It’s the height of summer. No one’s going to fault you for hitting the beach, taking a hike, or relaxing by the pool rather than staying home and fretting over government corruption. But just in case you want to stay at least a little vigilant, we’re making it super easy to keep up with the latest news from the swamp.

Here’s our quick rundown of this week’s top corruption stories.

Coal Lobbyist Gets a Top Job at the Agency That’s Supposed to Regulate Coal

Quick! There’s a fox coal lobbyist in the hen house regulatory agency that is supposed to oversee the coal industry with independence and concern for the public interest.

President Trump has chosen a lobbyist from the coal industry to fill the second highest ranking position at the Environmental Protection Agency. According to reports, Andrew Wheeler will soon spin through the revolving door to become the EPA’s deputy administrator. Wheeler is a registered lobbyist for the largest privately owned coal company in the United States — Murray Energy. During the Obama years, Murray Energy repeatedly challenged federal environmental regulations, filing more than half a dozen lawsuits, including one that lead to the Supreme Court blocking the EPA from regulating emissions from coal-fired power plants. Wheeler is also a former aide to Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a leading climate-change denier whose top two career campaign contributors are Koch Industries and …wait for it… Murray Energy.

The Bottom Line: Murray Energy and other coal industry interests are about to get more influence over how their business, and the pollution they produce, is overseen by the government.

Holy Super PAC!

A provision buried in a government funding bill would make it easier for churches to funnel dark money into politics.

For the past 63 years, the “Johnson Amendment” has prevented churches and other tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates and spending money on elections. Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize political activity in support of candidates and measures they may not agree with — so the thinking goes. But now a provision advancing through Congress would block the IRS from enforcing this restriction, allowing churches and other nonprofits to essentially turn themselves into political action committees. And because churches don’t have to disclose their donors, they could easily be used as conduits for dark money. Billionaires could use churches to funnel money into election-related activities and there would be no way for journalists or concerned citizens to trace the money back to its true origin.

The bottom line: Your church offering could soon help pay for political attack ads. This is yet another way for big money to flow into elections without limits and without disclosure.

 

New Ethics Chief Doesn’t Seem to Care Much for Ethics

Well…this isn’t good.

Following the recent resignation of Walter Shaub, the (now former) Director of the Office of Government Ethics, President Trump has appointed a new acting OGE director that has a history of fighting the agency on actually enforcing ethics rules for federal employees. It’s especially concerning because of the massive number of conflicts of interests within the Trump administration. In recent months the newly appointed director, David J. Apol, has played a central role in greenlighting the Trump administration’s many unusual arrangements. For example, he reviewed and signed off on Trump’s financial disclosure report, and he issued certificates of divestitures for Jared Kushner and other senior officials. But Apol’s appointment isn’t simply business as usual: President Trump had to override the 1998 Vacancies Reform Act in order to bypass Shelley Finlayson, the OGE’s chief of staff and program counsel, to give the job to Apol instead. In a statement, Shaub, the former director, says Trump is playing politics with the pick: “This sort of political interference creates the appearance that the White House may be hoping to engineer looser oversight by reaching down and leapfrogging a career employee over his own supervisor temporarily.”

The bottom line: By tapping Apol, Trump is defanging the primary agency that could push back against his conflicts of interests and those of his appointees.

Chop it Up…Into 12,000 Pieces

This is definitely a unique proposal for reducing the influence of money in politics.

In an interview with the New York Times, Republican candidate for Governor of California John Cox said that the first issue he would tackle if elected would be “the corruptive influence of money in politics.” He’s advocating for an anti-corruption proposal known as the “Neighborhood Legislature.” Essentially, the plan would involve splitting each CA legislative districts into 100 smaller districts so that people can run for a neighborhood representative position without having to raise the kind of money it takes to run competitively in larger districts. The neighborhood representatives would select one of their representatives per 100-district block to serve as a “working committee” in Sacramento on crafting legislation. The neighborhood representatives would then vote on the bills from home via secure connections. Would it work? Who knows. But it’s definitely a creative idea for taking away some of the power of Big Money and giving it back to the people. In addition to running for Governor, Cox is working to get the Neighborhood Legislature proposal on the ballot in 2018.
The bottom line: A big problem with Big Money in politics is that it means politicians have to woo potential donors more than the people they are actually supposed to represent. This Neighborhood Legislature proposal may be unusual, but it’s certainly seeking addressing the right problem.

Thanks for reading, folks. Read a story you’d like to see featured in the corruption rundown? Send it over to jnoland@represent.us.

About Donald Shaw

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

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