Today in OpenGov: Mercy mercy me

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In today’s edition, shedding light on a secretive nonprofit, complaining about FOIA requests, keeping up with Scott Pruitt’s latest ethical woes, tracking John Bolton’s potential conflicts, a former Brazilian president will be arrested, and more.

washington watch

A screenshot from one of the highly targeted, anti-Muslim ads run by Secure America Now. Via OpenSecrets.
  • Robert Mercer, two other secretive donors, helped fuel highly targeted, anti-Muslim ads in closing days of 2016 election. Robert Maguire details how, as “the final weeks of the 2016 elections ticked down, voters in swing states like Nevada and North Carolina began seeing eerie promotional travel ads as they scrolled through their Facebook feeds or clicked through Google sites.” The ads were produced by a “far-right neoconservative nonprofit…[that] has no employees and no volunteers, and it’s run out of the offices of a Washington, D.C. law firm…The group, a social welfare organization called Secure America Now, worked hand in hand with Facebook and Google to target their message at voters in swing states who were most likely to be receptive to them.” Three donors — hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, Estee Lauder scion Ronald S. Lauder, and a Trump aligned dark money group — provided most of Secure America Now’s funding. (OpenSecrets)
  • The same group ran ads explicitly endorsing Sen. Ted Cruz, attacking Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, potentially violated IRS rules. “A tax-exempt organization funded by Robert Mercer placed online ads that overtly endorsed Ted Cruz and directly attacked Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, possibly in violation of IRS rules governing social welfare organizations.” As Sunlight’s John Wonderlich explained, this is prime example of “how wealthy donors can affect our political discourse without us knowing about it.” (BuzzFeed)
  • Following Sunlight report, HHS publishes new breast cancer awareness page, but facts on lesbian and bisexual health remain offline. After Sunlight’s Web Integrity Project flagged its removal, the department of Health and Human Services has published a new breast cancer page on its women’s health website, linking to National Cancer Institute resources. Meanwhile, a webpage with extensive information about lesbian & bisexual health remains offline.
  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did the “Harlem Shake” to explain his position on net neutrality repeal, but he doesn’t want to release emails about it. JPat Brown explains, “Last December, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai starred in a ‘PSA’ produced by The Daily Caller. In the video, Pai addressed all the ‘trolls’ in the net neutrality debate, reassuring the public that they will still be able to enjoy things on the internet after its repeal. To illustrate this, Pai does the absolute polar opposite of an enjoyable thing on the internet: the Harlem Shake…Curious as to whose idea this was, I filed a FOIA for emails between The Daily Caller and the FCC, as well as any talking points regarding this huge PR coup. Four months later, the FCC responded. The agency found two pages of emails but would be withholding them in their entirety under FOIA’s infamous b(5) exemption regarding deliberative process.” (MuckRock)
  • Treasury Department launches “Data Lab” to make spending data more understandable. “The Bureau of the Fiscal Service on Thursday unveiled the new Data Lab, part of the relaunch of USAspending.gov, a key part of the government’s congressionally mandated transparency efforts. It can be hard to wrap your head around $500 billion in contract spending across 2,000 accounts, but that was the charge given to the bureau: find a way to make the U.S. government’s spending data accessible and understandable.” (NextGov)

states and cities

  • Following ransomware attack against Atlanta government, Code for Atlanta calls for a public post-mortem. “Two weeks after a major ransomware attack waylaid Atlanta’s municipal government — to the point the FBI and Department of Homeland Security were called upon to assist in the response — a local civic tech group is now calling for a ‘blameless post-mortem‘ on the incident.” (Government Technology) The group is circulating a petition calling on “Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to direct that a blameless post-mortem be conducted of the March 2018 ransomware attack, and for the writeup to be shared with the public.” (Change.org)
  • Leading license plate surveillance company complains to local police about nonprofits FOIA requests. “A private company that sells surveillance technology to law enforcement is telling police departments that they are being targeted and attacked by transparency groups that request public records. Vigilant Solutions, the country’s largest vendor of automated license plate readers (ALPRs), has accused the non-profit groups Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Muckrock of running a campaign in order to evoke fear (and ultimately donations), in a letter sent to law enforcement agencies across the country.” (Vice News)
  • New Hampshire legislature moves towards creation of a “right-to-know ombudsman.” “A bill calling for creation of a Citizens Right-to-Know Appeals Board and a Right-to-Know ombudsman will go the full House with an “ought to pass” recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee. The bill, SB 555, is the culmination of a year’s work by a Right-to-Know study commission. It passed the Senate on March 15, and on Tuesday cleared the key House policy committee in a 14-2 vote.” (Manchester Union Leader)
  • Anchorage, Alaska shifted to vote-by-mail for their latest election and shattered old turnout records. “Turnout in Anchorage’s first vote-by-mail election was the highest in the city’s history, buoyed by a wave of last-minute votes, according to new data released Wednesday. About 80,000 ballots had been received by elections officials at the end of the day Wednesday. More were still on the way. Until now, the most ballots the city had ever received in a local race was 71,099 votes in 2012.” (Anchorage Daily News)

just pruitt

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Things keep getting worse for embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. 

Yesterday, the ethics official who had initially signed off on Pruitt’s “$50-per-night rental agreement for a room in a Capitol Hill two-bedroom condo owned by lobbyists appeared to backtrack on that approval…, saying it was based on the text of the lease, not how the property was actually used.” (NextGov) At the same time, a reports emerged indicating that Pruitt was often slow to pay the rent on that condo. (POLITICO)

Meanwhile, while attempting to explain away any potential conflicts of interest associated with renting a condo from an energy lobbyist, Pruitt claimed that his landlord, J. Stephen Hart, “has no clients who have business before [the EPA].” As Sam Stein and Lachlan Markay detail, “Far from being removed from any EPA-related interests, Hart was personally representing a natural gas company, an airline giant, and a major manufacturer that had business before the agency at the time he was also renting out a room to Pruitt.” (The Daily Beast)

On top of all that, the New York Times reported that “at least five officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, four of them high-ranking, were reassigned or demoted, or requested new jobs in the past year after they raised concerns about the spending and management of the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt.

elsewhere in trumpland

John Bolton. Image credit: Gage Skidmore.
  • As he prepares to take over as President Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton is still discussing potential conflicts with the White House. “John Bolton, who is days away from becoming President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, has been meeting with White House attorneys about possible conflicts of interest, CNBC has learned. The exact sticking points for Bolton are unclear, but ethics experts say the appearance of a possible future role for Bolton with an entity such as a political action committee could be a cause for concern for White House officials.” (CNBC)
  • Mueller probe turns its attentions to Trump’s international business partners. “Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators this week questioned an associate of the Trump Organization who was involved in overseas deals with President Donald Trump’s company in recent years. Armed with subpoenas compelling electronic records and sworn testimony, Mueller’s team showed up unannounced at the home of the business associate, who was a party to multiple transactions connected to Trump’s effort to expand his brand abroad, according to persons familiar with the proceedings.” (McClatchy DC)
  • President Trump tells reporters he didn’t know about $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels. “President Donald Trump said Thursday he did not know about the $130,000 payment his personal attorney has acknowledged making to adult film actress Stormy Daniels during the 2016 campaign in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual interaction with Trump.” (POLITICO)

around the world

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Image credit: World Economic Forum.
  • Judge orders former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to begin jail term. “A Brazilian judge ordered former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to be jailed for his conviction last year on charges of corruption and money laundering, in a political saga that has deeply divided this nation.” (Wall Street Journal)
  • Following backlash, India walks back proposals to punish journalists for publishing “fake news.” “The Indian government is shelving a rule to punish journalists for publishing “fake news” just 48 hours after its introduction. The proposed order would have given the government the authority to strip individuals and media organizations of their accreditation — which is needed to go to government functions and makes access to government offices easier — if they received a complaint of reporting so-called fake news, a term that was not specifically defined.” (CNN)
  • Egypt continues media crackdown with arrest of independent editor. “Egyptian authorities have arrested the editor of an independent news website for operating without a license, the latest episode in a widening crackdown on independent media, officials said Wednesday.” (Bloomberg)

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