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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Guest Post: The Taxi Driver Paradox–or How Descriptive Social Norms Shape Corrupt Behavior

Nils Köbis, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Experimental Economics and Political Decision-Making (CREED), University of Amsterdam, contributes today’s guest post:

Whenever I am traveling and take a taxi, I try to strike up a conversation with the driver. The beauty of this situation is that both sides can be really candid. The length is typically short, and chances are you will never meet again. The chat usually kicks off with some small talk about sports, weather, and food. Once warmed up, I have often asked: “What do you think is the biggest problem in your society?” So far, the most common answer has been corruption. And my taxi-driver-based anecdotal evidence is consistent with large  international surveys. Notwithstanding the old canard that people who live in corrupt societies generally tolerate corruption as normal and natural, ample empirical evidence (and my taxi drivers) suggests that this is not true: People widely despise corruption, especially in countries riddled with it. Yet on several occasions the very same taxi driver who has been ranting to me about corruption has stopped by a traffic police officer—and willingly paid a bribe to avoid a ticket.

What explains this apparent paradox? The most frequent explanation for why a person outraged by corruption would nevertheless pay a bribe is that “everybody does it”—as the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie nicely puts it, “If we do something over and over again it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again it becomes normal.” This notion of normality plays an important role in explaining why corruption is sometimes the exception and sometimes the rule. Scholars who research social norms differentiate between injunctive norms, which concern whether a given behavior is acceptable, and descriptive norms, which indicate whether the same behavior is common. This distinction might help to explain the taxi-driver-paradox: People might often bribe because everybody else is doing it, even though they think it’s wrong. Continue reading

Western Anticorruption Policy in Ukraine: Success or Failure?

A few weeks back, I came across an interesting point-counterpoint on the impact of Western-backed efforts to promote anticorruption reform in Ukraine. On one side we have an online piece in Foreign Affairs by Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that “works with investors and corporations seeking entry into the complex but lucrative emerging markets of Ukraine and Eastern Europe”) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University) entitled, “How Western Anticorruption Policy Is Failing Ukraine.” And then on the other side we have a response piece on the Atlantic Council blog from Daria Kaleniuk (Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kyiv) entitled “Actually, the West’s Anticorruption Policy Is Spot on.” I’m no Ukraine expert, and so I’m reluctant to take a strong position on which side has the better of the argument, but I found the debate interesting not only for its implications for Ukraine, but also because it raises a couple of more general issues that come up in many other contexts, issues that anticorruption advocates should pay attention to even if they have no particular interest in Ukraine. Those issues are, first, a question of messaging—what I’ll call the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty question—and, second, the relative importance of holding individual wrongdoers personally (and criminally) accountable for corrupt conduct.

Let me first try to give a flavor of the debate, and then say a bit about each of those two issues. Continue reading

Is Trump Administration Corruption a Winning Issue for Democrats this November?

The corruption of the Trump administration is bad news for the United States—will it also prove to be bad news (politically) for Trump’s Republican Party allies? A number of astute political commentators have recently argued that the answer is yes. Most notably, Jonathan Chait published an article last week making the case that “corruption … is Trump’s greatest political liability,” and that even though Trump himself is not on the ballot in the 2018 midterm elections, it would be wise politics for the Democrats to focus on the corruption of the Trump administration in their quest to retake one or both chambers of Congress.

Chait notes, as an initial matter, that despite Trump’s historic unpopularity, Democrats face two interrelated challenges: First, there’s just so much negative news about Trump—from the Russia investigation to his racism and misogyny to the lurid revelations regarding his crude attempts to cover up an affair with an adult film actress—that it’s hard to focus on any one thing. Second, and more importantly, the majority of Trump’s supporters already knew back when they voted for him that he was a crass, crude, adulterous bully and bigot–which means that pointing out his infidelity, his bullying, and his bigotry now isn’t likely to have much impact. (The Russia investigation is another matter, but Chait suggest that it’s too abstract and complex for most voters.) Corruption, according to Chait, is the one story that could move the needle, even with Trump supporters. Chait’s reasoning (presented in a somewhat different order from his original article) runs as follows: Continue reading

How Can an Anticorruption Agency Repair Its Reputation After a Scandal? Lessons from Ghana

Corruption-plagued countries often create independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) to ensure the integrity of other institutions. But sometimes ACAs get caught up in their own scandals—scandals that can undermine their credibility and hard-won public trust. ACAs may be particularly at risk because of the threat they pose to powerful elites, who will always be on the lookout for ways to undercut ACAs. Of course, ACAs should be attuned to these risks and to put measures in place to minimize them. But no preventative system is perfect. What to do when it fails? When an ACA’s reputation has been besmirched by an internal corruption scandal, what can the agency do to restore public trust?

Ghana’s experience may offer some lessons. In 2008, Ghana established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which is responsible for anticorruption enforcement, among other things. CHRAJ has done much good work, from conducting investigations of corruption allegations to producing conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of conduct. But in 2011, the CHRAJ was rocked by an internal scandal when it was revealed that Lauretta Lamptey, then chief of the CHRAJ, had misappropriated public funds to renovate her official residence, to pay hotel bills, and to upgrade her air tickets. The scandal “dented the image of the CHRAJ both nationally and internationally” and jeopardized public trust in the CHRAJ and the willingness of Ghanaian citizens to report corruption cases to the commission.

Damage control was absolutely crucial—and seems to have been largely successful. According to the US State Department’s Ghana 2016 Human Rights Report, public confidence in the CHRAJ is again high. The CHRAJ’s relative success in restoring credibility after its internal corruption scandal suggests a few guidelines for how an ACA can respond effectively in this sort of situation:

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Guest Post: Berlusconi and Corruption, Stability and Change

Andrea Lorenzo Capussela, an independent researcher who worked on Kosovo and Moldova’s development, and has written on Kosovo and Italy’s political economy, contributes today’s guest post:

There has been some discussion on this blog, prompted by the discussion at last fall’s “Populist Plutocrats” conference, on how corrupt, wealthy politicians can successfully position themselves as populists. One of the leading examples of this seeming paradox is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. In a recent post, Matthew Stephenson built on conference remarks from Giovanni Orsina and Beppe Severgnini to suggest that Berlusconi succeeded in part through a “politics of absolution”—the idea that by suggesting to Italian voters that “Italians are fine as they are, with all their vices, and need not change,” Berlusconi secured the support of many ordinary Italians who may themselves have bent or broken the rules, and who as a result of Berlusconi implicitly forgiving them, were willing to support him and to overlook Berlusconi’s own (much larger) infractions.

But as Professor Stephenson points out, there’s still a puzzle here: Voters consistently claim that they dislike corruption, and sometimes they are willing to take to the streets in protest. Indeed, during the two years that preceded Berlusconi’s electoral victory of March 1994, Italy saw frequent and large anticorruption demonstrations. Moreover, the particularism, clientelism, tax evasion, and corruption that Berlusconi both implicitly forgave and further entrenched are likely detrimental to the interests of a vast share of Berlusconi’s own electorate. So why did this message, and this so-called “politics of absolution,” work in the Italian case?

The missing piece of the story, as I argue in my recent book, has to do with the disruptive effect of the Italian anticorruption investigations of the early 1990s, and the fact that despite the success of that campaign in rooting out corruption, it ultimately destabilized Italian politics without offering Italian citizens sufficient reason to believe that the system would change for the better. Berlusconi offered the reassurance of a return to the old ways of doing things—and since most voters expected that such a return was likely, it became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Continue reading

New York State of Corruption: An Opportunity for Reform Amidst a Year of Reckoning

What do Joseph Percoco, George Maziarz, Edward Mangano, Sheldon Silver, Alain Kaloyeros, and Dean Skelos all have in common? Each of these New York public officials will go to trial on corruption charges over the next six months. The slew of trials kicks off today with the trial of Joseph Percoco, a former advisor to Governor Cuomo who is accused of taking over $300,000 from companies in a pay-to-play scheme for influence in the Cuomo administration. Next up, on February 5, George Maziarz goes to trial for filing false campaign expenditure reports in an attempt to conceal almost $100,000 in payments to a former Senate staff member who had quit amid sexual harassment allegations. March 12 brings the trial of Ed Mangano, the former Nassau County Executive charged with bribery, wire fraud, and extortion for receiving almost $500,000, free vacations, furniture, jewelry, home renovations, and other gifts as bribes and kickbacks. Sheldon Silver will be re-tried on April 16, after his conviction for obtaining nearly $4 million in bribes was vacated last year following the Supreme Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States. In May, the former President of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Alain Kaloyeros will stand trial for the same bribery scheme that ensnared Mr. Percoco. And finally, on June 18, Dean Skelos will be re-tried after his conviction on bribery charges was, like Mr. Silver’s, overturned in light of the Supreme Court’s McDonnell decision.

These six trials—all involving high-profile public officials, bribery and extortion charges, high stakes, and large sums of money—will receive considerable amounts of attention from the media and public, and will certainly provide much fodder for blogs like this one. While every month from January to June will bring a trial with its own drama and complexities, we can step back at the outset and consider what these trials collectively mean for corruption and ethics reform in New York. The trials will undeniably shake the public’s trust in public officials. Will these trials fuel cynicism that makes New Yorkers less likely to participate in the political process—or might these trials instead spark optimism that creates the political momentum for ethics reform?

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