Is there an epidemic of corruption in the world's democracies?
From Angola to Uzbekistan, Haiti to Zimbabwe, in far too many countries around the world, blatant official corruption not only goes unpunished — it’s the norm. But while we normally associate bribery, cronyism, and extortion with fragile developing states, the leaders of some of the world’s most stable and prosperous democracies have recently been investigated on criminal charges. Is this a case of those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, or does it mean that we’re getting better at catching powerful crooks?
The target: President Nicolas Sarkozy
The alleged crimes: Illegal cash payments
The investigation: French prosecutors recently investigated allegations that Sarkozy illegally received cash in unmarked envelopes from Liliane Bettencourt, France’s richest woman, as a presidential candidate in 2007. According to Bettencourt’s former accountant, the L’Oreal heir’s financial advisor gave €150,000 to the treasurer of Sarkozy’s campaign — an allegation denied by both parties. The former treasurer, who is now labor minister, was officially cleared of wrongdoing, but opponents say the investigation by France’s finance inspector was not impartial.
“L’affaire Bettencourt” is just the latest scandal to hit Sarkozy’s administration, including the resignation of two junior ministers who spent thousands of dollars on cigars and Caribbean vacations, and a corruption scandal involving one of Sarkozy’s closest friends and political allies who was implicated in a multimillion-dollar insider-trading scheme in 2007. But in the wake of the financial crisis and an unpopular pension-reform plan, this time the president might be fighting for his political career: On July 12, Sarkozy took the unusual step of appearing on national television to deny the charges.
Sarkozy’s allies have denounced the allegations as a left-wing “political plot,” and indeed there seem to be some large holes in the allegations made by Bettencourt’s advisor. But Sarkozy’s opponents will likely have little sympathy. His longtime political rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, was the subject of a five-year investigation and trial over allegations that he faked documents that linked Sarkozy to bribes while the two politicians were angling for the presidency. De Villepin was cleared of the charges — though three of his colleagues were convicted — and has maintained that the investigation was nothing but a political vendetta by the president.
The target: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
The alleged crimes: Corruption, organized crime
The investigation: Berlusconi claims with pride that he is “the most legally persecuted man of all time.” More than 109 cases have been brought against him, ranging from nonpayment of taxes to false accounting, bribery to prostitution. By his own count, he has been subjected to more than 2,500 court hearings. But despite the best efforts of prosecutors and political opponents, the 73-year-old Berlusconi seems unlikely to ever see the inside of a jail cell or be forced to step down.
The Teflon prime minister has managed four times to pass laws granting himself immunity from prosecution, though each of which has been judged unconstitutional by the courts. For his part, Berlusconi has accused the Italian judicial system of having an ingrained left-wing bias.
The most recent legal scandal involving Berlusconi concerns his longtime friend, business partner, and political ally Marcello Dell’Utri, who has been convicted of serving as a liaison between the mafia and Italy’s political elite. In the course of the trial, a convicted Mafia hit-man testified that senior Mafia leaders had boasted of their ties to Berlusconi during the 1990s.
The target: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
The alleged crimes: Bribe-taking
The investigation: With internal probes into the 2008 offensive in Gaza and the controversial boarding of a pro-Palestinian flotilla earlier this year, Israel certainly doesn’t lack for high-profile investigations. But the country is riveted by the ongoing corruption investigation against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was plagued by corruption charges throughout his term. New York businessman Morris Talansky claims he gave Olmert more than $150,000 for his campaign for mayor of Jerusalem in 1997, but the money was spent on fine hotels, cigars, and watches.
Perhaps more shockingly, Olmert is accused of charging multiple nonprofit groups — including a charity for the disabled and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial — for the same fundraising trips. Olmert announced his resignation in 2008 and was charged with fraud a year later.
He has yet to be convicted, but investigations are ongoing. Most recently, Olmert was questioned over accusations that he accepted bribes in exchange for helping win contracts for a Jerusalem real estate developer. His administration didn’t come off looking that clean either: A finance minister was investigated for embezzlement, a justice minister resigned after being convicted for sexual harassment, and President Moshe Katsav resigned amid scandal after allegations of sexual assault.
Olmert is the first Israeli head of government to be indicted on corruption charges, though current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the subject of investigations in the past. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is also under investigation for a number of crimes, including bribery, fraud, and money-laundering.
The target: Former President Chen Shui-bian
The alleged crimes: Corruption, embezzlement
The investigation: Chen was named as a suspect in a $450,000 embezzlement case within hours of stepping down as president of Taiwan in 2008 and sentenced to life imprisonment less than a year later — an ignominious end to the political career of the once renowned human-rights-lawyer-turned-politician.
Prosecutors had long been gunning for Chen, who enjoyed immunity from prosecution as president — his wife and son-in-law were arrested on charges of forgery and insider trading while he was still in office. Chen’s political opponents also maintained that Chen faked an assassination attempt in 2004 to win voter sympathy in his reelection bid.
Chen and his wife, who was also given a life sentence, continue to appeal their convictions. Their sentences were reduced from life imprisonment to 20 years in June when the court found that less money was involved in the corruption than previously thought. The former president remains in detention as his appeal continues.
But the current administration isn’t squeaky clean either: President Ma Ying-jeou, Chen’s political rival, was twice tried and acquitted on corruption charges before taking office.
* A deleted section of this article implied that President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea is being investigated in connection with allegations of illegal surveillance. While several senior South Korean officials are being investigated, including several in the prime minister’s office and one in the president’s office, Lee has not been named as a suspect. FP regrets the error.