In today's edition, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's First Class habit, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes' "news" site, how Facebook's trouble with Seattle might expand, Azerbaijan blocks websites ahead of elections, and more.
- President Trump delays release of Democratic memo on FBI surveillance, calling for changes. In a letter, the White House Counsel said on Friday that President Trump will not immediately agree to release the memo drafted by Democratic lawmakers in response to a GOP memo on the same topic. He did direct the Justice Department to work with Democratic lawmakers to make the memo public in some form. (Washington Post) The President tweeted an explanation, saying that his denial of a request to declassify the memo was because of ”sources & methods (& more)” that “would have to be heavily redacted,” and that he’d told them to “re-do” it. He also claimed the whole process had been engineered by Democrats so that they could "blame the White House for lack of transparency."
- Our take? Evidence of this White House's lack of transparency has been well-documented since January 2017, long before the President decided not to release the memo from Democratic lawmakers in the House. As a candidate and as President, Donald Trump has supported transparency for his political opponents and institutions that threaten him, not documents and data that would hold him or his appointees accountable.
- EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt regularly flies First Class, in break from tradition. "As he enters his second year in charge of the EPA, Pruitt is distinguishing himself from his predecessors in ways that go beyond policy differences. His travel practices — which tend to be secretive, costly and frequent — are integral to how he approaches his role. Pruitt tends to bring a larger entourage of political advisers on his trips than past administrators. But while the aides usually fly coach, according to travel vouchers through August obtained by The Washington Post separately from the Environmental Integrity Project, he often sits in first or business class, which previous administrators typically eschewed." In a break from past administrations, the EPA does not generally disclose Pruitt’s itinerary or trips ahead of time. (Washington Post)
- Despite pledge, there is still no Spanish language White House website. "A year into the Trump administration, the White House website still has no Spanish-language content, unlike during the two previous administrations and even though nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States speaks Spanish…A year ago, then-presidential press secretary Sean Spicer said the new administration had deleted Spanish content on the White House webpage but its information technology folks were 'working overtime' to develop a new site. In July, the White House director of media affairs, Helen Aguirre Ferre, said she expected a Spanish website to launch at the end of 2017." (Associated Press)
- FOIA helped reveal the existence of a memo outlining the Trump administration's legal authority to wage war. "Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is demanding the release of a secret memo outlining President Donald Trump’s interpretation of his legal authority to wage war…It has been standard for U.S. presidents to release their legal arguments behind military strikes dating to the Korean War, according to Protect Democracy, a bipartisan group of lawyers…The memo’s existence came to light last fall because of a Freedom of Information Act request by Protect Democracy seeking Trump’s legal justification for the strikes." (NBC News) Our take? The memo should be public. Secret laws don’t go well with democratic governance.
Image via FastCompany.
Despite pledging to avoid new overseas deals, the Trump Organization is close to agreement on a project in the Dominican Republic.
"The Trump Organization is close to an agreement in the Dominican Republic with a developer to partner on a project on the east coast of the island, sources on the island tell Fast Company. That’s despite Trump’s promise to avoid any new overseas deals while in office, which was intended to avoid potential conflicts of interest such as foreign governments and companies attempting to win favor with the Trump administration. The Trump Organization’s lawyers have insisted that it’s not a new deal but just consistent with an existing licensing deal that the company signed with a local developer back in 2007." (Fast Company)
Multiple experts expressed concern to Newsweek that the President's failure to fully divest from his private businesses, as well as his refusal to release his tax returns, creates the impression that his administration is corrupt. As Sunlight's Alex Howard explained, "any of the ongoing business dealings that exist in at least 19 different countries around the world…represent a potential point of leverage, a point where the president himself could have reason to make decisions that would put his private interests above the nation’s…The recourse for this is for Congress to act. If the president is receiving emoluments, it is appropriate to consider impeachment, that’s the recourse that the drafters of the constitutions have offered.”
- Bias baked into algorithms is a growing problem for government. Li Zhou digs into the problems with "algorithmic bias" and their increasing impact on governance explaining, "as they've caught on, the impressive potential of smart governance has become clouded by the uncertainty over just how those 'smart' systems are sizing up people. The potential for underyling bias in software is not an easy issue for political leaders to tackle, in part because it’s so deeply technical." (POLITICO) Our take? Where possible, the code and data used to make decisions by the public sector should be open by default. At minimum, such code should be open to audit by relevant government regulators.
- Leader of Put Vets First! PAC is helping at least one veteran. Himself. "The leader of a veterans-focused political action committee rapidly increased payments to himself late last year, following a Center for Public Integrity investigation into his political and charitable operations. Brian Arthur Hampton, a retired Army major and treasurer of the Put Vets First! PAC, paid himself $20,350 in December 2017 alone — more than three times his compensation in December 2016, according to new disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission." (Center for Public Integrity)
- Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) launches "news" site, paid for by his election campaign. "House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a relentless critic of the media, has found a way around the often unflattering coverage of his role in the Trump-Russia investigation — by operating his own partisan news outlet…the website is paid for by Nunes’ campaign committee, according to small print at the bottom of the site." (POLITICO)
- Head of railroad safety agency resigns amid reports that he held multiple jobs. "Heath Hall has resigned as a top official with the Federal Railroad Administration, a Department of Transportation official said. His departure follows a report that Hall was also working as a public-relations consultant for the Madison County, Mississippi, sheriff’s office." (Bloomberg)
states and cities
- Seattle may be the first in a flood of states and cities moving to crack down on Facebook over online political ads. "In early December last year, a reporter for The Stranger walked into the Seattle offices of Facebook, printouts of the city code in hand, to ask for detailed information about online ad purchases for the city's 2017 elections. Two months later, the city is on the brink of fining Facebook for failing to turn over the requested information. It’s the first attempt by any state or locality to enforce its political advertising disclosure laws on a social media company. Facebook is facing a $5,000 penalty per ad. According to experts in campaign finance and advertising disclosure, this is likely just the beginning of states and cities' attempts to crack down on the secrecy surrounding political ads on the internet." (Governing) As we've argued, Facebook's opacity in Seattle and elsewhere shows that self-regulation on digital disclosure is not enough.
- Maine's open records law needs some changes. The Morning Sentinel's editorial board argues that "Maine’s Freedom of Access Act isn’t really a law — it’s more of a suggestion. While statute says that governments must fulfill requests for public records in a timely manner — so that citizens can be informed in real time of what is being done in their name and on their dime — it just isn’t built to deal with officials who have no interest in keeping the public informed." (Central Maine)
- Washington, D.C. set to release data inventory on March 11th. "March 11th is the deadline for D.C.'s Office of the Chief Technology Officer to release the list of all datasets in D.C. government. Many aren't open to the public, but should be." To try and fix that, Code for DC is hosting a FOIA Party on March 12th.
- Chair of D.C. claims decision to oust respected watchdog wasn't political. Tameka Collier, "the chair of the D.C. ethics board that ousted a well-regarded government watchdog denied that the decision was politically motivated and suggested that the employee overstepped her bounds in enforcing open-meetings laws…Collier repeatedly said she couldn’t explain why the board didn’t reappoint Hughes because of 'ongoing personnel' matters. But at various points of the hearing, Collier took swipes at Hughes for not being more communicative with the board and said that the relationship between her board and the office was 'untenable.'" (Washington Post)
around the world
- Azerbaijan is blocking critical media sites as elections loom. "2018 is an election year in Azerbaijan. The authorities may have the streets on lockdown, but the fight against dissent in cyberspace is just beginning." (Open Democracy)
- New British law will force the hand of those suspected of buying property with laundered funds. "Politicians, public figures and criminals suspected of buying property with corrupt money will be forced to explain their wealth or see their assets seized under new legislation that has come into force in Britain this month. The so-called Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWOs) have been welcomed by campaigners, who say the British capital is at the center of a global web of embezzled money." (Voice of America)
- Honduran Congress considers a law against "hate speech" and "fake news," draws criticism from activists, media. "The Honduran Congress is debating a law that seeks to regulate hate speech and 'fake news' on the Internet. Honduran activists and opposition political parties say the proposal would function as a gag law aimed at silencing government critics." (Global Voices) More than 50 international and local digital rights organizations and media outlets, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have called on lawmakers to reject the proposed law. You can read the full statement (in Spanish) via Access Now.
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