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

Lawmakers backed by donations from Big Cable cheered on the FCC’s vote to kill net neutrality

The leading voices cheering on the FCC took the most money from ISPs. What a coincidence!

On Wednesday, 107 members of Congress signed a letter to FCC Chair Ajit Pai in support of his efforts to kill net neutrality. “The record is exhaustive, every viewpoint is well represented, and the time has come for the Commission to act,” they stated in the letter.

Polling shows that 83% of Americans support net neutrality, so why are these members of Congress so eager to advocate for its repeal? As usual, follow the money.

The letter was co-authored by Representatives Greg Walden and Marsha Blackburn. Walden has received more money from the ISP industry than any other member of the House ($1.6 million) and Blackburn is also as top recipient of ISP cash in the House ($600k). ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T stand to benefit from the net neutrality rules by creating fast lanes for sites and apps that pay them special fees and offering tiered service that forces consumers to pay more for access to the full Internet.

In total, members of Congress have taken $101 million from ISPs over the course of their careers. For a full list of the members that signed the letter in support of killing net neutrality and how much money they have taken from ISPs, click here.

The bottom line: ISPs spend more money on influencing Congress through contributions and lobbying than just about any other industry. The congressional support that buys them has been a major factor in their efforts to kill net neutrality.

Several members of Congress will personally profit from a last-minute tax bill amendment

A review of financial disclosures shows that several lawmakers will be enriched by a line added to the Senate’s tax bill in the dead of night.

Following up on an item in last week’s roundup, David Sirota at International Business Times dug into personal financial disclosures filed by members of Congress and found that at least 16 members of Congress will get tax break from John Cornyn’s amendment related to investors in the oil and gas industry.

The 16 members of Congress collectively own between $4.6 and $10.6 million worth of energy-related master limited partnerships, investment vehicles that would receive a new tax reduction under Cornyn’s amendment. Instead of having to pay the normal income tax rate of up to 39.6% on payouts from MLPs, the members of Congress invested in MLPs would pay a reduced rate of 23%.

Sirota names a few of the lawmakers who will benefit the most: “Congress’s top stakeholders in the MLPs are all Republicans — they include Michigan Rep. David Trott (up to $4.4 million), New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur (up to $2.3 million), Georgia Republican Sen. David Perdue (up to $1.25 million), Texas Rep. Pete Sessions (up to $550,000), Texas Rep.Kenny Marchant (up to $477,000) and Texas Sen. Cruz (up to $300,000).”

The bottom line: It’s not just big donors and special interests that will benefit from the last-second amendments that were made to the tax bill, members of Congress are going to make money off this too.

Trump is paying back donors with luxurious ambassadorships

He’s draining the swamp by giving campaign contributors kushy jobs in places like Paris and the Bahamas.

The Washington Examiner has conducted a review of President Trump’s ambassador nominations and found that many of them have gone to big donors or political allies.

For example, check out how Trump’s pick for ambassador to the Bahamas, Doug Manchester, helped Trump on the campaign trail: “‘Papa Doug,’ as he is known in San Diego, hosted a fundraiser for Trump in June 2016 that required attendees to pay at least $28,000 for admission and another in Sept. 2016 for Vice President Mike Pence. One of Trump’s most generous West Coast contributors, Manchester gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.”

Past Presidents—both Democrats and Republicans—have rewarded donors with desirable ambassadorships, but President Trump is doing it at an unprecedented level. These political appointments usually make up about 30% of total ambassadorships. So far, about 50% of President Trump’s ambassadorship appointments have been political favors, and at least 19 of them donated to his campaign or to political committees that backed his candidacy.

The bottom line: Being rich and having rich friends shouldn’t qualify you to serve as a foreign ambassadors to the U.S. This is a tradition that a reform-minded President should look to end, not accelerate.

 

Dark-money megadonors are undermining the independence of state Supreme Courts

Interests with business before the courts are spending millions to elect judges that are likely to rule in their favor.

State supreme courts wield incredible power. They determine whether laws and regulations live or die, and they help to shape legal debates as they move up to the federal level.

With all this power we expect state supreme court judges to act with a level of independence and integrity that is too often missing in the legislative and political realms.

Unfortunately, in the 38 states that elect their supreme courts, that independence has been undermined by special interests spending millions to elect judges that are likely to rule in their favor. The Brennan Center looked at spending in these states during the 2016 elections and found that a record $27.8 million was spent to influence supreme court elections by outside groups and PACs that often don’t have to disclose their donors. Twenty-seven state judges were elected in races that cost more than $1 million during that cycle, setting another record.

Disturbingly, most of this money is being spent on ads attacking judges for their rulings, much like political ads that attack incumbents based on their votes. “More than half of all negative television ads aired during the 2015-16 election cycle criticized judges for their rulings on the bench, often in a misleading way designed to stoke emotion and ange,” the report states. “Targeting judicial decisions poses worrying threats to judicial independence, and there is both anecdotal and empirical evidence that such election pressures impact how judges rule in cases.”

The bottom line: State supreme court judges should decide cases based on honest and independent readings of the law. The last thing they should be thinking about is how their rulings will look in a television attack ad.

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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