Here’s your weekly roundup of the important political corruption stories we’ve been tracking.
Louisiana and Minnesota Introduce Legislation to Silence Protesters
In Louisiana, citizen protests are on the rise as the Bayou Bridge Pipeline comes closer to completion. Now, legislators in Louisiana and Minnesota are introducing a measure to silence protesters voices.
This week, the Louisiana House of Representatives introduced a new measure aimed at criminalizing the protesting of “critical infrastructure.” The bill is modeled after the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which is already law in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Iowa. It’s passage comes in the wake of growing protests by opponents of the Bayou Bridge pipeline.
In recent weeks, opponents of the 163-mile pipeline have been ramping up protest activities in the state by staging occupations and creating blockades to postpone construction. Under the new legislation, groups who trespass or “conspire” to trespass on critical infrastructure would face severe punishments, including hefty fines and extended jail time. The bill also includes penalties for those who condone protests, meaning that an individual could face huge fines or prison time without actually having set foot on the property.
Similarly, a recently-passed Minnesota bill punishes anyone who “recruits, trains, aids, advises, hires, counsels, or conspired with” any individual who causes damage to critical infrastructure such as pipelines. The measure, passed last month, penalizes individuals with a felony, jail time, and hefty fines.
Measures like these undermine our first amendment rights to free speech and protest. As Cherri Foytlin, advocate for clean water and Bayou Bridge protester, put it “its further confirmation that a complete overhaul of the system is going to be what’s required. We will do what we have to do to protect our water, and if that means we can’t be on the pipeline route, then we’ll be in these politicians office, and we’ll be running against them and replacing them with people that can put families in Louisiana over the profits of a pipeline company.”
The Bottom Line: State legislatures wield a significant amount of power and are increasingly working against the will of their constituents in order to consolidate this power.
EPA Chief’s Condo Rental Raises Ethics Questions
Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is coming under increasing scrutiny for his D.C. condo and close ties to industry lobbyists.
Scott Pruitt, who is already facing scrutiny from Congress for the misuse of taxpayer dollars on first class airplane tickets, is back in the hot seat. New concerns have been raised amidst allegations that he rented an unusually cheap D.C. condo from the family of a well-known industry lobbyist.
According to reports, Pruitt rented a Washington, D.C. residence from the wife of J. Steven Hart, the chairman of Williams and Jensen (a top energy lobbyist firm). Pruitt rented the condo for the bargain price of only $50 dollars a night. In addition, Pruitt only had to pay for the condo on the nights that he was actually staying in the residence, instead of paying for the total amount of time that he rented the condo. Recent reports show that that EPA approved an oil pipeline expansion project for a company backed by Williams and Jensen during Pruitt’s stay in the condo, and now ethics officials are raising concerns.
Disclosure forms recently released by the EPA show that Pruitt approved the Alberta Clipper project, which was set to drastically expand a crude oil pipeline, at the same time that he was renting the Capitol Hill condo from the wife of J. Steven Hart. The Alberta Clipper project was just one of at least a half dozen regulatory matters before the EPA that were related to clients represented by Williams and Jensen.
Although the EPA and Williams and Jensen dispute that there was any connection between the condo rental and EPA approval, government ethics experts are skeptical. Many argue that the correlation between the EPA’s actions and Mr. Pruitt’s lease arrangement “illustrates why such ties to industry players can generate questions for public officials.” Pruitt is already under investigation by the EPA inspector general for the misuse of taxpayer dollars, and now many on Capitol Hill are demanding that the investigation be expanded to include the condo deal controversy.
The Bottom Line: Pruitt’s misuse of taxpayer funds and cozy relationship with industry lobbyists should be a red alarm for all Americans. At best, this is an ethical failing and at worst, this is blatant corruption at the highest levels of the EPA.
Arizona Legislators Ignore Citizen’s Voices
In a striking display of disdain towards voters, the Arizona legislature passed a bill on Thursday which protects anonymous political spending. The bill now sits on Governor Doug Ducey’s desk awaiting approval.
A few weeks ago, Tempe’s voter-driven disclosure ordinance passed with more than 90% approval. Known as Proposition 403, the measure requires any groups spending more than $1,000 dollars in local elections to disclose the names of their donors.
In response to this measure, Arizona officials quickly passed House Bill 2153, a statewide measure that prevents local governments from monitoring election spending. The bill, which now awaits approval by the governor, blocks local governments from requiring dark money groups to disclose the source of their funding. Not only does this stop Tempe’s Proposition 403 from taking effect, but it also prevents cities and counties from passing similar transparency ordinances in the future. This measure passed at a time when disclosure-free spending by dark money groups is at an all time high in Arizona, with over $10 million dollars being spent in the 2014 election cycle alone.
Arizona legislators moved HB 2153 through the House and Senate in less than a month after Tempe citizens passed their transparency ordinance. Since Proposition 403 had overwhelming voter support, this can only be described as brazen disregard for the will of the people.
The Bottom Line: This direct attack on citizen-led initiatives is a slap in the face to the American people.
Democrats Gerrymander Too
RepresentUs co-founder and director, Josh Silver, is speaking out about the threat of partisan gerrymandering in a recent op-ed featured in the conservative, Daily Caller.
Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Benisek v. Lamone, a case that deals with democratic gerrymandering in Maryland. In this case, Republican voters are challenging the way Democrats drew the 2011 congressional district map, claiming that Democrats intentionally manipulated district lines to favor their party. As Josh Silver points out in a Daily Caller op-ed, this unconstitutional case of congressional district manipulation demonstrates that partisan gerrymandering happens between Democrats and Republicans alike.
Although gerrymandering is a method which politicians on both sides of the aisle use to manipulate election results, Democratic gerrymandering is seldom scrutinized as intensely as Republican gerrymandering. As Silver suggests in his article, Democrats are “usually viewed as the innocent victims of partisan gerrymandering. They shouldn’t be.” And he’s right. While Republicans may be more successful in manipulating district lines nationwide, Democrats have rigged the map in several states, including Maryland, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
There is no denying that gerrymandering hurts our republic by disenfranchising voters, and until recently little has been done to prevent this. The Supreme Court has long stated that they believe gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but they have yet to pass legislation which makes it illegal. Last week, the Court heard arguments in their second case ever regarding partisan gerrymandering; both cases could have a profound impact on the future of our elections.
The Bottom Line: Both parties gerrymander districts in order to win elections. It is undemocratic and it undermines voters. Fortunately, the Supreme Court will soon rule on partisan gerrymandering and it could transform America’s elections for good.
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