We stared at the sun. We marveled at the vastness of the universe. We reflected on the nature of time and our place in the history of the world.

Meanwhile, news of corruption in politics continued unabated. As seasons change and celestial bodies spin, catch up with this week’s top corruption news with our weekly roundup below.

South Dakota Politicians Decide to Keep it Easy for Them to Override the Will of Voters

Because politicians always know best.

Last year, voters in South Dakota approved America’s first statewide Anti-Corruption Act. The law increased transparency and accountability, and gave more power to ordinary people while weakening the influence of lobbyists and big donors in politics. It was a huge blow to the corrupt political establishment, so South Dakota’s politicians responded with a brazen abuse of power. In February, the legislature declared a state of emergency and voted to repeal the anti-corruption law, directly overriding the will of the voters.

Now, a legislative task force in South Dakota has decided that the actions taken by legislators in February are acceptable, despite the massive public backlash to the repeal. The Initiative and Referendum Task Force voted 6-7 against making it more difficult for the legislature to overturn voter-passed laws. Rather than increasing the requirement for overturning a ballot measure to a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature, the task force decided that a simple majority of legislators should be able to overturn voter-passed measures — even those that were approved with overwhelming, bipartisan support from the voters of South Dakota.

The bottom line: The ballot measure process is an important way for citizens to pass laws that will make a difference in their own communities. It should not be an easy thing to overturn the will of the people.

Mnuchin’s Taxpayer-funded Trip to Totality

What a wild coincidence! Mnuchin had to travel on official business to the path of totality during the first total solar eclipse visible in the United States since 1979.

While you were breaking out the colander, donning $3 eclipse glasses, or watching NASA’s livestream, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, were flying on a government jet to view the eclipse inside of the path of totality. On Monday, the couple flew to Kentucky, and Mnuchin spoke at an event sponsored by the Louisville Chamber of Commerce. Then they met up with Mitch McConnell for a tour of Fort Knox and to view the eclipse. The question is: was this trip planned around official government business, or did Mnuchin and his wife use a government plane for a trip that was primarily about getting a good view of the eclipse?

Fortunately, the good folks at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) are on the case. They have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all records relating to the trip. The documents, they say, are need to “shed light on the justification for Secretary Mnuchin’s use of a government plane, rather than a commercial flight, for a trip that seems to have been planned around the solar eclipse and to enable the Secretary to secure a viewpoint in the path of the eclipse’s totality.”

The bottom line: We’ll have to wait and see what CREW turns up, but this is not a good look for Mnuchin.

Senator Menendez Takes The Stand in Corruption Trial

Menendez is facing 14 charges, including conspiracy to commit bribery, honest services fraud, violating the Travel Act, and making a false statement.

The trial against Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) officially kicked off this week at the U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey. Menendez is accused of accepting almost $1 million in bribes from Florida opthamologist, Salomon Melgen, in exchange for political favors. According to the indictment document, the bribes included campaign contributions, exotic vacations, travel on private jets, and donations to a legal defense fund. In return, Menendez intervened on Melgen’s behalf in a multi-million-dollar billing dispute with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. He’s also accused of having pressured the government of the Dominican Republic to honor a contract that would benefit a company that Melgen owns. The trial is expected to last at least two months.

The bottom line: According to the facts laid out in the indictment, this looks like corruption. But the courts have defined criminal bribery so narrowly that Menendez could still avoid conviction. Basically, the case rests on whether or not the DoJ can show that there was an explicit agreement for a quid pro quo exchange involving “official acts” of government business. If that can’t be proved, Menendez won’t be found guilty.

Money in Politics is Stacked Against Women

In an society that disproportionately empowers men, campaign finance reform is an important feminist issue.

Despite the fact that women make up about 51 percent of the general population, less than 20 percent of the U.S. Congress is women. One reason why: money fuels elections, and in our unequal society most of that money is earned and spent by men. As more progressive women have begun entering politics following the election of President Trump, Mic.com reports that they are finding fundraising to be a significant barrier to running for office.

“There’s extra layers to being a woman and being a woman of color and you have to ask people for money,” says New York City Council candidate Amanda Farias. “The first few months of fundraising, I’d say ‘Oh, my friend just had a kid,’ I would make excuses for why people couldn’t contribute before I even asked. You have to look at it like, ‘I’m an investment.’”

The bottom line: Men dominate the campaign finance world and the vast majority of political contributions are given to male candidates.

In Florida, Sick Kids Fall Victim to Big Donors

Talk about preying on the weak…

In 2015, the Florida state government kicked more than 13,000 kids off a healthcare program called Children’s Medical Service (CMS) that serves children with severe medical issues. The government conducted a phone survey with the parents of children on CMS, and if the parents answered a single question incorrectly, their children were automatically disenrolled. Children with conditions like blindness, cystic fibrosis, and congenital heart defects were kicked off the program, and their parent struggled to find new doctors to treat them.

So why would Florida do such a thing? As this CNN analysis explains, it looks like it could have been a favor for big insurance companies, which donate more money to Republican committees in Florida than to politicians anywhere else in the U.S.

When the children were dropped from CMS, they were placed on one of 11 different insurance plans that are run by private insurance companies. From 2010 to 2015, these 11 companies gave more than $8 million to the Florida Republican Party. No one knows how much money in Medicaid reimbursements these companies received for these 13,000+ sick children, but it’s like to be something like 10 times the amount they would receive for a healthy child (i.e. about $3200/month per child).
The bottom line: Insurance companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Humana, and UnitedHealthCare spent millions to prop up powerful politicians, and they received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Medicaid reimbursements in exchange. This kind of corruption has real-world consequences, and in this case it created major medical and financial challenges for  vulnerable people.

That’s it for this week. Please send any corruption stories you’d like to see featured in next week’s installment to jnoland@represent.us.

About Donald Shaw
Donald Shaw is a journalist covering lobbying and money in politics. He is based in Western Massachusetts.
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