Here’s your weekly roundup of the important political corruption stories we’ve been tracking.
Former State Senator Who Routinely Sponsored ALEC-Model Bills Wins Election
On Tuesday, former Arizona State Senator Debbie Lesko won a special election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District. Lesko is best-known for her legislative work appeasing corporate interests.
This week, Republican Debbie Lesko defeated Democrat Hiral Tiperneni in a special congressional election for Arizona’s District 8 seat. Lesko was helped out by an aggressive wave of financial support from fellow republicans, who spent over $1 million in outside expenditures to ensure her win. Given Lesko’s years of employment as a board member for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), many are concerned that her law making decisions could be a serious conflict of interest.
ALEC is a non-profit organization that works on behalf of special interest groups to shape and influence policy. The organization drafts model legislation on behalf of their clients and then lobbies politicians to pass them. As a state senator, Debbie Lesko routinely sponsored ALEC-model bills, often without changing any of the words.
For example, Senate Bill 1285, which promotes school choice, was brought forward by Lesko with hardly any changes from the ALEC’s draft bill, the School Choice Directory Act. As a recognized and award-winning ALEC lawmaker, it is fair to say that Debbie Lesko has close ties with the organization and will be amenable to considering more of their draft legislation as a U.S. representative.
The Bottom Line: It’s highly concerning when any politician copy and pastes a bill written by lobbyists.
Mulvaney Admits That Lobbying Matters Most
On Tuesday, the interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) advised bankers that their increased financial contributions to representatives would help curtail the organization’s power.
This week, Mick Mulvaney, the interim director of the CFPB, advised a room of over 1,000 bankers at the American Bankers Association Conference to increase their direct engagement with representatives. He described his own skewed experiences with lobbying as a South Carolina representative, stating that:
We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.
Mulvaney’s comments occurred amidst a sweeping effort by bankers on Capitol Hill to loosen the effects of Dodd-Frank, and now his blatant admittance of lobbyists’ influence is getting a lot of attention.
In his speech, Mulvaney explained that increasing lobbying efforts will bolster bankers’ attempts to diminish the CFPB’s authority and loosen financial regulations. He urged bankers and lending industry professionals to persuade his colleagues on Capitol Hill on a variety of issues, including deregulation of the CFPB. He argued that persuading Congress, a feat which is typically only successful for wealthy industry lobbyists, is the “fundamental underpinning of our democracy.”
Mulvaney’s urging of bankers to lobby Congress should come as no surprise given his extensive history with lobbyists and the CFPB. During his time as South Carolina representative, Mulvaney received over $60,000 dollars in payday donations towards his campaign for election. In more recent years he has worked to reverse the CFPB’s regulatory and enforcement legacy from within though delayed implementation of regulation, ending several ongoing lawsuits brought against lenders by his predecessor, and ceasing a practice that monitors the banking market for fraud. Although Mulvaney has insisted that the CFPB will continue to crackdown on banks and lenders, his comments to the American Bankers Association argue otherwise.
The Bottom Line: Mulvaney’s statement is raising eyebrows, not because of what he said, but because he said it so openly. It’s no secret that money influences Congress, but the first rule of money club is that you don’t speak about money club.
As Trust For Democracy Declines, Citizen-Led Initiatives Rise
Americans are increasingly realizing the errors of our broken political system and are turning to citizen-led ballot initiatives to fix what legislators will not.
In many states this year, important policy change will be coming not from the hands of legislators, but from those of citizens. Across the United States, citizen led ballot-initiatives are on the rise for the first time since 2006. In 2016 alone, American citizens put 71 initiatives on the ballot in cities and states across the country — more than twice the number of initiatives on the ballot in 2014.
The increasingly partisan nature of American politics has left local and federal government paralyzed, unable to work together to pass laws that citizens overwhelmingly support. All of this has led to growing frustration and mistrust with government, and this isn’t just opinion, it’s backed up by reports from the Economist, Harvard, and more. For the second year in a row, the Economist’s annual Democracy Index report listed the United States as a “flawed democracy,” joining the same category as countries like Italy and South Korea. Meanwhile, a recent poll by the Harvard Kennedy Institute of Politics found that nearly two-thirds of young Americans are worried about the future of our democracy.
As disdain for our broken political system grows, Americans are taking it upon themselves to make the changes that their elected officials can’t or won’t move forward. Meanwhile, lawmakers are scrambling to stop these initiatives, many of which threaten to shine a light on shady activities and attempt to unrig the system. Across the nation, legislators are actively trying to block or delay citizen-led initiatives in order to protect their seats and block things like transparency and accountability measures from going into effect. For example, after citizens in Tempe, Arizona unanimously passed an ordinance that increases transparency and stops dark money in their local elections, state legislators introduced a law which tramples local power by blocking the newly passed ordinance and preventing similar local laws from being passed in the future. Despite immense public outcry, Governor Doug Ducey signed the pro-secrecy measure into law not long after it was introduced.
Yet despite this setback, citizens are fighting back and making progress. When politicians ignore the will of voters to maintain a corrupt status quo, it only mobilizes voters to become more active. Politicians cannot ignore the will of voters without consequence.
The Bottom Line: Citizen-led initiatives are powerful tools for change and they give us hope.
Naples Approves Citizen-Led Ethics Ordinance
In Naples, Florida, citizens have introduced a measure to improve ethics ordinances.
In Naples, Florida, a newly formed political action committee is working to prevent ethical misconduct in local politics. Now, they’ve gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot. The measure, which goes before voters in August, would establish a local ethics commission similar to the statewide Florida Commission of Ethics.
The proposed commission would have the power to investigate complaints against Naples officials and oversee major changes to the city’s ethics ordinances. It also would have the ability to subpoena witnesses, audit records, and punish officials for ethical violations. This new ethics code focuses primarily on the prevention, rather than punishment, of ethical misconduct by mandating the training and education of city officials to avoid any future conflicts of interests.
Much like the voter-led transparency initiatives in Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona, these measures prove that citizens are becoming increasingly wary of elected officials and their use of dark money to reap benefits. According to Represent Southwest Florida volunteer Margie Stein, this move was driven by “recent front-page headlines attesting to the importance of clarifying and implementing strong and actionable ethics guidelines regarding all aspects of government.”
The Bottom Line: Citizen-led ballot initiatives both demand reform from legislators and assert the power of voters.
That’s all for this week, folks. If you have a corruption story you’d like to see covered here, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org