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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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

For the Love of Money: Capitalizing on Corrupt Officials’ Opulent Spending Habits to Fight Corruption

Corruption is notoriously difficult to track and discover, not least because both sides in a corrupt exchange have strong incentives to avoid getting caught. So how can enforcement officials, journalists, and anticorruption activists catch corrupt actors? Pay close attention to flagrant and excessive spending by public officials. After all, most people who benefit from corruption, whether they are officials receiving bribes or industrialists benefitting from the government action they purchased, do it for the money. And what’s the point of taking on so much personal risk to make more money if you can’t spend it on nice things? This is why you’ll see Chinese officials wearing wristwatches worth four times their annual salary and presidents spending millions on designer clothes and shoes and other luxury goods. The additional risk of being caught seems to be outweighed by the perceived social benefits of public displays of wealth. Throwing lavish weddings and banquets seems to be a particularly common trap that captures this phenomenon. The very public nature of these events, the massive guest lists, and the attendance of well known figures all but guarantee public scrutiny. But current and former government officials just can’t seem to help themselves. For example, in the middle of India’s recent anticorruption crackdown a former government minister held a lavish wedding for his daughter at a cost of over $75 million. This is in a country where a former state chief minister and potential prime minister was recently sentenced to four years in prison, banned from politics for a decade, and fined $16 million after an investigation sparked by an astonishingly opulent wedding she hosted.

Over the past decade, the spending habits of dozens of high-ranking officials have produced a number of viral news stories and have, in some cases, led to effective enforcement actions. The fact that people are willing to spend their corruptly acquired wealth so publicly, in spite of the risks involved, provides enforcement officials and anticorruption advocates with a unique and important opportunity in three respects:

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If Voters Hate Corruption, Why Do Elected Politicians Resist Anticorruption Reform? Lessons from South Dakota

If U.S. voters dislike corruption so much, why don’t U.S. politicians see anticorruption as a winning issue—or at the very least feel more pressure to act aggressively against the corruption that voters claim to hate? This question, which has been explored on this blog before, is interesting to consider in the context of recent developments in South Dakota. South Dakota is considered to be one of the most corrupt states in the U.S., and in recent years has suffered through several major public corruption scandals, including massive misappropriations after the state privatized its EB-5 visa program, and the theft of over a million dollars earmarked for scholastic grants for the state’s American Indian population. In the past, although some Democratic state representatives had introduced bills to crack down on corruption, these measures failed in largely party-line votes in South Dakota’s Republican-dominated state legislature. Yet South Dakota, like many U.S. states, has a ballot initiative process that empowers voters to approve new laws by popular referendum. Last November, South Dakota voters used this process to approve Initiated Measure 22 (IM-22), also known as the “South Dakota Anti-Corruption Act.” While IM-22, despite its title, is not a direct anticorruption bill—its focus was on reforming campaign finance and lobbying—the message from the South Dakota voters was clear: they saw corruption as a problem and wanted to take measures to combat it.

Yet after the referendum passed, Republican lawmakers immediately took steps to halt the new rule. Within two weeks, 25 Republican South Dakota lawmakers brought suit against the state, arguing that the ethics commission created by the referendum violated the state’s constitution, and they succeeded in getting a temporary injunction against the new rules. Ultimately, the South Dakota State Senate struck down the law, using a provision of state law that allows the state legislature that repeals a referendum. Thus elected stood in direct opposition to an attempt to combat corruption enacted through a popular democratic initiative. Moreover, events in South Dakota reveal that some of the more conventional explanations that have been offered—including by previous analyses on this blog—are at best incomplete.

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