Patronage Wars: The Philadelphia Parking Authority Edition

Patronage hiring is a widespread practice throughout the world. While patronage has its apologists, its tendency to facilitate corruption makes it an undesirable phenomenon that should be rooted out. Patronage isn’t just a problem in poor countries—it’s also alive and well in rich countries like the United States. The recent scandal at the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) is a case in point.

While the PPA may be famous across the country for its inspectors’ telegenic antics, in Philadelphia the PPA has long been known as a patronage mill dominated by Republicans. In December 2017, the Pennsylvania Auditor General released two separate reports blasting the PPA for closed hiring practices, inflated salaries, questionable spending and contracting, and pervasive sexual harassment. The reports place blame squarely on the former executive director, Vince Fenerty, Jr., who operated as an “unchecked tyrant.” Fenerty, who started out as a Republican ward leader, personally oversaw all hiring decisions at the PPA. Although the PPA has an HR department, no one ever checked up on applicants’ references or qualifications. In fact, Fenerty did not select applicants from the pool of those who submitted applications to the HR Department. As the Auditor General’s report put it, “the former Executive Director had other unknown means of obtaining applications.” He usually interviewed only one person per position.

The PPA’s utter ineffectiveness and shady practices meant that, between 2012 and 2017, $77.9 million was lost or uncollected. Revenue from the PPA goes to the chronically-underfunded School District of Philadelphia, meaning that Fenerty’s misbehavior also had a direct effect on Philadelphia schoolchildren, who missed out on the teachers, textbooks, and technology that $77.9 million could have funded.

How did things go so wrong for so long at the PPA, and what does this tell us about the problems with patronage hiring more generally? Continue reading

Can U.S. History Teach Us Anything Useful About the Fight Against Corruption in the Developing World Today?

A little while back I attended a very interesting talk by California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar about a paper of his, co-authored with the political scientists Margaret Levi and Barry Weingast, entitled “Conflict, Institutions, and Public Law: Reflections on Twentieth-Century America as a Developing Country.” It’s a short, provocative paper, well worth reading for a number of reasons, but what I really want to focus on here is less the substance of the paper itself than the broader theme, captured by the paper’s subtitle, that it may be valuable to think about the pre-World War II United States as not so different from modern developing countries. Most relevant for readers of this blog, it may be worth looking to U.S. history (and the history of other developed countries) to better understand the process by which endemic public corruption may be brought under control.

The Cuellar-Levi-Weingast paper itself touches on, but doesn’t really delve into, this issue. Nonetheless, it got me thinking about three features of the historical U.S. struggle against systemic corruption—a struggle that, while certainly not complete, does appear to have successfully transformed the United States from a system where corruption was the norm (with some happy exceptions) to one where integrity is the norm (with some unhappy exceptions). Importantly, each of these three observations casts doubt on prominent claims in the modern debate about fighting corruption in the developing world: 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

Can U.S. Efforts To Fight Vote Buying Offer Lessons for Others?

Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.

Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.

While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.

Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them: Continue reading

Why Hasn’t Jacob Zuma’s Latest Anti-Anticorruption Effort Succeeded Yet?

Any time South African President Jacob Zuma is involved in something, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that corruption will somehow be involved as well. That’s particularly true in relation to the tension between him and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. This tension has recently manifested itself through a fractious battle, often via proxies, over decades-old happenings in the South African Revenue Service (SARS), an institution of which Gordhan used to be the head.

The attack upon Gordhan is largely motivated by concerns that he has the power and willingness to cut off some of Zuma’s corrupt lines of patronage. So far, nothing new: Zuma has a history of going after anyone who he perceives as threatening the network of graft which he’s woven. What’s particularly noteworthy this time, though, is that he’s facing some difficulty getting Gordhan out of his way—and that difficulty might hint at some hope for anticorruption advocates.

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Order from the Court: Judiciaries as a Bulwark Against Legislative Corruption in Vanuatu

Imagine that one-third of the members of your national legislature were convicted of bribery, and then decided to pardon themselves, and you’ll only begin to appreciate the scope and oddity of Vanuatu’s current political drama.

On October 9, Vanuatu’s Supreme Court convicted 14 of the 33 members of the ni-Vanuatu Parliament of bribery. The politicians, who at the time of their unlawful conduct included the deputy prime minister and four other members of the cabinet, had last year accepted around US$9,000 each to support a vote of no confidence in the prime minister—that is, to kick him out of office. Though the prime minister discovered the scheme and suspended the participants, they successfully sued for an end to their suspension, and promptly followed through on their plan to eject the sitting government.  Now holding Parliament’s top-ranked positions themselves, the bribe-takers nevertheless fell under police investigation, and a trial against them began this September.

After the bribe-takers were convicted but before they were sentenced, the president, who was not a member of their coalition, took a trip abroad. Under Vanuatu’s constitution, that left the Parliament speaker in charge. The problem? That Parliament speaker was one of the people convicted of bribery—and he promptly decided to use his temporary power to suspend the Ombudsman (the officer charged with investigating corruption) and pardon himself and his co-conspirators. The president quickly returned to Vanuatu and revoked the pardons, but it’s not clear that he had the legal authority to do so. With the Court of Appeals having recently rejected the appeals of the members of Parliament (MPs), the MPs are now kicked out of the legislature, and new elections may have to be held.

As idiosyncratic as this story may seem, it still speaks to some deeper truths about the problem of corruption in the Pacific Islands—and may yet resolve itself in a way that provides some clues about effective ways to fight it. So, what went wrong in Vanuatu, and what can still go right?

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Would the US Really Benefit from More Corruption? A Comment on Rauch

Jonathan Rauch’s recent Atlantic piece has a provocative title: “The Case for Corruption.”  Extending an argument about the unintended effects of international efforts to combat corruption to the domestic sphere, Rauch asserts that “in most political systems, the right amount of corruption is greater than zero. Leaders need to be able to reward followers and punish turncoats and free agents.”  According to Rauch, the U.S. political system used to give party leaders several tools to enforce discipline: pork-barrel spending, earmarks, campaign contributions, committee assignments, and endorsements.  The problem, he says, is that these mechanisms have become too weak–that we do not have enough of the “honest graft” famously celebrated by the Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt.

Rauch makes a valuable point that pork barrel spending (including earmarks), though unseemly, might serve a useful function in facilitating deals.  But does this mean that some amount of “corruption” can be good, as his title implies?  Maybe not–it depends on your definition of corruption, and Rauch is using a very expansive, and perhaps misleading one.  Rauch also urges us to change current regulations to empower party leaders, and is persuasive–to an extent.   Continue reading