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

Lights, Camera, Integrity? From “Naming and Shaming” to “Naming and Faming”

“Can a reality TV show discourage corruption?” This was the recent attention-grabbing headline of an article in The Economist about Integrity Idol, the brainchild of the NGO Accountability Labs. It was started in Nepal in 2014, and has since spread to Pakistan, Mali, Liberia, Nigeria, and South Africa.

The format of the show is simple. Citizens are asked to nominate civil servants whom they believe display the highest standards of honesty and integrity. These nominations are then reviewed by a panel of judges comprising local and international experts, who select five finalists. Videos are then produced, each around 2-5 minutes long, containing excerpts from an interview with the finalists and their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates, along with glimpses into their work lives. (See here and here for examples). These videos are disseminated among the citizenry via traditional and non-traditional media. Citizens vote for their favorite, and the “Integrity Idol” is crowned.

This isn’t the first time a non-traditional cultural medium has been used to spread an anticorruption message. Other approaches, including museums, TV dramas, music, and poetry  have been discussed on this blog previously (see here, here, here and here). Thanks to Integrity Idol, reality TV can be added to the list. That might seem a bit surprising. Reality TV has a (deserved) reputation for depicting an over-dramatized, intentionally provocative, and often manipulated caricature of real life. One hopes that no one would cite Real Housewives of New York as a reliable source for understanding the lives of real housewives in New York! Integrity Idol is different: it is an intentional effort to draw attention to real stories of real people, and often the unaltered stories of these people are compelling in and of themselves. The vision of Accountability Labs and its founding director, Blair Glencorse, is to “support change-makers to develop and implement positive ideas for integrity in their communities, unleashing positive social and economic change.” Continue reading

Guest Post: Pakistan’s Culture of Corruption

Zagham H. Chaudry, a student at Temple Law School, contributes today’s guest post:

Pakistan is the world’s fifth-most populous country, a regional power in a strategic location with a powerful military, and nuclear weapons. Yet Pakistan is far from reaching its full potential, and corruption is a main reason for that. Corruption in Pakistan is well-known and well-documented, and extends from the top (the Prime Minister) all the way down to the bottom (the local bazaar). Talk to random Pakistanis on the street and chances are they’ll tell you how corruption has affected them—how they couldn’t get jobs in the police or be admitted into good universities because they refused to pay bribes. Corruption has become part of the culture in Pakistan. It has become engrained in the beliefs, attitudes, and customs of the Pakistani people.

The corrupt (often wealthy and often politicians) in Pakistan have used their political influence to manipulate the laws, policies, and rules of procedure of the country to sustain their power, status, and wealth, causing serious and extensive harm to Pakistani society which has mostly gone unpunished. This sort of corruption eats away at state institutions like termites eat wood. Additionally, according to Transparency International, there is a “[strong] connection between corruption and inequality, which feed off each other to create a vicious circle between corruption, unequal distribution of power in society, and unequal distribution of wealth.” One has to look no further than the lifestyle of the corrupt ruling class in Pakistan as compared to the rest of the country to see the connection between corruption and inequality. The corrupt live in expensive bungalows in gated communities, drive fancy cars, have dozens of servants and security, and live luxurious lives—while four out of ten Pakistanis continue to live in poverty.

In a society where so few have so much and so many have so little, and where politically-motivated hiring, patronage, and nepotism reign supreme, you end up with a situation where becoming part of the corrupt system seems to be the only way out of poverty for millions of disadvantaged and deprived people. And in this way, subcultures of corruption begin to take root in the lower levels of society which all conform to the overall culture of corruption on the highest levels (e.g. federal and provincial governments). Consider the following stylized example, which despite its simplicity accurately captures how business often gets done in Pakistan: Continue reading

The 2016 CPI and the Value of Corruption Perceptions

Last month, Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). As usual, the release of the CPI has generated widespread discussion and analysis. Previous GAB posts have discussed many of the benefits and challenges of the CPI, with particular attention to the validity of the measurement and the flagrant misreporting of its results. The release of this year’s CPI, and all the media attention it has received, provides an occasion to revisit important questions about how the CPI should and should not be used by researchers, policymakers, and others.

As past posts have discussed, it’s a mistake to focus on the change in each country’s CPI score from the previous year. These changes are often due to changes in the sources used to calculate the score, and most of these changes are not statistically meaningful. As a quick check, I compared the confidence intervals for the 2015 and 2016 CPIs and found that, for each country included in both years, the confidence intervals overlap. (While this doesn’t rule out the possibility of statistically significant changes for some countries, it suggests that a more rigorous statistical test is required to see if the changes are meaningful.) Moreover, even though a few changes each year usually pass the conventional thresholds for statistical significance, with 176 countries in the data, we should expect some of them to exhibit statistical significance, even if in fact all changes are driven by random error. Nevertheless, international newspapers have already begun analyses that compare annual rankings, with headlines such as “Pakistan’s score improves on Corruption Perception Index 2016” from The News International, and “Demonetisation effect? Corruption index ranking improves but a long way to go” from the Hidustan Times. Alas, Transparency International sometimes seems to encourage this style of reporting, both by showing the CPI annual results in a table, and with language such as “more countries declined than improved in this year’s results.” After all, “no change” is no headline.

Although certain uses of the CPI are inappropriate, such as comparing each country’s movement from one year to the next, this does not mean that the CPI is not useful. Indeed, some critics have the unfortunate tendency to dismiss the CPI out of hand, often emphasizing that corruption perceptions are not the same as corruption reality. That is certainly true—TI goes out of its way to emphasize this point with each release of a new CPI— but there are at least two reasons why measuring corruption perceptions is valuable: Continue reading