Money & Politics

Unlike Everyone Else, Some Big Political Donors Know What’s in the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Demonstrators protest against the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks in Zuccotti Park in New York on Sept. 17, 2013, two years after the Occupy Wall Street protests started there. (Kyodo via AP Images)

This post originally appeared at MapLight.

The United States is currently engaged in secret negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multinational trade agreement with the goal of liberalizing trade among a dozen or so countries that border on the Pacific Ocean. A draft of the TPP chapter on intellectual property that was recently published by WikiLeaks shows that the U.S. has been pushing the other countries involved in the negotiations to make their laws on copyright, patents and trademarks more agreeable to U.S. companies in the film, telecommunications, and pharmaceuticals industries, among others.

Aside from select members of the Administration, the only people with full access to the working documents on the TPP negotiations are the members of the United States Trade Representative’s (USTR) trade advisory system, including the 18-member Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Intellectual Property Rights (ITAC-15). Members of ITAC-15 include representatives from businesses and industry groups like the Recording Industry Association of America, Verizon, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; no public-interest groups, academics, or other non-industry experts serve on the committee.

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TPP Wikileaked: US Watering Down Enviro Protections in Secret Trade Deal

Obama Meets Trans-Pacific Partnership Leaders
President Barack Obama speaks with Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei after meeting with Trans-Pacific Partnership leaders at the Hale Koa Hotel in Honolulu, Hawaii on Saturday, November 12, 2011. (Photo by Kent Nishimura-Pool/Getty Images)

Another chapter in the tale of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a secret international trade deal being pushed by the Obama administration and described by critics as “NAFTA on steroids” — has once again been Wikileaked. This one deals with the environment, and it shows that, by and large, the US is caving on environmental standards it had previously set for international trade agreements.

Environmental groups say the protections that are included in the document are weak — and, furthermore, that the pact contains no enforcement mechanisms. This breaks with recent precedent — in 2007, Bush reached an agreement with congressional Democrats that required environmental provisions in trade agreements to be legally binding. MORE

IRS Dark Money Reforms Leave Lobbying Groups Untouched

This post first appeared in The Nation.

The Internal Revenue Service building at the Federal Triangle complex in Washington, Saturday, March 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The Obama administration's new IRS regulations would do little to deter powerful individuals and corporations from engaging in dark money electioneering.

President Obama could take immediate steps to begin to clean up the dark money problem in American politics. He could, for instance, issue an executive order requiring all government contractors to disclose their contributions to 501(c) advocacy groups, a decision that would impact hundreds of major firms.

Instead, the administration’s response to the flood of dark money in recent elections is a set of new IRS regulations aimed only at addressing some activity taken by 501(c)(4) “issue advocacy” groups. The new rules restrict “participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.” The rules also restrict C4 organizations from engaging in so-called “candidate-related” communications.

Though put forth with purportedly good intentions, this proposed rule would do little to deter powerful individuals or large companies from engaging in limitless dark money electioneering. The $400 million in undisclosed campaign money spent by the Koch network in 2012, revealed recently by Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics and Matea Gold of The Washington Post, showed that deep-pocketed donors have been quick to set up 501(c)(6) trade associations, which would not even be impacted by the rules as they stand now. Like 501(c)(4) issue advocacy organizations, 501(c)(6) trade groups may take unlimited donations and engage in unrestricted partisan or election activity. Trade groups are often formed by industry associations or coalitions of like-minded businesses. One of the largest of the new Koch groups, called Freedom Partners, is a 501(c)(6) trade association. MORE

On the Money: The Koch Brothers’ Dark Money Network Keeps Growing

This is the first installment of a new feature at Moyers & Company, as producer Gail Ablow shares her must-read money and politics stories every week.

Koch-Backed Political Coalition, Designed to Shield Donors, Raised $400 Million in 2012: Mattea Gold of The Washington Post dives deep into the political money maze constructed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. Gold uses a collaborative analysis of tax returns by WaPo and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics to investigate the 17 interconnected groups backed by the Kochs and other conservative donors – an alliance that raised $407 million to influence the 2012 campaign. “Its funders remain largely unknown,” writes Gold. “The coalition was carefully constructed with extensive legal barriers to shield its donors.” This opaque network is in gear again to attack the new health care law, kill environmental regulations, and impact the 2014 midterm elections. MORE

The Best Reporting on the North Carolina Takeover

One of the biggest political stories of 2013 — a year of DC discord and gridlock — unfolded at the state level in North Carolina.

In 2012, North Carolinians elected a Republican to the governor’s office. That same year, the Republican majority in the General Assembly — first elected in 2010 — grew to a supermajority. The result was that conservatives won the power to change state law dramatically — and over this last year, they used that power. The new legislation included ending benefits for the long-term unemployed; declining the Obamacare Medicaid extension; eliminating the earned-income tax credit; and passing what some observers call the worst voter suppression law in the country. In response, those critical of the right-wing legislative agenda united around protests at the state legislature on Mondays, part of a growing citizen movement that has come to be known as “Moral Mondays.” So far, the movement, however ambitious, has done little to slow the state’s Republican majority from pushing through its agenda.

But this story didn’t start on Election Day 2012 — its roots run deep. And a similar situation could unfold in any of America’s 50 states.

Here’s a rundown of some essential work by reporters following the money trail in North Carolina politics and the legislative agenda it has helped usher through. MORE

Four Surefire Tips for Following the Money in Your State

Watch Andy Kroll talk about dark money in 2014 elections on 'Moyers & Company'
Not since the Gilded Age has money dominated American politics as it does today. Untold millions move through political action committees and their steroidal siblings, super PACs, through opaque nonprofit groups run out of PO boxes, much of it intended to keep average voters in the dark about who is influencing their elections. And as the 2014 election year begins, with control of the House of Representatives, the US Senate and 38 governorships at stake, you can expect ever more of this campaign cash — secret and not — flooding into local, state and federal races.

As the “dark money” reporter for Mother Jones, it’s my job to shine as much light on this cash bonanza as I can. I do this using every tool and trick at my disposal: databases, experts, plugged-in sources and good old-fashioned door knocking. Here are four easy-to-use tips for following the money in your state — and throwing some sunlight on the mega-donors trying to sway your elections.

Mine your state’s campaign finance website.

All 50 states maintain a database of some kind detailing basic information about political campaigns — who donated, how much he or she gave, how campaigns raised and spent their money, and so on. If you want to know what individuals or PACs gave to a specific campaign, your state’s campaign finance website has got you covered. MORE

Money in Politics in 2013: The Crucial Stories You May Have Missed

This originally appeared at the Huffington Post.

Shutterstock.com

The year after a presidential election, fewer people focus on campaign finance issues, but 2013 was well worth your attention. There were financial scandals, a new Supreme Court case, laws rewritten and the anticipation of more money than ever before. Below are 10 of the biggest campaign finance stories of the year.

10. Big money took over North Carolina. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) won election in late 2012 with huge support from the political network funded by wealthy conservative activist Art Pope and immediately announced that Pope would be his budget director. In the ensuing year, the state enacted highly divisive right-wing legislation along the lines long proposed by Pope’s outside network of think tanks and political organizations. North Carolina became example number one of how a single donor can influence the political direction of an entire state in the post-Citizens United world.

9. Get ready for the most expensive midterm election ever. More than $815 million has been raised or spent on the 2014 midterm elections and 2013 special elections already. Spending by independent groups like super PACs and “dark money” nonprofits is ahead of the 2012 pace, when these groups laid out nearly $1 billion. MORE

Fighting to Rein in Dark Money

(Photo: Shutterstock.com)

Every news cycle seems to bring another revelation of the corrupting influence of dark money on American politics.

In just the past few weeks, reporters and watchdog groups have exposed a network of state-level advocacy groups posing as think-tanks, revealed new details about a little-known organization called DonorsTrust that promises its wealthy donors it will keep contributing to conservative causes after they die, and discovered ALEC’s plans to bounce back after public scrutiny of the organization spooked a number of its corporate sponsors. MORE

Don’t Be Evil? Google Funding a Slew of Right-Wing Groups

This post originally appeared at PR Watch.


Wikimedia Commons

Google, the tech giant supposedly guided by its “don’t be evil” motto, has been funding a growing list of groups advancing the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Organizations that received “substantial” funding from Google for the first time over the past year include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union (best known for its CPAC conference) and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act: Heritage Action.

In 2013, Google also funded the corporate lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, although that group is not listed as receiving “substantial” funding in the list published by Google.

US corporations are not required to publicly disclose their funding of political advocacy groups, and very few do so, but since at least 2010 Google has chosen to voluntarily release some limited details about grants it makes to US nonprofits. The published list from Google is not comprehensive, including only those groups that “receive the most substantial contributions from Google’s US Federal Public Policy and Government Affairs team.” MORE

The IRS Moves to Limit Dark Money – But Enforcement Still a Question

This post first appeared at ProPublica.


IRS-Political Groups
The US Treasury Building in Washington. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

The IRS and Treasury Department announced proposed guidelines clarifying the definition of political activities for social welfare nonprofits last week, a move that could restrict the spending of the dark money groups that dumped more than $254 million of anonymous money into the 2012 elections. Read the guidelines here.

However, the guidelines, which finally define what constitutes “candidate-related political activity,” aren’t a done deal. They will take some time for public comment and debate, and more time to finalize. (The IRS asks that all comments and requests for a public hearing be submitted by February 27, 2014.) Experts also cautioned that the real test of oversight on the political spending by nonprofits will be how these regulations are enforced, something that the IRS has been so far reticent to do.

The proposed regulations “are only as good as the extent of compliance with them, which history would indicate requires a realistic threat of enforcement and significant sanctions on the groups involved and probably the individuals running those groups,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a law professor and associate dean at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in nonprofits and campaign finance. MORE

What a Weakened, Underfunded IRS Means for Fraudsters

In The New York Times, Ken Stern tells the story of how John Donald Cody, a former intelligence officer, put his expertise to use cheating charitable Americans. Under the assumed identity of Bobby Thompson, Cody set up a nonprofit called the US Navy Veterans Association and contracted with telemarketing firms to raise around $100 million in charitable contributions — ostensibly, for needy veterans. The organization, he claimed, had 41 state chapters, 66,000 members and was headed by one Jack L. Nimitz. None of that was true. The organization consisted only of Cody. The charity’s claimed purpose was also false. Most of the money it raised went to the telemarketers and much of the rest went to Cody or to Republican lawmakers he supported. Very little went to veterans.

This story was unwound in 2010 by two reporters at The Tampa Bay Times. Coda fled Florida, where he had run the “charity” out of his duplex apartment in Tampa. In April, 2012, the authorities found him in Portland, OR, where he was holding onto $981,650 — and almost two dozen fake ID cards — in a storage unit.

But none of these details are the most surprising part of this story. The most surprising part, Stern writes, is that most of what Cody did was “probably legal, or at least not specifically illegal.”

The alleged fraud was not that very, very little money ever went to Navy veterans. In fact, the fund-raising explicitly stated that a large portion of donations would go to cover telemarketing and other costs. Mr. Cody ran afoul of the law because he filed registration documents that contained false statements, because he stole the identity of the real Bobby Thompson, and because he pulled money from organizational accounts for his personal use. The irony is that he could have accomplished virtually his entire enrichment scheme without ever violating the law — and others have figured that out.
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Republicans — Yes, Republicans — Are Joining the Battle Against Big Money Politics

This post first appeared in Mother Jones.


Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis.

Rep. Tom Petri, the author of a new campaign finance reform bill. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee published a 100-page autopsy (PDF) nobly titled the “Growth and Opportunity Project” that pointed the supposed way forward for the humbled Grand Old Party. Regarding the dark-money-driven, super-PAC-mad politics of today, the document left little doubt about the party’s view: Let the money flow. The RNC called for ending the ban on “soft money” (the 1990s-era equivalent of dark money that fueled the Clinton White House scandals), raising contribution limits, removing the aggregate limit on how much overall money a donor can give in one cycle and further deregulating money in politics at the state and federal levels.

But as the cost of winning an election increases, fundraising swallows up more of a congressman’s time and candidates scramble to acquire their own super PACs, several House Republicans are bucking their own party and demanding real reform.

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How Politico’s Mike Allen Blends Ads and ‘News’

Mike Allen of Politico on MSNBC's Morning Joe, November 20, 2013. (Courtesy of MSNBC)

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

Today’s top — though belated — media criticism comes from Erik Wemple from The Washington Post. He dissects the long lamented but until now much-overlooked blending of ads and coverage within Mike Allen’s fabled, overrated, “Playbook” morning tip sheet (and email newsletter) at Politico. Allen, a former Post reporter, has been one of the chief Politico staffers since its beginning.

One can only cheer when Wemple observes early on in his lengthy piece, “It’s about time that Politico’s Allen got his due as a native-advertising pioneer.”

Other media commentators are now responding and I’ll chart their reactions (and any Allen reply) below at the end of my piece. Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine has tweeted, for example: “The ethical disaster most journalists would define as a firing offense is, for Mike Allen, a job description.” And he’s written this. Andrew Sullivan’s headline declared, “Mike Allen, Busted.”  Several wags have re-titled the Wemple piece, “SLAYBOOK.”

So what’s native advertising? [Wemple writes:] MORE

The Lobbying-Industrial Complex Strikes Again

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According to a story featured in our Morning Reads, the American League of Lobbyists is changing its name to the more anodyne “Association of Government Relations Professionals.”

While lobbying may have a bad name, it remains a darn good investment, as a comprehensive report by The Washington Post on the explosion of wealth in the Washington, DC area reveals…

At a time when promising investments were hard to find, corporate America learned that lobbying was one of the most surefire ways of bolstering its bottom line…

Companies spent about $3.5 billion annually on lobbying at the end of the last decade, a nearly 90 percent increase from 1999 after adjusting for inflation, political scientist Lee Drutman notes in a forthcoming book, “The Business of America Is Lobbying.” MORE

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