News You Can Use Digest - March 15, 2024 - State and Federal Communications

March 15, 2024  •  

News You Can Use Digest – March 15, 2024



Congressional Hearing on the Biden Classified Documents Probe Turns into a Proxy Campaign Battle

Associated Press News – Zeke Miller, Colleen Long, and Farnoush Amiri | Published: 3/12/2024

Lawmakers turned a hearing on President Biden’s handling of classified documents into a proxy battle between the Democratic president and Donald Trump, as a newly released transcript of Biden’s last fall showed he repeatedly insisted he never meant to retain classified information after he left the vice presidency. Special counsel Robert Hur stood by the assessments in his report that questioned Biden’s age and mental competence but recommended no criminal charges, finding insufficient evidence to make a case stand up in court.

U.S. Courts Require Random Judge Assignments to Avoid ‘Judge Shopping’

MSN – Tobi Raji and Ann Marimow (Washington Post) | Published: 3/12/2024

Federal judiciary leaders announced a policy that requires assigning judges at random in civil cases that have statewide or national implications, an effort to address widespread concerns about “judge shopping” in single-judge divisions. The Judicial Conference of the United States said district courts may continue to assign cases to a single-judge division if those cases do not seek to bar or mandate state or federal actions through declaratory judgment or injunctive relief. When random assignments are required, the case will be assigned to a judge within the same judicial district.

Biden and Trump Secure Their Parties’ Presidential Nominations

MSN – Hannah Knowles and Toluse Olorunnipa (Washington Post) | Published: 3/12/2024

President Biden and Donald Trump both secured their parties’ nominations for the presidency, formalizing a general-election rematch that appeared virtually inevitable for months. General elections typically draw much broader turnout than primaries, complicating efforts to draw lessons from the recent results for November. But the vote in Georgia, a key swing state, offered some clues to Trump’s and Biden’s political strengths and weaknesses.

Trump Takes Control of the RNC with Mass Layoffs, Restructuring

MSN – Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, and Marianne LeVine (Washington Post) | Published: 3/12/2024

Donald Trump took charge of the Republican National Committee with the political equivalent of shock and awe, leaving dozens out of work, revamping strategic priorities, and raising fears among some former officials about the party’s future support for down-ballot candidates. The senior leadership has been almost entirely replaced or reassigned, while dozens of lower-ranking officials including state directors were either fired or told to reapply for their jobs.

Rep. Ken Buck Says He Will Not Serve Out Rest of Term, Narrowing GOP Majority

MSN – Amy Wang and Patrick Svitek (Washington Post) | Published: 3/11/2024

Rep. Ken Buck said he will not serve out the rest of his term and will vacate his seat in Congress at the end of next week, further narrowing an already razor-thin House Republican majority. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he plans to call a June 25 special election to fill Buck’s seat. Buck has clashed with the majority of the Republican conference in recent months. When asked about the work environment in Congress, Buck called it “dysfunctional” and declared it had been the worst year of his nearly 10 years in office.

Nationwide Review Finds Patchwork, ‘Broken’ Systems for Resolving Open Records Disputes

MSN – Josh Kelety (Associated Press), Eric Scicchitano, and Carson Gerber (CNHI News) | Published: 3/10/2024

A nationwide review found fewer than a third of states have offices that can resolve residents’ complaints by forcing agencies to turn over documents or comply with open meetings requirements. In most states, residents have just one meaningful option when they believe an agency is illegally withholding public information: to wage a legal battle. This system has a chilling effect, discouraging private citizens from finding out about everything from police investigations to how elected officials make decisions and spend taxpayer money.

Former U.S. Official’s Work for Chinese Client Stirs Concern Over Disclosure Loopholes

MSN – Michael Martina (Reuters) | Published: 3/11/2024

Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, now a partner at the Paul Weiss law firm, wrote a letter to a Defense Department official on behalf of SZ DJI Technology, asking that her client be removed from a list of Chinese military companies. Advocating for foreign clients is legal and there is a public disclosure exemption for lawyers. But the letter is an example of what transparency advocates say are gaps in the law that allow lawyers and lobbyists, including former officials, to avoid disclosing their advocacy for companies possibly subject to sanctions.

America’s Election Chiefs Are Worried AI Is Coming for Them

Yahoo News – Zach Montellaro (Politico) | Published: 3/11/2024

A false call from a secretary of state telling poll workers they are not needed on Election Day. A fake video of a state election director shredding ballots before they are counted. An email sent to a county election official trying to phish logins to its voter database. Election officials worry the rise of generative artificial intelligence makes these kinds of attacks on the democratic process even easier ahead of the November election. Election workers are uniquely vulnerable targets.

From the States and Municipalities

Alabama – As Another Alabama Lawmaker Pleads Guilty, Party Leaders Trade Barbs About Corruption

MSN – Hannah Denham ( | Published: 3/13/2024

Alabama Rep. John Rogers pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice. Federal prosecutors recommended that the judge reduce his charges and sentence him to 14 months of house arrest, followed by supervised release, per the plea agreement. Rogers is the second elected official to plead guilty in the kickback scheme. State Rep. Fred Plump resigned after pleading guilty to corruption charges.

California – Ex-LA Deputy Mayor on Trial Again Over City Hall Racketeering Charges

Courthouse News Service – Edward Pettersson | Published: 3/12/2024

Former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan went on trial for the second time to fight charges he was part of the widespread racketeering scheme run by convicted former city Councilperson José Huizar. Chan is the last remaining defendant in the “pay-to-play” ploy whereby real-estate developers were forced to pay bribes in exchange for Huizar guiding their projects through the city’s approval process. Federal prosecutors with the claim Chan acted as a middleman between Huizar and Chinese developers and went on to pocket bribes himself.

California – S.F. Corruption Scandal: Mohammed Nuru’s partner in bribery scheme sentenced to prison

MSN – St. John Barned-Smith (San Francisco Chronicle) | Published: 3/8/2024

Executives at Recology, one of San Francisco’s largest contractors, needed a favor in 2018 from then-Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru, so they paid him a bribe to help fund his extravagant annual department holiday party. The man who handled the transaction was restaurateur Nick Bovis, who was sentenced to nine months in prison on fraud charges in a federal probe into city corruption.

California – Recall Campaign Against Alameda County DA Pamela Price Paid Thousands to Security Firm Tied to Its Own Leader, Records Show

San Jose Mercury News – Jakob Rodgers (Bay Area News Group) | Published: 3/7/2024

The campaign to recall Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price paid thousands of dollars to a security company created by one of the group’s key leaders, even though it lacks proper state licenses to operate as a security firm. State business filings show Efficient Private Protection and Security LLC is owned by Brenda Grisham, who also serves as one of two principal officers for the recall campaign, Save Alameda For Everybody.

California – Confidentiality Pact Deepens Mystery of How Bakery Clause Got into California Minimum Wage Law

Yahoo News – Adam Beam (Associated Press) | Published: 3/11/2024

As California prepares to enforce a new $20-per-hour minimum wage for fast food workers, an unusual exemption for eateries that bake their own bread has come under scrutiny due to allegations it was initially intended to benefit a wealthy donor to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign. But details have been hard to come by because of a tactic rarely associated with public policymaking: a signed confidentiality agreement that prevents some private groups from talking about their negotiations.

Florida – Moms for Liberty Executive’s Job Gets in the Way of Confirmation to Florida Ethics Post

MSN – Ana Ceballos (Miami Herald) | Published: 3/7/2024

Republican leaders in the Florida Senate did not confirm Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich to serve on the state ethics commission, a rare repudiation to Gov. Ron DeSantis that underscores concerns about what the appointment would mean for the oversight of elected officials. The decision to not consider her confirmation was made after an unnamed senator raised concerns that Descovich’s employment with the conservative group “could constitute lobbying the Legislature,” Senate spokesperson Katie Betta said.

Florida – Newly Dismissed Ethics Complaint on Mayor’s F1 Weekend Details Repayment to Billionaire

MSN – Sarah Blaskey and Alexandra Glorioso (Miami Herald) | Published: 3/14/2024

The Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed a complaint against Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, finding “no probable cause” to believe he accepted pricey tickets to high-profile events in exchange for governmental influence. The complaint alleged Suarez improperly received tickets to last year’s Formula 1 race in Miami from billionaire Ken Griffin. But the commission concluded the mayor repaid the cost of the VIP passes to the race for him and his wife. The probe did not address other key questions raised in the complaint, namely who provided his other VIP passes throughout the weekend.

Florida – Riviera Beach City Council Member Says She Was Told a Colleague Offered to Barter His Vote

MSN – Wayne Washington (Palm Beach Post) | Published: 3/14/2024

Riviera Beach City Councilperson Julia Botel said representatives of marina owner Safe Harbor told her one of her colleagues, Douglas Lawson, tried to barter his vote on a development project. Botel filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Lawson was among three council members who voted down Safe Harbor’s request for zoning changes to facilitate expanded operations at the city waterfront. News of the ethics complaint is the latest drama connected to the council, rife with acrimony and subterranean grievances.

Florida – Miami Beach Commissioners Increase Their Compensation by $20,000, Side-Stepping Voters

MSN – Aaron Leibowitz (Miami Herald) | Published: 3/14/2024

The Miami Beach City Commission voted to increase its members’ overall compensation packages by nearly $20,000 annually by boosting monthly car and phone allowances and adjusting monthly stipends in a way that accounts for inflation and taxes. The move allows the city’s elected officials to raise their compensation without changing their relatively meager base salaries of $10,000 for the mayor and $6,000 for commissioners annually, which have gone unchanged for nearly 60 years and require a citywide voter referendum to address.

Florida – New Limits on Florida Ethics Complaints May Shield Corruption, Critics Warn

Tallahassee Democrat – John Kennedy (USA Today) | Published: 3/8/2024

A bill to revamp state ethics laws, allowing that complaints be filed against officials only by those with personal knowledge of the wrongdoing, was passed by the Legislature and sent to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Senate Bill 7014 had been roundly criticized by ethics officials, who say the change, coupled with another limiting the power of city and county ethics panels, will likely tilt the table in favor of corruption.

Georgia – Ga. Judge Dismisses Six Charges in Trump Election Interference Case

MSN – Holly Bailey (Washington Post) | Published: 3/13/2024

A Georgia judge dismissed three of the 13 charges against Donald Trump and some of the charges against his allies in the election inference case but declined to dismiss the entire indictment. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee dismissed six of the 41 counts in the indictment against Trump and his allies, who are accused of conspiring to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. All the dismissed charges are related to pressure that Trump or five of his co-defendants allegedly put on state officials to change the results.

Hawaii – Kaneshiro-Mitsunaga Bribery Case Puts ‘Pay to Play’ on Trial

Honolulu Civil Beat – Christina Jedra | Published: 3/12/2024

The prosecution of Laurel Mau in Honolulu was unusual from the start. There was no police investigation of her alleged theft from her former employer, the engineering firm Mitsunaga & Associates. At least two prosecutors determined no crime had occurred. Nevertheless, criminal charges were filed against Mau. What motivated prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro to pursue the case, according to federal prosecutors, was money. Over several years, Dennis Mitsunaga and those connected to him sent Kaneshiro nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions.

Illinois – After Most Illinois Supreme Court Justices Recuse Themselves, Ed Burke Keeps His Law License

WBEZ – Jon Seidel (Chicago Sun-Times) and Dave McKinney | Published: 3/11/2024

An Illinois Supreme Court paralyzed by apparent conflicts-of-interest is letting former Chicago Ald. Edward Burke keep his law license despite his guilty verdict in an illegal shakedown scheme designed to enrich his law firm. A push for an interim suspension of Burke’s license was sidelined by the court because at least four of its seven justices recused themselves from the matter. It is not clear whether a mechanism exists that would allow the state to touch Burke’s law license.

Indiana – Hoosier Political Candidates Can Use Donations for Child Care, Election Officials Say

Indiana Capital Chronicle – Leslie Bonilla Muñiz | Published: 3/11/2024

Candidates in Indiana can use political contributions to pay for childcare expenses incurred while campaigning or in office. A recent advisory opinion from the state Elections Commission came in response to a request from two lawmakers. Rep. Victoria Garcia Wilburn said she made the request because finding after-school, evening, and weekend care for her then-nine-year-old son while campaigning in 2020 was challenging.

Iowa – Iowa Transgender Musician and Activist Acquitted on Protest Charges

MSN – Molly Hennessy-Fiske (Washington Post) | Published: 3/13/2024

Tara McGovern, a transgender musician who was arrested last fall after protesting a speaker on the University of Iowa campus, was acquitted of charges they contended went to the heart of the constitutional right to assemble. McGovern had been charged with two misdemeanors in connection with the event. So were six other protesters from a crowd of about 200 people. All of those arrested were transgender. All but two pleaded guilty. McGovern went to trial on principle.

Kansas – Biden Effigy Beaten, Kicked at Kansas County GOP Event, Drawing Outrage

MSN – Annie Gowan (Washington Post) | Published: 3/11/2024

A Republican fundraiser in Overland Park, Kansas, at which attendees beat and kicked an effigy of President Biden sparked bipartisan outrage and calls for the GOP leaders responsible for the event to resign. The “Grand Ol’ Party” fundraising event featured a booth where attendees kicked and swung a foam bat at a mannequin topped with a rubber Biden mask. The state GOP issued a statement that said, “it’s unfortunate the events took place.” But it blamed the incident on an outside exhibitor and a former state party member.

Kentucky – Opponents Say Kentucky ‘Ag Gag’ Bill Could Stifle Free Speech, Limit Whistleblowing

MSN – Rebecca Grapevine (Louisville Courier Journal) | Published: 3/12/2024

A bill advancing through the Kentucky Legislature pits the state’s meat processing industry against a diverse group of opponents that ranges from photojournalists to animal rights groups. Senate Bill 16 amends Kentucky’s criminal trespass law, which sought to protect “key infrastructure assets” like energy and drinking water facilities from trespass and from surveillance by unauthorized drones. The bill expands on that effort but goes much further, opening the door for stifling free speech, and removing a crucial way for news organizations and advocates to monitor corporate activities, opponents say.

Michigan – Michigan Democrats Eye New Ethics Disclosures, Crackdown on Gifts

Bridge Michigan – Lauren Gibbons | Published: 3/13/2024

Michigan lawmakers are once again making vows to revisit the state’s lax ethics laws, rolling out a wish list of proposals that would give the public more clarity on who is influencing the political process. Many of the provisions, including additional disclosures from nonprofits affiliated with lawmakers and candidates, a temporary ban on former lawmakers becoming lobbyists, and stricter rules about gifts and event tickets given to public officials, have seen bipartisan support from government transparency advocates in years past. But none so far have gained serious traction in the Legislature.

Missouri – Dean Plocher Draws New Scrutiny Over Series of Capitol Meetings with Out-of-State Vendor

Missouri Independent – Jason Hancock | Published: 3/11/2024

Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher arranged a series of meetings in the state Capitol between Republican legislators and an out-of-state technology vendor, inviting renewed criticism as he remains the focus of an ongoing ethics investigation. The unusual arrangement is drawing comparisons to Plocher unsuccessfully pushing last year for the House to spend $800,000 outside the normal bidding process to hire a private company to manage constituent data.

New Jersey – George Norcross Probe: Prosecutors have broadened their investigation of the N.J. power broker beyond Camden real estate deals

MSN – Andrew Seidman and Jeremy Roebuck (Philadelphia Inquirer) | Published: 3/7/2024

Months into an investigation into New Jersey Democratic power broker, George Norcross, authorities have expanded their focus beyond his involvement in real estate deals in Camden. In recent weeks, investigators with the state attorney general’s office and FBI have begun scrutinizing whether the insurance executive played a role in a state agency’s decision to temporarily stop payments to a contractor after one of the company’s executives reportedly defied Norcross with an endorsement in a local election last year.

New York – As State Plans to Match Campaign Contributions, Elections Heat Up

Albany Times Union – Joshua Solomon | Published: 3/10/2024

New York is planning to spend millions of dollars for matching contributions in an election cycle that are under $250 and from donors who live in a candidate’s district. The intent of the program is to democratize the electoral process and even the playing field in a system that has long favored incumbents with massive campaign accounts. The change in how campaigns are financed appears to have become a boon for insurgent candidates. It has led to primary challengers against incumbents, often involving candidates with minor political parties.

New York – Mayor Adams Campaign Supporters Fined in Straw Donor Scheme

MSN – Molly Crane-Newman (New York Daily News) | Published: 3/12/2024

Two owners of a construction firm were sentenced for their roles in a straw donor scheme to boost New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ 2021 campaign account with cash from the city’s public matching funds program. Brothers Shahid Mushtaq and Yahya Mushtaq each paid $500 in fines and completed 35 hours of community service before appearing in court. They pleaded to conspiracy and are cooperating in an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney.

New York – Appeals Court Brings Back Brian Benjamin Bribery Charges

The City – Greg Smith | Published: 3/8/2024

A federal appeals court reinstated bribery charges against former New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, reversing a lower court ruling that found his solicitation of campaign donations after steering state money to a donor was not an explicit case of “pay-to-play.” The three-judge panel found Benjamin’s alleged efforts to seek thousands of dollars in contributions in exchange for allocating state funds to a youth program run by one of his biggest donors cleared the bar for indictable corruption.

North Carolina – North Carolina Judges Block Elections Board Changes Pushed by Republicans That Weaken Governor

Yahoo News – Gary Robertson (Associated Press) | Published: 3/12/2024

North Carolina’s Republican-controlled Legislature unlawfully tried to seize from the governor the power to choose elections board members in the battleground state, trial judges ruled while saying portions of a new election law must be permanently blocked. The three-judge panel sided unanimously with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in his lawsuit filed days after the General Assembly overrode Cooper’s veto of the measure. The changes would have shifted board appointment powers away from the governor and to the Legislature.

Ohio – Democrats Meddle in Ohio G.O.P. Senate Primary, Pushing Trump’s Choice

DNyuz – Michael Bender (New York Times) | Published: 3/13/2024

A Democratic group is wading into the Republican Senate primary in Ohio with a new television spot aimed at promoting the conservative credentials of Bernie Moreno, businessperson who has been endorsed by Donald Trump. The group Duty and Country is spending roughly $879,000 on the ad. It is funded largely through the Senate Majority PAC, the principal super PAC supporting Democratic efforts to maintain control of the chamber.

Ohio – Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine Stands Behind Aide While She Stays Mum About Bribery Scandal

Ohio Capital Journal – Marty Schladen | Published: 3/11/2024

Gov. Mike DeWine continues to praise and support an aide who he said knew about a $4.3 million payoff by FirstEnergy to DeWine’s pick to lead the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, the entity that decides how much FirstEnergy can charge customers. Laurel Dawson knew about the payment but did not tell DeWine until the FBI searched the regulator’s home nearly two years later, the governor’s office says. In defending the conduct of Dawson and DeWine, the governor’s press secretary said law enforcement had not yet called the payment a bribe.

Oklahoma – New Ethics Commission Executive Director to ‘Renew Our Focus on Education’

NonDoc – Michael McNutt | Published: 3/11/2024

Lee Anne Bruce Boone began her new duties as executive director of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission on January 4. Now tasked with running the agency that tracks activities of lobbyists, candidates, and committees, Bruce Boone has a long history of working in the public sector. In an interview, she discusses her background, her goals for the commission, and the long-standing need for additional funding.

Oregon – Legislature Passes Historic Campaign Finance Bill

MSN – Carlos Fuentes (Portland Oregonian) | Published: 3/8/2024

Oregon lawmakers passed a campaign finance reform bill that limits contributions from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups. Oregon is currently one of only five states that does not limit how much money candidates can accept. The bill’s language came together after weeks of negotiations to get labor unions, business lobbyists, and good government groups on board. As part of the final pact between the groups, no campaign finance measures will be put on the November 2024 ballot.

Pennsylvania – Pa. Game Commission Won’t Renew Controversial Contract with Lobbying Firm Run by Former Top Lawmaker

Spotlight PA – Angela Couloumbis | Published: 3/7/2024

Facing scrutiny from state lawmakers, the Pennsylvania Game Commission said it will not renew a controversial contract with a politically connected lobbying firm. The agency signed a contract last year with Allegheny Strategy Partners, a lobbying firm run by former state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans decided to end the contract after fielding concerns from lawmakers about the propriety of a state agency using public dollars on private lobbyists.

South Dakota – South Dakota Legislator Calls for Inquiry into Gov. Noem’s Texas Dental Trip and Promo Video

MSN – Jack Dura and Josh Funk (Associated Press) | Published: 3/13/2024

State Sen. Reynold Nesiba called for an inquiry into South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s trip to Texas for dental work and a promotional video in which she praises the doctors for giving her “a smile I can be proud of and confident in.” He said he initially found the nearly five-minute video to be simply odd. Now, Nesiba wonders whether Noem used a state airplane or public funds for the Texas trip and whether the governor paid for the dental procedure or if it was discounted because of her video.

Tennessee – Republican, Democrat File Bill to Move Sexual Harassment Inquiries Outside the Legislature

Yahoo News – Vivian Jones (Tennessean) | Published: 3/12/2024

In a rare bipartisan effort, state Reps. Aftyn Behn and Todd Warner together filed legislation aimed at moving investigation and resolution of harassment complaints outside the Legislature to the Tennessee attorney general’s office. The bill follows a long line of sexual harassment complaints, including one that led to the resignation of a high-ranking lawmaker last year. Through stringent confidentiality standards aimed at protecting victims, the Legislature’s harassment policy also in some ways shields lawmakers from consequences.

Texas – Texas Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Ethics Lawsuits Brought by Conservative Activist Michael Quinn Sullivan

MSN – Robert Downen (Texas Tribune) | Published: 3/8/2024

The Texas Supreme Court declined to hear two lawsuits in which a conservative activist and his political advocacy group challenged the state ethics commission’s regulatory powers. The suits were filed by Michael Quinn Sullivan and Empower Texans, a powerful group that was led by Sullivan and pushed state lawmakers to adopt right-wing policies until it was disbanded in 2020. They asked the high court to review rulings in which two appeals courts refused to toss fines imposed on Sullivan by the commission for failing to register as a lobbyist.

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