Prosecuting Public Officials for their Mistakes

In July 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra became Prime Minister of Thailand after her party (founded by her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) won a decisive electoral victory. One of her principal campaign promises was to establish a program to purchase rice from farmers at above-market prices then store the rice to reduce supply. The hope was that doing so would increase world prices—because of Thailand’s position as the leading global rice exporter—ultimately allowing the government to sell at a profit. Shortly after the election, Yingluck’s government implemented this program, and it worked well for a few months—until other global players increased their supply of rice, causing Thailand to lose billions of dollars in the process. This economic debacle was entirely predictable—and indeed was predicted by many experts. And the program itself was beset by allegations of fraud and corruption in its implementation.

But should the failure of the rice-buying program be the basis of a criminal charge of corruption and a prison sentence against Yingluck herself, in the absence of evidence that she was directly involved in any embezzlement, bribery, or other more conventional forms of graft? Section 157 of Thailand’s Penal Code allows for just such a prosecution, as this section makes it a crime for a public official to either dishonestly or “wrongfully discharge or omit to discharge a duty so as to expose any person to injury.” And last month, the Thai Supreme Court found Yingluck (out of power since she was deposed by a military coup in 2014) guilty and sentenced her to five years in prison. She fled the country before the verdict.

Thailand is not alone in adopting anticorruption laws that criminalize not only dishonest conduct (bribery, embezzlement, conflict of interest, etc.), but also negligence or incompetence. When India updated its anticorruption law in 1988, it added a new provision that makes it a criminal offense for a public official to “obtain for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest.” This broad offense was interpreted by a state High Court to not require any proof of dishonesty or criminal intent, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s premier anticorruption agency) has routinely employed the provision in grand corruption cases to avoid the problem of having to prove corrupt intent. In perhaps the most high-profile such prosecution, the agency went after an ex-Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh was the Minister of Coal at a time when the Government decided to liberalize allocation of coal-blocks and to sell mining rights to private parties. In 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office reported the policy had caused losses worth billions of dollars because the rights had been sold for too little, through a process that was too ad hoc to be considered legal. Dr. Singh was subsequently charged under India’s broad law, though his trial has currently been stayed while his challenge to the constitutionality the law is pending before India’s Supreme Court. (There are clearly concerns in other quarters about the breadth of this statute: In 2016 a Select Committee of the Upper House of India’s Parliament submitted a report that suggested India eliminate this offense. Parliament hasn’t yet acted on this recommendation, but there are signs that it has some support.)

Is it appropriate to enact broad anticorruption laws that allow government officials to be convicted for dereliction of duty, acting in a manner contrary to the public interest, and the like? Anticorruption activists and prosecutors may find such statutes appealing: It is easier to secure convictions of elected officials who are suspected of corruption, but where it is too difficult to prove the specific intent necessary for traditional corruption offenses. But in fact these broad laws are likely to do more harm than good, and countries like Thailand and India would be better off without them. There are three main reasons for this: Continue reading

Upcoming Conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (Sept. 23, Harvard Law School)

On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.

Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.

The conference will feature the following panels: Continue reading

A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading

Fighting Environmental Corruption in the Mekong River Basin: More Firepower Needed

The forests, wildlife, plants, and vegetation of the Mekong River Basin are under sustained assault.  Not from some virulent new fungus or mutant virus.  No, the attacker is a man-made pathogen: the inability of the region’s governments to curb the rampant corruption eating away at the legal structure that protects the basin’s ecosystem.  Officials of basin governments are being paid to condone logging in conservation zones, to issue export permits for protected flora and fauna, and to otherwise flaunt laws meant to prevent an environmental catastrophe.  No other ecosystem is under such deadly assault, and unless the trend is arrested, the World Wildlife Fund predicts that within 20 years the region, twice the size of California and rivaled only by the Amazon for biological diversity, could lose more than a third of its remaining forests along with the exotic plants and wildlife that inhabit them.

The six governments of the region – Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam – have declared war on environmental corruption and have begun counterattacking.  Environmental protection laws are being tweaked, and investigators and prosecutors trained to detect and prosecute environmental crime.  But important though these steps are, in the face of impending ecological disaster more firepower is needed.  Here are four ways to step up the fight: Continue reading

The Petrobras Investigations and the Future of Brazil’s Democracy: Thailand and Italy as Cautionary Tales

In March of 2014, when Alberto Youssef, the initial whistleblower for the now infamous Petrobras scandal disclosed his knowledge of the scheme to his lawyers, he prefaced his revelations with a grim prediction: “Guys, if I speak, the republic is going to fall.” While that prediction may have seemed melodramatic at the time, the recent turmoil in Brazil surrounding the Petrobras scandal and the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff have led some to begin to question whether Mr. Youssef’s prediction might in fact ring true.

The Petrobras scandal may be the single biggest corruption scheme in any democracy, ever. By some estimates, up to US$5.3 Billion changed hands through inflated construction contracts and kickbacks to Petrobras executives and politicians. Even for a country accustomed to political corruption scandals, this case is unique in its breadth and scope. Dozens of Brazil’s economic and political elite have been implicated, including the CEO of the country’s largest construction firm (sentenced to 19 years in jail), and the former treasurer of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (sentenced to 15 years in jail), plummeting Brazil into a true political and economic crisis. The investigations transcend party lines: Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the House leading the charge for President Rousseff’s impeachment (for using accounting tricks to mask the nation’s deficit), has himself been charged in connection with the Petrobras Scandal. Indeed, this scandal appears to be a political reckoning, an indictment of the entire elite class in Brazil.

By most accounts, Brazil is a thriving democracy—elections are free and fair, and there is a multi-party system marked by vigorous competition between rival parties. Civil liberties are generally well respected. Protests against the government have been massive, but by most accounts peaceful and undisturbed by state authorities. But some have gone so far as to speculate that the unprecedented scale of this scandal may lead to a collapse of Brazil’s democratic system. At least one historical example suggests that this might not be so far-fetched: In Thailand, the political deadlock in 2014 following the ouster of President Yingluck Shinawatra on allegations of corruption and abuse of power ended with a military coup, and democracy has yet to return. Yet perhaps another, somewhat less dramatic but nonetheless troubling precedent is even more apt: In Italy in the 1990s, the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) campaign revealed endemic corruption and led to the collapse of the four governing political parties. In this case, while democratic elections continued, the political void left in the wake of Clean Hands was filled by new, corrupt actors like Silvio Berlusconi, and political graft remains rampant. Though Brazil seems unlikely to suffer a fate similar to Thailand, it is highly plausible that the aftermath of the Petrobras scandal might resemble the Italian experience.

Let’s consider some of the possible parallels between Brazil and Thailand, on the one hand, and Brazil and Italy, on the other.

Continue reading

Fighting Corruption With Art: Successfully Raising Public Awareness

Art is “one of the best societal mediators of difficult messages — it has always created a bridge between the comprehension and the expression of critical problems in society.” So declares the 10th International Anti-Corruption Conference’s website, which organized an art program against corruption. In keeping with that sentiment, last September the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT) organized a “museum of corruption,” a temporary exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre intended to raise public awareness about the extent and costs of corruption. Thailand is not the first country to undertake such an initiative. Museums of corruption (actual museums, not just temporary exhibitions) already exist in Paraguay, Ukraine and the United States, and many other enterprises that use art as a tool for anticorruption education and action are flourishing worldwide. For instance, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa has recently launched a hip hop video against corruption in Liberia, while the Inter-American Development Bank organized a cartoon contest to promote awareness and understanding of the corruption phenomenon and its harm to development. More recently, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain called upon poets and intellectuals to write against corruption. Other major players in the anticorruption field that have organized artistic projects include Transparency International (see here and here) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In additions to these institutionalized artistic anti-corruption projects, several countries have witnessed spontaneous public art displays – in the physical public domain, usually outside and accessible to all – to promote awareness and solidarity in fighting corruption (see for example in Afghanistan and South Africa).

Understandably, some are skeptical of these initiatives, arguing that museums and temporary exhibitions are not the right forum to communicate on corruption (this was one of the criticisms of the Thai museum of corruption). One might worry that expressing anticorruption messages through cartoons and popular music won’t lead people to take the message seriously enough. (This would also be true when the artistic initiative takes a more humorous approach, as is the case for many of the anticorruption cartoons, as well as New York’s corruption museum.) And of course, nobody thinks that art initiatives on their own are enough. Yet while artistic initiatives will not by themselves solve the issue of corruption, these initiatives are not just a fad or a gimmick or a distraction. Indeed, there’s quite a bit of research indicating that these programs can be quite effective in raising public awareness on corruption. Continue reading

There Is No “East Asian Paradox” of Corruption and Development

Imagine that you’re talking to a friend, and you mention that smoking shortens average life expectancy, and that smokers should therefore be encouraged to quit. Suppose your friend replies, “Well, but my uncle Fred smoked every day, and he lived into his 80s.” If your friend means this either (a) as a serious challenge to your empirical claim that smoking is bad for you, or (b) as a critique of your prescriptive argument that smokers should therefore be encouraged to quit, then you would probably find his response absurd on its face. And if your friend were to say that he has posed a serious conceptual conundrum—say he calls it the “Uncle Fred Paradox”—you would probably laugh at him. His argument might seem marginally less ridiculous if he pointed not to his Uncle Fred but to, say, France—which has relatively high smoking rates and relatively high life expectancy—but we probably still wouldn’t view this as a serious challenge to the view that smoking is bad for you, nor would we spend a lot of time wringing our hands worrying about the “France Paradox” in the smoking-health relationship.

Yet for some reason, in serious discussions about the relationship between corruption and economic development, people seem to make precisely this sort of specious argument, and the argument gets taken very seriously by people who should know better. The form the argument takes in this context goes something like this: “It may be true that high corruption seems to be correlated with lower levels of economic development on average. However, many countries in East and Southeast Asia—such as China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia—either achieved or currently are achieving impressively rapid economic growth despite widespread corruption.” This is the so-called “East Asian Paradox” (a term coined, as far as I know, by Professor Andrew Wedeman — see also his recent book). The somewhat more sophisticated version of the argument, developed most prominently in an article by Professor Michael Rock and Heidi Bonnett, notes that although perceived corruption has a negative relationship with growth and investment in most countries (especially small developing countries), this relationship becomes positive in a subsample consisting of five large, newly-industrializing Asian countries (China, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, and Japan), using data drawn from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s.

One encounters more-or-less sophisticated versions of the “East Asian Paradox” argument all the time when talking about the adverse impact of corruption on development. When someone says something like, “Corruption is a major threat to economic development,” someone almost invariably responds with something like, “But what about China? It has achieved impressive economic growth despite widespread corruption.” As far as I’m concerned, this is equivalent to saying, “But what about my Uncle Fred, the lifelong smoker who lived into his 80s?” But in case this is not completely obvious, let me explain why I think the “East Asian Paradox” argument, at least in its usual crude form, is mostly bogus. Continue reading