In the News
By Christian Britschgi
In the midst of an affordable housing crisis, Los Angeles politicians have decided to reduce their own incentives to approve more development. On Wednesday, the city council voted unanimously to ban developers from donating to candidates for city offices.
Under the new law, people and companies seeking discretionary city approval for real estate projects would be forbidden from donating to anyone running for mayor, city council, or city attorney while their project application is pending, and up to 12 months after it’s approved…
“Whenever a developer wants to do something, there’s probably someone who lives near the development who probably doesn’t want it,” says David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech. “Essentially, L.A. has passed a law saying people with one interest in a decision by the council can support candidates, but the other side can’t. In a sense, it’s a form of viewpoint discrimination.”…
By allowing donations by people on one side of the issue, but not another, Keating says the Los Angeles ordinance could be vulnerable to a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds. He suggests that the city could achieve the anti-corruption purposes of the bill by issuing reports on which councilmembers are receiving developer contributions.
By David D. Kirkpatrick and Kenneth P. Vogel
The donors referred to their campaign contributions as baked goods, usually “baklava.” They called Hillary Clinton “Our Sister” or “the Big Lady.”
And they referred to their ultimate sponsor by the initials H.H., for His Highness, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, one of the Pentagon’s closest partners in the Middle East and one of the biggest foreign spenders on influence in Washington.
“Will send you a note on the matter as per HH instruction,” George Nader, a trusted emissary for the crown prince, wrote in a text message in late June 2016, describing a million-dollar payment of “baklava,” according to an indictment unsealed by the Justice Department this week…
The indictment accused Mr. Nader of funneling more than $3.5 million in illicit campaign donations through Mr. Khawaja to buy access and influence in Washington – initially with Mrs. Clinton and her Democratic allies during the 2016 campaign, and then with Donald J. Trump after he won the election – to gain “favor” and “potential financial support” from an unnamed foreign government.
A close reading of the 64-page indictment makes clear that the unnamed government is the United Arab Emirates, where Mr. Nader owns a business and advises the crown prince.
By Adi Robertson
A group of filmmakers have sued the US government for making visa applicants hand over details about their social media accounts. The lawsuit argues that the requirement unconstitutionally discourages applicants from speaking online – and, conversely, discourages people who post political speech from trying to enter the US.
The US government has ramped up social media surveillance as part of President Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting” of immigrants. After initially asking a subset of applicants to provide information voluntarily, the State Department recently began requiring most visa applicants to list all social media accounts they’ve used in the past five years.
This lawsuit, filed by the Doc Society and the International Documentary Association, challenges the decision on First Amendment grounds. It calls the registration system “the cornerstone of a far reaching digital surveillance regime” that makes would-be visitors provide “effectively a live database of their personal, creative, and political activities online” – which the government can monitor at any time, long after the application process has been completed. Applicants must even disclose accounts that they use pseudonymously, and if US authorities fail to keep that information secure, it could potentially endanger people who are trying to avoid censorship from a repressive foreign government…
Meanwhile, there’s little concrete evidence that the increased vetting has had positive effects on national security.
Online Speech Platforms
By Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker
Facebook has weighed whether to label political ads to indicate they have not been fact-checked, rather than vetting what candidates say, one of a series of proposals the company has floated to Democratic and Republican operatives as it seeks to head off controversies in the 2020 election campaign.
Some of the ideas – described by four people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations – have left campaign strategists in both parties uneasy, fearful that Facebook’s reforms might hamstring their ability to persuade and mobilize voters in a year when the White House is at stake…
“We have concerns about proposed rules that impact our ability to share messages directly with voters, as it hinders an opportunity to get more people involved and engaged in the democratic process,” said Blair Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee…
Democratic groups were particularly troubled by the possibility that Facebook might flag all ads by politicians as not having been fact-checked. Such a measure, they argued, would create an equivalence between well-sourced ads and those containing debunked claims…
“Either they don’t have a clue, or they just aren’t serious about fixing the real problems: allowing politicians to spread outrageous lies,” said Bill Russo, the [Biden] campaign’s deputy communications director. What Facebook defends as “free speech,” he added, is rather “profiteering off the erosion of American democracy. It is wrong.”
By Patrick Mcgreevy
California’s campaign watchdog agency has suspended a longstanding policy banning its members from contributing to federal candidates after one commissioner donated to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid.
The decision by the Fair Political Practices Commission, which is responsible for policing campaign finance in California, is drawing criticism from some political reform advocates and former state officials who say the policy was put in place to avoid an appearance of bias in favor of political candidates whose campaigns are scrutinized by the state agency.
Dan Schnur, a former FPPC chairman who teaches political communication at USC and UC Berkeley, said the policy is important because “board members are entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the state’s elections in a fair-minded and even-handed way.”…
The panel voted on Sept. 19 to suspend the policy restricting donations and asked the state attorney general for an opinion on the legality and scope of the rules, which some FPPC members say violates their 1st Amendment rights.
“I absolutely believe that both the U.S. and the State constitutions protect my right to make political campaign contributions,” Commissioner Brian Hatch said in an email to The Times. “The issue that the making of campaign contributions is a form of political speech protected by the [U.S.] Constitution has been settled law for nearly five decades.”
By The Times Editorial Board
The Los Angeles City Council struck a blow Wednesday against the pay-to-play culture at City Hall. After putting it off for many months, the council finally voted to ban campaign contributions from real estate developers with projects needing city approval…
Worst of all, council members refused to close a big loophole: “behested payments,” in which politicians ask developers, lobbyists and people with city contracts to make contributions to particular charities. Behested payments may sound like a good thing on the surface – it’s charity, after all – but in fact they are just another mechanism by which politicians squeeze money out of people doing business with the city, and direct it where they want it to go…
Council members said they were worried that charitable giving would dry up if they could no longer personally shake down developers, lobbyists and contract bidders for donations. But that fear acknowledges the reality behind political fundraising: Whether it’s a large campaign donation or a behested contribution to a charity, money is being exchanged in most cases with the intent to curry favor with an elected official. That’s why more than half of behested payments reported by L.A. politicians over the last five years came from donors with business before City Hall.
The public needs to keep up the pressure on City Hall to ban behested contributions from donors with business pending before the city.
By Shia Kapos and Adrienne Hurst
Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a new law to put more sunlight on elected officials who also want side gigs as lobbyists. And the Chicago City Council is advancing legislation that prevents aldermen from lobbying the city, county, state or any other local government, the Tribune reports. The rules proposed by Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) also prevent state lawmakers from lobbying the City Council or city government…
Separately, Pritzker signed Senate Bill 1639, which requires lawmakers to give more details about their economic interests, more lobbyist disclosure requirements – including whether they are also elected – and creation of a publicly accessible and searchable database detailing lobbyist disclosures, contributions and statements of economic interest…
One set of allies in the fight for more transparency are full-time lobbyists who compete with the lawmakers who play on both sides.
“It’s not our fault” that lawmakers “wore wires” and were charged with wrong-doing, said one Chicago lobbyist who works in Springfield, referring to a state senator who wore a wire that led to former state Rep. Luis Arroyo being charged with bribery. “It’s not a lobbyist problem but an elected official problem.”
By Brent Johnson and Matt Arco, NJ Advance Media
New Jersey’s most powerful state lawmaker is set to introduce a proposal to publicly reveal politically connected consultants and firms that lobbyists hire to help sway the legislators and top officials, NJ Advance Media has learned.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s bill takes aim at “shadow lobbying,” in which people and companies are paid to help influence policy but aren’t required by law to be identified. It’s a controversial but common practice in politics across the country…
State law requires lobbyists register, obtain a license and disclose how much they spend, who they are lobbying, and what subject they are lobbying.
But lobbyists and government-regulated entities – like utility companies and casinos – do not have to reveal if they hire outside consultants and firms that help them with advising, legal work, public relations, advertising, research, and more.
Sweeney’s bill would change that. It would require any lobbyist or “governmental affairs agent working at the state level” to file a statement disclosing when they hire a person or firm to “provide professional services other than lobbying,” according to a copy of the bill obtained by NJ Advance Media…
[P]eople or firms receiving more than $100 in any three-month period to influence legislation, regulations, or government processes in New Jersey would have to be disclosed.