January 20, 2017 •
News You Can Use Digest – January 20, 2017
There Are Huge Holes in How the U.S. States Investigate Politicians’ Conflicts of Interest
Washington Post – John Wihbey, Mike Beaudet, and Pedro Miguel Cruz | Published: 1/11/2017
Ethics and disclosure issues have been in the headlines lately as Donald Trump’s choices for Cabinet positions face Senate scrutiny. But what about state and local officials’ conflicts-of-interest? Researchers looked at what states require on their personal financial disclosure forms. Public officials and candidates for office must file these forms annually with ethics commissions or agencies in 47 states. The investigation found state requirements vary widely. When the forms were scored on fixed criteria, the researchers found that about 80 percent of states required little transparency, and few require enough to inform the public.
After Trump Rebuke, Federal Ethics Chief Called to Testify Before House Lawmakers
Washington Post – Lisa Rein, Tom Hamburger, and Mike DeBonis | Published: 1/13/2017
A letter from U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairperson of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Director Walter Shaub Jr. was viewed by many as a veiled threat to the OGE’s budget unless Shaub changes his rhetoric and approach. Shaub has questioned Donald Trump’s commitment to confront his potential conflicts-of-interest. In his letter, Chaffetz accused Shaub of “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance,” and asked him to appear before lawmakers in a closed-door, transcribed interview. Ethics lawyers from both parties said the OGE plays an important role, and dismantling it or reducing its authority would be a blow to avoiding conflicts in a new administration and enforcing basic standards of ethics and transparency.
‘Kompromat’ and the Danger of Doubt and Confusion in a Democracy
New York Times – Amanda Taub | Published: 1/15/2017
Since the emergence of an unverified, salacious claims about Donald Trump, Americans have debated the ramifications of the arrival of “kompromat” as a feature of U.S. politics. The debates have often framed this practice as little more than a political form of blackmail, and one particular to Russia. In fact, kompromat is more than an individual piece of damaging information; it is a broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society. And although this practice tends to be associated with Russia – the word kompromat is a portmanteau of the Russian words for “compromising” and “information” – it is a common feature of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian nations around the world.
The Trump Lobbying Purge That Wasn’t
Politico – Maggie Severns and Isaac Arnsdorf | Published: 1/18/2017
Despite Donald Trump’s efforts to keep lobbyists out of his administration, they have continued to offer policy advice, recommend job candidates, and contribute money to his transition team. And while they are barred from donating to the inaugural festivities, lobbyists have been collecting checks on Trump’s behalf. The loopholes in Trump’s restrictions are so widespread that many lobbyists said they have concluded his ethics rules are not really meant to change how business is done in Washington.
Trump’s Administration Will Regulate Trump’s Businesses, Raising Prospect of Conflicts
Washington Post – Rosalind Helderman, Drew Harwell, and Tom Hamburger | Published: 1/15/2017
When Donald Trump takes office, he will assume control of a federal bureaucracy with enormous power to bolster nearly every corner of his real estate, licensing, and merchandising empire, and enhance his personal fortune. Trump announced steps he and his lawyers said would provide adequate safeguards to separate his business from government. He said he will shift assets into a trust that will be managed by his sons. Providing few specifics, he promised no new foreign deals and said the company would adopt new internal systems to scrutinize potentially problematic domestic transactions. But Trump and his lawyers did not address how his administration will approach the range of regulatory actions and other decisions that could directly touch the business.
From the States and Municipalities:
California – State Watchdog Agency Investigating after Times Report on Political Donations
Los Angeles Times – Emily Alpert Reyes and David Zahniser | Published: 1/12/2017
The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has launched an investigation into political contributions connected to the developer of a Harbor Gateway apartment project. The FPPC opened its probe after receiving a letter from a Los Angeles Times reader, who pointed to the newspaper’s investigation into donors with ties to Samuel Leung, developer of the Sea Breeze project. The Times reported that donors linked directly or indirectly to Leung gave more than $600,000 to support 11 Los Angeles-area politicians as Sea Breeze was being reviewed at City Hall. Several people who are listed as campaign contributors said they could not remember making those donations or denied doing so. Campaign finance experts said those responses raised questions about whether someone else had provided the money, a practice that would violate the law.
Colorado – Colorado Ethics Commission Puts Denver, Aurora and Other Cities on Notice in Turf Battle Over Gift Rules
Denver Post – Jon Murray | Published: 1/14/2017
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission said it will consider hearing complaints against officials and employees if the panel finds their local ethics codes to be less restrictive than Amendment 41, which set a $50 gift limit (now $59) and banned even free drinks from lobbyists. That posture could affect Denver and more than 70 other home-rule cities and towns that were established by charters and have local ethics rules they view as sufficient to opt out of Amendment 41. Many of those lack similarly firm catch-all gift bans and set higher maximum values on allowed meals, event tickets and other things considered gifts – or do not set dollar limits at all.
Massachusetts – Could Lobbying Rules Have Saved Boston from Ill-Fated Grand Prix?
Boston Globe – Andrew Ryan | Published: 1/18/2017
After a year of no action and revelations about well-connected lobbyists pushing the Boston Grand Prix project forward, lobbying reform in the city is advancing. A member of Mayor Martin Walsh’s staff described the plan during a hearing of the city council committee hearing. For the first time, it would require lobbyists working to register and disclose where their payments come from, among other provisions. Failing to register could lead to daily fines.
Missouri – House Passes HB 60 to Limit Lobbyist Gifts
Missouri Times – Benjamin Peters | Published: 1/17/2017
The Missouri House passed a bill that sets a limit on lobbyist gifts to elected officials. House Bill 60 was approved by a vote of 149 to five. There are exceptions in the legislation. Lobbyists would be able to provide paid dinners to the entire General Assembly, providing they give a 72-hour notice and the meal is in Missouri. The bill now moves to the state Senate.
New Mexico – Leadership Shift Sparks Hope for Supporters of Campaign Finance Reform
New Mexio In Depth – Sandra Fish | Published: 1/15/2017
Critics say some provisions of New Mexico’s campaign finance law are unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. Inconsistencies and loopholes in the statute make following the trail of money in politics difficult. And the law fails to acknowledge the recent rise of money flowing into campaigns from independent groups. But following years of attempting to update the campaign finance law, 2017 could be the year for reform, with a new secretary of state and new legislative leaders.
New Mexico – Will Independent Ethics Oversight Catch On in 2017?
New Mexico In Depth – Trip Jennings | Published: 1/16/2017
New Mexico lawmakers over the last decade have balked at creating an independent ethics commission even as a parade of elected and appointed public officials stood accused of corruption and, in some cases, were convicted of crimes. Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico and a perennial supporter of ethics legislation, came up with an analogy: “Groundhog Day,” a movie in which the main character is forced to repeat the same day over and over again. Harrison hopes the 2017 legislative session will break the cycle, and on the surface the odds in Santa Fe appear favorable.
North Dakota – How a Mother-in-Law Inspired a Bill to Protect Drivers
Washington Post – Cleve Wootson Jr. | Published: 1/17/2017
Proposed legislation in North Dakota would protect some drivers from the legal consequences of running over a pedestrian protester. Rep. Keith Kempenich said his bill is a response to demonstrators blocking a highway as part of a protest over the proposed North Dakota Access pipeline. It is part of a slew of legislative measures that Republican lawmakers have written to combat the protests they say have disrupted life in and around the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. “This bill puts the onus on somebody who’s made a conscious decision to put themselves in harm’s way; you can protest all you want, but you can’t protest up on a roadway – it’s dangerous for everybody,” said Kempenich.
Pennsylvania – DA Williams Fined $62,0000 for Ethics Violations
Philadelphia Inquirer – Claudia Vargas | Published: 1/17/2017
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams must pay $62,000 in fines for failing to disclose gifts and source of income, according to a settlement approved by the city’s Board of Ethics. The penalty is the largest imposed by the board in its 10-year history. The agreement also requires Williams to pay another $2,840, the value of the prohibited gifts he accepted. In August, Williams amended his statements of financial interests for 2010 to 2015, listing $160,050 in previously unreported gifts, including home repairs, airfare, and lodgings for vacations, cash, and gift cards, and Philadelphia Eagles sideline passes.
Tennessee – House Lawmakers Must Disclose Political Junkets
The Tennessean – Joel Ebert | Published: 1/12/2017
The Tennessee House adopted a new ethics rule that requires lawmakers to disclose any expense-paid travel out of the state that is valued at more than $100. The Legislature has long posted the costs of state-paid travel on its website, but trips paid for by private parties did not have to be publicly disclosed. The change follows reports by The Tennessean about a five-day “”act finding” mission to Europe paid by a Republican donor about what he calls the dangers of radical Islam, and two trips for lawmakers paid for by school voucher advocates. Those trips did not have to be reported because they were not paid for by lobbyists.
Virginia – Lengthy New Ethics Bill Targets Redskin Tickets Loophole
The Daily Press – Travis Fain | Published: 1/16/2017
The General Assembly will tinker with Virginia’s ethics laws for the fourth year in a row, zeroing in, among other things, on a loophole that lets officials accept free football tickets. The bills also include a long list of other tweaks, many meant to simplify the implementation of reforms that lawmakers first passed in 2014 as a response to former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s gift scandal. One change would exempt meals provided by non-profits at conferences from the state’s $100 gift limit. Another would clarify that legitimate birthday gifts from personal friends do not violate the cap, even if that friend is a lobbyist.
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