Corruption and the Rule of law–Reports New York[RR] Abuja–Obi Nwakanma, reacting to reports that, “A federal jury on Thursday found former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of public corruption — sending an emphatic message that they believed the couple sold the office once occupied by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson […]
Corruption and the Rule of law–Reports
New York[RR] Abuja–Obi Nwakanma, reacting to reports that, “A federal jury on Thursday found former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, guilty of public corruption — sending an emphatic message that they believed the couple sold the office once occupied by Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to a free-spending Richmond businessman for golf outings, lavish vacations and $120,000 in sweetheart loans.
“After three days of deliberations, the seven men and five women who heard weeks of gripping testimony about the McDonnells’ alleged misdeeds unanimously found that the couple conspired to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in a nefarious exchange for his largesse.
“The verdict means that Robert McDonnell, the first governor in Virginia history to be charged with a crime, now holds an even more unwanted distinction — the first to be convicted of one
Then, asked: “What is corruption? Most Nigerians say of “our leaders” – they have “looted the treasury.” Not even in Nigeria can a president sign a check authorizing the procurement of China or a new sofa for the office of the president. There is often what in civil service parlance is called a “schedule officer” – one authorized by regulation and appointment to sign-off on that particular duty. Anyone who has worked even briefly in the civil service will understand that every step is taken to prevent corruption and waste in the system. So, how do Nigerian “leaders” loot the treasury? How do they corner the riches of the nation to the detriment of the public? How is it that no one catches them, given all the safety measures built in place by the system?
This is the question that Nigerians, in our often quick tendency to think as herds and follow popular mantras fail to ask: Corruption in Nigeria is the result of systemic and institutional failure. Corruption is the tendency to take advantage of loopholes in a system of laws, or the deliberate circumvention of the laws and the control systems established to curb individual ADVANTAGE to the detriment of the public. There could never be corruption in Nigeria with a highly efficient public service and public system. Those who have since 1985 canvased the dismantling of the Nigerian public system and its replacement with a system that speaks more to privatization and the private creation of wealth over the public management of wealth- must account for the corruption of the system. Prior to 1990/91, before the Dotun Phillips reform of the Public service commissioned by the Babangida regime, there was corruption, but not of the scale that we now see in Nigeria. Prior to 1976, there was corruption, but it was a very, very rare moment; even the bribery of a public official to the tune of N25 would make a headline in the Sketch Newspapers, and to serious public outcry and disgrace. So, what happened? This: the deliberate and strategic dismantling of the public system.
There is only one means by which the benefits and mission of government is delivered everywhere in the world: it is through the Public Service – even in America, with its own deadly form of privateering. The management of the public service is by law endowed in the function of a nation’s Civil service. Nigeria inherited the British model of the Service, which itself was modeled after the Chinese Mandarinate bureaucracy built on a merit-based civil service, selected after a civil service examination. For a long time, Nigeria was served well by this model until the military began to toy with the institution. Why did they do it? well because the Civil service, though always neutral and apolitical as an institution, had the capacity to countermand the structure of military power, and possible corruption of the public system. A middle level officer on the entry level of the Administrative Service on Level 7 step 9, ( based on the Udoji reforms) could refuse to sign-off on a financial decision that has no grounding on the General Orders regarding financial regulation in the service. He could minute his objection on a file and pass it on through the red tape. This, particularly to absolve himself/herself, in the case of an inquiry or an audit. Under the law establishing the Civil Service Commission in the Constitution, the president, even as the head of the executive branch under whom the Civil service is run, does not have the [power or authority to sack or even query an entry level officer of the service who refuses to sign-off on the President’s request. Such requests often passed down through the cabinet secretariat are subject of the GO. It is the function of the Civil Service Commission, in the event of a query, and inquiry, or a verification of indiscipline, to conduct such because the Civil servant is not an employee of the president but of the Civil service Commission. Though the president appoints the Chairman of the Commission, and he is ratified by the Parliament, the Chair of the CCS is essentially autonomous – buffered from the powers of the day.
Now, the point I just want to make very simply is that there are three institutions of state which have the capacity to stem corruption in the land: the Civil service, the Police, and the Courts. It is not the office of the President, who is himself sworn to uphold the law, and an allegiance to the state. So, let us take for example, that in the budget period 2014/2015, the Nigerian Airforce requests the procurement of 10 new hellfire bombers, and puts that in its request for the budget of the Ministry of Defence for the year. It is discussed at a policy meeting consisting the Minister of Defence, the permanent Secretary and the Directors of the Ministry, the Chief of Air Staff and his relevant Command officers. It is agreed that the Airforce, to meet its statutory obligation and expand its fleet in line with a policy of the ruling government, should procure the new planes. The MoD prepares its budget for the year and includes it, and it is signed-off at a Cabinet level pre-budget conference, and the president authorizes it as part of the spending plan of his government for that year. But before he does that, he gets the cabinet Secretariat (what we now call the Executive office of the President or the Presidency) to work with the Ministry of Defence to harmonize the monetary figures for the contract. He then presents the harmonized budget for year before the National Assembly which must agree to even release the money for that particular item on the defence budget. The budget committee studies it and says, well, 7 hellfire planes can do for now, and not 10, and approves the procurement of 7 planes even after serious lobbying by the Ministry of Defence on the members of the national assembly. But before it even approves the budget at the committee level, the budget committee of the NA gets its staff to verify the actual costs of the hellfire bombers from its makers to be certain that there is no inflation of cost beyond what is reasonable for the procurers fee. Then comes the procurement: a bid is published in the Government quarterly whitepaper (unfortunately not many people buy or care about the government’s whitepaper which the Government printer is required by law to publish frequently for citizens information on the progresss of government).
A friend or crony of the president seeks the defence contract to procure the Hellfire bombers for the airforce. He goes to the president and says, I want the contract. The president says, put in a bid. But there is a tender’s board which the president has no hand in selecting nor can he be seen to interfere with. Perhaps the president calls the Permanent Secretary and Minister of Defence, the two whose signature of approval for the contract are from then required, to hint at a personal interest in the contract on behalf of a personal friend. Perhaps the minister nudges the members of the tenders board, which is supposed to be made up of officers in the ministry from Grade level 13 to 16. Now, based on the quality of the tender, the board overlooks the President’s request, and awards the contract to an independent contractor, whose bid best saves money, time, and also perhaps, offers one year technical support gratis to the Airforce. They do this after seriously considering the bid. Now, my narrative simply shows the formal process by which governments ideally work. Corruption happens with the inflation of contracts or with shoddy delivery that is then approved by the approving authority who would have been paid off. But if we had civil servants who are (a) protected from the lure of bribery (b) protected from possible harm by the agents of those on whose steps they step on in the conduct of their office, we’d have far too few incidents of corruption.
Two things will happen in the ideal situation I’d painted above: for as long as the president is in power, and the Minister is political head of the Ministry, the officers on the tenders committee who took that decision based on their conscience may not be invited to the cocktail parties for senior officers of the MoD at the minister’s home; their careers might even be briefly stalled as they would not always be provided with extra opportunities for career advancement. But that’d be all; they’d not be sacked, nor their legal entitlements be withheld; just a brief, occasional loss of privileges. If the Minister overturns the decision of the tender and offers the contract to his cronies; the members of the tender’s committee might have the recourse to make a formal complaint at the code of conduct bureau and seek the parliamentary interdiction of the Minister. They could be helped in this case by an alert press and an educated public willing to picket the parliament and the Ministers home and office, until he resigns. This is where e fail, and why corruption has thrived in Nigeria:
(a) a civil service that has been thoroughly watered down and therefore unable to meet its ethical obligation to the public (b) a press that has become both complicit and perhaps too cynical to pursue corruption cases to its very conclusion through hard investigation and persistent reporting, and (c) a docile public, which, even if the press provides them all the information and armour, sits on the haunches and on the face without compelling the use of the greatest weapon available to them: the Parliament of the Republic to interdict corrupt politicians and corrupt politics. There could never be a great civil service built on a quota system without merit, in a society which defends the most corrupt people simply because they come from your neck of the wood. It is enough time that Nigerians faced their own truths: Nigeria is corrupt because we tolerate it. Nigerians, too used to the military system, still thinks that a single individual in a democracy called the president can, by simply wielding the big stick of his office, root out corruption. That itself is corrupt thought. It is systemic and foundational corruption, and can only be reversed by (a) rebuilding the institutions of state that are charged with protecting the system.
Reverse Dotun Philips re-engineering of the Civil Service for instance, and restore the authority of the bureaucracy; (b) participating in the election of highly conscious and literate legislators who understand their oversight functions on the executive arm, and (b) conduct a broad-spectrum citizenship education for a more active, public-spirited citizenry who are willing to do their civic duty to themselves and to the state by organizing around issues of corruption. No republic can survive without an engaged public.
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He and his wife face decades in federal prison, although their actual sentences are likely to fall well short of that. U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer set a sentencing hearing for Jan. 6.
The former governor, a onetime Republican rising star considered for the 2012 vice-presidential nomination, was convicted of all 11 corruption-related counts brought against him. In a small victory, he was acquitted of lying on loan documents.
The former first lady was convicted of eight corruption-related charges and an additional count of obstruction of justice. She, too, was acquitted of falsifying a bank record.
The verdict was read aloud in front of a courtroom packed with reporters and supporters of the former first couple. When the clerk announced that the ex-governor had been found guilty of the first of 14 counts the couple faced, Robert McDonnell, 60, closed his eyes tightly, shaking in his seat as he began to weep.
Maureen McDonnell, 60, also started to cry. At the eighth guilty count, her husband buried his face in his hands. By the end, he was slumped in his chair, still crying. Two of the couple’s daughters, seated behind them, sobbed — the cries from one punctuating each guilty verdict as it was read aloud.
It was a stunning outcome for the couple, all the more so because in December, McDonnell declined to accept a plea agreement in which he would have been found guilty of just one felony count of lying on a loan document, according to people familiar with the case. Maureen McDonnell would have faced no charges.
The jury’s verdict brings to a close a trial that seemed to grip the nation since it began in July with defense attorneys’ shocking revelation that the McDonnells’ marriage was shattered, and that would be a core element of their attempt to beat the charges.
The proceedings over the next five weeks resembled a soap opera at times, as the McDonnells endured a humiliating dissection of their relationship amid unflattering allegations about the lavish lifestyle supplied by Williams.
As the former first couple emerged from the courthouse, reporters swarmed, shouting questions. Robert McDonnell thanked the crush of media on the sidewalk for “the way you’ve handled this.”
“All I can say is my trust remains in the Lord,” he said.
Defense attorney Henry “Hank” Asbill, saying he “didn’t expect” this outcome, assured reporters that the former governor would appeal. “I’m obviously very disappointed,” he said.
William Burck, an attorney for Maureen McDonnell, said the former first lady, too, would appeal.
The McDonnells, who have been living apart since the trial began, left in separate cars. A few women could be heard shouting “We still love you!” at the former governor.
Shortly before that, top law enforcement officials declared that justice had been done.
“This was just a difficult and disappointing day for the commonwealth and its citizens,” said U.S. Attorney Dana J. Boente, speaking outside the courthouse. “Public service frequently requires sacrifice and almost always requires financial sacrifice. When public officials turn to financial gain in exchange for official acts, we have little choice but to prosecute the case.”
Three jurors who spoke about the verdict said the decision was an emotional one, particularly considering Robert McDonnell’s long career of public service.
But they said they believed that the facts and the law were clear and that the verdict had not, in the end, been a difficult one to reach.
Like the trial that consumed the state’s energy for weeks, the verdict shook Virginia’s political community, which has had little experience with public-corruption cases against top officials. The state’s elected leaders swiftly expressed sorrow.
“I am deeply saddened by the events of the trial that ended in today’s verdict, and the impact it has had on our Commonwealth’s reputation for honesty and clean government,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said in a statement.
McAuliffe said he and his wife, Dorothy, “continue to pray for the McDonnell family and for everyone who was affected by this trial.”
Through an attorney, Williams, the former chief executive of Star Scientific, declined to comment on the verdict.
Jurors heard from 67 witnesses, including Williams and the former governor, who took the stand in his own defense for nearly 24 hours over several days. They saw memorable photos of McDonnell flashing a Rolex watch and riding in a Ferrari, and they heard sometimes tearful testimony from the governor’s children and former staffers.
They were shown mortgage applications, telephone records more charts than they probably care to remember — all designed to convince them that the governor and his wife conspired to take bribes from Williams.
The case had more nuanced, legal questions, too: Namely, did McDonnell and his wife perform or promise to perform “official acts” for Williams in exchange for $177,000 in gifts and loans? Prosecutors argued that they did.
Those acts, they said, came in the form of meetings McDonnell arranged for Williams with state officials, a luncheon Williams was allowed to throw at the governor’s mansion to help launch a product he was trying to sell, and a guest list Williams was allowed to shape at another mansion reception meant for health-care leaders.
Defense attorneys argued otherwise, saying there was no evidence that McDonnell even knew what Williams wanted. And what he did want — state-funded studies of his company’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc — he never got, defense attorneys stressed.
But prosecutors apparently convinced jurors that the governor entered into a corrupt bargain with Williams. They relied on Williams’s own insistence that the governor always knew why he was showering the McDonnell family with gifts.
They backed up his story by using other evidence to weave a strong circumstantial case that an agreement had been reached between the businessman and the first couple based on the close timing of Williams’s gifts and loans and efforts by the McDonnells to assist Williams and his company.
In one instance, McDonnell directed a subordinate to meet with Williams on the same night he returned from a free vacation at his lake house. In another, six minutes after e-mailing Williams about a loan, McDonnell e-mailed an aide about studies Williams wanted conducted on his product at public universities.
Defense attorneys emphasized that even Williams did not describe an explicit, corrupt bargain with the governor. And they noted that Williams was testifying with generous immunity agreements, which they said motivated him to lie about his relationship with the McDonnells.
Throughout the trial, jurors were attentive but expressionless. Their verdict made clear that they considered each defendant’s role in each charge.
They acquitted Maureen McDonnell, for example, on two public-corruption counts connected to a $20,000 loan in May 2012 that her husband texted Williams directly about.
They also found her not guilty of one charge connected to a January 2012 golf outing Williams funded for her husband and two sons at the exclusive Kinloch Golf Club, near Richmond, but guilty of another connected to a May 2011 golf outing her husband went on with their sons and future son-in-law.
The investigation into the couple’s relationship with Williams consumed much of Robert McDonnell’s last year in office. It halted what had been a steady rise through the ranks of Republican politics for the former state attorney general, which seemed likely to culminate in a run for president in 2016.
McDonnell had just concluded the final legislative session of his four-year term, which included the passage of his signature bipartisan transportation plan, when The Washington Post reported in March 2013 that Williams had paid $15,000 for wedding catering for one of the McDonnells’ daughters.
The wedding came three days after Maureen McDonnell flew to Florida and praised Williams’s product at an investor meeting and two months before the first couple attended an event at the governor’s mansion for Williams’s company.
As the governor’s time in office came to a close, he struggled in private with the growing criminal investigation, while publicly, more and more details of his relationship with Williams emerged. Among the embarrassing revelations: Williams had purchased a $6,500 Rolex for the governor, lent the governor his Ferrari for use on an expensive vacation and taken the first lady on a $20,000 New York shopping spree.
McDonnell finally apologized in July 2013, after The Post reported that Williams’s largesse had included $120,000 in low-interest loans to the first lady and to a small real estate company the governor and his sister owned.
The former first couple were indicted in January, 10 days after McDonnell concluded his term in office. Even as he repeatedly apologized for poor judgment, he maintained that he and his wife had broken no law.
Tina Griego, Steve Hendrix, Jenna Portnoy, Laura Vozzella and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.
Credit: Obi Nwakanma,Washington Post