Here’s your weekly roundup of the important political corruption stories we’ve been tracking.
Washington Lawmakers Vote to Shield Public Records
Washington lawmakers passed a bill Friday that removes themselves from the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act.
Last Friday, Washington state lawmakers worked quickly to overwhelmingly approve a bill which would retroactively remove themselves from the state voter-approved Public Records Act. The legislature attempted to circumvent a January 19th decision by the Thurston County Supreme Court which ruled that state officials are fully subject to the same public disclosure requirements that cover local and state elected officials. Threatened by the possibility of transparency, lawmakers worked fast to pass a measure that would stop their records from becoming public.
Senate Bill 6617 passed the Senate without debate on a vote of 41-7 and quickly moved to the House where it also passed swiftly with a vote of 83-14. Under the new legislation, lawmakers would be required to release records of some lawmaker correspondence, including communication with lobbyists, but would be exempt from having to disclose records of policy development or any records that “violate an individual’s rights”. Emails and other unofficial documentation, for example, would not be subject to disclosure.
The bill also contained an emergency clause, which stated that it would take effect immediately once it went through the governor’s office. Lawmakers would be able to keep years of emails and other documents off-limits and future judicial review of legislative record disputes would be barred. SB 6617 was passed at the same time that a coalition of media groups, led by the Associated Press, are cracking down on legislators foul play.
It took only 48 hours for legislators to pass the bill, and they did so without the required 5-day notice and public hearings. Public outrage was overwhelming and residents spent the last several days contacting the Governor’s office to urge a veto — and the Governor heard them.
On Thursday, Governor Inslee vetoed the measure due to the increasing public outcry. The Seattle Times reported that Inslee received more than 500 emails in the past days urging him to veto the bill. Lawmakers felt the backlash too and pledged not to override the Governor’s veto. Instead, they plan to convene a task force focused on open-records reform during the 2019 legislative session.
The Bottom Line: State politics are incredibly important but are often overlooked and state legislatures are increasingly trying to pass anti-democratic bills that decrease transparency, reduce accountability, and make it more difficult for people to pass ballot measures. The people can fight back — we just have to pay attention and speak out.
Cuomo Takes Campaign Money from His Own State Appointees
Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo reported having $30.5 million dollars in funds for his reelection campaign. Now, only a few weeks later, Cuomo is facing ethics questions following the release of a New York Times investigation.
In a story released Saturday, the New York Times found that Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations for his reelection campaign from his own political appointees. The Governor, who positioned himself as a political reformer during his 2010 campaign, is now facing criticism for accepting these donations. The allegations come just weeks after Cuomo reported having the largest current sum of campaign contributions of any Democratic politician in the country.
Governor Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo’s predecessor, passed an executive order in 2007 to formally prohibit campaigns from accepting funds from political appointees, and Governor Cuomo renewed the order following his election in 2011. These appointees, who span the state’s vast network of boards and authorities, are typically unpaid but yield enormous power because they can approve multi-billion dollar contracts, distribute major grants, and generally have immense influence on the state’s economic development. For this reason, campaign donations from most political appointees in the state are usually rejected by campaigns.
Since 2011 though, Governor Cuomo has received nearly $900,000 from his two dozen appointees, as well as another $1.3 million from spouses, children, and related businesses of his appointees. Cuomo’s counsel has defended his acceptance of these donations, stating that “the purpose of this order is to prohibit employees and board members who serve at the pleasure of the Governor from making political contributions…it does not apply to every single person who serves in the government.”
But critics are pushing back. Former Governor Spitzer argues that “the executive order was intended, and did, in fact, apply to all gubernatorial appointees, regardless of the need for Senate confirmation, or any other term applicable to their service.”
The Bottom Line: Politicians should be required to maintain fiscal transparency throughout their campaigns so that voters can elect officials who represent their interests.
HUD Secretary Facing Scrutiny Over Sons Private Gain
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is under scrutiny for ethics violations in light of a $31,000 dining room set and allegations of nepotism.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is in the hot seat again after the HUD announced plans to spend $165,000 of taxpayer dollars for lounge furniture, in addition to the $31,000 dining room set for Secretary Carson’s Washington office. This news comes mere weeks after reports that the Secretary used his position to help his son, Ben Carson Jr., succeed in private gain.
In a July memo posted this week by the Washington Post, Linda Cruciaini, the HUD’s deputy general for operations, warned that the agency “listening tour” taken by the Secretary last summer “gave the appearance that the Secretary may be using his position for his son’s private gain.” The event was originally intended to give Carson a chance to see financially supported housing projects in Baltimore and to discuss his policies. Carson Jr. and his wife both head or co-chair companies involved in construction and engineering, private equity, and consulting services, and it is alleged that they used this trip to invite potential business partners for their companies in the hopes of gaining financial backing and forging partnerships with the businesses.
Despite anti-nepotism laws barring executive officials from employing or promoting the interests of their relatives, Carson Jr. and his wife were able to host several meetings throughout the tour with potential partners, including Under Armour and Genesis Rehab Services. Documents obtained by the non-profit American Oversight show multiple HUD-organized meetings for Carson Jr, which goes very clearly against anti-nepotism laws that state that executive branch officials cannot use their office to promote private or commercial interests. So far, Carson has denied any wrongdoing.
The Bottom Line: Executive officials should not be using their office to promote their (or their families) own private interests, especially if their interests involve the misuse of taxpayer dollars.
Trump Organization Follows Through with Donation but Withholds Details
On Thursday, the Trump Organization followed through on it’s promise to donate it’s 2017 profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
When Donald Trump was preparing to take office last January, he announced to the American public that he would be voluntarily donating all Trump Organization profits from foreign governments to the United States Treasury. Last week, President Trump kept that promise. In a statement to the Associated Press, the Trump Organization’s Executive Vice President and Chief Compliance Counsel said that the company made a donation to the U.S. Treasury on February 22nd, which includes profits from foreign governments from January 20th to December 31st of last year. Unfortunately, neither the company nor the government has disclosed the amount donated or how the donation was calculated.
In January of last year, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advised the Trump Organization to comment on how foreign-sourced profits would be identified and calculated. In response, the Trump Organization released a 9-page pamphlet to the House Committee which stated that the company planned to only send the Treasury profits which were obviously tied to foreign governments.
The pamphlet also stated that it would be impractical for the Trump organization to identify every foreign guest to their hotels, and even harder to identify that guest’s profession. It stated that asking guests whether they represent a foreign government would “impede upon personal privacy and diminish the guest experience for our brand.” However, the pamphlet did say that the organization would track foreign profits by reviewing direct billing of foreign governments, banquets with foreign governments, and payments from an identifiable foreign government associate.
While the donation to the Treasury on Thursday upholds President Trump’s words from his early days in office, it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Namely, how much was donated, how the amount was calculated, and how much money the Trump Organization is still pocketing from foreign interests. Aside from concerns about the company’s lack of transparency, ethics officials are also concerned that President Trump may be influenced by these foreign payments. As the communications director at Every Voice put it, “no matter the size of the check they write, it doesn’t change the fact that foreign interest are spending money to line the president’s pocket.”
The Bottom Line: Although it is refreshing to see a politician keeping his word, there are still a lot of unanswered questions. The American people deserve transparency, and it’s up to all of us to hold our elected officials accountable.
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.