Never before have public prosecutors so ardently investigated corruption among political elites as they are today. For all those prosecutors the decision to sentence one of New York’s most powerful leaders to prison for 12 years will be seen as a victory and an encouragement. Sheldon Silver (pictured), 72, who for more than two decades served as the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, wielded enormous power to approve or block vast public contrasts and real estate developments.
Silver is now about to join in prison William Boyland Jr., a former State Assemblyman, who was recently sentenced to 14 years in jail for corruption. Both of them have a lot in common with former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year sentence for abusing his public office for personal gain.
From Brazil to Macedonia, from Iceland to Guatemala, public prosecutors are going after corrupt top politicians on an unprecedented scale. The release on May 9 by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists of a searchable database with information on more than 200,000 offshore entities that are part of the “Panama Papers” investigation, will fuel the expanding international investigations of top-level bribery.
Public prosecutors in many countries face vested interests, high-powered defense lawyers and long traditions of political impunity as they strive to bring corrupt political elites to justice. The example of the United States cannot be underestimated as a stimulus for brave prosecutors and judges in countries where their lives can be in danger because of the work they do.
And, the U.S. assault on the most powerful politicians who abuse their office is bold and clear. Before jailing him, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni told Silver: “I hope that the sentence I’m going to impose on you will make the next politician hesitate just long enough before taking a bribe or a kickback, for his better angels to take over. Or if there are no better angels, and for some people, there are not, then maybe his fear of living out his golden years in an orange jumpsuit will put him on the straight and narrow.”
Recently, at a Washington DC conference, former chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Robert Mueller stressed that apart from terrorist crimes, no issue has greater priority for the FBI than investigating corruption. The ardor of prosecutors, such as Preet Bharra, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who prosecuted Silver and Boyland, is fueled by the belief that the core foundations of the U.S. Constitution demand integrity from all who serve in public life.
Accordingly U.S. prosecutors are calling for, and judges are granting long prison sentences for politicians guilty of enriching themselves at the public’s expense. Sheldon Silver, 72, was not only ordered to spend a dozen years behind bars, but was fined $7 million as well.
The courtroom victories being seen in New York are keenly followed, for example, in Brazil where young public prosecutors and judges are now assaulting every bastion of business and political power. These Brazilians learned from their U.S. mentors that having the power to offer plea bargains is essential in gathering evidence against the top politicians. President Dilma Rousseff, now engulfed in the corruption storms that are raging in Brazil, signed a plea bargain law two years ago which has now been used 62 times by public prosecutors – and much of the evidence that has resulted is being used to bring cases against some of Rousseff’s closest political allies.
In South Africa, prosecutors and judges are no less encouraged to vigorously pursue corruption cases. The top court in the country has just called for the reinstatement of 783 corruption charges against President Jacob Zuma with a leading judge arguing that the decision by prosecutors in 2009 to drop those charges was “irrational and should be reviewed.”
In Macedonia, mass public anti-corruption demonstrations are strengthening the hand of special public prosecutor Katica Janeva, as she strives to challenge a deeply entrenched corrupt regime. Her work is attracting international attention and that is strengthening her and her small and courageous team.
In Ukraine, we are starting to see mounting demands for independent prosecutors to act against the vast networks of corruption that are widely reported in the media but that never lead to any prosecutions. In Guatemala, determined public prosecutors have successfully investigated more than 30 politicians, including a former president who a few months ago was forced to resign his office and who was then immediately arrested – Otto Perez is now in jail and facing mounting new charges.
The first top politician to be felled by the “Panama Papers” was Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, Iceland’s prime minister, who resigned when it became known that he and his wife owned a secret company in an offshore tax haven. He is being investigated. The next release of “Panama Papers” based on data from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, links to people in more than 200 countries and territories.
The mounting number of prosecutions and investigations and the example of big sentences to those found guilty may influence U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as they meet in London on May 12 with other international leaders for an anti-corruption summit. We are entering an era, perhaps, when the slogan “No Impunity” may finally be meaningful and a time when corrupt business people and politicians, irrespective of how powerful they appear to be, have nowhere to hide.