May 19, 2017 •
News You Can Use Digest – May 19, 2017
Deputy Attorney General Appoints Special Counsel to Oversee Probe of Russian Interference in Election
Washington Post – Devlin Barrett, Sari Horwitz, and Matt Zapotosky | Published: 5/18/2017
The Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel to oversee the investigation into ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, dramatically raising the legal and political stakes in an affair that has threatened to engulf Trump’s presidency. The decision by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein came after a cascade of damaging developments for Trump in recent days, including his abrupt dismissal of James Comey as FBI director, and the subsequent disclosure that the president asked Comey to drop the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
DOJ Deflects Calls for More Foreign Agents Act Transparency
Bloomberg BNA – Kenneth Doyle | Published: 5/11/2017
Watchdogs are calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to make public all of its advisory opinions on the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law aimed at letting the public know about foreign influence on U.S. politics. The Justice Department recently posted online brief summaries of three past advisory opinions issued under FARA. It has indicated no plans for further action. Meanwhile, other, more complex questions about who must register under the law have increased. High-profile advocates, including Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, recently filed disclosures under FARA revealing past work for foreign governments or political parties.
Reckless Stock Trading Leaves Congress Rife with Conflicts
Politico – Maggie Severns | Published: 5/14/2017
A Politico investigation found 28 House members and six senators each traded more than 100 stocks in the past two years, placing them in the potential cross hairs of a conflict-of-interest on a regular basis. A handful of lawmakers, some of them frequent traders and some not, disproportionately trade in companies that also have an interest in their work on Capitol Hill. House and Senate members who are active traders insist their buying and selling is a normal part of managing their finances, as with any American who wants to save for retirement. But the clear majority of lawmakers avoid potential conflicts by buying mutual funds, putting their portfolios in blind trusts, or simply staying out of the stock market.
The Right Builds an Alternative Narrative About the Crises Around Trump
New York Times – Jeremy Peters | Published: 5/17/2017
As Americans process a dizzying week of damning revelations about President Trump, he has found shelter on the right, where the collective judgment of the conservative media and the Republican Party so far seems to be to shift the blame and change the subject. His most fervent supporters are building alternative narratives to run alongside the “mainstream media” account, from relatively benign diversions to more bizarre conspiracies. For many Trump loyalists, the issue is not whether his presidency is messy and chaotic and dysfunctional; the more relevant question is whether they see anyone else who is equipped to change Washington in the way Trump promised he would.
What Is Obstruction of Justice? An Often-Murky Crime, Explained
New York Times – Charlie Savage | Published: 5/16/2017
The report that President Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has sparked charges that Trump is obstructing justice. Several federal statutes criminalize actions that impede official investigations. While some examples of illegal ways to thwart the justice system are specific, like destroying evidence, the law also includes broad, catchall prohibitions. Could that cover asking the FBI director to drop part of an investigation, and later firing him?
From the States and Municipalities:
California – Mayor’s Top Aide Got Married at Bayfront Estate of Developer and SoccerCity Supporter
San Diego Union-Tribune – Jeff McDonald | Published: 5/12/2017
Stephen Puetz, chief of staff to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, took his wedding vows at a private home owned by developer Morgan Dene Oliver, who advocating for the SoccerCity plan for the city-owned Qualcomm Stadium property. Puetz said he received no special treatment from Oliver. As soon as he was offered use of the estate, he said, he contacted the city Ethics Commission to see how he could best meet the conflict-of-interest rules. Puetz said he and his wife, former council aide and registered lobbyist Diana Palacios, paid for the wedding themselves, including a reasonable fee to Oliver for use of the property.
Massachusetts – City Council Debates Level of Transparency in Lobbying Act
Spare Change News – Beth Treffeisen | Published: 5/15/2017
The Boston City Council held a hearing to discuss Mayor Martin Walsh’s re-filing of the proposed home rule petition on lobbying. At the hearing, questions soon arose on whether this draft is what would work best for the city. In its current form, the petition is modeled after existing lobbying regulations at the state-level, but also goes beyond the state’s framework by covering communications not only with elected officials but also with all city employees at all levels of municipal government.
Missouri – Greitens Fails to Meet Promises on Ethics Laws
Southeast Missourian – Summer Ballentine (Associated Press) | Published: 5/15/2017
Bills to strengthen state ethics laws, a campaign pledge of Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, languished and failed to make it to his desk before lawmakers adjourned the 2017 legislative session. While Greitens said he “set the example on ethics” by enacting lobbyist-gift and revolving-door bans in the executive branch, lawmakers said a not-for-profit with secret donors that promotes his agenda helped undermine his policy proposals in the Legislature.
Montana – New Commissioner Takes Over at Political Practices Office
U.S. News & World Report – Matt Volz (Associated Press) | Published: 5/15/2017
Jeff Mangan has taken over as Montana’s commissioner of political practices, succeeding Jonathan Motl. The office is a political hot seat by nature of its role as the independent overseer of the campaign activities of the state’s elected officials. Allegations of partisan bias tend to dog the commissioner, who is appointed by the governor and must be confirmed by the Senate. As a result, the commissioner’s office has seen frequent turnover – Mangan will be the fifth person to hold the office since Dennis Unsworth in 2010, and he is the first in that time to be confirmed to a full six-year term.
New Hampshire – N.H. Ethics Committee Has Fielded Dozens of Complaints, But Issued No Violations
New Hampshire Public Radio – Casey McDermott | Published: 5/15/2017
The Executive Branch Ethics Committee has spent much of the last decade maintaining a remarkably low profile – it has never held a public hearing on a complaint or recommended any penalties against public officials accused of ethics breaches. From the beginning, this seven-member panel was designed to serve as a resource and a kind of conscience-check for state officials. On that end, it has published dozens of advisory opinions, but the committee was also supposed to be a place where the public could turn when they thought executive branch officials were breaking the rules.
New Jersey – ‘P.S.: One of the ring leaders works in your bank!’: Is this congressman’s fundraising letter a threat?
Washington Post – Amber Phillips | Published: 5/15/2017
In a hand-written note, U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen outed a member of an activist group opposing the incumbent Republican to her employer. Saily Avelenda was still a senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Lakeland Bank in March when Frelinghuysen sent a fundraising letter to a member of the bank’s board of directors informing him that Avelenda was one of the “ringleaders” of NJ 11th for Change. The group formed in response to the election of President Trump and has been pressuring Frelinghuysen to meet with constituents in his district and to oppose Trump’s agenda. Avelenda subsequently resigned from her position at the bank.
North Carolina – Strict North Carolina Voter ID Law Thwarted After Supreme Court Rejects Case
New York Times – Adam Liptak and Michael Wines | Published: 5/15/2017
The U.S. Supreme Court will not review a decision that found North Carolina’s 2013 voting law discriminated against African American voters. A unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had found in 2016 that North Carolina legislators had acted “with almost surgical precision” to blunt the influence of African American voters. Last summer, the Supreme Court had divided evenly on whether the law could be used in last fall’s election while the appeals continued. As is the court’s custom, the justices gave no reason for declining to hear the case. But Chief Justice John Roberts issued a statement noting there was a dispute about who represented the state in the case and nothing should be read into the court’s decision to decline to hear it.
South Carolina – State Rep. Rick Quinn Indicted by State Grand Jury
Charleston Post & Courier – Glenn Smith | Published: 5/16/2017
State Rep. Rick Quinn is the fourth South Carolina legislator charged as part of a corruption probe. A grand jury indicted Quinn on two counts of misconduct in office. He is accused of using campaign donations for personal profit. Quinn is the son of veteran strategist Richard Quinn, who owns marketing and political consulting firms. Rick Quinn, also a campaign consultant, owns a direct-mail business. The Quinns have said they keep their firms separate, but the indictments allege Rep. Quinn has an economic interest in all of them. Quinn’s father has not been charged. But the millions of dollars the Quinn firms have collected and spent on clients’ behalf have been a central part of the inquiry.
Vermont – Vt. Political Ethics Bill Moves to Governor’s Desk
Burlington Free Press – April McCullum | Published: 5/11/2017
A bill passed by Vermont lawmakers sets up a state ethics commission in 2018 with a part-time executive director that would review complaints, but would have no investigative or enforcement authority. The commission would also create a state ethics code. The bill also limits lawmakers and government officials from lobbying immediately after they leave office. Individuals who give campaign contributions to a candidate would have to wait one year before that politician’s office could consider them for a no-bid state contract over $50,000.
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