How can we minimise corruption in public procurement? A look into the USA, UK and Italy
Interview with Dr Franco Peirone, a Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Business and Enterprise at the University of Piemonte Orientale in Novara, Italy. Franco’s carried out his doctoral research on corruption in public procurement and remains an active researcher in this area. It is no surprise then that the topic of the conversation is corruption in public procurement, in particular the experience in the USA, UK and Italy.
Thank you very much for accepting, and also thank you for accepting to speak at such a late hour. It’s almost like, as you said, a late night David Letterman Show.
It’s true, but it’s good.
Let’s start with a short introduction about yourself and your PhD research.
I started my PhD research at the University of Turin. Everything hasstarted during the economic crisis in 2011, I was just come back from the Maastricht University where I spent a period within the Erasmus Program, and the focus on Italy was really high, because everybody was scared about Italian historical deficiencies, such as corruption or inefficiencies in the public sector, so I tried to discover what really went wrong in the Italian public sector, and I decided to draw my attention on public contracts and corruption. To this end, I decided to focus on anti-corruption systems and particularly on an anti-corruption system that really works well, as the United States was, and for this reason, I spent a visiting period at the George Washington University under the supervision of great teachers, as Professor Schooner and Professor Yukins, and there I developed some conclusion about corruption, public procurement and public policy.
Once I came back to Italy in 2014, I was able to compare these two anti-corruption systems and focus more on corruption in public procurement. What does it mean? Which kind of frame we can think about it, and which is going to be the next direction of public procurement and anti-corruption tools? My PhD thesis, at the very end, really focused on compliance and ethics programs. They could be considered a broad and flexible anti-corruption tool. It is really interesting that anti-corruption programs, as compliance and ethics programs, moved from one legal system to another one, from the United States they have been spread all around the world and they have been implemented in Italy, in the United Kingdom, in Germany as well as in Japan and in Australia. It’s really interesting also noting that anti-corruption programs have been moved twice; there has been a double legal transposition, for instance, in Italy. From the United States to Italy, and from the private sector also to the public sector. So now we’ve got compliance programs both in public and in private sector in Italy.
Let’s focus for a minute on those compliance programs. What do they entail? What’s included in them?
Compliance programmes are an interesting topic, because they bridge together criminal law, administrative law and public procurement law. Compliance programs were born in the United States legal framework for avoiding the corporate liability in case of an employee misconduct. The legal assumption at the basis of compliance programs is the criminal law principle of corporate liability. Due to that, if an employee commits a crime, he acts on behalf of the corporation, and if the crime can advantage the corporation itself, also the corporation has to face a trial. Corporations are therefore held accountable for the crimes committed by the employees unless an effective and compliance programs is implemented. To this end, a compliance programs consists in a set of tools such as code of conduct, training programs, auditing, reporting, disciplinary measures, directed to prevent and to repair the employee misconduct such as corruption, for example. By criminal point of view, a criminal law point of view, by adopting an effective and compliance programs, corporations may demonstrate to have used all the force needed to prevent misconducts or crimes such as corruption.
Do you apply the compliance programs before the crime occurs, or after the crime occurs as a means to reduce the impact of the crime?
Well this cuts in both ways. I mean, having a compliance program is both important having ex ante, that is before the crime is committed, because in this way you demonstrate that the crime has been committed by one employee of your corporation, but you have adopted all the needed preventive measures, but you can also adopt after the crime has been committed, so in this way you can demonstrate that you have adopted all the measures needed to repair, such as affronting payment to the victims or collaborating, cooperating with the prosecutors authorities. In this way, you can demonstrate to be a good corporate and obtaining lower fines, or be even absolved during the trial. It is interesting, this approach has been adopted by all the anti-corruption tools, all around the world, and there is no a great matter about which kind of responsibility the corporation is facing with. It’s no matter if it’s called criminal responsibility, rather than administrative responsibility, or something different. What is important is that all the anti-corruption legal tools take corporation as accountable for the crime committed, so all the corporations all around the world need compliance programs to prevent, or to repair, what has been done by its employees.
Okay, but what legal systems will actually demand the compliance programs? Is it just the USA, or do other jurisdictions also demand that?
No, lots of jurisdictions demand that. In Europe, it’s the case of Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, as I already told you. What’s important, and it’s really interesting is that the United States government has gone beyond. Interestingly they adopted compliance programs even in public procurement law, because through compliance programs, the United States government can select which kind of corporations it wants to deal with. The government use compliance programs as a benchmark for corporation reliability in government contracts. This has happened since 2008, the compliance programs have been implemented and required for federal contractors within the general legal framework for federal contracts in the United States. This is called responsibility determination. It’s a way to testify the integrity of the contractor, and for justifying this integrity, the government requires that a contractor has to have compliance programs.
So how is the assessment done? So you say it’s used by the federal government to assess a contractor.
Well, it’s done before getting the award, the Government looks if the corporation has implemented an effective compliance programs. The Federal Acquisition Regulations that are the general legal framework for this kind of government purchasing provides that before the award is done, the compliance program has to have implemented within itself a code of conduct, a training program, and especially such kind of measures that can prevent corrupting activities from the corporation in governmental contracts. So it’s the last stand that the awarding authority does before making the award. So in the United States the perspective is before evaluating the tender and just at the very end evaluating the contractor, because it’s a kind of cost-effective perspective. In this way, they are just going to give the award to really responsible contractors, who have implemented within themselves all the needed measures to prevent corruption.
So why don’t they do that at, let’s say, selection stage, like we have here in Europe?
This is a really interesting topic, and the legal thinkers from Europe and United States really discuss and argue about this. From their perspective, they do at the very end, because it could be perceived as an anti-competitive issue, stating who is a good contractor before and so will limit the competition if they will do this at the very beginning of the award selection, as we do in Europe. Another point could be that, by the United States government point of view, they think that in this way they can select the good contractor at the very end, and so it is really cost-effective because they just can pass to another contractor if the first one has not implemented the compliance program. It’s a really different perspective. I think the United States mood is not really the most objective way to award the contract, but at the very end it really complies with the law and ethics, because these compliance programs are really strict and the Governmental Accountability Office really takes care about integrity from governmental contractors.
That is the view in the US. You said before that the UK, and also Italy, they do have compliance programs. How do they compare with the American one?
Well, the implementation in Italy and in the UK have been really different, and I have chosen these two countries because they are both EU countries, but it’s a good way to show how it’s difficult and different implementing legal tools from a system to another one. Italy has adopted compliance programs in 2001 for regulating its corporate criminal liability, but the Italian implementation of the model has substantially failed, because several reasons. The legal tools for supporting the model, such as the code of conduct for the training programs, have been poorly realized in the Italian framework, and many Italian corporations have just copied the standard compliance and ethics program without adapting them to their specific needs, and last, the list of criminal conducts that the corporations have to avoid is really too extended. As a consequence, corporations cannot really focus on the white-collar crimes to prevent, such as corruption, and so the deterrence effect is really low in Italy. Lastly, the model has not been used by awarding authorities to stimulate governmental contractors’ reliability. They have been totally ineffective in promoting the integrity in public procurement.
So in your view, what should have been changed in the transposition from the USA to Italy?
Well I think what we should do is linking more criminal law, public procurement law and administrative law - this would be really a good step in promoting integrity in public contracts, if each kind of contractor will be proven and tested by its integrity within the supply chain, and with its commitment to integrity.
It’s really notorious that all the Italian corporations really have great problems with managing integrity within themselves, and training its employees to towards ethics and compliance with the law. By a legal point of view, as I say, the Italian model is really complicated because it is referred to such a kind of not-criminal liability of the corporation, because there is, after all, the criminal law principles that a corporation cannot be sanctioned by criminal sanctions, but must be sanctioned otherwise. This really shows that the legal principles can hinder the effectiveness of compliance programs. As I see, otherwise, as we were mentioning, the UK government has implemented the same tool in a really effective way, because they did not stick on with really difficult transposition of such kind of corporate liability. They have just set up a new, completely new criminal law provision that is the “failure to prevent bribery”. If a crime is committed within a corporation, the corporation is sanctioned just for having failed to prevent a crime, such as bribery, within themselves. This has been done within the Bribery Act of 2010 that has been considered the most advanced legal tool in fighting corruption, and the United Kingdom government have done really well, because it has also stimulate the corporation to commit themselves towards integrity, for example promoting the whistleblowing against other corporations or promoting the self-reporting during criminal trial. All this stuff does not exist in Italy, because we move in another, totally different criminal law context, which does not allow this kind of cooperation among corporation and public authorities. The overall approach in Italy is really bureaucratic, it’s really rigid, while in the United Kingdom, as I’ve seen, as I’ve studied, it’s really flexible and proactive, and it really helps to ensure integrity within the public and private relationships.
My question will then be, if that is the case, how can you be sure that the UK model would work in Italy well, when the American one didn’t?
This is a really good question. Well, I think that the path, which at this point will be operating at the EU level, should be settled while implementing the new EU Directive on public procurement. We know that corruption is a really important point, as everybody has noticed, within the directive, because as we say at Article 57, we see corruption as a ground for exclusion, it could be considered corruption according to the national law of the tenderer, rather than the national law of the awarding authority, rather than the EU directive, the notion of corruption in directives on internal security, or according to EU convention against corruption. So the focus on corruption is really high. As I see, Article 57 could represent a step for all the awarding authorities in all Europe to evaluate corruption. So commitment to integrity for the corporations, no matter what the legal framework is at the basis of the national legal system. By operating at the EU-level the awarding authority, they can decide themselves if the corporation has effectively implemented a compliance program, if they have effectively committed towards integrity.
In your view, what should change at the EU level?
Well at the EU-level I think that it could be and should be improved the function of compliance and ethics program. Article 57 of the new EU directive really provides the possibility for the corporation and for the awardee to adopt the self-cleaning measures, but these self-cleaning measures have just been viewed until right now as a general provision that could be considered as an exception to exclusion, but cannot really push a corporation to act with integrity and complying with the law. I think Article 57 is an interesting starting point, but should be really implemented by the national legal system, giving more broad scope to compliance programs and where it is possible being required to the government a contractor as actually happens within the United States legal system.
Awarding authorities at the EU-level have a real important task right now. Being able to evaluate if a contractor could get the award because it complies with integrity and at the same time not being too much strict in evaluating the corporation if it’s not complying with a traditional scheme of compliance and ethics programs, because we know that these awarding authorities operate at a really low level, so they have not the same human resources or technical capacities to debar a company as happens in the United States legal framework. So it’s a really hard task, but I think the commitment to self-cleaning within the compliance and ethics program is the mood needed to merge together awarding authorities and corporations towards integrity within public procurement.
Do you think that should be then at the contracting authority level or at the member state level, or even at EU level? Because it’s one thing for you to, let’s say, block a company that has been accused of or been found involved in bribery actions as a contracting authority. It’s something different for the company to be sanctioned at the member state level or even at EU level.
Well, as I see, I think that what we can call the responsibility determination, I mean, verify if a contractor is good for getting the award, could be done at the awarding authority level. So each kind of awarding authority could be done for itself. Usually the awarding authority is the authority who knew more about the contractor, so should have the needed discretion for giving an award or not, according to Article 57, to the grounds of exclusion. What shall be instead done at the Member State level, rather than at the EU level, I think should be the debarment or the suspension of the corporation. In this case, a company, the corporation that has been debarred from an awarding authority, from a single Member State state, should be excluded from all the contracts from all the European Union awarding authorities. As I said, this is the same way they have done in the United States legal system. If a company has been debarred, let’s say, at the federal level, the same company cannot get an award at the state level. The debarment is automatic. So, as I see, we have started doing responsible assessment and it should be done at the awarding authority level without prejudice to the corporation, while a serious administrative decision as debarment it should be done at a higher level, maybe from a higher authority which should have extraterritorial jurisdiction, I mean operating in all the European Member States.
Very well. Speaking still on corruption, what should happen to contracts where corruption is found? Public contracts?
Yes, sure. This is another topic I’ve dealt with during my PhD thesis, and starting from the United States legal system that has been my main reference, it’s really interesting noting that within the United States legal framework, the awarding authority has a really large discretion to terminate the contract if it’s proven that there awardee obtained the same contract due to corruption. There is no need for a criminal conviction for terminating the contract. It’s enough having a decision from the same awarding authority that certifies that the corruption has happened within the award. Nonetheless it is interesting noting that in many cases, especially in the most expensive contracts, even in front of corruption, awarding authorities prefer not to terminate the contract and going along with the original, even if criminal, awardee. This is the notorious case of Boeing, the case is also known as the Darleene Druyun Debacle, wherein a public official has manipulated the score in favour of Boeing and the company got the award. Well even in front of corruption, the needs of the military sector, in this case, the overall interest of the government, always prevail, and so the awarding authority preferred to continue the contract and not to terminate it, and continue with the previous awardee. I would like to underline that this happens also in Italy and also in other European Union Member States. The public interest to fulfil the contract always prevails. This also happens within the Expo case, that is a big case of public procurement corruption in Italy.
Which Expo? The Expo in Milan?
Exactly. Within Expo event in 2015 there was a big corruption scandal about the award of the public works for building the main pavilion, the main infrastructure in Italy, and even if it was possible to terminate the contract since they awardee had corrupted the award commissioned for such kind of public works. The supreme admissive judge in Italy decided the contract was to put on a compulsory administration that means that there is a legal expert coming from the State that managed the award, but the contract had not been terminated because the governmental authorities prefer not, they never want to terminate the contract, and this at the very end penalised the honest contractor because even in front of big corruption, they never get the award.
There are two different things here. One is a public interest in getting the job done, and I suspect that more often than not the contracting authorities don’t really care about the corruption, they just want to get the job done, because at the end of the day, that’s where their interests lie and also that’s where they’re exposed in terms of reputational risk. Whereas the corruption, it’s almost like, okay, so they’re corrupt but they’re still doing the job, so you need the job done. So it’s probably underplayed by the contracting authorities, in the decision makers’ heads, in their own framed set of values.
I absolutely agree with you, exactly.
So how can we change this?
Well, I have similar view to this regard. I mean, what could be done and what should be changed in this way it is preferring to terminate the contract and going on with another award. There are several contractual tools, they are called by Transparency International integrity pacts. Through these paths, adopted within the award, it is possible to provide that if the awardee has corrupted they award commission, and so the overall award has been corrupted. It’s possible to instantly terminate the contract and get the contract to the second economic operator within the award or to the other competing operators.
The thing is, it’s easy to do that if you catch the corruption, or you find the corruption and you’re that certain about it, which is not always easy, but if you do it straight away after you awarded the contract. If you’re six months or a year into the contract, you simply may not have the ability to go back to the second contractor because they may no longer be interested or have the resources to undertake that contract.
I totally agree. I think in this point is you really need better communication between criminal law and procurement law, because as we see in Article 57, for instance, we always need a final judgement about criminal conviction of corruption, and we know, at least in Italy, this really takes a lot of time, providing a final criminal conviction of corruption. What should be done, as it’s done in the United States, it is just relying on an initial decision by the awarding authority that something has gone wrong, something has been corrupted within the award, and so not waiting for the criminal conviction but evaluating if the integrity of the awardee is questionable, this could be done even at the EU level according to Article 57. It provides that a tender may be excluded where its integrity is questionable. I think this could be done also once the contract is awarded, and if the integrity of the awardee is questionable, terminate the contract as it’s possible according to Article 73 of the same directive, and so letting the second economic operator scored get the award.
Again, that still depends on a very quick finding that the tender is questionable and the tender is subject to those problems.
Absolutely, and I think this is far more better than waiting for a criminal conviction. It’s always a the decision that the awarding authority should take timely and should take, of course, with hearings and notice and comments from the awardee. Well the other path is waiting until the contract is done, discovering after that the corruption has been made, and then giving relief to the second economic operator, and this is going not to promote integrity with public procurement, but it is going to be an economical and a financial loss to the awarding authority: also to give relief to the second economic operator. So the damage is doubled at the very end. You have paid a corrupted contractor and then later you have paid an honest contractor because he didn’t get the award that he had deserved, by the way.
Very well. I think we are up to the limit of our time. Thank you very much, Franco.
Thank you very much, Pedro, it was really interesting and thank you for your time.