Today in OpenGov: Complaints


In today's edition, we recap a busy weekend in Trumpland, dig up some more good news in the 2200+ page spending bill, consider how to bring transparency to private algorithms, explore a first-of-its kind online registry in Boston, and more. 


Image credit: Alex Howard.
  • Despite latest ethics revelations, Trump administration continues to back EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. "The White House is not washing its hands of Scott Pruitt, even as the slow drip of damaging headlines about the EPA chief continues. One senior administration official told POLITICO on Friday that the White House still stands behind the Environmental Protection Agency leader despite news reports that he spent months renting a room last year in a condo connected to an energy lobbyist — paying just $50 per night to lodge a block from the Capitol" (POLITICO)
  • White House, former VA Secretary Shulkin disagree on whether he was fired or resigned. "The White House is now asserting that recently departed Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin resigned. Shulkin has made it clear in his public comments that he was forced out. While Washington often wraps firings in the verbal cloak of a resignation, the distinction this time could have far-reaching implications that could throw the Department of Veterans Affairs, the second-largest federal agency, into further disarray." (POLITICO)
  • The opacity of President Trump's finances tested on three different fronts. "The carefully maintained secrecy around President Trump’s finances is under unprecedented assault a year into his presidency, with three different legal teams with different agendas trying to pry open the Trump Organization’s books. On one side is special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who has subpoenaed Trump Organization documents as part of his wide-ranging investigation into the 2016 campaign. On another is Stormy Daniels, the adult-film actress seeking internal correspondence as part of her effort to be freed from a nondisclosure agreement centering on an alleged affair with Trump. And in the most direct assault, the District and Maryland have sued Trump, alleging that he is improperly accepting gifts, or 'emoluments,' from foreign or state governments through his businesses, including his hotels." (The Washington Post)
  • Sunlight's latest roundup of Trump's conflicts highlights India, the Kushners, and movement on emoluments. Lynn Walsh writes that this week, "new details about Donald Trump Jr.’s visits to India are coming to light that help paint a better picture of the Trump Organization’s fingerprint in the country, reports show Jared Kushner may be under investigation for loans his company received, and the latest with the emoluments lawsuit against President Donald Trump." (Sunlight Foundation)
  • Additional complaint filed against John Bolton's super PAC over work with Cambridge Analytica. On Friday, "the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center lodged a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging Bolton’s super PAC violated the Federal Election Campaign Act when it worked with embattled data voter profiling company Cambridge Analytica and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ campaign committee in 2014." It was the second complaint lodged against Bolton's group last week. (Center for Public Integrity) Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that Bolton will have to wind down his political operations before starting as President Trump's national security adviser.  
  • Trump ups his anti-Amazon rhetoric, demands that Washington Post register as a lobbyist. "President Donald Trump continued to needle Amazon on Saturday, claiming the internet commerce giant maintains an advantageous relationship with the U.S Postal Service amounting to a 'scam' worth 'billions of dollars.'" He also claimed that the Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, functions as a lobbyist for the internet giant and should register as such. (POLITICO) We considered the veracity of the President's claims. We concluded that his stance on the Washington Post registering as a lobbyist was particularly absurd. 
  • Silicon Valley grows increasingly comfortable with Trump, despite occasional bumps in the road. "Once one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal opponents, Silicon Valley’s technology industry has increasingly found common ground with the White House. When Mr. Trump was elected, tech executives were largely up in arms over a leader who espoused policies on immigration and other issues that were antithetical to their companies’ values. Now, many of the industry’s executives are growing more comfortable with the president and how his economic agenda furthers their business interests, even as many of their employees continue to disagree with Mr. Trump on social issues." (New York Times)

washington watch

Image credit: Washington Post.
  • Just blocks from the Capitol, restaurants reap big benefits from political committees. Using FEC filings, Philip Bump explored "an area just southeast of the Capitol, about a block or two from House office buildings, that has a number of small and medium-size restaurants…[finding] that, between the beginning of 2015 and now, the most popular of these restaurants in terms of money spent was Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue. Political committees — meaning campaign committees, party committees and political action committees — spent more than $600,000 there over that period." (Washington Post)
  • As midterms approach, companies should prepare for a political cash grab. Bruce Freed predicts that, in the lead up to this year's midterm elections, "corporations should expect a hypercharged grab for their political money…In the end, increasing pressure on corporations for donations to big spending outside groups is a recipe for increased risk, especially in today’s volatile political climate. Will a company be on the receiving end of an angry tweet from the nation’s chief executive? Will a donation support a candidate who ultimately goes off the rails in the heat of the campaign and brings blowback or worse for the donor and its brand? Or will a third-party group spend a company’s donation in a way that clashes with the company’s core values? How would the company weather media accusations of hypocrisy?" (The Hill)
  • Digging up some good news in the 2200 plus page omnibus spending bill Congress passed last month. Congress ordered the USDA to restore online public access to open data sets about animal welfare. Read more about the move in Science Magazine. Meanwhile, we've updated our page tracking government data removed from the internet during the Trump administration, and will do so again when the USDA moves to put the data in question back online. 
  • Podcast: Familiarize yourself with the Hatch Act, a law aimed at keeping partisan politics out of the executive branch. The latest episode of the Civics 101 podcast explores "The Hatch Act – a 1939 law that prevents federal employees from engaging in certain types of political activity and speech.  Today, we'll find out what exactly is and is not allowed under the Hatch Act; who decides when the line has been crossed; and what the penalties are for violations. Our guest is Liz Hempowicz, Director of Public Policy for the Project On Government Oversight." (Civics 101 Podcast)

around the world

Mahlet Fantahun and friends greet Befeqadu Hailu upon his release from prison on October 21, 2015. Photo via @miniliksalsawi and Global Voices.
  • Ethiopia arrests more than 20 prominent journalists, academics, and activists in crackdown. "On March 26, Ethiopian authorities arrested journalists Eskinder Nega and Temesghen Desalegn Zone 9 bloggers Befekadu Hailu and Mahlet Fantahun, and De Birhan Blog author Zelalem Workagegnehu. All have previously been jailed for their work as journalists or human rights activists. They weren’t the only ones to be targeted during the week of March 26. A local source of Global Voices, who asked not to be named, estimated that more than 20 journalists, academicians, and prominent opposition figures were arrested." (Global Voices)
  • French President Emmanuel Macron pledges algorithmic transparency. In an interview with Nicholas Thompson, Macron pledged that all of the algorithms developed by the French government would be open — and so would the algorithms developed by “any company getting money from the French government” (Wired) Our view? It sounds like a good policy, although that second part might prove difficult to implement. 
  • New site aims to shed light on international tax sector. "Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) members are committed to being transparent about not just what they fund, but why. This site is a resource for the members themselves, but hopefully also for other funders and organizations working on tax issues. You can explore the articulated pathways to improved tax outcomes for each core member and collectively, details of selected current grantees and funding, and how the work fits in a broader tax ecosystem." (Transparency and Accountability Initiative) As our friends at Global Integrity explained, this is "a great step towards more open strategies, better collaboration, more learning, and greater impact."

states and cities

The home page for Boston's new death certificates web app.
  • Boston, Massachusetts launches innovative online death certificate registry, plans additional services. The new website enables users to search for death certificates with a name and date, and order them online. In a technical post that explains how the Boston Department of Innovation and Technology team built its new death certificates Web app, Fin Hopkins says the City of Boston plans to bring more registry services, like marriage and birth certificates, online in the future. The death certificate registry appears to be the first such online tool added by any major American city.
  • Sinclair Broadcasting, in control of nearly 200 local TV stations across the country, required anchors to give pre-written speech against "fake news." "On local news stations across the United States last month, dozens of anchors gave the same speech to their combined millions of viewers. It included a warning about fake news, a promise to report fairly and accurately and a request that viewers go to the station’s website and comment 'if you believe our coverage is unfair…' The script came from Sinclair Broadcast Group, the country’s largest broadcaster, which owns or operates 193 television stations…Although it is the country’s largest broadcaster, Sinclair is not a household name and viewers may be unaware of who owns their local news station. Critics have accused the company of using its stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda." (New York Times)
  • State legislature moves to override voter desire for campaign finance transparency in Tempe, Arizona. "Nine of 10 Tempe voters called for lifting the curtain on secretive money in city elections, but lawmakers this week passed a bill that would stop that. The measure now goes to the governor, who was a beneficiary of 'dark money' spending in his 2014 run for office." (AZ Central)
  • Testing tech for consensus in a purple town. Jessica McKenzie traveled to Bowling Green, Kentucky to observe "The American Assembly, a think tank affiliated with Columbia University…[and] Polis, an innovative new survey platform that allows participants to generate their own statements in addition to responding to statements by others…[test] a model for bottom-up civic engagement that could be replicated in cities and towns across the nation to find hitherto-unknown areas of agreement, and fuel productive conversations between residents and local government. But although the organizations celebrated the Bowling Green pilot as a qualified success, the model still needs work—and lots of follow up—in order to reap the hoped-for benefits." (Civicist)


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