The Anticorruption Campaigner’s Guide to Asset Seizure

Anticorruption campaigners have long argued that Western governments should be more aggressive in freezing and seizing the assets of kleptocrats and corrupt oligarchs. While targeting illicit assets has been part of the West’s anticorruption arsenal for many years, attention to this tactic has surged in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Almost as soon as Russian troops crossed the border into Ukrainian territory, not only did Western governments impose an array of economic sanctions on Russian institutions and individuals close to the Putin regime, but also—assisted by journalists who identified dozens of properties, collectively worth billions—Western law enforcement agencies began seizing Russian oligarchs’ private jetsvacation homes, and superyachts.

Many people who are unfamiliar with this area—and even some who are—might naturally wonder about the legal basis for targeting these assets. And indeed, the law in this area has some important nuances that are not always fully appreciated in mainstream media reporting and popular commentary. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Igor Logvinenko

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. During the ongoing emergency in Ukraine, as Russia’s unprovoked military aggression throws the region and the world into crisis, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN) and I are going to try as best as we can to feature on KickBack experts who can shed greater light on how issues related to corruption relate to the ongoing crisis. And rather than keeping to our usual schedule of releasing new episodes every two weeks, we will release new episodes as soon as they are available. In the new episode, I had the opportunity to speak to Igor Logvinenko, Associate Professor at Occidental College and author of Global Finance, Local Control: Corruption and Wealth in Contemporary Russia. In the first part of our conversation, Igor discusses Russia’s Russia’s historical corruption and current financial integration into world business, and we then turn to the impact of the current sanctions on Russia–including government sanctions on Russia and Russian companies, actions by private companies, and the use of targeted individual sanctions and asset seizures. In addition to discussing these issues in the context of the current war, Igor also discusses more broadly the role of Western financial systems, international financial integration, and the possibility for locally-driven structural changes to fight grand corruption. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (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.

Corruption, Sanctions, and the War in Ukraine: A Short Interview in Harvard Law Today

My home institution’s in-house publication, Harvard Law Today, recently interviewed me on some of the topics we’ve been covering on this blog (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here) and on the KickBack podcast (here and here) related to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. As I tried to emphasize in the interview itself, I am very far from an expert in many of the specific issues at the intersection of corruption and the Russia-Ukraine war, but I tried to pull together succinctly some of what I’d learned from conversations with actual expert over the last couple of weeks. For those who are interested, you can find the interview here.

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Inna Melnykovska

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. During the ongoing emergency in Ukraine, as Russia’s unprovoked military aggression throws the region and the world into crisis, my colleagues at the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (ICRN) and I are going to try as best as we can to feature on KickBack experts who can shed greater light on how issues related to corruption relate to the ongoing crisis. And rather than keeping to our usual schedule of releasing new episodes every two weeks, we will release new episodes as soon as they are available. In the new episode, I had the opportunity to speak to Inna Melnykovska, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Central European University. Professor Melnykovska is an expert on state-business relations and crony capitalism in Ukraine and Russia, and is working on a book project tentatively titled Global Money, Local Politics: Big Business, Capital Mobility and the Transformation of Crony Capitalism in Eurasia. Our podcast conversation focuses on her research in this area and its implications for the current crisis. We discuss the similarities and contrasts between the “crony capitalism” systems in Ukraine and Russia, the extent to which Ukrainian President Zelensky was pursuing policies that would reduce the influence of oligarchs on Ukrainian government, whether movement toward cleaner and more democratic government in Ukraine may have been perceived by Putin’s administration as a political threat, and whether (or when) we might hope that economic sanction on Russian elites and oligarchs might have a political impact. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the Interdisciplinary Corruption Research Network (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.

A Message from Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Research and Education Center

On my previous visits to Kyiv, I have had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with several of the outstanding scholars and researchers affiliated with the Anti-Corruption Research and Education Centre (ACREC). This morning, ACREC a message to a list of people in the worldwide anticorruption research community, describing the situation in Ukraine and appealing for more international support. With ACREC’s permission, I am reproducing the message below:

Dear colleagues

Anti-Corruption Research and Education Centre (ACREC) addresses you on the ninth day of the invasion of the russian federation.

All these days we have been trying our best to help the Armed Forces of Ukraine – to transfer funds, organize aid and necessary purchases. We also helped people in need and those who were forced to leave their homes.

Some of us still remain in the hottest spots of today’s war – Kyiv and Kharkiv.

You can see how russian troops are bombing Kyiv and its suburbs, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Enerhodar and it’s nuclear power plant. We are sure that many of you have been to these cities and remember them only for the best. Help us save these cities, their people and Ukraine. Call on your governments to close the skies over Ukraine in order to prevent further casualties and to help neutralize military aggression. This is a war not only against Ukraine, but also against the whole civilized world. Putin’s terror will not stop exclusively on the territory of Ukraine, after some time it may be repeated with other neighboring countries of russia. Ukraine is only the first outpost on the path to a peaceful Europe. Ukraine will fall – Europe will fall.

We, as a think tank at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, appeal to you to call on your governments to support Ukraine in every possible way and to prevent further losses among the military and civilian population of our country by:

  • closing the skies over Ukraine as it was done during the 2008 Russian-Georgian war;
  • further implementation and strengthening of sanctions against russia, its leadership and its satellite countries, family members of the russian leadership;
  • sanctions against those associated with the leadership of the aggressor country should be sought separately: https://putinwallets.org/
  • depriving Russia of the status of a member of the world’s leading organizations, such as the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly.

If you have friends and / or colleagues from russia, please spread the truth about their military aggression against Ukraine by their state.

We also sending you the links on:

  • website for fundraising for the needs of the Ukrainian army: https://savelife.in.ua/. In addition, we encourage you to join the volunteer initiatives in your countries to help Ukrainian citizens in need;
  • website with news in English about the course of military aggression in Ukraine: https://edition.cnn.com/; https://www.bbc.com/russian;
  • website for the search for prisoners of war and victims of military aggression: https://gdemoysyn.com/.

If you have any questions, you can contact us – we will help with any kind of information.

Best regards,
ACREC Team

A Brief Note on Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (or, more accurately, the dramatic escalation and expansion of the invasion that Russia already started eight years ago) is horrifying. As I type this, Russian forces are moving against Kyiv, and Ukrainian defense forces and reservists are preparing to defend their capital city against overwhelming odds, while the Ukrainian army elsewhere in the country is doing its best to resist Russian advances from all directions. I have nothing useful to say about this terrible situation. I am not a military analyst, an expert in geopolitics, or even terribly knowledgeable about aspects of this crisis closer to my own areas of expertise (such as questions regarding the efficacy of sanctions the West is imposing, or could impose). I’m just a professor, not terribly well known outside my fairly narrow areas of academic specialization, who runs a blog about anticorruption. But this morning, I can’t really think of anything else to write about.

Maybe at some point I’ll be able to collect and organize my thoughts and say something coherent about how this war relates to the global fight against corruption. There most certainly is a connection–probably several connections–even though corruption/anticorruption is only one part of the story. For now, let me just share scattered thoughts and reactions: 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?

Continue reading

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:

Continue reading

Why (and How) the US Should Use “Sanctions Money” to Help Victims of Corruption 

Individually-targeted sanctions pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) have been used to hold individuals responsible for acts of grand corruption and human rights abuse in places like Russia and the DRC (explained here and here). Yet more can and should be done to compensate the victims of those same crimes. Advocates should push the US to use the compensatory mechanisms of other US sanctions regimes to strengthen the power of the GMA to compensate victims.

GMA sanctions, like other individually-targeted sanctions, are administered by a division of the US Treasury Department called the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). When an individual is placed on the US sanctions list—known as the “specially designated nationals” (SDN) list)—that individual’s US assets are frozen in an interest-bearing account until either the individual is removed from the SDN list or the assets are seized. In the interim, any US-dollar denominated transaction with those accounts is blocked. Moreover, any person subject to US jurisdiction who does business with any individual on the SDN list can be hit with a steep civil fines for every transaction with the blocked assets, which can cumulatively run into the millions, sometimes billions, of dollars.

Those two pots of money—the frozen assets of the individuals on the SDN list, and the fines imposed on those who violate the sanctions imposed on those SDNs—could and should be used to compensate the individuals victimized by the corruption or other wrongful conduct of those SDNs. Here’s how these approaches might work in the US context, given precedent of other sanctions regimes:

Continue reading

Getting People Off the Sanctions List: A Process that Doesn’t Support the Policy

Individually-targeted “smart sanctions”—not to be confused with country-wide sanctions, such as trade or arms embargoes—are garnering increased attention as a potentially powerful tool in the anticorruption toolkit, particularly in the United States. Such sanctions typically prohibit persons or entities on the list of those under sanction (known in the U.S. as the Specially Designated and Blocked Person (SDN) list) from accessing the sanctioning country’s financial system. They can also impose travel bans and/or prohibit third parties subject to the sanctioning country’s jurisdiction from doing business with the targeted individuals. These individually-targeted sanctions, particularly the asset freezes, are a powerful instrument, and may be an especially effective deterrent in the context of venal crimes like corruption, given that those motivated principally by greed might also be more sensitive to severe financial penalties. (According to a 2016 study by the US State Department, a sanctioned or associated company loses, on average, over half of its asset value and one-third of its employees and operating revenues.) While the United States had previously used individually-targeted asset freezes to punish individuals responsible for acts of public corruption in places like Venezuela (pursuant to Executive Order (EO) 13692), Syria (pursuant to EO 13460), and Zimbabwe (pursuant to EO 13469), the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) has made individually-targeted asset freezes a more prominent piece of the US anticorruption arsenal. Pursuant to this Act, last December President Trump authorized sanctions against 15 individuals and 37 entities for human rights abuses and acts of grand corruption; in June, the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) added two more entities and five more individuals to the list.

In the months since OFAC released the first tranche of GMA names, there has been extensive discussion about how civil society organizations (CSOs) can add more names to the Global Magnitsky list. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Rob Berschinski, for example, is spearheading efforts through Human Rights First to coordinate CSOs endeavouring to submit names for consideration, while the Helsinki Commission organized a special “how-to” event for CSOs to help them be more effective in lobbying to add names to the list.

Yet for all this attention on how to get names on to the GMA list, little ink has been spilled addressing the question of how sanctioned individuals might get off that list. It’s not surprising that CSOs would not devote their scarce resources to getting individuals who have engaged in acts of grand corruption off of a sanctions list. Yet the de-listing issue is important—even in contexts where it’s unlikely that a name would be added to the list erroneously. The main reason has to do with incentives. As the US Treasury Department acknowledges, the “ultimate goal with sanctions is not to punish, but to bring about a positive change in behavior of illicit actors.” And it is the prospect of getting off the sanctions list that can encourage bad actors to change their behavior and/or to cooperate with the US government investigations into wrongdoing. Continue reading