Today in OpenGov: Weekend at Donald’s
In today's edition, the FEC slaps Jeb Bush's super PAC with a big fine, President Trump spends his weekends with wealthy business associates, Texas makes more mistaken additions to a "voter fraud" list, Russians protest against Internet restrictions, and more.
Screenshot from Google shows various political sites that hide under the guise of local news. Via Snopes.
- Political operatives are increasingly investing in messaging vehicles disguised to look like local news outlets. "On 6 February 2017, a website of uncertain origin named “The Tennessee Star” was born. At the time, it was unclear who funded or operated this “local newspaper,” which was largely filled with freely licensed content from organizations tied to conservative mega-donors. After some prodding by Politico in early 2018, the Tennessee Star revealed its primary architects to be three Tea Party-connected conservative activists: Michael Patrick Leahy, Steve Gill, and Christina Botteri. Now, a Snopes investigation reveals in detail how these activists used the appearance of local newspapers to promote messages paid for or supported by outside or undisclosed interests." (Snopes)
- The FEC slapped a pro-Jeb Bush super PAC with a record fine for accepting foreign donations. "The Federal Election Commission has unveiled one of the most significant enforcement actions in its history, citing a 2016 investigative series by The Intercept. That series, “Foreign Influence,” detailed how Right to Rise USA, a Super PAC supporting the 2016 presidential candidacy of Jeb Bush, received $1.3 million in campaign donations from American Pacific International Capital, a California corporation controlled by two Chinese citizens. The FEC fined APIC $550,000 and Right to Rise USA $390,000. The total of $940,000 is the 3rd-largest financial penalty ever issued by the FEC." (The Intercept)
- Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren rolled out a platform to regulate big tech companies. Over the past 8 years she has taken at least $90,000 from their employees. "While Sen. Elizabeth Warren was railing against big tech companies, she was taking their money — plenty of it. The Massachusetts Democrat, who is powering her presidential campaign with a bold proposal to break up the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook, in September accepted a $2,700 contribution from Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. But Sandberg, whose donation went unnoticed at the time, was just the biggest name from Silicon Valley to give to the senator: Warren took at least $90,000 from employees of Amazon, Google and Facebook alone between 2011 and 2018." (POLITICO)
- Facebook reverses course after initially removing ads that Sen. Warren placed advocating for the company's breakup. "Facebook removed several ads placed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign that called for the breakup of Facebook and other tech giants. But the social network later reversed course after POLITICO reported on the takedown, with the company saying it wanted to allow for 'robust debate.' The ads, which had identical images and text, touted Warren's recently announced plan to unwind 'anti-competitive' tech mergers, including Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram." (POLITICO)
- The chair of the House Freedom Caucus goes on record in support of ending super PACs. "Mark Meadows, the chair of the conservative Freedom Caucus, wants to end Super PACs. Meadows voted against House Democrats’ sweeping ethics and reform bill, which passed the chamber Friday morning on a party-line vote. But there were parts of it he agreed with, the North Carolina Republican told The Intercept. One thing he supported, Meadows said, was the effort to reform election finance. He said that he’d tried, and failed, to add an amendment that would have eliminated Super PACs, or political action committees." (The Intercept)
The entrance to Mar-a-Lago.
- This Florida spa owner, Mar-a-Lago member, and Trump donor has tried to sell Chinese clients access to President Trump and his family… "The latest Trump political donor to draw controversy is Li Yang, a 45-year-old Florida entrepreneur from China who founded a chain of spas and massage parlors that included the one where New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft was recently busted for soliciting prostitution…Beyond this sordid tale, there is another angle to the strange story of Yang: She runs an investment business that has offered to sell Chinese clients access to Trump and his family. And a website for the business—which includes numerous photos of Yang and her purported clients hobnobbing at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club in Palm Beach—suggests she had some success in doing so." (Mother Jones)
- President Trump spends a good deal of his downtime hobnobbing with wealthy clients of his Florida club. "…Trump’s habit of simply dropping into Mar-a-Lago events barely warrants a mention. This weekend, he made another visit to a fundraiser at the club that wasn’t on his calendar. That’s just sort of how it goes. It’s obviously useful for Mar-a-Lago to have Trump drop in at events on occasion — meaning that it’s indirectly valuable to Trump as well, given that he still owns the place. But it’s not Trump’s attendance at public fundraisers that really ought to raise eyebrows. It’s the rest of the time he spends chatting up whoever happens to be there. The time he spends greeting and schmoozing with the unidentified people who have paid him money to access the “winter White House…” This is precisely why open-government advocates push for information about who’s visiting the president and why. There are certainly meetings that the president takes which should not be made public. But meetings in which someone is making a pitch or seeking to leverage Trump’s power are ones where public accountability makes sense. " (Washington Post)
- Agencies are supposed to publish their budget justifications online, but they aren't always easy to find. "Congressional Budget Justifications — plain-language documents in which federal agencies explain how they plan to spend any appropriated money — are supposed to be public documents posted to the open internet. But a recent review of 456 executive branch agencies and entities found that CBJs are difficult to find at best, and at worst, they appear to be completely unavailable. The survey, conducted by transparency advocacy group Demand Progress, found that 6.1 percent of all 456 agencies have either a fiscal 2018 or 2019 CBJ published online, but not both, as is the case for most other agencies." (FedScoop)
states and cities
The Texas State Capitol Building. Image credit: Kumar Appaiah
- Texas mistakenly added more names to its flawed list of "noncitizen" voters. "The list of missteps in the Texas secretary of state’s review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens grew again Monday, when the office inadvertently added additional people to its already flawed list of voters flagged for citizenship checks. Blaming a vendor for the mix-up, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office confirmed new names were sent to certain counties for possible investigation because of a technical error. The mistake occurred while state election officials were analyzing new data from the Texas Department of Public Safety." (Texas Tribune)
- Legislation being considered in Iowa would make it more difficult for the state's university students, others to vote. "Students at Iowa's public universities would not be allowed to vote early on campus under a wide-ranging election bill that advanced in the Iowa Senate this week. The expansive measure would also make changes to other state election laws. Should it become law, the bill would shorten the number of hours polling places are open on Election Day, change the rules for absentee ballots to require them to be delivered by the time the polls close and require a county's property tax information to be included on the ballot for bond measures." (Des Moines Register)
- State and local government budgets are transparent than ever, but does the public understand them? "Nearly all governments share budget information online, but the extent to which they share varies. They increasingly are moving beyond uploading static PDF versions of financial statements and lists of revenues and expenses. There’s a growing appetite among local governments to be more transparent, especially about finances, as citizens demand that information be more readily available…At a basic level, people want to know whether their government is doing a good job and the value of their tax dollars…That’s not something they can get from looking at straight numbers — no matter how prettily governments display them — without context and comparison." (Government Technology)
around the world
Image via Open Knowledge.
- Dangers to the World Wide Web on its 30th birthday. "Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web has transformed modern life, but more work must be done to ensure it continues to be a force for good, writes Catherine Stihler." (Open Knowledge)
- Russians protest government bill that would cut the country off from the global Internet. "Russians, fearing digital isolation and more censorship on the horizon, gathered in the streets of Moscow and other cities on Sunday to protest a new bill calling for Russia to be cut off from the global Internet. Media outlets have described the protests in the capital as 'some of the biggest' in years. At the heart of protesters' objections was the sovereign Internet bill, which has been wending its way through the Russian Parliament. The measure would require data between users to be rerouted internally, as opposed to being sent to servers abroad." (NPR)
- Did this Ukrainian anti-graft agency conceal military procurement fraud carried out by an ally of the President? "A Ukrainian anti-graft agency set up at the behest of Western donors was accused of hiding embezzlement in the army carried out by an ally of President Petro Poroshenko. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau, known as NABU, removed the name of a company from a 2016 list of suspicious entities involved in military procurement, journalists from the investigative Nashi Hroshi program reported late Monday." (Bloomberg)
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