to enact legislation making banks’ complicity in future cases a crime.

Americans depressed by the rancorous polarization now gripping Congress will find her book a welcome reminder that Democrats and Republicans can work together to advance the public interest.  Scandals involving money laundering by banks in other nations, most recently Denmark’s Danske Bank and Latvian bank ABLV, should prompt non-Americans to send their parliamentarians a copy of Ms Bean’s book.  Below Ms. Bean offers a few morsels from the book to whet readers’ appetites.    

There isn’t room here to recount all the subcommittee’s anti-corruption investigations, but a few examples will illustrate what they showed and what results they produced.

Citibank Private Bank.  Corruption was the subject of a key investigation by the subcommittee in 1999, which was led by then subcommittee chair Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Rumors were flying then that the United States had become the preferred banker for corrupt foreign officials around the world. Working with Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan (my boss), the subcommittee elected to zero in on so-called “private banks,” banking units that opened accounts only for wealthy individuals with at least $1 million in deposits.

The inquiry ended up detailing four accountholders at Citibank Private Bank: Raul Salinas, brother to the then president of Mexico; Omar Bongo, then president of Gabon; Asif Ali Zardari, then known for his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan; and the sons of Sani Abacha, recently deceased president of Nigeria.  Senate hearings exposed how Citibank had not only accepted tens of millions of suspect dollars from the accountholders, but also created offshore shell companies to hide their identities, helped them secretly move millions of dollars around the globe, and continued servicing them even after learning of corruption allegations. Continue reading

Guest Post: After the Tsunami–Mexico’s Anticorruption Outlook Under Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Today’s guest post is from Bonnie J. Palifka, Associate Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM), and Luis A. Garcia, a partner at Villarreal-VGF specializing in corporate compliance and anticorruption matters:

The results of Mexico’s federal elections last July have been described as a “tsunami” for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his National Regeneration Movement, known by its Spanish acronym “Morena.” AMLO won 53% of the popular vote and Morena swept the House and Senate, as well as a majority of the nine state governorships up for grabs and several local legislatures. This is all the more remarkable considering that Morena was founded as a civil society organization in 2011 (and registered as a political party in 2014), and was fighting for control of Mexico’s political left against AMLO’s former party, the PRD. Many are hopeful that AMLO will lead a transformation of Mexico into a modern, peaceful, fair, and prosperous society like Chile or Uruguay, while others fear that he will take the country down the route of Venezuela. That the same person can engender such different reactions is due in part to the vagueness and inconsistency of AMLO’s rhetoric throughout the campaign: sometimes he would take a highly confrontational and uncompromising attitude toward Mexico’s political and economic elite—what he termed the “mafia of power”—while at other times he would strike a more conciliatory tone. But one consistent theme in AMLO’s rhetoric—and in the analysis of the data on the reasons for Morena’s electoral triumph—was profound indignation at the blatant corruption and impunity of Mexico’s political and business elites.

Mexican voters’ frustration with corruption is understandable. Although in recent decades Mexico has undertaken a number of anticorruption measures—including, under former President Vicente Fox, a new freedom of information law, and, under current President Enrique Peña Nieto, a new National Anticorruption System (SNA), which, among other things, updates national and state laws to criminalize more acts, reduce immunities, and increase punishments—these measures have been insufficient, as reflected in Mexico’s increasingly poor showing on the Corruption Perceptions Index. AMLO identified corruption as Mexico’s most pressing problem and promised to bring about an honest and transparent regime that would be truly responsive to the country’s needs. And, in an encouraging sign, AMLO has brought in a diverse group of highly respected experts and activists, from all sides of the political spectrum, and has appeared flexible and open to dialogue. At the same time, though, he has displayed a puzzling blind spot for potential conflicts of interest, and his optimistic rhetoric has suffered from a lack of specificity, coherence, and concrete proposals. Continue reading

Will Mexico’s New President End Procurement Corruption?


Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged Sunday in his victory speech night to eradicate corruption and to hold his friends and supporters accountable.  The Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (IMCO) has an easy way citizens can see whether he keeps his promise.

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Adjusting Corruption Perception Index Scores for National Wealth

My post two weeks ago discussed Transparency International’s newly-released 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), focusing in particular on an old hobby-horse of mine: the hazards of trying to draw substantive conclusions from year-to-year changes in any individual country’s CPI score. Today I want to continue to discuss the 2017 CPI, with attention to a different issue: the relationship between a country’s wealth and its CPI score. It’s no secret that these variables are highly correlated. Indeed, per capita GDP remains the single strongest predictor of a country’s perceived corruption level, leading some critics to suggest that the CPI doesn’t really measure perceived corruption so much as it measures wealth—penalizing poor countries by portraying them as more corrupt, when in fact their corruption may be due more to their poverty than to deficiencies in their cultures, policies, and institutions.

This criticism isn’t entirely fair. Per capita income is a strong predictor of CPI scores, but they’re far from perfectly correlated. Furthermore, even if it’s true that worse (perceived) corruption is in large measure a product of worse economic conditions, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem with the CPI as such, any more than a measure of infant mortality is flawed because it is highly correlated with per capita income. (And of course because corruption may worsen economic outcomes, the correlation between wealth and CPI scores may be a partial reflection of corruption’s impact, though I doubt there are many who think that this relationship is so strong that the causal arrow runs predominantly from corruption to national wealth rather than from national wealth to perceived corruption.)

Yet the critics do have a point: When we look at the CPI results table, we see a lot of very rich countries clustered at the top, and a lot of very poor countries clustered at the bottom. That’s fine for some purposes, but we might also be interested in seeing which countries have notably higher or lower levels of perceived corruption than we would expect, given their per capita incomes. As a crude first cut at looking into this, I merged the 2017 CPI data table with data from the World Bank on 2016 purchasing-power-adjusted per capita GDP. After dropping the countries that appeared in one dataset but not the other, I had a 167 countries. I then ran a simple regression using CPI as the outcome variable and the natural log of per capita GDP as the sole explanatory variable. (I used the natural log partly to reduce the influence of extreme income outliers, and partly on the logic that the impact of GDP on perceived corruption likely declines at very high levels of income. But I admit it’s something of an arbitrary choice and I encourage others who are interested to play around with the data using alternative functional forms and specifications.)

This single variable, ln per capita GDP, explained about half of the total variance in the data (for stats nerds, the R2 value was about 0.51), meaning that while ln per capita GDP is a very powerful explanatory variable, there’s a lot of variation in the CPI that it doesn’t explain. The more interesting question, to my mind, concerns the countries that notably outperform or underperform the CPI score that one would predict given national wealth. To look into this, I simply ranked the 167 countries in my data by the size of the residuals from the simple regression described above. Here are some of the things that I found: Continue reading

Guest Post: Using Open Data To Combat Corruption—Moving Beyond the Hype

Robert Palmer, the Director of Partnerships and Communication at the Open Data Charter, contributes today’s guest post:

In order to tackle corruption effectively, one first needs to understand the networks that link government officials, businesses, and professional intermediaries, and then work to either dismantle these networks or at least ensure that these webs of connections are not exploited to enrich individuals and undermine good government. Fortunately, these clandestine networks often leave traces in government-held databases, such as company registers, land title deeds, asset disclosures, and other official records. That’s where open data can be helpful. When the government provides easily accessible public information, it makes it easier for government officials, journalists, and citizens to follow financial flows, understand who’s providing government services, and to spot suspect behavior. And that’s why there has been so much enthusiasm about the open data in the anticorruption community. In 2015, for example, the G20 anticorruption working group announced a common approach saying that “Open Data can help prevent, detect, investigate and reduce corruption.”

Yet what’s happening on the ground isn’t living up to this hype. Part of the reason is that, as the Web Foundation and Transparency International found in a recent study of five G20 countries, many countries have made only limited progress toward meeting international commitments on open data. But even where open data is available, relatively few organizations are actually using open data to expose and combat corruption. There are, of course, exceptions, including Global Witness, the data journalists at Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting project, and accountability groups such as BudgIT. Yet the potential for open data to help fight corruption remains largely unrealized.

To help address this shortcoming, the Open Data Charter has spent the last year pulling together a guide for how to use open data to combat corruption. The guide lists 30 types of datasets that could help expose and combat corruption if they are released in the right way, as well as key data standards to ensure consistency and quality between different countries. Of course, the underlying assumptions here are that the types of data listed in the guide can be collected and released by governments in the ways the guide advises, and that there are anticorruption actors who can process this data in ways that are helpful in exposing or preventing corruption. In order to probe these assumptions, the Open Data Charter has teamed up with the Government of Mexico to “road-test” the guide. This will include working out which of the 30 datasets in our guide the government already publishes, which further ones can be released, and how to engage potential users. We’re interested in understanding how if data is released in the right way, users such as journalists, law enforcement, and civil society can process the data and then use it to have an impact on corruption.

Our approach to this piece of work is guided by a real desire to learn what works: what’s helpful to the government and what’s helpful to external stakeholders who want to tackle corruption. We hope to be able to report on our initial findings over August. If you’re interested in learning more, please get in touch with me: robert [at] In the spirit of transparency and collaboration, the guide itself is open to comment here.

Why the Repeal of the U.S. Publish-What-You-Pay Rule Is a Major Setback for Combating Corruption in the Extractive Sector

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

Last Friday, following the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate voted to repeal a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulation that required oil, gas, and minerals companies to make public (on interactive websites) their payments to foreign governments, including taxes, royalties, and “other” payments. The rule was mandated by Section 1504 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, but had only been finalized last year. President Trump’s expected signature of the congressional resolution repealing the rule will represent a major blow to anticorruption efforts, and a demonstration of just how little corruption matters to his administration and to Congressional Republicans.

The extractive industry had lobbied against this rule, arguing that having to report such payments is costly to firms and puts them at an international disadvantage. Some commentators have supported their efforts, arguing, for example, that the Section 1504 rules are unnecessary because the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) already prohibits firms under SEC jurisdiction—including extractive industry firms—from paying bribes abroad. This argument misses the mark: The extractive sector poses especially acute and distinctive corruption risks, which the FCPA alone is unlikely to remedy if not accompanied by greater transparency. Continue reading

Guest Post: Living in a Kleptocracy–What to Expect Under President Trump

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

The news regarding President Donald Trump appointments and nominations, and the increase in foreign governments’ business at Trump properties, has caused considerable concern regarding possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption. Many are worried about what this means—if President Trump’s tendencies toward crony capitalism, or quasi-kleptocracy, are as serious as his critics fear, what can we expect will happen over the next four or eight years?

While grand corruption among the political elite may be new for US citizens, this challenge is all too familiar in many other parts of the world. As a long-time resident of Mexico and corruption scholar, I have some insight regarding life in a relatively corrupt environment, which might be relevant to what the US is about to face: Continue reading