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Each week, we aim to provide you with the top corruption stories you may have missed. Check out the most recent installment below.
Sitting Senator Stands Trial For Pay-to-Play Corruption
The trial of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) will explore whether gifts and political contributions were part of a bribery scheme.
A U.S. senator is on trial for bribery for the first time since 1981. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, faces 12 counts of bribery and honest services fraud for allegedly providing “official acts” on behalf of a Florida ophthalmologist who showered the politician with international trips and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars of political contributions to his campaign and supportive super PACs. As the New York Times reports, the case will focus largely on whether the actions Menendez took qualify as “official” – namely, meeting with executive branch officials to discuss issues of interest to Dr. Salomon Melgen the same day Melgen gave money to political committees backing Menendez and other Democrats. Were the free trips to the Dominican Republic and private flights gifts one friend would give to another, just for being pals? The trial will shed some light.
The bottom line: Trying a sitting senator for bribery is a huge deal, and this case will lend tremendous insight into what actions are and are not considered official in a corruption case.
In South Florida, Sugar Lobbyist Dictates Pollution Policy
Emails reveal officials moved away from tougher waterway pollution standards after meeting with a sugar lobbyist.
You might not expect to find algal blooms in Florida all that interesting, but if you have the time, do check out TCPalm’s blockbuster investigation of lobbyist pressure on waterway pollution standards. As the reporters found, U.S. Sugar Corp. lobbyist Irene Quincey exerted enormous influence over South Florida Water Management District policy, editing an environmental report and leading officials to propose pollution regulations that would not hold individual landowners responsible for their waste. The pressure happened largely outside of the public comment period, as Quincey repeatedly met with officials in-person and over the phone, passing along direct revisions to the district report.
The bottom line: It doesn’t seem controversial to argue lobbyists shouldn’t be editing environmental reports and dictating policy, especially when the crucial changes are happening outside the public eye.
Former Superintendent Pocketed Hundreds Of Thousands of Dollars, Faces 15 Years in Prison
The ex-chief of Lawndale, CA’s public schools boosted his own pay and benefits in secret.
The list of charges against Jose A. Fernandez, the former superintendent of a small school district in Southern California, reads like a prosecutor’s sweet dream: several counts of grand theft, corruption, misappropriation of public funds, and embezzlement. The abuses are just as jaw-dropping: in 2013, for instance, Fernandez took a total $663,000 in salary and benefits. As superintendent, the Los Angeles Times reported, he personally rewrote bylaws to benefit himself, covering his tracks from the school board and using public funds to buy himself a life insurance policy and a home loan. He might be repaid in-kind – if Fernandez is convicted of the charges, he could spend up to 15 years in prison.
The bottom line: Corruption is a crime that violates the public trust, and strong enforcement of the laws on the books is crucial to regaining that trust.
Kid Rock Selling Campaign Shirts But Apparently Not Campaigning
The Michigan musician lashed out at watchdogs who have alleged he is in violation of campaign finance laws.
Kid Rock has not officially announced a campaign to challenge incumbent Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), but that hasn’t stopped him from selling “Kid Rock for Senate” t-shirts. When Common Cause called him out for failing to register his candidacy and adhere to campaign finance laws, he fired back, telling the organization to “go f— yourselves.” Look, it’s not everyday that musicians curse out groups in our field, but shadow campaigning happens with frightening regularity. (In fact, Jeb Bush’s lucrative flirtation with a presidential run was one of the first things I discussed when I got into money-in-politics writing.) In Alabama, for example, Gov. Kay Ivey has racked up $1 million without announcing her reelection campaign.
The bottom line: At the end of the day, we put campaign finance laws in place, not to annoy would-be politicians, but to provide the public with a sense of where the money needed to run for office is coming from. Skirting those reporting requirements is a violation of the transparency we need for open, fair elections.
Thanks for reading, folks. Feel free to send stories you want to see included in next week’s roundup to firstname.lastname@example.org.