Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Pledge Tracker Is Badly Flawed. It Needs To Be Redone from Scratch.

In May 2016, at the London Anticorruption Summit sponsored by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, participating countries issued declarations announcing a variety of commitments—some new, some continuations of existing policies—to further the fight against international corruption. Of course, all too often governments fail to follow through on their grandiose promises, so I was heartened by Transparency International’s announcement, in September 2016, that it had gone through all the country declarations, compiled a spreadsheet identifying each country’s specific promises, and would be monitoring how well each country was following through on its commitments.

Last month, a year after TI published the spreadsheet documenting the list of summit commitments, TI released a report and an interactive website that purport to track whether countries have followed through on those commitments. So what do we learn from this tracking exercise?

Alas, the answer is “almost nothing.” TI’s “Anti-Corruption Pledge Tracker,” in its current form, is a catastrophic failure—a slapdash, amateurish collection of arbitrary, often inconsistent judgments, unsupported by anything that resembles serious research, and (ironically) non-transparent. This is all the more surprising—and disappointing—given the fact that TI has done so much better in producing similar assessment tools in other contexts. Indeed, at least one such recent tool—TI’s Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index—provides a model for what the Pledge Tracker could and should have looked like. Given the importance of tracking countries’ fulfillment of their summit pledges, and TI’s natural position as a leader on that effort, I dearly hope that TI will scrap the Pledge Tracker in its current form, go back to the drawing board, and do a new version.

I know that sounds harsh, and perhaps it seems excessive. But let me explain why I don’t find the Pledge Tracker, in its current form, worthy of credence. Continue reading

The Golden Handshake: Background Rules and the Choice of Restoring Money or Doing Justice

The anticorruption community has recently put more emphasis on freezing, seizing, and repatriating the assets of corrupt kleptocrats. But while this move is in many ways welcome, it is still the case that essentially none of the most infamous kleptocrats have ended up behind bars. Even when governments go after the illicit assets of these kleptocrats, their cronies, and other “politically exposed persons” (PEPs), the governments seeking asset recovery often find themselves put to an uncomfortable choice: either to accept the return of only a part (sometimes a small part) of the looted wealth in a settlement, or to continue to pursue their attempts, often in vain, to seize and repatriate all (or at least most) of the stolen assets.

Sophisticated PEPs know this, and usually take advantage of the slowness of the asset recovery process (as well as their ability to use their ill-gotten wealth to hire top-notch legal talent to wage a protracted legal battle), to the point where the governments are willing to allow the PEP to secure the “golden handshake” of a favorable settlement. Nothing illustrates this better than the attempts to recover the assets of former Nigerian President Sani Abache and of former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi. Abache’s family’s lawyers stiff resistance to asset recovery efforts eventually led to a settlement whereby the Abache family returned $1 billion–but got to keep $300 million. In the latter case, the Kenyan authorities insisted on recovering the full amount–and have ended up with nothing. The Kenyan experience has served as a cautionary tale, inducing for example many of the Arab Spring countries to accept settlements they would have never accepted two years ago. This result frustrates the foundational principle of penology that a criminal who gets caught should end up worse off than he would have been if he did not commit the crime. A corrupt official who knows that the worst that can happen is that he might have to give back half or two-thirds of the money he stole is unlikely to be deterred.

At the moment, it does not seem realistic to expect more severe criminal punishment for many kleptocrats, so reliance on settlement will continue for a while. Accordingly it is important to figure out how to use settlements to guarantee the maximum restoration of assets. The two most important factors that shape the content of a settlement are national and foreign justice. Consider each in turn. Continue reading

When Transparency Isn’t the Answer: Beneficial Ownership in High-End Real Estate

Earlier this month Transparency International UK published a report entitled “Corruption on Your Doorstep: How Corrupt Capital Is Used to Buy Property in the UK.” The Britain-specific recommendations are part of TI’s broader “Unmask the Corrupt” campaign, a call by TI, and echoed by others, to establish public registries of beneficial ownership. A similar call to unveil the individuals behind the shell corporations used to buy luxury condos in Manhattan garnered a lot of attention stateside during last month’s New York Times “Towers of Secrecy” series on the city’s high-end property market (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). The anticorruption rationale for mandating disclosure of real property beneficial ownership seems straightforward: As both the TI-UK report and the NYT series argue, buying real property in New York and London is an appealing way to launder stolen funds, because high-end real estate purchases allow a corrupt actor to inject millions of dollars into the legitimate market without having to deal with pesky anti-money laundering regulations, completing the purchases through shell companies that disguise the true beneficial owner. Requiring public disclosure of the beneficial owners of real property would in theory have two related benefits: First, requiring purchasers to reveal beneficial ownership information up front would dissuade some from using real property as a means of laundering money, and second, if law enforcement authorities have ready access to this information, it will make it easier to instigate and conduct investigations, as well as to seize assets later on.

Indeed, transparency in real property beneficial ownership seems like the kind of thing all anticorruption advocates should support, which is why it may seem a little counterintuitive when I say TI and others are taking the wrong tack. Pushing for central public registries of beneficial ownership of real property will not likely achieve the two objectives, and may have serious drawbacks. Here’s why: Continue reading

Policing Private Parties: How to Get Kleptocrats’ Seized Assets to their Citizens

As Rick has pointed out, it is exciting to see the successful forfeiture of U.S.-based assets owned by sitting Vice President of Equatorial Guinea, kleptocrat and international playboy Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue (“Obiang”). The Department of Justice estimates that the assets are worth an estimated $30 million. Also encouraging is the fact that the bulk of the settlement funds will be returned to the people of Equatorial Guinea. This is the first case in which the assets of a current leader’s cronies will be seized and repatriated to the country of origin by the U.S. Disbursing millions of dollars transparently in country that ranks 163/177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index will be challenging.

In stolen asset repatriation cases, the debate over disbursement typically boils down to whether to channel reclaimed cash through the government or through private actors. In Equatorial Guinea, returning the money directly to the government is a non-starter: the Obiang family has an extensive record of human rights and corruption abuses and a tight grip on power. The DOJ settlement accordingly cuts the government and its henchmen out of the forfeiture proceeds and channels repatriated funds through a private charity. But simply relying on private actors will not eliminate corruption challenges; there are pitfalls in channeling aid through private NGOs as well.

The DOJ should keep the following risks in mind as works out a disbursement plan for the Obiang settlement funds: Continue reading

The StAR “Few and Far” Report, and (Conflicted) Reflections on Civil Forfeiture

A couple weeks back, Rick’s post on the US DOJ Kleptocracy Initiative’s settlement in the Obiang case prompted an interesting exchange among several contributors to this blog (including me) about the use of civil forfeiture proceedings to seize assets–suspected of being the proceeds of corruption or other illicit activity–without a prior criminal conviction. I recently had the opportunity to read the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR)’s excellent new report, Few and Far, about recent developments in the asset recover field, and this report prompted me to reflect further on this issue. The Few and Far report is very positive about civil forfeiture, and recommends substantially expanding its use. To quote the report:

Both developed and developing countries need to ensure that they have a broad range of mechanisms in place, such as the ability[y] … to confiscate [assets] in the absence of a conviction. (p. 3)

Confiscation in the absence of a conviction (NCB confiscation) continues to be an effective mechanism for freezing and confiscating assets…. [H]owever, most OECD members have yet to adopt laws permitting the confiscation of assets in the absence of a conviction. (p. 43)

I want to use the Few and Far report to raise again an issue that I noted in response to Rick’s post on the Obiang case: I’m deeply conflicted about the use of non-conviction-based (NCB) civil forfeiture proceedings, and I think that perhaps the anticorruption community should engage in a bit more reflection about this mechanism, and how to ensure it’s not abused. Continue reading

Yet Another Misguided Proposal to Solve Corruption with an International Convention

Entrenched corruption is a frustrating problem, so it’s tempting to invent a new international regime that can take bold action against it without relying on or being encumbered by corrupt or incompetent domestic law enforcement. An article published last week in Foreign Affairs by Alexander Lebedev and Vladislav Inozemtsev, succumbs to that temptation by proposing a “universal anticorruption convention” as a solution to grand, systemic corruption (as distinct from low-level bribery). In broad terms, Lebedev and Vladislav envision a convention that would “clearly define the crime of corruption, codify the principles of good governance,” and “establish a supranational governing body, dedicated investigative and police forces, and a specialized court,” with signatories agreeing to “allow[] international investigators to act freely on [their] territory, and permit[] international prosecution of [their] citizens for corruption crimes.”

The article is short on details about these proposed institutions; the bulk of the article is devoted instead to the proposed convention’s enforcement mechanism. And there the proposal is quite radical: Signatories would be required to “radically curb their financial ties” with non-members, to “identify all assets controlled on their territories by the subjects of nonmember states (both individuals and companies)”–regardless of whether the assets are the proceeds of corruption–and, by an agreed deadline, to “monetize[e] and repatriate[e]” all of these assets. Under the convention, citizens of non-member states could not “open[] accounts in member countries’ banks, establish[] companies on their territories, [or] acquir[e] local real estate.” And member states would also be required to bar immigration from non-member states (at least of “young, independent people”), because the “freedom to leave” a corrupt state reduces the pressure to change from within.

I agree with Lebedev and Inozemtsev that grand corruption is a serious problem, and I commend them on their willingness to explore radical new solutions. But their proposal is absurd. I can’t imagine any state signing on to it, and I don’t think any state should. Their proposal would not only be ineffective. Its implementation would be catastrophic.  Continue reading

Guest Post: The Impact of Foreign Anti-Bribery Laws on the Demand-Side Countries

Francesco De Simone, an Advisor at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, contributes the following guest post:

What are the consequences of “supply side” foreign bribery laws, like the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and UK Bribery Act (UKBA), on the developing countries that are often the bribe receivers in foreign bribery cases (the “demand side”)? When can OECD country (say, the United States) prosecutes a company for paying a bribe in a developing country (say Nigeria), what are the implications for Nigeria – for its institutions and for its overall corruption environment and anti-corruption framework? How does the investigation or prosecution affect Nigeria’s ability to investigate prosecute the same case? What are the consequences if the U.S. case is settled? How can Nigeria obtain restitution of the proceeds of the bribe? And should it?

Although foreign anti-bribery laws like the FCPA have attracted a great deal of analysis and discussion (including on this blog: see here, hereherehere, and here), there is much less material on those sorts of questions. (An exception is the work by Professor Kevin Davis, see here and here, also discussed on this blog.) In a new U4 paper I co-wrote with Bruce Zagaris, we attempt to provide a more in-depth analysis of how supply-side enforcement of foreign anti-bribery laws by OECD countries affects parallel investigation and enforcement action in the demand-side country whose officials allegedly took the bribes. Unfortunately, reliable information on how many supply-side enforcement actions result in parallel investigations by the demand-side host countries is not currently available (so far as we know), but we were able to extract a great deal of useful information from FCPA and UKBA cases, as well as other recent studies like the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative (StAR) Left Out of the Bargain report.

The main takeaways from our study can be summarized as follows: Continue reading