May 17, 2019 •
News You Can Use Digest – May 17, 2019
At the N.R.A., a Cash Machine Sputtering
MSN – Danny Hakim (New York Times) | Published: 5/14/2019
A review of tax records by The New York Times shows that, to steady its finances, the National Rifle Association (NRA) increasingly relied on cash infusions and other transactions involving its affiliated foundation, at least $206 million worth since 2010. The role of the foundation is among the issues being examined in a new investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status by the New York attorney general. At issue for investigators, tax experts say, would be whether that money was being used for charitable purposes, as required by law, and not to help finance the NRA’s political activities.
‘Being Governor Ain’t What It Used to Be’: How their road to the White House became an uphill climb
Governing – Alan Greenblatt | Published: 5/8/2019
Governors were once a dominant force in presidential politics, winning seven of the eight elections between 1976 and 2004. Those days appear to be over. In 2016, no fewer than 10 current or former governors ran for president. None of them came close to winning a major-party nomination. This year, the Democratic field is dominated by U.S. senators, while governors are at the back of the pack in the polls. Historically, governors fared well in national politics when voters were fed up with Washington, noted Saladin Ambar, a political scientist at Rutgers University. Yet the public’s trust in the federal government is near an all-time low, and governors are still failing to gain any traction.
Complaints Grow That Trump Staffers Are Campaigning for Their Boss
Politico – Anita Kumar | Published: 5/15/2019
A Trump appointee displayed a “Make America Great Again” hat at her Housing and Urban Development office. A top official at the Office of Management and Budget used his official Twitter account to promote President Trump’s campaign slogan. And White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway delivered a scathing and unprompted attack on Trump’s potential opponent, Joe Biden, during a television interview. Those three instances, all in the last few months, are just a few of the growing number of complaints since Trump took office that federal employees are using their platform to campaign for the president or his allies, a violation of the Hatch Act. In Trump’s first year on the job, formal complaints to the government office that oversees compliance with the 80-year-old law jumped nearly 30 percent.
Donald Trump Jr. Strikes Deal for ‘Limited’ Interview with Intelligence Committee
MSN – Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos (New York Times) | Published: 5/14/2019
Donald Trump Jr. and the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee reached a deal for the president’s eldest son to return for a time-limited private interview with senators in the coming weeks, an accord that should cool a heated intraparty standoff. The terms of the compromise include an appearance by Trump Jr. in mid-June, with the questions limited to about a half-dozen topics and the time limited to no longer than two to four hours. Senate investigators are particularly interested in asking the younger Trump about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, as well as about his knowledge of a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. Some Democrats have accused Trump Jr. of potentially misleading other congressional committees.
Duped into Making a Bogus Campaign Donation? Call a Prosecutor
Bloomberg Government – Kenneth Doyle | Published: 5/8/2019
It seems to be equally true that federal authorities are cracking down on grifters who live large on money Americans thought they gave to legitimate political campaigns, and federal authorities might be encouraging scammers by doing nothing about misleading appeals for political money. The first set of authorities work for the U.S. Justice Department. The other is the FEC, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans. When their views clash, it is a tie and nothing can happen. “The Justice Department has become the primary enforcer of campaign finance laws because the FEC is unable to do its job,” said election attorney Brett Kappel. A potential downside, he said, is that prosecutors focus on the most egregious cases that can lead to a criminal conviction, so many other cases can slip through the cracks.
Evidence of Illegal Campaign Donations by Boston’s Thornton Law Firm Found, Case Dismissed Anyway
Boston Globe – Andrea Estes | Published: 5/15/2019
Staff lawyers at the FEC found Boston’s Thornton Law firm likely used a phony program to repay partners for political donations, but the case was dismissed after commissioners deadlocked on whether to pursue it. FEC staff found extensive evidence that Thornton, a major supporter of the Democratic Party and its candidates, illegally reimbursed partners for more than $1 million in donations. But commission voted along party lines and produced a tie vote, which dismisses the complaint instead of opening a full-scale investigation. Now, the group that filed the complaint against Thornton, the Campaign Legal Center, is considering pursuing the matter in federal court.
Federal Election Commission Lays Bare Internal Conflicts and Challenges in Letter to Congress
Center for Public Integrity – Dave Levinthal | Published: 5/9/2019
The FEC’s four leaders are offering lawmakers clashing perspectives on the agency’s very purpose. The commissioners’ comments are part of 171 pages’ worth of responses to dozens of questions Committee on House Administration Chairperson Zoe Lofgren sent the agency. Lofgren has openly doubted the FEC’s ability to function as it struggles with deadlocked votes, internal conflict, chronic vacancies, and low morale. Her inquiries come at a time when “dark money” and the specter of foreign election interference have captured the attention of the public amid historically long and expensive federal campaign seasons.
How William Barr, Now Serving as a Powerful Ally for Trump, Has Championed Presidential Powers
Connecticut Post – Tom Hamburger (Washington Post) | Published: 5/14/2019
Embracing a theory that the Constitution grants presidents sweeping authority, Attorney General William Barr is part of a group of conservative intellectuals who have been leading the charge to expand the powers of the executive branch over the past four decades. The doctrine, which gained support amid a backlash against post-Watergate constraints on the presidency, is back in the fore as President Trump and Congress are locked in a bitter fight over the bounds of executive power. Back at the helm of the Justice Department, Barr is in a singular position to put his philosophy into action. Critics say Barr is providing the intellectual framework to enable Trump’s view of an imperial presidency and stonewall legitimate requests for information from Congress.
Rudy Giuliani Cancels His Trip to Ukraine, Blaming Democrats’ ‘Spin’
MSN – Kenneth Vogel (New York Times) | Published: 5/11/2019
Facing accusations of seeking foreign assistance for President Trump’s re-election campaign, Rudolph Giuliani announced he had canceled a trip to Kiev in which he planned to push the incoming Ukrainian government to press ahead with investigations that he hoped would benefit Trump. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, explained that he felt as if he was being “set up” by Ukrainians critical of his efforts, and he blamed Democrats for trying to “spin” the trip. The Ukrainian trip raised the specter of a lawyer for Trump pressing a foreign government to pursue investigations his allies hope could help him win re-election. And it comes after Trump has spent more than half of his term facing scrutiny about whether his 2016 campaign conspired with Ukraine’s hostile neighbor, Russia.
Scrutiny of Russia Investigation Is Said to Be a Review, Not a Criminal Inquiry
MSN – Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman, and Nicholas Fandos (New York Times) | Published: 5/14/2019
The federal prosecutor tapped to scrutinize the origins of the Russia investigation is conducting only a review for now and has not opened any criminal inquiry. U.S. Attorney John Durham is broadly examining the government’s collection of intelligence involving the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russians. The additional details about the scope and limits of his role emerged a day after it was reported that Attorney General William Barr had put Durham in charge of scrutinizing the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation during the 2016 election. The distinction means Durham for now will not wield the sort of law enforcement powers that come with an open criminal investigation, such as the ability to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to testify.
Trump and His Allies Are Blocking More Than 20 Separate Democratic Probes in an All-Out War with Congress
MSN – Rachael Bade and Seung Min Kim (Washington Post) | Published: 5/10/2019
President Trump and his allies are working to block more than 20 separate investigations by Democrats into his actions as president, his personal finances, and his administration’s policies, according to a Washington Post analysis, amounting to what many experts call the most expansive White House obstruction effort in decades. Trump’s noncooperation strategy has shifted from partial resistance to all-out war as he faces mounting inquiries from the Democratic-controlled House, a strategy many legal and congressional experts fear could undermine the institutional power of Congress for years to come. House Democrats say the administration has failed to respond to or comply with at least 79 requests for documents or other information.
Trump’s Lawyers Question Congress’ Power to Investigate Him, Battle House Over Demand for Financial Records
USA Today – Bart Jansen | Published: 5/14/2019
Lawyers for President Trump and the U.S. House clashed in federal court over the extent of Congress’ power to investigate him in the first legal test of Trump’s effort to block sprawling probes of his finances and private business. Trump wants a judge to prevent a congressional committee from obtaining financial records from his longtime accountant, Mazars USA. It is the first court test of how much information the half-dozen committees conducting investigations of Trump and his businesses might be able to obtain. Trump’s personal lawyer argued Congress was seeking the president’s financial information for what is essentially a law-enforcement purpose, which was outside its authority, rather to work on legislation. Douglas Letter, the general counsel for the House, argued that Congress has broad investigative authority.
Want a Bridge? Trump Blurs Line Between Governing, Campaign
AP News – Jill Colvin | Published: 5/15/2019
President Trump stood before a Louisiana crowd at an official taxpayer-funded event and tossed out an enticing promise. “If we win this election, which is just 16 months away, we’re giving you a brand new I-10 bridge.” Trump’s commitment drew cheers from his audience. But it generated immediate criticism from ethics experts who have already sounded alarms about Trump’s apparent willingness to put the federal bureaucracy to work for his own political gain. All presidents benefit from the trappings of the office. But as Trump heads into his re-election campaign, historians and observers are wondering just how far the president might be willing to go in using the levers of presidential power to energize his supporters and help bolster his election chances, especially if the polls are tilting against him.
White House Asked McGahn to Declare Trump Never Obstructed Justice
MSN – Michael Schmidt (New York Times) | Published: 5/10/2019
White House officials asked at least twice in the past month for the key witness against President Trump in the Mueller report, Donald McGahn, to say publicly he never believed the president obstructed justice. Trump asked White House officials to make the request to McGahn, who was the president’s first White House counsel. McGahn declined. His reluctance angered the president, who believed McGahn showed disloyalty by telling investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller about Trump’s attempts to maintain control over the Russia investigation. McGahn initially entertained the White House request. But after Meuller’s report was released, detailing the range of actions Trump took to try to impede the inquiry, McGahn decided to pass on putting out a statement supportive of the president.
Canada – Watchdog Warns Lobbyists About Partisan Fundraisers, Expressing Political Views
National Observer – Carl Meyer | Published: 5/13/2019
Federal Lobbying Commissioner Nancy Bélanger warned lobbyists in Canada to be careful about participating in partisan activities such as fundraising events and expressing personal political views in public, to avoid placing themselves in a conflict-of-interest. She delivered the warning in updated guidelines for lobbyists posted a few days after a significant court ruling that also appeared to expand the scope of the federal Lobbying Act. The new guidelines shift some activities that Bélanger’s office had previously considered to hold “no risk” into a new category she said does carry risks of placing a lobbyist in a conflict-of-interest situation.
From the States and Municipalities
Florida – Former Palm Bay Deputy Manager Dave Isnardi Arrested, Charged with Racketeering, Other Felonies
Florida Today – John McCarthy | Published: 5/10/2019
Former Palm Bay Deputy City Manager Dave Isnardi was arrested on charges of racketeering and conspiracy. Isnardi is the husband of Brevard County Commission Chairperson Kristine Isnardi. A second man, Jose Aguiar, a former candidate for the Palm Bay City Council, also was arrested. The arrest warrants show the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement have been investigating allegations of corruption and undue influence on city officials in Palm Bay since at least 2015. Though not arrested or charged, the warrants allege city Councilperson Jeff Bailey had an addiction to oxycodone and former Councilperson Tres Holton had sex with prostitutes and used cocaine. It also alleges Holton obtained prostitutes for Mayor William Capote while the men were in Tallahassee.
Florida – NRA Pays Lobbyist Marion Hammer Big Bucks, But You Won’t Find That Disclosed in Tallahassee
Florida Bulldog – Dan Christensen | Published: 5/14/2019
The National Rifle Association (NRA) paid Tallahassee lobbyist Marion Hammer more than $250,000 last year in the wake of the Parkland school massacre. But that payment is not disclosed on quarterly compensation reports that lobbying firms and contract lobbyists are required to file with the Florida Senate. Hammer, both an NRA board member and a registered NRA lobbyist in Florida, has not filed any compensation reports with the state since at least 2007. During Hammer’s tenure with the NRA, the Florida Legislature passed the landmark “Right to Carry” law, allowing weapons, including handguns, to be carried in public in a concealed manner. She also helped secure many other pro-gun laws, including the “Firearms Preemption Law” that eliminated hundreds of gun-control ordinances in cities and counties across the state.
Georgia – Georgia Insurance Commissioner Indicted on Fraud Charges
AP News – Kate Brumback | Published: 5/14/2019
Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner Jim Beck was indicted on federal charges of wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering that stem from alleged crimes that preceded his election. The indictment accuses Beck of devising an elaborate fraudulent invoicing scheme to defraud his employer out of more than $2 million over a five-year period just prior to his election. The charges relate to Beck’s time as general manager of operations for the Georgia Underwriting Association. The indictment says Beck used the money for personal expenses and to fund personal investment, retirement, and savings accounts, as well as his statewide election campaign. The indictment also says he used the funds to buy and improve personal rental property and for personal state and federal income taxes.
Louisiana – Why the ‘Most Egregious’ Ethics Case in Louisiana Remains Open Nine Years Later
ProPublica – Andrea Gallo (The Advocate) | Published: 5/16/2019
In 2010, the Louisiana Board of Ethics accused former state Sen. Robert Marionneaux Jr. of failing to disclose he was being paid to represent a company in a lawsuit against Louisiana State University (LSU). The lack of transparency was only part of the problem. Marionneaux offered to get the Legislature to steer public money toward a settlement, according to charges the board later filed against him. The money would also help pay off his contingency fee, which an LSU lawyer pegged at more than $1 million. The case is pending and Marionneaux has not been punished. Watchdogs and ethics advocates say the glacial pace of the Marionneaux case and its limited scope exemplify the weaknesses of Louisiana’s ethics enforcement system.
Massachusetts – New Rules Mean Chick-fil-A Is Now a Registered Lobbyist at City Hall – Along with Many Others
Boston Globe – Milton Valencia | Published: 5/15/2019
Under a first-of-its-kind lobbying ordinance that went into effect this year, more than 230 lobbyists, firms, and their clients have registered in Boston, and the list reads like a who’s who of players in local politics. The new regulations are intended to make public those who influence city business, especially at a time when Boston has been regulating burgeoning industries, such as cannabis and short-term rentals. Prior to this, only a handful of lobbying and law firms complied with a little-known and unenforced city ordinance that required them to notify the clerk’s office that they had be doing business with the city council. Any lobbyists or advocates who dealt with the city otherwise went virtually undetected.
Massachusetts – Regulators Slash the Dollar Amount Unions Can Donate to Candidates in Mass.
Boston Globe – Matt Stout | Published: 5/9/2019
The Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) released a new regulation that reduces how much unions and nonprofit groups can contribute to individual candidates in Massachusetts. It limits contributions to $1,000 per candidate, $5,000 per party, and $500 per PAC. Currently, labor unions can give up to $15,000 annually to a single candidate. Derided by critics as a loophole for unions, the $15,000 cap survived a challenge before the Supreme Judicial Court when the justices upheld the longstanding ban on direct corporate gifts. But the court implied the OCPF should review the regulation about the cap. The limits take effect May 31.
Michigan – Michigan Lawmaker Indicted on Bribery Charge Over Prevailing Wage Repeal Vote
Detroit News – Jonathan Oosting | Published: 5/15/2019
Michigan Rep. Larry Inman is facing federal charges for allegedly soliciting bribes and attempted extortion ahead of a 2018 vote to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law for construction workers. A grand jury indictment includes text messages from Inman that show the him seeking campaign contributions from the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights union, which opposed the initiated legislation. Authorities are accusing Inman of unlawfully and corruptly soliciting those contributions in exchange for a potential “no” vote on the legislation, which he ended up voting for instead. “We only have 12 people to block it,” Inman said in a text to a union representative. “You said all 12 will get $30,000 each to help there (sic) campaigns. That did not happen, we will get a ton of pressure on this vote.”
Missouri – St. Louis Aldermen Push New Lobbyist Gift Limits, Campaign Donation Rules
St. Louis Post-Dispatch – Mark Schlinkmann | Published: 5/14/2019
A ban on lobbyist gifts of more than five dollars to elected city officials and restrictions on campaign donations from individuals or entities seeking city contracts are part of a set of ethics proposals to be introduced at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. The package also bars contributions to candidates for city offices made with the intent of concealing the identity of the money’s source. The three city charter amendments, if endorsed by the board, would go before voters at the November 2020 election.
New Jersey – Will Murphy’s CV Deal a Death Blow to NJ’s Dark-Money Bill?
NJ Spotlight – Colleen O’Dea | Published: 5/14/2019
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy issued a conditional veto of a bill that would have required certain independent expenditure committees to disclose their donors. The legislation required groups to disclose all spending over $3,000, and said donors giving over $10,000 must be listed. Murphy said because the measure applied to groups influencing legislation and regulations, it could go beyond the scope of disclosure allowed under the Constitution. The governor also said those who receive tax credits over $25,000 should be required to disclose donors, and any entity with $17,500 or more in contracts with a public body should disclose all contributions to outside advisory groups. Lawmakers can vote to agree with Murphy’s conditions, in which case it would become law. They could also try to override the veto.
South Dakota – Federal Judge Strikes Down IM 24 as Unconstitutional
Sioux Falls Argus Leader – Lisa Kaczek | Published: 5/9/2019
A federal judge struck down a ban on out-of-state contributions to South Dakota ballot question committees. U.S. District Court Judge Charles Kornmann issued an order declaring Initiated Measure 24 as unconstitutional because it violates “the First Amendment rights to engage in political speech and to associate with others to fund political speech.” It is also unconstitutional because it interferes with the “free flow of money” between people and entities from another state, Kornmann wrote in his judgment. Kornmann ordered that the state is barred from implementing or enforcing the law, which was scheduled to take effect July 1.
Tennessee – After Bragging About Sex at Party Fowl, Former Chief of Staff’s Tab May Have Been Paid by Glen Casada Donors
The Tennessean – Joel Ebert | Published: 5/15/2019
When Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada’s former chief of staff boasted to his boss in 2016 about having sex with a woman at Party Fowl, the food and drink purchases made at the restaurant may have been paid for by campaign donors. The finding comes amid a larger review of spending by lawmakers, including Casada, who utilize PACs. The review highlights a loophole in state law that allows lawmakers to create PACs and spend thousands of dollars on items they would normally be prohibited from purchasing using traditional campaign funds. Casada faces calls for his resignation as he reels from a scandal involving a series of racist and misogynistic text messages sent by his former chief of staff, including the exchange about sex in a bathroom at a Nashville restaurant.
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