Here’s your weekly roundup of the important political corruption stories we’ve been tracking.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is Facing Serious Backlash After A $100K Trip Across the Pond
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is facing allegations that he used taxpayer money to fund an extravagant trip overseas last summer. Now, ethics officials are pressing for answers.
Last spring, Shulkin accepted an invitation to attend the Ministerial Summit on Veterans Affairs in London. He quickly coordinated with his team to set up meetings with Danish counterparts, however these meetings were planned to be several days prior to the Summit. In between those meetings, Shulkin did what any hard working politician would do – he went sightseeing with his wife.
Shulkin and his wife spent roughly $122,000 on their nine day trip (mind you, the Ministerial Summit was a two-day event). Shulkin’s wife, who received $4,300 in reimbursement for her flight, was permitted to travel with him under the pretense of being an “invitational guest” to a dinner being thrown in the VA Secretary’s honor.
It is this very dinner that has caused the Inspector General to allege that chief of staff Wright Simpson made false statements via email to excuse Shulkin’s use of taxpayer money to cover his travel expenses. A report released Wednesday accuses Simpson of tampering with the language in an email to make it seem as though Shulkin was being honored with an award at the dinner, when he in fact was not. Under this pretence, ethics officials for the VA approved the $4K flight abroad for Shulkin’s wife.
As the Inspector General works through vaguely documented expense reports on the trip, it is unclear exactly how much Shulkin and his wife will have to pay back to the VA. However, his chief of staff has already resigned amidst the scandal.
The Bottom Line: Without fiscal transparency, Shulkin may have been able to continue misusing taxpayer funds. We need to hold our cabinet members to a higher degree of accountability and ethics.
PA Supreme Court Cracks Down on Gerrymandering as New Congressional Districts are Drawn
On Monday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a new congressional district map that will take effect for the May 15th primaries.
In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the state’s congressional map unconstitutional. The Court stated that the gerrymandered map was “clearly, plainly, and palpably” in violation of the State Constitution, so they gave PA state lawmakers until February 9th to submit a new map to the Governor and until February 15th for the Governor and lawmakers to come to an agreement.
Unsurprisingly, legislators could not come to a compromise on the new map by the deadline, leaving it to the Court to redraw the map instead. The new map, released Monday, strives for compact districts that minimize county or municipal splits and focuses on partisan balance throughout the districts in order to preserve communities of interest, not political affiliation.
These new districts create significant opportunity for change within the Pennsylvania State House. District 6, for example, is expected to be far more competitive as the Philadelphia metropolitan area is recognizably diverse in political affiliation. We’ll get our first peek at how the newly drawn district lines impact candidate platforms and election outcomes during the May 15th primaries.
That is, if it survives the challenges that Republican state lawmakers are preparing to mount in opposition. Many legislators have been very vocal about their intent to bring a federal lawsuit against the Court in order to overturn the decision and the map. At least one lawmaker has even gone so far as to threaten impeaching the judges who ruled the old gerrymandered map invalid. While the ruling in Pennsylvania gives proponents of redistricting reform hope, it also reveals just how far some entrenched politicians are willing to go to protect their seats.
Pennsylvania is not the only state to have their congressional map challenged this year either, North Carolina also recently had their map redrawn. And while both PA and NC are gerrymandered for Republicans, it’s important to remember that blue states – like Illinois – are also gerrymandered.
The Bottom Line: Gerrymandering is used by both parties to secure seats and disenfranchise voters. It’s unAmerican. Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around.
Legislators in Arizona are Protecting Dark Money (Yet Again)
In October, the City Council in Tempe, Arizona voted to send a ballot measure to voters which would prohibit Dark money influence in municipal elections. Now, state lawmakers want to block the measure completely.
Earlier this year, the Tempe City Council unanimously agreed to send a ballot measure to voters which would increase transparency in local elections. The proposal would require any groups making expenditures to campaigns over $1,000 to disclose information regarding the purpose of their organization as well as a list of financial backers.
It’s a promising step forward, yet state lawmakers have already intervened to pass House Bill 2153 which allows dark money groups to continue keeping their donors secret. The bill would also stop the Tempe ballot measure from being enacted, and would block cities and counties from passing transparency legislation in the future.
Now, the legislation will go to the Senate for approval, and could pass before Tempe ballot measure ever gets in front of voters.
The Bottom Line: Transparency enables the people to hold their elected officials accountable. House Bill 2153 not only hurts transparency, but it also silences cities, counties, and voters by blocking local measures.
Jennifer Lawrence Takes A Break from Hollywood
Actress Jennifer Lawrence takes a break from the lime light in the pursuit of helping fix the American election process.
Ahh finally, some good news! Academy Award winning actor Jennifer Lawrence recently announced that she is taking a year off from acting in order to work with RepresentUs to fix America’s broken political system.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with partisan [politics]…It’s just anti-corruption and stuff trying to pass state by state laws that can help prevent corruption, fix our democracy.”
In February, she was a guest speaker at Unrig the System Summit, where she advocated for bipartisan cooperation to end corruption in government. Watch one of our favorite moments from the Summit, where Jennifer Lawrence learned how to bribe a politician with the help of former FEC chairman Trevor Potter:
The Bottom Line: Corruption is entrenched in America’s political system and it’s going to take all of us – conservatives, progressives, independents, and yes even celebrities – working together to fix our government.
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.