News You Can Use Digest - February 23, 2024 - State and Federal Communications

February 23, 2024  •  

News You Can Use Digest – February 23, 2024


The Quiet Way Democrats Hope to Expand Their Power at the State Level

DNyuz – Nick Corasaniti (New York Times) | Published: 2/20/2024

Locked out of power on the U.S. Supreme Court and still playing catch-up against Republicans in the federal judiciary, Democrats are hoping to gain a political advantage on a less visible but still important playing field: the state courts. Governors have the power to appoint judges in nearly every state. These responsibilities are set to take center stage in political campaigns this year, as the Democratic Governors Association begins a multimillion-dollar effort, called the Power to Appoint Fund, aimed at key governor’s races.

Election Deniers Seek to Rewrite the Law

DNyuz – Nick Corasaniti (New York Times) | Published: 2/22/2024

More than three years after the 2020 election, the lies and falsehoods about President Biden’s victory persist, and they continue to influence efforts to pass election laws across the country. More than 70 bills in at least 25 states draw some connection to conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Those theories include falsehoods about the security of ballot drop boxes and voting by undocumented citizens, as well as questions about fraudulent absentee ballots and corrupted election machines, all of which have been debunked.

Mike Lindell Must Pay Man $5M in ‘Prove Mike Wrong’ Challenge, Judge Says

MSN – Praveena Somasundaram (Wahington Post) | Published: 2/22/2024

In 2021, MyPillow founder Mike Lindell offered $5 million to anyone who could disprove his claim he had data showing voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Now, he must pay a man from Nevada that award, a federal judge ruled. If someone could “Prove Mike Wrong,” as the challenge was called, and show the data was unrelated to the election, they would get the payout, Lindell said ahead of an August 2021 “cyber symposium.” Robert Zeidman, a computer forensics expert did just that, a federal judge determined, upholding a previous ruling from a private arbitration panel.

Informant Charged with Lies About Bidens Also Claimed Russian Contacts, Feds Say

MSN – Devlin Barrett (Washington Post) | Published: 2/21/2024

A former FBI informant charged with making up a bribery scheme involving President Biden had contacts with Russian intelligence-affiliated officials, prosecutors said. Alexander Smirnov was charged with lying to the FBI when he claimed to have knowledge of corruption by Biden and his son Hunter. The accusations, memorialized in an FBI document, were championed by congressional Republicans but Smirnov’s indictment and detention memo suggest the allegations were not only false, but possibly a Russian-inspired smear.

Tax Records Reveal the Lucrative World of Covid Misinformation

MSN – Lauren Weber (Washington Post) | Published: 2/21/2024

Four major nonprofits that rose to prominence during the coronavirus pandemic by capitalizing on the spread of medical misinformation collectively gained more than $118 million between 2020 and 2022, enabling the organizations to deepen their influence. The influx of pandemic cash sent executive compensation soaring, boosted public outreach, and seeded the ability to wage legislative and legal battles to weaken vaccine requirements and defend physicians accused of spreading misinformation.

Juul’s Internal Playbook Opens a Rare Window into Influence in Washington

STAT News – Nicholas Florko | Published: 2/15/2024

Juul spent significant sums on registered lobbyists and political donations in 2018 and 2019, when the head of the Food and Drug Administration declared youth vaping an epidemic. Documents show Juul tried everything from orchestrating untraceable campaign contributions to paying think tanks for favorable research, to revamp its image and prevent both Congress and the FDA from taking action that could cost the company financially. The strategies are not necessarily surprising themselves, transparency advocates said. But it is rare to see them laid out like this.

From the States and Municipalities

Arizona – House Bill Would Close ‘Loophole’ Regarding Campaign Finance Reports

Eastern Arizona Courier – Howard Fischer (Capitol News Services) | Published: 2/18/2024

Legislation in the Arizona House would amend the law that allows anyone who serves a four-year term to file the required annual reports on who gave them money and how they have spent it once after they get elected, and then not until January of the year they are on the ballot again. The issue arose after it was revealed that Gov. Katie Hobbs, first elected in 2022, did not file reports this January, which is different from what is required of members of the Legislature.

California – Fight Continues Over Whether Nonprofits Should Have to Disclose Lobbying Activity

Long Beach Post – Jason Ruiz | Published: 2/17/2024

The Long Beach Ethics Commission is continuing to revise its proposal to overhaul Long the lobbying disclosure law, something it plans to eventually present to city council, which will have the final say over any changes. The commission met to discuss the most recent draft addressing who must disclose meeting with city officials and attempts to influence policy, but the commission was again met with concerns from nonprofit leaders whose organizations might be included under the new rules.

California – L.A. Ethics Panel Rejects Proposed $11,250 Fine for Leslie Moonves as Too Low

MSN – Dakota Smithand Meg James (Los Angeles Times) | Published: 2/21/2024

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission rejected a proposed settlement between the city and former CBS Chief Executive Officer Leslie Moonves, saying a tougher penalty was warranted for Moonves, who had been accused of interfering with a police investigation into sexual assault allegations against him. Moonves had agreed to pay $11,250 to settle a complaint that accused him of inducing a government official to violate laws so Moonves would have a tactical advantage in a police complaint against him.

California – Anaheim Begins Implementing Changes from Fall of Reform Debates

Voice of OC – Hosam Elattar | Published: 2/20/2024

A corruption report alleged Disneyland resort interests and lobbyists exert enormous influence on Anaheim’s policy making. Investigators painted a picture of loose oversight on lobbyists, developer favoritism, and influence peddling by Disneyland Resort interests through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce. Their findings led Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and city Councilperson Natalie Rubalcava to call for a series of reform proposals to be developed and debated, and which are now being implemented.

California – Anaheim Changes How Political Candidates Fundraise in Wake of Corruption Scandal

Voice of OC – Hosam Elattar | Published: 2/15/2024

Anaheim City Council members are changing campaign finance laws to limit how long candidates can fundraise debt repayment and how much they can loan themselves during elections. Two council members are calling for city staff to explore making it easier for residents to see who is spending in local elections and the financing behind the mailers they receive in their mailbox every election season.

Florida – Orange County Mayor Demings Fires Lobbyist Over Conflict of Interest

MSN – Stephen Hudak (Orlando Sentinel) | Published: 2/15/2024

Orange County fired lobbying firm GrayRobinson less than a week after the Orlando Sentinel revealed the lobbyist assigned to represent the county’s interests was behind legislation directly conflicting with its top legislative priority. Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings labeled as “disturbing” the involvement of lobbyist Chris Carmody in a bill to limit the county’s authority over the Visit Orlando tourism marketing agency. But Demings moved more quickly than many expected.

Florida – Florida Law Blasted After Permission Slip Sent to Hear Black Author’s Book

MSN – Kim Bellware (Washington Post) | Published: 2/15/2024

A controversial law in Florida is facing renewed scrutiny after a rule about parental permission slips sparked confusion at a Miami elementary school when it asked parents to sign a slip allowing their children to hear a guest speaker read a book “written by an African American.” The state rule in question is an extension of a law Gov. Ron DeSantis touted as a way to help parents combat what he and other conservative figures claimed was “liberal indoctrination” woven through the K-12 and higher education system.

Georgia – Fani Willis’ Testimony Evokes Long-Standing Frustrations for Black Women Leaders

MSN – Matt Brown and Jocelyn Noveck (Associated Press) | Published: 2/17/2024

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is used to prosecuting high-profile, challenging cases. But as she parried questions about her own personal conduct from the witness stand against the legal teams for defendants her office has accused of election interference, many Black women recognized a dispiriting scene. Willis testified during an extraordinary hearing that could result in her office being removed from the state’s case against Donald Trump.

Hawaii – Hawaii Has a Voter Enthusiasm Problem, Could Publicly Funded Campaigns Help?

Yahoo News – Jeremy Yurow (USA Today) | Published: 2/15/2024

Hawaii taxpayers could soon find themselves footing a $30 million bill to fund state political campaigns. Could this initiative breathe new life into local elections by ensuring more diverse candidates? Several lawmakers, activists, and residents say the answer is yes. The current system in Hawaii is seen as favoring a small group of donors, who often gain undue access to candidates and officials, according to the bill. Despite recent reforms, voter turnout is among the nation’s lowest.

Idaho – Support This Bill or Else: Idaho lawmakers cite pressure from ‘wealthy’ campaign donor

MSN – Ian Max Stevenson (Idaho Statesman) | Published: 2/20/2024

As a controversial bill to implement mandatory minimum prison sentences for fentanyl crimes made its way through the House, several key lawmakers reported having uncomfortable experiences with interested parties that amounted to a pressure campaign. They recounted receiving a clear, straightforward threat: vote against this bill, and I will bankroll your next opponent. House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said Republicans have been threatened by “a very wealthy individual.”

Illinois – In Last-Minute Reversal, Former Sen. Sam McCann Pleads Guilty to Corruption Charges

Capitol News Illinois – Hannah Meisel | Published: 2/13/2024

As federal prosecutors were preparing to rest their case in the corruption trial of former state Sen. Sam McCann plead guilty on all counts. In the trial, prosecutors accused McCann of “greed, fraud and arrogance” in illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses, including paying two mortgages, financing multiple vehicles and vacations, fraudulently cutting himself checks for work not performed, and double-dipping on reimbursement for miles driven.

Illinois – Illinois Democratic PAC Loses Appeal of Massive Fines for Not Timely Reporting Campaign Spending

MSN – Rick Pearson (Chicago Tribune) | Published: 2/21/2024

The State Board of Elections rejected a request to reconsider or lower more than $100,000 in fines levied against a PAC that helped expand the Democratic Party’s majority on the Illinois Supreme Court. The board’s unanimous vote followed a request by All for Justice, an independent expenditure PAC backed by Senate President Don Harmon, after it was fined $108,500 last year for failing to timely file detailed expenditure reports in spending $7.3 million. The fines were among the largest ever levied by the election board.

Illinois – As Corruption Trials Continue, Illinois Lobbyist Reform Effort Pushed in General Assembly

Yahoo News – Ray Long and Dan Patella (Chicago Tribune) | Published: 2/19/2024

As the Illinois General Assembly begins its spring session, legislation is being proposed that aims to tackle two key issues around lobbying – requiring statehouse lobbyists to report the compensation they receive from their clients and giving the secretary of state’s office the power to boot bad actors. Following a string of corruption trials, including a bribery scandal involving Commonwealth Edison and lobbyists trying to influence ex-House Speaker Michael Madigan, Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias said, “The timing is ripe for this legislation to be acted on and passed.”

Indiana – Four Goshen School Board Members Criminally Charged with Campaign Finance Violations

WVPE – Mark Mazurek | Published: 2/21/2024

A campaign mailer for the 2022 Goshen School Board elections resulted in criminal charges against five candidates. The mailer endorsed Jose Elizalde, Mario Garber, Roger Nafziger and Andrea Johnson in the general election and denigrated an opposing slate of candidates. The candidates were fined by the election board last year, but now they face felony criminal charges for not disclosing the names of their donors.

Kentucky – Ethics Experts Say Kentucky Lawmaker’s Push to Ease Pollution Penalties for Local Companies – Including His Employer – Is a Problem

Louisville Public Media – R.G. Dunlop | Published: 2/16/2024

State Rep. Jared Bauman asked the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission if he could sponsor and vote on legislation that could benefit his employer. Commission Executive Director said because his proposed bill would affect “other, similarly situated businesses in the same way” it applied to Lubrizol Corp., there was no conflict-of-interest. Ethics experts said while Bauman’s involvement in the bill may not violate state law, it nevertheless highlights questions that arise when the perception of a conflict exists.

Maine – Special Funds Let Maine Lawmakers Raise and Spend with Few Limits – Randy Billings (Portland Press Herald) | Published: 2/18/2024

While restrictions remain for campaign contributions to a legislative candidate in Maine, businesses and individuals can donate unlimited amounts to PACs run by candidates after they are elected. More than a dozen lawmakers who have their own committees do not appear to have broken any rules. But disclosures highlight the widely diverging uses of the money and the loose regulations around so-called leadership PACs, which traditionally have been used by lawmakers to help elect political allies and build influence.

Maryland – Ethics Board Won’t Require Last Names of Mayor Scott’s Baby Registry Donors

Baltimore Brew – Mark Reutter | Published: 2/16/2024

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott and fiancée Hana Pugh will not be required to fully identify the people or organizations that donated more than $12,000 worth of baby merchandise, gift cards, and cash to an online baby registry they set up, the city Ethics Board decided. Many of the people who sent presents and cash through the portal were identified only by their first names or nicknames, such as Weasel, Garfield, and Aunt Fuff. Others had untraceable organization names.

Michigan – Nessel Levels Charges Against Two GOP Political Fundraisers in Campaign Against Whitmer

Detroit News – Craig Mauger | Published: 2/21/2024

State Attorney General Dana Nessel charged two political operatives connected to the group Unlock Michigan, which protested COVID-era health orders, for their part in a “dark money” scheme. Heather Lombardini faces multiple criminal charges for allegedly violating Michigan campaign finance law by soliciting contributions for the petition drive utilizing two nonprofits to skirt disclosure requirements. Sandy Baxter was charged with perjury for allegedly lying about her involvement in the scheme.

Michigan – Sidney Powell and Other Trump-Aligned Lawyers Will Face Legal Penalties

DNyuz – Nick Corasaniti (New York Times) | Published: 2/22/2024

Sidney Powell, L. Lin Wood, and several other lawyers who advanced Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election will face legal penalties after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up their appeal. The penalties, upwards of $130,000 in legal fees incurred by the election officials they sued, plus referrals to their state bar associations for potential discipline, stem from a lawsuit the lawyers filed in Michigan in November 2020.

Missouri – Missouri Treasurer Under Fire Over Ads on Slot Machines

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – Kurt Erickson | Published: 2/21/2024

The chairperson of a House budget panel said the state treasurer is refusing to appear before his committee to answer questions about links he may have to one of the top gas station gambling companies in Missouri. Rep. Scott Cupps had requested that Treasurer Vivek Malek appear before his House Budget subcommittee but was told the treasurer would not be available. Photos and videos taken by Cupps show payout kiosks for the slot machines now include advertisements for the state’s unclaimed property program, which is operated by Malek’s office.

New Mexico – Lawmakers for Second Year Kick Ethics Fixes Down the Road

New Mexico In Depth – Marjorie Childress | Published: 2/16/2024

An effort to fix the state’s anti-corruption statute after the New Mexico Supreme Court barred prosecutors from bringing criminal charges under several of its provisions was defeated in the Senate. The court ruled that three of the statute’s four provisions used by prosecutors were too vaguely written to result in criminal charges.  The lack of action comes at a time when former Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton is reportedly negotiating a plea deal after being indicted on numerous criminal counts, including racketeering, money laundering, and fraud.

New Mexico – Lobbyists Spent Tens of Thousands of Dollars Wining, Dining Lawmakers

Yahoo News – Daniel Chacón | Published: 2/20/2024

Lobbyists spent close to $150,000 entertaining New Mexico lawmakers during this year’s 30-day legislative session. The spending is almost certainly much higher. Not only does the secretary of state’s office rely on voluntary compliance, but lobbyists are only required to report single expenditures of $500 or more during a legislative session.

New York – Appellate Court Hears Cuomo’s Challenge to Fledgling Ethics Agency

Albany Times Union – Dan Clark | Published: 2/16/2024

Judges on a state appellate court tasked with deciding the constitutionality of New York’s fledgling ethics agency expressed skepticism during a hearing on whether its investigative and enforcement powers should be restored. The case brought by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, centers on the constitutionality of the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, which was formed in 2022 and tasked with regulating and enforcing ethics rules in state government.

New York – New York Congressional Map Would Make Modest Tweaks to Swing House Seats

MSN – Colby Itkowitz (Washington Post) | Published: 2/15/2024

A congressional map for New York would make it easier for Democrats to flip at least one seat this year in a state critical to Democrats’ hopes of retaking the U.S. House majority. But an independent commission otherwise left the lines similar to those used in 2022 when Republicans picked up four House seats in New York. Democratic leaders in Albany can choose to instead advance a map that is more favorable to their party but would almost certainly face legal challenges.

New York – Judge Orders Trump to Pay More Than $350 Million after Civil Fraud Trial

MSN – Shayna Jacobs and Mark Berman (Washington Post) | Published: 2/16/2024

A judge ordered Donald Trump to pay more than $350 million in penalties, plus interest, following a civil fraud trial, finding he and others had carried out a years-long scheme to use “blatantly false financial data” to borrow money at lower rates. New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron issued a deluge of punishments, including years-long bans on Trump and his adult sons taking top jobs in companies in the state.

New York – A Family Affair: Carones give to legal defense fund in the nick of time

MSN – Irie Sentner (Politico) | Published: 2/20/2024

Employees of a firm run by Mayor Eric Adams’ former chief of staff registered as lobbyists weeks after he and his relatives gave $15,000 to Adams’ legal defense fund. The arrangement highlighted the murky ethics of contributing to a politician’s attorney fees. People in the city database, along with their spouses, are barred from giving to legal defense trusts. But because the Carones donated before appearing on the list, they were able to evade the prohibition.

Ohio – Summer Homes and (Attempted) Florida Trips. FirstEnergy Bribery Case Puts Millionaires on Trial

MSN – Jake Zuckerman (Cleveland Plain Dealer) | Published: 2/18/2024

Former FirstEnergy Chief Executive Officer Chuck Jones, the company’s former top lobbyist Mike Dowling, and former Public Utilities Commission of Ohio Chairperson Sam Randazzo sat at the defense tables in the Summit County Court of Common Pleas at a recent hearing. They face charges including engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity. The defense arguments previewed what the state of Ohio is up against in a white-collar prosecution alleging a corrupt pipeline between FirstEnergy’s C-suite and Ohio’s top utility regulator: the kind of legal firepower that wealthy defendants can buy from well-heeled law firms.

Oklahoma – Bill Preventing Foreign Contributions to Ballot Initiatives, Now Going to Ethics Commission

Yahoo News – M. Scott Carter (Oklahoman) | Published: 2/21/2024

House Bill 3815 in Oklahoma prevents foreign contributions to ballot initiatives. After the state Ethics Commission expressed concern, the bill was withdrawn from the House Rules Committee and is now being considered by the commission. Since the legislation created a new rule for the commission, its staff asked the sponsor to make the measure a rule request instead of going through the legislative process.

Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules That GOP Subpoena for Voter Information Cannot Be Enforced

MSN – Megan Lebowitz (NBC News) | Published: 2/21/2024

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Republicans’ subpoena of voter information after the 2020 election was unenforceable, overturning a previous court ruling.  The justices said the subpoena was unenforceable because the 2021-2022 legislative session had already ended. The move is the latest legal defeat for Republicans who took to courts nationwide over the 2020 election.

Pennsylvania – Mayor Cherelle Parker Racked Up a $1 Million Campaign Payroll – but It’s Not Clear Who Got Paid

MSN – Ryan Briggs and Anna Orso (Philadelphia Inquirer) | Published: 2/20/2024

Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker’s campaign and transition committee took advantage of a gray area in campaign finance laws by filing financial reports that list staff costs as withdrawals by third-party payroll services, rather than payments to specific people. Those companies then cut paychecks to the staffers. Lauren Cristella, president of the Committee of Seventy, said the growing practice of campaigns reporting payments to third-party services instead of to individuals undermines the intent of the rules by obfuscating the recipients of the funds.

Tennessee – New TN House Ticketing Policy Allowable Under State Constitution, Attorney General Says

MSN – Melissa Brown (Tennessean) | Published: 2/19/2024

The Tennessee House’s new ticketing policy for its public galleries is permissible under the state constitution, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti said. House Republican leadership began enforcing an unwritten, surprise rule in January requiring tickets to access the west gallery of the House chamber. The east gallery remains open on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Texas – Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson Paid Campaign Money to Firm Tied to His New Republican Group

MSN – Everton Bailey Jr. (Dallas Morning News) | Published: 2/21/2024

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson woman reelection in May, then started paying a consulting firm run by his former chief of staff thousands of dollars a month in campaign funds. Adept Strategies, which was registered with the state on the same day the mayor reported making his first payment to it, is also tied to a group created by Johnson to promote Republican mayors.

Wisconsin – Wisconsin’s Democratic Governor Signs His New Legislative Maps into Law after Republicans Pass Them

Yahoo News – Scott Bauer (Associated Press) | Published: 2/19/2024

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed new legislative district maps into law that were passed by Republicans who control the Legislature to avoid having the liberal-controlled state Supreme Court draw the lines. Democrats are almost certain to gain seats in the Assembly and Senate under the new maps, which be in place for the November election. Republicans have been operating since 2011 under maps they drew that were recognized as among the most gerrymandered in the country.

Wyoming – Legislative Housing Task Force Member Denies Conflict of Interest

WyoFile – Angus Thuermer Jr. | Published: 2/21/2024

A member of a legislative housing task force who has plans for an accessory housing unit on his own lot says he does not have a conflict-of-interest, even after recommending the state strip local government control over such developments. Former Jackson Mayor Mark Barron voted last year to remove local control over accessory residential units, essentially making their construction a state-guaranteed right.

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