News You Can Use Digest – March 17, 2017

campaign finance, ethics, legislative issues, lobbying, News You Can Use
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Federal:

Admiral, Seven Others Charged with Corruption in New ‘Fat Leonard’ Indictment
Washington Post – Craig Whitlock | Published: 3/14/2017

A retired U.S. Navy admiral and eight other high-ranking officers were indicted in a bribery scandal in which prosecutors say a foreign contractor traded luxury travel, lavish gifts, and prostitutes for inside intelligence. A total of 25 military officers and private-sector executives have now been prosecuted in one of the worst corruption scandals to hit the military in years. Prosecutors accused the officers of betraying the public trust for bribes from a well-connected military contractor in Singapore, Leonard Francis, known as “Fat Leonard.” The scheme cost the Navy “tens of millions of dollars” in overbillings to Francis’ firm, as he relied on sensitive and sometimes classified information the officers had given them to game the system, according to the indictment.

FEC Earning Congressional Attention – for the Wrong Reasons
Center for Public Integrity – Dave Levinthal | Published: 3/13/2017

The FEC, an agency of clashing commissioners, unhappy staffers, and key vacancies, may soon face a hearing by the Committee on House Administration, something the agency has not endured since 2011 when super PACs were still novel and the Citizens United decision was not yet two years old. A planned oversight hearing in 2014 never materialized. An oversight hearing is “both urgent and necessary” and should be conducted “sooner rather than later,” said Jamie Fleet, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, the committee’s ranking Democrat. The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration also appears to have increased appetite for reviewing FEC affairs. Although this committee has conducted FEC confirmation hearings, it has not specifically conducted an oversight hearing since 2004.

In a Fact-Challenged Era, Will Public Access to Federal Data Be the Next Casualty?
McClatchy DC – Stuart Leavenworth and Adam Ashton | Published: 3/12/2017

Since taking office, the Trump administration has made a series of moves that have alarmed groups with a stake in public access to information: historians, librarians, journalists, climate scientists, and internet activists, to name a few. Some are so concerned they have thrown themselves into “data rescue” sessions nationwide, where they spend their weekends downloading and archiving federal databases they fear could soon be taken down or obscured. Previous presidential transitions have triggered fears about access to government data, but not of this scope.

Prerequisite for Key White House Posts: Loyalty, not experience
New York Times – Sharon LaFraniere, Nicholas Confessore, and Jesse Drucker | Published: 3/14/2017

Every president comes into office with friends and hangers-on who sometimes have minimal experience in government. But few have arrived with a contingent more colorful and controversial than that of President Trump, whose White House is peppered with assistants and advisers whose principal qualification is their long friendship with Trump and his family. The influence of longtime Trump friends and associates, some of them with vague portfolios, comes as a leadership void has been created by the administration’s slow pace in filling top jobs in many agencies. It has also added to the confusion of a West Wing already legendary for its power struggles, while bewildering Washington policy hands.

Suing Trump on Ethics? Good Luck Making Your Case
Politico – Isaac Arnsdorf and Darren Samuelsohn | Published: 3/9/2017

Many people – New York’s attorney general, law professors, and Washington restaurant owners among them – think President Trump is breaking laws by holding onto his businesses. But they are still searching for a successful courtroom strategy to force him to divest. The president is not bound by the main federal law against conflicts-of-interest. Legal experts have argued since Trump won the election, however, that he is violating the constitutional ban on accepting payments from foreign government and is putting federal agencies under his control in the impossible position of having to supervise his businesses. While the legal problems may be obvious, the responses are not. It is an area of law that has never before been tested because there has never before been a billionaire president intent on maintaining his commercial ties while in office.

From the States and Municipalities:

California – Garcetti Bans Private Meetings Between Developers and Planning Commissioners
Los Angeles Times – Emily Alpert Reyes | Published: 3/9/2017

City planning commissioners will be barred from meeting privately with developers looking to get a project approved under an executive directive signed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The possible influence of big developers on planning decisions was at the center of a heated battle in the recent election. Proponents of the now-defeated Measure S say the existing planning process follows a “pay-to-play” model that gives developers too much sway over what gets built in the city. The ban applies to members of the city’s Planning Commission and the Cultural Heritage Commission, as well as members of area planning commissions. They are prohibited from meeting or communicating privately with anyone about development plans unless they recuse themselves from the process.

Kentucky – Lawmakers Approve Flurry of Bills as End of Legislative Session Looms
Lexington Herald-Leader – Daniel Desrochers and Jack Brammer | Published: 3/14/2017

Kentucky lawmakers gave final approval to Senate Bill 75, which doubles the amount individuals and PACs can donate to a campaign, state executive committee, and caucus campaign committee, along with other changes to state campaign finance laws. Supporters of the bill said the legislation was necessary to increase the number of transparent donations and give regular people a chance to run for office against candidates funded by PACs. Opponents of argued that raising the limits created the wrong impression and the Legislature should curb ‘dark money” instead.

Minnesota – Does Being a Minnesota Legislator Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?
MinnPost.com – Briana Bierschbach | Published: 3/16/2017

Critics say there is a systemic weakness in how the Minnesota Legislature polices its members, a process that rarely catches potential conflicts before they happen and seldom punishes lawmakers for engaging in unethical behavior. Many lawmakers have other sources of income outside their work at the Capitol, so legislators are sometimes asked to vote on policies that have the possibility of intersecting with their private lives. Over the last 30 years, there have been just 11 ethics hearings in the Minnesota House. Legislators were reprimanded or forced to apologize in four of those cases. Ethics hearings in the Senate have been more numerous, if not exactly frequent; between 1994 and 2017 there were 21 hearings. In just five of those cases were senators forced to apologize or leave a committee post.

New Jersey – N.J. Moves to Restore Election Watchdog
Philadelphia Inquirer – Andrew Seidman | Published: 3/13/2017

New Jersey’s election watchdog agency had two vacancies filled recently, which means it will once again be able to punish candidates who violate campaign-finance rules. The Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) has gone a full year without holding a meeting because of three vacancies on its four-member board, an unprecedented bout of paralysis since the agency’s founding in 1972. Without holding monthly meetings, the ELEC cannot vote on any matter, amend regulations, or punish those who violate the state’s campaign finance, lobbying, or “pay-to-play” restrictions.

New Mexico – Legislature Passes Campaign Finance Reform Years in The Making
New Mexico In Depth – Sandra Fish | Published: 3/14/2017

The New Mexico Legislature passed two campaign finance reform bills. Senate Bill 96 defines “coordination” in campaigns, and requires disclosure of independent spending up to 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election. It also doubles the donation limits for legislators to $5,000 for each primary and general election cycle. Senate Bill 97 refines and clarifies state law on public financing, which applies to judges and public regulation commissioners. Both bills now go to Gov. Susana Martinez.

New York – Preet Bharara Shunned Politics. His End Was Tinged by Them.
New York Times – Benjamin Weiser, Ben Protess, Matthew Goldstein, and William Rashbaum | Published: 3/12/2017

The Trump administration fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara after he refused to follow a Justice Department order to resign immediately. The order, which also applied to 45 other holdover U.S. attorneys who served under the Obama administration, came only a few months after Donald Trump, then the president-elect, had asked Bharara to stay in the job. It was a sudden and highly politicized end to Bharara’s seemingly apolitical tenure, which was noted for prosecutions of powerful politicians of both parties. As he leaves office, Bharara’s prosecutors are reaching a critical juncture in an investigation into the campaign fundraising of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and are preparing to try a group of former aides and associates of Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a bribery and bid-rigging case.

South Dakota – After Promising to Replace, Did Lawmakers Deliver on IM22?
Sioux Falls Argus Leader – Dana Ferguson | Published: 3/11/2017

Citing flaws and objections to parts of the voter-backed Initiated Measure 22 (IM22), South Dakota legislators vowed to repeal and replace the ethics reform law with bills to address the concerns of voters who supported the expansive ballot measure. The Legislature followed through, passing eight bills aimed at creating lobbyist restrictions, allowing for investigation of wrongdoing in state government, and requiring more disclosure in campaign finance. But it did not approve a public campaign finance program, set lower contribution limits, or rule out certain gifts from lobbyists. And the bills aimed at filling the void left by IM22 received mixed reviews in Pierre as lawmakers ended the main part of the legislative session.

Texas – Texas Congressional Maps Are Struck Down for Discrimination
New York Times – Manny Fernandez | Published: 3/11/2017

A panel of federal judges ruled that Texas’s Republican-led Legislature gerrymandered some of the state’s congressional districts to stunt the growing influence of minority voters. The decision invalidated three congressional districts in south and west Texas and in the Austin area. Although a remedy was not prescribed, redrawing the districts will probably aid Latino and Democratic voters.  The congressional redistricting plan was drawn by the Legislature in 2011, the same year a voter ID law was passed that a federal appeals court ultimately found discriminates against minorities. The combination of rulings could lead to Texas being required to have election changes approved in advance by federal officials. It and other states were freed from that requirement by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2013.

Virginia – Virginia Lawmakers Are Accepting Drastically Fewer Gifts in Post-McDonnell Era, Data Shows
The Virginian-Pilot – Will Houp | Published: 3/9/2017

Both political parties in Virginia have drastically reduced what gifts they accept or report over the past three years. Lawmakers received $15,520 worth from May to October 2016, a 60 percent drop from that same six-month span in 2015. The average gift last year was $131; it was $195 two years ago. After former Gov. Bob McDonnell was convicted in 2014 on multiple counts of public corruption, lawmakers placed new limits on the value of gifts they can accept. And despite the U.S. Supreme Court overturning McDonnell’s conviction last year, many legislators are reluctant to accept anything that reaches the $50 threshold needed to report it.

 

Jim-SedorState and Federal Communications produces a weekly summary of national news, offering more than 60 articles per week focused on ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance.