Getting State Anticorruption Commissions to Work

In the elections last November 6, citizens in New Mexico and North Dakota voted to amend their state constitutions to establish state anticorruption commissions. In doing so, they joined the vast majority of American states (currently 44 out of 50) that have created similar (or at least similarly-named) commissions—starting with Hawaii back in 1968. The impulse to create a special commission to deal with a significant problem like public corruption is certainly understandable. Indeed, many state commissions were created immediately after a major public corruption scandal, when public frustration was running high. At the same time, though, the record of such state-level anticorruption commissions in the US is mixed at best (see, for example, here, here, and here). And despite the similarities in their names, many of these commissions actually do quite different things—with some functioning like ethics commissions that publish quasi-legislative standards and others functioning more like mini-prosecutors’ offices. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that voters in New Mexico or North Dakota knew exactly what they were voting for when they went to the ballot boxes. In New Mexico, the referendum measure left to it to the state legislature to determine how the commission would operate, while the language in the North Dakota referendum suggested that the commission’s duties would be largely optional.

Despite their diversity and admittedly mixed track record, state anticorruption commissions have many potential benefits. They can provide clear reporting channels for individuals who have witnessed corruption; they can evaluate systemic corruption risks by sector and recommend more targeted reforms to state legislators; and they can enhance accountability by investigating ethics complaints and corruption allegations, and referring appropriate cases to state prosecutors’ offices. But in order to be effective, state commissions need to have certain institutional features and safeguards.

Continue reading

Thoughts from the Menendez Trial: Preventing Corruption from the Start

Last fall’s corruption trial of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) ended rather anticlimactically, with the presiding judge declaring a mistrial after the jury announced that it couldn’t reach a decision, and the Department of Justice eventually deciding not to retry him. Senator Menendez had been accused of taking donations and gifts from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for advocating for visas for Melgen’s foreign girlfriends, the award of a government contract, and the resolution of a Medicare billing dispute. Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled on the broader implications of the Menendez case for other bribery prosecutions (on this blog here, and elsewhere here and here).

But putting aside the specifics of the case, what caught my eye about the allegations against Senator Menendez was a background feature of U.S. law that seems to have gone largely undiscussed: It’s perfectly legal (and normal) for non-constituents to contribute to political candidates. In other words, even if you are barred from voting for a candidate because you live outside that candidate’s district, you can still express your support by pulling out your checkbook. That lack of constraint on donations seems to invite the very kind of corruption the government alleged in the Menendez case, because it allows a wealthy donor to find and purchase his or her own “personal United States senator.”

I’m certainly not the first person to voice the concern that allowing non-residents to contribute to political candidates may facilitate corruption. Two states—Alaska and Hawaii—have recognized the risk posed by allowing non-residents to contribute to political candidates. They’ve responded by limiting those donations. But in the Lower 48 and in all federal elections, there are no differential limits on contributions from people residing outside the state, so long as they are American citizens or permanent residents. (Alaska’s law is currently facing a First Amendment challenge from an aspiring donor whose gift was returned because the candidate he supported had already reached the out-of-state contribution limits. A federal judge upheld the law as a “closely drawn” effort by the state to prevent “quid pro quo corruption or its appearance,” but the would-be donor has appealed.) Putting aside the constitutional defenses of the sorts of laws that Alaska and Hawaii have adopted (which you can find in the amicus briefs filed in the Alaska case here, here, and here), there are strong policy reasons for limiting contributions by people living outside a state or district—not least because such limits, as the judge in the Alaska case noted, can be a useful tool for preventing corruption or its appearance:

Continue reading

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