Here’s your weekly roundup of the important political corruption stories we’ve been tracking.
Democrats Join Republicans To Weaken Dodd-Frank
The Senate is preparing to roll back major banking regulations instituted after the 2008 financial crisis.
The Senate is preparing to take an initial procedural vote this week which would move along the most substantial weakening of Dodd-Frank since it was passed in 2010. The Crapo bill, also known as the Banking Lobbyist Act, exempts many major financial companies from stricter supervision by the Federal Reserve. It already has support from Senate Republicans as well as 12 Democrats and appears to be moving swiftly towards becoming law.
If passed, about 25 of the 40 largest banks in America would escape heightened scrutiny. In addition, many of these massive financial firms would be regulated as though they were smaller community banks. Critics argue that this aspect of the bill completely ignores the notion that these companies have a massive impact on the economy, possessing assets between $50 billion and $250 billion dollars. Meanwhile, supporters argue that the legislation would bring much needed relief to the mid-size and regional banks that were squeezed under Dodd-Frank.
This week, proponents of the Banking Lobbyist Act worked to amend the measure in order to appease critics. Senators filed an additional flood of amendments designed to ease rising concerns about foreign bank regulation and commercial real-estate regulation.The provisions were released late Wednesday, and state that the bill will not affect the Federal Reserve System’s current regulation of foreign banks above $1 million dollars in assets. Now, the biggest remaining challenge is to reconcile the House and Senate versions of this bill.
While all of this has been happening, lobbyists from the financial sector have flooded Capitol Hill. More than 5,000 credit union advocates have held at least 600 meetings with lawmakers in the past few weeks. Although lobbying efforts have increased thanks to the approaching debate, that does not mean that financial firms haven’t been lobbying year-round. Over the past year, many financial companies upped their campaign contributions to key Democrats in the Senate. Among the recipients of these donations were Donnelly, Heitkamp, and Tester, who have disputed any connection between their support for the rewrite and these contributions.
The bill needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, and with increasing Democratic support, it appears that this will be accomplished. If passed, the measure will move to a procedural vote on Tuesday, March 13th.
The Bottom Line: Special interests use a combination of money and lobbying to influence our lawmakers to support policies they care about.
Super PAC Under Fire for Secrecy Scheme
A Birmingham, AL Super PAC is being accused of engaging in a “secrecy scheme” which allowed them to spend $4.2 million in support of Democrat Doug Jones.
On Monday, the nonpartisan watchdog group the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint to the Federal Election Commission against the Democratic super PAC, Highway 31, for failing to disclose their donors before the special election in January. This complaint comes a few months after the election of Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race, who is the first Democratic candidate elected to the position in 25 years. In a statement explaining the incident, Brian Fischer, a spokesperson for the Campaign Legal Center, said that “despite laws requiring that super PAC’s disclose their donors, Alabama voters went to the polls on election day without knowing who was backing Highway 31.”
In total, Highway 31 spent over $4 million in the 2017 special election, yet they only reported having spent $1.15 million to the FEC prior to the election. The group claimed to have been lent money on credit from out of state vendors and stated that they had not raised any money on their own. The Campaign Legal Center argues that it is these lines of credits which allowed the PAC to avoid disclosing that it was being backed by many national Democratic groups. Amongst these groups were the Senate Majority PAC, who gave $3 million, and Priorities USA, who donated over $900K towards Jones election.
Now, Highway 31 is facing serious scrutiny for this “secrecy scheme”. The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint to the FEC highlights the lack of transparency of Highway 31, as well as their misrepresentation of donors. Transparency advocates are concerned that this incident could set a dangerous new precedent by revealing a “loophole” that parties on both sides could repeat in the future. As Brian Fischer put it, “this secrecy scheme cooked up by Highway 31 and its backers threatens to create a new disclosure loophole that will be exploited by billionaire and operatives supporting both parties, unless the FEC steps up and enforces disclosure laws.” In response to this scrutiny, a spokesperson for Highway 31 has dismissed the allegations.
The Bottom Line: Unless the FEC strengthens their disclosure laws and scrutinizes super PACs funding, groups like Highway 31 will be able to continue using secret money to win elections.
Austin House Candidate Receives Big Bucks in Donations
Texas state House candidate Ana Lisa Garza has reportedly received $87,000 in campaign donations – more than half of which came from deer semen sales.
On Thursday, the Dallas News reported that House candidate Ana Lisa Garza, a Starr County district judge, has received $51,000 in in-kind donations and $36,500 in monetary donations for her campaign. Although politicians receiving donations is certainly nothing out of the ordinary, the source of Garza’s donations has prompted questions. That’s because profits from deer semen sales account for more than half of her campaign’s donations.
The deer breeding market drives the economy of several communities in south Texas and benefits many small landowners. Organizations like the Texas Deer Association (TDA) often engage in local elections to support candidates who benefit their cause. This year, the TDA donated profits from a collected tank of deer semen straws to Garza’s campaign. The straws, which were pooled from individual deer breeders to a tank which was sold as one lot by the TDA, were each valued at around $1,000 each.
Although these straws were compiled and sold by the TDA, this contribution did not come from the associations political action committee, which frequently donates to local government elections. Rather, Garza received the lump sum of profits that the tank of semen straws accumulated in auction, although finance reports for her campaign show the individual straw donations from deer breeders. The report also classified the contribution as an in-kind donation despite the fact that the semen straws themselves were not donated, but rather their collected profits.
Despite this confusion, Austin ethics attorney Buck Wood says that the mislabeling of this contribution is not an issue as long as the money value reported is correct. Amidst questioning, Garza’s campaign has declined to comment on the matter. Garza isn’t the only candidate to ever take money from the TDA; the organization has given nearly $900,000 to local candidates over the last decade through their political action committee.
The Bottom Line: Money is funneled into our elections in creative ways, and can influence future policy if those candidates are elected.
Voters in Maine Fight for and Win Ranked Choice Voting
State officials in Maine recently announced that the state will become the first to let voters rank their candidates in a statewide primary election
On Monday, Maine officials announced they they will use ranked-choice voting (RCV) for the first time in their statewide primary elections. Under this new system, voters will rank their candidates at the ballot box in order of preference. You can watch our video explaining the system here.
The decision for Maine to switch to RCV would not have happened without the dedication of its citizens. In 2010, Republican Paul Lepage won the race for Governor with just 37% of the vote, and saw similar results when he ran for re-election four years later. And this isn’t anything new, 9 of the last 11 gubernatorial elections in Maine resulted in candidates winning with less than 50% of the vote. Fed up with officials being elected who didn’t have broad support, voters decided to change the system.
Mainers drove a successful ballot referendum through the state in 2016 to establish ranked choice voting for state elections. After Maine legislators decided to delay the implementation of the law, advocates for RCV collected the necessary 61,123 signatures in order to overrule the legislature.
Activists and advocates from all across the state signed a people’s veto to advocate for the implementation of RCV, and on Monday, March 5th, it was approved by the Maine Secretary of State. The system will now be used in the June primaries for the congressional and gubernatorial races. Advocates for RCV argue that they system will lead to more competitive elections and better representation.
The Bottom Line: Lawmakers should respect the will of the people. Pretty simple.
That’s all for this week, folks. If you have a corruption story you’d like to see covered here, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.