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?

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Guest Post: When It Comes To Attitudes Toward Corruption, Russians Are More Like Americans Than You Think

Today’s guest post is from Marina Zaloznaya, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa and author of, The Politics of Bureaucratic Corruption in Post-Transitional Eastern Europe:

Russia and corruption have been dominating the news recently – with the reporting from Washington and Moscow converging in an unusual way. Ongoing accusations against Trump Administration officials resonate even more strongly when linked to Russia, a country most Americans view as rife with corruption. Indeed, many Americans think that Russian citizens are perfectly comfortable with the systematic corruption of political and business elites.

This is a myth. Yes, it is true beyond doubt that corruption is common in Russia – much more so than in the United States – affecting hundreds of thousands of people. But this is not because Russians are systematically more tolerant of corruption than are Americans. Continue reading

Do People Care More About Corruption Than They Used To? Evidence from the US and Germany

Sometimes it feels like corruption has become the topic of the year: We’ve heard repeatedly that it is (the perception of) corrupt elites that has fueled the rise of populists, nationalists, and new socialist parties and politicians. The most prominently of these, though not the only one, is Donald Trump, who promised in his campaign to take back power from the corrupt elites (see here and here).

But has the topic of corruption actually become increasingly prominent in popular and media discourse over the last two years? To investigate this question, I did a simple search on the Factiva database within the eight most widely-circulated American newspapers (USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and Newsday) for the term “corruption.” I did a similar search for Germany, using the term “Korruption” and the eight most widely-circulated German newspapers (BILD, BILD am Sonntag, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Rheinische Post, Welt am Sonntag and Rheinische Post). Surprisingly (at least to me), over the last two years there was no growth in U.S. newspaper reporting on corruption. As the following graph shows, reporting on corruption in the U.S. has been rather stable over this period, with between 500 and 750 articles a month. A slightly different picture emerges for Germany, where newspaper reports on corruption, which were substantially less frequent than in the U.S. to begin with, have actually declined over the past two years. (A side note, though perhaps an interesting one: The most reported corruption topic in both countries, with about 2.5 times more stories than the next-most-mentioned topic, was FIFA.): Continue reading

CREW’s Long-Shot Emoluments Clause Lawsuit Against Trump: Calculated Risk or Reckless Gamble?

After the events of the last ten days, worrying about the potential conflicts of interest created by the Trump organization’s business dealings with foreign governments seems almost quaint. It appears that under the Trump Administration, constitutional crises don’t get resolved, they just get overshadowed by bigger constitutional crises; such are the strange times in which we live. But I did want to return to the topic I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, concerning the pending lawsuit brought by the Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (CREW) alleging that the Trump Organization’s business relationships with foreign governments violate the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause. In my post a couple of weeks ago, I predicted that U.S. courts are likely to toss the suit out on jurisdictional grounds, without reaching the merits of the claim. That assessment appears to be shared by the overwhelming majority of legal experts who have weighed in (see here, here, here, here, here, and here), though the consensus is not quite universal.

Several people have suggested to me that even if the suit has little chance of success, it was good that CREW filed it. They’ve offered two arguments for this assessment: First, even if there’s only a very small chance of success, the costs of bringing the suit are relatively low, and the benefits if the suit does end up succeeding are enormous—so what’s the harm in trying? Second, the mere act of filing the suit, even if it’s ultimately dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, will generate attention to the underlying constitutional and ethical issues, and help both educate and mobilize the citizenry. My colleague Larry Tribe, who is one of the parties who filed the CREW brief, laid out this position clearly and succinctly in an interview shortly after the brief was filed:

Litigation can help bring important principles to light… It helps me teach my students, and it performs an educational function vis-à-vis the public. Of course, I don’t take on causes that I feel confident I will lose purely for educational purposes. But win or lose, we’re going to help educate the public on something that’s very important.

Much as I wish those arguments were true, and much as I wish the CREW lawsuit had some chance of succeeding, I respectfully and reluctantly disagree. I hope that events will prove me wrong, but at the moment I fear that CREW’s decision to file this lawsuit was not only a long shot, but was a serious tactical blunder that will probably hurt the cause overall. Continue reading