August 7, 2015 •
News You Can Use Digest – August 7, 2015
Drunk on Power: Booze distributors ply statehouses to keep profits flowing
Center for Public Integrity – Liz Essley Whyte | Published: 8/6/2015
Alcohol distribution is a $135 billion industry in the U.S. To protect the regulations that guarantee their business, wholesalers bankroll scores of lobbyists and give millions of dollars in political contributions. Because alcohol is largely regulated at the state and local level, wholesalers aim most of their political firepower at statehouses. At least 22 states had bills in 2015 seeking to allow alcohol makers to circumvent distributors and sell their products directly to customers. They faced firm opposition because alcohol wholesaler alliances had at least 315 registered lobbyists spread across 49 states and the District of Columbia. Distributors gave about $14.6 million to state candidates, parties, and ballot issue groups in 2014.
Limits Unclear on New Political Party ‘Slush Funds’
Center for Responsive Politics – Carrie Levine | Published: 8/3/2015
A new law allows political parties to accept more than $800,000 per person per year, compared to $97,200 under the old limits. The money technically must be used only for specific purposes, such as legal expenses and improvements to party headquarters. But the limits are murkier than they seem, with some lawyers saying the money could legally pay for some election-related costs such as opposition research and data mining. And the FEC is at an impasse over whether and how to issue rules governing the new party accounts. As a result, decisions about spending the money are pretty much up to the parties and their lawyers.
Rand Paul Super PAC Head Indicted over Alleged 2012 Campaign Finance Violations
Washington Post – Sean Sullivan and Matea Gold | Published: 8/5/2015
A supporter and onetime close adviser to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was charged with hiding secret payments to secure the endorsement of an Iowa lawmaker during the 2012 presidential campaign of his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul. Jesse Benton, who had been tapped to run America’s Liberty, a super PAC that supports Rand Paul’s presidential bid, is accused of paying more than $70,000 to former Iowa Sen. Kent Sorenson to win his support ahead of the state’s caucuses in 2012. Also charged are John Tate and Dimitrios Kesari, who worked with Benton on the 2012 campaign. The three are accused of submitting false expense reports to the FEC. Benton is also accused of lying to the FBI.
Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving
New York Times – Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen, and Karen Yourish | Published: 8/1/2015
An analysis of FEC reports and IRS records shows the fundraising arms race has made most of the presidential hopefuls dependent on a small pool of the richest Americans. Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 campaign. The intensifying reliance on big money in politics mirrors the concentration of American wealth more broadly. In an era when a tiny fraction of the country’s population has accumulated a huge proportion of its wealth, the rich have also been empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other regulatory changes to spend more on elections.
From the States and Municipalities:
Alabama – Tom Albritton, Alabama’s New Ethics Executive Director, Wants to Be Fair, Consistent
AL.com – Mike Cason | Published: 7/31/2015
Tom Albritton, the new executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, said consistency is the key to applying a broadly written ethics law in a way that both guards the public’s trust and encourages good people to run for office. He said parts of the ethics law are nonspecific to the extent that it requires careful interpretation for every circumstance and event. “I think having broad language is a challenge to enforce consistently, and you can’t have a rigid set of rules that don’t work in the real world,” said Albritton.
California – Campaign Money Has MTA Board Members Missing Votes
Los Angeles Times – David Zahniser and Katie Shepherd | Published: 8/3/2015
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recused himself from dozens of Metropolitan Transportation Authority board votes last year as he sought to comply with one of California’s most restrictive rules on campaign contributions. Politicians on the board are prohibited from participating in decisions on contracts if they have received political donations of more than $10 from the companies seeking the work. One of his appointees to the board, city Councilperson Mike Bonin, withdrew from 34 contract decisions. County Supervisor Michael Antonovich stepped aside on 19 votes. For ethics experts, the practice of missing votes poses a question: does it mean the system is working, because politicians are staying away from the decisions that affect their campaign donors? Or does it show that it is broken, because board members repeatedly miss major financial decisions?
California – Public Officials Named in New Findings from FBI Probe of ‘Shrimp Boy’ Chow
San Francisco Examiner – Jonah Owen Lamb | Published: 8/4/2015
Evidence from the prosecution of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow potentially implicates a wide array of public officials in alleged bribery schemes, “pay-to-play” plots, money laundering, and bid-rigging. The federal investigation culminated in a sweeping indictment with 29 defendants. Among them was former California Sen. Leland Yee, who pleaded guilty to racketeering. Chow was charged with running a Chinese American community organization as a racketeering enterprise. A motion to dismiss the indictment included snippets of FBI reports and wiretap evidence that suggest San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and others participated in public corruption schemes but were spared prosecution “due to their political affiliations.’
Maine – Anti-Gay Marriage Group Suffers another Loss in Bid to Conceal Donors to Maine Campaign
Portland Press Herald – Steve Mistler | Published: 8/4/2015
Maine’s highest court rejected a national group’s latest bid to shield the identities of donors who contributed to its effort to overturn the state law allowing same-sex marriage. The state ethics commission fined the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) $50,250 last year for violating campaign finance laws and ordered it to file a report revealing the names of those who supported the referendum. NOM paid the fine but asked the Supreme Judicial Court to allow it to hold off on filing the report until the court considers its appeal of the commission’s decision. The justices denied that request, saying it is unlikely the organization will be successful in its challenge of the ethics panel’s ruling.
Massachusetts – 2 Businesses Fight State Ban on Campaign Contributions
MassLive.com – Shira Schoenberg | Published: 8/4/2015
An advocacy group and two business owners asked a judge to grant a preliminary injunction temporarily halting Massachusetts’ restrictions on corporate political giving. Under the state’s current campaign finance law, businesses are not allowed to contribute directly to candidates. Unions can contribute up to $15,000 to a candidate and individuals can contribute up to $1,000. Businesses cannot establish and fund PACs that donate to candidates, even though unions can. “Government can’t pick winners and losers in the political marketplace,” Jim Manley, senior attorney at the Goldwater Institute, told reporters before the hearing.
New York – JCOPE Denies Request to Shield Abortion-Issue Donors
Capital New York – Jimmy Vielkind | Published: 8/4/2015
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) rejected applications from Family Planning Advocates of New York and the state Civil Liberties Union for exemptions that would allow the groups to keep their most generous donors secret. The 2011 law that created JCOPE allows it to grant exemptions if donors to a specific group – advocacy organizations categorized as 501(c)4 groups – are likely to face “harm, threats, harassment, or reprisals” if their giving becomes known to the public. Commissioners who opposed the exemptions expressed concern that the standard of evidence in the applications, which detailed episodes of perceived threats, was insufficient.
Pennsylvania – City Adopts New Reporting Requirements for Campaign Financing
Philadelphia Daily News – Wendy Ruderman | Published: 7/31/2015
Mayor Michael Nutter signed legislation that requires non-candidate groups that fundraise for the purpose of influencing elections to submit campaign finance reports every two weeks, beginning six weeks before an election. Non-candidate groups include nonprofit organizations, corporations, partnerships, and PACs. Disclosures regarding electioneering communications, such TV ads purchased by non-candidate parties, are also required within 50 days of an election. The bill followed a Democratic mayoral primary in which a significant amount of so-called dark money was spent by independent groups to influence the race.
Pennsylvania – City’s Campaign Contribution Limits at Heart of Fattah Case
Philadelphia Inquirer – Chris Brennan | Published: 7/30/2015
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah had a plan as he prepared for Philadelphia’s 2007 mayoral race: raise six-figure contributions from wealthy donors and, if challenged, use the courts to overturn the city’s donation limits. The conventional wisdom in political and legal circles at the time was that those caps would not survive a legal challenge. A Philadelphia judge, as expected, overturned the limits in December 2006. Commonwealth Court put them back in a ruling that landed just six weeks before the mayoral primary. The ruling set Fattah on a course that ultimately led to his recent indictment on corruption charges as he tried to circumvent the local law.
Pennsylvania – Reading Councilman Pleads Guilty in Corruption Case
Philadelphia Inquirer – Jeremy Roebuck | Published: 8/5/2015
Reading City Council President Francisco Acosta pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe of $1,800 in return for his effort to repeal the city’s campaign finance law. Court documents do not identify the public official who offered the bribe, but said the official had the power to sign city council legislation into law. The only person with that power is Mayor Vaughn Spencer, whose home was raided in July by the FBI. “Public Official No. 1,” as court documents described the person offering the bribe, had taken campaign donations that violated city law. The official believed “his best chance of winning re-election would require keeping these contributions and raising additional funds which would be prohibited by the code of ethics,” according to the documents.
Texas – Appellate Panel Says Texas ID Law Broke U.S. Voting Rights Act
New York Times – Erik Eckholm | Published: 8/5/2015
A federal appeals court struck down Texas’s voter-identification law, ruling it violates the Voting Rights Act. Texas was allowed to use the law during the 2014 elections, thereby requiring an estimated 13.6 million registered voters to have a photo ID to cast a ballot. The ruling was a victory, although not a sweeping one, for Democrats and minority rights groups. Last year, a federal judge called the law the equivalent of a poll tax, but the three-judge panel of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Instead, it sent the law back to the lower court to consider how to fix the discriminatory effects. The state can appeal the unanimous decision to the full appeals court, or ask for a U.S. Supreme Court review.
Texas – Paxton Surrenders in Securities Fraud Indictment
Texas Tribune – Patrick Svitek | Published: 8/3/2015
Facing three felony counts of securities law violations, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was booked on felony securities fraud charges. The grand jury indictments show that two first-degree fraud charges were based on Paxton’s efforts in July 2011, when he was a member of the state House, to sell stock on behalf of Servergy. According to the indictments, Paxton failed to tell stock buyers that he had been compensated with 100,000 shares of Servergy stock. Paxton also said he was an investor in Servergy when he was not, the charges indicated. A third count accused Paxton of acting as an investment adviser representative without registering with the State Securities Board. Paxton is not required to leave office while he fights the charges.
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