Last week, while we were looking into ways the U.S. fights foreign kleptocrats, we heard about Presidential Proclamation 7750. It was issued in 2004 and, by 2006, a high State Department official was calling it a “key tool” in America’s anti-corruption arsenal. Yet except for a couple of mentions we found in the African press, Proclamation 7750 was — and is — practically invisible.
To find out why, and to learn more about how this anti-corruption tool works, we spoke this week with a couple of U.S. State Department officials. They can’t be identified and wouldn’t go on the record. But here’s the background they provided.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act doesn’t reach the kleptocrats — it applies only to bribe-payers and not bribe-takers. And the truth, as the kleptocrats know, is that they’re beyond the reach of practically all the laws of other countries. There just aren’t that many big sticks to use against corrupt foreign officials.
That’s why Presidential Proclamation 7750 is so important. It was issued a year after the G-8’s 2003 commitment to deny safe havens to kleptocrats. It helped do that by suspending entry into the United States of past and present corrupt foreign officials and those who bribe them. It also barred their spouses, children, and dependents who benefited from the corruption.
The State Department can’t publicly release the names of those denied entry under Proclamation 7750 — U.S. law generally prohibits disclosure of visa-related information. And while the deterrent effect can’t be measured, the idea is that whatever makes life more difficult or expensive for kleptocrats is a good thing. The Kenyan reformer John Githongo, for example, has advised the U.S. that denying the children of corrupt African leaders access to U.S. and U.K. universities is a big deal. The State Department says it welcomes that kind of input, and that’s why Proclamation 7750 is only used against children who are college age and above.
The American press hasn’t talked about Proclamation 7750, and that’s too bad. It’s probably because the names of the banned kleptocrats have to be kept secret, draining the entertainment value and pizzazz out of the story. But because quite a few corrupt foreign leaders believe they’ve been banned from the United States because of Proclamation 7750, and have complained back home about their treatment at the hands of U.S. authorities, the law is better known in developing countries, especially among those who might be targeted.
State Department officials regularly meet with anti-corruption NGOs. Any allegations leveled by NGOs are carefully evaluated along with other available evidence to determine that the individuals fall within the categories defined in the Proclamation. A decision to designate is vetted by several bureaus at the State Department and is approved by a high-level Department official. And despite the public’s lack of awareness, the government thinks the program is working well. As when an NGO reported that corrupt officials in a developing country were engaged in systematic and illegal asset stripping of the country’s natural resources. A State Department official said the NGO report led to further U.S. investigations and ultimately to some visa determinations under Proclamation 7750.
Sometimes leads come to the State Department from whistleblowers. They’re typically anti-corruption investigators or officials in developing countries who’ve been effective in their roles — and are therefore fired from their jobs, threatened, or blocked by corrupt judges or opponents. They might show up at a U.S. embassy, ready to talk. The information they bring is checked — sources are vetted for reliability and evidence is weighed for credibility. Other sources are sought. “We don’t want the United States to be used as a tool by political factions in other countries,” an official said. “So we’re very tough when we look at the evidence. Otherwise the program will lose credibility.” For example, corroboration sometimes comes from bank documents showing secret transfers of illicit cash.
The visa bans are essentially lifetime actions, so the stakes are high. The program has plenty of support within the government — in recent appropriations bills, for example, Congress directed the State Department to use Proclamation 7750 to ban from the U.S. foreign officials “involved in corruption relating to the extraction of natural resources in their countries.” The State Department can even use Proclamation 7750 to ban foreign leaders who travel on diplomatic passports, except in limited cases where the U.S. is bound by treaty-based obligations.
This post is Part II of our series, Cornering The Kleptocrats. In Part III, we’ll talk about a proposed way to pursue, prosecute and punish corrupt public officials.