Expediting Corruption: The Dangers of Expediters in Licensing Markets

The scheme was as simple as it was brazen, and as brazen as it was frightening. On April 24, 2018, a New York City jury convicted attorney John Chambers of bribing New York Police Department (NYPD) personnel in exchange for gun permits for his numerous clients. Calling himself a “gun license expediter,” Mr. Chambers acted as an intermediary for individuals hoping to pass the necessary background check and obtain the mandatory permit in order to legally own a firearm in the city. But in a decentralized scheme involving numerous individuals inside and outside the police department, NYPD officers approved hundreds of licenses while skipping background checks, shortening license suspensions, and waving through applications containing glaring red flags—including improperly approving licenses for individuals convicted of illegal weapons possession. In return, the officers received expensive gifts, tickets to sporting events, lavish vacations, envelopes stuffed with cash—and even free guns.

At the center of the web of bribery were so-called “gun license expediters” like Chambers, who advertised their ability to help clients navigate the demanding and complex process of obtaining, renewing, or retaining a handgun license in New York City. Several of the expediters indicted in the scandal were retired police officers who had served in the NYPD Licensing Division, bribing former colleagues after leaving the police force in order to open their own expediting businesses. Fees varied depending on the difficulty and timing of the requests, but clients were routinely charged thousands of dollars per license—on top of the hundreds of dollars in mandatory city-imposed application fees. By leveraging experience, relationships, and sometimes illegal gifts, expediters such as Chambers were able to not only expedite but also to influence the outcome of applications.

In response to the revelations, the NYPD announced substantial changes to its licensing program. First and foremost, the department barred any expediter from physically visiting the Licensing Division on behalf of a client—instead requiring that all applicants appear in person to submit their own paperwork. (Expediters, however, would presumably not be barred from contacting members of the Licensing Division or directing their clients whom to talk to when they arrive.) Second, the department mandated that all gun permit approvals could only be made by the top two officers in the unit. Despite these seemingly sweeping changes, the new policies sidestep the root causes of corruption in this instance—which reveal the danger of expediters in general. Continue reading

Going Cashless to Fight Corruption: The Case of Kenyan Public Transit

In the fight against petty corruption, a potentially game-changing development is the rise of cashless payments. In a world where people do not use or carry cash, petty bribes to traffic cops or low-level government bureaucrats are either foolish—in that they require a processing mechanism and are therefore easy to detect—or altogether impossible. While some wealthier jurisdictions have made substantial steps towards a cashless economy (see Sweden and Hong Kong), a surprising leader in the rise of cashless payments has been Kenya, reinforcing its role as the Silicon Savannah of Africa and a potential hub for innovation in combatting petty corruption.

In 2007, the Kenyan telecom company Safaricom launched M-PESA, a mobile banking service that allows people to transfer money to other users using their mobile phones, and to withdraw cash from any of over 40,000 agents across the country, creating convenient mobile bank accounts accessible to virtually all Kenyans. M-PESA has been remarkably successful: As of 2015, M-PESA had 20 million subscribers (over two-thirds of Kenya’s adult population), and by some estimates around 25% of the country’s GDP flows through the service. The brilliance of M-PESA is that users do not need to carry around vast sums of cash; instead, they can treat any M-PESA agent as an ATM, and withdraw cash only when needed.

A recent plan has suggested leveraging technology like M-PESA to create cashless payments on the shared buses, known as matatus, that are the main form public transportation in Kenya. Traffic police routinely stop matatus to extort bribes from the drivers and conductors of the vehicles, who often in turn demand cash from passengers in order to continue on their route. In 2014, Kenya’s National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) proposed a policy whereby matatus would become cashless, shifting payments to a more easily regulated electronic system. All commuters would have prepaid cards, or funds accessible through their mobile phone that they could use to pay the conductor a flat rate for a given route. Drivers would be discouraged from extorting payments to fund bribes through the online system, as this system would be more stringently regulated and payments would be more easily tracked. Given the ubiquity of M-PESA agents acting as de facto ATMs throughout the country, commuters as well as matatu drivers and conductors would in theory not need to carry cash at all on these routes, thus reducing the incidence of bribes paid to traffic police.

The implementation of this plan, however, has been slow and fraught with difficulties. As of the time of writing, only some matatu associations have begun accepting cashless payments, and cash payments still predominate. In January of 2016, the Chairman of the Matatu Owners Association, Simon Kimutai, stated that full implementation will likely take up to four years, despite the government’s more optimistic timelines. One problem is inter-operability: Ideally, there should be a uniform set of payments on all matatu routes, but this is not yet the case; the unfortunate consequence is that even in matatus with the equipment to receive cashless payments, drivers and conductors still accept cash payments to avoid logistical difficulties. A potentially more serious problem is that some matatu drivers are actively resisting the plan by pretending the card readers are broken or feigning confusion over the new system. One reason for this resistance is the drivers’ desire to preserve their ability to inflate prices at rush hour or in poor weather. But drivers may also resist the cashless system in order to avoid retribution by the criminal gangs that currently patrol certain matatu routes and force drivers to pay bribes for protection. (Similar problems arose in Guatemala, when a similar cashless plan was enacted: When the cashless system limited drivers’ ability to pay these “protection” bribes, gangs reacted with violence, burning buses and threatening drivers and passengers alike.)

These problems mean that in the short term, it is unlikely that this plan to shift to cashless payments will have much effect on the incidence of petty bribes on matatus, as commuters will be forced to carry cash all the same. However, I remain optimistic that this plan nevertheless represents an exciting development, and is one that will ultimately have a meaningful impact. There are three main reasons for my optimism:

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Corruption By Another Name: The Conviction of a Rapist Cop

Former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted earlier this month of sexually assaulting over a dozen women while on duty. Holtzclaw’s attacks were despicable. Several of his victims reported that he threatened to arrest them if they did not comply with his sexual demands. In some instances, he made clear that his victims had to provide him with sexual gratification to avoid arrest—an explicit quid pro quo exchange. In other cases, including the case that triggered the investigation into his conduct, Holtzclaw did not explicitly solicit a sexual bribe, but there was still an implicit quid pro quo – if the woman let him get away with the assault he indicated that he wouldn’t make trouble for her.

Holtzclaw is a rapist, but he is not only a rapist – he is also a dirty cop. The fact that he was a police officer is not incidental to his crimes: he was able to sexually assault women and get away with it for so long precisely because of his publicly entrusted power. That abuse of public power for private gain is the definition of corruption. As pointed out in a previous post, the currency of corruption can as easily be sex as money. When a police officer, soldier, immigration official, or judge demands sex in exchange for an official action, that is a type of quid pro quo sexual corruption (sometimes called “sextortion” ). When an official “steals” sex from a woman who is less able to resist the attack or to report it due to his publicly entrusted power, that is another type of sexual corruption. In addition to sexual assault, then, Holtzclaw should have also been charged with bribery and official misconduct.

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Fighting Officer Involved Domestic Violence: Preventing Police Corruption from Hindering Investigation

Corruption within police forces is a well-known foe that rears its head in a dozen different ways. Police corruption is often discussed in terms of monetary abuses, from kickbacks to shakedowns to opportunistic theft. Yet these crimes are far from the only form of police misconduct. For example,there have been numerous incidents in which police officers demand sex from prostitutes in exchange for allowing them to continue working–a form of corruption that falls under the general category of “sextortion,” which I wrote about in an earlier post. Less discussed is the corruption that makes it hard to fight sky-high rates of officer involved domestic violence (OIDV).

OIDV is a serious problem, in the United States and (presumably) elsewhere. In the U.S., two studies, one with 728 police officers and one with 425 officers, found that 40% of officers self-reported that in the previous six months they had “lost control and behaved violently towards their spouse.” The comparable rate in the general population is roughly one-fourth as high. The reasons for these high OIDV rates are complex and not fully understood. Some advocates believe that aspects of police training give officers who are violent at home the knowledge and capability to target and intensify their abuse. Others make the case that the amount of violence police are exposed to as part of their job spills over to the home. But irrespective of the causes of OIDV, corruption within the police department makes fighting OIDV significantly more difficult. Continue reading