By Caroline Hunter
One of my colleagues on the Federal Election Commission has been having a field day. This year’s chair, Ellen Weintraub, has attracted considerable attention thanks to the FEC’s important role in regulating and enforcing federal campaign finance law, which is a hot topic right now. As chair, Weintraub has been rushing around giving interviews, tweeting and generally weighing in on a whole host of topics both within and outside of the FEC’s area of expertise.
Unfortunately, while Weintraub’s tweets and interviews might make for good soundbites and clickbait, they are harming the legitimacy of the institution she purports to serve. Commissioners are meant to be independent and neutral arbiters of campaign finance law. Yet Weintraub’s statements indicate that she has prematurely judged matters that could come before the FEC, and that she radically rejects any legal perspective other than her own. Not only that, she risks misleading the public about what the FEC does and what campaign finance law really says. Not surprisingly, Weintraub’s activities are causing consternation and confusion in several quarters, including on Capitol Hill, and people are starting to ask questions, including about her possible misuse of government resources for ideological and political purposes…
Her inflammatory public statements and inappropriate tactics risk delegitimizing the FEC by reducing the public’s trust in it to act fairly. While Weintraub is free to speak about any issue she likes in her personal capacity, we commissioners must be circumspect when acting in our official capacities. Instead, Weintraub is using her official position to drag the FEC into political debates in which it does not belong, to promote herself and her personal views of what the law should be, and to mislead the public. In light of her activity, Congress and the president should take a hard look at replacing all three remaining members of the FEC, myself included, and starting fresh with a slate of six new commissioners. No one would blame them if they did.
By Maggie Miller
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) blocked passage of the Honest Ads Act, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), saying work was needed to make the measure more bipartisan.
Klobuchar’s bill, whose lone GOP cosponsor is Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), would require online platforms to make “all reasonable efforts” to ensure foreign entities are not buying political ads. It also would require public disclosure of who paid for the ad.
“There are many other bills that I’ll come back and discuss in the next few weeks which would help on foreign influence in our elections, but today I want to focus on this one because election security is national security, and it’s well past time we take action,” Klobuchar said on the Senate floor.
Klobuchar, a White House hopeful, discussed the bill during last week’s Democratic debate, urging quick passage in order to guard against foreign election interference…
House Democrats have also kept up a sustained effort to push through election security legislation, passing two sweeping bills earlier this year that have stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate.
The House plans to vote on another election security bill, The SHIELD Act, on Wednesday.
By Tim Starks
HOUSE HOMELAND TEES UP ONLINE EXTREMISM BILL – The House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday will mark up a bill that would create a 12-member commission to analyze how “online platforms have been utilized in furtherance of acts of targeted violence.” The group of non-government experts would issue recommendations for addressing online extremism within two years of convening, according to a copy of the bill shared with Morning Tech. Committee chairs and ranking members for the Homeland Security, Commerce and foreign affairs panels in both the House and Senate would each appoint a member to the group, which would be able to subpoena platforms to obtain information about their operations.
The latest text of the bill appears largely unchanged from a draft circulated by the committee in September, which drew sharp pushback from civil liberties and technology groups that feared the proposal would trample on First Amendment rights and lead to surveillance of vulnerable communities, as reported by The Hill…
GOP’S TURN ON ELECTION SECURITY MEASURE – The top Republican on the House Administration Committee last week introduced election security legislation, H.R. 4736, just days after the panel advanced a Democratic election security bill, H.R. 4617. The version sponsored by Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) would require additional disclosures to the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, codify Federal Election Commission guidance on political ad disclosures, require an FEC analysis of illicit foreign spending in U.S. elections and ban ballot harvesting.
“The type of interference we saw in the 2016 presidential election with Russia’s misinformation campaign is unacceptable, which is why I’m putting forth the Honest Elections Act,” Davis said. “Our bill is designed to fight nefarious actors from intruding in our elections without infringing on Americans’ right to free speech or requiring unworkable standards for digital communications.”
By Ben Freeman
At first, FARA was narrowly defined, requiring those spreading propaganda on behalf of a foreign power to register their activities with the government and disclose their clients, activities and contacts. Even after 80 years and multiple amendments, it remains purely a disclosure statute. Critically, the act has never prohibited the dissemination of propaganda. When the intelligence community concluded that a Russian television network, RT, was “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet” and part of Moscow’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election, it wasn’t barred from the airwaves – it was required to register under FARA.
The original FARA statute did not prohibit foreign powers from pouring money into the American political system, a loophole that lobbyists exploited in their work to secure sugar quotas on behalf of foreign governments in the 1960s. . . The ensuing outrage spurred amendments that, in 1966, explicitly barred agents from making campaign contributions on behalf of foreign powers. For the first time, America had a law to prevent foreign money from entering its politics.
But a critical opening remained: Foreign nationals could still directly contribute to political campaigns. Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign took full advantage, receiving large foreign donations (including $100,000 in cash from a Mexican businessman) that were exposed during the Watergate hearings. The subsequent outcry led to further amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act that would prohibit foreign citizens from “directly or indirectly” contributing money “or other thing of value” in connection with any election. This explicit prohibition did not end foreign influence, of course: In 1997, The Washington Post reported that a Justice Department investigation found evidence that China had sought to funnel money into the 1996 election, using the Chinese Embassy in Washington to orchestrate contributions to the Democratic National Committee and others. This led the Federal Election Commission to fine the DNC, the Clinton-Gore campaign and nearly two dozen other entities for their involvement.
By Alice Speri
Since 2010, the FBI has surveilled black activists and Muslim Americans, Palestinian solidarity and peace activists, Abolish ICE protesters, Occupy Wall Street, environmentalists, Cuba and Iran normalization proponents, and protesters at the Republican National Convention. And that is just the surveillance we know of – as the civil liberties group Defending Rights & Dissent documents in a report published today. The report is a detailed catalog of known FBI First Amendment abuses and political surveillance since 2010, when the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General published the last official review of Bush-era abuses. The incidents the report references, many of which were previously covered by The Intercept, were largely exposed through public records requests by journalists, activists, and civil rights advocates. The FBI relentlessly fought those disclosures, and the documents we have were often so heavily redacted they only revealed the existence of initiatives like a “Race Paper” or an “Iron Fist” operation, both targeting racial justice activists, while giving away little detail about their content.
But the targeting of political dissent is nothing new for the FBI. In fact, one of the bureau’s first campaigns, which began a hundred years ago next month, was an abusive crackdown of politically active immigrants it viewed as disloyal potential terrorists…
“What is known is that there is a persistent pattern of monitoring civil society activity,” the report concludes, calling for strict oversight and reform of the bureau. “The FBI continuously singles out peace, racial justice, environmental, and economic justice groups for scrutiny. This is consistent with a decades-long pattern of FBI First Amendment abuses and suggests deeply seated political bias.”
Center for Public Integrity: Conservative Political Fundraiser Pleads Guilty To Felony
By Sarah Kleiner, Chris Zubak-Skees, Carrie Levine, and Dave Levinthal
One of Washington’s most controversial political fundraisers today pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Federal Election Commission.
Scott B. Mackenzie “caused the submission of a number of materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements and representations” to the FEC from 2011 to 2018 on behalf of two political action committees: Conservative StrikeForce and Conservative Majority Fund.
Mackenzie, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, was arraigned in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria. He faces a maximum of five years in prison, a fine of $250,000 and restitution of $172,200, according to court documents. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 21. His lawyer could not immediately be reached for comment.
Mackenzie has for years served as treasurer of more than 50 political action committees – about a dozen of which purport to raise money for political and social causes, but spend most of the money they raise from donors on fundraising, salaries and overhead…
During the last two decades, the United States saw a significant spike in the number of PACs that raise most of their money from small-dollar donors before plowing much of it back into salaries, administrative costs and raising more cash, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of more than 68.7 million campaign finance records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
During the early 2000s, there were seven PACs in operation that raised money in small increments and spent most of it on fundraising, wages and administration. Now, there are 61 – more than half of which became active in 2017 or 2018, according to Public Integrity’s analysis. Those 61 PACs collected $101 million in 2017 and 2018.
Candidates and Campaigns
By Benjamin Kail
Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, one of 1,800 candidates pledging to reject donations from fossil fuel executives or lobbyists, accepted contributions this year from four lobbyists whose clients include fossil fuel companies…
John Walsh, Markey’s campaign director, said in an interview that he would push back against the “implication that somehow we said one thing and did another.”
Walsh said he was “very comfortable” the campaign had properly applied the principles of the no-fossil-fuel money pledge, noting the campaign would refuse any donation of more than $200 from an employee of a firm whose principle work serves the fossil fuel industry. When a donor works for a large firm that takes on some fossil fuel clients among a variety of industries, the campaign vets the individual to ensure their primary work isn’t with the fossil fuel industry, Walsh said.
“We are holding ourselves to a higher standard – no corporate (political action committee) money and no fossil fuel money,” he said…
The “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge” is part of nonprofit Oil Change U.S.’s push to combat climate change, oppose new pipelines and promote renewable energy, among other climate initiatives.
According to an FAQ updated earlier this month, the pledge “includes rejecting contributions from the federal and state registered lobbyists of fossil fuel companies … both ‘in-house’ registered lobbyists who work directly for oil, gas and coal companies, and outside registered lobbyists at lobbying firms who report lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel industry clients.”
In federal lobbying reports available to the public, Finley, Anderson, D’Arcy and Daschle are listed among others at their firms who “acted as a lobbyist in this issue area” for their clients.
Albany Times Union: Stefanik’s PAC endorses 11 GOP women for Congress
By Emilie Munson
Eleven Republican women running for Congress are getting a boost from the PAC of U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik this cycle, after E-PAC announced its first slate of endorsements Tuesday morning…
“E-PAC’s mission is to recruit and support a formidable group of Republican women running for Congress in 2020, and these candidates have demonstrated their strength early on in their races,” said Stefanik, R-Schuylerville. “I worked with each of these candidates to ensure they are building strong, competitive campaigns, and I’m proud to endorse them today.”
E-PAC has already awarded each endorsed candidate $5,000 and the candidate will receive another $5,000 from the PAC soon, said Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for Stefanik.
To earn the endorsement, candidates raised at least $250,000 within their first full quarter after announcing their candidacy, established a campaign team, and convinced Stefanik they had a path to victory. E-PAC will announce more endorsements in 2020.
Philadelphia Inquirer: Pennsylvania state lawmakers are hiding millions in campaign spending. And it’s all legal.
By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Mike Wereschagin, Brad Bumsted, Paula Knudsen and Sam Janesch of The Caucus
Under Pennsylvania election law, campaign accounts must be used for “influencing the outcome of an election.” But what qualifies is largely open to interpretation…
A yearlong investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found lawmakers across the state are shielding sometimes lavish campaign spending by not reporting the details to the public, making it extremely difficult for voters and donors to assess how the money was spent and if that spending was appropriate.
From 2016 through 2018, state House and Senate candidates spent nearly $3.5 million that cannot be fully traced based on the information they publicly disclosed, according to thousands of pages of records obtained by the news organizations. Charges included foreign trips, sports tickets, limos, lavish dinners, fine wines and liquor, country club memberships, and a DNA test kit.
In many cases, the expenditures were listed on publicly available campaign finance documents with entries such as “credit card,” “meals” or “travel,” and a total amount, with no other details. In other cases, expenses were listed in reports simply as a “reimbursement.”…
Pennsylvania lawmakers operate under some of the country’s weakest campaign finance laws. The state is the only one with neither contribution limits nor an explicit ban on spending campaign cash for personal use, according to a nationwide survey by The Caucus and Spotlight PA.
Over the years, Pennsylvania state lawmakers have dismissed efforts to impose more restrictions, arguing they are unnecessary as long as details about where the money comes from, and how it is spent, are available to the public.
But the investigation by The Caucus and Spotlight PA found lawmakers are falling well short of their end of the bargain.