Daily Media Links 8/23

August 23, 2019   •  By Alex Baiocco   •  
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Congress

Washington Post: The Technology 202: Facebook and Twitter’s action on accounts tied to China show disinformation is going global

By Cat Zakrzewski

The revelations are already intensifying calls on Capitol Hill for Congress to take action to address disinformation on social media as the 2020 election approaches. Lawmakers have scrutinized the ways Russia exploited social media in 2016 through hearings and by commissioning reports, but they have yet to pass any legislation that aims to prevent Russia or another country from reprising these tactics. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is running for president, says it’s time for that to change. 

“Foreign adversaries are using information operations to try to influence elections and divide populations around the world,” Klobuchar told me in a statement. “That’s why it’s crucial that Congress must act now to protect our democracy from this kind of interference here in our country.”

Klobuchar says the first step would be for Congress to pass the Honest Ads Act, legislation she co-sponsors with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). The measure would require that political ads sold online meet the same transparency requirements as political ads sold by traditional media, such as TV and radio stations. The legislation would also require tech companies to take steps to ensure foreign actors aren’t purchasing political ads to influence the election.

However, Klobuchar says the bill is stalled in Congress due to opposition from Republican Senate leadership. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been defensive about his decision to not bring other election security-related bills to the floor, previously expressed skepticism about Klobuchar’s bill because he believes it will make it harder for Americans to exercise their free speech rights through political action.

The Courts

Dallas News: Michael Quinn Sullivan’s secret audio of Texas House speaker blurs line between journalism, activism

By Rebekah Allen

This year, Empower Texans filed another lawsuit in its quest for media legitimacy, suing Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who is chairman of House administration, in federal court for rejecting the Texas Scorecard’s request for House media credentials. The suit was dismissed in May and Empower Texans has already filed an appeal to the Fifth Circuit.

“Geren is engaging in viewpoint discrimination,” Empower Texans attorney Tony McDonald wrote in pleadings, adding that their group was being denied “equal access to the hall of the House in order to report on its proceedings while making those facilities available to hundreds of other journalists.”…

Geren declined to comment. But in court filings, he said that media credentials are reserved for “employees of editorially independent” entities, and “Empower Texans, by contrast, is generally known as a political advocacy organization.”…

So why is it so important to Sullivan that he and Empower Texans be recognized as legitimate media?

Corpus Christi attorney Jim Clancy, who previously chaired the Texas Ethics Commission, said media organizations don’t report expenditures like lobbyists do.

“In today’s information age, if everyone who writes a post on Facebook is a journalist, then all political expenditures and even paid lobbying would not be required to be reported,” Clancy said. “The campaign finance system would no longer serve its disclosure function. It’s the ultimate get-out-of-jail free-card in politics.”

FEC

Election Law Blog: FEC Deadlocks Over Advisory Opinion on Tom Price Attempt to Transfer Congressional Funds to Political 501(c)(4)

By Rick Hasen

FEC:

August 22, 2019

On August 22, 2019, the Commission considered an advisory opinion request (AOR) from Price for Congress, the principal campaign committee of former Rep. Dr. Thomas Price. The request asked if the committee could contribute funds to establish and operate a 501(c)(4) organization that would publish research, presentations, and other publications concerning health and budget policy matters under Price’s name. The Commission was unable to render an opinion by the required four affirmative votes and concluded its consideration of the request.

Resources

AOR 2019-10

Commission consideration of AOR 2019-10

Price can now go ahead and try to do this anyway, but he cannot claim he relied upon a green light from the FEC. (Many more aggressive political folks use FEC deadlock as a green light.)

If Price goes ahead, there could be an FEC complaint and lawsuits. But those will take a long time to resolve and Price might treat it as the cost of doing business.

Florida Politics: FEC fails to opine on Tom Price zombie campaign issue

By Noah Pransky

FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, who recently criticized her colleagues for not cracking down on former lawmakers’ abuse of zombie campaigns, wanted the board to opine that Price’s proposed use of campaign funds would constitute an illegal personal use because his new social welfare organization would “act as a personal vehicle for Dr. Price to promote his ideas, personal brand, and reputation using campaign funds.”

Weintraub, the only Democrat on the commission, appeared to have the support of independent Stephen Walther, but not the board’s two Republicans, who did not believe the transfer would constitute personal use because Price would receive no direct compensation from the nonprofit organization…

“Price has a history of using leftover campaign money to advance his post-Congressional career, and the FEC (should) refuse his plan to transfer that money to his outside organization,” said Adav Noti, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group that filed a complaint in 2017 over Price’s post-Congressional spending. “The law allows candidates to give excess campaign funds to charity, but Price’s organization is not a charity.”

Price wouldn’t be the first former member of Congress to transfer zombie campaign funds to a 501(c)4 advocacy group; earlier this year, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, rolled $750,000 of leftover campaign cash to a nonprofit social welfare group she helped launch, while former Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West did the same in 2013 with hundreds of thousands of dollars he had leftover from a failed reelection bid.

Sioux Falls Argus Leader: FEC audit shows South Dakota Democratic Party likely violated fundraising regulations

By Lisa Kaczke

The South Dakota Democratic Party likely violated joint fundraising committee regulations, according to the leader of the Federal Election Commission.

But FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub was unsuccessful on Thursday to formally add that claim to a federal audit of the state party, and an FEC investigation into potential joint fundraising regulation violations in dozens of states, including South Dakota, has been closed without a definitive conclusion that violations took place.

A federal audit found that the SDDP under-reported its disbursements to the Democratic National Committee by $2.5 million during the 2015-16 election cycle. The SDDP was likely one of many state political parties that served as a pass-through for money transfers between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s joint fundraising committee and the Democratic National Committee, Weintraub said during the FEC’s meeting on Thursday.

Weintraub pointed out on Thursday that the SDDP transferred $2.5 million to the DNC on the same day it received $2.5 million from the Hillary Victory Fund.

“This is one in a series of committees that we’ve had before us that were engaged in these massive joint fundraising committees where money changed hands very quickly between one committee and another in a way that, I think, raises issues under the contribution limits,” Weintraub said.

Online Speech Platforms 

New York Times: In the Trump Era, a Family’s Fight With Google and Facebook Over Disinformation

By Nicholas Confessore and Justin Bank

The Western Journal is not quite a household name. Until recently, some of its most prolific writers used pseudonyms. Though it publishes scores of stories each week about national politics, the company has no Washington bureau, or any other bureaus. Indeed, it rarely dispatches reporters into the world to gather news firsthand.

In the parallel universe of Facebook, though, The Western Journal has been among the most popular and influential publications in America, shaping the political beliefs of more than 36 million deeply loyal readers and followers. In the three years ending in March, according to a New York Times analysis, Western Journal’s Facebook posts earned three-quarters of a billion shares, likes and comments, almost as many as the combined tally of 10 leading American news organizations that together employ thousands of reporters and editors.

But in the last year, as Facebook and Google tried to rein in their own freewheeling, largely unregulated information ecosystems, The Western Journal’s publishers have been thrust into a high-stakes clash between the tech industry and Washington.

Wall Street Journal: Google Puts Curbs on Political Debate by Employees

By Sarah E. Needleman

Google issued new guidelines limiting employee discussion of politics and other topics not related to work, in a major shift for a company that has long prided itself on open debate and a freewheeling internal culture.

The Alphabet Inc. unit on Friday said in a public memo that staffers should avoid spending time hotly debating matters unrelated to their jobs and refrain from name-calling, among other discouraged behavior. The company also reiterated that confidential information discussed internally should be kept private, a message that follows multiple leaks on corporate projects and deliberations that vexed senior executives.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” the guidelines say. “Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about nonwork topics.”

The new guidelines don’t forbid discussing politics at work but require managers to address conversations that become disruptive…

At Google, employees have been free to form groups dedicated to a range of issues, both related and unrelated to its business. In recent years, though, the level of debate has at times driven a wedge between staffers with opposing views as well as between staffers and management.

In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said the company’s community guidelines exist to “support the healthy and open discussion that has always been a part of our culture.”

Candidates and Campaigns 

Bangor Daily News: Democratic U.S. Senate hopeful Sara Gideon slapped with Republican ethics complaints

By Michael Shepherd

A former lawmaker filed federal and state ethics complaints on Thursday against Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, for her past use of a partially corporate-funded committee to reimburse herself for political contributions.

Those contributions, which date back to 2015 and 2016, were first reported by the conservative Washington Free Beacon this month and were deemed by experts to be clear-cut violations of federal campaign finance law. Gideon’s campaign blamed “incorrect guidance.”

The Thursday complaints from former state Sen. Ed Youngblood of Brewer were the first attempts from Republicans to seek formal punishment for Gideon…

Youngblood’s complaints, which he sent to the Bangor Daily News on Thursday after submitting one to the Maine Ethics Commission and having the other mailed to the Federal Election Commission, allege that Gideon’s contributions violated state and federal laws prohibiting political contributions made in someone else’s name.

In 2015, Gideon contributed $1,000 to a congressional candidate. Nearly a month later, Gideon’s state political action committee paid her $1,000. The committee reimbursed Gideon through 2016 for $1,750 more in contributions to that candidate and the Maine Democratic Party’s federal arm.

Federal law bars corporations from donating to candidates and party committees. Maine allows them. Gideon’s committee raised 60 percent of its money from commercial sources between 2014 and 2019. The contributions were disclosed as federal contributions in state filings.

The Media 

Oregonian: Journalistic impact can be measured in new laws, proposed reforms: Editor’s notebook

By Therese Bottomly

After the Oregon Legislature wrapped up in late June, the list of new laws signed by the governor provided a window into the impact of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s journalists.

More than a dozen laws were enacted after the newsroom highlighted significant problems, troublesome trends or gaps in the safety net.

Do we take full credit for these changes? No. It’s very likely activists, lobbyists and legislators were working on some of the issues before our coverage. In fact, they might have contacted our reporters to draw attention to problems. In other cases, we uncovered trouble spots through our own digging.

Rob Davis’ “Polluted by Money” series prompted a change that didn’t require the governor’s signature. Voters will get to decide on campaign finance reform after his series earlier this year highlighted how much of an outlier Oregon is.

The States

Gotham Gazette: State Campaign Financing Commission Holds First Public Meeting

By Ethan Geringer-Sameth

The purpose of Wednesday’s meeting, where many of the commissioners met for the first time, was to establish procedures for the work that lies ahead…

The commission will hold five sessions to solicit input from members of the public, with the fifth meeting reserved for testimony from invited experts. Its final report is due December 1 and will become binding if legislators do not return from break to modify it within 20 days.

At the outset of the meeting John Nonna, the Westchester County Attorney appointed to the commission by Stewart-Cousins, asked whether the commission had the authority to lower contribution limits for candidates who opt out of a public matching program, “because there’s a relationship there that needs to be taken into account.”

“That’s one of the issues that we’ll have to discuss and see where we go on that. I think that’s an issue before us,” replied Henry Berger, a well-known election lawyer appointed to the commission jointly by Cuomo, Stewart-Cousins, and Heastie.

Hartford Courant: Ernie Newton pleads guilty to three campaign finance charges, avoids jail; six-year prosecution ends

By David Owens

Ernie Newton, the former state senator from Bridgeport and now a city council member, pleaded guilty Wednesday to three felony campaign finance violations, but avoided prison.

The guilty pleas and an 18-month suspended jail sentence bring to a close nearly seven years of litigation over allegations the Bridgeport Democrat received illegal contributions in order to qualify for more than $80,000 in public financing for a 2012 state senate run that he ultimately lost…

Newton initially faced campaign finance violations and two counts of first-degree larceny as a result of an investigation by the State Elections Enforcement Commission. A Hartford Superior Court jury convicted Newton of three campaign finance violations, but could not reach verdicts on the other charges.

Judge Julia D. Dewey sentenced Newton to six months in jail, but allowed him to remain free as his lawyers appealed. The state Supreme Court overturned his convictions more than three years later and the prosecution began anew…

Newton’s guilty pleas Wednesday were to the three counts he was convicted of at his 2015 trial…

He said he thinks the legislature and elections enforcement commission need to look at the state’s campaign finance laws.

“I think we need people in the legislature that can change some of these things, so may I’ll keep my eye on coming back,” he said.

San Diego Union-Tribune: Republican Party of San Diego County launches ‘news’ website for political purposes

By Morgan Cook

Readers learn that sandiegonewsdesk.com is a Republican Party product when they get to the bottom of the home page or an article. The disclosure there says, “Paid for by the Republican Party of San Diego County.” Also listed are the identification numbers for the party’s state and local political committees and its associated tax-exempt organization…

The party is meeting state political disclosure laws by disclosing who is funding and operating San Diego News Desk, said Rey López-Calderón, executive director of the government reform group California Common Cause…

“You are disclosing in a way that’s fine print and difficult to see, but you really are trying to dupe people into thinking it’s a news site,” said López-Calderón, adding that it’s an increasingly common political advertising tactic. “It’s not ethical; it’s contributing to the whole phenomenon of people losing trust in the news media, and it’s not good for democracy.” …

He said Republicans and Democrats have both used the tactic.

California Common Cause is working to identify possible legal remedies to address political advertising and communications designed to look like traditional news sources, he said…

Brett Kappel, an attorney at Akerman LLP in Washington, D.C., and a noted expert in federal campaign laws and ethics, told the Union-Tribune on Monday that the practice of using mock news broadcasts as campaign commercials dates back to the 1970s. He said it has become more prevalent with the rise of social media as a forum for political advertising.

“The First Amendment prevents the Federal Election Commission from regulating the content of political advertising to avoid any chilling effect on political speech,” Kappel said. “Instead, the Federal Election Commission is limited to requiring that political ads contain disclaimers disclosing who paid.”

Alex Baiocco

Alex Baiocco