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Countries must be more transparent when investigating transnational corruption

Recent news about the Odebrecht system of bribery payments, published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, emphasises the complexity of grand corruption cases. It underlines the importance of supporting supervisory and justice systems, and of giving their institutions independence.

The new information also demonstrates the need for transparency and accountability from these institutions so that the public can assess their performance, checking whether or not they are complying with their institutional duties.

The new reports are based on information leaked from Odebrecht’s secret communication system, Drousys, and obtained by the Ecuadorian news agency, Mil Hojas.

Odebrecht’s corrupt activities

Odebrecht may not have fully disclosed its corrupt activities, as required by a historic agreement issued in December 2016. In this agreement, the Brazilian construction company admitted paying $788 million over 15 years (between 2001 and 2016) to authorities and political parties in Brazil and in eleven other countries – nine in Latin America (Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama and the Dominican Republic) and two in Africa (Angola and Mozambique).

However, there is very little detailed information publicly available on these payments; it is not known specifically which works were obtained through the payment of bribes or which authorities from the various countries mentioned received illicit payments. Nor has Odebrecht publicly admitted, to date, to bribing for some of the works which were apparently targets of corruption.

The complexity of identifying those responsible for the crimes - together with uncertainties about the crimes' full details - represents an enormous challenge for the various countries affected.

It will require significant investment in technical training and, more importantly, in independence, for the entire corruption network to be dismantled and for those responsible in all of these countries to be identified and held accountable for their wrongdoing.

More openness needed

There is little information publicly available to gauge the capacity, autonomy and compliance of the various countries' investigatory bodies and judiciaries responsible for bringing the corrupt to justice.

In May, the Brazilian publication, JOTA, and Transparency International obtained data that helped to clarify this scenario. It revealed that the number of requests for information issued to Brazil by the countries affected in the Odebrecht case varied significantly from country to country. Peru has requested information the most to support its investigations: 68 requests for cooperation in two years (2017 and 2018). On the other hand, Guatemala and Venezuela each only sent two requests to the Brazilian authorities, and Mexico and the Dominican Republic each only sent three.

In the face of the enormous and complex challenges, the various countries’ institutions must provide the public with comprehensive information and increase their levels of transparency and accountability. A first step is to disclose statistics on requests for international cooperation. This will provide some insight into the justice systems’ full activities in cases of transnational corruption.

Broad international consensus

There is broad consensus among the international anti-corruption community about the need for openness in this area. In June 2019, a group of 140 experts including government representatives, investigators and leaders of civil society organisations from more than 50 countries, met in Oslo, Norway, to discuss grand corruption and to issue recommendations.

Recommendation 44, on mutual legal assistance, is as follows: "Central Authorities for mutual legal assistance [(MLA)] or other competent authorities should pro-actively and in a timely manner assist requesting States in cases of corruption involving vast quantities of assets to meet the national requirements for MLA, including by, where feasible, providing a contact person. Statistics on MLA requests made, received and successfully responded to, should be collected and published."

Countries must urgently deliver accountability on their performance at investigating and sanctioning crimes of grand corruption. Disclosing statistics about requests for international legal cooperation for cases of grand corruption is vital. Brazil discloses aggregated statistics of cases of international cooperation, but more detailed and specific disclosure is required to precisely identify how international cooperation is working. Other countries do not even disclose aggregated data.

In light of the new Odebrecht revelations, this step is urgent for the ten Latin-American countries and the two African countries where the transnational corruption occurred.

This article, by Transparency International - Brazil's Fabiano Angélico, was originally published in Portuguese by JOTA.

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