News You Can Use Digest - April 5, 2024 - State and Federal Communications

April 5, 2024  •  

News You Can Use Digest – April 5, 2024


From Pizzagate to the 2020 Election: Forcing liars to pay or apologize

Las Vegas Sun – Elizabeth Williamson (New York Times) | Published: 4/2/2024

Michael Gottlieb, a partner at the firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher and a former associate counsel in the Obama White House, is at the forefront of a small but growing cadre of lawyers deploying defamation, one of the oldest areas of the law, as a weapon against a tide of political disinformation. Gottlieb has worked with Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that pushes for laws and policies to counter what it sees as authoritarian threats. Before the Trump era and the explosion of social media, though, such cases were virtually nonexistent.

Appeals Court Sides with Judge Who Threatened Peter Navarro with Contempt

MSN – Rachel Weiner (Washington Post) | Published: 4/1/2024

A federal appeals court rejected arguments from former Trump adviser Peter Navarro, one of a series of legal losses that has the economist facing sanction for defying court orders even as he serves a four-month prison sentence for ignoring similar demands from Congress. A judge threatened him with contempt if he did not hand over more records from his years in the Trump administration. On appeal, Navarro argued the Justice Department had no authority to enforce the Presidential Records Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit dismissed that claim.

How Corporate PAC Money Could End Up in the Personal Coffers of Sens. JD Vance and Markwayne Mullin

MSN – Brian Metzger (Business Insider) | Published: 3/28/2024

U.S. Sens. JD Vance and Markwayne Mullin have spent the last year using campaign cash to pay themselves back for hefty loans they sunk into their 2022 races. At the same time, they have been taking tens of thousands of dollars in corporate PAC money, some of which may be ending up directly in the senators’ bank accounts. The murky reality of both Vance’s and Mullin’s finances can be attributed in part to the work of Sen. Ted Cruz.

FEC Fines Mike Braun Senate Committee $159k for Campaign Finance Violation

MSN – Kayla Dwyer (Indianapolis Star) | Published: 3/29/2024

U.S. Sen. Mike Braun’s campaign owes $159,000 for violating campaign finance rules during the 2018 election, among the largest fines in the FEC’s history, ending a multi-year saga with the campaign and Braun’s former treasurer. Since 1980, only about 50 cases have warranted larger fines, but the penalty represents a small percentage of the approximately $11.5 million in campaign loans that were misreported.

Trump Special Counsel Fires Back at Cannon Order That Could Disrupt Case

MSN – Perry Stein and Devlin Barrett (Washington Post) | Published: 4/3/2024

Special counsel Jack Smith warned the judge overseeing Donald Trump’s classified documents case she is pursuing a legal premise that “is wrong” and said he would probably appeal to a higher court if she would rule a federal records law can protect the former president from prosecution. Smith’s office pushed back against an unusual instruction from U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon, one that veteran national security lawyers and former judgers have said badly misinterprets the Presidential Records Act and laws related to classified documents.

Trump Media Stock Plunges as 2023 Truth Social Loss Put at $58 Million

MSN – Drew Harwell (Washington Post) | Published: 4/1/2024

Donald Trump’s social media company lost more than $58 million last year, sending its stock plunging more than 21 percent only days after a highflying public debut set the company’s value at more than $8 billion. The new figures throw into stark relief the gap between Trump Media’s highly hyped investor-driven valuation on the public stock market and the reality of its business performance. They also raise questions about the possibility that Trump could use the company as a financial lifeline. Trump cannot sell his shares or use them as collateral for a loan for six months because of a provision in the company’s merger agreement.

To Comply with Court, Federal Agency Lets White People Claim Social Disadvantage

MSN – Julian Mark (Washington Post) | Published: 4/3/2024

A federal judge ordered the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) to open its doors to entrepreneurs from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, ruling its presumption that minorities are inherently disadvantaged violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause. The MBDA directed its business centers to forgo racial considerations when vetting applicants. Instead, candidates must sign a form, attesting their disadvantage to certify they are “minority business enterprises.” It is the latest sign the government is untethering its definition of social disadvantage from broad racial and ethnic classifications.

Freedom Caucuses Push for Conservative State Laws, but Getting Attention Is Their Big Success

Yahoo News – Elaine Povich (Stateline) | Published: 4/2/2024

The State Freedom Caucus Network aims to push the Republican Party further to the right on issues such as immigration, voting access, and transgender restrictions. It is an outgrowth of the group in the U.S. House. The state chapters are proposing conservative legislation and slowing measures they do not like, even bills that were once considered routine and noncontroversial. Some Republicans say members of the Freedom Caucus gum up the legislative works and are more interested in publicity and grandstanding than conservative policymaking.

From the States and Municipalities

Alabama – Alabama House Approves Legislation Overhauling State Ethics Code

Alabama Reflector – Alander Rocha | Published: 4/3/2024

The Alabama House approved a bill that would repeal the current ethics laws for public officials and employees, replace the code with tougher punishments for violations, and weaken the powers of the state Ethics Commission. House Bill 227 would raise the gift ban limit to public officials and employees to $100 per occasion and $500 per year. The legislation now goes to the Senate.

Arizona – UA President Robbins OK’d Effort to Erase Millions in Fines Against Fraudulent Online University

Yahoo News – Hannah Dreyfus and Helen Rummel (Arizona Republic) | Published: 3/27/2024

Lobbyist Richard Smotkin was ostensibly hired by the University of Arizona Foundation to help build the university’s relationship with Morocco. But behind the scenes, Smotkin worked to persuade the California attorney general to erase millions of dollars in fines against a fraudulent online school acquired by the university, documents show. While Smotkin has extensive connections in Morocco, he had another important relationship: a yearslong bond with California Attorney General Rob Bonta.

California – Former L.A. Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan Found Guilty in Sprawling City Hall Corruption Case

MSN – David Zahniser and Dakota Smith (Los Angeles Times) | Published: 3/27/2024

A jury found Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan secured bribes for himself and for former city Councilperson Jose Huizar as part of a sprawling “pay-to-play” scheme. Chan was f0und guilty on all 12 counts of corruption in a case focused on financial benefits provided by real estate developers with projects in Huizar’s district. During the trial, prosecutors portrayed Chan as a crucial intermediary between Huizar, who wielded huge power over downtown development projects, and Chinese real estate developers.

Colorado – Colorado Appeals Court Upholds Fine, Requirement for ‘Dark Money’ Group to Disclose Spending

Colorado Politics – Michael Karlik | Published: 3/28/2024

Colorado’s second-highest court agreed that a group that spent $4 million backing conservative causes on the ballot in 2020 is required to disclose its contributions and spending and pay a $40,000 fine for failing to register as an advocacy group. A trial judge previously believed Unite for Colorado, which spent roughly $17 million during 2020, was not subject to the registration and disclosure requirement because its $4 million spent across multiple ballot initiatives was not substantial enough when broken down issue-by-issue.

Florida – Federal Court Upholds DeSantis-Backed Congressional Map

Yahoo News – Gary Fineout (Associated Press) | Published: 3/27/2024

A panel of federal judges upheld Florida’s congressional map, turning away a challenge that alleged it was discriminatory against Black voters after the district held by former U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, was dismantled. The decision is a victory for Republicans and Gov. Ron DeSantis, who muscled the map through Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature. The congressional map his administration crafted ultimately resulted in Republicans gaining four seats, helping the GOP flip the House during the 2022 midterm elections.

Florida – With Abortion Ballot Question, a ‘Path to Relevance’ for Democrats in Florida?

Yahoo News – Patricia Mazzei (New York Times) | Published: 4/2/2024

Florida, once the biggest battleground in presidential politics, has become less important as its election results have trended repeatedly toward the political right. Few consider it a true swing state anymore. But three rulings from the Florida Supreme Court on abortion and marijuana may inject new life into Democratic campaigns before the general election on November 6.

Florida – Can Elected Officials Do Business with Their City? Here’s What Ethics Commission Say

Yahoo News – Tess Riski (Miami Herald) | Published: 4/3/2024

Elected officials in Miami-Dade County can run businesses that interact with their city’s government if the scope of work is clerical in nature and does not involve advocacy, according to a draft opinion from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. The county ethics code prohibits public officials from receiving compensation from third parties, directly or indirectly, if the compensation is related to matters where the third parties are seeking a benefit from the city.

Georgia – Georgia Lawmakers Approve New Election Rules That Could Impact 2024 Presidential Contest

Yahoo News – Sudhin Thanawala and Jeff Amy (Associated Press) | Published: 3/29/2024

Georgia lawmakers approved new rules for challenging voters and qualifying for the state’s presidential ballot that could impact the 2024 presidential race in the battleground state. The bill would grant access to Georgia’s ballot to any political party that has qualified for the presidential ballot in at least 20 states or territories. The change could be a boost to independent candidates. It also spells out what constitutes “probable cause” for upholding challenges to voter eligibility.

Iowa – Republican Candidate’s Wife Sentenced to Prison for Voter Fraud

MSN – Kim Bellware (Washington Post) | Published: 4/3/2024

An Iowa woman who sought to boost her husband’s unsuccessful congressional bid in 2020 through a voter fraud scheme was sentenced by a federal judge to four months in prison in a rare case of fraudulent voting. Kim Taylor was convicted on 52 counts including fraudulent voting and providing false information in registering and voting. During the 2020 primary and general elections, federal prosecutors said, Taylor filled out voter registrations and absentee ballots for members of the Vietnamese community under the guise of offering translation help.

Kansas – Does Wichita Mayor’s Trip Abroad Fall Under City’s Ethics Policy? Here’s What We Found Out

Yahoo News – Chance Swaim (Wichita Eagle) | Published: 4/1/2024

Wichita Mayor Lily Wu’s trip to Switzerland – paid for by the Swiss government – falls in a gray area of a city council ethics policy that sought to limit gifts to elected and appointed city officials. The travel costs, which include flights, hotel stays, and dinners, are expected to far exceed the $150 gift limit council members can accept from a single source during a calendar year. But Wu says the all-expenses-paid trip is not a gift.

Kentucky – Louisville Mayor’s Wife Repeatedly Turned to City Worker for Social Media Help, Texts Show

Yahoo News – Eleanor McCrary and Josh Wood (Louisville Courier Journal) | Published: 4/2/2024

Text messages show a Communications Department staffer was frequently called upon by Rachel Greenberg, wife of Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg, to assist her with her Instagram account by creating and providing content and offering advice. The texts also show Rachel Greenberg, described by the administration as a volunteer, instructed the staffer to edit posts on the mayor’s Instagram account. Two sources said the mayor’s wife had a Metro Hall office, a government email address, and gave orders to staffers. Experts said that arrangement might violate the city’s ethics rules.

Minnesota – ‘Book Senator Hoffman to speak’: DFL state senator’s consulting firm raises ethical questions

Yahoo News – Ryan Faircloth (Minneapolis Star Tribune) | Published: 4/3/2024

Minnesota Sen. John Hoffman prominently touted his political status on his personal consulting firm’s website as recently as a week ago, prompting government ethics experts to question whether he was promoting his official position for personal gain. The homepage of the website for Hoffman Strategic Advisors featured a posed photograph of the senator inside the state Capitol. Hoffman said he always considers himself a senator and had not thought about the optics of promoting his position on his personal website.

Missouri – Recall of Columbia First Ward Councilperson Nick Knoth Passes

KOMU – Hunter Walterman | Published: 4/2/2024

Columbia City Councilperson Nick Knoth was recalled over his lobbying work outside the council. Knoth was elected for a three-year term in April 2023 and took a job as a lobbyist for a trade association for real estate agents later that year. In October, a group of voters launched a campaign to recall Knoth, arguing his position amounted to a conflict-of-interest.

Nebraska – Nebraska Lawmakers Vote Against Trump-Fueled Push to Change Electoral Vote System

MSN – Patrick Svitek and Michael Scherer (Washington Post) | Published: 4/4/2024

Donald Trump’s push to get the Nebraska Legislature to change the way it awards electoral votes faced a major setback when lawmakers voted to prevent the change from being attached to an unrelated bill. Nebraska is one of only two states that divide electoral votes among statewide and congressional district winners. But Gov. Jim Pillen and Trump endorsed a proposal to return the state to a winner-take-all system.

New Jersey – New Jersey’s Unique Ballot Design Struck Down by Judge

MSN – Azi Paybarah (Washington Post) | Published: 3/29/2024

New Jersey’s unique way of displaying county-endorsed candidates on the ballot was struck down by a federal judge after a lawsuit by U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, who is running for Senate, and two other Democrats running for Congress, who called the design unfair and unconstitutional. The state’s ballot design process is unlike any other in the nation, and it allows parties to place their endorsed candidates in a specific portion of the ballot known as “the line.”

New York – Meet NYC’s New Campaign Finance Watchdog, Arriving Amid Probe into Mayor Adams’ Campaign

Gothamist – Brigid Bergin | Published: 3/27/2024

The New York City Campaign Finance Board took a reputational hit last year when then-Executive Director Beth Rotman was asked to resign over allegations of mismanagement. As the agency’s new leader, Paul S. Ryan is now responsible for charting the board’s path forward amid concerns over its oversight of campaigns, especially that of Mayor Eric Adams. “I’ve long considered this to be a model agency administering model laws for the country at a time when democracy in many places is really in crisis …,” Ryan said.

New York – Trump Ramps Up Attacks on Judges, Sparking Concerns as Criminal Trial Nears

MSN – Marianne LeVine, Clara Ence Morse, and Shayna Jacobs (Washington Post) | Published: 4/1/2024

Donald Trump is ramping up efforts to disparage judges overseeing his criminal and civil cases, reprising a long-standing strategy and prompting growing concerns from legal experts. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s approach, part of an election-year attempt to portray the judicial system as weaponized against him, was evident in a slew of attacks. Trump’s personal attacks against the daughter of the New York judge overseeing a hush money case prompted the judge to expand an existing gag order to include his family and the district attorney’s family.

New York – How a California Billionaire Known for Auto Loans Provided Trump’s Bond

MSN – Michael Kranish and Jonathan O’Connell (Washington Post) | Published: 4/2/2024

Donald Trump struggled to post a bond for more than $450 million to keep authorities from seizing his properties, billionaire Don Hankey and his wife started discussing a solution: Hankey’s business could cover it. But when a court reduced the bond to $175 million and Trump said he had the cash to post it himself, the matter seemed moot. Then the Trump team revived the talks and asked Hankey if he would back the new amount. Hankey agreed.

New York – Lobbyist Dating Carl Heastie Cleared to Return to Assembly – and Ethics Attorney Quits

New York Focus – Chris Bragg | Published: 3/26/2024

The lobbyist dating New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has been cleared to return to work at the Assembly. A spokesperson for the Greater New York Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust said after being barred on the advice of its former ethics lawyer, legislative and communications director Rebecca Lamorte can resume lobbying the Assembly, including Heastie’s staff, but not the speaker himself. After Lamorte was cleared to return, the former ethics attorney quit.

New York – Ex-NYPD Deputy Inspector Sentenced in Mayor Adams Campaign Straw Donor Scheme

Yahoo News – Molly Crane-Newman (New York Daily News) | Published: 4/2/2024

Dwayne Montgomery, a former New York Police Department deputy inspector who was friendly with Mayor Eric Adams, was sentenced to community service for his ringleader role in a straw donor scheme that gamed the system to boost Adams’ 2021 City Hall run and curry political favors. The cash funneled to Adams’ campaign in others’ names triggered a major injection of cash from the Campaign Finance Board that matches donations of up to $250 by eight-to-one, allowing the scheme’s architects to subvert caps on how much they could give.

North Carolina – Court Rejects Claim Challenging North Carolina Map for Diluting Black Vote

MSN – Rachel Weiner and Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff (Washington Post) | Published: 3/28/2024

A federal appellate court rejected an emergency challenge to North Carolina’s Republican-drawn legislative map, all but ensuring elections will go forward this year under contested lines drawn up in 2023 that Democrats and voting rights advocates say were created to weaken Black representation. That means 2024 elections will go forward with a map experts say will help Republicans retain a supermajority in the state Legislature. The new maps are also expected to give Republicans at least three more seats in Congress.

Ohio – The Randazzler: Court records detail chummy relationship between Sam Randazzo, FirstEnergy

Yahoo News – Jessie Balmert (Cincinnati Enquirer) | Published: 4/1/2024

Former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairperson Sam Randazzo had a close, chummy relationship with ex-executives of FirstEnergy and its allies. For example, Randazzo texted an image of himself dressed as a superhero and surrounded by terms like “Randazzler” to some of the executives. But Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost alleges Randazzo’s sophomoric communication with FirstEnergy leaders extended beyond memes to a “pay-to-play” scheme at ratepayers’ expense.

Oklahoma – Gov. Stitt Task Force Calls for Changing Campaign Donation Limits

Yahoo News – Nolan Clay (Oklahoman) | Published: 4/2/2024

A task force created by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is calling for no limits on how much money state politicians can accept from individuals in campaign donations. The Governor’s Task Force on Campaign Finance and Election Threats said a change is needed to combat the impact of “dark money” groups. A candidate currently can accept $3,300 from an individual per election. Fewer than a dozen states have no limits on individual donations.

Oklahoma – Oklahoma Official with White Nationalist Ties Is Ousted in Recall Vote

Yahoo News – Brandy Zadrozny, Nnamdi Egwuonwu, and Micki Fahner (NBC News) | Published: 4/3/2024

Voters in Enid, Oklahoma, removed city Councilperson Judd Blevins over his ties to white nationalist groups. He faced the recall vote after local activists learned he had marched alongside neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and led an Oklahoma chapter of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. Blevins will be replaced by Cheryl Patterson, a former teacher who campaigned on a return to “normalcy” for this small city, which was divided by the furor over Blevins.

Oregon – Gov. Tina Kotek Signs Historic Campaign Finance Bill

MSN – Carlos Fuentes (Portland Oregonian) | Published: 4/3/2024

Gov. Tina Kotek signed into law a bill that will limit the amount of money that individuals and groups can contribute to campaigns starting in 2027. The law is historic for Oregon, which has seen increasingly large sums of money poured into campaigns. The bill cleared the Legislature with overwhelming support. Good government groups, labor unions, and business groups, negotiated the details of the legislation.

South Carolina – South Carolina Latest State to Use Congressional Map Deemed Illegal

MSN – Patrick Marley (Washington Post) | Published: 3/28/2024

In a scenario that has played out in three states in recent years, a federal court ruled time had run out to draw a new congressional district in South Carolina and the state would have to proceed this fall with an existing election map the court had previously deemed illegal. The ruling echoes redistricting cases in other Southern states where courts found congressional maps violated the voting rights of Black voters and other people of color but allowed them to be used anyway, at least temporarily.

Texas – Texas Appeals Court Overturns Crystal Mason’s Conviction, 5-Year Sentence for Illegal Voting

MSN – Karen Brooks Harper (Texas Tribune) | Published: 3/28/2024

A Texas appeals court overturned the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, who was given a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while on supervised release for federal tax evasion. The court said there was no evidence Mason knew she was ineligible to vote when she cast her ballot, which is a condition that must be met to convict her of illegal voting. The case thrust Mason, who is Black, into the political fray amid a Republican-led crackdown on voter fraud, partly fueled by baseless claims of rampant illegal voting.

Texas – Texas Could Require Social Media Influencers to Disclose Paid Political Posts

MSN – Robert Downen (Texas Tribune) | Published: 3/28/2024

The Texas Ethics Commission gave initial approval to a proposal that would require social media users to disclose if they are being paid to share or create political advertisements. The action comes just months after it was reported that a secretive and politically connected company called Influenceable LLC paid internet influencers to defend state Attorney General Ken Paxton ahead of his impeachment trial. The proposed rule could be finalized at the commission’s next meeting in June.

Virginia – A Skill Game Company Gave a Va. Senator a $1.9K Trip. No One Will Explain It

Virginia Mercury – Graham Moomaw | Published: 4/1/2024

In 2022, Virginia Sen. Bryce Reeves disclosed a campaign finance report that skill game company Pace-O-Matic paid for a trip he took worth $1,900. Pace-O-Matic was hosting hundreds of guests in Wyoming at Cheyenne Frontier Days. But the campaign finance report gave no indication where Reeves went on the dime of a company that has lobbied the General Assembly for permission to put slot machine lookalikes in convenience stores and truck stops. Under the current rule, lawmakers cannot accept more than $108 in gifts from any single lobbying interest per calendar year, but there are several exceptions to that limit.

Washington – Washington State Legislative Maps Survive Supreme Court Appeal in Latest Battle Over Latino Voting Rights

Courthouse News Service – Kelsey Reichmann | Published: 4/2/2024

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the use of Washington state’s new legislative district maps that give Latino voters greater representation. A Republican lawmaker and two voters asked the justices to allow the state’s 2024 election to move forward under a map that was found to have violated a section of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits race discrimination. A lower court judge recently enacted a remedial map after claims of Latino vote dilution, but the Republicans say the new map is more discriminatory than the first.

Wisconsin – Wisconsin Becomes Latest State to Ban Private Funding of Elections

MSN – Patrick Marley (Washington Post) | Published: 4/2/2024

Wisconsin voters opted to ban private funding for election administration, joining more than two dozen states that have ended or limited the practice after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife spent $350 million to help local governments run elections during the coronavirus pandemic. They also approved a second proposal that limits who can perform election-related duties. Both measures were initiated by Republican state legislators.

Wisconsin – What Are Wisconsin’s Biggest Lobbying Law Violation Settlements Since 2016?

PBS Wisconsin – Hina Suzuki (The Badger Project) | Published: 3/26/2024

Wisconsin has strict lobbying laws – so strict that lobbyists are not allowed to give anything of monetary value to the politicians and government officials they lobby. If a lobbyist breaks the rules, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission will negotiate a settlement with the lobbyist or lobbying organization in lieu of civil litigation. Money received from settlements goes to the Common School Fund, the primary, and often only, funding source for school libraries in the state. The Badger Project obtained a list of the largest lobbying fines since 2016.

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