Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling 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.
For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag#moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE AND ETHICS NEWS
JCOPE Releases Report on Lopez Scandal to Legislative Ethics Committee
The New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics sent to legislators its long-awaited report on sexual harassment complaints against sitting Assemblyman Vito Lopez. Last year, the Assembly secretly approved a $103,000 settlement to end sexual harassment allegations against Lopez by two female staffers. Gerald B. Lefcourt, a Manhattan attorney representing Lopez, confirmed that the report covers sexual harassment claims against Lopez and the $103,000 settlement using public money. The Legislative Ethics Commission will make the JCOPE report public within 45 days.
Florida House Bill Would Practically Obliterate Contribution Limits
The Florida House of Representatives is considering a legislative proposal that would substantially increase the amount of money a person can contribute to a political campaign. HB 569 is a top priority for Speaker Will Weatherford. It would allow contributors to donate up to $10,000 to state candidates, as opposed to the current limit of $500. In exchange for the higher contributions, the bill would mandate online disclosure of contributions within 24 hours. Thus far, HB 569 has cleared the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee on a 10–2 vote and is currently in the Appropriations Committee. According to Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, the measure would serve as a form of incumbency protection. A Brennan Center study found that, compared to states with contribution limits of $2,000 or more, the likelihood of an incumbent having a viable challenger increases by 15 percent in states where the contribution limit is set to $500 or less. The average state contribution limit to legislative candidates in America is $4,000, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. According to Lloyd Leonard of the League of Women Voters, “it is not a good deal for the public to raise contribution limits so that special interest groups can contribute directly large amounts; it is simply not a tradeoff that is worth considering.”
Gun Lobby Spending Big in Congressional and State Races
Following the series of tragic incidents involving gun violence throughout the United States, interest groups on both sides have ramped up their efforts in state and federal politics. The most well-known and active group by far, the National Rifle Association (NRA), spent $18.6 million last year in Presidential and Congressional contests through its PAC and lobbying arm. The NRA has been an aggressive player in the political money game, frequently joining lawsuits concerning campaign finance reform and significantly outspending gun control proponents. However, new opposition groups are emerging. The pro-gun control Independence PAC, backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is involved in an Illinois Democratic Primary, running $660,000 worth of ads against Congressional candidate Debbie Halvorson. Battle lines are being drawn in state legislatures as well. In Pennsylvania, Democrats have introduced a series of gun control bills, and it remains to be seen how their effort will affect their reelection campaigns. Gun rights advocates in the state spent approximately $10,000 in the last election cycle to help elect friendly candidates. An interactive chart of aggregate donations on the issue is available at the Sunlight Foundation’s website.
Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) Admits Violating Campaign Finance Laws
Former Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-IL) has admitted to violating campaign finance laws in a plea deal with federal prosecutors. Representative Jackson was reelected to Congress in November of last year. He resigned shortly thereafter, citing ongoing health problems. Federal agents were investigating Jackson’s Congressional campaign fund for irregular transactions in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Jackson allegedly utilized the funds to purchase a $40,000 Rolex watch, furniture and travel expenses for a friend. Federal law prohibits the use of campaign funds for personal expenditures. At the time of his resignation, the House Ethics Committee was conducting a probe into separate accusations that Jackson offered to raise money for former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) in exchange for being appointed to Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. The independent Office of Congressional Ethics referred the matter to the Ethics Committee in August of 2009 but the Committee’s investigation was delayed while the Department of Justice prosecuted Blagojevich on 17 corruption charges.
Senator Wyden and Murkowski Detail Legislative Proposal on Disclosure
US Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) recently announced a bipartisan plan to institute campaign finance disclosure. More than $400 million in unaccountable dark money was spent during the 2012 election cycle by non-profits registered under the 501(c) section of the tax code. These non-profits operate as political organizations, funneling millions into campaigns without disclosing their donors. The legislation would require all groups spending at least $500 in political campaigns to register and disclose a majority of their donors. Television or radio ads, and robocalls would be subject to “stand by your ad” provisions mandating disclosure of the group’s top three donors. In addition, FEC and the IRS would have to construct joint regulations on donor disclosure, along with an online database covering all political committees. “When people hear that their tax dollars are being used to subsidize what are essentially campaign operations that call themselves social welfare organizations and get these tax breaks and anonymity, they’re just flabbergasted,” Senator Wyden said about conversations he had at town meetings in Oregon. “People are getting furious.”
Ongoing Menendez Scandal Illustrates Need for Reform
Last week, Reform NY informed readers about the ongoing ethics scandal between Senator Menendez (D-NJ) and a high profile donor, Dr. Solomon Melgen, from Florida. Menendez contacted the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the past to complain about its finding that Melgen had overbilled the government $8.9 million in Medicare reimbursements. He also attempted to pressure the Department of Homeland Security not to donate port security equipment to the Dominican Republic because it threatened a lucrative contract belonging to a company run by Melgen. The Senate Ethics Committee is currently investigating Senator Menendez’s involvement in these matters. Melgen’s direct and indirect contributions to Menendez, the Democratic Party and its affiliated Super PACs amount to more than $1 million. Government watchdog groups are urging the Senator not to engage in any business related to Melgen in congressional committee deliberations for the term of the ethics probe. “He should be recusing himself from any discussions or negotiations about port security in the Dominican Republic,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, stated Menendez should “recuse himself if there is a conflict of interest that could cast the public’s doubt on any decision he might make.”