Tag: leniency

Expanding Leniency to Fight Collusion and Corruption

20161003 Giancarlo Spagnolo FREE Policy Brief Image

Leniency policies offering immunity to the first cartel member that blows the whistle and self-reports to the antitrust authority have become the main instrument in the fight against cartels around the world. In public procurement markets, however, bid-rigging schemes are often accompanied by corruption of public officials. In the absence of coordinated forms of leniency for unveiling corruption, a policy offering immunity from antitrust sanctions may not be sufficient to encourage wrongdoers to blow the whistle, as the leniency recipient will then be exposed to the risk of conviction for corruption. Explicitly introducing leniency policies for corruption, as has been recently done in Brazil and Mexico, is only a first step. To increase the effectiveness of leniency in multiple offense cases, we suggest, besides extending automatic leniency to individual criminal sanctions, the creation of a ‘one-stop-point’ enabling firms and individuals to report different crimes simultaneously and receive leniency for all of them at once if they are entitled to it.

Leniency provisions to fight corruption

It has been noted that leniency policies and other schemes that encourage whistleblowing — such as reward and protection policies — should work in the fight against corruption as it does in the fight against collusion (Spagnolo, 2004; Spagnolo 2008; Buccirossi and Spagnolo, 2006). Cartels, corruption, and many other types of multi-agent offenses depend on a certain level of trust among wrongdoers, which is precisely what leniency programs aim to undermine by offering incentives for criminals to betray their partners and cooperate with the authorities (Bigoni et al., 2015; Leslie, 2004).

Of course, for offenses not covered by antitrust law, such as corruption, relevant authorities may have their own ways of granting leniency and encourage reporting, such as plea bargaining, whistleblower reward programs, deferred prosecution agreements (DPAs) and non-prosecution agreements (NPAs). On the other hand, some countries have recently introduced explicit leniency programs for corruption (for example, Brazil and Mexico). Yet, we observed that those instruments do not always cover all types of sanctions, are seldom integrated with antitrust leniency, and are often under the responsibility of multiple law enforcement agencies. Hence, improvements in the legal frameworks seem to still be necessary.

Leniency in a multi-offense scenario: the case of corruption cartels

Cartel offenses may be connected to other infringements. A particularly frequent and deleterious example of a multiple offense situation is the simultaneous occurrence of collusion (bid rigging) and corruption in public procurement (OECD, 2010). While cartels are estimated to raise prices by 20% or more above competitive levels (Connor, 2015; Froeb et al., 1993), corruption may add 5–25% to total contract values (EU, 2014; OECD, 2014b). Since public procurement is a market amounting to 13–20% of GDP in developed countries (OECD, 2011), it is clear that collusion and corruption represent a serious waste of public funds, negatively impacting the quality of public infrastructure and services provided by a state to its citizens.

Authorities face then two distinct, yet inter-related, challenges to guarantee the effectiveness of public procurement: ensuring integrity in the procurement process and promoting effective competition among suppliers (Anderson, 2010). Considering that success in deterring cartels and corruption depends largely on the incentives provided to infringers to self-report, the interaction between leniency provisions for cartels and the legal treatment of corruption adds a powerful new channel to the above-noted interdependence and thus should be — and already is — a concern to antitrust and anti-corruption authorities (OECD, 2014a).

A member of a corrupting cartel that blows the whistle on the cartel and applies for leniency to the antitrust authority will likely have to disclose information on the other infringement. Such information may then be used by the relevant law enforcement authority to prosecute and punish the applicant. Thus, the risk of prosecution for other cartel-connected offenses (corruption in this case) may reduce the attractiveness of reporting the cartel (Leslie, 2006). This kind of uncertainty works against the leniency policy’s deterrence goals and may even stabilize the cartel by providing its members with a credible threat to be used to prevent betrayal among them.

Existing leniency provisions for corrupting cartels

Antitrust leniency provisions are very similar worldwide, differing mainly in terms of whether cartels are only considered administrative infringements or are also criminally liable offenses. Where there is individual criminal liability, leniency programs should cover it. Surprisingly, Austria, France, German and Italy, where cartel, or at least bid rigging, is a criminal offense, do not follow this guideline. In these jurisdictions the co-operation of an individual with the antitrust authority during the administrative proceedings may be considered a mitigating circumstance, reducing imposed penalties or even allowing a discharge, but at the discretion of the court or the prosecution, which is likely to greatly reduce the propensity of wrongdoers to blow the whistle.

On the other hand, countries do not usually have specific leniency programs for corruption. Nonetheless, self-reporting and cooperation in bribery cases are usually given great importance by authorities and may lead to leniency and even immunity, through other mechanisms such as plea agreements, no-action letters, NPAs or DPAs, but those instruments rely on prosecutorial or judicial discretion. Brazil and Mexico do have formal leniency programs for corruption, providing more certainty and thus being more attractive to an applicant, although restricted to administrative liability. Individual corruption-related criminal provisions are laid down in each country’s criminal code and follow the recommendations made by the United Nations, in the 2003 Convention against Corruption, and by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, under its 1997 Convention against Corruption of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.

Since enforcement authorities for collusion and corruption differ in most cases, such an arrangement demands that the infringer seek non-prosecution through at least two separate agreements, one with the antitrust authority and the other with the anti-corruption agency. The difficulty in coordinating such agreements is an obvious issue and will vary according to the number of authorities involved and to the proximity among them, that range from divisions of the same agency, in the case of the United States (Antitrust and Criminal Divisions of the Justice Department), to organizations from different government branches (Executive and Judiciary) in most jurisdictions.

In Brazil and the United States, antitrust leniency programs can provide protection for non-antitrust violations, committed in connection with an antitrust violation. While in Brazil, this provision does not currently include corruption infringements, in the United States it does, but only binds the Antitrust Division and not any other federal or state prosecuting agencies, i.e. leniency agreements may not prevent other authority from prosecuting the applicant for the non-antitrust violation.

How to improve the current legal framework

Countries should follow Brazil and Mexico’s example and create ex ante, non-relying on prosecutorial or judiciary discretion leniency programs for corruption infringements. Unlike these programs, leniency should also cover individuals, especially in terms of criminal liability for bid rigging and corruption. The protection from lawsuits for managers and directors could then become a primary incentive for them to blow the whistle on their and their companies’ illegal acts.

Additionally, it is advisable not to depend on collaboration between law enforcement groups, but to establish clear legal provisions to allow wrongdoers to report all illegal acts simultaneously and to be confident that they will escape sanctions upon co-operation with the authorities and presentation of evidence, i.e. the creation of a ‘one-stop point’.

This ‘one-stop point’ should be available for applicants at every law enforcement agency and must prevent other agencies from prosecuting the leniency applicant. In other words, when someone approaches—as an individual or as a representative of a legal person—any authority to report crimes he is involved in, it is important to allow him to report any other crimes that he knows about in exchange for lenient treatment. In order to prevent conflicts among agencies, the authority first contacted by the wrongdoer must be obliged to immediately involve any other one who may be competent over other possible reported infringements. The self-reporting wrongdoer must be reasonably certain that he will be granted leniency for all reported wrongdoings, provided that he fulfills the legal requirements for each infringement, obviously. Failing to report all known involvement in infringements may be a reason to reduce or even revoke leniency altogether, creating a penalty plus-like provision over different areas of law and a more powerful incentive to a thorough self-report.

Information about the possibility of reporting several illegal acts at the same time, and of obtaining leniency for each one, must be consistently disseminated to minimize detection and prosecution costs, as well as to contribute to the deterrence of future criminal behavior.

Finally, we note that companies and individuals from jurisdictions where leniency provisions for corruption are highly discretionary or non-existent would be less inclined to report cartel behavior abroad when bribing foreign public officials. Despite existing confidentiality rules on leniency programs, they might not want to risk being prosecuted for corruption at home. This would possibly block antitrust leniency agreements by removing the incentives to self-report, undermining the ability to catch international corrupting cartels. To prevent that, laws should be amended to allow leniency for a company or someone that self-reports abroad, and further coordination and collaboration between agencies from different countries would be necessary to avoid stabilizing criminal collusion and undermining the effectiveness of leniency programs.


The fight against cartels and bribery requires efforts on a national level as well as multilateral co-operation.

Creating leniency policies to fight corruption, including foreign, and coordinating them with antitrust leniency policies, emerges as an important priority. The absence of formal leniency programs for corruption, besides hindering anti-corruption enforcement, reduces wrongdoers’ incentives to blow the whistle and collaborate in corrupting cartel cases through the risk of criminal prosecution for the corruption offense. These programs must be carefully designed, however, to avoid opportunistic behavior and thus to achieve their goal of deterrence.

In order to increase the effectiveness of leniency programs in multiple offenses cases, we suggest the creation of a ‘one-stop point’, enabling firms and individuals to report different crimes simultaneously and obtain leniency, provided that they offer sufficient information and evidence for their partners in crime to be prosecuted.


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  • Bigoni, M., Fridolfsson, S.O., Le Coq, C., Spagnolo, G., 2015. Trust, Leniency and Deterrence, 31 J. LAW ECON. ORGAN., 663.
  • Buccirossi P.; Spagnolo, G., 2006. Leniency policies and illegal transactions, 90 J. PUBLIC ECON., 1281.
  • Connor, J. M., 2014. Cartel overcharges, in The Law And Economics Of Class Actions (James Langenfeld ed.).
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Leniency, Asymmetric Punishment and Corruption: Evidence from China

20150928 FREE Policy Brief Leniency, Asymmetric Punishment Image 01

Since coming into office two years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping has carried out a sweeping, highly publicized anticorruption campaign. Skeptics are debating whether the campaign is biased towards Mr. Xi’s rivals, and even possibly related to the current economic slowdown. What is less debated is the next stage of Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption strategy, which is going to alter the legal statutes. Amendment IX, proposed in October 2014, includes heavier penalties, but two important tools in the fight of corruption – one-sided leniency and asymmetric punishment – became more limited and discretional. We argue that studying a 1997 reform and its effects can shed some light onto why the Chinese leadership seems dissatisfied with the current legislation and the likely effects of the proposed changes.

What We Know about Leniency

In our context, leniency can be defined as the concession of reduced sanctions (or full immunity) to wrongdoers that cooperate by self-reporting and providing information against former partners in crime. Formal and informal exchanges of leniency against information and collaboration are normal features of law enforcement in most countries. Policies of this kind have been extensively and quite successfully used to fight the Italian and American mafias, drug dealing and other organized crimes, and have become the main instrument to fight collusion in antitrust since the US reform in 1993 (see Spagnolo, 2008).

For crimes in which multiple offenders cooperate, one-sided leniency conditional on being the first to self-report can be a very powerful tool of law enforcement: by playing the partners in crime against each other, it may elicit information, greatly facilitate prosecution and generate deterrence at a very low cost. A conspicuous scientific literature with theoretical, experimental and empirical contributions shows the great potential of these policies, when properly designed and administered, for deterring collusive crimes (Miller 2009; Spagnolo 2008; Bigoni et al. 2012, 2015). On the other hand, Buccirossi and Spagnolo (2006) show specifically for the case of corruption that, when poorly designed or administered, these same policies may become ineffective or even counterproductive.

Asymmetric Punishment

A related way of using leniency towards one party (to play it against the other) in the fight against corruption has been at the center of a recent intense policy debate after the popular note “Why, for a Class of Bribes, the Act of Giving a Bribe Should Be Treated as Legal”, by Kaushik Basu (2011). Then chief economist of the Indian government and now of the World Bank, Basu advocated asymmetric depenalization of bribe giving, which can be thought of as a form of unconditional, one-sided leniency. More precisely, the note proposed to legalize bribe giving in the form of harassment bribes (also called extortionary, or discharge-of-duty bribes) paid to obtain something one is entitled to, while strengthening sanctions against bribe taking. As with other forms of leniency, the idea is to create a conflict of interests between the partners in crime by increasing the temptation for one party to betray and report the illegal act, leading to a severe punishment of the other.

In the debate sparked by this note many different arguments have been put forward, both against it and in favor of it. Dufwenberg and Spagnolo (2015) discuss formally some of the issues raised by critics of the proposal, while Abbink et al. (2014) provide (mixed) experimental evidence on its effectiveness. Later, a blogpost by a Chinese law scholar, Li (2012), attracted our attention to the case of China, where asymmetric punishment (bribe-giver impunity) has been in place since 1997. She argued, probably reflecting the political debate in the country rather than based on factual evidence, that the system had not been successful. We felt this claim granted a deeper investigation into the details of the Chinese legal reform and the changes it introduced, and of course a careful inspection of the data to back it.

A Study in Red

In a new working paper, Perrotta Berlin and Spagnolo (2015), we set out to understand the evolution of the anti-corruption legislation in China over the last decades, and then to evaluate the effects of the policy changes occurring in 1997. Two new elements were given the strongest legal status in 1997: leniency for wrongdoers that self-reported and cooperated with investigators, and asymmetric punishment (no charge for bribe givers) for bribes paid to obtain something one was entitled to. Concurrently, penalties were decreased, in particular for bribe-takers.

To understand the likely effects of this policy change we would ideally look at correspondent changes in corrupt transactions. Data on the prevalence of bribery, however, are notoriously hard to come by because of the secretive nature of this activity. Instead, we use several data sources which capture on the one hand actual corruption cases tried in courts, and on the other hand surveys of corruption perceptions. In particular, we have collected the number of arrests and public prosecutions on the counts of corruption and bribery from the Procuratorates’ Yearly Reports for each Chinese province since 1986.

It is not straightforward to infer changes in total corruption, which is unobserved, from changes in discovered cases tried in court. The data on prosecutions mix together corruption and anticorruption activities, as they fail to distinguish occurrence of the criminal activity from detection. A policy that deters crimes but at the same time increases the fraction of those that are successfully prosecuted will have an ambiguous effect on the number of prosecutions. We adapt for this purpose the testable predictions developed by Miller (2009): he models the occurrence of criminal activity (cartel formation, in this case) and derives predictions for how changes in the rate of occurrence and the rate of detection affect the time series of detection.

The preliminary evidence we have so far points to a substantial and stable reduction in the number of major corruption cases around the 1997 reform, a result consistent with a positive deterrence effect of the 1997 reform. The evidence is suggestive, and some alternative interpretations of the patterns in the data, shown in the plot below, cannot be excluded at the moment. While a peak-and-slump pattern as in Miller (2009) would have been much stronger evidence supporting the success of the reform at deterring corruption, we cannot exclude that the drop in prosecutions is simply due to a general worsening in detection. Although we deem this unlikely in the light of the general political climate of the time, we need more and better data to support our interpretation. Still, claims that the reform did not have an effect appear not supported by the data.

Figure 1. Change in Corruption Prosecutions before and after law reform in 1997

MariaGiancaPicSource: Perrotta-Berlin and Spagnolo (2015).

More to be done

A case study analysis is under way to corroborate and help the interpretation of these preliminary findings. We will analyze in depth a stratified random sample of prosecution case files between 1980 and 2010. Given that we sample a given number of cases, in this part of the analysis we cannot gain any insight about the incidence of bribery in general. We can instead observe the impact of the legislative reform on specific details of the corrupt behavior, and the mechanisms through which this behavior occurs or is deterred. In particular, we will be able to distinguish between cases of extortionary (harassment) bribes and bribes paid to obtain illegitimate benefits. Moreover, this will allow us to shed light on whether and how leniency and asymmetric punishment were applied in practice. The details of the case files might even allow us to gain insight into how the bribe-size and the value of corrupt deals evolved through the reform and even the selection into bureaucracy.


One-sided leniency, conditional on reporting an act first, or unconditional, as when bribe giving is depenalized, may be powerful corruption deterrence instruments if well designed and implemented in the right environment, but may also have negative effects. It has been argued that these instruments have been ineffective in China, after they were reformed in 1997, however, without data supporting the claim. Part of the reason lies in the difficulty to obtain good data on corruption. Another obstacle is the subtlety of interpreting them when they relate only to detected and convicted cases, rather than to the whole population of corruption cases.

We cannot solve completely the issue of data quality, as we also need to rely on official reports of counts of corruption cases. However limited, the exercise performed on aggregated data clearly shows that the 1997 Criminal Law reform did have an effect, consistent with increased corruption deterrence. To further support this finding we will collect and analyze micro-data from a randomized sample of these cases. This will allow us to isolate at a higher level of detail the changes in criminal behavior, reporting behavior and prosecution activity, and link them to the details of the legal reform to highlight the mechanisms at work.

China is home to a sixth of humanity, and currently undergoing a massive crackdown on corruption. Whatever we can learn about the effectiveness of their past and present anti-corruption policies is likely to have considerable welfare effects. Moreover, the 1997 reform was the object of a policy debate, and comments on its effectiveness came without data to support them. We believe our effort to use data to shed light on what this reform actually changed will be a valuable input to further research and policy discussion on this important topic.


  • Abbink, K., U. Dasgupta, L. Gangadharan, and T. Jain. “Let-ting the Briber Go Free: An Experiment on MitigatingHarassment Bribes.” Journal of Public Economics, 111,2014, 17–28.
  • Basu, K. “Why, for a Class of Bribes, the Act of Giv-ing a Bribe Should Be Treated as Legal.” WorkingPaper 172011 DEA, Ministry of Finance, Governmentof India, 2011
  • Bigoni, M., S.-O. Fridolfsson, C. LeCoq, and G. Spagnolo.“Fines, Leniency and Rewards in Antitrust.” RANDJournal of Economics, 43, 2012a, 368–90.
  • Bigoni, M., S.-O. Fridolfsson, C. LeCoq, and G. Spagnolo.. “Trust and Deterrence.”. Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization (2015)
  • Buccirossi, P., and G. Spagnolo. “Leniency Policies and Ille-gal Transactions.” Journal of Public Economics, 90,2006, 1281–97.
  • Buccirossi, P., Marvão, C. M. P., & Spagnolo, G. (2015). Leniency and Damages. Available at SSRN 2566774.
  • Dufwenberg, M. and Spagnolo, G., Legalizing Bribe Giving (April 2015). Economic Inquiry, Vol. 53, Issue 2, pp. 836-853, 2015.
  • Li, X. Guest post: bribery and the limits of game theory – the lessons from China. http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2012/05/01/guest-post-bribery-and-the-limits-of-game-theory-the-lessons-from-china/, 2012. Accessed: 2015-05-20.
  • Miller, N. H. Strategic leniency and cartel enforcement. The American Economic Review, pages 750–768, 2009.
  • Perrotta Berlin, M. and G. Spagnolo, Leniency, Asymmetric Punishment and Corruption: Evidence from China, SITE Working Paper, 2015 (forthcoming)