On February 4, 2021, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss), incoming Chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and Co-Chair, respectively, re-introduced legislation that would strengthen the U.S. Government’s anti-corruption initiatives. S.158, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, or CROOK Act, would create an anti-corrupt action fund to furnish additional funding targeting reform in foreign countries and streamlining work supporting the rule of law abroad.
Substance of the CROOK Act
As explained by its authors, the anti-corruption fund established in the CROOK Act would help countries where U.S. assistance could significantly increase the opportunities of successfully transitioning to democracy, combating corruption, and establishing the rule. For instance, in 2014, Ukraine established important reforms. In 2018, Ethiopia made important reforms after the election of a new Prime Minister. After the December 2018 parliamentary election, Armenia made reforms. The fund would provide a mechanism to allocate aid and take advantage of new political will more quickly. The financing for the fund would come from a $5 million surcharge to individual companies and entities that receive a $5 million criminal fines and penalties above $50 million for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
S. 158 would create several complementary mechanisms to have a whole-of-government approach to U.S. efforts to fortify the rule of law abroad. These include an interagency taskforce; the designation of embassy anti-corruption points of contact to liaise with the task force; reporting requirements designed to combat corruption, kleptocracy, and illicit finance; and a consolidated online platform for easy access to anti-corruption reports and materials.
In its introduction, the CROOK Act mentions systematic corruption in both Russia and China, and their pernicious effects on the U.S. and the world.
The CROOK Act expressly mentions the work of technical assistance programs that combat corruption and strengthen the rule of law. The latter includes through assistance provided by the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and through programs like the Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training and the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program. These programs can have lasting and significant impacts for both foreign and U.S. interests.
Quickly civil society organizations, such as Transparency International U.S., endorsed the bill.
The bill will help bring a more whole-of-government approach to U.S. anti-corruption policy. It seems strange that so much emphasis in the bill and its marketing is on systematic corruption in two countries that coincidentally are U.S. rivals – Russia and China. It follows a legislative trend. Sec. 5506 of the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA) of 2020, which is part of the National Defense Authorization Act, calls for Treasury study and strategy on money laundering by China, especially on the extent and effect of illicit finance risk concerning China and Chinese firms. The latter includes financial institutions, an assessment of the illicit finance risks emanating from China, and a strategy to counter these money laundering activities. Sec. 5507 of the AMLA requires a study and report to Congress on how authoritarian regimes in foreign countries and their proxies use the U.S. financial system to conduct political influence operations, sustain kleptocratic methods of maintaining power, export corruption, fund nongovernmental organizations, media organizations, or academic initiatives in the U.S., and undermine democratic governance in the U.S. and the partners and allies of the U.S.
 The inter-agency task force will be composed of representatives appointed by the President from appropriate departments and agencies, including the State Department, U.S.A.I.D., the Treasury Department, the Justice Department, Homeland Security, the Defense Department, the Commerce Department, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the intelligence community.