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Is debarment for fraud ‘fair and appropriate’?

The use of debarment and other administrative sanctions as tools to fight corruption in international development projects is a topic that understandably raises many questions. Not the least of which, and one that the World Bank Group (WBG) Sanctions Board encounters often, is the question of proportionality. Particularly when the misconduct in question is fraud, observers often wonder whether debarment is an appropriate sanction. Or, to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, does the punishment fit the crime?

Of course, the WBG’s Sanctions System does not engage in criminal proceedings. It is important to keep in mind that its purpose is to support the WBG’s fiduciary duty to ensure that the proceeds of its financial support to developing countries are used only for their intended development purposes. Thus, the System is an administrative process designed to promote the proper use of development funds by excluding bad actors from further access to WBG financing and deterring contractors from engaging in future sanctionable practices. 

How might we then start to answer whether the sanctions imposed by the WBG’s Sanctions Board are fair and appropriate?

As a starting point, any sanctions imposed – from reprimands to lengthy debarments – should be proportional to the severity of the misconduct. This proportionality is essential to the credibility of Multilateral Development Bank (MDB) sanctions regimes. The Sanctions Board’s contribution to the credibility of the WBG’s Sanctions System stems largely from the Sanctions Board’s transparent, predictable, and fair sanctions – in addition to its diverse and fully independent membership, as we have previously written about

Ultimately, the choice of sanction is not a mechanistic determination but rather an individualized analysis tailored to each case’s specific facts and circumstances. In determining an appropriate sanction, the Sanctions Board is guided by the WBG’s fiduciary obligation and considers the totality of the case record and all potential aggravating and mitigating factors. The Sanctions Board is required to consider the factors listed in the Sanctions Procedures, such as the severity of the misconduct and the harm caused by it, and mitigating circumstances, such as voluntary corrective actions and cooperation with investigators.

The Sanctions Board must also consider any other factor relevant to the sanctioned party’s culpability or responsibility. In addition, the Sanctions Board refers to the factors and principles set out in the Sanctioning Guidelines. While not intended to be prescriptive, these Guidelines suggest potentially applicable ranges of increases or decreases from a proposed base sanction of debarment with the possibility of conditional release after a minimum period of three years. Finally, the Sanctions Board considers past precedent as it evaluates each case before it to ensure consistent treatment across respondents regardless of the composition of a given Sanctions Board panel.

By carefully applying the Sanctions Procedures, consistently referencing the Sanctioning Guidelines, and faithfully following precedent, the Sanctions Board has built a body of case law with sound reasoning and fair outcomes – imposing sanctions in each case that are predictable and proportionate to the misconduct.

Let’s now look closer at cases of fraud considered by the Sanctions Board. Given the rigorous frameworks the Sanctions Board must consider, one might reasonably expect relatively similar outcomes for each respondent. Fraud is fraud after all, right? Not quite. Fraudulent schemes are as diverse as the actors who carry them out. Examples range from fraud in procurement processes (the submission of forged documents, failure to disclose conflicts of interest and commissions paid to agents, and submission of false information relating to subcontractors) to fraud in contract execution (requests for payments on false invoices, submission of false information relating to executing partners, and submission of false documents on progress and work quality).

The Sanctions Board has analyzed a broad array of schemes over the years and imposed a range of sanctions in fraud cases. Over fiscal years 2015-2022, the Sanctions Board issued 30 decisions against a total of 39 respondents where only fraud had been alleged. Among those respondents, 33 were found liable for fraud, and the remaining six were found not liable. In cases where the Sanctions Board found sufficient evidence of fraud, the Sanctions Board imposed on respondents letters of reprimands, fixed debarments (ranging from 3 months to 3 years), and debarments with conditional release (with minimum periods of debarment ranging from 1 year and 3 months to 6 years).

The variety and range of these sanctions may seem counterintuitive. However, the Sanctions Board’s detailed public decisions reveal that some acts of fraud were considered more serious than others. This could be, for example, where the misconduct was potentially very harmful, indicative of recidivism, or both – considering all relevant facts and circumstances in the record, such as harm to public health or safety, motivating intent, and extent of any admission or acceptance of responsibility. These more serious acts of fraud may therefore warrant a debarment.

Through its jurisprudence, the Sanctions Board has clarified that fraud – just like corruption – can be serious and result in significant developmental harms. For example, in one early case, the Sanctions Board concluded that the respondent’s fraudulent conduct deceived the tendering authorities and led the implementing agency to contract with a firm that had repeatedly misrepresented its qualifications to supply medical devices. Based on its consideration of harm to the project and public safety and welfare, the Sanctions Board aggravated the respondent’s sanction. In particular, the Sanctions Board noted the sensitive nature of the health sector and observed that medical products require heightened diligence from manufacturers and suppliers.

The Sanctions Board has also commented on the seriousness of fraud where the record may not show actual or quantifiable harm to the project. In one case, the Sanctions Board found that the respondent used forged experience documents to circumvent an explicit bidding requirement designed to exclude unqualified bidders (like the respondent) and identify bidders’ relevant construction experience. The Sanctions Board observed that, through its fraud, the respondent exposed the relevant member country to serious reputational and operational risks in connection with the project – this notwithstanding the respondent’s contention that it applied best practices in implementing the contract. The Sanctions Board also observed the respondent’s failure to acknowledge any responsibility for or knowledge of the fraud, despite credible evidence indicating that the respondent had not executed the project as claimed in the forged experience documents. The Sanctions Board aggravated the respondent’s sanction accordingly.

In addition, the Sanctions Board has drawn clear links between fraud and corruption. For example, in adopting a broad reading of the term “agent” in the context of the disclosure requirement for commissions or gratuities paid (or to be paid) to “agents” – the Sanctions Board took the view that a key purpose of this disclosure requirement is to help reveal and deter potentially corrupt relationships in Bank-financed projects. The Sanctions Board observed that the risk of corrupt relationships arises when a principal-agent relationship exists between a bidder and a third party and whenever the bidder pays a commission or gratuity to a third party in connection with the contract.

In each of the above cases, the Sanctions Board determined that the respondents deserved some period of debarment. Given the facts and circumstances in those cases, the debarments were imposed fairly and proportionately.

Therefore, we might return to the question as to whether debarment is an appropriate sanction and answer with a resounding: sometimes. Yet, seeking answers to this and related questions helps shape the WBG’s Sanctions System and ensure that it best supports the WBG’s ambitious development objectives.

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Giuliana Dunham Irving, pictured above left, is the Executive Secretary to the Sanctions Board at the World Bank Group.

Ryan Velandria McCarthy, above right, is Senior Counsel at the World Bank Group Sanctions Board Secretariat.

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