Eliminating Barriers to Compensating Corruption Victims  

StAR yesterday held six panels on asset recovery issues as part of the meeting of the Conference of State Parties to UNCAC. I participated in the one on compensating corruption victims along with Costa Rican prosecutor Greysa Barrientos, Kate McMahon, Chair the International Bar Association’s Anticorruption Asset Recovery Subcommittee Kate McMahon, and Juanita Olaya Garcia of the UNCAC Coalition.

Panel moderators Yara Esquivel of StAR and Felipe Falconi from UNODC asked that I discuss what avenues of relief were available to corruption victims, the main challenges they face in recovering damages, and what reforms are needed to overcome those challenges. My remarks follow.   

Avenues of relief. Corruption victims generally have two options for obtaining compensation – as an adjunct to a criminal prosecution of the perpetrators by the state or by bringing a private civil suit against them.

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Civil Society to the CoSP: Corruption Victims Are Entitled to Compensation

The Council of State Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the governments of the now 188 nations that have ratified the Convention, meets this week to review its implementation.  

When it comes to prosecuting bribery, embezzlement, and other corruption crimes, progress has been made. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime reports that “[i]n a considerable number of countries, legislative amendments and structural reforms have produced coherent and largely harmonized criminalization regimes, tangible results in terms of enforcement capabilities and action.”

But the Convention’s “enforcement capabilities and action” extend beyond criminal prosecution.  Article 35 requires state parties to ensure those injured “as a result of an act of corruption” can enforce a claim for damages against the perpetrators.

Here little progress has been made.  The UNODC, Transparency International, academics (here and here), and this writer have all found that few corruption victims have recovered damages. 

The UNCAC Coalition, a global network of over 350 civil society organizations in 100 plus countries, urges the CoSP to address this gap in implementation.  In a formal submission, the coalition offers a series of recommendations to see that victims, either individually or through a class or representative action, can recover full compensation for the harm caused by corruption. It’s timely and important submission is here.

Streaming Now: Compensating Corruption Victims

Click here to join a discussion on compensating victims of corruption starting now (10:00 am U.S. East Coast time). One of the several events held as part of the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Corruption, it is sponsored by Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC). the Asset Recovery Subcommittee of the International Bar Association, Transparency International, and World Bank-UNODC StAR initiative.  Speakers are yours truly along with –

  • Mr. Stephen Baker, English barrister and Jersey advocate, Asset Recovery Subcommittee of the International Bar Association
  • Mr. Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC)
  • Ms. Sankhitha Gunaratne, Deputy Executive Director, Transparency International Sri Lanka

The event moderator is Mr. Emile van der Does de Willebois, Coordinator, StAR Initiative.

You are asked when joining the event to use the following format for your name: Country (Or: Organization)_First name_Last name.

Recovering Damages for Corruption — Bribery Victims

There is no longer any doubt that corruption does enormous harm – to individuals, businesses, governments, and whole societies.  Nor is there any dispute that those harmed should have a right to recover damages for their injuries.  In drafting the UN Convention Against Corruption, governments agreed quickly and without dissent upon what is now article 35. It requires parties to ensure their domestic law permit any person or entity harmed by corruption to “initiate legal proceedings against those responsible for the damage to obtain compensation.”

Yet what evidence there is shows article 35’s promise remains largely unfulfilled.

For the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the StAR Initiative, I am examining just how far there is to go for that promise to be met. With their resources and the help of the International Bar Association, I have reviewed the case law in close to one-third of the 187 UNCAC states parties.  The most common victim recovery cases I find are those where a government agency or state-owned corporation has recovered damages when an employee took a bribe. In a few, courts have also awarded damages to third-parties harmed by the bribery. There are in addition a miscellany of actions I am still digesting covering actions by the competitors of a bribe-payer, consumers, and NGOs.

Below are the bribery victim cases I have located to date. A second post will review the other cases. Reader contributions and comments warmly solicited.

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One American Rule for Compensating Corruption Victims Not to Follow

American law offers victims of corruption several advantages: a range of legal theories on which to bring suit for damages; a low cost procedure for recovering damages in a criminal prosecution; the ability to aggregate many small claims into a class action; rules permitting lawyers to represent claimants in return for a share of any recovery. Each has contributed to a decent corpus of corruption victim compensation law (reviewed here), and each merits consideration by judges and policymakers elsewhere searching for ways to reduce obstacles to the recovery damages for corruption.

One feature of American law should, however, be avoided at all costs. Too often courts demand victims show exactly how much harm they suffered to recover damages. The exercise is inherently imprecise.  Advanced econometric techniques fed the best data imaginable yield nothing but a rough approximation. U.S. courts are beginning to opt for common sense rules of thumbs in some settings, but the demand for precision where precision is not possible still frequently stands in the way of the victim compensation.

The most egregious cases are where an employer seeks damages caused when a supplier bribes an employee.

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Guest Post. Corruption Victims: Law and Practice in Italy, Russia, other European States

Earlier this month, I asked readers for help on a UNODC project examining the compensation of corruption victims.  UNCAC article 35 requires states parties to ensure those injured by “an act of corruption” can initiate “legal proceedings. . . to obtain compensation.” In 2017, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that virtually all 187 convention parties say their laws permit those injured by corruption to bring an action to recover damages. Yet few cases appear to have been brought.  The project seeks answers to three questions: Are there really few cases? If so, why? And what can be done to increase the number?

My thanks to the several readers who replied.  Thanks especially to Mjriana Visentin. An Italian lawyer with a Master’s Degree from the International Anticorruption Academy, Mjriana has been working on human rights and anticorruption for several years, most recently in Russia. She was kind enough to respond to my query with a thoughtful analysis reflecting both her experience representing victims of human rights abuses and corruption in Russia – categories which often overlap in practice – and current law on recovery of damages for corruption in Italy, other European states, and the European Court of Human Rights.  A valuable contribution to the global discussion on corruption victim compensation, it is below.  

Probably it would be useful to differentiate between types of corruption before discussing if victims did (or could) claim compensation.  If we are talking for example of extortion by a public official, I think that an analysis of the national case law will likely show a large number of individuals who were granted victim status and sought compensation.  [Editor’s note: a point I had not appreciated. I have subsequently learned that upon a conviction for extortion in Sri Lanka, defendants reportedly are required to return the bribe to the victim.  Example cases solicited from there or other jurisdictions.

As for other types of corruption, the situation may be more blurred.

Reviewing the laws of a number of European state members, I have seen that corruption still tends to be framed either as a victimless crime or crime against the state. This affects the view that potential victims have of themselves.

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Guest Post: Corruption on the Gualcarque River — Will Its Victims Have their Day in Court?

GAB’ s latest post on compensating victims of corruption is below. Authored by Naomi Roht-Arriaza, Distinguished Professor of Law at UC Hastings Law and President of the Board of the Due Process of Law Foundation, it recounts the harm those living along the Gualcarque river in Western Honduras suffered from the corrupt award of a contract for a hydroelectric dam and the community’s efforts to recover damages for their injuries.  While a trial court has recognized the community is entitled to relief as corruption victims, on specious reasoning an appellate court denied them victim status.  As Professor Roht-Arriaza explains, the case is now before the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court. It can either reverse the appellate court decision or affirm its denial of an effective remedy for the enormous harm corruption has wreaked on the community.     Leer en español.

Who are the victims of grand corruption?  The answer used to be “no one” or, at best, the state itself.  But especially with the advent of a human rights approach to corruption in the Inter-American and United Nations human rights systems, that perception is slowly changing.  Grand corruption affects the full range of human rights of individuals and groups.  When rights are violated, states have an obligation under international law to investigate, prosecute, and provide redress.  The UN Convention Against Corruption mirrors this requirement in Article 35. 

And yet national courts have been reluctant to recognize the rights of those who have suffered damage — either to participate in proceedings involving grand corruption or to recognize them as victims due compensation.  In part, the reluctance stems from difficulties legal doctrine creates for establishing the causal link between a specific act of corruption and harm to a specific person or group.   To create the same “justice cascade” as in human rights cases, corruption victims should be able to seek relief through either a criminal or civil action and as either individuals or communities or through representative organizations.  Where a state prosecutor has brought charges, victims should be able, as they can in  France and Spain, to be full participants in the prosecution.      

The corruption in the bidding, contracting and construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River in Honduras would seem to be the poster child for victims’ compensation.  In an atmosphere of widespread corruption from the top down, a well-known elite family won a contract to generate and sell electricity to the state: without being on the list of approved bidders, without a valid environmental impact statement, and with a design apparently aimed at maximizing the haul from government coffers. 

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Actions for Damages Caused by Corruption: American Law

American law allows corruption victims to recover damages under a variety of legal theories, and its class action procedures are well suited for recovery in certain cases.  This post discusses who the law deems a victim and what damages they are entitled to recover.  A second post will suggest where countries developing their own corruption victim law might follow American practice, and where American practice should be avoided at all costs.

In the United States, the party that most often recovers damages for corruption is a company whose employee accepted a bribe. The bribe will have been paid in return for awarding the bribe-payer a contract or for approving poor performance or overpayment on a contract the payer already holds with the employer. Most cases have arisen from one firm bribing an employee of another, but the same law applies when the victim is a government agency whose employee was bribed. U.S. agencies (here), cities (here and here) and counties (here), local police forces (here) and the United Nations (here) have all collected damages in these circumstances. So have foreign governments when the bribe was paid in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (chapter 10 here). 

The basis of the employer’s damages is in taking a bribe the employee breached the duty of loyalty owed the employer. The duty of loyalty is also grounds for recovery in conflict of interest cases.  The most well-known public conflict of interest case is from the early 20th century. In United States v. Carter, Army Captain Oberlin Carter had awarded dredging contracts to a company in which he had a secret interest. The court ruled that not only was the Army entitled to Carter’s share of the company’s profits but to any money he had earned from investing those profits.

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Why Do So Few Corruption Victims Seek Compensation?

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption requires state parties to open their courts to those damaged by corruption.  Under article 35, states that have ratified UNCAC must provide victims of corruption a right to “initiate legal proceedings against those responsible for that damage … to obtain compensation.” According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, virtually all 187 states parties do. Its 2017 review of the convention’s implementation found article 35 was “one of the least problematic provisions of the entire convention.” “All but seven of the reviewed states,” it reported, “have adopted measures to fully or partly implement article 35.”

The UNODC’s conclusion comes from a reading of the parties’ laws.  While only a handful of states have enacted special legislation governing recovery of damages for corruption, in the remainder national authorities assured UNODC that corruption victims could recover damages “under the general principles of civil (contract or tort) law.”  But research by UNODC, the UNCAC Civil Society Coalition, Transparency International, and surveys of practitioners belies these assurances. It finds that in most nations few if any corruption victims have sought damages for injuries suffered.

For a UNODC/Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative project, I seek answers to two questions.  One, is the research correct? Are there really only a few cases where corruption victims have been awarded damages?  My preliminary analyses of U.S. data shows only some 30 arising from public, as opposed to private, corruption; given its size, the amount of corruption, and low barriers to suit, one would expect more. What about other states, especially larger, wealthier ones?

Two, if indeed there are few corruption damage actions in any jurisdiction, what explains the paucity? Why, despite the prevalence of corruption, the damage it has wreaked, and the worldwide attention it has drawn, have so few corruption victims sought redress. I hypothesize three factors are to blame: courts’ narrow reading of legal doctrine, especially that governing causation for harm (here); shortcomings in procedure, and in some countries the threat violent retaliation.

But these are my guesses, based largely on my experience as a lawyer in a wealthy common law jurisdiction and second hand reports from those in other nations. Readers’ thoughts and comments solicited. Cases and commentary in any language Google translate reads most welcome.

Principles for Victim Remediation in Foreign Bribery Cases

There is a broad consensus that foreign bribery harms the citizens and governments of developing nations. But in most cases where enforcement agencies in a “supply side” jurisdiction (that is, the home jurisdiction of the companies that paid the bribes) reach a settlement with a company accused of bribing foreign officials, the settlement does not provide for any remedial payments to the government or citizens of the “demand side” country where the bribery took place. Given the inherent difficulties in setting right the harm corruption causes, this is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, scholars and activists have increasingly called for settlement agreements between supply side enforcers and bribe-paying companies to include requirements that the companies make such remediation to the victims of the foreign bribery scheme, and some prosecutorial agencies, like the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.K. Serious Fraud Office (SFO), have occasionally done something along these lines. They have done so, however, only intermittently, and as an exercise of prosecutorial discretion, without any overarching policy agenda or conceptual framework.

In a recent article, I proposed a framework that could achieve more consistent outcomes and be used as a benchmark for developing best practices. I do not focus on grand designs for a private right of action for the foreign victims of corruption, or on obligations under international law. Because the action is happening on the ground, through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in negotiating settlements, that’s where I focus. In this post, I outline the factors that enforcement agencies should take into account when deciding whether to pursue remediation in any given case. Continue reading