Ruth Wedgwood: I’m here today to interview Judge Mark Wolf, who is a distinguished district judge on the federal bench in Massachusetts, and has been on the bench for a very long time. He has taken the lead in pronouncing some quite sparky views on how we should fight corruption, particularly international corruption. He was an anti-corruption prosecutor in Massachusetts for many years before he went on the bench, and since that time he has not slowed down. So I thought we would start by giving the judge a moment to speak about his prior career and how it led him to his concern about corruption.
Mark Wolf: Thank you, Ruth. At the very end of the Nixon Administration I went to work for the then-Deputy Attorney General, Laurence Silberman, because I thought the Department of Justice, which was in disrepute along with the Administration generally, would benefit from having more honest people. I went in May 1974, and President Nixon resigned in August, before we had any impact on each other. I was there when Edward Levi was appointed by President Ford to be the Attorney General of the United States in what turned out to be a successful effort to restore confidence in the Department of Justice, which had been injured during the Watergate scandal.
Edward Levi had a well-earned reputation for extraordinary integrity as well as intelligence. I worked with him on matters relating to public integrity in the Department of Justice, which included assisting him in setting up the Office of Professional Responsibility. I also investigated alleged corruption in the newly created Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition, I worked on proposed legislation to establish a special prosecutor, which Attorney General Levi opposed for reasons that, I believe, later proved to be valid.
When I returned to Massachusetts after President Ford left office, I practiced law privately for several years. By appointment of our Supreme Judicial Court I served as co-counsel in investigating and ultimately prosecuting the chief judge of our state trial court for ethical violations. At the same time, several state legislators were convicted of taking bribes in connection with public building contracts. Governor Michael Dukakis appointed a commission, led by John William Ward, the president of Amherst College, to investigate. The commission found that corruption was a way of life in government contracting in Massachusetts at that time.
RW: Was this a general habit in most of New England? Were things no better in, say, Rhode Island, where Governors and Mayors were indicted from time to time? Or in Connecticut, where FBI agents thought it was rich pickings if they were in the public corruption unit? Often the ethical violations were over silly, small things; someone wanted his front porch repaired, and people treated public employees as if they were personal servants.
MW: None of this was unique to Massachusetts, but the state had a particularly long and virulent history of public corruption, even with distinguished people like Louis Brandeis, Elliot Richardson, and Judge Charles Wyzanski combatting it.
In 1981 I went to the U.S. Attorney’s office with William Weld, our future Governor. I was the Deputy U.S. Attorney and the chief of the public corruption unit. We won more than forty consecutive convictions in three years, including about a dozen convictions of people close to the then-powerful Mayor of Boston, Kevin White. After that Mayor White decided not to run for a fifth term.
President Reagan appointed me to the U.S. District Court in 1985, when I was 38 years old. I’ve served here for the past 29 years. During that time I had one case that has become particularly notorious. I ordered the FBI to disclose that James “Whitey” Bulger and others were organized crime informants. I later discerned that there was a corrupt relationship between the Bureau and Bulger and his sidekick Stephen Flemmi. It involved the FBI neglecting to investigate them, tipping them off when other agencies were investigating them, telling them about wiretaps against them, and telling them about people who were providing information on them, who were later killed or disappeared.
RW: This strikes rather close to home, because when I finished clerking for Justice Harry Blackmun on the Supreme Court, I went to work for another Bostonian, Philip Heymann, a Harvard professor who migrated to Washington to direct the U.S. Department of Justice criminal division. Between 1978 and 1980, I chaired the joint FBI-Justice committee to revise the “informant guidelines.” We thought we had gotten it right and were vetting the informants properly and giving them proper supervision. But I guess there’s a difference between the recipe and the cooking.
MW: That’s precisely right. It, was admitted by the Department of Justice that if the Levi guidelines, and their successors as they were refined, were properly followed, then the corrupt relationship between the FBI and Bulger and Flemmi would not have been possible. But it’s one thing to have processes and principles on paper, as you say, and another thing to have them implemented. So I had that case, which was in a certain sense at the intersection of organized crime and corruption.
In 2011, I sentenced the former Speaker of the House in Massachusetts, Sal DiMasi, to eight years in prison for taking bribes in connection with $17 million in state computer contracts. The DiMasi case led to an invitation to speak in Russia about combatting corruption. That led me to develop the proposal I’m now advocating—the creation of a global anti-corruption court.
RW: When it comes to your proposal, I view it as someone who has done a lot of international criminal law of late, looking at the International Criminal Court, which was established in 2002, and has been investigating war crimes and genocide cases. The ICC has been major investment of time and money on the part of the United Nations, the international community, and The Hague. Anyone who has read into this area will be interested in a compare-and-contrast exercise. The ICC, which does not have jurisdiction over corruption (though once there was a proposal that it should), has had various kinds of teething pains—actually, more than teething, since the Court is middle-aged at this point. Its judges are appointed from around the world, by the states that belong to the Rome Treaty. The judges serve set terms, and there is a prosecutor who changes from time to time; it’s currently a very impressive South African woman named Fatou Bensouda.
But the international war crimes courts have had trouble because, in my view, they’ve never learned to obey the first rule of a trial lawyer: Get in, get out, and do it quickly. Don’t wait for the door to fall off its hinges, or a bird to fly through the window with a note to a juror. You try to make your proof as efficient, effective, and skinny as you can, and yet prove the elements of the crime that you think apply to the case. Before we move on to your proposal, what are your thoughts about the lessons one might take from the ICC?
MW: Let me exercise my prerogative as a judge and start a step further back. Then I can better tell you why a stand-alone anti-corruption court could perform better than the ICC has to date. I think it’s important to recognize that the conditions that compelled the international community, after a long time, to create the ICC now exist with regard to corruption. The ICC resulted from massive abuses of human rights by high-level officials who could not be prosecuted within their own countries because of a strong culture of impunity. As a practical matter, the people who were perpetrating genocide and other egregious abuses of human rights would not permit the investigation and prosecution.
RW: And sometimes the defendant is the head of state himself.
MW: Precisely. That circumstance is what is coming to be called “grand corruption.” I colloquially call it the abuse of public office for personal profit by a nation’s leader. The Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption has defined it more formally as “corruption that occurs when politicians and state agents entitled to make and enforce the law are using this authority to sustain their power, status, and wealth.” Corruption by the most powerful officials exists in many countries.
RW: I would say most countries.
MW: It depends on this culture of impunity, where those who control the power to investigate and prosecute can immunize their families, their friends, and themselves. So what we have in the United States—the credible threat of criminal prosecution for corrupt public officials, particularly state and local officials—does not generally exist in most nations or in international law right now.
And there are grave consequences. Corruption has long been recognized as very expensive. Five percent of global gross domestic product is lost to corruption. Developing regions lose to corruption almost ten times what they receive in foreign aid. The World Bank calculates that Russia’s corruption-fueled shadow economy makes up about 43 percent of its GDP.
Corrupt regimes provide safe havens for criminals like drug lords in Mexico and terrorists in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. There is also a very high correlation between the regimes that most egregiously abuse human rights and those that are most corrupt. Countries like Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, and Iraq rank the highest on the corruption indices, and are also among those viewed as the most serious violators of human rights.
This is particularly urgent now, because indignation at corruption is fueling instability around the world. Corruption was a big factor in the protests against Mubarak in Egypt. It was a big factor in the Maidan protests that toppled Yanukovych in Ukraine. Indeed, we see perhaps most prominently in Ukraine how the corruption that destabilizes countries destabilizes the world. So even though an International Anti-Corruption Court would not be easy to achieve, I think it will be widely recognized as important.
RW: One goad to outrage at corruption, I think, is that it is so conspicuous. It’s not just that someone has a private bank account, like Mr. Putin, with Lord knows how many billions of dollars in it. Rather, it’s a “Great Gatsby”style of self-indulgent, sybaritic consumption of yachts and women and swimming pools and flashy cars. And all this sits right before the eyes of the very poor people in these countries who live on little food and little income.
MW: While many older people may accept this as a way of life, younger people are widely and increasingly indignant. As there was when egregious human rights abuses occurred because of a widespread culture of impunity, there is now increasingly widespread recognition that this grand corruption depends on a similar culture of impunity and needs to be addressed by criminal law, which is unlikely to happen in countries run by corrupt officials at the very highest levels.
RW: Let me ask you a definitional question, because we’re all familiar with the “revolving door” culture in our own country and others, where someone serves in the White House and gets to know the President, or works in the Defense Department and becomes well-known on the the E-Ring, and when he leaves he’s a much better lobbyist than anyone else because people will take his calls. This is what lobbyists do here in Washington: They’re former employees from the Hill or the Executive Branch who have friends who are still in power for a while, so they quit in time to take advantage of their relationships. It’s understood that each generation will do this for the next. Is that corruption? It’s playing upon a type of access that no one else has, because they can sell their friendships, if you will, on the market for vast sums.
MW: It may be in the United States that we have various things that could fairly be called “legalized corruption.” These are very important subjects, but I wouldn’t characterize what you just described as grand corruption. It can be difficult to define, and Transparency International is now focusing on how best to do that. But there are certain hard-core acts that would be illegal under the laws of virtually any country, such as bribery or the misappropriation of natural resources through the use of family or friends.
RW: Ordinarily, you would put your son or daughter as a partner in the enterprise to mine oxide or uranium.
MW: Exactly. And it ends up in your family bank accounts. Some of these are secret, in the Cayman Islands or Switzerland, but others are in London or Palm Springs, where the fruits of that corruption can be enjoyed. I am advocating certain principles that would require refinement, especially the definition of “grand corruption.” But I think there’s enough that everyone would recognize is, or ought to be, illegal in virtually every country—and that would be the jurisdiction of the International Anti-Corruption Court.
RW: But just as mice or rats skitter back to their holes when the lights go on, why wouldn’t real banking transparency be sufficient, or at least be the major first step to fight the normal human temptation to take what’s not yours?
MW: I’m tempted to say that, as brilliant a lawyer as you are, you just asked a compound question. One question is: Would it be an important first step? The other is: Would it be sufficient? Transparency would be an important first step, but it isn’t a goal in itself. In the United States, it could reveal criminal conduct, and sometimes the media picks up on it, and then sometimes investigators and prosecutors pick up on it. Two things can happen as a result of transparency: there can be criminal prosecutions because there are people who are dedicated to getting and using the evidence to obtain convictions—not only to punish corrupt officials but to deter others; and then there are honest, independent media outlets interested in exposing it, and honest elections where the rascals can be thrown out, if not convicted. Convictions are hard to obtain and are a blunt instrument.
RW: So we should propose a new rule that the statute of limitations should be longer than the time of rotation in office, so the next party can always be the one to investigate?
MW: The conditions I just described, that essentially were required for the successful prosecution of Speaker DiMasi in Massachusetts, don’t exist in most countries. If there are independent journalists, they are subject to defamation and libel suits, where they don’t have the protections provided by our First Amendment and by our general laws and culture, which don’t require them to pay their adversaries’ legal fees when they lose. And they lose because the courts are corrupt. The former President of the courts of Slovakia, a place I’m quite familiar with, was widely regarded as dishonest and corrupt. The media would write about that, and he would sue them. The judges under him, perhaps assigned by him to hear the case, would render large libel judgments against the journalists. Fortunately for them, it’s hard to enforce a judgment in Slovakia.
That doesn’t exist here. The Boston Globe spent months investigating and published a long series about the Speaker and his law partner being paid $5,000 each month by this computer company that he was in effect advocating for. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney responded to the articles, conducted a grand jury investigation, subpoenaed documents, and found that hundreds of thousands were being paid into the account of the Speaker’s friend in connection with the same contracts.
RW: I certainly agree that the law and the democratic press have to go hand in hand. One bucks up the other and generates the public confidence that sustains the other.
MW: But these instruments don’t exist in many places. I absolutely believe in transparency. If you visit my chambers you’ll see a portrait of Louis Brandeis, who famously said that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” But that’s truer in a country like the United States, where we have an independent media and honest prosecutors, judges, and jurors, than it would be in most countries in the world. It is necessary to create the counterpart to the expert investigators who have the capacity to follow the money and detect money-laundering, and to the prosecutors who can present complex cases, as you described, efficiently and effectively. You also need honest judges, who are missing in many countries.
We in the United States are not distinguished because we have no corruption. I would say we’re distinguished because we try to do something about it. We try to give integrity to the ideal of honest government and true democracy. The instruments that permit us to do this don’t exist in most places, but an International Anti-Corruption Court would provide that.
RW: Let me give you a few interesting examples, to show how different historical experiences and political sensibilities may inform what are acceptable techniques for an International Anti-Corruption Court. When I was in Germany some years ago, I was quite surprised to learn that the German Bundespolizei would not employ undercover operations, because somehow the technique brought back the memory of Stasi times. So the German police could seize evidence and interview live witnesses, but they would not try to replicate a crime in an American-style “sting operation.”
MW: I’ve had the same discussions throughout Central and Eastern Europe. I think it’s rooted in two facts. The benign explanation, which I think is part of it, is that they have histories where these secret techniques have been abused. So, they’ve been discredited. The other is that the public officials who would have to make these laws know they could be used against them. Corruption is a unique form of crime. When a bank is robbed, everyone knows that a crime has been committed, and the goal is to find out who robbed the bank. When a bribe is paid, the person who paid the bribe and the person who received the bribe want it to be secret.
RW: Oh, the bribe is consensual, but there’s a third-party victim. Let me bring up another problematic technique: telephone wiretaps. At least until recently, British rules did not require a court order for police wiretaps, though British prosecutors also could never offer wiretap evidence in court. This ban rules out the kind of proof that is likely to be most crucial in proving “intention”—i.e., what we in the United States rely upon to distinguish a corrupt act from an ordinary act. And there can indeed be subtle questions of intention. When a politician, or indeed a President, faces a contested reelection campaign, he will spend a surprising amount of time soliciting campaign funds for advertising and other campaign expenses. He’ll also ask constituents about their problems and concerns. At times, the line between taking a bribe and helping out a constituent can be very subtle. In the United States, we would rely on detailed evidence to make that distinction, and we often need more intrusive kinds of investigative techniques.
MW: I think you’ve raised a very important, practical point about the differences in culture. In Germany, for example, they don’t engage in plea-bargaining. There are cultures to be accommodated in any international court. But when a problem is regarded as sufficiently important and urgent, there should be ways to deal with it. To provide perhaps the clearest example, at Nuremburg, after World War II, in a very short time a system for trying cases that was acceptable to Stalin’s Russia, the UK, and the United States was developed. Massive alleged crimes were tried, due process was afforded, and some of the defendants were found not guilty. We have that in our history as well as the ICC, which has been ponderous.
RW: I should note that at Nuremberg there were two striking matters that even a sympathetic observer might question. One was that the hearsay rule was completely suspended, so that any statement made in a UN document was taken to be true. I don’t think we would do that nowadays.
And second, one can recall the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre, where Polish officers, officials, and intelligentsia were slaughtered by the Russians. But in fact this crime was charged against the Germans at Nuremberg, and none other than the sainted Bernard Meltzer of the University of Chicago was involved in the trial there. Very quietly, half way through, the Nuremberg tribunal dropped the charges concerning the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish intellectuals and political leaders – for it was clear that the Russians were deceiving us and that it was Moscow that murdered the Polish intelligentsia.
So Nuremberg championed a great purpose in its time and place, to show the Germans what had been done in their name. But I think by modern standards it would be found wanting in part.
MW: Well, I wasn’t advocating it as perfect, and Bernie Meltzer, who was Edward Levi’s brother-in-law, brought a great legal mind and sense of fairness to it. One of the important things you just mentioned is that the charge was dropped when it appeared neither meritorious nor provable. I don’t hold Nuremberg out as perfect. I raise it as an example of when the international community and vastly different legal cultures came together to try the most complex charges, and substantially succeeded in doing so in a way that is still reasonably and rightly regarded as fundamentally fair. So we have this in our history, and there are more recent examples, though perhaps not as encouraging.
You asked a while ago why I would expect an International Anti-Corruption Court to be more efficient and effective than the ICC? I would cite two things in particular. If you’re trying to prove that the President of a country is criminally liable for genocide, that’s a charge that probably can’t be proven by eyewitness testimony, because the victims will never have seen the President of the country. Grand corruption should properly be defined in part by the identity of the criminal, not just the nature of the crime. Money laundering or tax evasion are different, because those are narrower charges, and those kinds of cases rely substantially on documentary evidence. If someone has a modest public salary and owns $100 million in property in Palm Springs, you can do a “net worth” tax prosecution based on documentary evidence.
When it comes to lobbying or campaign finance, I would never hold the United States out as perfect, but I do think that while it’s difficult to prosecute corruption in U.S. federal courts, there is a track record of which the U.S. can be proud. The cases are hard to make, but a meaningful number of them are made successfully.
The International Criminal Court has not had the support of the United States. Since I published my articles, evidence has emerged to support my idea that the American business community would welcome an International Anti-Corruption Court. Most American businessmen only want to compete fairly and feel comfortable, if not confident, that they will prevail on the merits. They also face the real and increasing threat of the Federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act if they do pay bribes abroad.
RW: An acquaintance of mine said he would never sell another airplane to anyone but the Federal government. The government can sell it to the foreign country, because it’s almost impossible to sell airplanes without side-payments to foreign officials. The famous investigation of the Lockheed Martin corporation for paying bribes totaling 500 million yen to a former Japanese prime minister may go to show that it was perceived to be very difficult to sell aircraft abroad without having the head of state demand a little “vigorish” from you.
MW: If there were essentially international criminal laws, violations of which could be prosecuted in an International Anti-Corruption Court, the playing field would be leveled for American businesses, and they would profit from it. There’s an organization called the Overseas Security Advisory Council, which is a joint venture going back to Secretary of State George Shultz, between the State Department and the major American and foreign firms. They deal with a range of security issues, including terrorism, but they’re also deeply interested in combatting corruption. The private co-chair of that organization has expressed great enthusiasm for the idea of an International Anti-Corruption Court. I’ve been invited to address the OSAC when it coincidentally meets here in Boston in October. I think that if this court, in contrast to the ICC, has the support of the United States—if we’re trying to shape it in a way that would be fair—it gives the IACC a much better prospect of succeeding than the ICC has had.
RW: There’s great virtue in creating a little uncertainty for crooks. They won’t all get prosecuted, but conscience, as they joke, is the “little voice” that tells you somebody might be watching. The chance of being prosecuted is often as effective a deterrent as the fact of prosecution itself.
Let me ask you another question, though. The very organization that is often involved in propounding these ideas of reform itself suffers from corruption. I spent a lot of time in the 1990’s – in addition to my day job on the Yale Law School faculty – directing the international law program of the Council on Foreign Relations and getting to know everyone on the 38th floor at the United Nations. They’ll tell you anything over lunch, but nothing in their office. So I played the part of Perle Mesta, wining and dining them and chatting them up. The UN, which is supposed to be the lodestone of virtue and good values, itself has terrible problems with corruption. It has something called the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budget Questions, and you have to go through the ACABQ to get any major expenditure approved for a field mission. Its chairman, who just happened to be a Russian diplomat, was indicted for money-laundering in 2005. So to get your work done in the UN, you have to know which nodes and loci of power to propitiate, and the work-arounds. I hate to say it, because I like so many people there, but the UN has not been effective in countering corruption—not just in programs like Oil for Food, but in the most mundane issues of contracting and procurement through offices where power rarely changes hands. So it’s hard for me to conceive of the UN, other than on paper, as being an especially inspiring leader in an anti-corruption campaign.
MW: I think you have far more expertise with regard to the UN experience than I do. Like many institutions, though, it’s not a monolith. I’ve been very encouraged by the statements of former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay of South Africa, who said that corruption is an enormous obstacle to the realization of all human rights—civil, political, economic, and cultural.
RW: It renders people powerless. I agree with that.
MW: So I would hope that within the UN, as within the whole world community, there are honest, aggressive advocates for combating corruption. There are those who don’t share that enthusiasm, but I would hope that those who do see how corruption undermines all the constructive efforts of the UN and of many countries throughout the world would have some force.
RW: Your idea of net worth prosecutions, I think, raises some questions about privacy. Bank records tell you a lot about a person’s life—whether I take my kid bowling, where I’ve traveled, to whom I make charitable donations, and political contributions. Wouldn’t that kind of issue be very sensitive in an international setting, that the intimate details of someone’s life could be known? If someone has a mistress, or gave an incompetent cousin a job once, or if he’s a secret member of another political party—all of that can be revealed by bank records.
MW: Again, I revert to the American paradigm. Putting aside the Patriot Act, which was a departure from principle, the way we get bank records during a criminal prosecution is through a grand jury subpoena. If your bank records are subpoenaed, the bank will tell you, and you can go into court and move to quash. It’s hard to succeed, but the threat that you could go before an impartial judge and say it’s politically motivated, or a fishing expedition, has a restraining effect. Because lawyers and prosecutors have to be involved, they know the legal standards, and they know they may have to defend what they’ve done. So that should reduce the risk of these cavalier invasions of privacy that you’re describing. If we had an International Anti-Corruption Court with honest, impartial judges and professional prosecutors, the court would presumably have some kind of subpoena power, but the people whose records were being subpoenaed would have the same opportunity to quash it as we do in the United States. That’s to protect their legitimate privacy interests.
RW: Since this would still, however, be a criminal court, how would it relate to what Americans take to be the ordinary expectations of trial by jury and the right to a defense? One of the challenges for the ICC with respect to an American audience is that it doesn’t have a jury.
MW: The court I advocate would operate on the concept of complementarity. If a country had both the will and the capacity to investigate and prosecute corrupt public officials itself, citizens of that country would not be prosecuted in the IACC. Perhaps someone other than an American would decide, but I think there would be a low risk that Americans would face prosecution in an IACC. I also think the English and the Americans do have a deep dedication to jury trials in criminal cases, which historically has not been widely shared. On the other hand, many countries over the past twenty years have been studying the American experience and thinking about emulating it. I use U.S. federal courts as the paradigm for the court I’m advocating, but there would be differences. I certainly would miss trial by jury if it didn’t exist in an international court. But I don’t think having a jury is essential to due process. And in an international court, you wouldn’t really be able to assemble a jury “of one’s peers” and have it reflect a cross-section of one’s community. It would be quite reasonable to rely on judges if they are intelligent, industrious, and, above all, impartial.
RW: Here’s a question about the difference between Europeans and Americans. So far the OECD has been willing to do very little. They deny tax deductions for bribe payments, for instance, but they’re much less enthusiastic about criminalization. Perhaps you could chalk it up to the cynicism of living on a continent that has “les arrangements,” or just being happy to be alive after World War II. But they take this as part of the way life operates. I think they often see us as naive. They take these felicitous gifts to people with power as a part of life. They’re not puritanical. They’re willing to accept the fallen nature of human beings. So the most they’ll do is a rap on the wrist, making it more expensive to take that kind of expense.
MW: I don’t get the sense that European governments are less honest or less dedicated to honesty than ours. They may be far less corrupt, at least some of them. Europe’s Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development strongly promotes, if not requires, counterparts to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in countries that are members. I haven’t looked at the statistics in about two years, but the vast majority of the prosecutions under the Act are in the United States, something like 95 percent.
I was on a panel in Russia talking about public corruption with representatives from the UN Convention on Corruption, the European Union, and the OECD. Putin’s anti-corruption adviser is apparently quite corrupt himself. All of the representatives were praising Russia for its remarkable progress in adopting this regulation or that law, which are utterly ineffective. I questioned whether those laws were real, or merely a façade, the proverbial Potemkin village.
RW: My wonderful old professor at Yale Law School, Leon Lipson, was always angry at the Russians, though he spoke the language beautifully and could recite reams of Pushkin. He would instruct his first-year law classes about the construct of Soviet “telephone law.” The judge calls the Party leader to see what outcome is desired, and he damn well better deliver it. I wrote a piece recently about the plane that was shot down over Ukraine, and the last paragraph was rather elegiac about the irony of Russia’s current lawlessness, because Russia, in 1899 to 1907, had a phenomenally brilliant, forward-looking legal adviser named Friedrich Martens who advised the last Czar of Russia on standards for the law of war. He was way ahead of the rest of Europe. But since the revolution, comrade judge, there really hasn’t been the same sense of rectitude. You see it in China, where the standing commission of the People’s National Congress, which has to have a certain number of Communist Party members on it, has the ultimate appellate authority, even over appeals from Hong Kong. It’s a different idea of law. So I wonder if that kind of political cynicism is far more common in the world than we creatures of Magna Carta would like to think.
MW: What you’re describing, though on a grander scale, is something we’ve had in the United States, particularly in Massachusetts, which has had a long history of corrupt public officials. Boston Mayor James Curley, was famously re-elected while in prison. We also have a long history of distinguished, determined people fighting against corruption. And I really think we need something comparable on the international level. I’m hoping to provoke a colloquy, a serious conversation, and indeed contending forces. I realize that no matter how compelling and logical the argument I make, there are formidable practical impediments to establishing the court. Perhaps it won’t be achieved in my lifetime, or ever. But I have met people who risked their lives in Ukraine to expose and oppose corruption. I believe that they deserve support, and that the corrupt officials should fear the threat of prosecution, even if they don’t fear it in the countries they govern.
RW: Certainly, one could think of slightly different architectures; one could have regional anti-corruption courts, so it wouldn’t have the air of colonialism and the sad history of Europe’s misgovernance and exploitation of Africa.
MW: Global Parliamentarians Against Corruption has been advocating the use of regional courts. That is compatible with what I’m advocating. My goal is that there be a credible threat of criminal prosecution of people who engage in corruption. Regional courts may be one means of doing that, and they could co-exist with an IACC. I think a serious discussion of universal jurisdiction, which would have its own problems, would be important. Corrupt officials from Latin America could be tried in Spain, for instance. Right now, corrupt officials in many countries face no credible threat that they will be prosecuted, and therefore there’s no deterrent. They want to stay in office so they can personally profit, and they do things that stifle real democracy. In the United States, criminal prosecutions of corrupt officials have brought periods in which good governance was good politics.
RW: We had a cycle of virtue, in which general social expectations shifted. Often the law is emblematic or hortatory, but it still has an effect, whether it’s to uncover Putin’s reputed $40 billion stashed abroad, or to counter the occasional cynicism of bankers in the City of London who help people park money and love tax havens. The preaching is worth doing.
MW: I certainly agree with that. Ultimately, I expect there will be more tangible results as well.