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

January 5, 2024  •  

News You Can Use Digest – January 5, 2024


Bomb Hoaxes and ‘Swatting’ Attempts Target Public Officials as 2024 Begins

DNyuz – Neil Vigdor (New York Times) | Published: 1/4/2023

State Capitol buildings in seven states were evacuated or placed on lockdown after the authorities said they had received bomb threats that they described as false and nonspecific. The FBI said it had no information to suggest any threats were credible. There was a “swatting” attempt on Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, which was intended to draw a heavily armed law enforcement response. The incidents intensified a climate of intimidation and the harassment of public officials, including those responsible for overseeing ballot access and voting.

Special Counsel Asks D.C. Judge to Bar Trump Misinformation at Trial

MSN – Perry Stein and Rachel Weiner (Washington Post) | Published: 12/27/2023

Federal prosecutors asked a judge to prohibit Donald Trump’s attorneys from introducing at his federal election obstruction trial “irrelevant disinformation” that is often part of Trump’s campaign speeches, such as President Biden coordinated with the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against him. Such filings are common in legal proceedings and aim to eliminate arguments at trial that prosecutors say are not supported by evidence or are irrelevant to the case and could mislead jurors.

Not Just the Supreme Court: Ethics troubles plague state high courts, too

MSN – Aaron Mendelson (USA Today) | Published: 1/3/2024

Across the country, state Supreme Courts wield enormous power over abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and elections, among other issues. But judicial ethics at the state level receive scant attention. Experts say that is a mistake and potential problems are widespread. Many state high court justices make their own decisions about recusal, with virtually no opportunity for review. They often have a say in their own discipline. In numerous states around the country, they disclose only meager and hard-to-access data about their finances.

Report: Trump businesses received $7.8 million in foreign payments during presidency

MSN – Jacqueline Alemany (Washington Post) | Published: 1/4/2024

During Donald Trump’s presidency, his businesses received at least $7.8 million in payments from the foreign governments and officials of 20 countries, including China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, according to a report released by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee. The report argues the payments were in violation of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, a provision that bars federal officials from accepting money or gifts from foreign governments without permission from Congress.

Appeals Court Reverses Conviction Against Jeff Fortenberry

MSN – Eric Bazail-Eimil (Politico) | Published: 12/26/2023

A federal appeals court overturned a conviction against former U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, saying the decision to try the lawmaker from Nebraska in California over alleged foreign campaign donations violated his due process rights. The panel found Fortenberry should not have been tried in Los Angeles, since the specific crimes he was prosecuted for occurred in the District of Columbia and Nebraska. It also rejected prosecutors’ arguments that criminal conduct also occurs where it would have an effect on a federal investigation.

Lawmakers Who Linger After Accepting New Jobs Stir Concerns

MSN – Justin Papp (Roll Call) | Published: 12/26/2023

U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins will depart Congress in February to start a new job as the director of Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo but will remain in office in the interim. He is not the only member of the House to accept a new job in November but linger in Congress for several months. Watchdogs argue ethical issues can arise when a member knows they have a set start date to work for another employer. Situations like Johnson’s and Higgins’ highlight the opacity of congressional ethics rules around outside employment and job negotiations.

Roberts Sidesteps Supreme Court’s Ethics Controversies in Yearly Report

MSN – Ann Marimow (Washington Post) | Published: 12/31/2023

The U.S. Supreme Court will be tested in the coming weeks to untangle politically consequential legal questions with the potential to reshape the 2024 presidential election. The court’s reputation remains marred by ethics controversies involving lavish travel and gifts, and public approval ratings remain low following high court rulings to overturn long-standing precedent. But Chief Justice John Roberts did not address any of those contemporary issues in his annual “Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.”

Sen. Bob Menendez Accused of Aiding Qatar in Exchange for Bribes

MSN – Shayna Jacobs (Washington Post) | Published: 1/2/2024

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez is facing a new set of federal bribery allegations in a superseding indictment that accuses him of providing assistance to the government of Qatar as well as Egypt. While the indictment does not add charges, it makes public previously unknown allegations of corruption by Menendez, who headed the Foreign Relations Committee until he was charged several months ago. It is the second superseding charging document to be filed since Menendez surrendered.

Justice Dept. Accuses 2 Political Operatives of Hiding Foreign Lobbying During Trump Administration

MSN – Eric Tucker and Alan Suderman (Associated Press) | Published: 1/2/2024

Two political consultants provided false information about lobbying work on behalf of a Persian Gulf country during the Trump administration. Charging documents allege Barry Bennett, an adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, spearheaded a covert lobbying campaign aimed at advancing the interests of a foreign country. The country for whom the work was done is not named but it matches the description of Qatar. The Justice Department also reached a similar agreement with Douglas Watts, a political consultant who prosecutors say worked alongside Bennett and failed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Special Counsel: Trump immunity claim threatens democracy

MSN – Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney (Politico) | Published: 12/30/2023

Donald Trump’s bold claims that he is immune from criminal prosecution over his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election “threaten to undermine democracy,” special counsel Jack Smith warned a federal appeals court. Smith rejected Trump’s contention that the criminal indictment of him for trying to reverse his loss at the polls three years ago is constitutionally invalid because he was serving as president at the time and because he was acquitted by the U.S. Senate after he was impeached for those actions.

New Spin on a Revolving Door: Pentagon officials turned venture capitalists

Seattle Times – Eric Lipton (New York Times) | Published: 12/31/2023

Former Pentagon officials and military officers have joined venture capital firms and are trying to use their connections in Washington to cash in on the potential to sell a new generation of weapons. They represent a new path through the “revolving door” that has always connected the Defense Department and the military contracting business. Retiring generals and departing Pentagon officials once migrated regularly to the established weapons makers. Now they are increasingly flocking to venture capital firms that have collectively pumped billions of dollars into startups offering the Pentagon new war-fighting tools.

From the States and Municipalities

Canada – Commissioner Says No Conflict in Rolling Stones’ Promo at Vancouver City Hall

Vancouver Is Awesome – Mike Howell | Published: 1/3/2024

Vancouver’s integrity commissioner ruled Mayor Ken Sim and three city council members did not breach the code of conduct when they promoted a Rolling Stones concert scheduled for July 2024 at BC Place Stadium. Sim and council members Sarah Kirby-Yung, Peter Meiszner, and Mike Klassen were the subject of a complaint from a citizen concerned about the band’s iconic tongue-and-lips logo being displayed on the facade of City Hall.

Arizona – Judge Rebuffs GOP Lawmakers’ Bid to Block Arizona Voters’ Dark Money Law

Arizona Daily Star – Howard Fischer (Capitol News Services) | Published: 12/29/2023

A judge ruled Arizona voters have an absolute right to enact laws requiring disclosure of “dark money’” political donations, even if Republican legislators do not approve. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ryan rejected a bid by House Speaker Ben Toma and Senate President Warren Petersen to block implementation of Proposition 211 ahead of campaign spending for the 2024 election. While Ryan gave the go-ahead for the law to take effect, he did not toss out the entire challenge.

California – Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price Barred from Prosecuting Her Loudest Critic, a Former Prosecutor

MSN – Jakob Rodgers (San Jose Mercury News) | Published: 1/3/2024

A judge barred Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price’s office from prosecuting one her loudest political critics in a misdemeanor case that has become a focal point in the recall effort against her. Superior Court Judge James Cramer ruled Price’s office has a “significant conflict of interest” in prosecuting Amilcar Ford, a former employee of hers who was charged over the summer with violating a little-used section of the state’s business and professions code. As a result, the case will now be handled by the state attorney general’s office.

California – DA Charges Ex-San Francisco Building Inspector Who Inspected His Own Home

San Francisco Standard – Michael Barba | Published: 1/2/2024

A former San Francisco building inspector who had inspected his own home is now facing criminal charges for alleged conflict-of-interest violations, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins announced Tuesday. Van Zeng was fired and charged after a media investigation revealed he conducted a series of questionable inspections on properties with ties to his family.

Florida – Miami City Manager’s Wife Was Hired for Office Remodeling, Raising Ethics Concerns

WLRN – Daniel Rivero and Joshua Ceballos | Published: 1/4/2024

When Miami City Manager Art Noriega wanted to remodel parts of his office at City Hall, his office picked a familiar salesperson from a familiar company to provide new furniture in contracts worth more than $37,000. The salesperson: Noriega’s wife, Michelle Pradere-Noriega. Her company has been awarded over $440,000 in city contracts for new office furniture and furniture assembly in her husband’s tenure as city manager. Ethics experts say the contracts could raise potential conflicts-of-interest because of Noriega’s high-ranking position in the city and may violate state ethics laws.

Florida – Daughter of Former Broward Mayor Fleeced Thousands of Dollars in Campaign Funds, Feds Say

Yahoo News – Grethel Aguila (Miami Herald) | Published: 1/3/2024

The daughter of former Broward Mayor Dale Holness was charged with fraud, accused of using thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal expenses. The alleged fraud occurred from April 2019 through October 2020, when Richelle Holness was the treasurer for her father’s campaign. Richelle Holness is not the only family member to have faced federal fraud charges recently.

Georgia – Conservative Group Wins Legal Victory Over 2020 Voting Challenges in Georgia

DNyuz – Nick Corasaniti (New York Times) | Published: 1/2/2024

U.S. District Court Judge Steve Jones ruled a conservative group’s efforts to challenge the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of voters in the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia in 2021 did not violate the Voting Rights Act under a clause outlawing voter suppression. The decision was relatively narrow, applying only to Jones’s district, and will do little to change the status quo. Right-wing election groups have already tried to help bring thousands of challenges to voter registrations in states across the country. But the opinion is likely to encourage conservative activists hunting for voter fraud during the 2024 presidential election.

Georgia – Federal Judge Approves Georgia’s Republican-Drawn Congressional Districts

MSN – Azi Paybarah (Washington Post) | Published: 12/28/2023

A federal judge in Georgia approved congressional districts redrawn by the state’s Republican-led legislature, ruling the new map did not continue to illegally dilute the power of Black voters as Democrats and civil rights groups have argued. Georgia is among several states where challenges to congressional maps could affect the makeup of the U.S. House next year.

Illinois – Ex-Illinois House Speaker Wins Six-Month Raincheck in Federal Corruption Trial

Courthouse News Service – Dave Byrnes | Published: 1/3/2024

A federal judge postponed the corruption trial of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. The decision pushes back the trial start date from April 1 of this year to October 8. Madigan faces 23 charges for racketeering, fraud, conspiracy, and bribery. Central to the charges against Madigan is the definition of “bribery” for public officials in the law. The Supreme Court threw a wrench into the government’s case against Madigan when it agreed to hear a bribery case out of Indiana challenging the interpretation of the section of the law.

Illinois – Former Chicago Alderman Ed Burke Convicted on 13 of 14 Counts at Landmark Federal Corruption Trial; Jury Convicts One Codefendant and Acquits the Other

MSN – Jason Meisner, Ray Long and Megan Crepeau (Chicago Tribune) | Published: 12/21/2023

A jury found former Chicago Ald. Ed Burke guilty on 13 of 14 corruption charges, including racketeering conspiracy, for scheming to use his clout at City Hall to pressure people into hiring his private law firm. Also convicted was real estate developer Charles Cui, who was accused of hiring Burke’s firm to do property tax appeals in exchange for the council member’s intervention in a permit dispute. Burke’s longtime ward aide, Peter Andrews Jr., was acquitted of all counts against him.

Kansas – Wichita City Council Votes to Amend Campaign Finance Ordinance

KSN – Ryan Newton and Zena Taher | Published: 1/2/2024

The Wichita City Council voted to amend the campaign finance ordinance. The amendment prohibits candidates from accepting contributions from foreign and domestic corporations and limited liability companies in city elections. Other entities, such as sole proprietorships, professional associations, partnerships, and PACs, would continue to be permitted to make political contributions.

Maine – Donald Trump Removed from Maine Primary Ballot by Secretary of State

MSN – Patrick Marley (Washington Post) | Published: 12/29/2023

Maine barred Donald Trump from the primary ballot, becoming the second state to block the former president from running again because of his actions before and during the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The challenges to Trump’s candidacy have focused on primaries because Republicans will not choose their nominee until states hold their nominating contests and the party holds its national convention in July. If Trump’s ability to run has not been resolved by then, attention would shift to the general election.

Maryland – Scott Makes His Baby Registry Private, While Ethics Officials Say the Mayor Never Sought a Gift Solicitation Waiver

Baltimore Brew – Mark Reutter | Published: 12/29/2023

Two days after it was reported that Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott was soliciting online for cash, gift cards, and baby supplies for his newborn son, the registry was switched to a private setting. The action came after the chairperson of the city Ethics Board and Baltimore’s inspector general said the mayor never requested a gift solicitation waiver to conduct online fundraising. Scott and his fiancée, Hana Pugh, have so far received more than 95 gifts on their Babylist site. They include at least six $50 cash gifts. The is a city ban on gifts $20 and over.

Michigan – Staffers for Ex-Speaker Lee Chatfield Plead Not Guilty in Financial Misconduct Case

Detroit Free Press – Arpan Lobo | Published: 1/3/2024

Anne and Rob Minard, who worked for former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, were arraigned as they face a series of charges stemming from their alleged misappropriation of funds. Affidavits paint a picture of alleged repeated reimbursements to the couple for expenses that were actually paid for with funds from various nonprofits associated with Chatfield.

Michigan – Michigan Supreme Court Allows Trump to Appear on 2024 Primary Ballot

MSN – Patrick Marley (Washington Post) | Published: 12/27/2023

Donald Trump’s name is set to appear on Michigan’s primary ballot after the state Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to his candidacy. The decision provides Trump with a new victory as he tries to get himself restored to the ballot in Colorado and avoid getting knocked off the ballot in other states.

New Jersey – ELEC Moves to Assert Jurisdiction in Jersey Freedom ‘Dark Money’ Lawsuit

Press of Atlantic City – Michelle Brunetti Post | Published: 1/3/2024

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) is asserting its “primary jurisdiction” over investigating and punishing election reporting violations in an amicus brief in a lawsuit against the “dark money” group Jersey Freedom. The New Jersey Republican State Committee sued Jersey Freedom, alleging the group was not complying with state law on reporting its donors and expenditures. Jersey Freedom’s lawyer moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing ELEC should handle any complaints against Jersey Freedom.

New York – Hochul Vetoes Controversial Campaign Finance Changes

Albany Times Union – Joshua Solomon | Published: 12/27/2023

Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill that would have amended the state’s newly established system to publicly finance political campaigns by changing the dollar threshold for candidates to qualify in state elections. The bill would have allowed for the first $250 of any contribution to a campaign in an election cycle to be matched by state funding. Currently, the program only allows matching donations for contributors who gave no more than $250 in a cycle. The amended version would have allowed larger contributions from wealthy donors to receive a taxpayer-funded boost.

Oregon – Oregon Lawmakers’ Overseas Trips Funded by Lobby Groups, Taiwanese Government

Oregon Capital Chronicle – Julia Shumway | Published: 12/22/2023

Oregon lawmakers jetted off to Taiwan, Portugal, Denmark, and technology hubs in California this fall, all paid for by companies and groups that have a keen interest in the laws they pass. These junkets, once common, have been rarer in recent years due to the COVID pandemic and associated travel restrictions. While some trips took lawmakers to tourist destinations, those who went say they were a far cry from the luxurious lobbyist-paid trips to Hawaii, China, and Israel taken by lawmakers in the 2000s that resulted in stricter state ethics laws.

Pennsylvania – Despite Ethics Concerns, Shapiro Will Keep Accepting Tickets from a Group That Gets State Money

Spotlight PA – Stephen Caruso and Katie Meyer | Published: 12/22/2023

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro will continue to receive gifts from Team Pennsylvania, a public-private partnership that says it works to improve the state’s “competitiveness and economic prosperity.” This year it paid for tickets and lodgings for Shapiro to attend the Super Bowl in Arizona and funded his tickets to a Philadelphia Phillies playoff game and a Penn State football game. One expert said taking tickets from Team PA could conflict with Shapiro’s gift ban, which bars executive branch employees from accepting goods or services, like tickets, from any “person or entity” that “has financial relations with the commonwealth.”

South Dakota – ‘Governor’s Cup’ Rodeo Among Recipients of Millions from Public Fund Controlled by Noem

Yahoo News – Joshua Haiar (Sioux Falls Argus Leader) | Published: 12/29/2023

In September, Gov. Kristi Noem carried the American flag on horseback into a Sioux Falls arena full of fans. It was the Cinch Playoffs Governor’s Cup with $1 million in prize money. Noem handed out awards, posed for photos with the winners, and shared the images with thousands of followers on her social media accounts. Several months earlier, Noem had decided to use tax dollars from South Dakota employers to help pay for the event.

Tennessee – Tennessee Legislature Can Shield Its Harassment Investigation Records, Judge Rules

MSN – Melissa Brown (Tennessean) | Published: 1/3/2024

The Tennessee General Assembly can legally shield its records of sexual harassment investigations from the public, a judge ruled in a lawsuit related an investigation last spring that led to the abrupt resignation of then-Rep. Scotty Campbell. A Nashville attorney sued the Office of Legislative Administration and its director over unfulfilled public records requests regarding the Legislature’s response to Campbell’s harassment complaint and the General Assembly’s related expenditures.

Virginia – Push for Campaign Finance Reform to Return in Virginia Legislative Session

Richmond Times-Dispatch – Katie King (Virginian-Pilot) | Published: 1/1/2024

Virginia Del. Marcus Simon prefiled legislation for the next General Assembly session that would prohibit politicians from using campaign donations on personal expenditures. Virginia politicians can legally spend campaign donations on essentially anything, and there is no limit on who can contribute or how much donors can give.  Although past efforts were unsuccessful, the General Assembly will have many new faces this year, meaning the bill could potentially find new supporters.

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