One Day In the Life Of Lanny Breuer (the Moscow Anti-Corruption Summit)

March 17, 2011

Sometimes, I'm at a loss for words - rarely, mind you, because I'm both an inveterate blogger and a fast-talking lawyer who charges by the hour.  However, I was struck dumb and left speechless (albeit only temporarily) when I saw this headline posted on the website for the United States Department of Justice (the "DOJ"): 

Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Criminal Division Speaks at the 3rd Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States Summit on Anti-corruption  

Lemme see if I got this. 

Assistant Attorney General ("AAG") Breuer traveled all the way to Moscow, Russia in order to give an anti-corruption speech. Talk about carrying coals to Newcastle!  An anti-corruption seminar in Russia:  Was that a "How To" seminar? 

Libya is in the midst of a civil war. The Saudis are marching into Bahrain. An earthquake and tsunami have devastated Japan, which seems poised to go thermonuclear. In the good old USA, local governments are going broke and the federal government is implementing spending freezes.  Unemployment remains stubbornly impervious to substantive improvement. Nonetheless, DOJ managed to find the dollars to send AAG Breuer into the very belly of the corruption beast: Putin's Russia.  Given that our own nation is plagued by corruption, I'm puzzled as to how one of DOJ's top prosecutors had the time for such an excursion.

Which is not to say that AAG Breuer didn't do some fine speechifying.  Admittedly, he pointed a wagging finger at Russia and extolled the rule of law:

[T]his conference comes at an important moment in Russia's efforts to strengthen its rule of law.   In the Justice Department, we have long recognized corruption as a transnational problem.    

Corruption affects countries rich and poor, large and small, and it has particularly harmful effects on emerging economies.   When a developing country's public officials routinely abuse their power for personal gain, its people suffer.   Roads are not built, schools lie in ruin, and basic public services go unprovided.   And when corruption takes hold in any nation, its political institutions tend to lose legitimacy, threatening democratic stability and the rule of law.   Corruption undermines the health of international markets, stifling competition and repelling foreign investment.   Moreover, corruption is a "gateway crime," allowing money laundering, gang violence, terrorism and other crimes to thrive. 

In Russia today, nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, corruption is a significant problem.   This has been widely recognized.   On Transparency International's annual 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia ranks tied for 154th out of 178 countries.   Russia also ranks 22nd out of 22 countries on Transparency's 2008 Bribe Payers Index, which periodically ranks top exporting countries according to how likely their firms are to pay bribes abroad.   Yet, in spite of these and other indicators, Russia is making progress in its battle against corruption - and stands today, I believe, at a significant moment of opportunity . . .  

To be fair, Breuer spoke about the anti-corruption initiatives that the US has pursued, and noted how some of those  involved criminal matters in Russia. Also, he applauded the alleged bona fide steps taken by Russian President Medvedev to combat corruption.  However, that latter bit of back-slapping didn't exactly sit well with me. I mean, c'mon, where there's Medvedev there's Putin - and are we to pretend that Russia is not mired in official (and unofficial) corruption?  Maybe I missed all those signs of progress that the AAG saw and complimented his hosts about.  I hate to bring it up but this is the third annual anti-corruption summit in Moscow - just a hunch, but it doesn't look like the first or second summits made much headway.

Before you brand me as too much the cynic, please note that this was not a government event attended by heads of state.  To the contrary, this was an event sponsored by the American Conference Institute and replete with high-profile private sector sponsors and partners.  TOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovichhe deluxe registration cost an attendee 2,449 or roughly $3,925.

While the allure of caviar, blinis, and vodka may prove a siren's song for many, I see no justification for sending a high-level DOJ official to Russia for the purposes of preaching anti-corruption at a private seminar.  From what I hear, we make pretty decent caviar in the United States.  

Hey!  Wait a minute!! Here's a great idea!!!  For the fourth annual Moscow anti-corruption summit, how about AAG Breuer logs on to Amazon.com and orders copies of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The Gulag Archipelago, and after DOJ empties out the piggybanks to pay for those books, the AAG can then send one to each attendee? 

My, what a brilliant idea!  The human toll of corruption will be eloquently stated by a Nobel prize winning Russian author and the United States of America gets to keep an AAG at home where he can spearhead domestic anti-corruption efforts.  Plus, American taxpayers are spared the cost of yet another overseas junket, and the saved dollars can be used to hire (or retain) more FBI agents or federal prosecutors.

POSTSCRIPT: Some readers report that the links to the American Conference Institute website pages promoting this event are no longer active.  Here is a sample of the brochure.