Today in OpenGov: Shake it up
In today's edition, Scott Pruitt gets ready to talk to Congress, Facebook is slow to answer questions as it shakes up its DC team, find inspiration from data drive public sector projects, fake news threatens another wave of elections, and more.
Entrance to the White House complex. Image credit: Alex Howard.
- President Trump's nominee to lead the VA withdraws his name from consideration amidst growing scrutiny. Early this morning, NBC News reporter Monica Alba tweeted that Dr. Ronny Jackson had withdrawn his name from consideration as secretary of Veterans Affairs. His comment? "While I will forever be grateful for the trust and confidence President Trump has placed in me by giving me this opportunity, I am regretfully withdrawing my nomination to be Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs."
- CIA says it's done declassifying documents about the career of Gina Haspel, President Trump's nominee to head the agency. "The CIA has refused to declassify information about Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to be the agency’s next director, infuriating Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee who have questioned her suitability for the role." The CIA responded to a request from three Democratic Senators to declassify more information about Haspel's career, saying that while they "would not further declassify materials related to Haspel’s 32 years working 'in a clandestine role,' they were welcome to peruse such material in a secure facility." (Washington Post)
- EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, set to appear before Congress today, may try to pass blame for his ethical missteps… "As Scott Pruitt, the embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency, prepares to testify before Congress on Thursday amid a series of spending and ethics investigations, an internal E.P.A. document indicates that he may blame his staff for many of the decisions that have put a cloud over his tenure at the agency." (New York Times)
- …meanwhile, the White House appeared to move closer to demanding their own answers from Pruitt. "EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will have to answer questions about alleged ethical violations “in short order,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Wednesday, stopping well short of offering a defense of the embattled administrator." (POLITICO)
- We joined Marketplace to discuss Mick Mulvaney's idea to kill public access to financial complaint data. Sunlight's Deputy Director Alex Howard talked to Sabri Ben-Achour yesterday about Mulvaney's comments on Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal. The gist? Disclosing open data from the CFPB leads to banks improving response times and responding more favorably to customer complaints. Mulvaney should privilege consumer information and market transparency over the preferences of big banks.
- What did Mick Mulvaney really mean when he talked about which lobbyists he met with as a Congressman? Francine McKenna dug into the hierarchy that Mulvaney laid out at a banking conference earlier this week, which starts with "constituents first regardless of financial contribution, lobbyists who donated maybe— [but] leaves out the lobbyist who hasn’t donated yet. That remark could be understood to mean he won’t see you if you don’t donate, or it could be understood to mean he won’t entertain anyone looking to get his support before making a commitment to support him in return." Is this a sign of questionable ethics or just business as usual, McKenna asked. Sunlight's Alex Howard weighed in, explaining, "When the state uses powers authorized by Congress to investigate and enforce the law against wrongdoing, it’s crucial that those actions are carried out in a transparent, fair and ethical way. There should be no doubt created by the words or actions of the heads of regulators that these decisions were made as a result of undue influence based on inappropriate lobbying, campaign contributions, or a means of rewarding loyalty or punish political opponents." (MarketWatch)
- Michael Cohen plans to plead the 5th in Stormy Daniels lawsuit. "Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney, indicated on Wednesday that he planned to assert his Fifth Amendment rights not to testify in connection with a pending civil lawsuit brought by a porn star that seeks to void a $130,000 “hush money” deal Cohen allegedly cut to try to suppress her story in advance of the 2016 presidential election. Cohen said in a declaration filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that he planned to stay mum in that case because of a series of raids the FBI carried out at his home, office and hotel room in New York earlier this month." (POLITICO)
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry's son owns an energy investment company, raising ethics concerns. "A private investment firm led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s son has notified the Securities and Exchange Commission that it’s seeking investors for a new energy fund, raising concerns about the potential for private businesses run by the offspring of high-ranking government officials to benefit from their parents’ policy decisions without the public being aware…Watchdog groups have two worries about situations like this. One is that existing investment rules allow for little public disclosure about private funds like Grey Rock, making possible conflicts of interest nearly impossible to spot…The other concern is that conflict-of-interest rules for politicians extend only to spouses and young kids, not grown ones." (McClatchy DC)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appearing before a House Committee earlier this month.
- Facebook shakes up DC team amid continuing fallout over privacy scandal… "Facebook is making key personnel changes at its Washington, D.C. office amid the uproar over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal. Facebook’s head of policy in Washington, Erin Egan, has opted to step down to focus on her role as the social media giant's chief privacy officer. She has previously split her time between the roles. Former Republican Federal Communications Commission Chairman Keven Martin, who is currently a Facebook employee, will replace Egan as the company’s interim vice president of U.S. public policy." (The Hill)
- …while taking its time to respond to Congressional questions. "When Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress earlier this month, he left a lot of questions in his wake. More than 20 times, he responded to Congressional inquiries by saying that he didn’t have the information on hand but that his team would follow up with more information after the hearing had closed. But 13 days after the hearings, congressional democrats on the House Energy and Commerce committee say still they haven’t heard anything from Facebook." (The Verge)
- Watchdog raises concerns over "self-destructing" email. "Nonpartisan watchdog American Oversight sent a letter to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) calling for government-wide guidance to prevent officials and employees from using Gmail’s new “self-destructing” email feature. The feature could allow government employees to delete agency records subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)." (American Oversight)
- Embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter wants to set up a legal defense fund. "Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, has filed paperwork to establish a legal expense fund amid an ongoing federal criminal investigation into whether he misused campaign cash. Hunter has already spent more than $600,000 of campaign money on lawyers. The new fund would allow donors to give money above the limits imposed on campaign contributions." (San Diego Union Tribune)
- The federal government is considering if it should charge for access to popular open data sets. "The US government is considering whether to charge for access to two widely used sources of remote-sensing imagery: the Landsat satellites operated by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and an aerial-survey programme run by the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Officials at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the USGS, have asked a federal advisory committee to explore how putting a price on Landsat data might affect scientists and other users; the panel’s analysis is due later this year. And the USDA is contemplating a plan to institute fees for its data as early as 2019." (Nature) Our take? Charging taxpayers twice to access and use our data would be unwise and unwelcome: as noted in Nature, free distribution of USGS Landsat satellite imagery is estimated to generate over $2 billion of economic benefit every year, which is an extraordinary return on the investment from the program’s approximately $80 million annual budget.
states and cities
The new Solutions Search platform.
- Search a new database of data drive public sector projects. "Data-Smart City Solutions today launched a searchable public database comprising cutting-edge examples of public sector data use. The "Solutions Search" indexes interactive maps and visualizations, spanning civic issue areas such as transportation, public health, and housing, that are helping data innovators more accurately understand and illustrate challenges, leading to optimized solutions." (Data-Smart City Solutions)
- Law enforcement groups have donated heavily to the California district attorney deciding how to proceed on a high profile police shooting case. "Sacremento, California, been all over the news for the past month, since police shot and killed an unarmed black man, 22-year-old Stephon Clark, in the backyard of his own home on March 18. An independent autopsy conducted at the family’s request showed that Clark was shot six times in the back, according to the Los Angeles Times. As protests over the death raged, activists, both locally and around the country, called for the district attorney there, Anne Marie Schubert, to file charges, or even just make a strong statement on the case. Yet she remained silent. All the while, Schubert’s political campaigns have benefitted from the largesse of law enforcement unions and associations. According to an analysis by The Intercept, about one-third of the contributions she received across her two campaigns to be Sacramento County’s district attorney — one of which is currently ongoing — came from law enforcement sources or those close to law enforcement." (The Intercept)
- Listen up: Sunlight's Alex Dodds joined the Sustainability Action Series Talk podcast to talk storytelling, data, and city innovation. "Local governments and community groups are abuzz about the potential of open data policies to make government more transparent, accountable and efficient. We talk with the Sunlight Foundation's Open Cities Storyteller about trends in open data, how it can more communities more effective and equitable, their Tactical Data Engagement approach and the importance of going beyond 'raw data' to storytelling." (SAS Talk with Kim)
around the world
- Brazil braces for the impact of fake news as elections loom. With trust in the political system waning and a high stakes election approaching "voters are convinced fake news will invade Brazil’s elections this year. In hopes of counteracting misinformation, newspapers have grown and independent watchdog agencies sprung up. In 2014, the newspaper O Globo created the “Preto no Branco” (Pen on Paper) blog, intended to fact-check information. Its creator, Cristina Tardáguila, left the paper’s newsroom in 2015 to create the Agência Lupa, the first specialized watchdog team to operate in Brazil." (Columbia Journalism Review)
- Fake news also stirring fears in Europe as European Parliamentary elections approach. "The EU is scrambling to keep the 2019 European Parliament election from being hit by disinformation campaigns and dubious political advertising. With only a year to go and a fragmented elections system run by member countries, not by the EU, fears are growing that the election will be affected by fake news." (POLITICO)
- The Israeli government is moving to make its software code open source. "The Israeli government will gradually shift its software code to open source, meaning that it will be available to members of the public to use and modify the software, point out vulnerabilities and propose improvements. It will also be available for use in development apps…The resolution applies to the government’s main web portal, gov.il, but other government services are also being encouraged to open their source code. The rationale is that the code was developed at public expense and should therefore be accessible to members of the public." (Haaretz)
- European AI strategy puts focus on ethics as a competitive advantage. "Europe’s secret weapon in the race against the U.S. and China on artificial intelligence is … ethics. That was the message at the core of the EU’s AI strategy unveiled Wednesday and developed by a team of European Commissioners under the supervision of Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip. In its 'Charter on AI Ethics,' the Commission wants to spell out how to preserve fundamental rights along with the rise of AI. This, the bloc believes, will boost consumer trust in European AI applications and help the Continent — which lags far behind the U.S. and China in building a state-of-the-art AI industry — catch up with competitors." (POLITICO)
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