Here’s your weekly roundup of the important political corruption stories we’ve been tracking.
Facebook Now Says It Supports Bill That It Spent Millions Lobbying Against
Amidst the Cambridge Analytica investigation, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in the hot seat regarding his company’s poor disclosure laws and lobbying efforts.
This week, Mark Zuckerberg was the subject of questioning by members of Congress for Facebook’s handling of user data and campaign advertising on the site. Much of the questioning focused on Russian interference in the 2016 election, where political ads were used to manipulate voters. Now, legislators are demanding stronger regulations on online political advertising and user privacy.
Members of Congress proposed the Honest Ads Act, which is considered to be the “bare minimum” of disclosure regulation, to address the growing threat of online interference. The Act, which was drafted by a bipartisan group of senators, requires tech companies to place disclaimers on digital political ads similar to those required on TV and in print. These disclaimers must state who paid for the advertisement, how much was paid for it, and who was targeted by it.
When asked whether Facebook plans to support the Honest Ads Act, Zuckerberg stated that “from what I’ve seen, (it’s) good. We support it.” However, the company’s actions behind closed doors would argue otherwise. According to congressional aids, lobbyists for Facebook have been actively trying to dissuade senators from moving the Act forward. In the last quarter of 2017 alone, Facebook spent nearly $3.1 million dollars lobbying congress on issues including the Honest Ads Act, and their total lobbying efforts for the year surpassed $11.5 million.
On Friday, Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post that the company supported the proposed Honest Ads Act, despite having previously argued that the measure was unnecessary. The Act, which has yet to move from the Committee on Rules and Administration, currently has support from just 18 senators. However, with Facebook and Twitter announcing this week that it plans to back the legislation, the measure appears to be gaining momentum.
The Bottom Line: The Honest Ads Act will add transparency to digital platforms in a time when the threat of online interference in politics is growing.
As Paul Ryan Retires, Republicans Scramble Over Lost Funds
On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will retire at the end of this term. Now, Republicans are scrambling to replace the funding Ryan typically acquired.
This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that he will not be seeking re-election in November. Ryan joins the growing list of more than 25 House Republicans this year who have either retired or announced that they will not seek re-election come fall. Ryan’s retirement opens up the House to a possible Democratic takeover come November, and his departure is likely to set off a GOP-leadership battle. Although Republicans in the House are concerned at the possible shift in majority, they are first and foremost concerned about the huge loss in funding that Ryan’s retirement will bring about.
If for nothing else, Paul Ryan will be missed by Republicans in the House thanks to his unprecedented fundraising abilities. Over the years, Ryan has built an extensive network of donors, raising more than $11.1 million dollars for his political fundraising committee in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Of Ryan’s total funds, more than $40 million dollars have been donated to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Currently, Ryan has more than $9 million dollars on hand, which is the most for any lawmaker in the House.
Here is a snapshot of the top 10 House campaign funds — as you can see, Ryan’s war chest far surpasses his fellow House members:
According to Open Secrets, Republicans in the House have already raised over $270 million dollars in funding for the 2017-2018 election cycle. Since a majority of these donations were raised by Paul Ryan, it comes as no surprise that Republicans are now searching for a successor that has comparable fundraising abilities.
The Bottom Line: Money has too much influence in American elections. Instead of the person with the best ideas rising to the top and leading the party, it’s the person with the best fundraising prowess. That’s not how our republic should work.
Miami Beach Mayor Resigns￼￼ After Campaign Finance Charges
On Tuesday, North Miami Beach mayor George Vallejo resigned from office as a part of a plea deal for violating state campaign finance laws.
George Vallejo, who has been under investigation for the past two years for misusing campaign funds during his terms as mayor, accepted a plea deal on Tuesday. Under the agreement, Vallejo resigned his role as mayor and agreed to serve three months house arrest.
Allegations against Vallejo have been ongoing for a while, as he publicly acknowledged the existence of an investigation back in August 2016. Prosecutors for the case believe that Vallejo and his wife illegally used straw companies to divert thousands of dollars in political donations to pay their own personal bills. Vallejo pleaded guilty to these allegations on Tuesday, confirming that he filed a false report on a $5,000 expenditure by a Super PAC and then later authorized an expenditure in that amount by the committee during his reelection campaign.
Following his resignation, Vallejo issued a statement of apology to the citizens of North Beach Miami. This was included as a part of his plea deal, which also requires that Vallejo spend 18 months on probation and complete 500 hours of community service. Under the rules of his agreement, Vallejo cannot run for any position in office during that time.
Despite the rules set out by this plea bargain, Vallejo’s public record is not at risk. As part of his agreement, he was granted a withhold of adjudication, which will allow him to erase his criminal record when his probation is completed. Since his wife was not charged as a part of the plea deal, Vallejo and his spouse will come out of the 18-month probation with a clean slate.
The Bottom Line: Corruption happens at all levels of the government, and we must hold our elected officials accountable.
A Letter From the Top Ethics Official to the EPA
In Washington D.C., the acting director of the Office of Government Ethics sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) questioning chief Scott Pruitt.
On Friday, David J. Apol, the top ethics official at the Office of Government Ethics, sent a letter to the EPA addressing a series of misdemeanors on behalf of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The letter was sent by Apol to Kevin Minoli, the EPA official who is designated as the agency’s top ethics officer and principal deputy general counsel. Minoli, who has previously defended Pruitt’s spending on expenditures like his D.C. condo, must now advance the ongoing investigation into Pruitt’s activities.
This uncommon step towards unveiling the ethics behind Pruitt’s decisions at the EPA highlights three major concerns. First, the letter calls into question Pruitt’s stay in a $50-dollars-a-night condo near Capitol Hill. The condo, which Pruitt only paid for on nights he was staying in it, is owned by the wife of a well-known energy lobbyist. Ethics officials are particularly concerned by a recent EPA approval of a pipeline-expansion project, which is backed by the same family’s lobbying firm.
In addition to concerns over lodging, the letter also calls into question Pruitt’s purchasing of first class plane tickets to his home in Oklahoma. Apol notes Pruitt’s frequent trips home are at the expense of taxpayers, stating that his use of government funds to offset the expense of flying home is a clear violation of ethics rules. Finally, the letter addresses recent reports that the administrator demoted or reassigned staff who questioned the integrity of his actions. According to the New York Times, officials who voiced concerns over Pruitt’s expenditures and lobbyist relationships were quickly re-assigned to other positions at the agency.
As Apol states in his letter, these actions greatly undermine the integrity of the EPA and continue the growing trend of voter distrust in officials. Although Minoli and the Office of Government Ethics do not have the authority to make Pruitt respond to the letter, they can raise awareness. As the chief ethics official for the executive branch of the government, Minoli can request that President Trump take action to punish Pruitt for his violations — but it is up to the President to act.
The Bottom Line: As Apol aptly put it, “the success of our government depends on maintaining the trust of the people we serve. The American public needs to have confidence that ethics violations, as well as the appearance of ethics violations, are investigated and properly addressed.”
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