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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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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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

Providing Reparations to the Victims of Foreign Bribery: What Criteria Are Appropriate?

It is widely agreed that foreign bribery is capable of causing harm to a range of different victims, including the governments whose officials are bribed (the so-called “demand-side countries”), and the citizens of those countries. Yet traditionally, when supply-side countries (those with jurisdiction over the firms that paid bribes abroad) reach settlement agreements with corporate defendants in these cases, the fines and penalties collected—which can sometimes run into the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars—go to the supply-side government treasuries, a fact that has attracted considerable discussion and criticism.

In recent years, we’ve started to see some changes in the approach taken by supply-side governments on this issue, with the United Kingdom being particularly active. On several notable occasions, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has included in its settlement agreements with corporate defendants specific provisions to remediate the victims of foreign bribery. Importantly, such remediation (not just in the UK case, but more generally) can take two forms, which are often unhelpfully conflated:

  • In some cases, the resolution of a bribery case may include compensation to identifiable victims, if it can be shown that the victims suffered a direct loss, the value of which can be reasonably estimated. The victim might be a foreign government itself. For example, the 2015 deferred prosecution agreement negotiated between the SFO and Standard Bank included a payment to the Tanzanian Government, because in that case an agent of Standard Bank had used money to which the Tanzanian government was entitled in order to pay an illegal bribe. The payment to the Tanzanian government in the settlement agreement was compensation for this loss.
  • In many cases, though, the harm done by foreign corruption is more diffuse, the victims are difficult to identify individually, and the monetary value of the harm inflicted is impossible to calculate. Nonetheless, even though traditional victim compensation is not possible in these cases, it is still possible, and often desirable, for a portion of the fines and penalties collected from the responsible corporation to be directed toward improving the lives and livelihoods of the population victimized by the misconduct—perhaps by making a payment to the government of the demand-side country, possibly earmarked for a specific purpose, or perhaps by donating money to charities, or by purchasing assets that benefit the public, or even by making payments directly to citizens. Though these sorts of payments are also sometimes described as “victim compensation,” I prefer the term reparations, which makes clear that these payments are not “compensation” in the traditional, narrower sense, but rather payments intended for the benefit of a general populace or society at large. An example of this sort of reparations payment can be found in another case involving the SFO and Tanzania, this one the SFO’s 2010 settlement agreement with BAE Systems for illegal commissions that the company had paid to an intermediary in connection with the sale of an aircraft radar system to the Tanzanian government. (Technically, BAE admitted and was penalized for an accounting offense—failing to keep accurate records of the payments—rather than the underlying bribery.) The settlement required BAE systems to pay approximately £30 million for the purpose of buying educational materials in Tanzania. There is no evidence to suggest that BAE System’s misconduct in connection with the radar system sale caused any damage, let alone £30 million worth of damage, to Tanzania’s education system. So this payment was not “victim compensation” in the narrow sense, but rather an effort to offset some of the damage BAE’s wrongful conduct had done at a more general, societal level.

The legal mechanisms for determining compensation awards, though imperfect, are relatively straightforward. Determining an award of reparations is much more complicated, because (almost by definition) it will not be clear exactly who suffered due to the act of foreign bribery, nor how much loss was suffered, nor how that loss should be recouped. (While the United Kingdom does have “compensation principles” in place which are intended to provide a guiding framework for remedial awards in foreign bribery cases, these principles are phrased at too high a level of abstraction to be much use.) One question that will need to be addressed, and the one I want to focus on here, is whether there must be some kind of nexus between the harm caused by a particular act of bribery and the proposed reparations. Of course, as I have explained, reparations are distinct from compensation, and will not require a showing of a quantifiable harm to an identifiable victim. But does the reparations payment need to have any strong connection—in sector, location, or amount—with the harm plausibly caused by the defendant’s act of bribery? Continue reading

Why (and How) the US Should Use “Sanctions Money” to Help Victims of Corruption 

Individually-targeted sanctions pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA) have been used to hold individuals responsible for acts of grand corruption and human rights abuse in places like Russia and the DRC (explained here and here). Yet more can and should be done to compensate the victims of those same crimes. Advocates should push the US to use the compensatory mechanisms of other US sanctions regimes to strengthen the power of the GMA to compensate victims.

GMA sanctions, like other individually-targeted sanctions, are administered by a division of the US Treasury Department called the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). When an individual is placed on the US sanctions list—known as the “specially designated nationals” (SDN) list)—that individual’s US assets are frozen in an interest-bearing account until either the individual is removed from the SDN list or the assets are seized. In the interim, any US-dollar denominated transaction with those accounts is blocked. Moreover, any person subject to US jurisdiction who does business with any individual on the SDN list can be hit with a steep civil fines for every transaction with the blocked assets, which can cumulatively run into the millions, sometimes billions, of dollars.

Those two pots of money—the frozen assets of the individuals on the SDN list, and the fines imposed on those who violate the sanctions imposed on those SDNs—could and should be used to compensate the individuals victimized by the corruption or other wrongful conduct of those SDNs. Here’s how these approaches might work in the US context, given precedent of other sanctions regimes:

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