At a campaign appearance Tuesday, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton called for cracking down on “unaccountable” money in the political system, even if it required amending the Constitution. Mrs. Clinton’s own record in that regard is not spotless. For example, Norman Hsu, a bundler for her Senate and presidential campaigns, raised $45,000 for her from a California family whose patriarch, a mailman, earned $49,000 a year, and whose matriarch was a homemaker. And Sant Chatwal, a hotel magnate based in New York City, made more than $180,000 in illegal donations, some to Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, then pressured a witness to lie to federal investigators. But still, it’s always useful for politicians to raise the problem of runaway money in politics.
Before considering the extreme step of an amendment — which might also weaken press and speech freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment — perhaps there is another approach, one that might limit the ability of well-heeled special interests to give to political organizations that act as surrogates for politicians. We could regulate the middlemen and women who make outside spending an inside affair. To do so, we’d need more transparency from super PACs and dark money groups, especially the names of the individuals who actually run them.
The problem with big money in elections is not necessarily the money. Big donors will always try to spend big in elections, and will usually succeed. In 2004, two years after the McCain-Feingold law barred giving unlimited soft money donations to political parties, political party operatives like Harold Ickes, a Democrat, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican, found perches, respectively, with the Media Fund and the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, which soon set about raising money in enormous sums from many of the soft money donors that McCain-Feingold attempted to exclude from the system. And in 2008, two years before the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that opened the door to unlimited spending by super PACs and nonprofits, Sheldon Adelson gave millions to a group called Freedom’s Watch, which employed Carl Forti and Tony Feather, both veterans of Republican party committees and campaigns.
Those running super PACs and dark money groups, and the connections they have, are what make the donors give. If I were to start a super PAC tomorrow, I’m not even certain I could persuade my mom to contribute, let alone a billionaire like Tom Steyer. But if Karl Rove starts one, the donations will flow (albeit not from Steyer). Rove has the ear of people in power. And while it’s true that lawmakers court big donors and even encourage them to write huge checks to super PACs, as indicted New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, D, is accused of doing with Salomon Melgen, they do so because they’re confident the recipients of that money know what to do with it when the get it — exactly what the party needs. Melgen and his company contributed $700,000 to the Senate Majority PAC, which is run by Susan McCue, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Before we go the constitutional amendment route, why not try instead to rein in the likes of McCue, Forte, Ginsberg and Ickes (the latter is still president of Priorities USA Action, the big money super PAC that will support Clinton’s 2016 candidacy). It’s not hard to envision a law that attempts to do just that, perhaps by making the presence of anyone who has done prior paid work for a political campaign or political party at the helm of an “independent” outside group sufficient grounds to assume coordination with a campaign. If a super PAC or dark money group run by a political insider spends millions running ads to help a candidate, that candidate’s campaign will be fined an amount twice as great as the cost of the independent expenditure from which it benefited. The same standard could be applied to dark money nonprofits as well. Any group that plays in politics has to disclose its management, directors and staff, and if the likes of Rove or Ickes turn up among their officers, the same fine applies to the campaigns that benefit from their spending.
Outside groups that are truly outside, formed by like-minded Americans who want to see Washington change, would be unaffected. The rules would only impact political insiders who make sure that big money turns into inside influence. The rest of us would remain free to enjoy our First Amendment rights.
A left-leaning dark money group could go up with the first Democratic-allied Iowa ads as early as this weekend, just as Hillary Clinton, the party’s presidential frontrunner, called for an end to “unaccountable” money in politics. Americans … […]
The latest iteration of USASpending.gov, which combines all the virtues of clunky design with the frustrations of diminished functionality, is a reminder for this writer of the early days of the Sunlight Foundation. George W, Bush was president with majorities in both the House and the Senate, and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton was certain to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. Barack Obama was a junior senator from Illinois and among the chamber’s most liberal. He teamed up with the now retired Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., among the most conservative, to craft a bill called the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which led to the creation of USASpending.gov.
Recently, we used USASpending and other data to show how much the 200 most politically active corporations get out Washington ($4.4 trillion over six years!) in our Fixed Fortunes project. Sunlight has also presented data from the site, along with federal campaign finance and lobbying data we get from the Center for Responsive Politics and state campaign finance data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, on our Influence Explorer site. There, we provide access to data via bulk downloads, APIs, or filtered for a particular organization, politician or other search term, real time access to Federal Election Commission and lobbying registration filings, and a whole lot of other information. I like to think of Sunlight a little bit like an old line from a BASF commercial: “We don’t make the data, we make it better.” And more accessible, easier to understand and easy to work with whether you’re a topflight developer or a curious citizen trying to found out about your government.
And that’s why passage of FFATA, also known as Coburn-Obama, an act “to require full disclosure of all federal funds,” was so important, and worth remembering. At the time, public suspicion of Congress and the executive branch was justifiably high: members had gone to jail, including Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who jotted down on office stationery how much money he required in bribes to secretly award contracts to those who paid them. House Speaker Dennis Hastert had been shown to personally profit—by a few millions—from a $200 million highway earmark he’d slipped into a transportation bill at the last minute. Haughty senators refused to defund wasteful spending like $250 million bridges to nowhere in Alaska in favor of rebuilding bridges brought down by Hurricane Katrina. Washington had rarely seemed so out of touch, unaccountable and out of control.
In August 2006, when violence in Iraq and a war between Israel and Hezbollah dominated the headlines, Coburn-Obama was stalled in Congress because some member of the Senate put a secret hold on the bill. Under Senate rules, a member could freeze a bill at any time for any reason without having his identity revealed to the public. At the time, Sunlight was working with an ad hoc group of bloggers and government watchdogs known as Porkbusters to dig out earmarks from appropriations bills and put them online on a map. Our colleagues came up with an ingenious idea to see if we could get citizens to call their senators and find out who had the secret hold. Rob Neppell, a clever blogger and programmer who went by the name N.Z. Bear, built a page showing all 100 senators; as citizens got their senators to deny having the hold, the number of pictures began to shrink. In the end, when only four were left, and at that point TPMuckraker’s Paul Keil and Cox News Service’s Rebecca Carr sleuthed out the obstructing senator: one of the biggest spenders in Congress, the late Ted Stevens of Alaska.
After another round of shenanigans (not to be outdone by Stevens, the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia applied his own secret hold), the bill finally cleared the Senate, the House and was signed by then-President George W. Bush. The site it created is not perfect (Sunlight is a persistent critic of its shortcomings and a persistent supporter of efforts to improve it), but it was a first step toward a series of changes (disclosure first then an outright ban of earmarks, more frequent lobbying disclosure) that sadly aren’t finished (how about real-time campaign finance disclosure). The creation of USASpending is also a reminder that the politicians are in charge of us only because we let them be, but We the People really are sovereign, and sometimes we can even prove it to Washington.
Shortly after midnight last Monday, Texas Republican Ted Cruz tweeted four magic words: “I’m running for President.” Under our campaign laws, this subjects the senator to restrictions and obligations expected of all candidates running for federal office.
Specifically, Cruz cannot ask for contributions of more than $2,700 from individuals for his presidential primary run, nor may he solicit contributions of more than $5,000 for outside spending groups, like super PACs. He’s barred from controlling a 527 organization, those shadowy political organizations that don’t report their activities to federal or state campaign regulatory agencies. He can’t ask foreigners for money, nor can he raise money from corporations or labor unions. He’ll have to file regular reports with the Federal Election Commission, detailing whom he’s taking money from and what he’s spending it on, whether it’s salary for campaign aides, polling, fundraising expenses, travel or other expenditures.
Yes, he’ll be able to court bundlers — those well-connected donors who can reach out to their networks and package tens of thousands of dollars or more. And yes, he most likely will discover that some longtime ally or aide has left his side to form an entirely independent super PAC to help Cruz, hopefully with three or four but no less than one very deep-pocketed donor who can write seven-figure checks. But let’s take a moment nevertheless to salute him, the first major presidential candidate from either party to start playing by the presidential rules.
By contrast, all but declared candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush can, and do, raise money in huge chunks. Because Bush has not uttered, tweeted or otherwise expressed the magic words, he’s able to ask donors for contributions of $25,000, $100,000 or more for his Right to Rise super PAC (Sunlight’s Party Time shows quite a few examples). Part of Bush’s strategy for winning the nomination is a campaign of shock and awe fundraising; should he declare his candidacy, he’d have to leave the six- and seven-figure solicitations to others.
A trio of super PACs — Priorities USA Action, American Bridge and Ready for Hillary — are promoting Hillary Clinton. One of them, Ready for Hillary, successfully fended off a complaint to the FEC last month over its purchase of the mailing list compiled by Clinton’s last presidential campaign. The FEC concluded that the sale by Clinton’s 2008 campaign, which comprised names of her donors and supporters, to a super PAC promoting her 2016 campaign did not require Clinton to register as a federal candidate.
That decision has allowed Clinton — and the two floors’ worth of close associates she brought with her from the State Department — to continue her work with the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation undisturbed, an organization that takes funds, sometimes in multi-million dollar chunks, from foreign governments, foreign corporations and foreign individuals, among others.
Neither Bush nor Clinton are private citizens, but not even holding office is an impediment to stealthy fundraising. Sitting governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, R, can lead their own 527 committees, named for the section of the tax code under which they’re organized. Our American Revival, Walker’s 527, can raise funds in any amount from individuals, corporations and labor unions (though, given Walker’s policies, he probably won’t be expecting much support from that quarter). The organization’s registration with the Internal Revenue Service says that its purpose is to “lead a revival of shared values” by “limiting the size and scope of the federal government.” But, as the Washington Examiner more accurately reported, Our American Revival lets Walker “raise money and promote his potential candidacy in advance of an official announcement.”
The 527 is actually a step forward for Walker — it will have to disclose its donors, albeit to the Internal Revenue Service. During the 2012 effort to recall him, Walker raised money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a dark money group that supported him, as Michael Isikoff
Hillary Clinton’s response to the controversy swirling around her use of a private email account and server to send and receive email as secretary of state can be summed up in five words from her brief press conference yesterday: “The server will remain private.” When the Clintons came to Washington 22 years ago, that might have been a viable response to legitimate public concerns over what are, after all, the public’s records. But in 2015, such opaqueness on the part of a politician seeking higher office does not reflect the new realities of politics in the digital age.
It’s not 1993 anymore, after all. Back then, Federal Election Commission records were not online, and the Center for Responsive Politics released information on donors to politicians in giant books. To find the names of lobbyists, their clients and their Washington wish lists, one had to visit the basement office in the Capitol complex of the House Clerk and review them in person. To find detailed information on government spending, one could visit a public library that was part of the Federal Depository Library System. Access to government information was far more remote, far less immediate.
That’s a far cry from where we are today. We now have tremendous amounts of online disclosure, all of which has created in the public an expectation for transparency. Records related to the official work of public servants — whether elected to city councils, state legislatures or Congress, or serving in the White House, a gubernatorial mansion or a mayor’s office — are increasingly available for review by the public and the press to keep government accountable. A politician who promises in no uncertain terms to withhold information is immediately suspect, and earns far more skeptical scrutiny from the public and the press.
When there is a whiff of impropriety or the smoke of scandal, the only acceptable response by a candidate — or elected official, for that matter — is full disclosure. After news that New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s political appointees had closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor, he held a lengthy press conference, hitting many of the right notes. But Christie still came up short, because the question in the public’s mind was, “What did he know, and when did he know it?”
Similarly, had Hillary announced in her press conference that the secret email server was already in the hands of the Department of State, and she deeply regretted not fully complying with federal regulations by making the official correspondence it contains available to the government on an ongoing basis, she would have shown that she’d learned something from problems previous administrations, including her husband’s, have had with email in particular, and transparency generally.
She’s made clear that she prizes her privacy, and is willing to go to great lengths to protect it — even if it leads to, at the very least, delays in releasing public records. The real question is, does she also accept the public’s expectation of openness and accountability. Should she become a candidate for president, that question will be among the first asked at many press conferences to come.
Last night, Hillary Clinton tweeted that she wants the public to see the emails she used a secret account (the word “personal” in this context is a bit inapt) to send while she served as secretary of state, and suggested that the State Department is to blame for preventing disclosure. Let us take the all-but-announced presidential candidate at her word that there is little she can to do to expedite the release of the emails in the State Department’s possession—there is still a great number of questions she can answer now as a show of good faith.
For example, she could release details of the process she used to turn over some of the emails from her secret account to the government. Michael Schmidt of The New York Times reported last Monday that “…Mrs. Clinton’s advisers reviewed tens of thousands of pages of her personal emails and decided which ones to turn over to the State Department. All told, 55,000 pages of emails were given to the department.”
This does not sound like a casual undertaking, but rather, that something that would require a great deal of planning, effort and oversight. While Clinton cannot release the emails she sent to State, and presumably has no intention of releasing those that will remain on her—until Monday—secret email server, it is entirely within her power to immediately provide the public and the press the answers to the following questions.
How many advisers worked on this project? What are the names of these advisers? Who chose them? What are their backgrounds? What qualifications do they possess that made them suited to this task? Are they familiar with the provisions of the Federal Records Act, and the responsibilities of officials covered under the act?
What criteria where they given for determining whether an email should remain secret or be turned over to the State Department? Were these written criteria, and if so, will they be made public?
Were some in positions of authority to review the work of others? Did each adviser have authority to determine which emails should remain secret, and which should be turned over the State Department? If there was a process to review the work of advisers, what was it? If a particular email caused a dispute among advisers as to whether it should be turned over the State Department or kept secret, who would resolve it?
Were the advisers paid for their work? How much were they paid, and how many hours did the review take? Who paid them? Did they work for the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation or the Clinton Family Foundation? If so, would such an undertaking meet the purpose for which charitable organizations are granted tax exemption? If some other entity paid for their services, please disclose its name. If you paid them personally, please disclose records documenting the payments.
Did the advisers volunteer their time? If so, please provide a good faith estimate as to how much their time would be worth. If the advisers volunteered their time, were they also earning income for other employers? Could you provide us with the name or names of the employers for each volunteer? Did they have to take leaves of absence from their employers to work on this task?
Finally, the New York Times reported that 55,000 pages of emails were sent to the government. How many pages of emails are being kept secret? Will these emails be subjected to a future review for possible release, or do you consider the first review to be sufficient?
Presumably, Hillary Clinton can answer all of these questions, or get answers to them from whoever her advisers are. There is no reason the public should have to wait for answers. If Clinton would really like to let the public know more about her emails, she can start by providing more information about the process she used for finally returning them to the government.
Last night, the New York Times published a story explaining that Hillary Clinton exclusively used personal email during her four-year tenure as secretary of state.
Federal law governs how official records, including email, are managed, to ensure that public records are preserved, and to help ensure that our Freedom of Information and other accountability laws reach official communications.
While it’s likely very early in what will undoubtedly spawn deeper reporting, the story raises some important questions:
Why would she do this?
Even as federal electronic record keeping is widely considered abysmal, there is shock at what Secretary Clinton did because the most likely explanation of her intent seems clear — she created a system designed to avoid accountability, potentially in violation of the law.
There have been some significant email accountability stories in recent years, from Sarah Palin to the Bush White House, Lois Lerner to Andrew Cuomo. This story is likely bigger for a number of reasons — Secretary Clinton apparently never used official email, she did it for four years, she did it as secretary of state and she created the email server just before becoming secretary of state. As both the Washington Post and Vox point out, this clarifies her intent — she was very likely evading accountability for to avoid professional and political risk.
What was the security risk?
At the same time as the US was involved in expansive efforts to undermine the technology that everyone relies on for secure communications (for example, undermining encryption standards, and forcing telecommunications companies to give the government access to private information) one of its most senior leaders was relying on a private email server for her communications.
The secretary of state is clearly subject to foreign surveillance, and given what we now know about the reach of government into all aspects of private technology, one has to wonder whether her communications were secure.
Did the White House know?
Is there any way that White House officials wouldn’t have noticed that Secretary Clinton’s emails were being sent from clintonemail.com? Did they never correspond via email, did President Obama turn a blind eye?
Another stunning part of this story — didn’t everyone that emailed with Clinton see her private email address? Was this an open secret in Washington among people close to the secretary of state? Did anyone try to blow the whistle, go to the press (before now), talk to Congress or the inspectors general?
What other damage has been done?
One reason that public officials are expected to use official email addresses is that it makes their correspondence subject to basic accountability requirements. How many FOIA requests were submitted for which responsive records existed, but were simply inaccessible because Clinton kept her emails in her own private system? Were there any other investigations or inquiries that were stymied because she decided her information should be held above the law?
As far as our shared expectation for the rule of law to apply equally to everyone, this story may do some damage, but it is also an opportunity. The profile and scale of this revelation may be an opportunity to create the enforcement authority that our records management laws need. Without such a response, though, and robust investigation into what happened, this revelation may only help usher in a gilded age of government accountability — where the most powerful people are able to put their careers above the law, and behind the curtain — even while they enforce a different standard on everyone else.
How widespread is it?
Given the variety of similar stories from other senior officials, this problem is probably very widespread. Hopefully there are some easy ways to determine whether senior officials are using their official email accounts at all. This wouldn’t guarantee that they don’t use other methods when they want to evade accountability, but at least it would show some basic deference to the law.
We’ve clearly got a long, long way to go to ensure federal records are managed properly. Hopefully this story provides a useful starting point for some of that work.
There’s clearly a lot of this story that we have yet to learn in the coming days, but how this situation is handled will go a long way in determining how our government handles its records, and whether our accountability laws apply evenly to everyone.
Freshman Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., has chosen for his chief of staff the man who ran the super PAC that spent $175,000 backing his run for Congress, raising a question: Do we need a cooling off period to slow the revolving door between big money campaigns and government service?
As the Associated Press reported, Scott Hommel took over a super PAC, Special Forces for America, or SOFA, that Zinke founded and ran until he decided to run for Congress. Under campaign finance laws, candidates for Congress can’t run, or even coordinate with, a super PAC, which can accept contributions in unlimited amounts from almost any source, including corporations and labor unions.
But while a candidate can’t work with a super PAC because of the big money they raise, once elected he can hire the person who persuaded all those donors to right big checks. (The biggest check that SOFA got was $120,000 from Robert Mercer, the CEO of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies.)
Just like we bar former government officials from lobbying their old colleagues for a year or more after they leave office, barring individuals who just got done soliciting six- and seven-figure checks from working in Congress and the executive branch for a couple of years would certainly be within Congress’ power. And it would keep people with lots of favors to repay out of the corridors of power.
Within five days of a star-studded Los Angeles fundraiser headlined by Hillary Clinton, a Democratic joint fundraising committee raised close to $1 million, according to filings that landed Thursday on Sunlight’s Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker.
Hollywood heavyweights and perennial Democratic donors like Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Eva Longoria each cut checks for $32,400 within that timeframe to the Grassroots Victory Project, a committee that benefits the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a handful of state party committees and the Senate campaigns of candidates in competitive 2014 races. “The Big Bang Theory” star and Emmy-winning actor Jim Parsons gave $32,400, as did filmmaker J.J. Abrams and actor Robert Downey Jr.
A invite for the Oct. 28 fundraiser posted on Political Party Time shows that Spielberg, Katzenberg and their respective spouses hosted the fundraiser along with Disney exec Alan Horn and his wife, Cindy; venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar; Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino and his actress wife, Jolene; Democratic fundraiser Andy Spahn and his wife, Jennifer Perry; and music industry executive Laura Wasserman and her husband, Casey. DSCC Chair and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are also listed on the invite as attendees at the reception and dinner at Brentwood hotspot Tavern.
Clinton got top billing as the evening’s “special guest,” and the Hollywood Reporter called it a “coming out of sorts” for Clinton among entertainment industry donors, should she opt to run for president in 2016. In her 2008 bid for the White House, deep-pocketed Angelenos memorably opted to put their monetary might behind then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Tickets to the fundraiser went for $32,400 per person, but a note on the RSVP section of the invite states that “an individual can contribute up to $211,200 to the committee.”
Although individuals can give a maximum of $32,400 to national political parties, the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. FECdecision earlier this year eliminated the cap on total contributions that an individual can give to political parties and federal candidates. The decision opened up the door to so-called super joint fundraising committees, which can have more than seven payees, the previous limit for joint fundraising committees. The Grassroots Victory Project lists 26 beneficiaries.
The $954,600 one-week haul was part of the almost $2.5 million the group brought in from Oct. 1 to Nov. 24. Other bold-named donors to Grassroots included in the most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission: Actor Jack Black gave $10,000, while filmmaker George Lucas, composer John Williams, actress Cameron Diaz and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon all gave $32,400 each.
This is the second time this year that Grassroots Victory Project reported bringing in such a hefty sum. In September, Real-Time shows that the group collected $1.3 million.
Though the candidates they support might not have much in common, PACs and super PACs associated with Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio spent no more — and often far less — than one of every five dollars they raised in the 2014 cycle supporting other candidates.
Ready for Hillary, the super PAC set up to boost the campaign of the former first lady, New York senator and Obama administration cabinet official, raised the most money and was stingiest it, with just two percent of the more than $10 million it raised spent to help candidates running in 2014 or transferred to other committees. By contrast, Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wis., who served as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and might harbor presidential ambitions of his own, raised $3.2 million for his Prosperity Action leadership PAC and contributed almost 30 percent of that amount to Republican candidates and committees. Ryan is said to have his eye on another seat — the powerful chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee — which may explain his eagerness to win friends and influence among his GOP colleagues.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s leadership PAC, Reclaim America, made $593,000 of independent expenditures on its way to spending 18 percent of its funds helping other candidates. Of that amount, 60 percent went to research and advertising in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst is in a neck-and-neck Senate race, but also where the first ballots of the 2016 presidential race will be cast. Rubio’s PAC also spent $1 million on strategy and research, with Something Else Strategies the largest recipient at close to $300,000. In 2010, the firm helped Rubio beat then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for Senate, in one of the biggest Tea Party-fueled upsets that year.
Although Sen. Ted Cruz’s Jobs, Growth & Freedom Fund raised $1.8 million, just $81,000 made its way to other federal candidates, including $17,000 to candidates running in Iowa and New Hampshire. The PAC also made $282,000 in independent expenditures, of which $266,666, or 94 percent, were in the same two states. Its biggest expense was $157,000 paid to Campaign HQ, a political consulting firm headquartered in Iowa.
Of the $3.1 million that Rand Paul’s Reinventing a New Direction PAC raised, more than half — $1.6 million — was spent on fundraising, with Strategic Fundraising, a Chicago-based telemarketing firm, winning the lion’s share. The libertarian leaning Kentucky senator spent just seven percent of his funds helping other candidates or committees, with the biggest chunk — $164,800 — poured into independent expenditures. The largest sum was spent supporting GOP Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas, but RANDPAC also chipped in $12,000 of support for conservative Senate candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A hybrid super PAC, Ready for Hillary maintains separate accounts: one that abides by campaign finance limits that traditional PACs follow so that it can contribute to candidates, and a second that accepts contributions in unlimited amounts that can be used for independent expenditures. The former account made $2,600 contributions to a pair of Democratic House candidates; it also transferred more $209,000 to other federal committees, mostly parties.