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Money in Politics This Week

March 30, 2012 · by

Crossposted from the Brennan Center for Justice’s ReformNY blog.

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New York Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics released its 2011 lobbying report this week, which found that the lobbying industry spent a record sum of $220 million last year in its efforts to influence state legislators. As JCOPE’s Executive Director Ellen Biben noted, “Apparently lobbying is recession proof.” The full report can be read here.

2. While JCOPE is an improvement on its predecessor, the ethics enforcement agency was criticized this week for neglecting to focus on legislators’ behavior in their home districts—for instance, Pedro Espada’s embezzlement scandal, which occurred not in Albany but in Espada’s home district in the Bronx.

3. Bill Mahoney of NY PIRG writes in Wednesday’s Times Unionthat in order for a public campaign financing program to succeed in New York state, it must be accompanied by an overhaul of the state’s current ineffective system. Comprehensive campaign finance reform in New York, Mahoney writes, must also include closing the loophole on “housekeeping” contributions to party committees, setting up regular audits of candidate’s campaign accounts, and giving stronger enforcement power to the state’s toothless Board of Elections.

4. Former Bloomberg aide and convicted felon John Haggerty still has friends in New York: the Daily News reports that three former aides to ex-Gov. Pataki have created a legal defense fund to pay his attorneys. While legal, the defense fund raises ethical questions concerning responses in Albany to illegal conduct by those working in government. Haggerty was sentenced last December to up to four years on charges of money laundering and grand larceny, for his siphoning $750,000 from election funds to buy a house in Queens.

5. US Representative Charles Rangel (D—NY), who was found guilty in 2010 of eleven ethics violations by the House Ethics Committee, is making headlines again. Rangel and his campaign have paid a $23,000 civil fine after it emerged that he used a rent-stabilized apartment as a campaign office, which effectively amounts to acceptance of campaign contributions beyond the legal limit.

National Campaign Finance News

1. The US Senate held a legislative hearing this week on the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, a bipartisan bill that would create more detailed disclosure requirements for super PACs, corporate donors, unions and other politically active organizations. In the face of Republican opposition to the bill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) declared that the flood of spending unleashed by Citizens United “corrodes the very essence of our democracy.” The announcement of the hearing on the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration includes a webcast of the hearing, and testimony offered by the Brennan Center for Justice in support of the DISCLOSE Act can be read here.

2. Prior to the Senate hearing, Public Campaign pointed out that although votes on a similar bill from 2010 fell along party lines, several Republican senators have publicly supported heightened transparency requirements for large campaign donors at earlier points in their careers, “when transparency wasn’t a dirty word.”

3. The New York Times opened this week with two hard-hitting editorials on campaign finance and legislative ethics. Sunday’sTimes pointed out that the floodgates opened in 2010 by Citizens United have resulted in more than $92 million dollars of outside spending during the current election season—more than double the amount spent by outside groups during the same period in 2008, and six times the amount spent in 2004. The misguided ruling has not only “allowed wealthy organizations and individuals to drown out other voices in the campaign,” but has also set a dangerous precedent by narrowing the definition of corruption to include only bribery, a characterization that is “intellectually dishonest,” since “the broader problem is the ability of moneyed interests to put into office those who support their political agendas or financial interests.”

4. Monday’s Times called attention to a related problem: super PAC spending may allow some federal government contractors to indirectly contribute to political campaigns, which would violate a ban on contractor contributions that has stood since 1940. Although many super PACs still adhere to the decades-old ban, the Times reports that Mitt Romney’s super PAC has accepted donations totaling nearly $900,000 from at least five separate government contractors, a decision whose legality is uncertain given “the new unregulated, unlimited jungle of campaign finance” created by Citizens United.

5. To mark the ten-year anniversary of the passage of his 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Senator John McCain stated in an interview that Citizens United has left parts of the bill in tatters, and that the consequences of the Supreme Court’s ruling “are manifesting themselves every day in what will someday be, sooner rather than later, a huge scandal.” BCRA co-sponsor and former senator Russ Feingold was similarly critical, declaring thatCitizens United “has turned the election system into a joke.”

6. An Associated Press review of Mitt Romney’s campaign contribution records sheds some much-needed light on the “bundlers” who have steered millions of dollars to Romney’s war chest, and whose identities the Romney campaign has declined to make public. Although federal law only requires disclosure of bundlers who are also registered lobbyists, both GOP and Democratic presidential candidates have traditionally disclosed the identities of their top fundraisers. The Romney campaign is a rare holdout.

7. Partisan gridlock and bureaucratic inertia have rendered the FEC increasingly unable to exercise its enforcement power,Politico reports, finding that the FEC’s inaction has left “campaigns and super PACs to test the boundaries of the new campaign finance world” with little fear of effective oversight by the federal government. The Campaign Legal Center compared the FEC commissioners to “the cops in the doughnut shop” for their chronic inaction.

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