Today in OpenGov: The Definition of an Emolument


In today's edition, the definition of an emolument is explored, as is the future of collaborative data in Madison, Wisconsin, and GAO's new technology office, as well as an introduction to government digital services around the world, and more. 


Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office.  Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office.
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is facing conflict of interest questions tied to his role in the decision to lift sanctions on Oleg Deripaska. "Democrats in Congress raised ethical concerns on Tuesday about connections between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a billionaire Republican donor who stands to benefit financially from the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on the Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska’s companies. In a letter to Mr. Mnuchin, two senior Democratic lawmakers said the Treasury secretary’s connection to an entertainment business owned in part by the donor, Len Blavatnik, a major investor in Mr. Deripaska’s giant aluminum company, Rusal, was a potential conflict of interest." (New York Times)
  • New study sheds light on the definition of "emolument" and could play a major role in a case against President Trump. "The study concerns the “emoluments clause” case, which was brought by the attorneys general in Maryland and the District of Columbia. The case seeks to show Trump is violating the portion of the Constitution barring a public official from accepting 'any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.' The case has progressed further than some experts predicted, with a U.S. district judge last year allowing it to proceed and launching the discovery process, in which Trump’s business dealings can be revealed…Perhaps the biggest unresolved question hanging over the whole thing is this: What exactly is an "emolument'?" (Washington Post)
  • The White House has been taking its time responding to requests for information from the new Democratic majority in the House and is citing the shutdown for delays. "The Trump administration has tried to delay answering some unwelcome questions from eager House investigators — and it says the just-ended government shutdown is to blame. The 35-day partial shutdown depleted the White House’s staff, furloughing many lower-level employees who help with requests. They include legal assistants who compile documents and IT workers who search vast email archives. Senior aides who remained at work during the standoff with Congress were overwhelmed with other priorities and unable to pick up the slack, according to people familiar with the situation." (POLITICO)
  • Lawmakers are laying the groundwork to obtain and release Robert Mueller's final report if the Justice Department does not. "House Democrats are plotting ways to ensure that special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report becomes public and that Justice Department officials don’t interfere with its contents. Democratic committee leaders are already anticipating resistance from the Trump administration as they seek to build a public case — through investigations and other means — that Trump’s behavior is unethical and, potentially, criminal…Lawmakers began focusing on the issue after William Barr, President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, would not pledge during his confirmation hearings earlier this month to publicly release Mueller’s final report. And for the first time since re-taking the majority, House Democrats discussed the special counsel’s investigation in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday." (POLITICO)

States and cities

Excerpt from Madison's Tactical Data Engagement evaluation survey.Excerpt from Madison's Tactical Data Engagement evaluation survey.
  • The future of collaborative open data in Madison, Wisconsin. "As an early adopter of open data, the City of Madison recognized a set of challenges that are not uncommon to cities today: how do we gain traction within city agencies to identify data assets, publicly share those data assets, and increase utilization of the open data portal? Our engagement with the Sunlight Foundation through the What Works Cities initiative offered a prime opportunity to address these challenges. By engaging as a pilot city of the Tactical Data Engagement (TDE) method, we came with a vision to reenergize our open data program by promoting publication of data assets and fostering utilization of publicly available data in the community." (Sunlight Foundation)
  • After claiming 95,000 registered voters might not be citizens, Texas' secretary of state quietly tells counties that many were mistakenly flagged. "After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out. Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists." (Texas Tribune)
  • Law enforcement agencies in California are looking for ways around a new law making their misconduct records public information. "On January 1st, a California law went into effect turning long-shielded police misconduct records into public records. Prior to its enactment, at least one law enforcement agency executed a mass purge of older records, preemptively stunting the law's effectiveness. The law has also faced legal challenges from California police unions and law enforcement agencies seeking a declaration that the law is not retroactive and PDs should only have to release misconduct records created past the date of the law's effectiveness." (TechDirt)

washington watch

The Washington Monument and the National Mall.The Washington Monument and the National Mall. Via the National Parks Service.
  • The Government Accountability Office is expanding its efforts to help Congress understand technology. "The Government Accountability Office is stepping up its efforts to help lawmakers get smart on technology issues. Chiefly known to the public as an audit and compliance arm of Congress, GAO is launching its first new office in 20 years to try to elevate and expand its role as the in-house expert agency for Congress. The move comes in response to a demand from lawmakers in the legislative reports on the appropriation bill covering Congress." (Federal Computer Week)
  • Public comment periods on 143 proposed federal rules ended during the shutdown… "The federal government has one more hangover to deal with from the partial shutdown: what to do about all those deadlines that passed for public comment on proposed regulations." (Wall Street Journal) …That's a problem. The comment periods on all 143 proposed rules, plus any others that were "open" for a significant period during the shutdown, should be extended to ensure that the public has enough time to weigh in and federal agencies get a complete picture of public opinion on their proposals.  
  • Profiling the political money, personal finances, and campaign operations behind the growing field 2020 presidential hopefuls. "Center for Public Integrity reporters are digging into the political money,  personal finances and campaign operations of candidates running for president during Election 2020." (Center for Public Integrity)
  • The Senate looks likely to reintroduce legislation that would reform the Foreign Agents Registration Act. "Lawmakers are seizing on momentum to crack down on unregistered foreign lobbying in the new Congress, after special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation put a spotlight on the issue. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is aiming to reintroduce legislation that would close loopholes in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) that critics say allow lobbyists who work for foreign entities to conceal their work. Grassley has made it clear that updating the decades-old law and toughening enforcement is a top concern, pressing President Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, on the matter during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 15." (The Hill)
  • This bill would bar former members from lobbying Congress until they repay taxpayers for money spent on sexual harassment settlements. "Remember Blake Farenthold? He’s the former Texas congressman who spent $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit, and then instead of paying it back, he quit Congress and took a high-paying job lobbying Congress. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) remembers him. Walker plans to introduce a bill on Wednesday to prevent a member of Congress from ever doing that again. It’s called the Bad Lawmakers Accountability and Key Emends Act ― the BLAKE Act." (HuffPost)

around the world

Pressure has been mounting on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to resign since an opposition leader declared himself president last week.Pressure has been mounting on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to resign since opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself president last week.
  • Embattled Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is cracking down on dissent with social media blackouts, night-time raids. "Facing mounting pressure to step down as Venezuela’s leader, President Nicolas Maduro has begun a ruthless crackdown, terrorizing poor neighborhoods with deadly nighttime raids and blocking rivals’ efforts to spread their message on social media. Since protests against Maduro began last week, the socialist regime has regularly sent the police’s elite Special Action Force racing into Caracas slums on personnel carriers and motorcycles. Its masked members, all in black, attack demonstrators with weapons including tear gas, guns and even grenades. They settle long-standing scores and rob residents’ homes, eyewitnesses say. At least 35 people have died amid the demonstrations, adding to scores of deaths in two years of unrest." (Bloomberg)
  • An introduction to "government digital services" around the globe. "As the general public increasingly expects the civic user experience to be as refined as the ones we have with our consumer electronics, digital service delivery has become a priority for governments locally and globally. This growing demand has ushered in an era of government digital service teams, focused specifically on delivering a better online experience and, as the UK Government Digital Service says, 'help government work better for everyone.'" (GovFresh)
  • In Germany, this media group hosts the government three times a week for press briefings. "Journalists as the hosts, not the guests, of press briefings is a long-held tradition in Germany. It was exactly a hundred years ago, after Germany lost World War I, that the Berlin correspondents of the major newspapers decided they didn’t want to keep depending on misleading government communiqués that the emperor had provided during the war. Those were revolutionary times, and this revolution was one of the few that stuck…But after World War II, on the day that West Germany’s parliament elected the first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, a group of journalists got together and founded a new organization, the BPK. Adenauer was their first guest, and today no leading politician can afford not to expose themselves to the unfiltered and sometimes irreverent questioning of the press corps at least a couple of times a year." (Columbia Journalism Review)


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