Even “Tough on Corruption” Proponents Should Worry about “Zero Tolerance” Rules

“Zero tolerance for corruption,” as Professor Stephenson suggested in a 2014 post, is an expression that can be construed in several different ways: from a general attitude that corruption should be considered “a high priority,” to an uncompromising policy mandating that “all feasible measures to minimize corruption must always be used.” In this post I will discuss another common, narrower understanding of “zero tolerance for corruption,” according to which corruption – at least in certain contexts – must always be addressed with a mandatory predetermined harsh sanction. A clear example of such a “zero tolerance” rule is the Colombian and Peruvian law demanding the instant termination of “any public contract tainted by corruption.” Another illustrative example is the EU’s directive mandating debarment from public contracting of any company convicted of offenses of corruption, fraud, or money laundering.

Granted, the potential deterrent value of mandatory harsh sanctions for corruption is substantial. A company aware that any conviction for corruption will inevitably incur severe penalties is more likely to be dissuaded from violating the law. Nevertheless, the costs of this “take no prisoners” approach to anticorruption may be much higher than the actual benefit. Thus, as Rick Messick recently showed, the law mandating termination of corruption-tainted public contracts has proven to have disastrous ramifications for the infrastructure in Peru and Colombia. As it turns out, not only has the nondiscretionary cancellation of corruption-tainted public contracts halted the advancement of existing infrastructure projects, but it has also deterred investors and developers from taking any part in such projects, for fear that they will be cancelled due to “the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.” Similarly, debarment is nothing less than “a death-sentence” for companies whose main business involves public contracts, and its mandatory imposition for even a relatively minor offense may be so draconian as to be counterproductive.

This kind of cost-benefit reasoning, though compelling to some, would not convince many proponents of an unequivocally “tough on corruption” stance. Many anticorruption hardliners believe in maximizing deterrence notwithstanding any associated costs. From this point of view, the end of deterring corruption justifies all necessary means. Yet even for those who take this view, it turns out that “zero tolerance” may not be the ideal approach. Supporters of “zero tolerance” rules assume that adoption of mandatory sanctions for corruption would guarantee that actors in the anticorruption system – judges, prosecutors, and legislators – will adhere to the “zero tolerance” ideal, and that such rules would be sustainable. But these decisionmakers in the anticorruption system may evade the application of “zero tolerance” rules where doing so would lead to sanctions perceived (rightly or wrongly) as patently absurd or unjust. In other words, a “zero tolerance” rule on the books does not guarantee that a “zero tolerance” policy would actually be implemented. Consider the various ways that actors in the anticorruption system may avoid triggering the mandatory sanctions for corruption:

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The Dark Side of Righteous Anger: Talking about Corruption After Alan García’s Suicide

Two weeks ago, former Peruvian President Alan García shot himself when authorities came to arrest him on corruption charges. Garcia’s suicide provoked a diverse range of reactions. Among these, one of the most disturbing was a vulgar tweet from Major Olimpio, a right-wing Brazilian politician who tweeted: “The ex-President of Peru committed suicide upon being arrested. Hopefully this trend catches on here in Brazil. It would big a big savings for the country.” Olimpio, of course, is referring to the dozens of politicians in Brazil implicated in the Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal.

Olimpio’s tweet taps into the white-hot anger and resentment that continues to sweep across Latin America in response to the revelations of high-level corruption throughout the region. That anger is understandable. Investigations growing out of the Lava Jato operation—particularly those involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying more than $800 million in bribes across 11 countries in Latin America—have exposed pervasive corruption reaching the highest levels of government. Ten former Latin American presidents (including García) have been or are currently being investigated for corruption, along with dozens of other high level officials in multiple countries, and possibly hundreds of rank-and-file officers who were a part of these schemes. But while popular fury over corruption is justified, it should never be okay to mock suicide or make implicit death threats. And while Olimpio’s tweet about García is a particularly extreme case, this sort of hostile, callous, violent rhetoric is becoming disturbingly common in the public dialogue about corruption and its perpetrators in Latin America. For example, the current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his son both tweeted menacing threats to Bolsonaro’s opponent, Fernando Haddad, during the campaign saying that he was “nursing on the teat of corrupt politicians in jail” because he had visited a jailed politician, and that it was “good that he already knew what it was like to go to prison.” Since Brazil is still a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, and Haddad himself had not even been accused with corruption offenses (though several of his political allies had been), these comments were deeply disturbing.

This needs to stop. The anger over corruption is understandable, and to a certain degree a healthy development, given that for so long grudging or cynical resignation was the norm. But rather than channel this anger into violent threats, everyone—especially those in positions of power—needs to temper their anger with more civility. There is a wrong way and a right way to talk about corruption. Crude violent rhetoric is the wrong way.

So what’s the right way? Let me suggest two more appropriate ways to harness the fury over corruption and channel it in a more productive direction.

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The Consequences of Zero Tolerance

The chart above shows what happens when policy is based on a slogan. In this case “Zero Tolerance.” Procurement rules in both Peru and Colombia require that any public contract tainted by corruption be terminated immediately. As the Brazilian investigation into construction giant Odebrecht unfolded, it became clear that many projects to build highways, power plants, and other infrastructure projects in the two countries had been corruptly awarded.  Authorities in both countries then did what the law told them they must: cancel the contracts.

Most large infrastructure contracts in Peru and Colombia are in the form of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), and the immediate termination of a PPP can be enormously costly.  Not only to the firms that paid bribes to secure the contract, but to lenders, suppliers, and the hundreds of other contractors on the project who had no knowledge or involvement in the bribery scheme.  The greatest costs are likely be felt by the citizens of Colombia and Peru.  For as the chart shows, the consequence of zero tolerance is a halt to new spending for roads, power, and other essential facilities as investors and project developers shy away from the risk future contracts will be terminated for the tiniest of infractions by anyone associated with the project.   

Colombians and Peruvians may today be proud their governments are so tough on corruption neither one will tolerate a speck of it in any contract for infrastructure.  Tomorrow citizens of the two countries may have a different view: when power shortages mean the lights won’t come on and the failure to build new roads and maintain old ones produces horrendous traffic jams.  

Last week the World Bank hosted a presentation by Inter-American Development Bank staff where the issue of why “zero tolerance” is a good slogan but a bad policy was examined and means for addressing infrastructure corruption without producing the results shown in the chart was discussed.  A paper the IDB presenters recently published, the source of the figure above and the basis of their presentation, is here.   A video of the session here.  

Putting Anticorruption Up for a Vote: The Challenge of Designing Effective National Referendums

One of the biggest challenges in the fight against corruption is getting people in power to reform the very system from which they currently benefit. Over the past year, we have seen anticorruption advocates in Colombia and Peru attempt to bypass this hurdle using national popular referenda on anticorruption measures.

In Peru, the referendum on December 9, 2018 came on the heels of the massive Odebrecht scandal, which implicated all of Peru’s living former Presidents. Current President Vizcarra and his supporters originally proposed a referendum containing three anticorruption reforms: banning the immediate reelection of legislators and executives, reforming the system by which prosecutors and judges are appointed, and instituting new campaign finance regulations. The required legislative approval of the referendum took several months, and during this process the legislature added another proposal (not supported by President) to create a second legislative chamber. In the end, the three original reforms passed, and the proposed bicameral legislature failed after a successful “Yes, yes, yes, no” campaign by the President and his supporters.

Colombia’s referendum also came in response to the fallout from the Odebrecht scandal. On August 28, 2018, Colombia had a national referendum on seven anticorruption measures that aimed to improve transparency in governance, institute legislative term limits, and cut legislator pay. Six of the seven measures proposed in the referendum had previously failed in the lower house of the Colombian legislature, but 99% of voters approved all seven measures in the referendum. Though the total number of citizens voting fell just short of the quorum required for the referendum to be binding, President Duque convened an anticorruption roundtable and vowed to implement all seven measures by December 2018. The President proposed eight measures inspired by the referendum to the legislature, but momentum has stalled as legislators look to modify the proposals or avoid voting on them. With no clear deadline for if and when they will be passed, their fate is now uncertain.

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Colombian referendum was not without its faults, specifically with respect to the inclusion of counterproductive retributive measures. More generally, while a national referendum may seem like an ideal way to bypass conflicted legislators, a referendum poses serious three risks that need to be addressed if one hopes to use this lawmaking mechanism to combat corruption:

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Guest Post: What To Make of Latin America’s Wave of Anticorruption Prosecutions?

Today’s guest post is from Professor Manuel Balan of the McGill University Political Science Department:

There seems to be a surge in corruption prosecutions of current or former presidents throughout in Latin America (see, for example, here, here, and here). In the last year we have seen sitting or former presidents prosecuted for corruption in Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama. In Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned from the presidency amid corruption probes, and the last three former presidents are either facing trial or serving time for corruption. Argentina may soon join this list as a result of the so-called “Notebook Scandal,” which has triggered a fast-moving investigation that has already snared 11 businessmen and one public official, and is getting closer to former President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (Argentina’s former vice-president Amado Boudou was also sentenced to almost six years in prison for corruption in a separate case.) Indeed, it now seems that Latin American presidents are almost certain to be prosecuted for corruption at some point after leaving office, if not before. My colleagues and I have documented the growing trend of prosecution of former chief executives in the region since democratization in the 1980s: Out of all presidents who started their terms in the 1980s, 30% were prosecuted for corruption. Of those that entered office in the 1990s, 52% were or are being currently prosecuted for corruption. In the group of presidents that began their terms in the 2000s, 61% underwent prosecution for corruption. And, remarkably, 10 out of the 11 presidents elected since 2010 who have finished their mandates either have been or are currently being prosecuted for corruption.

The explanation for this trend is not entirely clear. It’s probably not that Latin American presidents have become more corrupt. Some have suggested that the uptick in corruption prosecutions is a reaction, by the more conservative legal establishment, against Latin America’s “Left Turn.” But the trend towards increased prosecution is hardly limited to the region’s self-identified leftist leaders; in fact, left and non-left leaders are nearly equally likely to be prosecuted for corruption. Part of the explanation might have something to do with changes in prosecutorial and judicial institutions, media, or public expectations—the reasons are still unclear, and likely vary from country to country. Whatever the explanation, is this trend something to celebrate? Some observers say yes, arguing that the anticorruption wave sweeping Latin America is the result of Latin American citizens, fed up with corruption and taking to the streets in protest, putting pressure on institutions to investigate and punish corrupt politicians.

While I wish I could share this optimism, I think it’s likely misplaced. Continue reading

How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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How Transparent Should Prosecutors Be About Investigations Into High-Level Corruption?

Today’s post is going to be one of those ones where I raise a question that I’ve been puzzling over, without having much to offer in the way of good answers.

Here’s the question: How open and transparent with the public should the officials investigating serious allegations of high-level corruption be about the progress of their investigations?

To be sure, no competent investigator or prosecutor would or should be completely transparent, as doing so might well tip off the targets of the investigation to what the investigators know, their investigative and legal strategies, and so forth. But even with that constraint, there’s a fairly broad range of options. Investigators could be absolutely tight-lipped about everything. Or they could hold regular press conferences covering significant developments in the case (and perhaps even going further to comment on the larger issues that the investigation implicates). Or something in between.

I was prompted to think more about this question in part by an exchange I had with Jose Ugaz at last month’s Harvard conference on Populist Plutocrats. I was asking Mr. Ugaz about his experience serving as Peru’s Ad Hoc State Attorney investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption in the Fujimori regime, and in particular how he dealt with concerns that his investigation might be perceived as politicized. Those who are interested can watch the video of our exchange (which starts around 7:15:55), but the key part of Mr. Ugaz’s response (slightly edited for clarity) ran as follows: Continue reading