The Case for State-Level Anticorruption Prosecutions in the U.S.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a huge role in the prosecution of state-level public corruption: Over the past five years, federal prosecutors have obtained the convictions of approximately 1,700 corrupt state and local officials for corruption-related offenses. Examples range from prominent and powerful figures like Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, to low-level functionaries like Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, Jr., two former members of the School Board of Donna, Texas.

The federal government’s primacy in prosecuting state and local corruption is no accident. One of the stories of American law enforcement in the 20th century, especially though not exclusively in the anticorruption context, is the expanding role of the federal government, an expansion that was in part a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of state law enforcement. Most states in the U.S. elect both prosecutors and judges, and concerns that these elected officials were under-resourced, incompetent, partisan, or captured by local influence-peddlers contributed to the rise of federal criminal law enforcement. The federal government’s role in prosecuting state and local corruption blossomed in the 1970s, with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices taking the lead, supported by a new DOJ Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s offices were considered more independent and less vulnerable to capture than local law enforcement, were generally better resourced than their state and local counterparts, and were able to focus those resources on picked cases.

This system has worked well and achieved considerable success. Many argue—with justification—that the federal government’s central role in prosecuting state and local corruption was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of corrupt political machines at the subnational level. But today, it’s important for state prosecutors to do more to supplement, and in some cases perhaps supplant, federal anticorruption prosecutions. If the story of the 20th century was a distrust of states to police their own politicians, the early 21st century story may be that we can no longer completely trust the feds to do it either. There are three main reasons why, going forward, we may need to rely increasingly on the states:

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State-Level Responses to Trump’s Corrupt Mix of Business and Politics: Some Preliminary Proposals

In my last post, I suggested that legal responses to concerns about corruption in the Trump Administration—in particular, concerns about Trump’s use of the presidency to enrich his family—might be more successful at the state level than at the federal level, and might be more viable if they do not attempt to target Trump directly, but rather deploy state law tools to limit the Trump family’s ability to leverage Trump’s position for commercial gain. My last post noted two proposals for lines of legal attack that could be initiated by state attorneys general (or possibly by private parties) under existing bodies of state law: state unfair competition laws (some of which are framed very broadly) and state corporate laws (which give states considerable power to regulate corporations, and possibly limited liability companies (LLCs), operating pursuant to state charters).

These proposals are attractive because they do not require any changes in existing laws. At the same time, and for that same reason, the laws in question are not necessarily well-tailored to the specific and unprecedented corruption/conflict-of-interest problems at issue in the Trump Administration. For that reason, it might be worth exploring potential changes to state law that would give state enforcement agencies, and possibly private litigants, more effective tools to rein in some of the most egregious sorts of potential conflicts, and thereby to enforce a more rigid separation between the Trump Administration and the Trump family’s business interests. Even though Republicans control the large majority of state governments, there are several states where Democrats and sympathetic Republicans might well have enough clout to pass such legislation—including, perhaps most importantly, California, New York, and Delaware. (Many other states have popular ballot initiative processes that might enable the passage of legislation even over the objections of Republican-controlled state legislatures.)

What might such state-level legislative reforms look like? This is a topic I hope to explore in a series of future posts, but here let me throw out a few relatively simple preliminary ideas: Continue reading

State-Level Responses to Trump’s Business Conflicts: A More Promising Line of Attack?

It is genuinely alarming how much Donald Trump seems intent—in true kleptocratic/crony capitalist style—on using his position as President to advance the commercial and financial interests of himself, his immediate family members, and their various business enterprises. As I’ve written before, this approach to governance (if you can call it that) has plenty of precedents elsewhere in the world, but it’s a new experience for Americans. One hopes the U.S. electorate will come to its senses and throw the bum out in four years, but that’s a long way away. In the meantime, the hope that the President might be impeached over his possibly unconstitutional conflicts of interest seems profoundly unrealistic: Republicans control both the House and the Senate, and most Republicans actually seem quite happy to accommodate themselves to a Trump Administration if it enables them to advance their policy goals. Even those Republicans who find Trump’s conduct inexcusable are far more worried about a primary challenge supported by Trump’s rabid supporters than they are about the general electorate. For the same reason, proposals for new federal legislation that would strengthen ethical restraints on the President, whatever their symbolic value, are likely dead-on-arrival as practical proposals. Perhaps understandably, some anticorruption advocates have placed their hopes in the federal courts, most notably through lawsuits alleging that the Trump Organization’s business dealings with foreign governments violate the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, though for reasons I have explained in previous posts (see here and here), I’m doubtful that such lawsuits have much chance of success.

This is all very depressing, and I acknowledge that in the short term there’s relatively little that can be done; the ultimate remedy will have to be through the electoral process. Nonetheless, I do think that the ideas of enacting new legislation and pursuing certain forms of litigation do hold some promise as means to impose significant constraints on Trumpian corruption. The problem with the proposals I noted above is that they involve proposed responses at the federal level, and for the most part they target the President himself. There’s an alternative, though: Litigation and legislation at the state level, targeting Trump’s business interests and their potential commercial partners. Though hardly a complete solution, there may be a number of things to do at the state level to constrain at least some of the abuses associated with politically-connected business interests that seek to leverage those political connections for commercial advantage, or to facilitate corrupt or otherwise unlawful conduct. To illustrate, let me note a couple of ideas that other experts have floated about how aggressive state attorneys general (or perhaps private litigants) might make use of existing state laws to target Trumpian corruption: Continue reading