Lessons from Moldova’s “Theft of the Century”

One year ago today, on April 20th, 2017, a Moldovan businessman named Veaceslav Platon was sentenced to 18 years in prison. His crime? Helping to steal a billion dollars. Between 2012 and 2014, businessmen and politicians siphoned off money from Moldova’s three largest banks in a crime now known as the “Theft of the Century.” While corruption is endemic in many parts of Eastern Europe, the theft in Moldova was spectacular in its size and in the severity of its consequences.

This theft was an economic, social, and political catastrophe for Moldova. The amount of money that disappeared was similar to the amount implicated in the 1MDB scandal in Malaysia–but Malaysia’s GPD is 2.3 times the size of Moldova’s. The Moldovan government’s secret bailout of the banks cost $870 million, one-eighth of Moldova’s GDP. As a result of the theft, three of Moldova’s main banks went bankrupt and were liquidated; more banks are still under the supervision of the National Bank of Moldova, and there is persistent instability in the financial sector. And then there’s the human cost. For example, the misuse of money in the State Health Insurance Company’s accounts led to a medicine shortage in 2014-2015. During street demonstrations that ensued after the theft became public, two dozen people were injured. The political fallout from the theft has also been substantial: Confidence in the government was shattered, as every government branch and every major political party seemed implicated. Furthermore, because the party seen as most heavily involved in the theft was a pro-EU party, Moldovan support for joining the EU plummeted. Pro-Russian sympathizers capitalized on the public reaction, and the pro-Kremlin Igor Dodon was elected president in 2016. Dodon has talked about joining the Russia-controlled Eurasian Economic Union, halted participation in NATO exercises, and opposes the opening of a NATO office in Chisinau, Moldova’s capitol.

The investigation into the theft has dragged. More than 40 people have been implicated, and more prosecutions are supposedly in the pipeline, but only a few people have been convicted so far. With Moldova’s 2018 elections looming, now is a good time to look back at the fallout and lessons from the Theft of the Century.

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What Chinese Cuisine and Deferred Prosecution Agreements Have in Common

As Kees noted Monday, the use of American-style deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) to resolve corporate corruption cases short of trial is on the rise.  The United Kingdom, France, Argentina, and most recently Singapore now permit prosecutors to suspend or even drop altogether the prosecution of a firm for a corruption offense in return for the accused firm paying a fine, adopting measures to prevent future offenses, and cooperating with ongoing investigations.  Australia and Canada are on the verge of approving DPAs, and influential voices in India and Indonesia are urging their adoption too.

Apostles say DPAs allow governments to realize the benefits of a criminal conviction without the need for a lengthy, expensive, arduous trial against a well-funded corporate defendant where defeat is always a risk.  Former U.K. Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith told a New Delhi audience last October that once India begins using DPAS, companies would start coming forward and admit wrongdoing.  During the recent debate in Singapore one commentator observed that DPAs “provide an incentive to corporate entities to confront criminal conduct within their ranks,” and a group of Indonesian professors claim DPAs will be particularly valuable in their country.   In Indonesia, conviction of a corporation provides no assurance the defendant will not commit the same offense again while, they write, a DPA does.

DPA evangelists are about to learn what DPAs have in common with Chinese cuisine.  The first-time visitor to China soon discovers that Chinese food in China is unlike Chinese food at home.  Beef broccoli tastes much different outside China than in. Connoisseurs of DPAs will shortly find that what American prosecutors are able to cook up looks much different when prepared abroad.     Continue reading

The Role of Judicial Oversight in DPA Regimes: Rejecting a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

IIn late March 2018, the Canadian government released a backgrounder entitled Remediation Agreements and Orders to Address Corporate Crime that outlines the contours of a proposed Canadian deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) regime. DPAs—also appearing in slightly different forms such as non-prosecution agreements (NPAs) or leniency agreements—are pre-indictment diversionary settlements in which offenders (almost exclusively corporations) agree to make certain factual admissions, pay fines or other penalties, and in some cases assume other obligations (such as reforming internal compliance systems or retaining an external corporate monitor), and in return the government assures the corporation that it will drop the case after a period of time (ordinarily a few years) if the conditions specified in the agreement are met. Such agreements inhabit a middle ground between declinations (where the government declines to file any charges, but where companies still might forfeit money) and plea agreements (which require guilty pleas to criminal charges filed in court).

While Canada has been flirting with the idea of introducing DPAs for over ten years, several other countries have recently adopted, or are actively considering, deferred prosecution programs. France formally added DPAs (known in France as “public interest judicial agreements”) in December 2016, and entered into its first agreement, with HSBC Private Bank Suisse SA, in November 2017. In March 2018, Singapore’s Parliament installed a DPA framework by amending its Criminal Procedure Code. And debate is underway in the Australian parliament on a bill that would introduce a DPA regime for offenses committed by corporations.

The effect of DPAs in the fight against corruption, pro and con, has been previously debated on this blog. One critical design component of any DPA regime is the degree of judicial involvement. On one end of the spectrum is the United States, where courts merely serve as repositories for agreements at the end of negotiations and have no role in weighing the terms of any deal. On the other end of the spectrum is the United Kingdom, where a judge must agree that negotiations are “in the interests of justice” while they are underway, and a judge must declare that the final terms of any DPA are “fair, reasonable, and proportionate.” British courts also play an ongoing supervisory role post-approval, with the ability to approve amendments to settlement terms, terminate agreements upon a determined breach, and close the prosecution once the term of the DPA expires.

Under Canada’s proposed system of Remediation Agreements, each agreement would require final approval from a judge, who would certify that 1) the agreement is “in the public interest” and 2) the “terms of the agreement are fair, reasonable and proportionate.” While the test used by Canadian judges appears to parallel the U.K. model—including using some identical language—the up-or-down judicial approval would occur only once negotiations have been concluded. This stands in contrast to the U.K. model mandating direct judicial involvement over the course of the negotiation process.

The decision by the Canadian government to chart a middle course on judicial oversight is all the more notable given that an initial report released by the Canadian government following a several-month public consultation regarding the introduction of DPAs appeared to endorse the U.K. approach, noting that the majority of commenters who submitted views “favoured the U.K. model, which provides for strong judicial oversight throughout the DPA process.” Moreover, commentators have generally praised the U.K. model’s greater role for judicial oversight of settlements, especially judicial scrutiny of the parties charged (or not) in any given case, the evidence (or lack thereof), and the “fairness” (or not) of any proposed deal.

Despite these positions, one should not reflexively view the judicial oversight regime outlined in Canada’s latest report as a half-measure. Perhaps the U.K. model would be better for Canada, or for many of the other countries considering the adoption or reform of the DPA mechanism. But the superiority of the U.K. approach can’t be assumed, as more judicial involvement is not categorically better. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach favoring heightened judicial oversight, there are several factors that countries might consider when deciding on the appropriate form and degree of judicial involvement in DPA regimes: Continue reading

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

Guest Post: An Exercise in Underachievement–The UK’s Half-Hearted Half-Measures To Exclude Corrupt Bidders from Public Procurement

GAB is delighted to welcome back Susan Hawley, policy director of Corruption Watch, to contribute today’s guest post:

A year ago, in May 2016, the UK government gathered 43 nations around the world together at the London Anti-Corruption Summit to show their commitment to fighting corruption. The resulting declaration made a number of bold promises. One of the most important—though not one that grabbed a lot of headlines—was the announcement that corrupt bidders should not be allowed to bid for government contracts, and the associated pledge by the declaration’s signatories that they would commit to ensuring that information about final convictions would be made available to procurement bodies across borders. Seventeen signatories went further, making specific commitments to exclude corrupt bidders, while six countries pledged to establish a centralized database of convicted companies as a way of ensuring procurement bodies could access relevant information. (Three other countries committed to exploring that possibility.)

The London Anti-Corruption Summit was right to be ambitious about focus on this issue in its declaration. Research shows that the risk of losing business opportunities such as through debarment from public contracts ranks has a powerful deterrent effect—equal to that associated with individual executives facing imprisonment, and much greater than one-off penalties such as fines. Yet debarment of corrupt companies for public contracting is quite rare. The OECD Foreign Bribery report found that while 57% of the 427 foreign bribery cases it looked at spanning 15 years involved bribes to obtain government procurement contracts, only two resulted in debarment. Even the US which has a relatively advanced debarment regime and which debars or suspends around 5000 entities a year from public procurement, appears to debar very few for foreign bribery and corruption. And the UK does not appear to have ever excluded a company from public procurement, despite laws in place since 2006 that require companies convicted of corruption and other serious crimes to be excluded from public contracts.

Did the London Anti-Corruption Summit mark significant turning point in the UK’s approach to this issue? Having persuaded 43 countries to sign a declaration that included a commitment to exclude corrupt bidders, did the UK have its own bold new vision to implement that commitment domestically? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Continue reading

Guest Post: Corporate or Individual Liability? Converging Approaches to Fighting Corruption

GAB is delighted to welcome back Gönenç Gürkaynak (Managing Partner at ELIG Attorneys-at-Law in Istanbul and 2015 Co-Chair of the B20 Anti-Corruption Task Force), who, along with his colleagues Ç. Olgu Kama (ELIG partner and B20 Anti-Corruption Task Force Deputy Co-Chair) and Burcu Ergün (ELIG associate), contributes the following guest post:

Combating international corruption has come a long way in the last decade. More and more jurisdictions are adapting and updating their legal systems in an effort to eradicate impunity for corruption crimes. Yet an important question persists: Who should be held primarily liable for corruption crimes, the individual or the company? The US and European countries have traditionally provided diverging answers to this question, but there now seems to be some evidence of an emerging convergence, though a consensus is yet to be reached.

In the United States—the pioneering legal system in terms of fighting international corruption—although individuals can be charged with violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), it is the companies that are primarily held liable for FCPA violations. The US embraces a broad notion of corporate criminal liability, based on the principle of respondeat superior (the employer is responsible for the acts or omissions of its employees) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have employed this theory as the basis for FCPA settlements with scores of corporations, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in fines. However, there have been relatively few FCPA cases brought against individuals. This may be due in part to the fact that it is often difficult to attribute a corrupt act to any one specific individual, though it may also be due to the DOJ’s and the SEC’s traditional focus on going after the “deep pockets” of the corporations that come under their scrutiny.

In contrast to the US, the focus of criminal law in continental European systems has typically been on the culpability of individuals; thus, the introduction of the concept of “corporate criminal liability” is a relatively new development. Traditionally, the continental European systems have taken the view that criminal punishment can only be imposed on grounds of personal culpability, and that organizations cannot be held liable under criminal law (societas delinquere non potest). To that end, some European jurisdictions have preferred imposing administrative liability on corporations for actions that are considered to be administrative (rather than criminal) offenses.

In terms of deterring corrupt acts, a broad notion of corporate criminal liability goes a long way. The willingness of US authorities to impose significant fines on corporations provides powerful incentives for corporations to self-police. Furthermore, the threat of criminal FCPA sanctions—and the associated “moral sanctioning” of criminal liability—may have a more powerful effect on corporations than would similar fines imposed as administrative sanctions. On the other hand, the threat of corporate criminal liability is likely not sufficient, on its own, to foster a compliance culture within an organization. In a legal environment in which individuals face a credible threat of prosecution for their personal roles in organizational corruption, corporations could maintain a stronger culture of compliance as the employees themselves would be legally responsible for their misconduct and therefore less likely to engage in (or turn a blind eye to) corrupt practices.

Even though significant differences remain among jurisdictions, it is an encouraging development that there now seems to be gradually converging views regarding corporate criminal liability among these different legal systems. Continue reading

Donald Trump: Ethics Champion?

Seeing the President-elect as a champion of ethics would be one way to interpret the comedic events of the past 36 hours in the upside-down world of what was once termed the capital of the free world.  The comedy opened Monday evening, January 2, with Republican members of the incoming House of Representatives voting (in secret and without prior notice) to curb the Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent body which hears allegations of ethical transgressions by House members and staff.  The vote met with immediate and sustained outrage by citizens, media commentators, and government reform groups.  Criticism was also voiced from a source many found unlikely.  In a pair of messages (here and here) Tuesday morning President-elect Trump tweeted that:

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS”

Within hours of the Trump tweets, the comedy ended.  Chastened, on-the-defensive, with even their allies questioning their political competence, House Republicans reversed course and left the congressional ethics office’s powers intact.      Continue reading