September 22, 2017 •
News You Can Use Digest – September 22, 2017
Request Denied: States try to block access to public records
San Jose Mercury News – Andrew DeMillo and Ryan Foley (Associated Press) | Published: 9/17/2017
State lawmakers across the country introduced and debated dozens of bills during this year’s legislative sessions that would close or limit public access to a wide range of government records and meetings. Most of those proposals did not become law, but freedom-of-information advocates in some states said they were struck by the number of bills they believed would harm the public interest, and they are bracing for more fights next year.
Government Ethics Office Says It Will Stick with Ban on Anonymous Gifts
Politico – Darren Samuelsohn | Published: 9/15/2017
David Apol, the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics, said the agency is sticking with its long-standing stance prohibiting anonymous donations to White House legal defense funds, despite recently putting forward language that appeared to undercut that position. The OGE has been under fire in the wake of a report detailing a potentially critical change to the agency’s official guidance document that the OGE’s recently departed director said could give a green light to President Trump’s aides to accept anonymous donations to pay their attorney bills. But Apol said there has been no change, and he has been giving advice to outside groups that are coming forward to set up legal defense funds for Trump aides as the Russia probe intensifies that they should have their donors disclose their identities.
Trump Lawyers Clash Over How Much to Cooperate with Russia Inquiry
New York Times – Peter Baker and Kenneth Vogel | Published: 9/17/2017
President Trump’s lawyers are clashing over how much to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller. At the heart of the conflict is an issue that has challenged multiple presidents during inquiries: how to handle the demands of investigators without surrendering the institutional prerogatives of the office of the presidency. The debate in the West Wing has pitted Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, against Ty Cobb, a lawyer brought in to manage the response to the investigation. The friction escalated in recent days after Cobb was overheard by a reporter for The New York Times discussing the dispute during a lunchtime conversation at a popular Washington restaurant.
With a Picked Lock and a Threatened Indictment, Mueller’s Inquiry Sets a Tone
New York Times – Sharon LaFraniere, Matt Apuzzo, and Adam Goldman | Published: 9/18/2017
The raid on the home of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairperson, is an example of the aggressive tactics used by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of prosecutors in the four months since taking over the Justice Department’s investigation into Russia’s attempts to disrupt last year’s election. Dispensing with the plodding pace typical of many white-collar investigations, Mueller’s team has used what some describe as shock-and-awe tactics to intimidate witnesses and potential targets of the inquiry.
From the States and Municipalities:
California Passes Bill to Track ‘Dark Money’ in Political Ads and Campaigns
StateScoop – Jason Shueh | Published: 9/18/2017
California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 249, which its advocates say will spotlight “dark money” fueling political advertising. If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the state’s swarms of online ads, mass emails, and other media will be required to reveal the names of previously hidden donors within advertisements. The bill is designed to further state transparency efforts by eliminating common campaign funding tactics that use the names of political committees and groups to camouflage corporations, wealthy individuals, and political organizations.
Why Didn’t School Board President Ref Rodriguez Just Write Himself a Big Check?
Los Angeles Times – David Zahniser, Anna Phillips, and Howard Blume | Published: 9/17/2017
Los Angeles school board president Refugio Rodriguez, who won his school board seat in 2015, legally could have poured as much of his own money as he liked into his campaign. So why would he, as prosecutors claim, have arranged for others to donate and then use his funds to illegally pay them back? That question looms large as Rodriguez faces three felony charges in what investigators call a campaign money laundering scheme. Bob Stern, co-author of the California Political Reform Act, said he could not recall another case over the past 40 years of a sitting politician being accused of illegally paying back his own contributors. In campaigns, such violations are typically committed by donors or fundraisers, he said, not the politicians themselves.
Big Bucks Flow to Colorado Lobbyist Offices Steps from The Capitol
KUNC – Sandra Fish | Published: 9/13/2017
The nearly 600 lobbyists and lobbying firms in Colorado reported earning a total of $30 million in fiscal year 2017. Nearly half of the total is concentrated among the top 20 firms and individuals. Lobbyists’ busiest time of the year are the four months of the legislative session. Income reported to the secretary of state’s office bears that out. Lobbyist Julie McKenna said the hours are long during the legislative session. The four lobbyists in her firm reported tracking more than 300 bills earlier this year.
Millions Go to Board Members of Lexington’s Farmland Conservation Program
Lexington Herald-Leader – Beth Musgrave | Published: 9/18/2017
Six current or former members of a board that oversees a Fayette County farmland preservation program have received millions of dollars from the program. In total, past and current members of the Rural Land Management Board have received $6.2 million in payments for conservation easements on their farms as part of the Fayette County Purchase of Development Rights program. Farms that are owned or partially owned by three of those former or current board members received more than $1 million each from the program. None of the members were on the board at the time the program purchased conservation easements for their respective farms. But several have rotated on and off the board for years. They received payment for their conservation easements in between stints on the board.
Council Candidate Wants to Tie Disaster Relief to Campaign Contributions
Bethesda Magazine – Andrew Metcalf | Published: 9/19/2017
A plan to direct campaign donations to charities could test Montgomery County’s new public financing law. At-large county council candidate Brandy Brooks will hold a fundraiser in which she has promising to donate half of the campaign contributions to help victims of natural disasters. The state election board’s guide for candidates notes they may use campaign funds to attend a charitable event to raise their profile and network with potential voters and donors. The guide, however, says giving campaign funds as charitable donations is not permitted primarily because donors give to a candidate to support their platform and “when campaigns are spent for a non-campaign related purpose, it frustrates the intent of the contributor.”
Snyder Approves Unlimited Super PAC Cash
Detroit News – Michael Gerstein | Published: 9/20/2017
Less than 24 hours after the state Senate moved to send two campaign finance bills that expand on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation into law. Senate Bill 335 and Senate Bill 336 define and allow for independent expenditure committees like super PACs. Under the new law, candidates could solicit unlimited contributions to super PACs, which could then use the money to support the aspirations of the candidate. The super PACs could not coordinate directly with campaigns but they could share attorneys, consultants, and vendors with candidates they support.
Reform Laws Spurred by Treasurer Scandals Full of Loopholes
Santa Fe New Mexican – Andrew Oxford | Published: 9/16/2017
Federal investigators in 2005 accused then-state Treasurer Robert Vigil of demanding kickbacks from private financial advisers hired by the government to manage New Mexico’s investments. His predecessor, Michael Montoya, pleaded guilty to a similar extortion scheme, saying campaign debt drove him to solicit kickbacks from contractors. FBI agents quoted Montoya as saying kickbacks were merely “the way we do business in New Mexico.” Lawmakers approved reform measures that bar contractors from plying politicians with campaign donations or other gifts while vying for government business. And the changes required contractors to report donations they have made to public officials. But a decade later, those laws are full of loopholes.
How Party Bosses, Not Voters, Pick Politicians in New York
New York Times – Shane Goldmacher | Published: 9/18/2017
For decades, legislative seats in New York have traded hands in what amounts to one of the last, most powerful vestiges of Tammany Hall-style politics in the state. Election laws grant politicians and local political power brokers vast sway in picking candidates when legislators leave office in the middle of their term – whether they retire early, pass away, depart for another job, or are arrested. The rules are a crucial part of what empowers party bosses in a state that regularly outpaces the nation in corruption.
JCOPE Commissioners Again Rule Civil Liberties Group Must Disclose Donors
Albany Times Union – Chris Bragg | Published: 9/19/2017
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) decided the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) must disclose donors to its state lobbying efforts. JCOPE has ruled in the past that the NYCLU must reveal its donors, despite arguments from the group that such disclosure could potentially lead to reprisals against people who fund the organization. The NYCLU has received a number of threatening letters, but JCOPE has found there has not been a “substantial likelihood” of harm to donors whose names are listed on the agency’s website in lobbying disclosures.
Nepotism Runs Rampant in Oregon Legislature. Here’s How
Portland Oregonian – Gordon Friedman | Published: 9/16/2017
Oregon is one of the few states that allows lawmakers to hire family members; one in four legislators currently pays a family member to be on their staff. Legislators defend the practice, noting it has been something of a time-honored tradition to hire family members. Yet the practice of lawmakers hiring their family members as staff can be problematic. Lawmakers have a fiduciary duty to be good stewards of taxpayer funds, and spending state money on family members can hurt public trust in government, said Hana Callaghan, who runs the government ethics program at Santa Clara University.
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