In Mexico, Justice Will Remain a Family Matter

Judicial corruption in Mexico is a pervasive problem. And while high-level scandals tend to grab the headlines (see, for example, here, here, and here), much of the corruption is more pedestrian. While the causes of Mexico’s judicial corruption problem are various and complex, one persistent contributing factor is the endemic nepotism throughout the judiciary.

Of the more than 50 types of position in the judicial branch (including both judgeships and various administrative positions), only two—federal circuit and district court judgeships—use a competitive merit-based hiring process. For the rest, judges can choose whom they please, with little oversight. Moreover, once hired, these individuals have an insurmountable advantage in promotion in the judiciary, given that most job postings (and, informally, judgeships) require that the candidate have previous experience in the judicial branch. And even with respect to circuit and district judgeships, which are supposed to be filled through an open and merit-based competitive selection process run by a body called the Federal Judicial Council (CJF), in practice the CJF often creates “special” vacancies with different criteria (in effect, lower standards).

As a result of all this, nepotism in judicial hiring and promotion is pervasive, as judges are able to secure positions for friends and family. At least 51% of Mexico’s judges and magistrates are related to someone else working in the judiciary, with that number as high as 80% in some states. (To take one particularly egregious but not totally anomalous example, in one judge’s chambers, 17 employees were related to the judge.) This nepotism is not only corrupt in itself, but it also contributes to other forms of corruption. For one thing, corrupt judges can appoint those who will participate in, or at least be complicit in, corrupt practices—in some cases appointing individuals recommended by organized crime groups. But even when such deliberate wrongdoing is not the issue, untrained or unprofessional judicial bureaucrats and judges are more susceptible to corruption, and more likely to create the kinds of delays and inefficiencies in the system that both invite and obscure corrupt actions.

There hadn’t been much appetite in the Mexican Government to address the judicial nepotism problem until reform-minded President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Chief Justice Arturo Zaldívar took office. Since February 2020, both men have been enthusiastically lobbying for a judicial reform package deemed the most ambitious since 1994. This bill, overwhelmingly passed by the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies in recent months, is a behemoth, with a variety of significant structural changes to the judicial branch. Among these many reforms are several measures designed, at least in part, to address the problem of judicial nepotism: Continue reading

Anticorruption Tools in the Anti-Trump Toolkit: A Primer

[Kaitlin Beach provided helpful research and thoughtful contributions to this post.]

Since Donald Trump’s election, critics have asserted that his presidency presents unprecedented risks of corruption, cronyism, and conflict of interest. Many argue that President Trump and members of his administration are already engaging in conduct that is not only unethical, but also illegal. Because it can be hard for non-specialists to keep track of the myriad rules that have been referenced in the context, this post provides a brief, non-technical overview of the most important federal laws and regulations that are designed to prevent corruption, conflict-of-interest, and self-dealing in the U.S. government, focusing on those that have been most widely or most creatively discussed in relation to fighting a purportedly corrupt Trump administration.

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It’s Official: Hiring a Foreign Official’s Relative in Exchange for Business Violates the FCPA

The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prohibits the entities it covers from corruptly offering “anything of value” to a foreign official for the purposes of obtaining or retaining business. In most cases, the “thing of value” offered is a traditional bribe—money, expensive gifts, lavish vacations, etc. But in some cases, firms do “favors” for foreign officials that are less direct, and do not conform quite so obviously to traditional notion of bribery. Making a generous donations to the official’s favorite charity is one example; another, which has become increasingly prominent in recent FCPA investigations—primarily in cases involving China—is preferential hiring of the relatives of the foreign officials in exchange for business opportunities. This issue got a lot of press particularly in connection with the SEC’s investigation of hiring practices at JP Morgan and other investment banks in China, but the issue is more pervasive.

These investigations raised an interesting legal question: Can providing a job or internship to the adult relative of a foreign official ever count as providing “anything of value” to the official him- or herself? To my mind, the answer is a clear yes, but not everyone agrees. Last year, Professor Andy Spalding and I engaged in a spirited and constructive debate on this question (see here, here, here, and here)—and though I think in the end our positions (mostly) converged, there was perhaps still some lingering doubt (though not in my mind) as to whether the U.S. government would or should adopt the view that offering a bribe to an official’s relative can count as offering something of value to the official.

That doubt has been laid to rest. In the BNY Mellon settlement from last August, the settlement document explicitly endorsed the view that the firm’s decision to provide internships to foreign officials’ relatives counted as providing “anything of value,” because “[t]he internships were valuable work experience, and the requesting family members derived significant personal value in being able to confer this benefit on their family members.” And last week, the SEC announced a settlement with Qualcomm regarding investigations into Qualcomm’s alleged FCPA violations in China; although the violations included more traditional bribes (such as lavish gifts, travel, and entertainment), the settlement focuses substantially on Qualcomm’s practice of hiring the relatives of Chinese officials (and executives at state-owned enterprises, who count as foreign officials for FCPA purposes) in exchange for favorable treatment—even when these candidates would not meet Qualcomm’s normal hiring standards.

As GAB readers know, I think that this view is legally correct, good policy, and entirely consistent with the DOJ and SEC’s past statements on this issue, including the FCPA Resource Guide (which admittedly doesn’t discuss this specific scenario explicitly). The recent settlements in BNY Mellon and Qualcomm do not, of course, have any bearing on whether I’m correct in those views. But insofar as there might have been any uncertainty about the U.S. government’s position, it has been eliminated. This is likely bad news for J.P. Morgan, but good news for the world. Why do I think it’s good news for the world? Three main reasons: Continue reading