Tag Archive | convention against corruption

Trump takes office in violation of anti-corruption norms

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There are many things unprecedented about the incoming Trump presidency, not the least of which being the fact that the United States has never before been led by a billionaire with business interests spanning the globe. Only time will tell how Donald Trump ultimately ends up balancing his global business empire with running the U.S. government – but so far it is not looking promising.

In fact, as Richard Painter, former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, has pointed out, he may be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause on day one of his presidency. This clause is one of the most critical conflict of interest provisions for all U.S. government officials. Basically, it is intended to ensure that nobody holding a position of trust with the United States government can receive payments from foreign governments, whether gifts or a salary or profits.

As Painter explained recently on Democracy Now:

If you have somebody who’s making profits from dealing with foreign governments or companies controlled by foreign governments, that person must dispense with those profits, cannot receive that money, while holding any position of trust with the United States government. That applies to every U.S. government employee, including the president. And so, what this means is that, for Donald Trump, if he’s going to hold onto these business enterprises, which present a whole range of other conflict of interest problems, to satisfy the Constitution, at a bare minimum, what he’s going to have to do is get the foreign government money and money from foreign government-controlled corporations out of his business enterprise. And this includes foreign diplomats staying at the hotels at government expense, foreign governments having big parties in his hotels and canceling reservations at the Four Seasons, going over to the Trump Hotel, to curry favor. All of that is unconstitutional.

Trump has responded to these criticisms by assuring the public that he would donate hotel profits from foreign governments to the United States Treasury and let his children manage all operations. This however isn’t enough to keep him on the right side of the Constitution, as law professor Erwin Chemerinsky explains:

In a word, Trump’s proposed solutions are laughable. So what if he donates “profits” from foreign governments to the United States Treasury? All he has to do is accept money from a foreign government and he’s already in violation of the emoluments clause – it doesn’t matter whether it constitutes a profit, or where the money ultimately ends up.

Focusing on profits, moreover, ignores the countless ways that his businesses can benefit from foreign governments that would never show up on a balance sheet. For example, it was widely reported that Trump lobbied a British political ally to oppose a wind farm project because it might ruin the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Besides, Trump on Wednesday again refused to reveal his tax returns and declared that the American people do not care about them. A pledge to turn over profits is meaningless without detailed accounting.

While his global business holdings may render his conduct as president unconstitutional, his incoming administration’s nepotism and conflicts of interests also pose serious challenges to international norms, and may render the United States in violation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. As a state party to this convention, the United States has agreed to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption – including through “revolving-door practices,” such as placing corporate chieftains in charge of government regulatory agencies.

In particular, according to the convention:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

The United States has long flouted these international obligations by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing freely and lucratively, but the violations of international norms will likely reach extraordinary new levels under Trump.

The advocacy group Transparency International, for one, is raising concerns that the practices that Trump is pursuing are exactly what “leaders in highly corrupt countries do.” As the organization recently tweeted out, “#Trump appointing his son-in-law as senior adviser looks a lot like #NEPOTISM to us!”

The group produced a video driving the point home in dramatic fashion:


Another Transparency International video outlines the conflicts of interest of his top cabinet picks and the likely corruption that will ensue:


While there is nothing new about conflicts of interest and corruption in the U.S. government (as reported by Compliance Campaign among others for years) the graft will likely dramatically worsen under Trump. In the past, the corruption has always been obscured by a veneer of legitimacy that masks the profiteering by the oligarchy running the government, but that mask is about to be removed.

But with the sleaze, fraud and vice about to be unleashed on the world, the United States may become more internationally isolated, possibly hastening the end of U.S. hegemony around the world. This might not ultimately be such a bad thing, as opening the global system to a more multilateral balance of power could end up being a net positive for the world, and U.S. isolation could help bring this about.

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FCC’s proposed rule changes on net neutrality violate a host of international obligations

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Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

— Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

With one month to go before the public comment period ends on the Federal Communications Commission’s recent vote to advance a proposal that would end net neutrality and create a system of paid-prioritization online, a new report has come out criticizing the FCC’s actions as potentially undermining the U.S. government’s international obligations regarding freedom of expression.

The legal analysis issued Monday by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – an inter-governmental organization that counts the United States as one of its 57 members – found that the rules on net neutrality (the principle that internet service providers treat all data equally and not discriminate based on content or price paid) proposed by the FCC may violate one or more of the following international accords to which the United States has subscribed: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document.

Prepared for the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media by George Washington University Law School Professor Dawn Carla Nunziato, the report points out that Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR protects the right to freedom of expression and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Despite this international obligation of the U.S. government, the FCC has proposed rules that would replace the so-called Nondiscrimination Rule with a No Commercially Unreasonable Practices Rule. As Prof. Nunziato explains it, “Permitting ‘commercially reasonable’ practices by broadband providers will allow – and indeed encourage – broadband providers to experiment with business models that include paid prioritization – and even exclusive paid prioritization – upon individualized negotiations with edge providers (providers of content, applications, and services).”

In practice, what this would mean is that broadband providers would be able to negotiate exclusive pay-for-priority arrangements with individual content providers, permitting broadband providers to anoint exclusive premium content providers “and effectively become censors of other disfavored, poorly funded, or unpopular content, by choosing not to favor such content for transmission to subscribers.”

For example, an internet service provider like Comcast “could enter into a deal with Foxnews.com to anoint it as the exclusive premium news provider for all Comcast subscribers, while comparatively disadvantaging all other news providers.”

Similarly, the FCC’s Proposed Rules would allow a broadband provider like Verizon to enter into an arrangement with the Republican National Committee to anoint it as the exclusive premium political site for all Verizon subscribers, while disadvantaging the Democratic National Committee’s and other political sites.

She goes on to describe other possible effects of this rule change:

Otherwise protected speech – a blog critical of Verizon’s latest broadband policies, a disfavored political party’s website – could be disfavored by broadband providers and not provided to Internet users in a manner equal to other, favored Internet content – subject only to the Proposed Rules’ vague prohibition against commercially unreasonable conduct. Such a regime would endanger the free flow of information on the Internet, would threaten freedom of expression and freedom of the media, and would herald the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it.

The possibility of being sidelined by the ISPs could lead to “further entrenched market power by dominant content and applications providers, self-censorship by content providers who might alter their content to make it more palatable to broadband providers, and a reduction in the overall amount of speech that is meaningfully communicated as a result of content not being delivered effectively to its intended audience.”

These very real prospects led the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, to weigh in on the controversy yesterday.

“The proposed rules will allow telecommunications providers to discriminate against content which may conflict with their political, economic or other interests,” Mijatovic said in a letter to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. “This would contradict international standards, OSCE commitments on free expression and freedom of the media and longstanding U.S. First Amendment principles.”

Besides U.S. international commitments on freedom of information, the net neutrality controversy spurred by the FCC and its chairman Tom Wheeler raises questions of U.S. compliance with its anti-corruption obligations under the UN Convention against Corruption. As a state party to this Convention, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere. In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

Yet, the powerful chairmanship of Wheeler at the FCC demonstrates once again how the United States routinely flouts this obligation to prevent conflicts of interests. Prior to joining the FCC, Wheeler worked as a venture capitalist and lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, with positions including President of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) and CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA). He also raised over $500,000 for Barack Obama’s two campaigns.

As a reward for this financial backing, President Obama then appointed him to his current position where is empowered with rewriting the rules for the industry that once employed him. This sort of patronage is not only prohibited under the Convention against Corruption, but now, as we see, is leading to multiple violations of international principles, as documented by the OSCE in its report issued Monday.

“The Internet was conceived as an open medium with the free flow of information as one of its fundamental characteristics,” Mijatovic said upon the report’s release. “This should be guaranteed without discrimination and regardless of the content, destination, author, device used or origin.”

Mijatovic expressed her hope that her recommendations will be taken into consideration by the FCC.

The legal analysis of the proposed net neutrality rule changes is available here. To comment to the FCC regarding its proposed rules regarding net neutrality, click here.

A very accessible, succinct explanation of the FCC’s proposed rule changes was offered recently by John Oliver on his cable show Last Week Tonight:

Monsanto feels the heat on global day of protest

Hundreds of cities across the world held marches Saturday in a first-of-its-kind global demonstration against one of the world’s most powerful (and hated) corporations, Monsanto.  According to organizers, more than two million people participated in 436 cities in 52 countries.

With a focus on the health dangers of the genetically-modified foods that Monsanto has pioneered – including increased rates of cancer, infertility and birth defects – the demonstrations also sought to bring attention to the undue influence that this company wields over the political system, especially in the U.S.

As the movement explains on its website, “In the United States, the FDA, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the population, is steered by ex-Monsanto executives, and we feel that’s a questionable conflict of interests and explains the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products.”

This conflict of interest is perhaps best exemplified by the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, Michael Taylor, who has spent his career benefiting from the lucrative revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it.

An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

When President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, working on issues related to agricultural assistance in Africa.

As April Short explains at Alternet,

Ex-Monsanto executives run the United States Food and Drug Administration, the agency tasked with ensuring food safety for the American public.

This obvious conflict of interest could explain the lack of government-led research on the long-term effects of GM products. Recently, the U.S. Congress and president together passed the law that has been dubbed “Monsanto Protection Act.” Among other things, the new law bans courts from halting the sale of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds.

The pro-Monsanto “Farmer Assurance Provision, Section 735,” rider was quietly slipped into Agricultural Appropriations provisions of the HR 933 Continuing Resolution spending bill, designed to avert a federal government shutdown. It states that the department of agriculture “shall, notwithstanding any other provisions of law, immediately grant temporary permits to continue using the [GE] seed at the request of a farmer or producer [Monsanto].”

Obama signed the law on March 29. It allows the agribusiness giant to promote and plant GMO and GE seeds free from any judicial litigation that might deem such crops unsafe. Even if a court review determines that a GMO crop harms humans, Section 735 allows the seeds to be planted once the USDA approves them.

Because policies enacted by corrupt governments often serve special interests such as Monsanto at the expense of the interests of the general public, the revolving door practice so prevalent among Monsanto executives and federal agencies in Washington is prohibited by international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

The U.S. has long disregarded these provisions of the UN Convention against Corruption, and in certain cases, such as the cozy corporate-government relationship with Monsanto, has taken the cronyism to another level. As revealed by the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” expose of 2010, Monsanto and other biotech companies enjoy an extremely comfortable status within the State Department, with U.S. diplomats routinely lobbying on their behalf with foreign governments.

According to a report based on an extensive analysis of the WikiLeaks cables, just published by Food and Water Watch,

The U.S. State Department has launched a concerted strategy to promote agricultural biotechnology, often over the opposition of the public and governments, to the near exclusion of other more sustainable, more appropriate agricultural policy alternatives.

The U.S. State Department has lobbied foreign governments to adopt pro-agricultural biotechnology policies and laws, operated a rigorous public relations campaign to improve the image of biotechnology and challenged commonsense biotechnology safeguards and rules — even including opposing laws requiring the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

The report, Biotech Ambassadors: How the U.S. State Department Promotes the Seed Industry’s Global Agenda, further explains,

The State Department worked especially hard to promote the interests of Monsanto, the world’s biggest biotech seed company in 2011. Monsanto appeared in 6.1 percent of the biotech cables analyzed between 2005 and 2009 from 21 countries. The State Department exercised its diplomatic persuasion to bolster Monsanto’s image in host countries, facilitate field-testing or approval of Monsanto crops and intervene with governments to negotiate seed royalty settlements.

U.S. embassies have attempted to burnish Monsanto’s image. The consulate in Munich, Germany, promised Monsanto that it would seek “even-handed” treatment of Monsanto’s core business by Bavarian officials, where farmers’ resistance to adopting biotech crops affected its brand. The embassy in Slovakia sought to “dispel myths about GMOs and advocate on behalf of Monsanto.”

In 2009, the embassy in Spain asked for “high level U.S. government intervention” at the “urgent requests” of Monsanto and a pro-biotech Spanish official in order to combat opposition to GE crops.

The State Department has even gone so far as to force other nations to accept biotech crop and food imports against their will. Working with the U.S. Trade Representative to promote the export of biotech crops, the State Department has used the full weight of U.S. diplomacy – with both carrots and sticks – to force nations that do not want these imports to accept U.S. biotech foods and crops.

As the March Against Monsanto puts it,

For too long, Monsanto has been the benefactor of corporate subsidies and political favoritism. Organic and small farmers suffer losses while Monsanto continues to forge its monopoly over the world’s food supply, including exclusive patenting rights over seeds and genetic makeup.

It is in this context that two million people took to the streets over the weekend.

Demonstration in Copenhagen, Denmark: middelalder monsanto 292 middelalder monsanto 295 middelalder monsanto 299 middelalder monsanto 288

March against Monsanto in Tokyo, Japan:

March against Monsanto in San Diego, CA:

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Washington, DC:

“We will not stand for cronyism,” says the March Against Monsanto on its website. “We will not stand for poison. That’s why we March Against Monsanto.”

Washington’s culture of corruption and corporate impunity

revolving-door-cartoon

Washington’s revolving door corruption and culture of corporate impunity reached new lows last week, raising serious doubts about the United States’ commitment to upholding its international anti-corruption obligations as spelled out in the UN Convention against Corruption.

First there was the adoption on Tuesday of the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, which contains a provision protecting the manufacturers of genetically modified seeds from future litigation in the face of potential health risks. Then, two days later, Lanny Breuer, former Justice Department Criminal Division chief, joined a corporate law firm as its vice chairman earning $4 million a year.

The controversial Monsanto legislation, officially called the Farmer Assurance Provision – also known as Section 735 of the spending bill HR 933 – effectively bars federal courts from halting the use of genetically modified seeds, regardless of health issues that may be identified with them in the future. While the use of genetically modified seeds, driven primarily by the biotech giant Monsanto, has proved wildly profitable, many argue that there have been too few studies into the potential health risks of this new class of crop.

But following the adoption of the spending bill HR 933 with President Obama’s signature last week, even if those studies are completed and they end up revealing serious adverse health effects related to the consumption of genetically modified foods, the courts will have no ability to stop the spread of the seeds and the crops they bear.

“This dangerous provision, the Monsanto Protection Act, strips judges of their constitutional mandate to protect consumer and farmer rights and the environment, while opening up the floodgates for the planting of new untested genetically engineered crops, endangering farmers, citizens and the environment,” the group Food Democracy Now said on its website.

Monsanto's campaign contributions by election cycle

Monsanto’s campaign contributions by election cycle

The group had collected more than 250,000 signatures in a petition for Obama to veto the legislation, but to no avail. Monsanto, which helped draft the controversial provision in collusion with freshman Sen. Roy Blunt, is very well connected in Washington, having showered millions of dollars in campaign contributions to federal candidates, with contributions spiking in recent years.

In particular, the Center for Responsive Politics notes that Sen. Blunt received $64,250 from Monsanto to go towards his campaign committee between 2008 and 2012.

Campaign contributions, however, are far from the only way in which Monsanto wields its disproportionate influence in Washington. Its revolving door corruption is legendary in fact, with dozens of Monsanto executives and government officials exchanging titles and paychecks on a fairly regular basis.

Below is a diagram of some of the more prominent beneficiaries of this cozy revolving door relationship. (Click here for a full-size version.)

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Michael Taylor, the current Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA, exemplifies more clearly than most the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that purportedly regulate it. An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

Before President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, where he published two documents on U.S. aid for African agriculture, both of which were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Rather than using his position of power in the FDA to provide stringent oversight over Monsanto’s business practices, Taylor has instead gone after the agribusiness giant’s competitors, particularly small dairy farms that produce fresh milk.

As CREDO has pointed out, “the Food and Drug Administration is running sting operations followed by ‘guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords’ as part of a crackdown on unpasteurized milk.”

While this strict enforcement of laws requiring pasteurization could be considered a commendable as zero-tolerance approach to food safety, the fact is, under Taylor’s watch the FDA has been letting the highly consolidated industrial meat and factory farm industry off the hook despite growing problems. But this of course is what’s to be expected with Washington’s revolving door.

lanny breuer

Another fine example of this corruption is the decision by the corporate law firm Covington & Burling to rehire Lanny Breuer, this time as the firm’s vice chairman. Breuer has spent the last four years at the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, where he led the so-called investigation into the financial crisis.

He will now be joining the white-collar defense firm for the third time, and much like he has done at the DOJ, his job will be to defend large corporations from prosecution. This time however, he will be paid $4 million a year.

Not a single prosecution was brought under his watch against the too-big-to-fail financial institutions that crashed the global economy in 2008, and it’s not a conspiracy theory to speculate that Breuer was simply biding his time at the DOJ to build his value in the marketplace and pad his resume as a corporate lackey, a point that this satirical YouTube video makes clear:

This point was also driven home by an official DOJ directive from 2008, the same year that Breuer took over the Criminal Division. That year, the Justice Department announced a shift in policy, deciding to encourage self-policing by the banks and corporations, rather than vigorously prosecuting their law breaking. After all, “federal prosecutors and corporate leaders typically share common goals,” read the directive.

And unfortunately, Obama’s DOJ followed through on this policy of non-enforcement in spectacular fashion. Obama has prosecuted fewer financial crimes than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or either of the Bush presidents. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, another Covington & Burling alum previously making $2.5 million a year, has publicly stated that he won’t go after big banks.

Because of the notoriously bad policies enacted by corrupt governments, the revolving door practice so common in Washington is prohibited by international law. As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

It could be said that the United States is routinely and flagrantly flouting this international obligation by allowing the corporate-government revolving door to swing so freely and lucratively, with business executives and corporate lawyers becoming government regulators and then returning to the private sector to collect multi-million dollar paychecks once they have completed their stints in “public service.”

Of course, the corporations and the banksters claim that this system works wonderfully.

As Monsanto so artfully explains on its website,

One objection opponents of biotechnology have raised is the fact that some former government employees have gone to work for Monsanto, and some company employees have left the company to take jobs in the public sector. Some critics say this shows collusion by Monsanto and the government. Such theories ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests. Both the public and private sectors benefit when employers have access to the most competent and experienced people. It makes perfect sense that someone in government who has concluded biotechnology is a positive, beneficial technology might go to work for a biotech company, just as someone who believes otherwise might find employment in an organization which rejects agricultural biotechnology.

While there is some ostensible logic to this argument, it fails to acknowledge the self-evident reality of the overriding profit motive that trumps any possible public-interest gains to be made by allowing corporate chieftains to dictate public policy or ensure the non-enforcement of statutory law.

There are in fact common sense approaches that could be taken towards preventing these conflicts of interests, such as those adopted by the European Union on March 19, which help to regulate the revolving door between the European Central Bank and the financial institutions it supervises.

Transparency International hailed these reforms as important “democratic accountability mechanisms,” which among other things include:

  • a requirement for the ECB to put in place “comprehensive and formal processes” that prevent conflicts of interest, including the possibility of “cooling off” periods of up to two years.
  • an explicit assurance that ECB supervision will be subject to EU legislation on public access to documents.
  • robust democratic oversight in the form of parliamentary approval of the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Supervisory Board and a stronger right of enquiry.

While a cynic might say that these reforms are a self-serving and inadequate approach to addressing Europe’s own malfeasance, these measures are nevertheless a far cry from anything the United States is currently implementing to rein in its epic levels of corruption. In fact, far from enacting any anti-corruption legislation, U.S. lawmakers are instead cashing in on the gravy train.

As USA Today reported on March 26, “sixteen lawmakers who left Congress recently have landed posts with groups that seek to influence policy — despite rules aimed at slowing the revolving door between Capitol Hill and lobbying firms.”

It’s clear that this problem of corruption is endemic in Washington, and without any push-back from the people it’s likely to continue to deteriorate.

There is some hope in a legislative initiative launched by a group called Represent.Us, called the American Anti-Corruption Act. One of the key points of this piece of legislation is to “close the ‘revolving door’ so that elected representatives and their senior staff can no longer sell off their legislative power in exchange for high-paying jobs when they leave office.”

“Today, politicians routinely move straight from Congress to lucrative lobbying jobs on K Street, in order to influence their former colleagues and friends,” Represent.Us laments. “This corrupts policymaking in two ways: members and their staff anticipate high-paying jobs with lobbying firms, and routinely do favors to their future employers while still in Congress; and once out of congress they enjoy undue access and influence to members of Congress.”

Represent.Us is attempting to rally at least a million American citizens to join its cause, building on popular revulsion to what it deems “the worst political corruption in American history.” After that, it plans to introduce the Anti-Corruption Act to Congress by the end of 2013 and solicit cosponsors.

Perhaps what is more needed though is a reinvigoration of the spirit that brought tens of thousands of Americans into the streets and into downtown parks as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that surprised the world in late 2011. While that particular movement may have turned out to be little more than a flash in the pan, the spirit of indignation and rebellion that fueled the protests has likely only intensified.

To harness and refocus that energy is what is needed now more than ever if there is any real hope in countering the type of blatant corruption and the culture of impunity on display in Washington right now.

Supreme Court rulings’ impact on international norms

On issues ranging from immigration policy to the rights of children to anti-corruption efforts, a number of rulings issued yesterday by the Supreme Court impact directly on the state of U.S. compliance with international norms. In some cases, the rulings could bring the United States closer to meeting international commitments, while others could push the U.S. even further out of compliance with those obligations.

Receiving perhaps the most attention was the decision striking down certain provisions of Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, S.B. 1070. Although the Court upheld the law’s “show me your papers” provision, which requires anyone suspected of being “illegal” to produce documentation proving their U.S. residency status, the Court barred Arizona from enforcing three other controversial provisions of the law.

As veteran legal analyst Lyle Denniston explains the ruling, it “was a strong victory for the notion that immigration policy, under the Constitution and federal laws, is for the federal government, not for the individual states, including those on the borders most affected by illegal entry.”

The Court made clear that states are prohibited from adopting provisions that seek to establish a state-level program requiring undocumented immigrants to sign in officially as non-citizens and are barred from setting up policies that would lead to deportation of undocumented immigrants, unless the federal government explicitly asks for such help.

According to Denniston’s analysis, the decision essentially reaffirmed that the national government is the “single sovereign” in charge of “a comprehensive and unified system to keep track of aliens within the nation’s borders.”

By establishing the prerogative of the federal government in regulating immigration and prohibiting states from taking an ad hoc approach to immigration laws, the Court’s ruling could help rein in abusive practices on the state and local levels that in some cases place the United States in violation of international commitments.

As a recent report issued by Amnesty International documented, inadequate oversight of state and local law enforcement has led to increased racial profiling in Arizona and other border states. State laws and local policies are erecting barriers to immigrants accessing education and essential health care services. “While these laws are targeting non-citizens, these policies are also impacting U.S. citizen children,” Amnesty notes.

With extensive documentation of the routine human rights violations of people of color in the American Southwest, Amnesty’s report calls on all immigration enforcement programs to be suspended pending further review, and insists that the federal government takes steps “to ensure that state legislation does not impinge on its responsibility for immigration enforcement.”

“While it is generally accepted that countries have the right to regulate the entry and stay of non-nationals in their territory, they can only do so within the limits of their human rights obligations,” reads the Amnesty report. “The US government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that its laws, policies and practices do not place immigrants at an increased risk of human rights abuses.”

The relevant legal framework cited by Amnesty International includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, all of which the U.S. has ratified.

By reaffirming that the federal government is solely responsible for immigration enforcement, the Supreme Court’s decision could go a long way to ensure that the treatment of migrants in the U.S. complies with international treaties to which the U.S. has subscribed.

Another major decision that came down yesterday deals with the rights of children, specifically the practice of jailing minors for life, a common practice in the United States, but grossly out of step with international norms. As stated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty spelling out the basic human rights of children everywhere:

(a) No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age;

(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;

(c) Every child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age. In particular, every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child’s best interest not to do so and shall have the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits, save in exceptional circumstances;

These concepts are considered so uncontroversial around the world that the Convention on the Rights of the Child became the most quickly and widely ratified human rights treaty ever. “More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history—192 countries had become State Parties to the Convention as of November 2005,” UNICEF points out.

Only two countries, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified this popular accord. Somalia has not ratified the Convention because it has no recognized government. The U.S. has failed to do so for reasons that can only be speculated, but its utter failure to respect the treaty’s provisions, such as the requirement that children be treated differently than adults in the criminal justice system, may be the primary cause.

While sidestepping the subject of international norms, yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision on youth life sentences held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentencing scheme that requires life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.

The decision, as Denniston explains it, “continues the trend that started a quarter-century ago of demanding that criminal punishment for children generally must be different — and less harsh — than for adults.”

The premise behind that trend is that children are not adults and have the capacity to change. As this is also one of the main rationales behind the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the fact that the U.S. is moving towards compliance with widely recognized international norms on this subject is an encouraging sign.

In a less encouraging sign, however, the Supreme Court yesterday struck down a 100-year-old Montana law that banned direct corporate political campaign spending in state and local elections. In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed a lower court decision, ruling that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Critics, however, note that all available evidence points to the contrary. The Court’s decision will only strengthen the role of corporate money while weakening the ability of lawmakers and citizens trying to fight corruption in electoral politics, according to fair election and anti-corruption advocates.

“The 2012 elections make one thing clear: unlimited spending by super PACs and secretive nonprofits is corrupting our political process and threatens to swamp our democracy,” said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

“Increasing numbers of Americans believe our government is bought and paid for by special interests and that their votes don’t matter. By not taking this case, the Court missed a critical opportunity to rein in some of the worst excesses of Citizens United, and other rulings, that created this super PAC mess.”

Yesterday’s ruling places the United States further out of step with the UN Convention against Corruption, of which the U.S. is a state party. The Convention calls for measures to be taken to ensure transparency, curb corruption and prevent conflicts of interest among public officials:

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its legal system, develop and implement or maintain effective, coordinated anti-corruption policies that promote the participation of society and reflect the principles of the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability.

Each State Party shall endeavour to establish and promote effective practices aimed at the prevention of corruption.

Dealing specifically with the issue of funding political campaigns, the Convention requires state parties to “consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative measures, consistent with the objectives of this Convention and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties.”

The issue of transparency is at the heart of the debate on reversing the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the floodgates for unregulated money to pour into elections. Under federal law, political action committees must report the names of their donors and super PACs do regularly disclose corporate contributors.

But as the Washington Post points out, “transparency can be a bit blurry at times.”

In 2011, the Mitt Romney-linked Restore our Future super PAC reported a $1 million contribution from “W Spann LLC.” Never heard of it? Neither had several enterprising reporters, who learned that its address in New York was the same as that of Bain Capital — Romney’s former firm. After the press demanded to know what Romney was hiding, a former Bain executive came forward to say that the donation was his. He had given it through a shell corporation that his lawyer had created for that purpose.

An exhaustive investigative report by journalist Andy Kroll in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine provides an in-depth historical analysis of the role of money in politics and the efforts of American reformers over the years to curb its corrupting influence.

Tracing the modern era of campaign finance reform to the brazen abuses exposed in the Watergate scandal, Kroll points out that for many political observers, the recent flood of anonymous cash into the electoral process “feels like a return to the pre-Watergate years.”

“Rich bankrollers,” writes Kroll, “cut jaw-dropping checks backing their favorite candidates. Political operatives devise ways to hide tens of millions in campaign donations. And protesters have taken to the streets over what they see as a broken system.”

Kroll quotes political scientist Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute: “We’re back to the Nixon era, the era of undisclosed money, of big cash amounts and huge interests that are small in number dominating American politics.”

The corrupting influence of unregulated money in U.S. elections has become a concern to the international community, with even the International Monetary Fund noting the disastrous implications that it has for public policy.

In a 2009 report exploring the causes of the 2008 financial collapse, the IMF noted that “two of the largest mortgage lenders in the nation, spent respectively $20.5 million and $8.7 million in political donations, campaign contributions, and lobbying activities from 2002 through 2006.”

The lending companies achieved their desired outcome for these financial contributions – the loosening of anti-predatory lending regulations. The IMF noted that “anecdotal evidence suggests that the political influence of the financial industry contributed to the 2007 mortgage crisis, which, in the fall of 2008, generalized in the worst bout of financial instability since the Great Depression.”

International election observers have also pointed to the U.S. campaign finance system as a cause of concern. The vast spending in 2010 and the widespread use of negative advertising led the OSCE’s U.S. election observation mission that year to describe a “dirty campaign environment” with “money playing a significant role in creating an uneven playing field between candidates.”

“Upwards of four billion dollars were spent on the campaigns, making it the most expensive mid-term election in the United States to date,” OSCE observers noted. “About three-quarters of that money was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. The ads inundated the airwaves, made huge profits for many television and radio stations, and also turned off many voters.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which was essentially upheld yesterday, experts project spending on the 2012 election cycle could top a staggering $11 billion – more than twice the 2008 total and nearly three times the amount spent on the 2010 midterm elections.

Monsanto, the FDA and the Convention against Corruption

The nexus between Monsanto and the federal government

An online campaign to remove Michael Taylor, a former executive and lobbyist for agribusiness giant Monsanto, as senior advisor at the Food and Drug Administration, is exceeding all expectations. With an original goal of 75,000, the petition as of today has over 220,000 signatures.

“President Obama,” the petition reads,

I oppose your appointment of Michael Taylor, a former VP and lobbyist for Monsanto, the widely criticized genetically modified (GM) food multinational, as senior advisor to the commissioner at the FDA. Taylor is the same person who as a high-ranking official at the FDA in the 1990s promoted allowing genetically modified organisms into the U.S. food supply without undergoing a single test to determine their safety or risks. This is a travesty.

Michael Taylor exemplifies the revolving door between the food industry and the government agencies that regulate it, and more generally between private industry and public policy-makers. An attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1970s, and then in the 80s, a private lawyer at the D.C. law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto, Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994. He then went back to private industry as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto from 1998 until 2001.

Before President Obama appointed him to the FDA in 2010, Taylor was a Senior Fellow at the think tank Resources for the Future, where he published two documents on U.S. aid for African agriculture, both of which were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

As the documentary “The World According to Monsanto” makes clear, the conflicts of interest inherent in the revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies produces notoriously bad policy, such as the approval of bovine growth hormone in the food supply without proper testing.

“Taylor was in charge of policy for Monsanto’s now-discredited GM bovine growth hormone (rBGH),” the online petition points out, “which is opposed by many medical and hospital organizations. It was Michael Taylor who pursued a policy that milk from rBGH-treated cows should not be labeled with disclosures. Michael Taylor and Monsanto do not belong in our government.”

Because of the potentially disastrous effects of the revolving door on public policy, the practice is banned under international law.

As a state party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the United States has agreed to taking measures to prevent conflicts of interest and corruption in both the public and private sphere.

In particular,

Each State Party shall, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, endeavour to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.

Each State Party shall endeavour, where appropriate and in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials. …

Preventing conflicts of interest by imposing restrictions, as appropriate and for a reasonable period of time, on the professional activities of former public officials or on the employment of public officials by the private sector after their resignation or retirement, where such activities or employment relate directly to the functions held or supervised by those public officials during their tenure.

Not surprisingly, rather than using his position of power in the FDA to provide stringent oversight over Monsanto’s business practices, Taylor is instead going after the agribusiness giant’s competitors, namely small dairy farms that produce fresh milk.

As CREDO points out,

While factory farm operators are getting away with serious food safety violations, raw milk dairy farmers and distributors across the country have been subjected to armed raids and hauled away in handcuffs.

The Food and Drug Administration is running sting operations followed by “guns-drawn raids usually reserved for terrorists and drug lords” as part of a crackdown on unpasteurized milk. Meanwhile, the FDA is letting the highly consolidated industrial meat and factory farm industry off the hook despite growing problems. …

Whether or not you think unpasteurized milk is a good idea, it’s clear that the FDA under Michael Taylor has its priorities wrong. When industrial agribusiness sickens thousands of people, it’s absurd for the FDA to target Amish farmers producing fresh milk, much less to engage in “guns drawn” enforcement raids.

To add your name to the petition to fire Michael Taylor, click here.

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