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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Where Should U.S. State Governments Put Their Anticorruption Agencies?

As other contributors on this blog have argued, U.S. states should assume a greater role in investigating and prosecuting corruption crimes, rather than leaving anticorruption enforcement efforts entirely to the federal government. But the call for a greater state role in anticorruption naturally invites a follow-up question: which office or unit within the state government should have principal responsibility for anticorruption? For starters, should the state have a specialized unit dedicated to investigating or prosecuting corruption crimes? And if so, where within the state government should that unit be located?

There are a range of potential answers to these questions. A 50-state survey from the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) finds that although the vast majority of states have some kind of anticorruption commission, roughly half have no specialized anticorruption unit dedicated to investigating or prosecuting corruption crimes. States that do have such units house them in one of three places: (1) the state attorney general’s office, (2) local prosecutors’ offices, or (3) the state police.

State Unit Dedicated to Prosecuting Corruption?

Source: Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School

Having a specialized unit to prosecute corruption promotes the development of the expertise critical to successfully prosecuting corruption cases. Maintaining specialized anticorruption units also ensures resources are dedicated specifically to combating corruption, fosters norms of (and a reputation for) impartiality, and enhances deterrence by increasing officials’ perception that they’ll get caught if they do something wrong. But where a specialized anticorruption unit is located within state government affects the degree to which these benefits will be realized. In this respect, the three models of current state practice, as discussed in the CAPI survey and illustrated in the above map, differ along two dimensions: (1) the level of government (state or local); and (2) the nature of the law enforcement agency (prosecutors or police). An examination of both dimensions indicates that state-level prosecutors—state attorneys general—are best-equipped to house specialized anticorruption units.

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AMLO Cannot Put a “Final Period” in Mexico’s History of Corruption Without Addressing the Past

The trial and conviction of the notorious drug lord “El Chapo” has shed new light on the rampant corruption that exists at even the highest levels of the Mexican government. To take just a couple of the most startling examples: During the trial, a witness testified that Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100 million bribe from El Chapo, while another cartel member testified that he paid at least $3 million dollars to the Public Security Secretary of former president Felipe Calderon and at least $6 million dollars to President Calderon’s head of police. In other countries these accusations would have shaken citizens to their very core. But in Mexico, long perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, citizens have sadly grown accustomed to allegations of this nature, and the revelations from the El Chapo trial were met with little more than a shrug.

That doesn’t mean that Mexicans don’t care about corruption. Quite the opposite. Indeed, frustration at this flagrant culture of corruption was one of the key factors that helped Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to capture his constituents’ faith and votes. AMLO has promised to eradicate corruption through a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the previous three were Mexico’s independence from Spain, the liberal reforms of the 1850s, and the 1910-1917 revolution). Yet despite these sweeping promises, AMLO has decided not to investigate the allegations against his predecessors that have emerged in the El Chapo trial. In fact, AMLO’s stance has been not to prosecute any officials for corruption that took place in the past, before he took office. (AMLO has wavered on this position—though only slightly—after receiving backlash during his campaign; he has since stated he would prosecute past corruption offenses only if the administration has no choice due to “internal pressure” from citizens.) AMLO has justified his opposition to investigations and prosecutions of past corruption crimes by using the language suggesting the need for a fresh start. He speaks of a need to put a “final period” on Mexico’s history of corruption, and to “start over” by not focusing the past.

But how can one eradicate corruption by granting numerous “Get Out of Jail Free” cards? AMLO’s support of a de facto amnesty for corrupt ex-Mexican officials’ casts doubt on the seriousness of his pledge to eradicate corruption. Rather than simply saying that it’s time to turn over a new leaf, AMLO should demand accountability for grand corruption, and he should start by ordering a full independent investigation into the veracity of the corruption allegations that came to light during the El Chapo trial. Continue reading

Reasons for Optimism About Latin America’s Wave of Anticorruption Prosecutions: A Response to Professor Balan

What are we to make of the ongoing wave of corruption prosecutions sweeping Latin America in the wake of the Odebrecht scandal? Many are optimistic that these prosecutions, several of which have implicated very senior political figures, including current and former presidents, signal a turning point for the region. But in a guest post last September, Professor Manuel Balan suggested that this optimism may be misplaced, for three reasons. First, he argued that the enforcement patterns suggest that anticorruption prosecutions are becoming a weaponized—that these prosecutions are being used as a political tool used to bring down opponents, and consequently they lack credibility with much of the public. Second, Professor Balan questioned whether these prosecutions would ultimately be successful in holding powerful, popular wrongdoers accountable, and he argued that these prosecutions will just take down leaders whose positions have weakened for other reasons (such as Dilma Rousseff in Brazil). Third, Professor Balan worried that these prosecutions show that judicial power is increasing at the expense of citizens’ power—that they represent an erosion of “vertical accountability.”

I remain one of the optimists. Indeed, I think that Professor Balan is far too pessimistic about the role that the current anticorruption prosecutions in Latin American can play—and to some extent have already played—in addressing the region’s longstanding corruption and impunity problems. Yet his three objections are worth taking seriously and deserve a direct response. Here’s why I don’t find any of them sufficiently persuasive to share his pessimism:

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The UK Parliament Should Broaden and Sharpen the Legal Advice Privilege in Order to Encourage More Internal Investigations into Corruption

On September 5, 2018, the compliance departments and outside counsel of large corporations operating in the UK breathed a collective sigh of relief. In a much anticipated ruling, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales overturned a trial judge’s order that would have compelled a London-based international mining company, Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation Limited (ENRC), to hand over documents to UK prosecutors investigating the enterprise for bribery in Kazakhstan and Africa. Those documents were the product of an investigation that ENRC’s outside legal counsel had conducted following an internal whistleblower report that surfaced in late 2010. In conducting that internal investigation, lawyers from the law firm interviewed witnesses, reviewed financial records, and advised ENRC’s management on the company’s possible criminal exposure. Though the company tried to keep everything quiet, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) came knocking in mid-2011. The SFO agreed to let ENRC and its lawyers continue to investigate on their own, periodically updating the SFO on their progress. In 2013, ENRC’s legal counsel submitted its findings to the SFO in a report arguing that, on the basis of the facts presented, the company should not be charged. The SFO disagreed and launched a formal criminal investigation. But the SFO then also demanded that ENRC turn over all of the files and documents underpinning its report—including presentations given by the lawyers to ENRC’s management and the lawyers’ notes from their interviews with 184 potential witnesses.

ENRC refused to comply, claiming that these documents were covered by two legal privileges under UK law: the “litigation privilege,” which guarantees the confidentiality of documents created by lawyers for the “dominant purpose” of adversarial litigation (including prosecution) that is “in reasonable contemplation,” and the “legal advice privilege,” which protects communications between lawyers and clients exchanged for legal advice. The trial court rejected ENRC’s privilege claims, a decision that sent shockwaves through the English defense bar and spurred much criticism on legal and policy grounds. But the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that ENRC’s lawyers didn’t have to share the documents. The Court’s ruling relied on the litigation privilege, holding, first, that documents created to help avoid criminal prosecution counted as those created for the “dominant purpose” of litigation, and, second, that criminal legal proceedings were in “reasonable contemplation” for ENRC once the SFO contacted the company in 2011.

Many commentators have hailed the Appeal Court’s decision (which the SFO declined to appeal) as a “landmark ruling” and a “decisive victory” for defense lawyers. The reality is a bit more nuanced. The Court of Appeal’s fact-specific ruling was very conservative in its legal conclusions, and it’s unlikely that its holding regarding the litigation privilege is sufficient to create the right incentives for companies and their lawyers. It’s also unlikely that further judicial tinkering with the scope of the litigation privilege will resolve the problem promptly or satisfactorily. The better solution would involve a different institutional actor and a different privilege: Parliament should step in and expand the scope of the legal advice privilege to cover all communications between a company’s lawyers and the company’s current and former employees. Continue reading

The Case for State-Level Anticorruption Prosecutions in the U.S.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a huge role in the prosecution of state-level public corruption: Over the past five years, federal prosecutors have obtained the convictions of approximately 1,700 corrupt state and local officials for corruption-related offenses. Examples range from prominent and powerful figures like Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, to low-level functionaries like Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, Jr., two former members of the School Board of Donna, Texas.

The federal government’s primacy in prosecuting state and local corruption is no accident. One of the stories of American law enforcement in the 20th century, especially though not exclusively in the anticorruption context, is the expanding role of the federal government, an expansion that was in part a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of state law enforcement. Most states in the U.S. elect both prosecutors and judges, and concerns that these elected officials were under-resourced, incompetent, partisan, or captured by local influence-peddlers contributed to the rise of federal criminal law enforcement. The federal government’s role in prosecuting state and local corruption blossomed in the 1970s, with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices taking the lead, supported by a new DOJ Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s offices were considered more independent and less vulnerable to capture than local law enforcement, were generally better resourced than their state and local counterparts, and were able to focus those resources on picked cases.

This system has worked well and achieved considerable success. Many argue—with justification—that the federal government’s central role in prosecuting state and local corruption was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of corrupt political machines at the subnational level. But today, it’s important for state prosecutors to do more to supplement, and in some cases perhaps supplant, federal anticorruption prosecutions. If the story of the 20th century was a distrust of states to police their own politicians, the early 21st century story may be that we can no longer completely trust the feds to do it either. There are three main reasons why, going forward, we may need to rely increasingly on the states:

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Sometimes Motives Don’t Matter: The Establishment’s Impulse to Protect (Allegedly) Corrupt Politicians Can Create Opportunities for Criminal Justice Reform

Since 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been investigated for a number of corruption allegations (see here and here). In apparent response, David Amsalem, a member of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, has proposed several bills which, if enacted, would help to protect the Prime Minister from these investigations (see here and here). Most recently, in June 2018 Amsalem presented a bill that would change Israel’s system of criminal appeals. Currently, the prosecution can appeal criminal verdicts, including acquittals; according to Amsalem’s so-called Appeal Bill, such appeals would require an appellate court’s permission, and this permission could only be given under special circumstances, and only for crimes punishable by ten or more years in prison. Amsalem, who denied that the Appeal Bill has anything to do with the investigations of Netanyahu, claimed that he proposed this bill because “[a] moral state doesn’t have to persecute a citizen who has received a sentence too light for its taste.” However, opposition Knesset members and commentators – many of whom usually support defendant-protective reforms to criminal procedure – have harshly attacked the Appeal Bill. The critics’ main (sometimes only) argument against the Appeal Bill has been that its purpose is to prevent the prosecution from appealing a possible acquittal of Netanyahu. As Tamar Zandberg, Chair of the opposition Meretz Party put it, “[t]his [government] coalition’s obsessive preoccupation with the legal authorities to protect a prime minister immersed in investigations is a mark of Cain for Israeli democracy.”

The hostility to bills that appear to be devised specifically to protect politicians from corruption prosecutions is definitely understandable, and the wide opposition in Israel to the Appeal Bill is therefore a natural reaction. Nevertheless, this impulse should be overcome when considering bills proposing criminal justice reforms with general application, and in particular bills strengthening individual rights in the criminal process. I do not claim that the Appeal Bill should be enacted into law, and I acknowledge that there may be some legitimate reasons to oppose limitations on prosecutorial appeals. However, generally speaking, we should not refrain from supporting criminal justice reforms just because their initiators may have had bad motives. Instead, every proposal of systemic reform should be considered on its merits, and, if found justified, be enthusiastically supported, despite its tainted origin. Continue reading