Unfriended: Should Facebook be Required to Enforce US Sanctions Against its Users?

Late last year, Facebook abruptly shut down the accounts of Ramzan Kadyrov, the despotic leader of the Chechen Republic. The social media giant claimed that it had a “legal obligation” to disable Kadyrov’s Facebook and Instagram accounts because of new sanctions imposed by the United States government under the Magnitsky Act. Among other things, Kadyrov has been accused of ordering the assassination of a political opponent, personally torturing another, and leading a violent purge of gay men. He’s also an active social media user: four million people followed his Facebook and Instagram profiles, and 400,000 continue to follow him on Twitter. Kadyrov had become famous for posting videos of himself wrestling a crocodile, praising Russian President Vladmir Putin, and—perhaps ironically—mocking what he saw as the ineffectiveness of American sanctions.

As many journalists noticed, Facebook hasn’t disabled the accounts of other sanctioned individuals, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler. Facebook explained this seeming inconsistency with an unhelpful truism that it “operate[s] under the constraints of US laws, which vary by circumstance.” Its statements have led observers to speculate that Facebook is using the sanctions as a pretextual reason to cut off a user it already disliked, or that it’s “picking and choosing compliance” in an attempt to please the government. Although those explanations seem plausible at first glance, a careful look at the relevant laws suggests an even simpler (albeit more mundane) one: Facebook may actually be correct that it had a legal obligation to suspend Kadyrov’s accounts but not those of others targeted by American sanctions.

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Lessons from the “Isolated Capital” Effect for the Fight Against Public Corruption

As numerous commentators have written on this blog and elsewhere, the New York state legislature suffers from a serious corruption problem (see, for example, here and here), with six corruption convictions of government leaders in eleven years, and suspicions that the rot runs much deeper. Would things be any better if New York’s capital were in New York City rather than in Albany? While it’s impossible to say for sure, research suggests—perhaps surprisingly—that the answer might be yes. In an influential paper, Filipe Campante and Qhoc-Anh Do found that, on average, corruption (as measured by federal corruption-related crime convictions per capita) is higher in states where the state capital is more “isolated”—that is, farther from the state’s major population centers. (States with relatively isolated capitals include not just New York (Albany), but also Illinois (Springfield), South Carolina (Columbia), Nevada (Carson City), and Florida (Tallahassee), among others.)

Of course, states are very unlikely to relocate their capitals, but understanding the likely mechanisms that explain Campante and Do’s surprising finding may help us better understand the sorts of policy levers that might help reduce corruption in state government. So why might it be the case that states with more isolated capital cities might have more corruption? Continue reading

Preemptive FOIA Suits Chill Transparency Across the U.S.

Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs) have been strong anticorruption tools in the United States for decades. Though the federal government and the 50 state governments each have their own version of FOIA, the basics are similar across the board: these statutes require the publication of certain government documents and allow any citizen to request the disclosure of unreleased records, and the government must provide that information, subject to certain important exemptions (for example, exceptions related to national security, personal privacy, and internal government deliberations). If the government agency does not answer a FOIA request within a certain period of time, set by the statute, the requester can file a FOIA lawsuit to force the agency to respond.

At the federal level, FOIA requests were one of the tools used to uncover former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private charter planes for government travel, leading both to his resignation and to increased scrutiny on travel by other Cabinet members. The federal FOIA also played a key role during the Clinton Administration in uncovering corruption at the Department of Agriculture. Though the state-level FOIA laws get less attention, they have also played an important role in exposing corruption and related misconduct. In Virginia, for example, requests under the state FOIA helped build the corruption case against former Governor Bob McDonnell. Similarly, Michigan’s FOIA statute helped reveal information that led to charges against Detroit’s mayor for misconduct and obstruction of justice.

However, a new threat has recently emerged to the effectiveness of these laws, particularly at the state level. State and local governments have begun responding to state FOIA requests by suing the requester to ask the court for a so-called “declaratory judgment” that the agency is not obligated to release the information requested. These preemptive FOIA suits put one of the most powerful anticorruption tools in the United States at risk.

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US Anticorruption Policy in a Trump Administration Revisited: An Evaluation of Last Year’s Doom-and-Gloom Predictions

Almost exactly one year ago, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I published a deeply pessimistic post about the likely future of U.S. anticorruption policy under a Trump presidency. As I acknowledged at the time, “the consequences of a Trump presidency are potentially so dire for such a broad range of issues–from health care to climate change to national security to immigration to the preservation of the fundamental ideals of the United States as an open and tolerant constitutional democracy–that even thinking about the implications of a Trump presidency for something as narrow and specific as anticorruption policy seems almost comically trivial.” That statement is, alas, still true. But what about the impact on anticorruption specifically? In my post last year, I made a bunch of predictions about the likely impact of a Trump presidency on corruption, anticorruption, and related issues. What did I get right and where did I go wrong?

This may seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it’s often useful to go back and assess one’s own forecasts, not only in the interests of accountability and self-criticism, but also because examining where we got things right and, more importantly, where we went wrong can help us do a better job in the future. Of course, one difficulty in assessing my own predictions is that many of them concerned longer-term effects that we can’t really assess after one year (really 9+ months). And in some cases the predictions concern things that it’s hard to assess objectively. But it’s still a useful exercise. So, here goes: Continue reading

Guest Post: Transparency International UK’s Pledge Tracker–Amateur Research or Different Objectives?

Last week, GAB Editor-in-Chief Matthew Stephenson published a post sharply criticizing Transparency International UK’s new “Pledge Tracker,” which evaluates how well countries are living up to the pledges they made at the May 2016 London Anti-Corruption Summit. GAB is delighted to have the opportunity to publish the following reply from Robert Barrington, the Executive Director of Transparency International UK:

“A slapdash, amateurish collection of arbitrary, often inconsistent judgements, unsupported by anything that resembles serious research.” Not since I was taken to task over an undergraduate essay by an eminent professor at Oxford have I had work for which I was responsible receive quite such a stinging critique.  On that occasion, I could not escape a sense that my world view differed from that of the professor, and that—irrespective of the detail—was the root of our misunderstanding.

So is Professor Stephenson’s assessment of TI-UK’s Pledge Tracker merited? Here is my overall assessment: he is right on some but not all of the detail; he is wrong on most but not all of the big picture. At the root of the difference is the question of whether this is an index in which countries are compared with each other according to a consistent global standard, or whether it is the presentation of individual country assessments by local civil society organizations of their own country’s progress against their own country’s commitments. Continue reading

Improper Payments and American Financial Mismanagement

Sound government fiscal management requires, among other things, ensuring that government payments are made accurately—to the right payee, in the correct amount, and with sufficient documentation. Failure to implement effective systems to prevent improper payments leaves the government checkbook at risk of fraud, corruption, and other forms of abuse. Alas, the magnitude of improper payments in the United States is astounding: in 2016, the US reported $144 billion in improper payments—nearly the double the budget for the Department of Education. Improper payments for Medicaid alone are more than ten times the total size of the Community Development Block Grants that the Trump Administration intends to cut – allegedly to save money, even though eliminating this program would have disastrous consequences for programs such as Meals on Wheels.

While improper payments in other contexts are part of corruption schemes, such as the “ghost soldiers” in Afghanistan that Sarah his discussed in this post, improper payments under domestic U.S. programs like Medicaid are more likely to be the result of fraud or simple mismanagement than public corruption. That said, we have no idea how much corruption contributes to the massive improper payments problem. In either case, the most effective policy responses are largely similar, regardless of the underlying cause of the problem.  However, the U.S. response to the improper payments problem has so far been inadequate.

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Do People Care More About Corruption Than They Used To? Evidence from the US and Germany

Sometimes it feels like corruption has become the topic of the year: We’ve heard repeatedly that it is (the perception of) corrupt elites that has fueled the rise of populists, nationalists, and new socialist parties and politicians. The most prominently of these, though not the only one, is Donald Trump, who promised in his campaign to take back power from the corrupt elites (see here and here).

But has the topic of corruption actually become increasingly prominent in popular and media discourse over the last two years? To investigate this question, I did a simple search on the Factiva database within the eight most widely-circulated American newspapers (USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and Newsday) for the term “corruption.” I did a similar search for Germany, using the term “Korruption” and the eight most widely-circulated German newspapers (BILD, BILD am Sonntag, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Rheinische Post, Welt am Sonntag and Rheinische Post). Surprisingly (at least to me), over the last two years there was no growth in U.S. newspaper reporting on corruption. As the following graph shows, reporting on corruption in the U.S. has been rather stable over this period, with between 500 and 750 articles a month. A slightly different picture emerges for Germany, where newspaper reports on corruption, which were substantially less frequent than in the U.S. to begin with, have actually declined over the past two years. (A side note, though perhaps an interesting one: The most reported corruption topic in both countries, with about 2.5 times more stories than the next-most-mentioned topic, was FIFA.): Continue reading