Today in OpenGov: Inner circles
In today's edition, the FBI raided President Trump's personal lawyer's office, Mark Zuckerberg faces Congress, D.C. charter schools don't want to share (information), we consider how to shed light on the ways that oligarchs hide their money, and more.
The FBI raided the offices, home, and hotel room of President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen yesterday. "Michael Cohen, the longtime attorney of President Trump, is under federal investigation for possible bank fraud, wire fraud and campaign finance violations, according to three people with knowledge of the case. FBI agents on Monday raided Cohen’s Manhattan office, home and hotel room as part of the investigation, seizing records about Cohen’s clients and personal finances." (Washington Post) President Trump didn't take the news well, calling it "disgraceful" and "an attack on our country" during an appearance with his military advisors to discuss the situation in Syria after the news broke. You can read a transcript of those remarks via the New York Times.
Our view? The FBI executing a search warrant against the president’s lawyer after a judge signed it is not an “attack against our country.” What Russia did in 2016 was, which led to the Justice Department’s probe and to the special counsel referring it to this U.S. Attorney’s Office, despite the president’s denials, obfuscations, and lies.
- Robert Mueller is investigating a $150,000 payment from a Ukrainian steel magnate to President Trump's foundation. "The special counsel is investigating a payment made to President Trump’s foundation by a Ukrainian steel magnate for a talk during the campaign, according to three people briefed on the matter, as part of a broader examination of streams of foreign money to Mr. Trump and his associates in the years leading up to the election. (New York Times)
- Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked a convicted fundraiser for advice on nominees. While putting together a list of potential U.S. attorney nominees, Jeff Sessions took recommendations from usual suspects including Senators and former DOJ officials, but "in at least one instance, however, Sessions wound up turning to a more unorthodox source for recommendations — Elliott Broidy. Broidy, a longtime Republican donor, was not a lawyer, and thus had no experience as a prosecutor. Moreover, Broidy had been convicted in 2009 for his role in a major New York state public corruption and bribery case." (ProPublica)
- Top ethics official expresses concern over Scott Pruitt's actions at EPA. "The federal government’s top ethics official has taken the unusual step of sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency questioning a series of actions by Administrator Scott Pruitt and asking the agency to take 'appropriate actions to address any violations.' The letter, sent to Kevin Minoli, the E.P.A. official designated as the agency’s top ethics official, addresses questions about Mr. Pruitt’s rental for $50 a night of a condominium linked to an energy lobbyist, as well as his government-funded flights to his home state of Oklahoma." (New York Times)
- Trump Organization issued direct appeal, possible threat to Panamanian president in hotel fight. "U.S. President Donald Trump’s company appealed directly to Panama’s president to intervene in its fight over control of a luxury hotel, even invoking a treaty between the two countries, in what ethics experts say was a blatant mingling of Trump’s business and government interests." (Associated Press) The Panama Hotel deal is just of more than 600 on our list of Trump's conflicts of interest.
- Last week's other Trump administration conflicts included an opaque legal defense fund, and contagious corruption in the Cabinet. Lynn Walsh checked in with her regular look at Trump administration conflicts, finding that "top U.S. government officials are still in public service despite ethics problems, a public interest watchdog filed new complaints about former lobbyists now working in agencies, and a controversial legal defense fund faces continued questions." (Sunlight Foundation)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is set to sit down with Congressional committees today and tomorrow.
His written testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is now online. In it, he specifically speaks to Russian interference, Facebook's transparency proposals in response, and support for the Honest Ads Act.
Zuckerberg's appearances before Congress mark "an unprecedented step in the company’s decade-long effort to wield influence in the nation’s capital," according to this report by Kate Ackley in Roll Call. Meanwhile, the Campaign Legal Center laid out some questions that they would like to hear members of Congress ask Zuckerberg this week.
- Facebook will create an independent commission to study social media's effect on democracy. "Facebook will establish an independent election research commission that partners with academics and researchers to study the effects of social media on democracy and political elections, the company announced Monday." (POLITICO)
- How to get foreign money out of American elections. "Russia-linked political ads on every major Internet platform. The alleged flow of Russian money to the NRA. The Trump campaign’s solicitation of donations from foreign sources. Reports that Robert Mueller is investigating whether Russian oligarchs funneled money into the 2016 campaign. Each of these has broken as a separate news story, but in one important sense, they all belong to one same thread: Our country's longstanding ban on political spending by foreign actors is in tatters." A new report by Ian Vandewalker and Lawrence Norden explores these issues in depth. (The Brennan Center for Justice)
- Does Congress need a digital service? Lorelei Kelly thinks so. "Our American legislature is the world’s most powerful national democratic assembly. Despite this status, it has fallen behind. It is not reaping the benefits of modern-day information exchange with the outside world. It is not organized to cope with complex policy challenges. Nor can it make use of citizen talent for idea generation and problem solving. This capacity gap is typically chalked up to political dysfunction like polarization and money-in-politics. But it also exists because of institutional obsolescence. When it comes to technology, the Senate might as well use flares and messenger pigeons to communicate. The House is more advanced. It’s more like a blinking VCR. Congress’ backwardness was self-made, even intentional. Reversing this condition must be as well. Why not an 18F for Congress?" (The Hill)
states and cities
- Court says Kentucky governor can keep blocking constituents on social media. "A federal judge in Kentucky has just handed down a disappointing decision granting the state's governor the right to continue blocking as many constituents as he wants on Twitter and Facebook. The suit was brought by two blocked constituents who argued the governor's blocking of their accounts amounted to a violation of their First Amendment rights. It goes without saying the blocked accounts were critical of Governor Matt Bevin. Rather than recognize the harm done by an official government account that only removes criticism, the court likens the blocks to throwing away hate mail or hanging up on aggrieved constituents." (TechDirt) You can read the decision here. We fundamentally disagree with this decision. As our deputy director pointed out last year, civil servants and elected officials should stop blocking constituents. “Listening and responding to members of the public that they represent is a minimum expectation for public servants in any democratic state, whether those voices are raised in protest, petition, email, send letters or reply on social media. While there are practical challenges to making sense of millions of emails, tweets, calls or letters, blocks are not the solution to filter failure.”
- The Washington, DC City Council passed a law requiring more transparency from school. Now, charter schools are trying to avoid complying with it. "A frustrated D.C. Council in 2016 ordered a new analysis of school-by-school enrollment, growth plans and needed building upgrades. The dream — to end years of obscure renovation decisions by writing into law the data required, the priorities to rank needs, and plenty of public participation. Results were due in fall 2017 to help with the 2019 budget now being written. A contractor begins public meetings this week to present plans for the long-stalled surveys and analysis, but a major mystery remains: will charter schools get a free pass on the transparency the Council believed essential to objectivity and credibility?" (D.C. Open Government Coalition)
- The New York Post and New York City settle FOIA lawsuit over Education Department opacity. "The New York Post has settled a landmark lawsuit charging that the city Department of Education routinely violated the state Freedom of Information Law. Under the settlement, the DOE not only turned over public records it had withheld for up to 20 months, but agreed to reform what The Post called a 'pattern and practice' of endless delays and stonewalling." (New York Post)
- Building reliable open electoral precinct data. Michael Migurski wrote about an opportunity for "a new data project focused on connecting existing academic and independent efforts with durable, unique, permanent identifiers for nationwide voting precincts. Imagine if you could easily correlate detailed voting results from OpenElections.net (OE) or state boards of elections with mapped polygons and census geography over time. We already know how effective a GEOID-based approach can be thanks to data published by the U.S. Census, but precincts are a special challenge without a current champion." (Medium) Or, as our friend Tom Lee put it, "you'd think we'd have decent open electoral precinct data, but no! Michael Migurski explains why not, why we ought to, & how we could fix this state of affairs."
around the world
- Oligarchs use shell companies to hide billions. Here's how to stop them. Public beneficial ownership registries are "databases in which citizens can easily access and explore the owners of companies. Not the nominee director, not the fake shareholder – the real owner. The person at the center of the matryoshka-like corporate structures, or, as experts refer to them: the ultimate beneficial owner of a company." (The Guardian) We support calls for public beneficial ownership registries, including for one in the United states. As we've explained before, "obfuscation of who owns which corporate entities enables corruption, not accountability. The public, press, regulators, watchdogs and Congress can follow the money and oversee need systemic fixes.
- After passage of "anti-fake news law," Malaysian prime minister dissolves parliament and calls for new elections. "Malaysia's parliament passed the “Anti-Fake News Law” on April 3, 2018 amid concerns that the law will be used to silence the opposition and critics ahead of the General Election (GE14), which will take place in the near term. On the heels of the law's approval, Prime Minister Najib Razak dissolved the parliament on April 6, in another move seen as part of a strategy for securing his own re-election. (Global Voices)
- Consumer groups urge Facebook to extend new European privacy protections globally. "A coalition of consumer groups is calling on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to extend new privacy controls that will be required by a new European law next month to all users of the social media platform worldwide. Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, which represents dozens of consumer groups in Europe and the U.S., sent a letter to Zuckerberg on Monday expressing support for the new European Union (EU) privacy standards, which will go into effect on May 25." Last week, Zuckerberg indicated his support for such a move, but did not provide any details. (The Hill)
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