Guest Post: Ensuring Adequate Anticorruption, Accountability, and Transparency Measures During the Pandemic

Today’s guest post is from Shruti Shah and Alex Amico from the Coalition for Integrity:

We are living through an emergency more severe than anything in recent memory. The COVID-19 public health crisis has triggered an associated economic crisis, and both will require a dramatic government response. But the fact that we are dealing with an emergency situation—in which swift and drastic government action is essential—does not mean that we should put aside our concerns about government corruption, or relax our vigilance about demands for transparency and accountability in government programs. Quite the opposite: In order to respond effectively, and to demonstrate that they can be trusted, governments other institutions need to demonstrate that they are committed to honest oversight of the extraordinary actions necessary to combat this pandemic. The need to act swiftly does not abrogate the government’s responsibility to adhere to principles of anticorruption, accountability, and transparency.

There is no better illustration of this than the stimulus package being negotiated (at the time of writing) in the U.S. Congress. This stimulus will result in a flow of an enormous amount of money, and the risks of corruption, fraud, and misappropriation or diversion are extremely high. It is therefore essential that the stimulus bill incorporate meaningful transparency, oversight, and anticorruption provisions. For example: Continue reading

High Costs: Corruption Scandals in America’s Legal Marijuana Industry

The movement to legalize marijuana in the United States has been gaining momentum. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have currently legalized marijuana to some degree, and of those, eleven states and D.C. have legalized recreational use of marijuana.  (Selling, possessing, consuming marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the federal laws against marijuana are rarely enforced, which creates a rather odd situation in the states that have legalized marijuana: those who participate in the marijuana market are still technically engaged in illegal activity, even though that market operates out in the open.) In the absence of uniform federal regulation, those states that have legalized marijuana have adopted different regulatory approaches; most states issue a limited number of licenses to sell or supply marijuana, but have capped the number of licenses in order to limit the amount of marijuana on the market. This makes each license extremely valuable, given that the total value of the marijuana market is estimated to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $52 billion. Additionally, in most states the license evaluation criteria, and the evaluation process, are extremely opaque, and local government officials frequently have substantial discretion regarding who receives these licenses.

Given this combination of factors—state and local officials with the power to issue a small number of extremely valuable licenses through an opaque process—it should come as no surprise that the legal marijuana market has become a hotbed for corruption. Consider just a few examples: Continue reading

The Independence of U.S. Law Enforcement is Under Attack. Here’s What Congress Can Do About It.

The politicization of the institutions of justice, particularly those associated with criminal law enforcement, is one of the greatest threats to the rule of law and the integrity of government. Corrupt leaders in democracies and autocracies alike seek to undermine any check on their power, thus ensuring impunity for themselves and their allies, and may also try to weaponize criminal investigations to harass and discredit political opponents. For many years, most Americans viewed this sort of threat to the integrity of the institutions of justice as something that only happened abroad, or in the distant past. Not so anymore. Under the Trump Administration, the corruption and politicization of law enforcement institutions is a significant threat to American democracy.

That President Trump lacks respect for the independence and integrity of law enforcement has been evident for some time, at least since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump dismissed Comey in part to the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election, and in part because Comey wouldn’t pledge his personal loyalty to the president.) In the last month, the situation appears to be getting even worse. As has been widely reported in the media, President Trump publicly criticized the Department of Justice (DOJ) for seeking a high sentence in the case of Trump associate Roger Stone; Attorney General Bill Barr claimed that President Trump didn’t issue any specific instructions regarding the case (and complained about the President’s tweeting), but Barr nonetheless recommended a much lower sentence that the DOJ’s own prosecutors had originally requested. Barr recently made the highly unusual decision to install an outside prosecutor to oversee the case against President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In another troubling move that didn’t get as much press attention, in early February Barr issued a memo saying that any FBI investigations into 2020 candidates or their campaigns would require the Attorney General’s approval.

Trump has asserted that he had the legal right, as President, to intervene in criminal cases. This is a contested claim, to say the least. Some argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, the President has ultimate control not only over general DOJ policy, but over decision-making in individual criminal prosecutions. However, others assert that this is not so, and that the Constitution actually imposes certain limits the President’s control over individual prosecutions—most importantly, that the President cannot seek to affect a criminal case out of corrupt or self-interested motivations.

Putting the legal debate to one side for now, and assuming that Congress—if not now, then at some point in the future—would like to establish new safeguards to insulate the DOJ and FBI from the corrupting influence of an unscrupulous president, what might Congress do? I suggest three steps that Congress might take:

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Senator Warren’s Plan to Establish an Independent Task Force to Investigate Trump is a Bad, Bad Idea

Last month, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made a bold anticorruption commitment. She said that, if elected, she would direct the US Department of Justice to establish a special taskforce to investigate the Trump administration for violations of US anticorruption laws—including federal bribery laws, insider trading laws, and public integrity laws. She has has called on every other Democratic presidential candidate to do make the same commitment. Given the egregious corruption of the Trump administration, Senator Warren argues, a special taskforce of this kind is necessary if we are to “move forward to restore public confidence in government and deter future wrongdoing[.]”

Senator Warren—perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate—has put the fight against corruption (both narrowly and broadly defined) at the center of her campaign, and she has generated a range of proposals to combat corruption and strengthen the integrity of US political institutions. She has many good ideas. But this is not one of them. Regardless of whether members of the Trump Administration—including the President, his family members, and members of his cabinet—have engaged in illegal corrupt acts, forming a special DOJ taskforce along the lines proposed by Senator Warren would be a bad idea—bad for the Democratic party, bad for the DOJ, and, most importantly, bad for the United States.

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The Bridgegate Case May Weaken a Powerful Legal Tool for Fighting Corruption in the United States

This past January, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that has the potential to make it significantly harder for federal prosecutors to enforce public integrity laws. That case, Kelly v. United States, centers on whether two associates of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Bridgette Kelly and Bill Baroni, committed criminal fraud within the meaning of a federal statute codified at 18 U.S.C. § 666 (sometimes referred to simply as §666). Section 666 prohibits government agents from “knowingly or intentionally misapply[ing] property that is valued at $5,000 or more” and owned by an agency that receives over $10,000 in federal funding during any one-year period. Federal prosecutors argued that Kelly and Baroni violated §666 when they lied in connection with using public funds and property to carry out political retaliation against a New Jersey mayor who had refused to endorse Governor Christie. The alleged retaliation involved creating traffic jams by closing lanes on a major bridge (hence the moniker “Bridgegate”) using the trumped-up excuse that the lane closure was for a “traffic study.”

Kelly and Baroni were convicted at trial, but they are arguing on appeal that the prosecutors’ interpretation of §666 embraces an “astoundingly expansive theory of criminal fraud,” under which any public official could be indicted “on nothing more than the (ubiquitous) allegation that she lied in claiming to act in the public interest.” If Kelly and Baroni convince the Supreme Court to interpret §666 more narrowly, this could be the most significant change in U.S. public corruption law since the Court’s decision in McDonnell v. United States.

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New Podcast, Featuring Gary Kalman

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Gary Kalman, formerly (and at the time of the interview) the Executive Director of the FACT Coalition, and now the Director of the U.S. Office of Transparency International. The first part of our conversation focuses on the work Mr. Kalman did at the FACT Coalition on the push for new U.S. legislation to crack down on anonymous companies. We also discuss his vision, and top priorities, for Transparency International’s new U.S. office.

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.

Guest Post: Why the U.S. Congress Should Pass the CROOK Act

Today’s guest post is from Abigail Bellows, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an independent governance consultant. Ms. Bellows previously served in the U.S. Department of State, where she created and led the anticorruption portfolio in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

In countries long plagued by pervasive corruption, a wave of global protests is disrupting the political order. These protests, typically triggered by a corruption scandal, produce a brief upswing in political will and may result in the ouster of the current government. In fact, 10% of countries of countries around the world have experienced corruption-fueled political change over the last five years. These settings present historic opportunities to produce genuine, lasting reform. But to succeed, reformers must take advantage of political momentum before public interest dissipates or opponents regroup. During these windows of opportunity, U.S. support can play a valuable role, both because of the symbolic power of U.S. support and because of the scale and rigor of the technical assistance that the U.S. can provide. Yet all too often, the U.S. government is unable to respond sufficiently and quickly to support reformist governments during these crucial windows of opportunity. One of the main reasons is that the current U.S. anticorruption budget is too small ($115 million annually), too geographically rigid, and insufficiently flexible (given that programming is typically planned and budgeted two years in advance).

New legislation pending in the U.S. Congress—Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act—would help address these problems. The House version of the CROOK Act, which was introduced on July 18, 2019 by Representative Bill Keating (D-MA) and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), with support from the U.S. Helsinki Commission, passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 18. The companion Senate bill was introduced on December 11 by Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and is awaiting review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While the CROOK Act contains many measures that would strengthen U.S. anticorruption efforts, its centerpiece is the creation of an “Anti-Corruption Action Fund.” Continue reading