The Promise and Perils of Cleaning House: Lessons from Italy

In countries beset by endemic corruption, efforts to expose and root out corrupt networks, and to punish the participants, can and should be celebrated. There are, of course, always legitimate concerns about the role that political power struggles may play in anticorruption crackdowns (think China and Saudi Arabia), an issue we’ve discussed on this blog before (see here and here), and that I may turn to again at some point. But in today’s post, I want to put those issues to one side to focus on something different. Suppose that some combination of government investigation, citizen reports, and media scrutiny exposes a major corruption network. Suppose that even though people always suspected that corruption was all too common, the investigation reveals that the rot runs much deeper, and goes much higher, than most people had imagined. Suppose further that, as a result of these revelations, law enforcement agencies take aggressive action, putting many people in jail and causing many others to lose their government positions. Again putting aside for the moment concerns about political bias, this is all to the good. But, what happens “the morning after,” as it were?

The hope, of course, is that by “cleaning house,” the state will be able to turn over a new leaf; the “vicious cycle” of self-perpetuating corruption may be broken, and those corrupt officials disgraced and removed from power will be replaced by a new generation of cleaner (though of course not perfect) leaders. Unfortunately, while that’s one possible scenario, it’s not the only one. In his presentation at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, the Italian political scientist Giovanni Orsina used the Italian “Clean Hands” (Mani Pulite) investigation into widespread political corruption, and the subsequent rise of Silvio Berlusconi, to illustrate how, under the wrong set of circumstances, a well-intentioned and widely-celebrated corruption cleanup could contribute to the rise of a populist—and deeply corrupt—demagogue.

I don’t know enough to have a firm opinion on the validity of Professor Orsina’s analysis, and I gather that other analysts have a different view of the long-term impact of Clean Hands, but his arguments strike me as plausible and sufficiently important that they’re worth considering, not only as potential explanations for developments in Italian politics, but perhaps more importantly for their potential applicability (mutatis mutandis) to other cases. In particular, Professor Orsina identifies two related but distinct mechanisms through which an aggressive and seemingly-effective anticorruption crackdown can contribute to the rise of a populist demagogue like Berlusconi. Continue reading

Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes

In July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra became Prime Minister of Thailand after her party (founded by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) won a decisive electoral victory. One of her principal campaign promises was to establish a program to purchase rice from farmers at above-market prices then store the rice to reduce supply. The hope was that doing so would increase world prices—because of Thailand’s position as the leading global rice exporter—ultimately allowing the government to sell at a profit. Shortly after the election, Yingluck’s government implemented this program, and it worked well for a few months—until other global players increased their supply of rice, causing Thailand to lose billions of dollars in the process. This economic debacle was entirely predictable—and indeed was predicted by many experts. And the program itself was beset by allegations of fraud and corruption in its implementation.

But should the failure of the rice-buying program be the basis of a criminal charge of corruption and a prison sentence against Yingluck herself, in the absence of evidence that she was directly involved in any embezzlement, bribery, or other more conventional forms of graft? Section 157 of Thailand’s Penal Code allows for just such a prosecution, as this section makes it a crime for a public official to either dishonestly or “wrongfully discharge or omit to discharge a duty so as to expose any person to injury.” And last month, the Thai Supreme Court found Yingluck (out of power since she was deposed by a military coup in 2014) guilty and sentenced her to five years in prison. She fled the country before the verdict.

Thailand is not alone in adopting anticorruption laws that criminalize not only dishonest conduct (bribery, embezzlement, conflict of interest, etc.), but also negligence or incompetence. When India updated its anticorruption law in 1988, it added a new provision that makes it a criminal offense for a public official to “obtain for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” This broad offense was interpreted by a state High Court to not require any proof of dishonesty or criminal intent, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s premier anticorruption agency) has routinely employed the provision in grand corruption cases to avoid the problem of having to prove corrupt intent. In perhaps the most high-profile such prosecution, the agency went after an ex-Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh was the Minister of Coal at a time when the Government decided to liberalize allocation of coal-blocks and to sell mining rights to private parties. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office reported the policy had caused losses worth billions of dollars because the rights had been sold for too little, through a process that was too ad hoc to be considered legal. Dr. Singh was subsequently charged under India’s broad law, though his trial has currently been stayed while his challenge to the constitutionality the law is pending before India’s Supreme Court. (There are clearly concerns in other quarters about the breadth of this statute: In 2016 a Select Committee of the Upper House of India’s Parliament submitted a report that suggested India eliminate this offense. Parliament hasn’t yet acted on this recommendation, but there are signs that it has some support.)

Is it appropriate to enact broad anticorruption laws that allow government officials to be convicted for dereliction of duty, acting in a manner contrary to the public interest, and the like? Anticorruption activists and prosecutors may find such statutes appealing: It is easier to secure convictions of elected officials who are suspected of corruption, but where it is too difficult to prove the specific intent necessary for traditional corruption offenses. But in fact these broad laws are likely to do more harm than good, and countries like Thailand and India would be better off without them. There are three main reasons for this: Continue reading

US Anticorruption Policy in a Trump Administration: A Cry of Despair from the Heart of Darkness

Like many people, both here in the US and across the world, I was shocked and dismayed by the outcome of the US Presidential election. To be honest, I’m still in such a state of numb disbelief, I’m not sure I’m in a position to think or write clearly. And I’m not even sure there’s much point to blogging about corruption. As I said in my post this past Tuesday (which now feels like a million years ago), the consequences of a Trump presidency are potentially so dire for such a broad range of issues–from health care to climate change to national security to immigration to the preservation of the fundamental ideals of the United States as an open and tolerant constitutional democracy–that even thinking about the implications of a Trump presidency for something as narrow and specific as anticorruption policy seems almost comically trivial. But blogging about corruption is one of the things I do, and to hold myself together and try to keep sane, I’m going to take a stab at writing a bit about the possible impact that President Trump will have on US anticorruption policy, at home and abroad. I think the impact is likely to be considerable, and uniformly bad: Continue reading

NGOs, Like Ceasar’s Wife, Should Be Above Suspicion: Why Indian Nonprofits Need To Take Transparency More Seriously

Soon after India’s new government assumed power in May 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sought permission for arrest and custodial interrogation of journalist and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad for alleged mismanagement of $576,000 by her organization. In October 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued show-cause notices to 10,343 non-profits for not furnishing annual returns, and subsequently cancelled FCRA registrations for around 9,000 of these non-profits, citing “non-response within the stipulated time period.” India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) regulates the inflow of foreign contributions to charitable organizations and is expanding its tentacles and grip under each successive government (see here and here). In April 2015, Ford Foundation, the philanthropic organization whose work in India dates back to 1952, was put on a national security watch list and removed from the prior-permission list in January 2016, constraining its funding capacity. Ford is being targeted primarily for channeling funds to Ms. Setalvad’s NGO that was apparently ineligible to receive funds under FCRA.

As many in the Indian media have pointed out, the government’s aggressive actions against non-profits seems selective—more like a political vendetta than a principled stand against misappropriation of funds. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Ms. Setalvad had sought the conviction of Narendra Modi for alleged human rights abuses during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, or that the case against Ford is linked to its funding for her non-profit. Moreover, in the same month that MHA canceled the FCRA licenses of 9,000 non-profits, an access-to-information query revealed that 401 of the 545 Members of the Parliament’s Upper House had not declared their assets and liabilities – including the Minister of Home Affairs himself. And the government’s tenacious pursuit of non-profits contrasts awkwardly with the practical impunity of those accused of perpetrating India’s three biggest scams (the $27.8 billion coal scam of 2012, the $26.3 billion 2G spectrum scam of 2013, and multi-million Vyapam scam of 2015).

So, when nonprofits, activists, and their supporters accuse the government of applying a double standard, they have a point. Yet, even as we rightly protest the government’s politically motivated vendetta against civil society, it is equally important for India’s non-profits to take a good hard look in the mirror. India has witnessed an unprecedented civil society mobilization against corruption in 2011 and non-profits have spearheaded numerous successful anticorruption initiatives, such as social audits, citizen report cards, and crowdsourcing platforms like I-Paid-a-Bribe.com. Yet the members of India’s vibrant non-profit sector must be sure that they are applying to themselves the same high standards of transparency and accountability that they advocate in the public sphere. Too often, they fall short. Indeed, the accountability practices within India’s non-profits are alarmingly sketchy. Continue reading

Uses and Abuses of Anticorruption Tactics in the Gambia

The tiny African country of the Gambia rarely receives international media attention.  Perhaps once a year, shocking statements from its president, Yahya Jammeh, might win it a small news blurb, but even then, these stories tend to be treated in a perfunctory, “look at this wacko human rights abuser” manner: reporting something awful or absurd—like his declaration that LGBT people are “vermin”, or that he has developed a cure for AIDS—but doing so in a derisive or condescending tone. A headline like “Five Crazy Things About Gambia’s Jammeh” is fairly typical.  (The latest zaniness-oriented reporting has been centered on an incredibly poorly planned attempted coup by two Gambian-Americans against whom the U.S. Department of Justice just filed charges.)

However, such gawking, hit-and-run style reportage overlooks the very real, very sinister way that Jammeh has solidified his hold on power by co-opting the language of anticorruption as a rhetorical tool to justify his tenure, and by using purported anticorruption crackdowns as a weapon to eliminate his opponents.  By utilizing the language of anticorruption advocates, and selectively throwing certain members of the government to the wolves while perpetually tossing the (anticorruption) book at his political opponents, Jammeh has managed to create the myth that his administration is at least relatively committed to fighting corruption, and is the best hope for the Gambia to pursue economic development.

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Going After the Bribe Takers: Step One

Last week I wrote about the gap between prosecutions for transnational bribe paying and transnational bribe taking.  Even after a bribe payer in one state has been convicted or pled guilty, most countries where the bribe was paid have shown little interest in investigating who took the bribe – an often easy inquiry given the evidence unearthed in the bribe payer case.  I also noted that in almost every instance the bribe was paid by a firm in an OECD country to a government official in a developing state.

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What About the Bribe Takers? (1)

Yesterday Matthew noted the success of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in curbing the bribery of public officials by individuals or firms subject to the laws of the 40 countries that have now ratified it.  The enforcement data is surely impressive.  Reports by Transparency International show a steady increase in investigations and prosecutions by the parties to the convention, and the latest OECD data, from 2012, disclose that since the convention took effect in 1999 over 300 individuals and 200 enterprises have been convicted or pled guilty to bribery-related charges with cases pending against another 150 persons and 20 plus firms.

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