America’s Pursuit of Absolute Integrity

Attempts to control corruption have a long history in the United States.  Since the late 19th century numerous laws have been enacted at the federal, state, and local level to end patronage and nepotism in government employment, control conflicts of interest by public servants, and reduce opportunities for bribery and kick-backs.  Although the current corruption landscape differs from that of 20th century America, policymakers considering anticorruption legislation today can profit from a look at the U.S. experience.

A useful, if sobering, place to start is with Professors Frank Anechiarico and James B. Jacobs’ 1997 analysis based on New York City’s century long effort to combat corruption supplemented by the federal government’s more recent experience with ethics laws.  Useful because the authors analyze many of the same interventions now commonly advocated to combat corruption around the globe: conflict of interest legislation, financial disclosure requirements for public servants, whistleblower protection, the creation of inspectors general, the reduction of officials’ discretion.  Sobering, not only because they conclude these reforms have done little to combat corruption, but also because the authors contend that together these laws have contributed to the current dysfunctional state of American government.  In short, they say, America’s effort to suppress corruption has produced little benefit at great cost.

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Income and Asset Disclosure Statements: No Anticorruption Magic Bullet

For the second time in the space of a couple of months I find myself explaining to the leaders of an anticorruption agency that a program requiring senior officials to disclose their income, assets, and other details of their personal finances won’t end corruption or, for that matter, cure the common cold or otherwise solve all their nation’s ills.  There seems to be some kind of myth floating around the development community and at least some self-anointed anticorruption “experts” that such a program can by itself lead to the exposure of a great deal, if not all, of corrupt activity.

If only it were that easy.  The truth is the evidence points in virtually the opposite direction. Continue reading

Bright Line Rules: A Way to Reduce Politicized Enforcement?

Yesterday Matthew discussed the wisdom of the Thai anticorruption agency’s recommendation that Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra be charged with failing to prevent corruptionThe case would be brought under Article 157 of the Thai Criminal Code, a broadly worded law providing that a public official commits a crime if someone is injured as a result of the official’s failure to exercise his or her duties.

Statutes with such a broad sweep are a standard response to corruption in many countries, enacted out of a fear that a clever criminal can find a way around tightly drawn provisions of law.  Indeed, countries as diverse as Tanzania, South Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam have all enacted broadly drawn laws that criminalize the “abuse of public office for private gain.”  However, such laws vest enormous discretion in the hands of law enforcement.  A critical–and often overlooked issue–is whether law enforcers should enjoy such discretion. Continue reading

Personal Financial Disclosure by Chinese Officials: Will China Finally Get Serious?

Matthew noted yesterday how continuing revelations of the vast wealth some Chinese officials have accumulated put China’s leaders in a bind.  If they don’t curb corruption, they risk undermining their legitimacy; on the other side, so many senior individuals are involved that a serious crackdown could ignite a power struggle.

An important gauge of the direction the leadership will choose is how vigorously it enforces a directive issued in November 2013 requiring public servants to disclose details about their and their family members’ finances.  Requiring senior officials to reveal their personal finances can be a valuable tool in the battle against grand corruption, as one of China’s East Asian neighbors can testify.  In the Philippines, the Statement of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth officials must file has been central to exposing the corrupt dealings of a president and a chief justice as well as revealing a nest of corrupt tax collectors. Continue reading