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Money in Politics This Week: Federal Court Lifts Contribution Caps on Independent PACs

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics and across the nation — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Katherine Munyan
  • Syed Zaidi
October 25, 2013

Crossposted at ReformNY

The Brennan Center regularly compiles the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi and Katherine Munyan.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.


Federal Court Lifts Contribution Caps on Independent PACs

A Federal Appeals Court has granted preliminary injunction to a conservative political action committee seeking to accept contributions of more than $150,000 from individual donors. The New York Progress and Protection PAC filed an emergency appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals after a District Court denied its request. New York law imposes an aggregate cap of $150,000 on the contributions an individual may make to all candidates and political committees within a year. While New York Progress and Protection PAC can immediately start accepting and spending unlimited sums, a decision regarding the broader question – the constitutionality of New York State’s aggregate contribution limit on donations to independent committees – has yet to be rendered. However, in their verdict on the preliminary injunction, the appellate judges noted that NYPPP’s arguments had a “substantial likelihood of success.” Lawrence D. Norden, the deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said that “If this decision holds, there should be real concern that what we’re going to end up with in New York State is what we have on the federal level, which is candidates being sponsored like racehorses by very wealthy individuals.”

Siena Poll: Voters Think Corruption is a Serious Problem

In the latest Siena Research Institute Poll of registered voters in New York, a large number of citizens indicated their frustration with business-as-usual politics in Albany. When asked if they find corruption in the New York State legislature to be a serious problem, 82 percent said that it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” issue. This figure includes large majorities across all demographics including political party affiliation, region, race and income. Seventy-two percent of New Yorkers think that the Moreland Commission, which was appointed by the governor following the legislature’s failure to pass any anti-corruption bills, should continue investigating political corruption rather than propose a constitutional amendment and disband. Again support was strong, at least 70 percent, among most of the groups surveyed. Voters said that Governor Cuomo, Attorney General Schneiderman and federal prosecutors are doing the most to address corruption and that the state legislature is doing the least.  

Niagara County Legislature Delays Legal Representation for Citizens Fighting Expansion of Hazardous Waste Site

For years, the Niagara County Legislature opposed CWM Chemical Services’ request for the expansion of a hazardous waste landfill in Porter, New York. But recently, the County may have had a change of heart; it has failed to renew a contract with Gary A. Abraham, an Allegany attorney who had represented the County in litigation surrounding the landfill. Residents for Responsible Government (RPG), an environmental group, distributed handouts at a press conference showing that CWM Chemical Services and its parent company have donated $71,750 to the Niagara County GOP Committee, the Niagara County Conservative Party, and the Town of Porter Republican Committee, based on state Board of Election records. Republicans currently control the Niagara County Legislature. A resolution sponsored by County Legislators William L. Ross (C-Wheatfield) and Clyde L. Burnmaster (R-Ransomville) that would extend the attorney’s contract was not voted upon but instead sent to the Administration Committee for further study. RPG members and some residents fear the delay may make it more difficult to address their case before upcoming state Department of Environmental Conservation hearings on the landfill expansion. “Any day the DEC could come out and say this is when the process starts and, right now, the people in Niagara County have no one to represent them,” RRG president April Fideli said.

Democrat & Chronicle Tells Corruption Commission to Press On

Following reports that the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was shying away from examining legislators and political parties, newspapers across the state penned editorials pressing the commission to move forward with its badly-needed work. This week, the Democrat & Chronicle insisted that in order for the panel to meet its obligation of investigating potential instances of corruption, it must have wide latitude to do its job. Albany lawmakers, who are allowed to work outside of the legislature part of the year, have thus far refused to turn in records about income derived from such activities. The commission’s concern stems from the potential for conflicts of interest. Encouraging the immediate disclosure of this information, the editorial said that, “The honest ones have no reason to do otherwise.”


California Fines Out-of-State Nonprofits $1 Million for Campaign Money ‘Laundering’

On Thursday, the California Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC) announced a fine of $1 million against two out-of-state nonprofits for campaign finance law violations.  In the 2012 election, the Arizona-based Americans for Responsible Leadership and Center to Protect Patient Rights funneled $11 million into a campaign to defeat a ballot measure to raise taxes and to support a ballot measure to weaken union political power.  Both nonprofits kept their donors secret, in violation of a California law that requires nonprofits to disclose their donors if their contributions were intended for a state campaign.  After a legal battle, Americans for Responsible Leadership did name its donors—but only as other nonprofits.   The disclosure hid the original contributors, but revealed a shadowy network of nonprofits funneling anonymous donations around the country, with ties to the Koch brothers.  In addition to the fine, FPPC will require two California groups to hand over to the state the more than $15 million in secret donations they received. Meanwhile, in the 2012 elections, the governor’s tax proposal passed and the proposal restricting union activity failed, leaving even local conservative groups describing the out-of-state money as a harmful distraction from their cause. 

Outside Spending Heating Up for 2014 Kentucky Senate Race

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) will be up for reelection in 2014 in a contest that is already attracting national attention—and national money.  Outside interest groups are jumping at the chance to unseat or support the party leader.  They have already spent $2.2 million in advertisements, more than a year ahead of the election. The spenders include both nationwide groups that will be active in elections across the country and groups formed to back a single candidate. McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, raised $2.5 million in the third quarter.  Her contributors include Kentucky Democrats as well as national figures, such as George Soros and numerous Hollywood donors. Mitch McConnell raised $2.3 million in the same period, as he also prepares for a primary challenge from Tea Party opponent Matt Bevin.  Early spending is fueling estimates that the final tally for the 2014 election may reach $100 million

Lobbying Activity Declines This Year, with a Few Big Exceptions

Of last year’s top 100 lobbying entities, more than two-thirds spent less on lobbying during this year’s third quarter than they did in last year’s.  These companies span numerous industries, and include General Electric, the National Association of Realtors, the American Hospital Association, and defense firm Lockheed Martin.  However, pharmaceutical companies, gun issue advocates, and corporate agriculture interests are all outliers in this trend, increasing their spending this year. With the House and Senate preparing to negotiate a farm bill next week, lobbying efforts are intensifying for farm, anti-poverty, budget watchdog, and trade groups.  Facebook and Twitter also have increased their lobbying presence this year. Silicon Valley groups are also beginning a lobbying push for immigration reform