With Puerto Rico, health care, NFL protests, and North Korea in the news, it hasn’t been a slow week. Given everything that’s going on, you may have missed some of the corruption stories from around the country. Have no fear: we’re here to fill you in. This is your weekly corruption rundown.
The FEC just fined a government contractor for illegal contributions to a Clinton super PAC
Suffolk Construction Company made $200,000 in illegal contributions to Priorities USA Action, a Hillary Clinton-aligned super PAC.
For the first time ever, the Federal Election Commission cracked down on a government contractor’s donations to a super PAC, leveling a $34,000 fine. As Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 noted in the complaint that spawned the enforcement effort, Suffolk Construction Company’s two $100,000 contributions to Priorities USA Action were impermissible because the company is a federal contractor. Such companies have been banned from making political contributions for decades to avoid the appearance or reality of quid-pro-quo contracting, but the FEC’s fine marks the first time the agency has taken action against a contractor for giving to a super PAC. The recipient, which was aligned with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, agreed to return the money.
The bottom line: We have to give a round of applause to the FEC here. Contractor contribution bans are an important and storied part of the anti-corruption framework, and as super PACs rise in prominence, it’s gratifying to see the bans on these donations enforced.
Corruption convictions overturned for former NY Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his son
The appeals panel called for a retrial in light of the Supreme Court’s narrowed definition of corruption.
Politicians around the country fighting corruption charges should thank Bob McDonnell. When the Supreme Court overturned the former Virginia governor’s conviction last year, it created a narrower definition of corruption, one based on concrete “official actions” influenced by a person or group. And this change in the legal foundation has benefited a host of previously-convicted politicians, the latest of whom is former New York Senate Majority Leader, Dean Skelos. Skelos and his son, Adam, were convicted of bribery, conspiracy, and extortion in 2015 for pressuring several companies with legislative interests in the state into providing Adam Skelos with work and money. Citing the McDonnell decision, a federal appeals court this week found jurors in the original case been improperly instructed on the definition of a corrupt “official action,” and called for a retrial based on the narrower definition. The Skeloses aren’t out of the woods yet: as the New York Times reported, “the appellate panel on Tuesday made it clear that the government’s evidence was still sufficient to allow a properly instructed jury to convict.”
The bottom line: With a narrowed legal definition of corruption, transparency and enforcement become all the more important. The people need to have a good sense of what officials are doing with public resources and time, and when corruption occurs, we need it to be taken seriously.
EPA chief Scott Pruitt, Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke flew private on the taxpayers’ dime
The two join Sec. Tom Price and Sec. Mnuchin in the ongoing scandal of taking private flights at the expense of taxpayers.
The group keeps growing. Alongside Health and Human Services Sec. Tom Price and Treasury Sec. Steve Mnuchin, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt chartered a private plane for government work this summer, CNN reported. The round-trip flight between Denver and Durango, Colorado allowed Pruitt to speak to officials at a mine after his commercial flight was delayed, the EPA explained. And according to POLITICO, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke spent $12,000 on a private flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana in June, in addition to the multiple charter flights he took to travel between St. Croix and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in March. As a reminder: officials are generally asked to fly commercial while on government business, since private and military flights tend to be significantly more expensive.
The bottom line: This is gross misuse of taxpayer money and undermines public trust in government officials. Regardless of your political views, you should be outraged that your tax dollars are being used in such an improper way.
Facing industry pressure, Trump administration delays airline wheelchair transparency rules
The regulations would require airlines to report how many wheelchairs and scooters they damage.
When an airline loses your luggage, it’s a hassle. When your luggage is a custom wheelchair, however, life becomes considerably more challenging. That’s the thinking behind a regulation finalized in 2016 that would require airlines to track and disclose the number of motorized scooters and wheelchairs they handle and mishandle each month. The rule was set to take effect in 2018, but after pressure from trade groups in the industry, the Department of Transportation in March suddenly announced it would push the regulation back another year. If you have some time, read this rundown of how the industry was able to flex its political muscle – we’ll give you a sneak preview: there’s some lobbying involved.
The bottom line: It’s easy to overlook the way interest groups can affect the regulatory process, and stories like this are a reminder of the importance of lobbying transparency laws.
On Capitol Hill, there’s a murky world of stock trading by congressional staffers
Congressional staffers have inside access to policy changes – and some appear to trade on that knowledge.
Hundreds of congressional staffers have traded stocks since May 2015, including aides to House and Senate leaders and influential legislative committee employees. That information comes courtesy of a thorough POLITICO investigation into financial disclosures, and the findings suggest there’s a whole lot more we don’t know. The only staffers required to report their trades are those who make $124,406 or more per year, a group comprising just 13 percent of all aides. As the analysis details, congressional employees have in several cases either bought or sold stocks in companies that would shortly thereafter be affected by new legislation or regulations. And while there are conflict of interest rules around stock trading for executive branch employees, the ethics requirements for the staffers working on the Hill are considerably weaker.
The bottom line: While aides sometimes claim their trades are allowable because they’re made by brokers without specific instruction, or because legislative information is public, there are huge holes in our conflict of interest laws that make these claims difficult to ascertain. Stronger reporting requirements and ethics enforcement laws would go a long way toward reducing the appearance of insider trading.
Thanks for reading. If you see any stories you think should be highlighted in next week’s rundown, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.