Here’s your weekly roundup of the important political corruption stories we’ve been tracking.

Former pharmaceutical executive Alex Azar moves closer to becoming the next Health Secretary

If confirmed, Azar will join Tillerson, Mnuchin, Ross, and others in spinning through the revolving door and serving in Trump’s cabinet despite major conflicts of interest.

President Trump’s pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week, moving one step closer to confirmation.
As Health Secretary, Azar would have influence over policies and regulations affecting the medical and pharmaceutical industries, including drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company where he was an executive from 2009 until January of last year.

Eli Lilly has been criticized for jacking up the prices of life-saving drugs. For example, the price of Eli Lilly’s insulin drug Humalog was increased by more than 125% from 2012 to 2017 while Azar oversaw the company’s operations.

At the hearing, Azar conceded that high drug costs are a problem, but he declined to support a plan that has been endorsed President Trump and others—allowing Medicare to negotiate prices directly with drug companies. Keeping price negotiating restricted, as it is under current law, protects companies like Eli Lilly from potential losses while denying patients potential savings on the drugs they need to survive.

The bottom line: Despite pledging to drain the swamp, President Trump has appointed many lobbyists and industry executives to serve in his administration.

In landmark ruling, federal court strikes down North Carolina’s gerrymandered districts

This is the first time a federal court has struck down a congressional district map because of partisan gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering—or the manipulation of legislative boundary lines to disadvantage one party and entrench the other—is one of the ways that politicians corrupt the electoral process and insulate themselves against accountability. It’s a common practice that happens at both the national and state levels, and despite being an absurdly obvious form of discrimination, it’s hardly ever restricted in any meaningful way.

But last week in North Carolina, a panel of federal judges ruled that the congressional districts drawn by Republicans in 2016 violated the U.S. Constitution and must be redrawn. Specifically, the court ruled that the gerrymandered district lines violate the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, plus Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which says members of the House shall be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States.”

State legislators now have until January 24, 2018, to draw new district lines in a way that doesn’t discriminate on either race or partisan identification.

The bottom line: Gerrymandering violates people’s basic rights and it has no place in a democratic society. This is an important victory for the public interest.

Liberal mega-donor pledges millions for Democratic politicians

Democrats get a $30 million commitment from big-money political funder Tom Steyer.

Rather than run for office and try to address political issues through legislating or political leadership, billionaire hedge fund manager and activist Tom Steyer has decided to spend $30 million on electing Democratic congressional candidates that he supports.

Steyer announced this week that he would finance campaigns in more than two dozen congressional districts across ten states, and would focus on voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts targeting demographics that are likely to vote for Democrats. There had been speculation that Steyer would self-fund a run for office in the 2018 midterms instead of spending his money to boost other candidates.

The money will be spent by Steyer’s super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, which is able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. These types of deregulated political funding organizations make it simple for Steyer and other wealthy individuals to play an outsized role in determining who gets elected to office.

The bottom line: It’s not just conservatives exploiting Citizens United to spend massive sums on elections, Democrats do it as well. Regardless of which party is benefiting, it’s wrong for wealthy elites like Steyer to use their money to overpower other voices and get extra influence over elections.

Ex-GOP Rep. calls on Congress to break free from Big Money

Now that he’s on the outside, he’s calling out the rigged system and working for change.

Zach Wamp, the former Republican Congressman from Tennessee, has a great op-ed in The Hill calling on politicians to free themselves from money-driven politics and refocus on the issues that matter. Rather than summarize, here’s a excerpt from his piece:

Every freshman member of Congress packs their bags for Washington already envisioning the more perfect republic they seek to build. They all know it may take time, hard work, and compromise, but nothing good ever comes easy.

But the Washington that waits for them is different. Where freshman members expect to enter storied halls for deliberation, reason, and thought, they find a nonstop call center. Dialing for dollars, either for re-election or to help the party, starts early and eats up dozens of hours every week, and representatives who would rather focus on working with their colleagues to address the issues that brought them to the capital in the first place are in for a rough time. Lawmakers who don’t pick up the phone find themselves skipped over for key committee appointments or last in line for party support when the next election rolls around.

This happens almost every day, on both sides of the aisle. It’s easy to imagine how this obsession distorts our politics. Leadership and public service – two of the values that put our democracy at the forefront – have been pushed aside. Our representative democracy itself might well be next.

Wamp shouts out our upcoming Unrig the System summit, which is happening in three weeks (!) in New Orleans. It’s going to be a massive cross-partisan convening of reformers coming together to organize around concrete solutions to unrig America’s political system. Zach Wamp will be there, and I hope you’ll be there too! Register here, if you haven’t already.

The bottom line: As more and more money flows into the political process, it’s becoming very common for former members of Congress to call out the system after they leave office.

That’s all for this week, folks. If you have a corruption story you’d like to see covered here, send me an email at donnydonny [at] gmail [dot] com.

About Donald Shaw
Donald Shaw is a journalist covering lobbying and money in politics. He is based in Western Massachusetts.
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