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Earlier this month, the OECD Working Group on Bribery released its Phase 4 Report on U.S. compliance with the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. For those readers unfamiliar with the process, this report is part of the peer monitoring system that the OECD Convention establishes for promoting adherence to the Convention. (The Convention lacks “hard” sanctions, though in extreme cases it’s possible a country could be expelled. Rather, the Convention relies on “soft” peer pressure, facilitated through the extensive and detailed investigations and reports carried out by the Working Group.) The lengthy and detailed report, produced under the leadership of experts from the UK and Argentina, assesses U.S. performance on a range of issues related to the prevention and prosecution of foreign bribery. For purposes of this post, I want to zero in on one narrow but important issue, which gets just over a couple of pages in the report: whether U.S. enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) is improperly influenced by national political or economic interests.
This question is important, both legally and politically. As a legal matter, Article 5 of the OECD Convention explicitly states that decisions regarding the investigation and prosecution of foreign bribery offenses “shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another State or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved.” The OECD has in the past raised concerns about Article 5 violations by other member states, including the United Kingdom, and, more recently, Turkey and Canada. More broadly, as a political matter critics have alleged that the U.S. government’s enforcement of the FCPA is biased against foreign companies, and have sometimes gone so far as to accuse the U.S. of deliberately designing FCPA enforcement actions so as to secure economic advantages for U.S. companies at the expense of foreign rivals. A particularly sensationalistic version of the claim appeared in a book written by a French executive who was convicted and jailed on FCPA charges; that book became a best-seller in China, where the view that U.S. prosecutorial decisions are made to advance national economic interests is widespread. But the notion has been around for a while. (To give one personal example, last year I had a conversation with a journalist from a leading Brazilian news organization who asked for my views on the claim, which he’d apparently heard from several Brazilian sources, that the U.S. FCPA prosecution against Odebrecht was motivated by a desire to eliminate or cripple a company that competed with U.S. firms.) The U.S. government may have further contributed to this narrative in a 2018 press release on the Department of Justice’s “China Initiative”; that press release listed, as one component of the initiative, the “identif[ication of FCPA] cases involving Chinese companies that compete with American businesses.”
While it may be that the U.S. officials charged with enforcing the FCPA have their own biases and blind spots, the strong claim that the FCPA was some kind of a neo-mercantalist/neo-protectionist tool always struck me as far-fetched. (And this is true notwithstanding the FCPA passage in the China Initiative press release, which seemed more like something that got thrown in without much thought or vetting, rather than a substantive change in policy.) And it seems that the OECD Bribery Working Group’s review team came to the same conclusion. As the report states, “the lead examiners … have found no basis to consider that any FCPA decisions have been made for improper reasons.” Continue reading
In February, former Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh became the latest in the long line of Maryland politicians sentenced to prison for corruption-related crimes. According to the Department of Justice, Pugh sold copies of a self-published children’s book series to a variety of local organizations that already had or were attempting to win contracts with the city and state governments. Over eight years, Pugh and her longtime aide failed to deliver, re-sold, and double-counted the orders, squirrelling away nearly $800,000 into bank accounts belonging to two shell corporations registered to Pugh’s home address. Pugh, who did not maintain a personal bank account, used the funds to purchase and renovate a private home as well as fund her re-election campaign, among other activities.
These facts are classic red flags in the anti-money laundering (AML) world. Pugh would have had more difficulty executing this corrupt scheme, and might have been brought to justice much earlier, if the banks handling her illicit revenues had conducted the sort of enhanced customer due diligence and monitoring that financial institutions are required to perform on so-called “politically exposed persons” (PEPs), as well as their immediate family and close associates. While there is no uniform definition, PEPs are typically understood to be someone who holds a powerful government position, one that provides greater opportunities for engaging in embezzlement, bribe-taking, and other illicit activity. (Defining a PEP’s “close associates” is more challenging, but the category is generally thought to include someone like Pugh’s aide, who has the requisite status and access to carry out transactions on behalf of the PEP.) But U.S. financial institutions were not required to subject Pugh or her aide to enhanced scrutiny, because under the U.S. AML framework, such scrutiny is only obligatory for foreign PEPs, not domestic PEPs.
For many years, that was the standard approach internationally. But a new consensus is emerging that financial institutions should subject all PEPs, both domestic and foreign, to enhanced scrutiny. This position has been embraced by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international body which sets standards for combating corruption in the international financial system, by the Wolfsberg Group, an association of the world’s largest banks, and by the European Union’s Fourth AML Directive. But far from joining the growing tide of domestic PEP screening, the United States seems to be swimming against it. The United States is one of the few OECD countries that does not require domestic PEP screening, and this past August, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the primary U.S. agency tasked with investigating financial crimes, reiterated that it “do[es] not interpret the term ‘politically exposed persons’ to include U.S. public officials[.]”
This is a mistake. It’s time that the United States joined the international consensus by formally requiring enhanced scrutiny of domestic PEPs as well as foreign PEPs. Continue reading
As regular readers may have noticed, GAB has been inactive for the past week (that is, until Rick’s post yesterday). Apologies for the lack of content – as I’m sure you can imagine, the U.S. presidential election has been consuming my attention and that of most of our regular contributors. But now that the election outcome is clear (notwithstanding President Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud and the craven complicity of his Republican Party enablers), it’s time to get back to blogging. I suspect that much (though not all) of our content over the next couple of weeks will be related to the outcome of the U.S. elections—both backward-looking evaluation of the impact of the Trump Presidency on corruption in the US and beyond, and forward-looking considerations about the anticorruption agenda under the incoming Biden Administration.
Today’s post isn’t about Trump per se, but it’s loosely inspired by both certain aspects of his presidency and his current refusal to acknowledge and accept the outcome of the election. I want to say a few words about the ways in which corruption, particularly grand corruption at the highest levels of the government, can threaten to undermine the institutions of liberal democracy (free and fair elections, formal and informal checks and balances, the rule of law, etc.). To be clear, I don’t have in mind principally the ways in which politicians might engage in corrupt conduct to help win elections (for example, vote-buying, acceptance of illegal campaign donations in exchange for favors, diverting public funds for partisan purposes, etc.), though these are of course serious and important problems. Nor do I have in mind the broader and more diffuse “institutional corruption” associated with the excessive influence of concentrated wealth, though this too is a grave concern. Rather, I want to consider how grand corruption in the highest levels of government may threaten to erode or subvert (explicitly or de facto) the basic institutional structures of liberal constitutional democracy.
Nothing of what I have to say on this topic is original; it’s all drawn from existing literature, and the arguments are likely familiar to many readers. Still, I thought it might be helpful to highlight three ways in which unchecked grand corruption may contribute to democratic backsliding: Continue reading
Last week, President Trump issued a new Executive Order that, if implemented, could dramatically change the U.S. federal civil service—and in so doing threatens to subvert one of the most important bulwarks against corruption in all of U.S. law.
First, a quick synopsis of what the order does: Federal civil service laws are complex, but simplifying a bit, the bulk of U.S. civil service positions fall under something called the “competitive service” (also known as the “merit system”), in which hiring is based on competitive examinations administered by the Office of Personnel Management. Furthermore, those holding competitive service positions can only be removed for good cause (that is, they can’t be fired at will), and removals of such officials are reviewable by an independent commission called the Merit Systems Protection Board. Also importantly, those in the competitive service are entitled to union representation. Not all federal positions have these protections; the most senior civil servants are part of a different system (the “Senior Executive Service”), and there are a number of other relatively narrowly drawn exemptions for particular classes of jobs, typically those for which hiring by competitive examination is not practical (the “excepted service”). President Trump’s new Executive Order would shift from the competitive service to the excepted service any position that has “a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character.” If that sounds very broad, it’s because it is. The Executive Order, if implemented, could shift tens of thousands, or possibly hundreds of thousands, of federal civil service positions out of the competitive service, thus giving the President the authority to fire the holders of those positions at will, as well as the authority to replace them with political appointees.
It’s not entirely clear whether the new order is legal. The relevant statute does contain a provision that allows the President to create “necessary exceptions” from the merit system insofar as “conditions of good government warrant.” Past presidents have exercised this authority, though to the best of my (limited) knowledge, President Trump’s Executive Order is unprecedented in both the breadth of its coverage and the thinness of its proffered justifications. That might matter, because there are a handful of prior court opinions (though none at the Supreme Court level) that suggest that the President’s authority to exempt positions from the merit system is not unlimited. It’s also not certain whether the Executive Order will ever go into effect. If Joe Biden wins next week’s election, he could reverse the order as soon as he’s inaugurated, and it’s unclear whether the Trump Administration will be able effect any actual reclassifications under the order prior to inauguration day. (The order itself calls on all agencies to prepare a preliminary list of affected positions by inauguration day, but it’s possible that agencies might move faster and reclassify some positions before then.)
For purposes of the present post, I want to put those issues aside. I also will put aside, for now, broader questions of whether the Executive Order would worsen the politicization of federal agencies or undermine their overall quality (themes I’ve explored in other work). Instead, my objective here is to elaborate on why this Executive Order, if implemented, poses such a significant corruption threat. To do that, let’s consider three forms of corruption (or corruption-facilitating practices) that the civil service merit system is meant to constrain, and the impact that this Executive Order would have on each: Continue reading
As regular readers likely know, a little while back I did a post on a new working paper of mine, jointly authored with Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, on corruption and anticorruption in U.S. history. A few weeks ago, Harvard Law Today (the alumni magazine put out by my employer and alma mater) published a short interview I did about what we learned from this research project. In addition to discussing the history, the interviewer also asked some questions regarding the current situation in the U.S. with respect to corruption, especially in connection with the evidence this blog has been collecting of the Trump Administration’s conflicts of interest and efforts to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. It’s a brief interview, and there may not be much in here that will be news to those who read the working paper or follow these issues closely, but I figured I’d share the interview in case some folks out there might find it of interest. The interview also includes a link to a lecture I delivered a year ago on broad themes related to corruption and anticorruption.
Last week, I did a post with some preliminary (and under-baked) reflections on the so-called “FinCEN Files” reports by BuzzFeed News and the Independent Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). These stories relied in substantial part on a couple thousand Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) that had been filed with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), and leaked to a BuzzFeed journalist in 2018. The documents, and the reporting based on them, highlight the extent to which major Western banks assist suspected kleptocrats, terrorists, and other criminal actors move (and launder) staggering amounts of money all over the world, and highlight the deficiencies of the existing anti-money laundering (AML) system.
What can we do to rectify this depressing state of affairs? Much of the commentary I’ve seen so far (both in the FinCEN Files stories themselves, and commentary on the reporting from other sources) emphasizes the need for more individual criminal liability—putting bankers in jail, not just fining banks. Even when banks are threatened or hit with penalties, the argument goes, this doesn’t really have much of a deterrent effect, partly because even what seem like very large monetary sanctions are dwarfed by the profits banks stand to make from assisting shady clients with shady transactions, and partly because the costs of monetary sanctions are mostly passed on to the bank’s shareholders, and don’t really hurt the individuals responsible (or the managers who tolerate, or turn a blind eye to, misconduct).
I’m quite sympathetic to both of these arguments, though with a couple of important caveats. Caveat number one: The absence of individual prosecutions of bankers is sometimes attributed to the fecklessness—or, worse, the “soft” corruption—of federal prosecutors, but as I noted in my last post, I tend to think that the more significant obstacle is the fact that it is very difficult in most cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the that bankers or other intermediaries had the requisite level of knowledge to support a criminal money laundering conviction. Caveat number two: I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss the idea that levying significant monetary penalties on banks can affect their behavior. After all, these institutions are motivated overwhelmingly by money, so hitting them in the pocketbook is hitting them where it hurts. The problem may be less that monetary sanctions are inherently ineffectual in this context, but rather that they are too low and too uncertain to have a sufficient impact on incentives and behavior.
In that vein, I want to suggest a few legal reforms that might make the U.S. AML system function more effectively. I acknowledge that these are “inside the box” ideas, insofar as they seek to make the existing framework more effective rather than to drastically transform that system. That may make these proposals feel unsatisfying to some, though I suspect the proposals will seem radical, even outlandish, to others. I should also acknowledge that I am not at all an AML expert, so it’s quite possible that the discussion below will contain errors or misunderstandings of the law or the system. But, in the spirit of trying to stimulate further discussion by those who really understand this field, let me throw out a few ideas. Continue reading
As most readers of this blog are likely well aware, last week BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released a bombshell story about international money laundering through major financial institutions. The collection of stories—more of which are likely in the works—is based on an analysis of a large trove of leaked documents from the U.S Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which the journalists reporting on the case have dubbed the “FinCEN Files.” These files consist of so-called Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs), which are documents that, pursuant to a U.S. statute called the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), banks and certain other institutions are legally required to file with FinCEN whenever the bank has reason to suspect that a transaction it’s handling involves money laundering or some other criminal activity, or simply lacks an apparent lawful purpose. The bank does not inform its customer that it’s filing a SAR—indeed, the BSA prohibits banks from doing so. FinCEN can use SARs to detect and investigate financial crime, and may share SARs with other law enforcement agencies in the context of an investigation, but otherwise SARs are supposed to remain strictly confidential. However, in October 2018 a FinCen employee leaked over 2,100 SARs to a BuzzFeed reporter. (While BuzzFeed and ICIJ do not identify their source, it is almost certain that this former employee, who pled guilty last January to illegally leaking the documents, is the source.) Journalists with BuzzFeed and the ICIJ analyzed these documents and have published multiple stories (see, for example, here and here) about what these documents reveal regarding the global anti-money laundering (AML) regime, together with a subset of the actual SARs. (The journalists released only those SARs that support reporting in specific stories, principally SARs that pertain to known criminal figures. They are not publishing a database of all the SARs in their possession due to concerns about privacy of the individuals involved, many of whom are not currently accused of any wrongdoing.)
The picture that these stories paint of the global AML regime is not a pretty one. While the stories are lengthy and detailed, and discuss many different aspects of the overall issue, if I had to try to distill all this reporting into a simple punchline, it would go something like this: The leaked SARs reveal that the major banks repeatedly handled huge and highly suspicious transactions for corrupt kleptocrats, organized crime groups, terrorists, fraudsters, sanctions evaders, and others, and relatively little was done, by the government or the banks, to stop it. As the ICIJ puts it, “The FinCEN Files show trillions in tainted dollars flow freely through major banks, swamping a broken enforcement system.” Or as BuzzFeed puts it, the FinCEN files reveal “how the giants of Western banking move trillions of dollars in suspicious transactions,” while “the US government, despite its vast powers, fails to stop it.”
I’m still working my way through all the FinCEN Files stories, and I’m certainly no expert on money laundering or banking regulation. (I come to this issue sideways, from an interest in anticorruption, rather than any professional expertise in AML as such.) But, in the interest of getting some ideas down in writing and perhaps stimulating some further conversation on what we can learn from the FinCEN Files reporting, let me share a few scattered, somewhat disconnected preliminary observations. Continue reading
Last week, I posted some information about a new working paper that I jointly authored with Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar on anticorruption reform in the United States over the 1865-1941 period. Although one of our main arguments in that paper is that the process of anticorruption reform in the United States was long, slow, and involved many different actors at all levels (in contrast to the image of the “big bang” reform driven by a single powerful figure, like a Lee Kwan Yew or a Mikheil Saakashvili), there were indeed some periods, and some leaders, who were especially important to the anticorruption fight. One of those leaders was undoubtedly President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was a complicated figure with complicated legacy, but with respect to anticorruption, he was a significant leader of the reform movement. Since today (September 14) is the 119th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s assumption of the presidency, I thought I’d use the occasion to share some of my favorite remarks of his on the subject of corruption The specific context of these remarks, which came in a December 1903 address to Congress, concerned his administration’s efforts to secure the extradition of bribe-taking officials who had fled the country, but President Roosevelt’s sweeping rhetoric sounds like it could have come from a modern anticorruption reformer in a particularly fiery mood:
There can be no crime more serious than bribery. Other offenses violate one law while corruption strikes at the foundation of all law. Under our form of Government all authority is vested in the people and by them delegated to those who represent them in official capacity. There can be no offense heavier than that of him in whom such a sacred trust has been reposed, who sells it for his own gain and enrichment; and no less heavy is the offense of the bribe giver. He is worse than the thief, for the thief robs the individual, while the corrupt official plunders an entire city or State. He is as wicked as the murderer, for the murderer may only take one life against the law, while the corrupt official and the man who corrupts the official alike aim at the assassination of the commonwealth itself. Government of the people, by the people, for the people will perish from the face of the earth if bribery is tolerated. The givers and takers of bribes stand on an evil pre-eminence of infamy. The exposure and punishment of public corruption is an honor to a nation, not a disgrace. The shame lies in toleration, not in correction…. If we fail to do all that in us lies to stamp out corruption we can not escape our share of responsibility for the guilt. The first requisite of successful self-government is unflinching enforcement of the law and the cutting out of corruption.
Endemic public corruption in developing and transition countries often seems intractable. Yet most countries that are currently perceived as having relatively high levels of public integrity–places like Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States–were, at an earlier point in their history, afflicted with pervasive corruption similar to what one finds throughout the developing world today. Considering the history these countries may therefore make a valuable contribution to modern debates about anticorruption reform—not so much by providing simple lessons about what policies to adopt, but by offering a broader sense of how the complex process of anticorruption reform unfolds over time, and by calling into question certain widely-held beliefs about this process.
A couple years back, after attending a fascinating presentation by Mariano-Florentino Cuellar (a Justice of the California Supreme Court who somehow manages to continue to hold down his former day job as a professor at Stanford Law School), I became particularly interested in the history of my own country, the United States, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The challenges facing anticorruption reformers in the United States during this period bear a striking resemblance to the challenges facing reformers in modern-day democracies in the developing world. Indeed, the United States is a particularly interesting case study because, in contrast to most of the other Western democracies that are currently perceived as having low corruption, the United States established political democracy well before it embarked on significant “good government” reforms.
Justice Cuellar graciously agreed to collaborate with me, and we finally have a draft paper entitled “Taming Systemic Corruption: The American Experience and its Implications for Contemporary Debates.” The draft now available on SSRN here, and is also available as part of the University of Gothenburg Quality of Government (QoG) Institute’s working paper series. Our article, which focuses principally on the period between 1865 and 1941, does not purport to reach firm conclusions about the reasons that the U.S. struggle against systemic corruption ultimately succeeded—let alone to draw facile “lessons” about “what works.” But we do find that the U.S. experience calls into question a number of commonly-held views about the struggle against corruption in modern developing countries: Continue reading