Guest Post: The Obiang Trial Suggests Innovative Approaches To Fighting International Corruption

GAB is pleased to welcome back Frederick Davis, a lawyer in the Paris office of Debevoise & Plimpton, who contributes the following guest post:

Over the past two months, the French Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris (the principal trial court) heard evidence in the case against Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (known as Teodorin), on charges of corruption and money laundering, among other allegations. Teodorin is the son of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the long-time – and notoriously corrupt – President of Equatorial Guinea, a resource-rich country that also has some of the most widespread poverty in the world. Yet Teodorin, who is currently Vice President , owns vast real estate in Paris, a private jet, a yacht, and a fleet of vintage and modern automobiles, among his other known assets. This case has been discussed extensively on this blog (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but it’s useful to recap how the case came to trial in the first place:

The case against Teodorin was primarily the result of diligent efforts by NGOs, including the French anticorruption group Sherpa and the French chapter of Transparency International (TI). In 2007, Sherpa and others filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor in Paris alleging that the ruling families of Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Burkina Faso and the Republic of the Congo held assets in France that were not the fruits of their official salaries. After a brief investigation, the Public Prosecutor dismissed the claims. Several of the NGOs, joined in some instances by citizens of the countries in question, then used a French procedure known as constitution de partie civile to cause a criminal investigation by an investigating magistrate (juge d’instruction). This effort was opposed by the Public Prosecutor. A Court of Appeals initially upheld the prosecutor’s position and dismissed TI’s intervention, but in an important 2010 ruling, the French Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court) ruled that TI was a proper partie civile authorized to instigate the criminal investigation. Ultimately Teodorin was bound over for trial, now with the support of the Public Prosecutor (as well as the continued active participation of TI and other NGOs). A decision is expected in October.

The procedures that brought Obiang to trial are interesting because they highlight four important differences between French and US criminal procedures, and more generally illustrate several legal deficiencies, in countries like the United States, that often hinder the worldwide fight against transnational corruption: Continue reading

CREW’s New and Improved Legal Complaint Against Trump

Can anything be done about the serious corruption risks posed by Donald Trump’s dual role as President of the United States and patriarch of a vast business empire? Do any of these apparent conflicts of interest break the law? If so, is it reasonable to hope that the courts will step in?

As readers of this blog are likely aware, a group of activists, lawyers, and legal scholars have asserted that the answers to the above questions are Yes, Yes, and Yes. The fact that President Trump’s companies do business with foreign governments, the argument goes, means that the President is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which prohibits any person “holding any office of profit or trust under [the United States]” from accepting, without congressional consent, “any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.” Shortly after the inauguration, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit advocacy group, filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that President Trump was in violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause and a court order enjoining the President from further violations of that clause.

Before CREW filed its suit, I was skeptical about the prospects of a judicial remedy for this alleged Emoluments Clause violation—not because I didn’t think that President Trump was in violation of the clause (quite the opposite), but because I didn’t think it was realistic to expect that a court would be willing to order the sitting President to rearrange his financial affairs (or hold him in contempt if he didn’t). My prediction was that the court would find a way to dismiss the suit on jurisdictional grounds, or deem it a non-justiciable “political question.” And my skepticism only deepened after CREW filed its original complaint. Like many other legal analysts, I thought that CREW’s claimed basis for “standing” (which requires a direct, concrete, non-ideological injury to the plaintiff) was flimsy and would likely be rejected, and I worried that the whole enterprise would prove counterproductive, because a dismissal on jurisdictional grounds would be widely misinterpreted as a judicial rejection of the substantive claim that Donald Trump is violating the Constitution.

Two days ago, CREW filed an amended complaint, which has caused me to rethink (though not entirely abandon) my earlier skepticism. The new complaint includes a number of changes, but by far the two most important are these:

  1. The amended complaint adds two new plaintiffs to the suit—an association of restaurants and a Washington, D.C. event planner—whose claims to have standing are much stronger than CREW’s.
  2. The amended complaint also adds new substantive allegations that President Trump is not only violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause, but is also violating a separate provision of the Constitution, the so-called “Domestic Emoluments Clause,” which states that the President shall receive a fixed salary, which cannot be changed during his term, and that the President “shall not receive within that period any other emolument from the United States, or any [state].”

In a future post I may have something to say about the Domestic Emoluments Clause issue, but for now I want to focus on how much difference the addition of the two new plaintiffs makes to the likelihood that the lawsuit will survive a motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds. My initial take is that it makes a big difference—the case for standing, under current doctrine, is now much stronger than it was before—but some problems still remain. Continue reading

Why CREW’s Foreign Emoluments Lawsuit Probably Won’t Succeed

A couple months back, before Donald Trump was formally inaugurated as President of the United States, I dismissed as a “pipe dream” the idea of successfully suing President Trump for violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause—which prohibits any United States officeholder from accepting any “emolument” from a foreign state without the consent of Congress—due to the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments. Was my dismissive take premature? We may find out soon: Earlier this week, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York raising this very claim, and asking the New York court to issue an order enjoining President Trump from continuing to violate the Clause.

I have a great deal of respect for CREW, and on the merits, I tend to think that Trump may well be in violation of the clause (though I don’t think it’s quite as obvious as the CREW brief and some other commentators have suggested, for reasons I might get into in a future post). But I continue to be skeptical that this suit has much chance of success, because I don’t think that the court will ever reach the merits of the claim. Rather, the case is likely to be dismissed before reaching the merits, for three reasons. Continue reading

Removing Barriers to Private Actions Against Corruption by Liberalizing Standing Doctrine

Although most countries have traditionally relied on public bodies to enforce anticorruption laws, frustration with the ineffectiveness of public enforcement has led a growing number of activists and scholars to champion private lawsuits as an additional tool in the anticorruption arsenal (see, for example, here and here). Not only can private enforcement supplement government enforcement, but (as I have discussed previously) private enforcement can push public enforcers to do their job more scrupulously. However, in many jurisdictions private actions to enforce anticorruption laws face a daunting obstacle: the doctrine of standing (known in some jurisdictions by its Latin name, locus standi). The difficulty is that most corruption cases do not have an identifiable victim, or an aggrieved person in its traditional sense. For this reason, in many jurisdictions, those parties (often civil society NGOs) attempting to bring private suits against corrupt actors may be deemed not to have the requisite standing.

The question, then, is whether it is possible and desirable to adopt a broader conception of standing, one that would entitle citizens or NGOs to initiate actions against corrupt actors, even if the complainants cannot establish that they were personally and directly injured by the alleged corrupt conduct. Proponents of a restrictive interpretation of standing doctrine tend to argue that a more expansive notion of standing could inundate the courts with weak cases, including cases brought by vexatious litigants without a genuine interest in the underlying allegations. But these concerns are exaggerated. It is quite possible, as several jurisdictions have already demonstrated, to liberalize standing doctrine to empower private anticorruption plaintiffs without opening the floodgates of meritless litigation. Moreover, the legitimate concerns about abuse of the judicial process can be addressed in other ways. Continue reading

Some Successful Initiatives by Civil Society to Prompt Corruption-Related Litigation

In an earlier post I promoted a conference on corruption the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict and the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Initiative had planned for June 2014 to discuss ways civil society could stimulate corruption-related litigation, be it criminal investigations or private actions for damages.  The conference was held June 28 with some 100 individuals from civil society, academia, law firms, and governments attending, and one of the highlights was presentations describing successful efforts by civil society groups in India, Nigeria, France, and Switzerland. Continue reading