April 3, 2015 •
News You Can Use Digest – April 3, 2015
The Political Kingmaker Nobody Knows
Center for Public Integrity – Ben Wieder | Published: 3/26/2015
Manoj Bhargava and several of his Michigan-based companies have given at least $5.3 million to candidates for state office and political groups around the country since 2009. But Bhargava remains a mystery man, even to many of the people who are benefiting from his largesse. Such donors are typically well known and aggressively courted by politicians who need their favor and funding to pay for campaigns. Yet Bhargava avoids the spotlight, both in politics and life, and he has gone to great lengths to obscure his political activity, even as his signature product – 5-hour Energy – draws more scrutiny from some of the same politicians he is supporting.
Rapper-Backed Group Illustrates Blind Spot in Political Transparency
Center for Public Integrity – Michael Beckel | Published: 3/31/2015
Super PACs are supposed to be transparent political committees, publicly disclosing who funds them. But limited liability companies (LLCs) can serve as vehicles for large donors to contribute to the groups, many of which are aligned with specific political candidates, while hiding their identities from voters. Some states, such as Delaware and Wyoming, do not require LLCs to identify the living, breathing people who own or control them. Instead, they need to provide only the name of a “registered agent,” which is often a company that exists only to serve as the registered agents for LLCs. New rules for LLCs have not been discussed at the FEC.
Sen. Robert Menendez Indicted
Washington Post – Paul Kane and Carol Leonnig | Published: 4/1/2015
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was indicted on corruption charges, accused of using his office to improperly benefit a Florida ophthalmologist and political donor. Menendez faces 14 counts, including bribery and conspiracy, over his ties to Dr. Salomon Melgen, who was also was charged in the case. The senator has acknowledged taking actions that could benefit Melgen, among them contacting U.S. health agencies to ask about billing practices and policies. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and suggested any gifts he received from Melgen were part of a close friendship. Melgen came under renewed scrutiny when government data last year showed he had received more in Medicare reimbursements in 2012 than any other doctor in the country.
From the States and Municipalities:
Arkansas – Senators Approve Improper-Gifts Bill
Arkansas Online – Michael Wickline ands Spencer Williams | Published: 4/2/2015
State officials who accept improper gifts from lobbyists would be able to avoid sanctions if they returned the gifts within 30 days, under legislation approved by the Arkansas Senate. If the prohibited gift were not returnable, the state official could pay the donor “consideration that is equal to or greater than the value of the gift” within those 30 days without penalty. Senate Bill 967 also would limit who can dine when an event is held for a legislative committee. Under the bill, lawmakers who do not serve on that committee would be prohibited from accepting free food and drinks. Senate Bill 967 amends state ethics laws and Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution and requires a two-thirds vote for approval in both chambers.
Indiana – Indiana Law Draws Republican White House Hopefuls into the Culture Wars
Washington Post – Philip Rucker and Robert Costa | Published: 3/31/2015
Most top Republican presidential hopefuls have moved in lock step to support Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has prompted protests and national calls for boycotts by major corporations. The agreement among the likely GOP candidates illustrates the enduring power of social conservatives in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina, which will help determine who emerges as the party’s nominee next year. But the position puts the field out of step with a growing national consensus on gay rights, handing Democrats a way to portray Republicans as intolerant and insensitive. Some Republicans also fear Indiana is only the first in a series of brush fires that could engulf the party as it struggles to adapt to the nation’s changing demographics and social mores.
Minnesota – Leap from Legislator to Lobbyist a Short One in Minnesota
St. Paul Pioneer Press – Rachel Stassen-Berger and Dan Bauman | Published: 3/28/2015
While many states and the federal government mandate a waiting period for departing lawmakers to become lobbyists, in Minnesota that is not the case. A St. Paul Pioneer Press analysis of registered lobbyists found since 2002 alone, at least five dozen legislators have registered to lobby their former colleagues after their terms expired. Some wait years after leaving the Legislature before becoming lobbyists; others delay only a few days. And a few, like former Sen. Dick Day, left their terms mid-session to lobby for issues on which they had previously voted.
New Mexico – How a Reform Bill Loses Its Teeth in 60 Days
KRGW – Michael Sol Warren (New Mexico In Depth) | Published: 3/27/2015
New Mexico lawmakers debated a bill this year that would have reveal to the public how lobbyists go about influencing legislators. In its original form, House Bill 155 required lobbyists to report a detailed list of expenses and which issues they are employed to work on, and organizations that employ lobbyists would have had to file a separate expense report. The version that passed only requires the secretary of state to create a searchable database of lobbyists. So how did the bill go from its original form, with so many requirements, to the watered-down proposal that now awaits Gov. Susana Martinez’s signature?
New York – Loopholes Seen in New Ethics Disclosure Rules for New York Legislators
New York Times – Susanne Craig and Thomas Kaplan | Published: 3/31/2015
New York lawmakers approved a $142 billion state budget that enacts new legislative disclosure rules intended to address corruption in Albany. But watchdogs said the fine print in the agreement suggests much will remain in the shadows. Five good-government groups, which have been pushing for broad changes to the state’s ethics laws, denounced the proposals as “incremental reform” and said it did not address a loophole that allowed corporations to give large campaign donations as smaller gifts that disguise the source of the money. They also criticized lawmakers for not releasing details of the reform until just hours before they were set to vote, leaving little time for public discussion.
Ohio – Political Strings Attached to Ohio College Scholarships?
Columbus Dispatch – Collin Binkley and Jim Siegel | Published: 3/30/2015
The Ohio Association of Career Colleges and Schools, a lobbying group that represents for-profit schools statewide, requires students to get a state lawmaker’s signature to be considered for its Legislative Scholarship program. The awards are valued at up to $44,000 each. Association leaders said the goal is to promote civic engagement by putting students in touch with elected officials. But critics see the program as a veiled lobbying effort intended to gain favor with legislators. It allows lawmakers to take credit for helping students even though the money is from the association. Others worry it could be a foothold for corruption. Two other states have banned or reformed similar programs after lawmakers awarded scholarships to family members, friends, and political backers.
Pennsylvania – AG Kane Quashed Subpoenas in Casino Investigation, Sources Say
Philadelphia Inquirer – Craig McCoy and Angela Couloumbis | Published: 4/1/2015
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane reportedly undermined a corruption investigation against a former state gaming official, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story. Anonymous sources said Kane revoked several subpoenas, including one involving former casino owner Louis DeNaples, shortly after taking office in 2013. The subpoenas were reportedly part of an investigation into the actions of Douglas Shiffer, former assistant counsel to the state Gaming Control Board. Shiffer allegedly shared information with DeNaples about a review of DeNaples’ casino license bid. The Inquirer reported Shiffer was hired to serve as general counsel for DeNaples’ Mount Airy Casino and Resort after DeNaples won the license. DeNaples contributed $25,000 to Kane’s campaign several months after the subpoenas were revoked, according to the report.
Texas – Austin’s Lobbying Rules Often Unheeded, Unenforced
Austin American-Statesman – Lilly Rockwell | Published: 3/28/2015
A long-overlooked section of Austin’s city code is murky on the definition of who must register as a lobbyist, which has resulted in the law being all but dismissed by some who advocate at City Hall. Watchdogs say the problem is no that lobbyists secretly shower city council members or staff with lavish meals or gifts, but that there is a lack of transparency about the level of influence some outside groups or individuals have. And by not registering as lobbyists, people with a financial stake in setting city policy are able to sit on boards and commissions.
Texas – Pressure-Packed City Council Vote Ends with Lobbyist Charged with Assault
KTRK – Ted Oberg and Trent Seibert | Published: 3/25/2015
The Houston City Council approved the bulk of $1.6 billion in airport concession contracts despite ongoing controversy about the fairness of the bidding process, including allegations that some winning companies crossed ethical lines. Many well-connected companies have been vying for the lucrative deals in what those at City Hall have dubbed “food fights.” That metaphor turned into an actual scuffle as one lobbyist pressed simple assault charges on another for shoving him in the hallway outside council chambers.
Utah – Mormon Church Lobbying in Utah’s Capitol – Hardball or Light Touch?
Salt Lake Tribune – Lee Davidson | Published: 3/29/2015
Former Utah Rep. Carl Wimmer caused an uproar by accusing the LDS Church of bullying Mormon lawmakers on such controversial topics as illegal immigration, alcohol, and the new law to protect gay and lesbian residents from workplace and housing discrimination. A couple of former legislators back Wimmer, who recently left the LDS Church to become an evangelical Christian. A far larger group of Mormon lawmakers say they have never experienced the kind of heavy-handed tactics described by Wimmer. In a state where more than 80 percent of legislators are Mormon, LDS positions can virtually assure passage of a bill or stop it in its tracks.
Virginia – McAuliffe Vows to Amend Ethics Bills to Close Loopholes
Washington Post – Laura Vozzella and Tom Jackman | Published: 3/27/2015
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he is amending ethics legislation passed by the General Assembly to further limit gifts lawmakers can accept from lobbyists. Lawmakers this year passed bills that would limit each gift to $100. But they came under criticism for perceived loopholes, including the lack of a cap on the number of those $100 gifts. McAuliffe said his amendments include an aggregate cap of $100 annually per lobbyist or entity seeking a contract with the state, a policy he said his administration already follows. The governor said he decided not to push for an ethics commission, independent of the Legislature, that would have powers to audit and issue subpoenas. Lawmakers opposed that idea.
Wisconsin – Campaign Money Tests Wisconsin Justices’ Impartiality
New York Times – Monica Davey | Published: 3/27/2015
The contentious 2011 elections for the Wisconsin Supreme Court wound up costing $5.7 million, including about $4.3 million in so-called issue ads paid for by outside groups. In the coming weeks, that outside campaign spending may be at issue again as the justices consider whether an investigation can proceed into claims that Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign improperly coordinated the spending by conservative groups during campaigns to recall him. Adding to the debate over judicial partisanship is a ballot measure that would allow a majority of justices to select the chief justice, who for over a century has been chosen by seniority. Under a policy approved by the state Supreme Court in 2010, judges need not recuse themselves from a case “based solely” on an endorsement, campaign contribution, independent expenditure, or issue advocacy.
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