The House is away for August recess and the Senate is getting ready to join them, but the tales of corruption, conflicts of interest, and big money in politics never take a day off. Catch up with this week’s top corruption stories in our weekly roundup below.
If You Want To Do Something Evil, Put It Inside Something Boring
They’re hoping you don’t notice.
Buried in the House’s 253-page 2018 Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill are three provisions that would block funding to federal agencies for enforcing campaign finance laws. One would prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their contributions to trade associations. Another would bar the IRS from regulating the political activities of 501(c)(4) social welfare groups. And the third would stop the Federal Election Commission from enforcing a rule that limits how many member companies’ trade association PACs can solicit for funds. The riders were approved by the House Appropriations Committee and are pending consideration in the full House.
The bottom line: These riders would make it even easier for corporations and special interests funnel money into politics without public disclosure.
Lewandowski Gets Back in the Game
He found a way to keep his clients secret this time.
Back in May, Corey Lewandowski, President Trump’s first campaign manager and current informal advisor, quit his lobbying job after he was scrutinized for taking clients with with business before the Trump administration. Now he’s set up a new firm, Lewandowski Strategic Advisors, that doesn’t technically provide lobbying services for its clients (instead he advises them on how to best achieve their policy goals) and therefore does not have to disclose who he’s working for. The New York Times got its hands on a draft contract and found that one of Lewandowski’s clients is Community Choice Financial, a payday lender that wants to block financial regulations coming out of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This weekend, Lewandowski appeared on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ and called on Trump to fire CFPB head Richard Cordray. Asked by host Chuck Todd if he had clients that might benefit from Corday’s ouster, Lewandowski replied: “No. No. I have no clients whatsoever.”
The bottom line: Lewandowski is engaged in a murky world of influence where he retains secret clients with business before the White House while simultaneously advising the President in an informal capacity.
Super PACs Gearing Up for 2018… and 2020.
Seems a little soon.
There are still 259 days until the 2018 midterm elections, and the 2020 elections aren’t for another 39 months, but that’s not stopping super PACs from raising millions of dollars to spend on these elections. The Center for Public Integrity reviewed the latest roundup of Federal Elections Commission filings and found that committees supporting President Trump have been raking it in. During the first half of 2017, the Committee to Defend the President, a super PAC formerly known as Stop Hillary PAC, raised $3.26 million. Great America PAC raised $1.9 million over that same period. And they’re not just raising money; they’re spending it as well. Already these two super PACs have spent more than $1.3 million on pro-Trump communications, including TV ads, robocalls, and direct mail pieces. Super PACs aimed at the 2018 midterms are also raising money, and so far those supporting Republicans have raised more than twice as much as those supporting Democrats.
The bottom line: Political fundraising never stops. With super PACs able to raise and spend unlimited money, and the Supreme Court allowing super PACs to take unlimited contributions, money continually flow into politics at astonishing rates.
The Unusual Ethics Case of Representative Roger Williams
When doing a lobbyists’ bidding is proof of ethical behavior, we’ve got a problem.
Representative Roger Williams (R-TX) was cleared of ethics violations this week when the Ethics Committee ruled that a provision he inserted into a bill that he benefited from financially wasn’t written by him — it was written by a lobbyist. Here’s the backstory. In 2015, when Congress was debating a bill on auto safety standards, lobbyists for the car dealership industry approached Williams and asked him to insert an amendment exempting them from some of the standards. Williams obliged and the amendment was adopted. It was later revealed that Williams himself owns a car dealership and may have been able to keep its loaner fleet on the road due to this amendment. The Ethics Committee took note of this seemingly self-serving amendment and conducted an investigation. Williams was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing when the Committee realized that Williams amendment was taken verbatim from the lobbyists. “Representative Williams may have had some financial interest in excluding his own dealership from the FAST Act, and should have recognized that possibility,” the committee found. “However, considering the totality of the circumstances, any such interest was not sufficient to establish an impermissible conflict of interest in this case.”
The bottom line: This shows that congressional ethics rules and enforcement are completely toothless. Ethics rules should be designed to prevent lawmakers from having lobbyists write their bills, not to encourage it.
Betsy DeVos: Personal Sherpa
For an education lobbyist, it pays to know the Secretary of Education.
Earlier this year, the for-profit Charlotte School of Law had their access to federal student financial aid cut off after they were found to be misleading students about how well they would prepare them for careers in the legal field. Then they hired a new lobbyist, Lauren Maddox, who had just finished working with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as her personal “sherpa” and guiding here through her contentious confirmation process. Charlotte School of Law paid $130,000 to have Maddox lobby her former client, DeVos, on their behalf, and just this week it was revealed that DeVos has agreed to reinstate the school’s access to federal student loans as long as they meet certain conditions. One interesting note: Maddox worked for DeVos from her role as a lobbyist at the Podesta Group, the lobbying firm founded by Hillary Clinton allies John and Tony Podesta.
The bottom line: Having connections in government can be extremely valuable for lobbyists. Knowing policy makers on a personal level can make the difference between winning and losing for your clients. That’s why lobbyists who spin through the revolving door get paid the big bucks.
That’s it for this week. As ever, if you read a story you think should be featured in the corruption rundown, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.