Ukraine’s Cynical Efforts to Mandate Public Asset Disclosures for Anticorruption Advocates Must Be Stopped

In 2016, under pressure from anticorruption organizations, Ukraine’s parliament passed the “On Prevention of Corruption” law, which required high-level government officials and other civil servants to disclose their income and assets in a public online database. A year later, however, the parliament—in what seems to have been an act of retaliation—adopted an amendment to that law, and required all individuals who “carry out activities related to the prevention and counteraction of corruption” to also declare their assets by April 1, 2018, or face potential penalties (including fines or imprisonment of up to two years). The amendment, in other words, imposes on anticorruption advocates the same financial disclosure requirements that many of these advocates had insisted on imposing on Ukrainian public officials.

Imposing this disclosure requirement on anticorruption advocates was rationalized as promoting transparency, since foreign money often supports anti-graft work in Ukraine. Some have claimed that anticorruption activists are themselves corrupt and work with anticorruption organizations to enrich themselves. More generally, the amendment seems to be motivated by an impulse toward retaliation (or a version of fairness): The message seems to be, “If you people think these requirements are appropriate for us, then you should be willing to put up with them too.”

But anticorruption workers do not hold public office and are not supported by taxpayer money, and there is no good reason to subject them to the same demanding disclosure standards that are entirely appropriate for public servants. This obvious distinction is further reason to believe that this amendment is yet another measure in line with previous government efforts to discredit anticorruption activists. Imposing the disclosure requirement has been roundly criticized both domestically and internationally, with activist organizations also arguing that the amendment violates Ukraine’s Constitution (particularly rights to freedom of speech, association, and employment). Even Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has called the bill a “mistake,” and in July 2017 he submitted to parliament two draft laws that eliminate the asset disclosure obligation for individual anticorruption activists—but place even more stringent reporting requirements on anticorruption organizations. These draft laws drew further criticism, and as the April 1, 2018 asset disclosure deadline approached and passed, Ukraine’s parliament has refused to consider any changes to the law.

Leaving in place the requirement that those who help fight corruption must make the same kind of public asset disclosures as government officials will sabotage and chill anticorruption work. It is vital that domestic activists and the international community keep up the pressure on Ukraine to eliminate this requirement altogether, and to do so soon in order to remove the cloud of uncertainty that has fallen over all anticorruption advocacy since the April 1 deadline passed. The disclosure requirement as it stands threatens to undermine the fight against corruption in Ukraine in at least three ways: Continue reading

An Amazing Database: DIGIWHIST Strikes Again

DIGIWHIST has struck again.  It has just released the latest version of its extraordinary data set covering political financing, disclosure of officials’ finances, conflict of interest, right to information, and public procurement in 34 European states plus the European Union.  With the laws on each subject along with an assessment of how thoroughly they address area, it is a real treat.

At least for the kind of people who read GAB (that means you, dear reader).

The database is part of an EU-funded digital whistleblowing project (DIGIWHIST).  The project’s aim is to improve trust in governments and the efficiency of public spending across Europe by providing civil society, investigative journalists, and civil servants with the information and tools they need to both increase transparency in public spending and enhance the accountability of public officials.  For those working in developing states, it is an invaluable resource, showing how different developed countries and those making the transition to a market economy deal with critical issues involving public integrity and transparency.  Thanks to the EU for supporting such a great project and congratulations to those whose hard work produced such a useful resource.

Best Practices for a “Database of Deals”

Last month, Joseph Percoco, former aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit fraud and soliciting bribes for nearly $300,000 in connection to several multimillion-dollar economic development contracts in upstate New York. Next month, Alain Kaloyeros, the former President of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, will similarly go to trial on federal bid rigging, fraud, and bribery charges related to the upstate economic development project the “Buffalo Billion.” As I previously wrote, these are two of six high-profile corruption trials in New York this year—cases that have already generated calls for ethics reform (see here, here, and here). While similar calls for reform after the high-profile convictions of former New York state legislators Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos were largely ignored, one modest proposal seems particularly promising: creating a public database of businesses and organizations that are awarded state economic development contracts and grants.

New York state and local governments spend over $8 billion on economic development programs each year, the most of any state in the country. However, little clarity exists about which companies receive subsidies, the value or amount of these subsidies, the employment and investment commitments tied to these subsidies, and whether these commitments are being met. This opacity not only makes it difficult to assess the successes and failures of development programs, but also creates opportunities for the type of corruption that ensnarled Mr. Percoco and Mr. Kaloyeros. Creating a database of all public economic development benefits (including grants, loans, or tax abatements) would increase transparency and accountability. Such a “Database of Deals” would provide a central source for authorities to monitor and flag irregularities, increasing public confidence in the procurement process, and deterring corruption by individuals who know that the public can assess the return on investment for each economic development project.

The recently passed 2019 New York State Budget included billions of dollars in new appropriations for economic development, yet bi-partisan legislation creating a “Database of Deals” was dropped from the budget the day before it passed. However, the New York state legislature still has several months to pass similar legislation. Moreover, six other states—including Florida, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin—have created and implemented similar searchable databases after calls for greater transparency and accountability. If and when New York, and other states, create similar databases, there are certain “best practices” that they ought to follow, to maximize the effectiveness of these databases in deterring corruption.

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National Digital Currencies Raise New Risks of Grand Corruption

In 2017, you may have heard of this thing called blockchain. The technology, which works by creating a decentralized, encrypted, and independently verifiable ledger of transactions distributed over a network of computer systems, has allowed innovations in the design of secure systems for recording votes, registering land ownership, and confirming digital identity. The most famous application of the blockchain, however, has been the creation of digital currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple. Many private individuals consider these currencies to be the way of the future, and the death knell of the central banker: universal, transparent, and valued according to mathematical laws rather than political preferences, cryptocurrencies—according to their proponents—will bring with them immeasurable benefits, among them making the fight against corruption easier by allowing all interested parties to “see the entirety of any transaction instantly and accurately.”

But private citizens aren’t the only ones who have heard of the blockchain: the same central bankers who are meant to be rendered irrelevant by the advent of cryptocurrencies have also taken notice. Several governments, including those of Israel, Russia, China, Estonia, Sweden, and Venezuela, have announced plans to create their own national digital currencies (NDCs) based on blockchain technology. While there are several sound economic reasons for introducing an NDC, governments frequently cite the same anticorruption benefits mentioned above.

However, there are crucial differences between NDCs and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Rather than open architectures enabling full financial transparency, most NDCs currently plan to use some form of centralized ledger, giving government authorities (and only them) the ability to see and police transactions. While such centralized transparency will give honest governments a much-needed boost in the fight against corruption, it will also give oppressive and kleptocratic regimes another tool with which to steal from and oppress their populations. Continue reading

India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

Argentinians Cry Out “Cambiemos,” But Can They?

In early January 2018, five prominent Argentinian officials were arrested on corruption charges, including Amado Boudou, Argentina’s former vice president. These arrests come on the heels of President Mauricio Macri’s landslide victory on a “Cambiemos,” or “Let’s Change,” platform—a promise to root out public corruption. Late last year, Argentina’s Congress passed a new anticorruption law, which punishes companies for corruption by blacklisting them from public contracts and levying fines of up to five times the amount companies have obtained by illegal means. The new law also requires corporate compliance programs for the first time. But, while these reforms are welcome, the Argentinian judiciary remains an obstacle to genuine progress in eradicating the rot of corruption.

While the Macri government should be praised for making steps in the right direction, its efforts will fall short unless something is done about Argentina’s judicial system. More specifically, Argentina’s judicial institutions suffer from three problems that impede effective anticorruption efforts: Continue reading

Do Mandatory Asset Declarations Reduce Corruption? And If So, How?

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) calls on States Parties to adopt asset declaration and financial disclosure regimes for their public officials (see Article 8, paragraph 5 and Article 52, paragraph 5), and most states have complied with this commitment in one form or another. Indeed, according to a report by the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, there is a continuous upward trend in the number of states that have enacted financial disclosure laws (see Figure 1.1 at page 8). Yet the near-universal popularity of mandatory asset declarations does not mean that this tool is actually effective. True, there have been a few high-profile cases where asset declarations played an important role in anticorruption efforts, such as the impeachment of the Chief Justices of the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as the resignation of the Vice Rectors of a prestigious university in Thailand and the top brass of a state bank in Portugal. But such high-profile cases are rare and may not be representative of the larger picture. In a previous post on this blog, Rick Messick expressed some skepticism about the extent to which asset declarations and other forms of mandatory financial disclosures actually contribute to anticorruption efforts, and criticized what he saw as extravagant and unrealistic claims about the effectiveness of such disclosures as anticorruption tools.

So what does the existing research actually say about the effectiveness of asset declarations on anticorruption efforts? While there are only a few studies on this topic, the evidence they supply nevertheless offers valuable insights.

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