Today in OpenGov: Ch-Ch-Ch-Charges…


In today's edition, we scan the indictments from the special counsels office, set the scene as tech companies head to Capitol Hill to testify about the 2016 election, note the FEC struggling to collect on fines, highlight the benefits of connecting various sources of legal data are highlighted, and much more. 

Charges in trumpland

Image Credit: Marco Verch

A series of revelations about the investigation at the Justice Department into Russian interference in the 2016 election contained in newly disclosed indictments demonstrates that special counsel Robert Mueller's work has penetrated the Trump campaign and presidency. The lobbying, money laundering, and campaign communications documented strongly hint at a broad investigation, and will put covert influence, foreign political interference and political reform issues front and center in the public consciousness —  where they belong — just as top tech companies are set to appear before congressional panels in Washington.

On Monday, Paul Manafort, who for a time served as chairman of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, and his business associate Rick Gates pleaded not guilty to a dozen charges related to a money laundering scheme and foreign lobbying infractions stemming from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing investigation into potential Russian interference in last year's presidential election.  

Separately — and significantly —  the Justice Department also informed the public that George Papadopoulos, who served as a "volunteer" foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, had pled guilty to lying to the F.B.I and is cooperating with investigators.

The New York Times has a helpful rundown of all yesterday's news related to the Russia investigation.

Other important stories from a huge  news day include: 

  • Mega-lobbyist Tony Podesta stepped down as head of his lobbying firm after revelations in Mueller's investigation drew further attention to the firm's foreign lobbying activities. (Bloomberg)
  • The allegations against Manafort and Gates date back to at least 2012 and journalists have been chipping away at the story for years. (BuzzFeed)
  • Yesterday, the White House chief of staff said it's very distracting to the president to be investigated. (Get ready for more distraction in the weeks ahead.)


Elsewhere in news related to the Russia investigations, representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter are expected to appear before Congress this week. Heather Timmons sets the scene: "Their public testimony in front of the House and Senate is expected to paint the most comprehensive picture yet of how Russian government-linked accounts spread divisive messages and fake news to US voters, in an attempt to sway the election in favor of Donald Trump." (Quartz)

In advance of their testimony, all three companies have committed to voluntarily improving transparency around the political ads that appear on their platforms, with Google announcing its intention to create a public database of ads yesterday.  These commitments are welcome, but  insufficient. Technology companies can and should integrate more transparency, accountability and ethics about paid political advertising into their platforms, by default, but Congress must also act to ensure true transparency. 

For our part, Sunlight joined with a number of other civic organizations in a letter to Google and a letter to Facebook urging the leaders of the companies to protect election integrity. 

There's more to consider as the companies prepare to testify:

  • Google, Twitter, and Facebook are likely to reveal Russia's disinformation campaign was broader than initially reported. The scope of Russia’s campaign to spread disinformation on social media and disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential race is looking much broader than previously known, with greater scale than the public (or Congress) realized.  (ReCode)
  • Google and Facebook will also be facing lawmakers that they've lavished with campaign cash. "When Google and Facebook testify before Congress on Russian election interference this week, they'll face committees filled with lawmakers who have collectively received hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations from the companies." (POLITICO)
  • During campaign, Twitter doubled down on privacy policy changes that may have helped meddling efforts.  Josh Meyer reports that "Twitter quietly ramped up a campaign last year to permanently delete some user data from its social media platform and the files of commercial firms using it, raising concerns that the policy would help Russian cyberspies suspected of meddling in the 2016 election cover their tracks." (POLITICO)


washington watch

Image Credit: National Parks Service
  • The FEC can fine political groups, but will they be forced to pay? "More than 160 political committees and similar groups together owe the government more than $1.3 million worth of unpaid fines, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission and U.S. Treasury records since 2000." Meanwhile, the FEC argues that it collects on most fines that it issues for election law violations. (Center for Public Integrity)
  • Despite rhetoric, whistleblower retaliation at the VA may be getting worse. Joe Davidson reflects that despite rhetoric and an executive order from the Trump administration, "not only does the cancer of VA whistleblower retaliation remain active, but it’s also growing, according to employees who have suffered its sting." (Washington Post)
  • Puerto Rico moves to cancel $300 million contract with tiny energy company amid scrutiny. "Facing withering criticism from members of Congress and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the governor of Puerto Rico moved on Sunday to cancel a $300 million contract awarded to a small Montana company to rebuild part of the island’s battered power grid." (New York Times)

around the world

  • Teaching Nepalese digital natives about the power of open data. "The Open Data Awareness Program aims to raise awareness about the concept and usage of open data to Nepal’s digital natives, who are the current youth population and the potential future decision-makers and leaders of Nepal. As part of the program, hands-on training sessions are being organized at different colleges and youth organizations, where participants will be provided with a compiled Open Data Manual to aid their understanding of open data." (Open Knowledge)
  • New Indonesian law poses significant threat to civil society, civil liberties. "Indonesia's House of Representatives has passed a presidential decree into law that empowers the government to disband organizations even without a prior court order, amid warnings from legal experts and human rights activists that it puts civil liberties at risk." (Global Voices)
  • Tanzanian opposition leader arrested following speech on economy. "Tanzanian police arrested the leader of the opposition Alliance for Change and Transparency after he gave a speech about the current state of the country’s economy." Party lawyers are still trying to establish the specific reasoning behind the arrest. (Bloomberg)

states and cities

  • Modernizing and connecting legal data can have a range of benefits. Vincent Chaung, in detailing the Open Law Library, discussed some of the benefits and challenges associated with building better legal data. "Connecting different sources of legal data also reduces work for government and improves citizen experience. Governments often rely on separate internal systems for tracking legislative progress, publishing laws, and archiving secondary sources – even though this information is all related. This makes finding information and drawing connections difficult. By sensibly connecting data sources, less effort is required to find information and more time can be spent leveraging it." (Sunlight Foundation Blog)
  • Comprehensive coverage of Connecticut General Assembly may end. "For the past 18 years the Connecticut Public Affairs Network has been airing unedited coverage of the General Assembly on the Connecticut Television Network, CT-N, but that coverage could be coming to an end next week. That’s because the bipartisan budget adopted Thursday by the House and the Senate that’s awaiting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s signature, reduces its funding so severely that it might not be able to continue its operations." (CT News Junkie) Our take? The people of Connecticut should be able to watch their representatives conduct the public's business. CT-N should be fully funded. 
  • Montana keeps trying to limit money's influence on state politics. Success or failure could have ramifications across the country. "Montana has spent more than a hundred years trying to keep a lid on campaign contributions. It is still trying. Whether it succeeds could have repercussions around the country." Last year, writes Alan Greenblatt, a judge found that Montana's "limits on campaign contributions were unnecessary except in cases with clear evidence of corruption." The case is currently being reconsidered by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Governing)


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