In Pressuring Ukraine To Open Criminal Investigations, Trump’s Associates May Have Committed Many Crimes. But Violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Probably Wasn’t One of Them.

Right now, the biggest corruption story in the U.S., and probably the world, concerns efforts by President Trump and his associates, both inside and outside the U.S. government, threaten to withhold U.S. military aid from Ukraine in order to pressure the Ukrainian government into opening investigations that would help Trump politically. It’s clear at this point, except perhaps to the most rabid partisans, that there was indeed a “quid pro quo,” and the discussion has now turned to the question whether, with respect to President Trump specifically, he should be impeached for his conduct related to this episode (the issue that Rick focused on in yesterday’s post), and, with respect to whether Trump, his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani, or anyone else committed any crimes.

On that second question, commentators have suggested a whole range of criminal laws that some or all of the parties involved might have broken, including:

  • The section of the campaign finance laws that prohibits the “solicit[ation” from a foreign national of a “contribution or donation” to an election campaign of any “thing of value”;
  • The federal anti-bribery statute’s prohibition on any federal public official “directly or indirectly, corruptly demand[ing or] seek[ing] … anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act”;
  • The anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act, which prohibits “the obtaining of property for another … under color of official right” (as well as the attempt or conspiracy to do so);
  • The wire fraud statute, which prohibits the devising of any “scheme or artifice to defraud” that involves use of any interstate (or international) wire communication (such as a phone call), where the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” is specifically defined elsewhere in the statute as including a scheme “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” (This may seem a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with this corner of U.S. law, but in a nutshell, so-called “honest services fraud” is a theory that when a public official, or some other person in a position of trust, engages in a corrupt scheme to, say, solicit bribes, that individual defrauds her principals by depriving them of her honest services. For an explanation of how this could apply to Trump in the Ukraine case, see here.)
  • In the case of Mr. Giuliani and other parties who do not work for the U.S. government, the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from corresponding with any foreign government or foreign government official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”
  • Various provisions of Ukrainian law.

In addition to all of these possibilities, which strike me as at least facially plausible given the evidence that has come to light so far, some commentators have suggested that President Trump’s associates, such as Mr. Giuliani, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) (see here and here). This argument hasn’t gotten much traction, in my view for good reason. Even for someone like me, who generally has a more expansive view of the FCPA than do some other commentators, it’s hard to see how the evidence we have so far would suggest a plausible FCPA violation. There are two main reasons for this: Continue reading

In Their Push for Investigations, Did Trump’s Associates Break Ukrainian Law?

The U.S. political news for the last month has been dominated by the explosive and fast-developing scandal involving reports that President Trump and his associates—including not only U.S. government officials but also Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other private citizens—have been engaged in an ongoing behind-the-scenes campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to pursue criminal investigations that would benefit President Trump politically. In particular, President Trump, Mr. Giuliani, and others pushed Ukraine to investigate supposed wrongdoing by Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as alleged Ukraine-based interference in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats. (There is no credible evidence to support either allegation, and experts in President Trump’s administration repeatedly warned him against these unfounded conspiracy theories, to no avail.) The pressure brought to bear by President Trump and his associates on Ukrainian officials appears to have included not only general statements of interest in these allegations—allegations that the Ukrainian authorities viewed as baseless—but also included implicit or explicit threats that failure to comply would lead to various forms of retaliation, both symbolic (the refusal to invite newly-elected President Zelensky to the White House) and tangible (the withholding of desperately needed military aid).

While the main ramifications of this scandal are political rather than strictly legal, the U.S. media extensively discussed whether President Trump and his associates may have violated any U.S. laws, and commentators have suggested a number of potential legal violations. For example, asking a foreign entity for dirt on a domestic political rival might violate the provision of U.S. campaign finance law that makes it illegal to “solicit … a contribution or donation [to an election campaign] … from a foreign national,” where “contribution or donation” includes not only money but any other “thing of value.” President Trump and his associates may also have violated domestic anti-corruption law (the federal anti-bribery statute and/or the anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act) in conditioning the performance of an official act (such as the transfer of military aid) on the receipt of something of value from Ukrainian government officials (investigations into political rivals). Private citizens like Mr. Giuliani may have violated the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for private citizens, without the authority of the United States, to correspond with any foreign government or foreign official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.” And of course, the attempts to conceal all of these interactions may have amounted to obstruction of justice.

The focus in the U.S. media on whether President Trump and his associates may have violated U.S. law is entirely understandable, but seems incomplete. Strangely absent from the conversation is any mention, let alone sustained exploration, of the question whether any of President Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. At least this seems strange to me. Imagine that the situation were reversed. Suppose, for example, that a Chinese businessman, nominally a private citizen but known to have close ties to President Xi, approached the U.S. Attorney General and said something like, “We know your administration is anxious to cut a trade deal and would also like China’s assistance in addressing the North Korea situation. I’m sure President Xi could be persuaded to help you out. But you should help China out too. There’s a dissident, now an American citizen, who’s been writing a lot of damaging lies about President Xi, and he’s gaining a following in China and stirring unrest. Why don’t you publicly announce that the U.S. government is investigating him for running a ring of child prostitutes? That would really help us out.” If a story like this came out, I’m quite sure the U.S. media would be abuzz with discussions about which U.S. laws this businessman might have broken, and whether he might be prosecuted in U.S. courts if U.S. authorities managed to arrest him. But in the Ukraine case, we may have something similar—a private citizen (Giuliani) with close ties to a foreign political leader (Trump) apparently told senior political and law enforcement officials (the Ukrainian President and Prosecutor General) to pursue a bogus criminal investigation in exchange for that foreign government’s cooperation on important issues—and nobody seems to be even raising the possibility that this might violate Ukrainian law.

By the way, when I say nobody is talking about this, that apparently includes Ukrainian media and civil society. I don’t read Ukrainian and I’m by no means a Ukraine expert, but I have some friends and other contacts there, and they tell me that while the story is big news in their country, there hasn’t been any discussion about whether Trump’s associates may have violated Ukrainian law. That gives me pause, and makes me think that perhaps I’m totally off base in thinking there’s even an interesting question here. Nonetheless, at the risk of looking foolish (something that’s happened plenty of times before, I admit), I want to use this post to float this topic and see what others think. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Sergei Guriev

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Professor Sergei Guriev, who until last month served as the Chief Economist for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). In the conversation (which took place a couple of months ago, when Professor Guriev was still in his EBRD post), we discuss a range of topics, including his academic work (both his research on the role of oligarchs in the Russian economy and his more recent work on how expanded high-speed internet access affects both perceptions of and political responses to widespread corruption); the question why some post-socialist countries were more successful than others in making a transition to a market economy and reasonably well-functioning democratic government, while others remain mired in corruption; and some of the major challenges and opportunities confronted by international organizations, like the EBRD, that want to help advance the fight against corruption in challenging political environments.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Memorandum of Conversation Between Presidents Trump and Zelensky UPDATED

America has unfortunately plunged into what is likely to be a long and divisive debate about corruption. Media reports of a conversation President Trump had July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have swirled since allegations surfaced that President Trump had there asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for corruption.  In the hopes of ending speculation about what he said, earlier today President Trump released a memorandum recounting the call.  [Update: The controversy leading to release of the memorandum was sparked by reports an intelligence professional had filed a whistleblower complaint concerning President Trump and Ukraine.  That complaint, released the morning of September 2, is here].

Unfortunately, the release is likely only to fuel ever more nasty, partisan debate. One controversy certain to arise is the memorandum’s accuracy.  It is not a verbatim transcript of what the leaders said, a transcription of an audio recording of the call.  Rather, it represents what one or more staff huriedley scribbled down while the two spoke; later others reviewed it.  Did someone “scrub” more incriminating comments from the memo before its release?  Is there a better record of the call?  Will the person or persons who actually listened to the call come forward to testify to its accuracy?  Or contest the accuracy?

A more critical point of contention is whether what President Trump said during the call is on its face a crime under American law.  President Trump clearly asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for criminal activity.  The Federal Election Campaign Act makes it a crime for presidential candidates to receive contributions, defined as “anything of value,” from foreign citizens or governments. President Trump is a candidate for president in the 2020 election as is the former Vice President. Had Ukraine actually initiated an investigation of the Vice President, would that have been something of value under the election law?  If it would have been, was President Trump’s solicitation of such a contribution a violation of the law?  Or any other U.S. laws?

Is the fact that Mr. Biden is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination relevant to the inquiry?  That, were he to be the Democratic nominee, current polls show him decisively defeating President Trump?

Some reports allege President Trump personally held up critical military and economic assistance to the government of Ukraine, only releasing it under Congressional pressure.  That will surely be the bitterest bone of contention, for if he used a denial or delay in providing aid as leverage to force Ukraine to open an investigation, that would constitute attempted bribery under American law and thus strong grounds for impeachment and removal from office.

Was there such a threat?  As students of U.S. bribery law know, it need not have been overt; “a wink and a nod” suffices.   Expect a great deal of argument over “winks and nods,” with partisans seeing none opponents seeing them everywhere

The only bright spot in this very dismal chapter in American history is release of  memorandum of conversation.  It provides at least some uncontested facts upon which partisans can build their cases.  For those who have yet to read it, here it is Memorandum telephone conversation between Presidents Trump and Zelenskyy

The Legacy of Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity

The most innovative experiment in the fight against corruption in memory ended last week with the closing down of Guatemala’s impunity commission.  Known as CICIG after its Spanish initials, the commission enjoyed tremendous success over its ten plus year life, securing the conviction of dozens of senior military and political leaders, forcing a sitting president and vice president to resign over corruption charges, and most importantly, showing Guatemalans their leaders were not beyond the law’s reach. The commission ceased operating Wednesday after outgoing President Jimmy Morales, whom the commission was investigating for campaign finance violations, refused to renew its mandate.

Although Guatemala’s corrupt elite finally succeeded in killing the commission, the innovation behind the commission’s success is very much alive.  Prompted by CICIG’s success, neighboring Honduras created its own CICIG-like commission, and last Friday, less than 48 hours after CICIG shut down, El Salvador’s newly-elected president established a Salvadorian version of CICIG.  Across the Atlantic, independent of developments in Central America, Ukraine is pioneering a similar ground-breaking approach to fighting corruption which Moldovans are considering copying.

What all four countries have in common is a corrupt ruling class able to stymie the enforcement of the anticorruption laws. CICIG’s creators were the first to recognize that outside pressure alone was never going to change this dynamic.  No matter how much diplomatic and economic pressure the international community brought to bear, Guatemalan investigators, prosecutors, and judges were never going to tame grand corruption by themselves.  Some were themselves corrupt or corruptible; others were honest but unwilling to cross corrupt friends and relatives, and still others feared for their life or the lives of their families if they opened a case.   The CICIG solution? Continue reading

Will the United States Please Admit It has an Illicit Enrichment Law

United States officials have asserted for at least two decades that a law would make it a crime for a public servant to hold wealth he or she cannot show was honestly acquired would be unconstitutional. Officials say “illicit enrichment” laws reverse the burden of proof in a criminal trial, violate the presumption of innocence, and therefore infringe a criminal defendant’s right to a fair trial.  The State Department made the claim during negotiations for the 1997 Inter-American Convention Against Corruption; it surfaced most recently in a February 26 decision of the Ukrainian Constitutional Court where a majority cited the U.S. position in striking down Ukraine’s illicit enrichment statute.

The assertion is wrong. Or at best highly misleading.  Americans can be prosecuted for holding wealth greater than what their tax return shows they can afford. Like an illicit enrichment prosecution, a defendant in a tax evasion case who cannot produce evidence showing how the wealth was acquired risks conviction for a serious crime, one that today carries a fine of up to $100,000, imprisonment for five years, or both.

U.S. courts have developed a rich body of case law applying this American version of an illicit enrichment law that shows how prosecutors can convict defendants of living beyond their means without violating their fair trial rights. Prosecutors and courts in nations where illicit enrichment laws are recent additions to the statute books would find this jurisprudence instructive in obviating human rights concerns about their nations’ statute. If only they knew about it.

Would an authoritative American spokesperson please correctly state U.S. law? Or at least publicize the web site where U.S. illicit enrichment jurisprudence can be consulted? Continue reading

G7 Hypocrisy on Illicit Enrichment Crimes

Last month, I saw a news report about the international reaction to the Ukrainian Constitutional Court’s decision striking down Ukraine’s criminal offense of “illicit enrichment” as unconstitutional. For those unfamiliar with this topic, the crime of “illicit enrichment” makes it a criminal offense for a public official to realize a significant increase in his or her assets that the public official cannot reasonably explain. The crime of illicit enrichment is related to, but distinct from, civil asset forfeiture systems under which the government may seize—as presumptively the proceeds of unlawful activity—assets that the owner cannot reasonably explain. The main difference is that a civil forfeiture order results in the loss of assets, while a criminal offense can result in fines or incarceration, as well as the other collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. Some anticorruption activists support the criminalization of illicit enrichment on the grounds that it is often difficult or impossible to prove the underlying corruption offenses, but a substantial unexplained increase in a public official’s wealth is sufficient to prove that the official is corrupt. Critics warn that criminalizing illicit enrichment is incompatible with traditional notions of the presumption of innocence. (The UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), perhaps unsurprisingly, fudges the issue, with UNCAC Article 20 calling on States Parties to “consider” adopting an illicit enrichment offense, “[s]ubject to [that country’s] constitution and the fundamental principles of its legal system.”)

In its decision last February 26, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court went with the critics, holding that the criminalization of illicit enrichment a criminal offense was an unconstitutional infringement on the presumption of innocence. This decision met with swift condemnation from the G7, which issued a joint statement with the World Bank declaring that the “recent elimination of the illicit enrichment offence from [Ukraine’s] criminal code is a serious setback in the fight against corruption” that has “weakened the impact of the whole anti-corruption architecture.” Illicit enrichment, the G7 and World Bank admonished, “is not a new offence. In 2010 there were more than 40 countries that criminalized illicit enrichment,” and “[c]ourts around the world have recognized that the criminalization of illicit enrichment is a powerful tool in the fight against corruption, while at the same time respecting fundamental human rights and constitutional principles such as [the] presumption of innocence[.]” The G7-World Bank joint statement closed by calling on Ukrainian authorities to “reinstat[e] criminal liability for illicit enrichment in line with UN, OECD, and [European Court of Human Rights] principles.”

Now, as a policy matter, I tend to agree with the G7-World Bank position here. I think that appropriately tailored and cabined illicit enrichment offenses can be useful tools, and (as others have also pointed out), it’s not true that such offenses have any inherent conflict with the presumption of innocence. Nonetheless, I found the letter an exercise in outrageous, condescending hypocrisy, one that the G7 countries in particular should be ashamed to have written. Continue reading