February 17, 2017
News You Can Use Digest – February 17, 2017
Flynn Departure Erupts into a Full-Blown Crisis for the Trump White House
Washington Post – Karen DeYoung, Abby Phillip, and Jenna Johnson | Published: 2/14/2017
President Trump’s ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn, and the circumstances leading up to it, have become a major crisis for the fledgling administration, forcing the White House on the defensive and precipitating the first significant breach in relations between Trump and Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was “highly likely” the events leading to Flynn’s departure would be added to a broader probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Intercepts showed Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions in a phone call with the Russian ambassador, a conversation topic that Flynn first denied and then later said he could not recall. McConnell’s comments followed White House revelations that Trump was aware “for weeks” that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence and others about the content of his late December talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Report Shows ‘Untapped Power’ of Constituent Advocacy
Roll Call – Bridget Bowman | Published: 2/13/2017
The Congressional Management Foundation released a report highlighting more than a decade’s worth of its surveys that show how citizens can best influence lawmakers. According to the group’s research, citizens who show up in person and are well-prepared with facts and arguments can have a sizable impact on undecided legislators. But recent flare-ups at town hall meetings across the country have also demonstrated the impact of constituents who show up and make their voices heard. Bradford Fitch, one of the report’s authors, said phone calls and emails are not necessarily the most effective ways of communicating with legislators, and neither is a confrontation. “When you’re yelling, Congress isn’t listening,” Fitch said.
Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence
New York Times – Michael Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo | Published: 2/14/2017
Intercepted calls and phone records show several aides and allies to President Trump’s campaign were in contact with senior Russian intelligence officials. Current and former U.S. officials who spoke with The New York Times said the contacts were discovered during the same time that intelligence agencies were investigating Russia’s extensive hacking campaign, later determined to be aimed at helping Trump win the White House. The agencies sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts. The officials interviewed said so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation. But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Trump was speaking glowingly about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Who is Donald McGahn, the Fiery Lawyer at the Center of Virtually Every Trump Controversy?
Washington Post – Matt Zapotosky and Sari Horwitz | Published: 2/14/2017
As White House counsel, Donald McGahn is supposed to provide the president with legal guidance on the thorniest issues of the day, and to manage disputes between power players inside the administration and the various executive agencies. McGahn has been at the center of virtually every controversy during the Trump administration. He is a veteran campaign finance lawyer and former member of the FEC. Before taking over the role in the administration, he worked at the Jones Day law firm and as general counsel to the Trump campaign. He is a consummate Washington insider, but like the man for whom he works, he has an independent streak, those who know him say. “Don is not a buttoned-down guy,” said Bradley Smith, a law professor at Capital University and longtime professional friend of McGahn.
From the States and Municipalities:
Florida – At Miami’s Airport, There’s Economy, First Class and … Politician
Miami Herald – Douglas Hanks | Published: 2/8/2017
A new report from the Miami-Dade ethics commission chastised the county-owned Miami International Airport for offering elected officials VIP treatment, including golf-cart rides, cutting to the front of security and Customs, and other courtesies normally reserved for foreign dignitaries. Investigators concluded most of the trips by officeholders came during official government business. But there are multiple mentions of personal travel too, including trips to visit sick relatives and other unspecified vacations. The airport’s Protocol Office arranged four escorts for Rebeca Sosa, a county commissioner, and three for her sister. “These are unexplained,” the report said of the sibling’s VIP transits
Florida – These Lawmakers Are On the Payroll of Firms That Lobby the Legislature
Sarasota Herald-Tribune – Zac Anderson | Published: 2/12/2017
The Florida Bar Association once issued a formal ethics opinion effectively prohibiting state lawmakers from working at firms that lobby the Legislature. That ethics opinion was rescinded in 1999 and now at least six Florida lawmakers, including the House speaker, work for law firms that lobby the Legislature. Those who defend the practice say there are provisions in state law and legislative rules to address any conflicts-of-interest. Some also argue that restricting such employment would discourage well-qualified individuals from serving in the Legislature because they would have to give up their jobs with big firms.
Kentucky – GOP Senators Want to Cut Sex Harassment Training
Louisville Courier-Journal – Morgan Watkins | Published: 2/13/2017
A few Republican state senators want to eliminate required sexual harassment training for lawmakers and cut back on the ethics-related instruction they receive, citing concerns about the effectiveness of those initiatives. Sen. John Schickel is sponsoring a bill would repeal existing requirements for lawmakers to go through sexual harassment and workplace harassment training. It also would require Kentucky legislators to sit through only 30 minutes of ethics-related instruction each January instead of the three hours currently mandated by state law. “It’s nothing more than political correctness training,” Schickel said. “If you don’t have good manners and good values when you come to Frankfort, I can assure you Frankfort will not teach them.”
Maryland – Gov. Hogan’s Office Has Blocked 450 People from His Facebook Page in Two Years
Washington Post – Ovetta Wiggins and Fenit Nirappil | Published: 2/8/2017
After a deluge of comments asking that he denounce President Trump’s controversial travel ban, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office blocked numerous posters and deleted their messages from his Facebook page. Gubernatorial spokesperson Doug Mayer said the governor’s office has blocked 450 people since Hogan took office two years ago. The office does not have a specific policy for handling comments on Hogan’s page, which has more than 146,500 likes. Mayer said most of the removed comments were “vulgar, derogatory, hateful or racist,” but aides have also deleted those that are a part of an organized effort. Erich Sommerfeldt, a public relations professor at the University of Maryland, said deleting negative comments, rather than responding to them, can hurt a company or public figure’s brand.
Missouri – Campaign Contribution Law Bans Corporation Donations to All Candidates
Missouri Times – Benjamin Peters | Published: 2/14/2017
Constitutional Amendment 2, which was approved by Missouri voters in November, places limits and rules on how candidates and committees can accept donations, including how much can be given. A recent advisory opinion from the Missouri Ethics Commission says the new law prohibits a corporation or labor organization from making direct contributions to a campaign committee, candidate committee, exploratory committee, or political party. That means no corporation may contribute to a candidate’s campaign at the statewide level. But with the race for St. Louis mayor and a number of local and municipal elections weeks away, the question has been raised of whether these rules apply to municipal election.
New Jersey – N.J. Election Agency Could Soon Fill Key Posts
Bergen Record – Salvador Rizzo | Published: 2/14/2017
Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic senators have struck a deal to reactivate New Jersey’s election watchdog agency, which has been toothless for nearly a year, unable to hold meetings or punish candidates who violate campaign finance restrictions. Senate Democratic leaders said they expect to fill all of the vacancies by March 13 on the Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). Restoring ELEC to its full power is key to ensuring the integrity of this year’s election for governor, all 120 legislative seats, and hundreds of local races, experts said. Three persistent vacancies on ELEC’s four-member board have prevented it from holding meetings since last March, an unprecedented 11-month stretch of inactivity since the agency was founded in 1972.
North Carolina – N.C. Supreme Court Blocks Law Stripping Governor of Election Oversight Powers
Winston-Salem Journal – Richard Craver | Published: 2/13/2017
The North Carolina Supreme Court blocked a state law that strips the new Democratic governor of powers to oversee elections. A lower appeals court briefly let the law to take effect, allowing a revamped state elections board to meet for the first time. It is one of the changes passed in December that shifted power over running elections away from Gov. Roy Cooper. The law ends the practice of allowing the governor’s party to hold majorities on all state and county elections boards. Elections board positions would be evenly divided between major-party partisans. Republicans would control elections during even-numbered years, typically election years. It also combines the State Board of Elections with the campaign finance, lobbying, and ethics commissions into one state agency.
South Dakota – Candy-Filled ‘Gift’ Watches to Legislators Cause Uproar
Rapid City Journal – Bob Mercer | Published: 2/14/2017
Two volunteer lobbyists put fake gold watches containing candy on the desks of South Dakota legislators recently. They mentioned it to a news reporter who later took a photograph showing four legislators wearing the watches. The reporter posted the photo on an Internet blog. The series of events sparked a backlash from supporters of Initiated Measure 22 who said the picture was offensive. The four senators in the photo voted to repeal the ballot measure. IM 22 would have created a publicly funded campaign system for candidates for the Legislature and state offices. It also would have established lobbyist gift limits, changed campaign contribution laws, and set up an ethics commission.
Tennessee – Amid Ongoing Durham Scandal, Probe Shows Problems with Law
The Tennessean – Joel Ebert and Dave Boucher | Published: 2/13/2017
A recent state audit that said former Rep. Jeremy Durham violated Tennessee’s campaign finance law is “packed with problematic stuff” that may provide fertile ground for an ongoing federal probe, said former U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin. The scrutiny on Durham shines a light on the state campaign finance law, created with light punishments by those it is intended to police. In addition, Durham’s actions outlined in the audit offer a glimpse of the criminal consequences he could face.
Texas – How Blind Is This Texas Oil Regulator’s Blind Trust, Managed by His Brother-in-Law?
Dallas News – Steve Thompson | Published: 2/7/2017
Since his election to a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission in 2014, Ryan Sitton has voted on dozens of issues involving energy companies that hire his firm, Pinnacle Advanced Reliability Technologies. Its business is helping clients ensure equipment stays reliable. Many of these issues have come before the oil and gas commission as part of its consent agenda, where items of no controversy are packaged together for approval. But a few have been contentious, and Sitton has played big roles in deciding them. Not once has Sitton disclosed a relationship or recused himself. Texas law prohibits state officials from voting on matters in which they have a “personal or private interest” and requires them to publicly disclose such conflicts. But the law does not clearly define a “personal or private interest.”
Vermont – Scott Administration Discourages Fraternizing with Lawmakers, Lobbyists
Vermont Press Bureau – Neal Goswami | Published: 2/10/2017
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott reportedly has directed staff and administrative personnel to avoid fraternizing after hours with legislators and lobbyists, but some observers say the directive is unrealistic in tiny Montpelier. Many states have codes of conduct for state employees and officials to follow regarding lobbyists, as do the federal government and the armed forces. But how realistic is Scott’s directive given the long tradition of lawmakers, lobbyists, and state officials rubbing – and bending – elbows together after hours?
State and Federal Communications produces a weekly summary of national news, offering more than 60 articles per week focused on ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance.