Tag: Whistleblowers

Sanctions Enforcement and Money Laundering

US dollar hang out to dry representing Sanctions Enforcement and Money Laundering

With sanctions becoming an increasingly important tool in ostracising autocratic regimes from western markets, the need for effective enforcement of Anti-Money Laundering (AML) policies is increasing. The global AML regime will be the backbone in detecting evasion of sanctions. This regime has, however, been widely criticised as ineffective. In this brief, we discuss issues with the current AML regime and propose a reward scheme for whistleblowers to enable asset seizures. A powerful feature of our proposal is that it does not rely on the effectiveness of the AML regime.


Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we wrote a FREE Policy brief expressing concerns over the ability of the current Anti Money Laundering (AML) regime to keep money launderers out of the international financial system. In the brief, we concluded that “The ease with which criminals have evaded present detection methods should cause concern about the effectiveness of sanctions”. The issue has now received renewed attention as the current sanctions against Russia will only be effective if it is difficult or costly to circumvent them. Sanctions evasions have a lot of similarities with money laundering, and the methods for detecting both is very similar, such that the proposal we discuss in this brief is applicable to both.

While an initial shock due to unexpected sanctions may generate disruptions, prohibited goods can later be imported/exported through third-party intermediaries in non-sanctioned countries to circumvent the sanctions. False labelling of origin, misinvocing, etc., are likely to occur and may be very difficult to detect. Analogously, sanctioned individuals’ assets may shift hands, and be laundered through shell companies without known beneficial owners.

In this brief, we consider a way to enhance enforcement, as outlined in a recent paper (Nyreröd, Andreadakis, and Spagnolo, 2022). The approach builds upon the US Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Rewards Program which offers up to $5 million “for information leading to seizure, restraint, or forfeiture of assets linked to foreign government corruption” (US Treasury, 2022).

The AML Regime

To justify the enforcement mechanism we later propose, some background on the AML regime is necessary. The global standard-setter for AML is the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF), which has since 1989 issued recommendations to countries on how to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. While initially focusing on drug money, the regime expanded in the last decades and has now received increased attention as it will be an important tool in ensuring sanctions against Russian oligarchs are effective.

The regime imposes numerous obligations on financial and other entities as they must assess risks and conduct due diligence along various dimensions, collect documents, and send reports to the national Financial Intelligence Unit. This regime has been widely criticized. Widespread AML non-compliance within banks, lack of rigorous supervision and enforcement by national supervisors and high costs relative to verifiable benefits are some of the issues that have been identified (Spagnolo and Nyreröd 2021; Nyreröd, Andreadakis and Spagnolo, 2022). The World Bank estimates that between 2 and 5 percent of global GDP is laundered annually, and that only around 0.2 percent of the proceeds from crime, laundered via the financial system, are seized and frozen (UNODC, 2011). Researchers have also been critical – for example Pol (2020), cites 22 papers that have “identified gaps between the intentions and results of the modern anti-money laundering effort, including its core capacity to detect and prevent serious profit-motivated crime and terrorism” (p.103).

Recent responses by the European Commission and others have focused on ensuring compliance within covered entities. Yet, increasing compliance with current AML rules may be costly and non-sufficient to stem the flows of illicit money in the international system. Even if widespread compliance within covered entities is obtained, and the AML procedures are effective, this may not be enough – even minimal non-compliance rates may result in major damages. We have seen how Danske Bank Estonia, a relatively small branch, managed to transfer around $230 billions of suspicious funds within the span of a couple of years (Bruun and Hjejle, 2018).

Some have suggested providing whistleblower rewards to those who report significant violations of AML rules by covered institutions (Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021; Scarcella, 2021). Yet, such rewards are only desirable if the AML regime is effective in achieving its policy objectives, which is not a given (we elaborate on this in Nyreröd, Andreadakis and Spagnolo, 2022). Enhanced compliance with the AML regime does not necessarily entail increased detection and deterrence of e.g., money laundering.  Numerous laundering methods exist that circumvent the reporting rules required under AML. A better option may be to incentivize facilitators of money laundering to provide information leading directly to asset seizures, as they have the best information that can lead to such forfeitures.

Incentivizing Facilitators

Money laundering is a derivative crime and requires what is called a “predicate offense” (such as human trafficking, drug sales, or corruption) that generates illegal money whose source needs to be obscured. The EU Directive (2018/1673) stipulates 22 categories of criminal activities that constitute predicate offenses.

There is a large infrastructure facilitating money laundering including financial advisers, real estate agents, tax advisors, and lawyers – crucial to criminals seeking to launder money. Bill Browder, famous for his work on advocating the Magnitsky Act, describes how he was aided by Alexander Perepilichnyy, a financial adviser for individuals involved in a large tax theft in Russia. Perepilichnyy helped launder the money for those involved in the tax theft, but eventually turned whistleblower when he provided bank statements to Browder that led to the freezing of $11 million related to this fraud (Browder 2022, p. 39). His information provided a “road-map” to even be able to start investigating where the illegally stolen assets had ended up. Perepilichnyy later died while jogging near London in 2012, which some believe was a murder in retaliation for blowing the whistle. A reward scheme would aim at people like Perepilichnyy, persons who are unrelated to the predicate offense, yet have information on the source and location of illicit funds.

Reward Programs in AML

The US has used whistleblower reward schemes in several regulatory areas including tax, procurement fraud, and securities fraud. These programs offer 10-30 percent of the recoveries or fines to whistleblowers that bring information crucial to issue the fines or recover public funds. Rewards to whistleblowers are therefore paid by the wrongdoing party, not the taxpayer.

These programs have received increased attention as several studies have found that they are effective at uncovering and deterring wrongdoing (Dyck, 2010; Wiedman and Zhu, 2018; Raleigh, 2020; Leder-Luis, 2020; Dey et al., 2021; Berger and Lee, 2022, see Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2021 for a review). Agencies managing these programs have widely praised them, and studies show they are highly cost effective. More countries are also starting to experiment with offering rewards for information.

A salient feature of the US programs is that some degree of culpability in the wrongdoing does not disqualify an individual from an award. In 2012, Bradley Birkenfeld received $104 million under the Internal Revenue Service’s reward program despite serving a jail sentence for his involvement in facilitating tax evasion. In fact, when one of the most effective and famous whistleblower laws was enacted, the US Senator who tabled the bill argued that the bill aimed at “setting a rogue to catch a rogue” which “is the safest and most expeditious way I have ever discovered of bringing rogues to justice” (Howard, 1863).

Motivated by these experiences, we propose that AML should incorporate a whistleblower reward scheme, targeting those facilitating money laundry, with three central pillars:

Witness protection: aim at shielding whistleblowers and their families from negative consequences, if there are concerns that they might become victims of retaliation, harassment, or mistreatment of any kind. If the whistleblower is based in a hostile country, guaranteed asylum should be granted.

Leniency: offer immunity for any reported offense related to money laundering, but not for any other crime. Without immunity, a whistleblower will have no incentive to turn to authorities as they would immediately incriminate themselves and risk jailtime for money laundering.

Large, scaling, and mandatory rewards:  offer large, mandatory rewards that scale with the level of recoveries. As noted above, successful US programs pay 10-30 percent of the recoveries to whistleblowers. In the money laundering case, this percentage range may be lowered. Also, similarly to whistleblowers’ rewards in other cases, AML rewards would come from confiscated funds.

Numerous other design dimensions are important, but due to space limitations we refer the reader to other lengthier pieces that go into further detail (Nyreröd, Andreadakis and Spagnolo, 2022; Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021; Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2021; Engstrom 2018).


The Russian aggression against Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions have put increased emphasis on the ability and effectiveness of the current AML regime to detect money laundering. Justified concerns about this regime have been raised, and its performance record is still under question. Programs offering whistleblowers witness protection, leniency, and large rewards could be an effective complement to this regime.


  • Berger, P. and Lee, H. (2022), “Did the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Provision Deter Accounting Fraud?”, Journal of Accounting Research, early view, available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-679X.12421
  • Browder, B. (2022b). Freezing Order, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.
  • Bruun and Hjejle. (2018). “Report on the Non-Resident Portfolio at Danske Bank’s Estonian Branch”. Danske Bank.
  • Dey, A., Heese, J. and G. Pérez-Cavazos. (2021). “Cash-for-Information Whistleblower Programs: Effects on Whistleblowing and Consequences for Whistleblowers”, Journal of Accounting Research, Vol. 59, No.5, pp.1689-1740.
  • Dyck, A., Morse, A. and Zingales, L. (2010). “Who Blows the Whistle on Corporate Fraud?”, The Journal of Finance, Vol. 65, No.6, pp.2213-2253.
  • Engstrom, D. (2018). “Bounty Regimes.” In Arlen, J. (ed.) Research Handbook on Corporate Crime and Financial Misdealing, Edward Elgar.
  • Howard, J.M. (1863). Congressional Globe, Senate, 37th Congress, 3rd Session, pp. 955-956.
  • Leder-Luis, J. (2020). “Whistleblowers, Private Enforcement, and Medicare Fraud”, Working Paper, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, available at: https://sites.bu.edu/jetson/files/2020/07/False-Claims-Act-Paper.pdf.
  • Nyreröd, T. and Spagnolo, G. (2021). “Myths and numbers on whistleblower rewards”, Regulation and Governance, Vol. 15, No.1, pp.82-97.
  • Nyreröd, T., Andreadakis, S. and Spagnolo, G. (2022). “Money laundering and sanctions enforcement: large rewards, leniency, and witness protection for whistleblowers”, The Journal of Money Laundering Control, early view available at: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JMLC-05-2022-0068/full/html
  • Pol, R. (2020). “Responses to money laundering scandal: evidence-informed or perception-driven?”, Journal of Money Laundering Control, Vol.23, No.1, pp.103-121.
  • Raleigh, J. (2020). “The Deterrent Effect of Whistleblowing on Insider Trading”, University of Minnesota Working Paper, available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3672026.
  • Scarcella, G. (2021). “Qui Tam and the Bank Secrecy Act: A Public-Private Enforcement Model to Improve Anti-Money Laundering Efforts”, Fordham Law Review, Vol. 90, No.3, pp.1359- 1395.
  • Spagnolo, G. and Nyreröd, T. (2021). “Financial Incentives to whistleblowers: a short survey”, Sokol, D. and van Rooij, B. (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of Compliance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, pp.341-351.
  • Spagnolo, G. and Nyreröd, T. (2021a). “Money Laundering and Whistleblowers”, report written for Centre for Business and Policy Studies (SNS), available at: https://snsse.cdn.triggerfish.cloud/uploads/2021/11/money-laundering-and-whistleblowers.pdf.
  • UNODC. (2011). “Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes”, Research Report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Studies/Illicit-financial-flows_31Aug11.pdf.
  • US Treasury. (2022). “U.S. Departments of Treasury and Justice Launch Multilateral Russian Oligarch Task Force”, March 16, available at: https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0659.
  • Wiedman, C. and Zhu, C. (2018). “Do the SEC Whistleblower Provisions of Dodd-Frank Deter Aggressive Financial Reporting?”, 2018 Canadian Academic Accounting Association Annual Conference, available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3105521.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

From Russia with Love?

Russia Moscow City representing money laundering

Some recently discovered money laundering schemes have funnelled large amounts of illegal money from former soviet states through European banks. This note briefly describes the evolution of the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regime for financial institutions, the introduction of which was concurrent with the post-soviet transition and the connected illegal flows of funds. It discusses the effectiveness of the current AML regime – and its ability to detect and seize illegal funds. The brief also highlights some of its deficiencies as well as lack of compliance with its prescriptions. It proceeds to stress that after judging the current framework insufficient, the US recently introduced whistleblower rewards for AML-infringements. Europe might want to follow their lead if it really aims at limiting money laundering.


In recent years significant deficiencies in Anti-Money Laundering (AML) compliance have been discovered in some European banks (Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021). A notable example is the Danske Bank case that emerged in 2018.   Some have called it the largest money-laundering scandal in history: it is estimated that about $230 billion in suspicious funds went through its Estonian branch between 2007 and 2015.

In several of these cases, the sources of a large fraction of the illicit assets were Russia or other former Soviet states (Shaffer and Cassella, 2020).

Prior to the Danske revelations, several schemes have been uncovered that were aimed at laundering illicit money from former soviet states into the western financial system.

In a classic example going back to 2006, about $230 million were stolen in fraudulent tax refunds perpetrated by officials in Russia and then laundered through Moldova, Latvia and then UK shell companies and banks (Browder, 2009). Famously, the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky investigated the theft and testified against the fraudsters and was later put in detention for the same tax theft he was investigating. About a year after he was arrested, Magnitsky passed away after allegedly being tortured and denied medical care. This tragic episode gave rise to the Magnitsky Act, which prohibits persons believed to be involved in the theft to enter the US and access its financial system.

Another famous (and partly related) case is the so-called Russian Laundromat (then Global Laundromat), a scheme estimated to have funneled over $70 billion of illegal money out of Russia, through Latvia, Moldova, and then the UK (Tofilat and Negruta, 2019).

Indeed, Russia is widely considered the country with the largest estimated amount of ‘dark’ money hidden abroad, both as a percentage of GDP and in absolute terms (estimated around $1 trillion by Novokmet et al., 2017).

However, the origin of money laundered in the transition region is not limited to Russia. For example, it is estimated that between 2012 and 2014, about $2.9 billion from Azerbaijan were illegally laundered through UK shell companies and then European banks.

Funds from all these schemes appear to have been transacted through Danske bank (Bruun and Hjejle 2018: 33), Swedbank (Clifford Chance 2020: 123), and other European banks.

This evidence warrants some reflection on the effectiveness of the AML framework, particularly in Europe.

The Current AML Regime

The development of the global AML framework has been largely concurrent with the transition from communism and the connected illegal flows of funds.

The Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) was formed in 1989, after an initiative by the G7. FATF’s mission is to develop policies to combat money laundering and blacklist countries that do not comply. The FATF issued its first recommendations in 1999 and continually updates them, most recently in FATF (2021).

These recommendations set out essential measures that countries should have in place to identify money laundering risks, including regulation on preventive measures for the financial and other sectors, powers and responsibilities for competent authorities, coordination of their actions, and the facilitation of international cooperation (FATF 2021: 7).

AML regulation requires financial institutions to know their customers and engage in due diligence to reduce the risk that they onboard criminals seeking to launder money. Information about suspicious transactions and activities should be forwarded to a national financial intelligence unit, usually the financial police. National Financial Services Authorities (FSAs) are usually responsible for enforcing compliance with AML rules – the “preventive” side of money laundering regulation. The “repressive” criminal law or “enforcement” side of the fight against money laundering is usually enforced by the national financial police (Reuter and Truman 2004, Svedberg Helgesson and Mörth 2018).

There are certainly valid questions to be raised regarding the effectiveness of the current AML framework. While the World Bank estimates that between 2 and 5% of global GDP is laundered annually, it is also estimated that less than 1% of the proceeds of crime laundered via the financial system are currently seized by regulators and law enforcement agencies (UNODC 2011: 7).

At the same time, the framework is quite costly to comply with. There have been six EU Directives related to AML. All require legal implementation and impose new demands on banks and other covered institutions. FATF also requires that its members frequently carry out National Risk Assessments, and countries are also subject to Membership Evaluation Reports which imposes additional costs. Compliance costs for banks are estimated in the billions of dollars (Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021), and a whole industry surrounding “AML Compliance” has emerged. Part of these costs, not only monetary ones, end up transferred to bank customers.

From a more rigorous policy evaluation point of view, the AML regime is also problematic. There is a remarkable lack of data for assessing the effectiveness of the framework relative to its objectives (see e.g., Halliday et al. 2014, Levi 2018, Levi et al. 2018, Pol 2018, 2020).

Bank’s Failures

A lack of compliance with this preventative framework has been widespread.  In Sweden, for example, most large banks have been fined for various degrees of AML deficiencies. Similarly, many banks in other European countries received fines from local and US regulators (in the order of billions of dollars) for failing to comply with this framework, including HSBC, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank (multiple times), BNP Paribas, MagNet Bank, and Barclays Bank. Since 2016, the US has issued AML-related fines on eight occasions to banks with headquarters in European countries for an aggregate amount of $1.7 billion (mean $217 million fine; data from violationtracker.org).

In the case studies we discuss in Spagnolo and Nyreröd (2021), most forms of internal controls failed to some extent. Whereas external whistleblowing was rare or non-existent, internal whistleblowers did not manage to rectify the problems either.

Simultaneously, there were often clear red flags that should have alerted board members and executives. At Danske Bank group, for example, returns on allocated capital in the non-resident portfolio at their Estonian branch, where a substantial part of the money laundering occurred, hit 402% in 2013, compared with the 6.9% average for the whole group, a clear red flag (Schwartzkopff, 2018).

Supervisor’s Failures

The extensiveness of AML non-compliance cannot only be traced to negligent banks – it also has to do with the ineffectiveness of the enforcement of AML rules by supervising authorities.

In the cases reviewed in Spagnolo and Nyreröd (2021), supervisors appeared by and large aware of at least part of the AML deficiencies. Oftentimes, banks were given warnings by regulators, yet continued to violate the same rules.

For example, both the Danish FSA and the Estonian FSA seem to have had some knowledge of the AML deficiencies at Danske Bank’s subsidiary already in 2007, with little consequences.

Coordination between regulators has also been poor. The Danish FSA argues that the primary AML oversight responsibility for the Estonian branch should be the local FSA (Finanstilsynet, 2019), while the Estonian FSA retorts that European rules are not as clear and that the Danish FSA at least has some responsibility to oversee the branches of Danske Group (Finantsinspektsioon, 2019).

On September 24, 2018, the European Banking Authority (EBA) opened an investigation to assess whether the Danish and Estonian FSAs have violated any European laws. On April 16, 2019, it voted to reject an internal draft into supervisory failings that allegedly identified several shortcomings in how Danish and Estonian authorities supervised Danske bank. (Brunsden 2019). The EBA supervisory board’s decision to close the investigation without adopting any findings drew criticism from a range of senior policymakers and spurred calls for its reform. The EBA has also been criticized for its reluctance to pass judgment on its members (Bjerregaard and Kirchmaier 2019: 38).


The limited regulatory enforcement and compliance with the current AML system are likely to only marginally increase the cost of money laundering for criminals. Policymakers should thus wonder whether the current system is delivering value for money. There could be different ways to improve it. Increased fines for non-compliance may for example induce covered entities to comply with the AML framework to a greater extent.

Moving forward, the inconsistent enforcement of AML rules has led experts and policymakers to suggest centralizing some supervision and enforcement of AML regulation at the EU level (Kirschenbaum and Véron 2018, 2020; Unger 2020; JPP 2019; EC 2020, p.8), and improving information sharing between supervisors.

We believe these measures may not be sufficient for facilitating compliance with AML, while imposing substantial enforcing costs.

One way to increase AML compliance at a relatively low cost could be introducing whistleblower reward programs, as done in the US early this year (Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2021). These programs offer substantial monetary rewards, often in the order millions of dollars, for information on non-compliance, and have proven extremely effective in combating fraud against the government, tax evasion, and securities fraud. While national EU supervisors may not have sufficient resources or competence to manage such programs, centralized actors such as the European Commission appear able to do so. If we see more centralized supervision, together with increased resources and competence, a well-designed and properly implemented whistleblower reward program may become a highly effective way to fight money laundering in the EU.


  • Bjerregaard, E., and T. Kirchmaier (2019). “The Danske Bank Money Laundering Scandal: A Case Study.” Copenhagen Business School.
  • Browder, W (2009). “Hermitage Capital, the Russian State and the Case of Sergei Magnitsky.” REP Edited Transcript, Chatham House.
  • Bruun and Hjejle (2018). “Report on the Non-Resident Portfolio at Danske Bank’s Estonian Branch.” Danske Bank.
  • Brunsden, J. (2019). “EBA faces calls to reform after dropping Danske Bank probe.” Financial Times, April.
  • Clifford Chance (2020). “Report of Investigation on Swedbank AB (publ).” Swedbank.
  • EC (2020). “Communication from the Commission on an Action Plan for a Comprehensive Union Policy on Preventing Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing.” 7.5.2020 C(2020) 2800 final.
  • FATF (2021). “International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism & Proliferation: The FATF Recommendations.”
  • Finanstilsynet (2019). “Report on the Danish FSA’s Supervision of Danske Bank as Regards the Estonia Case.” Danish Financial Services Authority.
  • Finantsinspektsioon (2019). “Response to the Report on the Danish FSA’s Supervision of Danske Bank.” Estonian Financial Services Authority.
  • Halliday, T. C., M. Levi, and P. Reuter (2014). “Global Surveillance of Dirty Money: Assessing Assessments of Regimes to Control Money-Laundering and Combat the Financing of Terrorism.” Center on Law & Globalization. University of Illinois College of Law and American Bar Foundation.
  • JPP (2019). “Joint Position Paper by the Ministers of Finance of France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Spain.”
  • Kirschenbaum, J., and N. Véron (2018). “A Better European Architecture to Fight Money Laundering.” Peterson Institute for International Economics. Policy Brief 18-25.
  • Kirschenbaum, J., and N. Véron (2020). “A European Anti-Money Laundering Supervisor: From Vision to Legislation.” Peterson Institute for International Economics, January.
  • Levi, M. (2018). “Punishing Banks, Their Clients, and Their Clients’ Clients.” In King, C., C. Walker, and J. Gurulé (eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Criminal and Terrorism Financing Law. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Levi, M., P. Reuter, and T. Halliday (2018). “Can the AML System Be Evaluated Without Better Data?” Crime, Law and Social Change, 69(2): 307–328.
  • Novokmet, F., Piketty, T., and Zucman, G. (2017). “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016”, NBER Working Paper Series, nr23712.
  • Nyreröd, T., and G. Spagnolo (2021). “Myths and Numbers on Whistleblower Rewards.” Regulation and Governance, 15(1): 82–97.
  • Pol, R. (2018). “Uncomfortable Truths? ML=BS and AML=BS².” Journal of Financial Crime, 25(2): 294–308.
  • Pol, R. (2020). “Response to Money Laundering Scandal: Evidence-Informed or Perception Driven?” Journal of Money Laundering Control, 23(1): 103–121.
  • Reuter, P., and E. M. Truman (2004). Chasing Dirty Money: The Fight Against Money Laundering. Peterson Institute for International Economics.
  • Schwartzkopff, F (2018). “Danske’s 402% Return Should Have Raised Red Flag, FSA Says.” Bloomberg, May.
  • Shaffer, Y. and Cassella, S (2020). ” The Causes, Effects, and Manifestations of the Money Laundering Problem in the Former Soviet Union.”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, February 21.
  • Spagnolo, G., and T. Nyreröd (2021). “Money Laundering and Whistleblowers.” SNS Report.
  • Svedberg Helgesson, K., and U. Mörth (2018). “Client Privilege, Compliance and the Rule of Law: Swedish Lawyers and Money Laundering Prevention.” Crime, Law and Social Change, 69(2): 227–248.
  • Tofilat, S., and V. Negruta (2019). “The Russian Laundromat – a $70 billion money-laundering scheme facilitated by Moldovan political elites.” Transparency International Moldova.
  • Unger, B. (2020). “Improving Anti-Money Laundering Policy.” Study requested by the ECON Committee, European Parliament.
  • UNODC (2011). “Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes.” Research Report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Money Laundering: Regulatory or Political Capture?

20181210 Money Laundering Image 01

Danske Bank has recently been accused of having laundered more than 200 billion Euros through its Estonian branch. The size of the scandal has reinvigorated the discussion over lax enforcement by regulators and poor bank compliance with anti-money laundering laws. In this brief, we concisely review some recent cases of poor regulatory and political behaviour with respect to these matters, focusing in particular on the UK, whose financial system seems to have become a main hub for this type of financial misconduct.

A widespread phenomenon

The size of the recent money laundering scandal at Danske Bank, involving more than 200 billion Euros, has surprised many. Money laundering is a widespread issue in an increasingly complex world where financial transactions are many and instantaneous, while oversight slow and limited (Radu 2016). According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, an estimated $800 – $2 trillion is laundered every year (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). The source of laundered money is often from corruption, crime and drug cartels (as with the HSBC scandal, see below). Attempts to blow the whistle on these illegal transactions have gotten several people killed, especially in Russia (The Daily Beast, October 2018).

Malta’s Pilatus bank recently had its license revoked by the European Central Bank after its chairman was charged with money laundering (Reuters, October 2018). The investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb in October of 2017 in Malta (The Guardian, October 2017). She was leading the Panama Papers investigation into corruption in the country and had accused Pilatus bank of processing corrupt payments (The Guardian, November 2018). In Sweden, some banks have recently been criticized for insufficient actions against money laundering. Experts at the regulator recommended extensive sanctions, but upper management stopped them (Svenska Dagbladet, December 2018). In November, Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt were raided by prosecutors in a money laundering investigation (BBC, November 2018).

Back to Danske Bank. Its Estonian branch was recently accused of having laundered money, amounting to over 200 billion Euros of suspicious transfers (Financial Times, November 2018). In 2011 the Estonian branch accounted for 0.5% of Danske Bank’s assets, while generating 12% of its total profits before taxes. In 2013, 99% of the profits in the branch came from non-residents. Many of the non-resident customers are believed to be from Russia and other ex-soviet states (Forbes, September 2018). The alleged money laundering came to light due to the whistleblower Howard Wilkinson, who headed Danske Bank’s market trading unit in the Baltics from 2007 to 2014. Surprisingly, his anger over these transactions was not primarily aimed at top management in Copenhagen, or failure of rank and file employees to follow protocol in customer acquisition, but against the UK, who he claimed is “the worst of all” when it comes to combating money laundering (Financial Times, November 2018). In fact, the UK institutions seem to have been at the very heart of the scandal (ibid):

“Mr Wilkinson’s emails to Danske executives in 2013 and 2014 highlighted how UK entities were “the preferred vehicle for non-resident clients” at the heart of the scandal.”

In an address to European Union Lawmakers, he said (Reuters, November 2018):

“The role of the United Kingdom is an absolute disgrace. Limited liability partnerships and Scottish liability partnerships have been abused for absolutely years”.

Regulatory or political capture?

The increasingly central role that the UK appears to be playing as a hub for financial crime is perhaps not new or surprising. The UK has indeed come to be widely recognized as one – though certainly not the only – main hub for these illegal transactions (see e.g. Radu 2016, p.15). The UK’s National Crime Agency estimates 93 billion GBP of tainted money is flowing into Britain annually (Financial Times, September 2018).

And according to the classic theory of regulatory capture (Stigler, 1970), it is to be expected that a large, wealthy and highly concentrated sector such as the UK financial industry, will be able to capture regulatory institutions and lead them to act more in its favour than in that of the (national or international) community. However, besides being a concentrated source of special interests, the financial sector also represents a large share of the UK economy. It could be the case, therefore, that the capture goes all the way up to the political system and the government (as in Becker 1983, and Laffont, 1996). So, is it the alleged crime-friendly environment in the UK financial system linked more to problems of regulatory capture, or to deeper political capture?

Already in 2004 there were worrying signs of possibly deep political capture.  At the time, Paul Moore, a senior risk manager at Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS), raised concerns about the bank’s risk taking and was subsequently fired by the executive James Crosby. Crosby then proceeded to become Deputy Chairman at the Financial Services Authority (FSA). HBOS then collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008 and merged with Lloyds bank, leading to one of the most concentrated banking systems in the world (the top 5 banks have 85% of the UK banking market). Many took this to substantiate Moore’s claim that the bank had been taking excessive risks. During Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons, David Cameron commented on then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision to appoint Crosby to the FSA:

“Sir James Crosby, the man who ran HBOS and whom the Prime Minister singled out to regulate our banks and to advise our Government, has resigned over allegations that he sacked the whistleblower who knew that his bank was taking unacceptable risks.” (cited in Dewing and Russell 2016, p.165)

A suggestive episode directly involving politicians and money laundering is the case of HSBC, with headquarters in London. HSBC avoided criminal prosecution in the US and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ in 2012 (Department of Justice, December 2012). HSBC was found to have violated U.S. Anti-Money Laundering and Sanctions Laws by laundering billions of dollars linked to Mexican drug cartels, groups in Iran and Syria, and groups linked to terrorism. While HSBC apparently had systems to flag suspicious transactions, employees were told to disregard red flags (Garrett 2014, p.201). The case led to a 2016 House Committee report entitled “too big to jail” that was extensively used against the Democrats by the Trump presidential campaign (Committee on Financial Services, 2016).

The report states that on the 10th of September 2012 UK Chancellor George Osborne (the UK’s chief financial minister) wrote a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (with a copy transmitted to then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner). In the letter, Chancellor Osborne insinuated that the U.S. was unfairly targeting UK banks by seeking settlements that were higher than comparable settlements with U.S. banks. He also worried about what criminal sanctions against HSBC would imply for financial stability. Criminal charges could also lead to a revoked license, making the bank unable to do business in the US (Financial Times, July 2016). HSBC was eventually ordered to pay a 1.9 billion dollar fine, while another whistleblower claims that the money laundering still went on (Huffington Post, August 2013).

The FSA also appeared much more concerned about criminal sanctions against HSBC than with money laundering for the bloodiest drug cartel in history (estimated to be responsible for several tenths of thousands of murders). In fact, the house committee report states that “The FSA’s Involvement in the U.S. Government’s HSBC Investigations and Enforcement Actions Appears to Have Hampered the U.S. Government’s Investigations and Influenced DOJ’s Decision Not to Prosecute HSBC” (p.24).

Things have not improved more recently. In 2013 the FSA was split up into the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority (FCA & PRA). In 2014 the FCA & PRA came out with a note requested by the British parliament on whether financial incentives for whistleblowers should be introduced in the UK. These financial incentives, or reward programs, are used extensively in the US in tax, procurement, and securities. The FCA & PRA came out strongly against rewards in their seven-page note, yet do not cite a single piece of evidence (PRA and FCA, 2014). Most importantly, the note contains important factual misstatements about available evidence on their effectiveness that were easy to check at the time of the report (Nyreröd & Spagnolo 2017, National Whistleblower Center 2018). Nor was the note amended when one of us repeatedly communicated the mistakes to the agencies. This suggests persistent and deep regulatory capture. Consistent with this interpretation is the sanctioning behavior of UK regulators.

A blatant recent example is the ridiculous fine against CEO of Barclays Bank Jes Staley. He ordered his security team to unveil the identity of an uncomfortable whistleblower, going so far as to request video footage of the person who bought the postage for the letter. Yet, the FCA & PRA decided to just fine him £642 000 – a small fraction of his pay package that year (Reuters, May 2018). When Moore was asked about the fine he replied that “it is a very clear sign to whistleblowers not to bother” (Reuters, April 2018).


Is this regulatory capture, or political capture? The impressive list of consistent cases of regulatory slack and of political complacency suggests both, at least in the case of the UK. But the problem of regulatory capture in the case of financial crimes goes way beyond the somewhat extreme case of the UK. In all jurisdictions financial misbehavior has recently only led to settlements between regulators and the infringing financial institution, with settlement payments way too low to generate (financial stability concerns, and) deterrence effects. Banking regulators appear mainly concerned about banks’ health and profitability, so that large financial institutions have not only become too big to fail, but also too big to jail, and now even too big to fine, at least to the appropriate extent (Spagnolo 2015). All this even though the financial crime has been that actively supporting through money laundering criminal organizations that killed tenths of thousands of innocent people.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Rewarding Whistleblowers to Fight Corruption?

20171022 Rewarding Whistleblowers to Fight Corruption Image 01

Whistleblower reward programs, or “bounty regimes”, provide financial incentives to witnesses that report information on infringements, helping law enforcement agencies to detect/convict culprits. These programs have been successfully used in the US against procurement fraud and tax evasion for quite some time, and were extended to fight financial fraud after the recent crisis. In Europe there is currently a debate on their possible introduction, but authorities appear much less enthusiastic than their US counterparts. In this brief, we discuss recent research on two commonly voiced concerns on whistleblower rewards – the risk of increasing false accusations, and that of crowding out other motivations to blow the whistle – and the adaptations these programs may need to fight more general forms of corruption. Research suggests that the mentioned concerns can be handled by an appropriate design and management of the programs, as apparently done in the US, and that these programs can indeed be a cost effective instrument to fight corruption, but only in countries with a sufficient quality of the judicial system and administrative capacity. They may instead be problematic for weak institutions environments.

Corruption and fraud seem to remain highly widespread in almost all countries. For example, a recent survey of over 6,000 organizations across 115 countries shows that one in three organizations, both worldwide and in the US, experienced fraud in the past 24 months, prevalently in the form of asset misappropriation, cybercrime, corruption, and procurement and accounting fraud (Global Crime Survey, 2016).

Whistleblower (protection and) reward programs are a possibly effective tool to combat fraud and corruption, at least in the light of the US successful experience, where for a long time whistleblowers reporting large federal fraud have been entitled to up to 30% of recovered funds and sanctions under the False Claims Act. The US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also allows whistleblower rewards in the tax area, and the Dodd-Frank Act introduced them for financial and securities fraud, apparently also with success (c.f. Call et al., 2017, and Wilde, 2017).

In Europe and the rest of the world, instead, rewards are absent and whistleblowers are still poorly protected from retaliation from employers. Some countries have taken encouraging legal steps to at least improve protection, and a discussion is ongoing at the G20 level on how to further improve the situation (G20 report, 2011).

Although many praise whistleblowers, there has been a large range of objections raised against introducing rewards (and even against improving whistleblower protection); mostly by corporate lawyers and lobbyists, but also by regulatory and law enforcement agencies (see Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2017, for an overview).

In the rest of this brief, we focus on two often voiced concerns, the risks of eliciting false/fraudulent reporting and of crowding out of non-financial motivation, on which recent research has shed light that should be taken into account in the current policy debate. We then discuss some problems linked to the use of whistleblower rewards programs in a more general corruption context.

Fraudulent reports

One concern commonly raised in the discussion of whistleblower rewards is that they may create incentives to fraudulently report false or fabricated information in the hope of receiving a reward. Although clearly an important concern to take into account, we only know of very few anecdotal cases of malicious or false reporting, and fraudulent reporting does not appear to have been a major problem in the US (see again Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2017 for an overview of the empirical evidence).

A recent paper by Buccirossi, Immordino and Spagnolo (2017) analyzes this concern within a formal economic model and shows that it is not a ground (or an excuse) for not introducing appropriately designed and managed protection and reward programs in countries with sufficiently effective court systems. In these countries, stronger sanctions against lying to the court can (and should) be introduced to balance the incentives for manipulation that may be generated by large bounties. Most legal systems already have defamation and perjury laws, which means that a whistleblower is already committing a crime by fraudulently reporting false information, that can easily be strengthened where necessary without giving up whistleblower rewards. According to this study, the balancing of incentives is what allows the US to effectively use large financial incentives for whistleblowers, besides a very strong protection from retaliation, with little problems in terms of fraudulent reports.

However, the study also shows that this is only possible if the precision (effectiveness, independence) of the court system is sufficiently high. Where court systems are imprecise, the interaction between courts’ mistakes in the legal case based on the information reported by the whistleblower and in the following case for perjury/defamation against the whistleblower if the first case is dismissed, incentives for fraudulent reports, and courts’ adaptation of the standard of proof to account for these incentives, make it impossible to appropriately balance the two incentives. Therefore, whistleblower reward programs should not be introduced in environments where the law enforcement system is ineffective, independently from why it is so (bureaucratic slack, incompetence, political interference, corruption, etc.).

Crowding-out non-financial motivation

Another concern is that whistleblower rewards may have a “crowding out” effect on intrinsic motivation. The problem is that “the commodification of whistleblowing via the provision of bounties may render would-be whistleblowers less likely to come forward by reducing the moral valance of the wrongdoing” (Engstrom, 2016:11). Recent experimental evidence suggests that this concern is overstated. In particular, Schmolke and Utikal (2016) investigate the effects of whistleblower rewards in an environment where one subject may increase his payoff at the cost of harming the group, and find rewards to be highly effective in increasing the number of crimes reported. Data from that experiment suggests a little role for crowding out of non-monetary motivation, if any. Another recent study by Butler, Serra and Spagnolo (2017) investigates if and how monetary incentives, expectations of social approval or disapproval, and the salience of the harm caused by the reported illegal activity interact and affect the decision to blow the whistle. Experimental results show that financial rewards significantly increase the likelihood of whistleblowing and do not substantially crowd out non-monetary motivations activated by expectations of social judgment. The study also finds that public scrutiny and social judgment decrease (increase) whistleblowing when the public is less (more) aware (aware) of the negative externalities generated by the reported crime. All in all, most the recent studies we are aware of suggest that crowding-out of non- financial concerns is not a first-order problem for whistleblower reward schemes as long as there is a clear perception of the public harm linked to the illegal behavior reported by the whistleblower.

Whistleblower rewards and corruption

Although whistleblowing can occur in any sector, firm, or government, an area of particular interest is corruption. Corruption in public procurement is estimated to cost the EU 5.3 billion Euros annually. Hence, corruption deterrence through increased whistleblowing could save the EU significant resources annually (EC Report, 2017).

Contrary to fraud, corruption always takes at least two parties, a bribe taker, typically a government official or politician, and a bribe giver, which may be a firm or an individual. The fact that at least one additional party is involved than in the standard case of fraud, should make whistleblower rewards programs even more powerful since they may deter corruption by increasing the fear that a (potential or real) partner in crime may blow the whistle, even when no third party witness observes the illegal act (Spagnolo, 2004).

When the reported wrongdoer is an individual, as is often the case with corruption, there may be an issue in the use of rewards for whistleblowers linked to the funding of the rewards (c.f Nyreröd & Spagnolo, 2017b for an overview).

In the current US schemes, rewards for whistleblowers are ‘self-financing’, as they constitute a fraction of the funds recovered thanks to the whistleblower or/and of the fines paid by the culprits. An individual and a government official involved in a corrupt deal may, however, not be wealthy enough for the fines and the recovered funds to amount to a sufficiently strong incentive to blow the whistle, given the loss of future gains from the corrupt relationships and the various forms of retaliation whistleblowing may lead to. This problem is of course also relevant for fraud when an individual with few or well-hidden assets is the culprit, rather than a corporation, but it seems particularly relevant for corruption.

Whistleblower reward programs are also malleable to the concerns at hand. If the priority is to combat higher-level corruption, then setting a monetary threshold for when a claim is to be considered is appropriate to limit administrative costs for the program. Indeed, a concern with utilizing whistleblower rewards programs for combating lower-level corruption is that the administrative burden required looking through the whistleblower claims and the costs of limiting abuses may outweigh the benefits gained in detection and deterrence. This concern is also valid for small fraud and tax evasion, which is why all the US programs have a minimum size for cases eligible to whistleblower rewards, but the problem is likely to be more relevant to the case of ‘petty’ corruption. These programs are more suited for ‘large cases’ in which the amount of funds recovered is large enough to pay for rewards and administrative costs, making these programs self-financing even without calculating the benefits for the deterrence/prevention of future infringements. However, when focusing on large corruption cases, other issues become relevant.

An issue particularly important for the case of ‘grand’ corruption is how independent the judicial system is from political pressure, and how able it is to protect whistleblowers against politically mandated retaliation. If corrupt politicians can importantly influence courts, the police or other relevant administrative agencies, then protection can hardly be guaranteed and inducing witnesses to blow the whistle through financial incentives may put their life at risk, although sufficiently large rewards can partly compensate for this risk and help escaping part of the retaliation.


On the whole, whistleblower rewards, in general and in the corruption context specifically, remain a promising tool to detect and deter crime. Careful design and implementation are necessary, because as for any powerful tool, these programs can be well used to do great thing, but also misused to do great damage. As the US experience has shown, along with sufficiently independent and precise courts and an effective administration of law enforcement, well designed and administered whistleblower reward programs hold the promise of greatly improving fraud and corruption detection and of being self-financing through recovered funds and fines.

Of course, even in a very good institutional environment, a poor design and/or implementation can lead to poor performance and do more harm than good (c.f. the case of leniency policies in China discussed in Perrotta et al., 2017). Moreover, in poor institutional environments, where the court system is not sufficiently precise and independent and other law enforcement institutions are not effective, even well-designed and implemented whistleblower reward schemes may bring more problems than benefits. Whistleblower rewards, as any other high-powered incentives, need good governance to ensure that the potentially very high benefits they can generate will be realized. Third parties like international courts and organizations could potentially provide for some low institution environments, the independent safe harbor necessary to protect whistleblowers and a check on court effectiveness for the award of financial incentives.


  • Global Economic Crime Survey, 2016. Available at: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/economic-crime-survey/pdf/GlobalEconomicCrimeSurvey2016.pdf
  • Buccirossi, P., Immordino, G., and Spagnolo, G., 2017. “Whistleblower Rewards, False Reports, and Corporate Fraud”. SITE Working Paper No. 42, available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2993776
  • European Commission Report, 2017. Estimating the Economic Benefits of Whistleblower Protection in Public Procurement, Milieu Ltd.
  • Engstrom, D., 2016. “Bounty Regimes”, in Research Handbook on Corporate Criminal Enforcement and Financial Misleading (Jennifer Arlen ed., Edward Elgar Press, forthcoming 2016)
  • Butler, J., Serra, D., and Spagnolo G., 2017. “Motivating Whistleblowers.” Unpublished manuscript.   Available at: https://www.aeaweb.org/conference/2017/preliminary/1658
  • Schmolke, K.U., Utikal, V., 2016. “Whistleblowing: Incentives and Situational Determinants.” FAU – Discussion Papers in Economics, No. 09/2016. 2016. Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2820475
  • Call, A.C., Martin, G.S, Sharp, N.Y., Wilde, J.H., 2017. “Whistleblowers and Outcomes of Financial Misrepresentation Enforcement Actions.” Journal of Accounting Research, forthcoming.
  • Wilde, J.H., (2017). “The Deterrent Effect of Employee Whistleblowing on Firms’ Financial Misreporting and Tax Aggressiveness”, The Accounting Review, forthcoming.
  • Nyreröd, T. Spagnolo, G., 2017a “Myths and evidence on whistleblower rewards”, SITE Working Paper No.
  • Spagnolo, G., 2004. “Divide et Impera: Optimal Leniency Programs.” CEPR Discussion Papers 4840, 2004.
  • Nyreröd, T. Spagnolo, G. 2017b. “Whistleblower Rewards in the Fight against Corruption?” (in Portuguese), forthcoming in the book  Corrupção e seus múltiplos enfoques jurídi
  • Berlin-Perrotta, M., Qin, B. and Spagnolo, G., 2017. “Leniency, Asymmetric Punishment and Corruption: Evidence from China,” SITE Working Paper. Available at:https://ssrn.com/abstract=2718181 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2718181
  • G20 Anti-Corruption Action Plan, Protection OF Whistleblowers Study on Whistleblower Protection Frameworks, Compendium of Best Practices and Guiding Principles for Legislation, 2011. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/g20/topics/anti-corruption/48972967.pdf
  • Wolfe S., Worth M., Dreyfus S., Brown A.J., 2015. Breaking the Silence, Strengths and Weaknesses in G20 Whistleblower Protection Laws, 2015. Available at: https://blueprintforfreespeech.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Breaking-the-Silence-Strengths-and-Weaknesses-in-G20-Whistleblower-Protection-Laws1.pdf

New Tools to Fight Corruption and the Need for Complementary Reform

High office buildings facing sky representing Institutions and Services Trade

Corruption remains a serious problem for most developing countries, undermining state capacity and incentives to invest besides social cohesion and democratic institutions. It is also an increasingly important problem for many highly developed ones. In Italy, for example, corruption has increased in the last decades and the parliament is now finally struggling to pass a (rather mild)”anti-corruption law”. Even in Sweden, a country constantly considered among the least corrupt ones in the world, the problem seems to be increasing according to a recent report by the Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret), which also suggests that the current legislation needs to be improved, for example by offering some form of protection to whistleblowers.

In most Central and Eastern European countries, however, the problem appears particularly serious. Corruption seems to have been rapidly increasing in the region this last decade (The Economist, April 11, 2011 ; Nations in Transit, editions 2001-2012), although there are some virtuous exceptions (for example Georgia and Estonia).

Corruption is often caused by, and at the same time, an instrument for political developments towards autocracy, such as those recently observed in some of these countries (limiting judicial autonomy, democratic participation and the free press). This suggests that in countries where these political developments are taking place we may expect a further worsening of the corruption problem in coming years.

A country that is apparently taking the fight against corruption seriously is India, where a strong grassroots anticorruption movement has developed. The issue has become central in recent political debates and several proposals have been put forward and debated in the parliament. Among these proposals is one by Kaushik Basu, the finance minister’s Chief Economic Advisor. He suggests – for a specific class of bribes paid to obtain a service to which one is entitled for – to treat bribe paying as legal while doubling the sanctions against bribe taking (Basu 2011). The logic behind this proposal is to create stronger incentives for bribe-paying individuals to report it to law enforcers and expose corrupt civil servants: reporting should lead to the restitution of the bribe, besides the conviction of the bribe taker.

Since this proposal was made last year, there has been a lively debate both at the Indian as well as the international level. The debate has however been rather informal, and involved some (voluntary and involuntary) misunderstanding of the proposal (see Dufwenberg and Spagnolo 2011 for a short account of this debate). The proposal has been deemed as “radical” by the proponent, and has sometime been treated and dismissed as a theoretical curiosity. In fact, the proposal is similar to existing legal provisions against corruption that have been in place for quite some time in several countries. The proposal is also related to other legal provisions widely used around the world to fight related forms of illegal transactions, in primis leniency policies now used by most antitrust authorities to fight price-fixing cartels, but also accomplice-witness amnesty and protection program against mafia-like criminal organization (see Spagnolo 2008 for an overview).

We know from academic research on these related revelation schemes that they can be very powerful if appropriately designed and administered, but they may fail or even be counterproductive if they are poorly designed or run (see e.g. Spagnolo 2004, Buccirossi and Spagnolo 2006, Apesteguia et al. 2007, Miller 2009, Bigoni et al. 2009). The exact details how these subtle mechanisms are designed and then actually implemented are crucial to their success.

Asymmetric Sanctions, Leniency and Whistleblowers

As earlier mentioned, the main idea behind Basu’s proposal for India, treating partners in corruption asymmetrically is not a theoretical curiosity. It is already present in milder form in the Russian, Japanese and German (violation-of-duty) legislation, where bribe payers face lower sanctions than bribe takers and in the way prosecutorial discretion is used in Anglo-Saxon countries. An analogous provision seems to have also been introduced in China in 1997, and its effectiveness has recently been questioned by some observers, although in a very superficial way. Unfortunately we have no serious evidence of how these legislations have affected corruption.

More generally, the idea of deterring a collaborative crime by shaping the incentives of criminal partners so that one of them has the incentive to betray the others and report information to law enforcers is well established. The Prisoner’s Dilemma story, where each among the partners in crime are promised a light sentence in exchange for cooperation to convict the other criminal partners is familiar to most countries’ standard law enforcement practice.

These schemes have been the main and most successful tool in the fight against mafia and political terrorism in Italy and other countries, and they are currently regarded as the most important and effective instrument in the hands of competition authorities in their fight against cartels (US Department of Justice, Spagnolo 2008, Acconcia et al. 2009).

Apart from law enforcement, analogous “divide and conquer” schemes have been widely used ever since the Roman Empire in war-related situations to break down enemies’ coalitions. They are tools that many do not like on moral grounds, because they induce distrust and betrayal of partners, which some people see as bad even when the betrayed partnership is a criminal one and distrust prevents the criminal activity.

Still related but somewhat different are the whistleblower protection (from retaliation) and reward schemes aimed at inducing innocent witnesses to report a crime. Reward schemes for whistleblowers have been used in the US since the civil war to limit corruption in federal procurement and to fight government fraud (through the False Claim Act, sometimes called the Lincoln Law from the president that introduced it). They have more recently been introduced by the IRS against tax evasion and by the Dodd-Frank Act against financial fraud.

When witnesses are working in the same organization as the wrongdoers, or when the latter are powerful individuals (besides being prone to commit illegal acts, like violent retaliation), blowing the whistle typically generates very harsh consequences for the witness; ranging from various forms of harassment in the organization, to the loss of job, isolation and directly or indirectly induced death.[1] Legal action is typically slow and uncertain but immediate, certain, and very costly, while whistleblower protection provisions are typically imperfect (if present). This is why, even with a relatively efficient legal enforcement system like the American, large rewards are seen as necessary and justified to induce more whistleblowing and compensation for its consequences.

Trust, Distrust and Corruption

In some sense, one can see Basu’s proposal of legalizing bribe paying for services one is entitled to (while doubling sanctions for bribe taking) as transforming potential accomplice-witnesses into potential innocent whistleblowers. The question is then whether this scheme will induce more people to blow the whistle and consequently fewer bureaucrats to demand/accept bribes. Some observers have suggested that this provision might instead induce more people to pay bribes because it makes it legal and thereby may erode moral norms against bribe paying.

In Dufwenberg and Spagnolo (2011), we argued that amending Basu’s proposal in a way resembling leniency programs used in antitrust, where immunity is awarded only if the wrongdoing is reported to the law enforcement agency, is one way to avoid sending the signal that bribe paying is now legal. The real problem for these schemes is therefore whether at the end they will really induce bribe payers to report.

The way these revelation mechanisms deter corruption is by generating “distrust” among potential partners in crime (Bigoni et al. 2012). By making it very attractive to report to law enforcers for one party and very costly to be reported for the others, these schemes may deter illegal cooperation by ensuring that the parties cannot trust each other.

However, for these schemes to generate distrust and produce their potentially strong deterrence effects, the risk that accomplice-witnesses and other potential whistleblowers report must be a real one. For this to be the case, whistleblowers must trust the law enforcement agency to which they report. The example of leniency policies in antitrust is illuminating. In the US, as long as competition authorities retained discretion, colluding firms rarely applied for reporting under the leniency program. It was only when the Department of Justice gave up discretion by making immunity “automatic” – subject to an explicit set of conditions being satisfied – and committed to this policy through published rules that firms started to again to report information on cartels.

Besides a high risk of being reported, for these schemes to elicit reports and produce deterrence it is also necessary that sanctions for convicted parties are sufficient. To continue the parallel with antitrust enforcement, even after the authorities gave up discretion on the programs, they are not inducing cartel members to report in other countries than the US.

Indeed, the most serious problem for the success of the Basu proposal, as well as for that of the leniency-based modification put forward in Dufwenberg and Spagnolo (2011), remains whether witnesses/bribe payers will trust the law enforcement agency to which they should report the crime. If the law enforcement agency is inefficient or also corrupt, reporting may lead to further harassment or worse, rather than protection and justice.

When protection programs are poorly administered and law enforcement agencies inefficient or corrupt, so that potential witnesses don’t trust law enforcement agencies, it becomes very difficult to induce whistleblowers to report, as well as dangerous for the whistleblower.

A second important reason why these schemes may fail to generate reports and to produce the intended deterrence effects is, as we mentioned, the low sanctions against bribe takers. Recent experimental results (in Bigoni et al. 2012) suggest that reporting incentives provided by leniency programs are only effective in deterring collusion if the sanctions for the convicted partners are sufficiently strong. If not, these schemes may have no effects or even perverse ones (they reduce the sum of expected sanctions, and because of their complexity, they could be manipulated; see e.g. Buccirossi and Spagnolo 2006). Basu did suggest doubling the sanctions for the bribe payers. This, however, may or may not be enough for the case at hand, and would require a more thorough evaluation.

Note than in the case of corruption, there is an additional reason for sanctions to be reinforced, in particular by the requirement to always remove from office the convicted bribe taker. The reason is that if the bribe taker is not removed from office after the report, bribe payers may fear that after whistleblowing the bribe taker may retaliate in future interactions.


Asymmetric sanctions as proposed by Basu (2011) and leniency conditional on reporting as proposed by Dufwenberg and Spagnolo (2011) have the potential to deter corruption in a systematic way.  Necessary conditions for this to happen, however, are that:

  1. Sanctions are sufficiently robust to ensure that the increased risk of being convicted because of a report by a whistleblower dominate on the lenient treatment offered to induce reports;
  2. Potential whistleblowers trust that the law enforcement institutions will act on the report and protect them from retaliation by the corrupt and their friends, rather than harass them.

Countries with sufficiently independent and efficient law enforcement institutions should definitely consider introducing or reinforcing their revelation schemes, asymmetric treatment or leniency conditional on reporting, to counter the current widespread increase in corruption.

Simply introducing these schemes in countries with weaker institutions, in particular with a low level of independence of law enforcement agencies, may do more harm than good: after all they imply reduced sanctions and their complexity makes them easily manipulated.

These schemes can be very useful for these countries, but only if they are introduced as part of a broader set of complementary reforms that include increased judicial independence and the creation of a specialized law enforcement unit with particularly high levels of accountability and independence, able to credibly offer to whistleblowers at least confidentiality and protection from retaliation, if not monetary rewards.



[1] The sad recent stories of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia and of S.P. Mahantesh in India clarify that this risks are real.