Fighting Corruption Isn’t Rocket Science

Space, the final frontier, sure is expensive to explore. Every launch, every mission, can cost billions of dollars in research, materials, and overhead. And partly because of this, government space agencies may be especially susceptible to corruption. After all, these agencies are responsible for enormous projects with thousands of moving parts (literally and figuratively), but are monitored principally by committees that lack the scientific knowhow to conduct effective oversight. Embezzlement, overspending, bribery, and other crimes are easy to miss. Not only is corruption easily buried by bureaucratic or technical minutiae, it’s also extremely costly, as mistakes can result in the loss of valuable equipment or even human life. Even when corruption causes things to go wrong, the fact that space missions are inherently risky and complex may make it difficult to recognize when a malfunction is due to malfeasance.

Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation responsible for space flights, serves as a cautionary tale. For years, Roscosmos funds have been embezzled though contracting bids— officials were bribed to make fake deals and artificially inflate costs, allowing hundreds of millions of dollars to evaporate and a few Soyuz rockets to accidentally explode. (In 2014 alone, corruption and other malfeasance caused Roscosmos to lose roughly US$1.8 billion.) After Russian anticorruption activist Alexei Navalny called out the “astronomic” levels of corruption and mismanagement at the Vostochny space center (one of President Putin’s pet projects), multiple criminal investigations resulted in the conviction and sentencing of fifty-eight officials for fraud and abuse of office.

Though the record of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is not nearly as egregious, neither is it pristine. Suspicions regarding bribes by private contractors to NASA officials have existed for decades. For instance, back in the mid-1990s, a controversial FBI sting operation implicated dozens of contractors that allegedly paid bribes to NASA employees in hopes of determining which commercial experiments would be selected for the International Space Station. Representative John Conyers, who chaired the Committee on Government Operations in the House of Representatives at the time, pinned the blame on “NASA’s dismal record of contract mismanagement and faulty financial controls.” And the problems haven’t gone away: just last year, NASA’s associate administrator for human spaceflight Doug Loverro resigned amid allegations for improper contacts with Boeing regarding the contracts for NASA’s moon lander program. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has raised numerous concerns about NASA’s procurement system, and NASA attributed the Taurus XL launch failures, worth $700 million, to faulty materials provided by a contractor that falsified thousands of certifications for their aluminum products.

Though NASA has since taken some measures to curb against the potential for this sort of corruption (such as the installation of a Chief Financial Officer and the Acquisition Integrity Program), the risks are still significant, especially as NASA ponders a return to crewed missions by way of billion dollar contracts. These risks are further exacerbated by the agency’s even greater reliance on private sector contractors to compensate for the decline in the agency’s budget. There are therefore several additional steps that NASA can and should take to further safeguard integrity in the procurement process.

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Corruption Should Be a Laughing Matter

Corruption is a serious matter—it sucks away public finances, undermines good governance, ends livelihoods, and consumes lives. It’s therefore understandable that many anticorruption activists center much of their work on getting people to take corruption seriously. But despite the underlying gravity of the problem, sometimes a surprisingly effective way to fight against corruption is to make people laugh about it.

Consider Alexei Navalny, the Russian activist whose attempted assassination, arrest, and imprisonment underscore just how much Moscow has recognized his power. One of the striking things about the explosive videos that Navalny has released to expose the Putin regime’s corruption is that the videos aren’t just shocking—they’re funny. People enjoy watching them because of their biting humor—and while they’re laughing, they also learn about Putin’s siphoning of public funds for his own benefit.

There are plenty of other examples of anticorruption activists effectively using humor as part of their campaigns. To mention just a few:

  • Last summer, Lebanese activists staged a fake—and deliberately comical—“funeral” for the Lebanese currency (the lira), as a protest against the cronyism and mismanagement that “killed” the Lebanese lira and tanked the country’s economy. A video of the “funeral” gathered over 10,600 views on Twitter and brought renewed international attention to an anticorruption protest movement that at that point was approaching its seventh month without much success.
  • A Chinese artist known as Badiucao has used satirical art to bring attention to the ruling party’s political corruption, including a famous “promotional poster” for the TV series House of Cards, with Xi Jinping sitting on the throne instead of series villain Frank Underwood. His art helped spark renewed criticism of the regime and is credited with inspiring political cartoons throughout Hong Kong’s democratic uprising against China’s controversial 2019 extradition bill.
  • In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky was elevated from comedian to President of Ukraine by campaigning on an anticorruption platform. Comedy was a key part of his 2018 campaign—instead of traditional rallies, he held performances by comedy troupes skewering the corruption of the incumbent regime.
  • Back in 2004, the then-mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus pushed back against the city’s petty corruption through antics like inducting 150 “honest” taxi drivers into a fictional club called the “Knights of the Zebra.”

These and other examples illustrate an important lesson for anticorruption activists: Notwithstanding the seriousness of corruption and the harm that it causes, humor can be a powerful tool in spreading an anticorruption message. As a rhetorical device, humor has a few distinctive strengths:

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Guest Post. Corruption Victims: Law and Practice in Italy, Russia, other European States

Earlier this month, I asked readers for help on a UNODC project examining the compensation of corruption victims.  UNCAC article 35 requires states parties to ensure those injured by “an act of corruption” can initiate “legal proceedings. . . to obtain compensation.” In 2017, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that virtually all 187 convention parties say their laws permit those injured by corruption to bring an action to recover damages. Yet few cases appear to have been brought.  The project seeks answers to three questions: Are there really few cases? If so, why? And what can be done to increase the number?

My thanks to the several readers who replied.  Thanks especially to Mjriana Visentin. An Italian lawyer with a Master’s Degree from the International Anticorruption Academy, Mjriana has been working on human rights and anticorruption for several years, most recently in Russia. She was kind enough to respond to my query with a thoughtful analysis reflecting both her experience representing victims of human rights abuses and corruption in Russia – categories which often overlap in practice – and current law on recovery of damages for corruption in Italy, other European states, and the European Court of Human Rights.  A valuable contribution to the global discussion on corruption victim compensation, it is below.  

Probably it would be useful to differentiate between types of corruption before discussing if victims did (or could) claim compensation.  If we are talking for example of extortion by a public official, I think that an analysis of the national case law will likely show a large number of individuals who were granted victim status and sought compensation.  [Editor’s note: a point I had not appreciated. I have subsequently learned that upon a conviction for extortion in Sri Lanka, defendants reportedly are required to return the bribe to the victim.  Example cases solicited from there or other jurisdictions.

As for other types of corruption, the situation may be more blurred.

Reviewing the laws of a number of European state members, I have seen that corruption still tends to be framed either as a victimless crime or crime against the state. This affects the view that potential victims have of themselves.

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The Trump Administration and Corruption: A Preliminary Retrospective

As of yesterday at 12 noon, U.S. East Coast Time, Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America.

First, let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

OK, now we can start thinking about what we’ve learned from this traumatic experience. There is no shortage of political and cultural commentary on the Trump era and its implications, and I have little of substance to add to that general discussion. But, given that this is a blog specifically focused on corruption, let me offer a few reflections on the implications of the last four years for corruption and anticorruption in the United States.

At the risk of self-indulgence, I’ll frame this preliminary discussion in terms of my own guesses, as of four years ago, about how the Trump Administration would affect U.S. corruption and anticorruption policy. Immediately after Trump’s election, I wrote a despondent post about why I thought that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the fight against corruption on many different dimensions. Roughly a year later, I did a follow-up post assessing my own predictions, concluding that on some issues my pessimistic forecasts proved inaccurate (for reasons I did my best to assess), while on other dimensions the Trump administration was as bad or worse than I had feared. Now that Trump is finally out of office, it’s a good time for another retrospective assessment—both to understand where things stand now with respect to U.S. policy and leadership on anticorruption issues, and also to see what lessons we might be able to draw from the experience of the past four years. Continue reading

Is the Global Magnitsky Sanctions Program Working?

The 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (GMA), inspired by the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia after his discovery of $230 million in tax fraud orchestrated by the Russian government, stands as the boldest authorization of U.S. economic sanctions in the fight against corruption. Executive Order 13818, issued in December 2017, designated the first sanctioned parties under GMA, enabling asset freezes and travel bans.

Since then, approximately 150 individuals and entities worldwide have been sanctioned for corruption under the GMA. (The GMA also allows for sanctions against human rights violators, and such authority was exercised to target 75 more individuals and entities.) The list includes current and former government officials—or those acting on their behalf—in Cambodia, China, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Iraq, Latvia, Lebanon, Mexico, Nicaragua, Serbia, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, and Uzbekistan, among others. The designations include familiar names in the anticorruption community such as Gulnara Karimova, former Uzbek first daughter convicted of embezzlement and other corruption totaling more than $1.3 billion, Dan Gertler, the Israeli billionaire who earned millions of dollars through underpriced mining contracts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angel Rondon Rijo, a Dominican lobbyist central to Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht’s $4.5 billion Latin America-wide bribery-for-contracts scheme. Other sanctioned parties include the former Gambian president and first lady for misappropriating $50 million in state funds, a former Mexican judge and a former Mexican governor who took bribes from drug cartels, and a Sudanese businessman who, along with senior South Sudanese government officials, embezzled millions of dollars from a government food program.

The GMA represents a new era of so-called “smart sanctions.” Instead of limiting transactions with an entire country—as in the case of U.S. sanctions programs targeting Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria—these individualized sanctions are designed to maximize harm and minimize collateral economic damage by restricting only bad actors’ access to global commerce, not that of entire populations. This approach is catching on outside the United States, with Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union recently announcing their own GMA-esque sanctions, while other countries, like Australia and Japan, are actively considering adopting similar programs.

Yet, a fundamental question remains: is the GMA working?

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What Made Alexei Navalny an Anticorruption Icon?

On August 20, 2020, former Russian presidential candidate Alexei Navalny fell ill while on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow. He slipped into a coma and was immediately evacuated to Berlin, where doctors discovered that Navalny had been poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent. While the Kremlin has denied any involvement, the chemical nerve agent used on Navalny was similar to the one that Russia was accused of using to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018.

A Kremlin-orchestrated attempt on Navalny’s life was hardly surprising. For the past decade, Navalny has been making a name for himself as one of the leading figures opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Navalny has denounced United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves” and has organized campaigns to unseat Putin-affiliated politicians across the country. Furthermore, Navalny’s investigative journalism has uncovered government corruption, and he has used these exposés to advocate for political reform and to bolster his own popularity, especially among the younger generation. Navalny’s success in exposing corruption highlights several interesting and unique tactics and personal attributes that allowed him to be an effective advocate in a country that routinely punishes government opposition.

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Lebanon Disaster Update: An Excellent and Disturbing OCCRP Report Sheds New Light on the Backstory of the Deadly Explosion

A couple of weeks ago, I did a short post in reaction to the deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 182 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. My post wasn’t really about the Lebanon blast per se—especially because the causes of the explosion, and the role that corruption may have played, were unclear—but rather discussed more generally the direct and indirect ways that widespread corruption can increase the risk of deadly accidents. But I continue to wonder whether, with respect to the Beirut tragedy, it will turn out that corruption (rather than “mere” incompetence) will have been a contributing cause.

We still don’t have all the answers—particularly with respect to the decision-making process within Lebanon itself—but thanks to excellent investigative reporting by an international team of journalists with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we now have a great deal more information about the shadowy and highly suspicious backstory of the abandoned ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in the first place. I don’t think I can do the report justice, but I highly recommend that everyone read it—it’s available here. And to give you a sense of what’s in it, I’ll just quote the main findings summarized at the beginning of the report: Continue reading

The U.S. Should Enact the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act

As I have previously discussed on this blog, corruption is sports is a serious and systemic issue. I recommended that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ban Russia from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and WADA did indeed decide to ban Russia from global sports for four years in the aftermath of Russia’s years-long state-sponsored doping program. The 2020 Olympics was postponed due to the coronavirus, and other major sports events will not be taking place for the foreseeable future, but once it is safe to hold these events again—indeed, before then—the work to combat corruption in sports must continue. Russia appealed WADA’s decision, and thus far the ban is the only consequence facing Russia and the state officials who engineered the doping program. It is unclear whether the ban will be enough for Russia to learn its lesson, or enough to deter other countries from trying to get away with similar ploys.

Fortunately, the United States has the opportunity to become a leader in fighting this kind of corruption in sports. Last fall, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act of 2019, named for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistleblower who revealed the Russian state-sponsored doping scheme and who has been the target of Russian retaliation ever since. This bill would make it a crime for “any person, other than an athlete, to knowingly carry into effect, attempt to carry into effect, or conspire with any other person to carry into effect a scheme in commerce to influence by use of a prohibited substance or prohibited method any major international sports competition” in which U.S. athletes compete; the bill also permits U.S. citizens to pursue monetary compensation for deceptive competition and provides protections for whistleblowers. The bill, now pending in the U.S. Senate, has received bipartisan support, as well as the endorsement of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

WADA, on the other hand, has raised concerns about the bill, especially the proposed law’s allegedly impermissible extraterritorial reach. This objection is unpersuasive, for several reasons:

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New Podcast, Featuring Charles Davidson

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Charles Davidson, currently the publisher of the American Interest magazine, and previously the co-founder of Global Financial Integrity and the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative. We discuss a variety of topics, including financial integrity, beneficial ownership transparency, and kleptocracy–including the threat that kleptocratic wealth from authoritarian states poses to liberal democracies, the use of targeted sanctions against individual corrupt actors, and concerns about how kleptocrats use Western institutions not only to launder their money, but also to launder their reputations.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

[NOTE: This episode begins with some introductory housekeeping material about future directions for the KickBack podcast. If you want to jump straight to the interview, it begins at 3:07.]

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

If the International Community Takes Corruption in Sports Seriously, Russia Should Be Banned from the 2020 Olympics

Corruption in sports has been recognized as a serious and systemic problem (see here and here). One of the most egregious examples of sports-related corruption is Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. A 2015 report issued by an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency found that this program involved athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, and Russian institutions. Some of the most serious allegations were that members of the Russian secret service (the FSB) had pressured lab workers to cover up positive drug testing results (with one lab destroying more than 1,400 samples), top Russian sports officials submitting fake urine samples, and athletes assuming false identities, paying for destruction of positive doping results, and bribing anti-doping authorities. The former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, has provided additional explanations as to how he and others, including FSB agents, enabled doping for the country’s athletes.

In light of these revelations, WADA recommended that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban Russia in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics; however the IOC permitted each sport to consider individual athletes for participation. After an additional 2016 investigation known as the McLaren report produced additional evidence regarding Russian violations, the IOC did ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics, and banned several individual athletes for life, but the IOC permitted 168 Russians to compete neutrally as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” WADA reinstated Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency as compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code in September 2018, subject to two conditions: (1) Russian anti-doping authorities must accept the McLaren report findings; and (2) Russia must make data in its Moscow laboratory available to WADA inspection.

Yet Russia has not learned its lesson:

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