For the past two years, the search for Donald Trump’s unseen tax returns has been something of a quest for the Holy Grail, an elusive trophy that could unlock the mysteries of our political universe. Lacking real proof as to what the president’s tax documents might show, the imagination swells with possibility: Russia ties? Massive personal debts? A wealth substantially lower than his self-reported $10 billion fortune? Something nefarious? The best efforts of Trump’s political opponents have turned up little by way of tax returns. Ditto the intrepid work of a nation of journalists; despite reporters obtaining a few different pieces of paperwork—as in the New York Times’ report last fall, or Rachel Maddow’s glimpse at two pages of Trump’s 2005 returns two weeks ago—the knowledge gained by any of these leaks has been dwarfed by the new questions raised. Trump keeps insisting that because his returns are under audit, he can’t possibly release them. And the Republican-led Congress, save a few renegades like South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, evince little interest in compelling the president to disclose them.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a measure that would require President Donald Trump and future White House candidates to file their federal income tax returns with the state. Let’s be clear: This measure is going nowhere this year. The legislative session wraps up with a marathon session Thursday and Republican leaders have little appetite for tweaking the president. But House Bill 640 gives Democrats – and other Trump skeptics – a bit of red meat to take home with them when they depart the statehouse and return to their districts sometime early Friday.
A federal appeals court on Thursday dealt a setback to campaign finance reform advocates in a ruling about who pays for political ads. The ruling upheld a Federal Election Commission regulation that narrows disclosure requirements for corporations and labor groups paying for ads that run close to Election Day. The regulation says groups running the ads only have to reveal donors who contribute for the express purpose of paying for the ads. That means donors who choose not to say how they want their money used can remain anonymous. Opponents say the rule undermines Congress’ goal of letting voters know which donors are trying to influence elections. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed a lower court decision that threw out the regulation last year. The ruling comes on the six-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which lifted limits on political spending by corporations and labor unions.
While campaign finance reformers were busy fighting off an attempt by Sen. McConnell to include a rider in the omnibus which would allow for unlimited coordinated party spending with candidates, three other very bad campaign finance provisions slipped into the must-pass congressional omnibus as riders. All three relate to disclosure. Via Jason Abel, one provision stops the IRS from engaging in rulemaking on 501c4 activity, which would rein in shadow Super PACs who have been engaging in heavy federal election activity without publicly disclosing their donors.
Montana’s new rules on disclosure of campaign spending are facing two potential delays – including a poll of all 150 legislators on whether the rules violate legislative intent. But the state’s top campaign-law enforcer, whose office drew up the rules, said Monday he’s optimistic the rules will take effect in time for the 2016 campaign season, and shed more light on election spending. “I am firmly of the belief that the public in Montana wants these regulations to come out,” said Jonathan Motl, commissioner of political practices. The rules carry out a new law passed by the 2015 Legislature, to crack down on so-called “dark money” in campaigns and require more and faster reporting of campaign spending in Montana.
Wisconsin: GOP lawmakers reverse course, balk at campaign donor reporting | Milwaukee Jounal-Sentinel
GOP state senators reversed course early Saturday and voted to let people make political donations without disclosing their employers as part of a broad overhaul of campaign finance laws. The bill passed just after midnight 17-15, with all Democrats and Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) opposing the measure and all other GOP senators supporting it. The measure now returns to the state Assembly, which will have to agree to the changes made by the Senate. GOP senators also approved a bill to eliminate the state Government Accountability Board, which runs elections and oversees ethics laws, and to give those duties to two new commissions. The proposal, which passed on a strictly party-line vote of 18-14, goes to the Assembly as well. Together the proposals would represent a significant shift in how elections are run and how money flows in the world of Wisconsin politics.
Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws were overdue for change after a series of court decisions over the past year. In recent months, the courts have allowed coordination between campaigns and issue groups and allowed individuals to give unlimited amounts of money to political parties. We still question whether those decisions are in the best interest of the public. But state and federal judges have, effectively, rewritten Wisconsin law, and so the law itself should be brought up to date. But legislators and citizens who hold them accountable should take a close look at what Assembly Bill 387 would do. The tinkering will mean even more money in state politics, and the vast majority of it will be given in secret with no public disclosure. In the long run, that erodes trust in government. The campaign finance bill would double the amount that donors can give to candidates. For statewide office, contributors now would be able to give $20,000, and that amount would be adjusted for inflation every five years.
As part of the state’s new election disclosure law, Montana’s commissioner of political practices has proposed a rule aimed at attack ads masquerading as educational. It has become common for “social welfare” organizations to send postcards to voters or broadcast TV ads in the days before an election. State Sen. Bruce Tutvedt, R-Kalispell, has a pending political practices complaint against the Taxpayers for Liberty, the National Association for Gun Rights and American Tradition Partnership, among others, which includes examples of attack ads that would be considered electioneering under the new rule.
They sound about as exciting as buying tube socks, but proposed administrative rules will help put Montanans back in control of state elections after being overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court, state officials believe. The rules, written by Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl and currently open for public comment, are meant to strengthen campaign disclosure requirements after the high court threw out Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, a 1912 law that banned corporate political spending. The justices said such spending is a constitutionally protected form of speech. After the ruling, “social welfare” corporations — known by their IRS tax-exempt status 501©4, which don’t disclose their donors — began to hammer Montana candidates using “issue ads.”
Delaware: Court Decides Delaware Donors Must Be Made Public When Campaign Groups Spend Over $500 | International Business Times
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a Delaware law compelling groups that spend more than $500 to reveal donors who contributed $100 or more. Delaware Safe Families (DSF), a nonprofit that distributed an “informational” voter guide in the 2014 election, was previously awarded an injunction to avoid complying with the act by a federal judge. “It is the conduct of an organization, rather than an organization’s status with the Internal Revenue Service, that determines whether it makes communications subject to” the Delaware Elections Disclosure Act, Judge Joseph Greenaway Jr. wrote in the unanimous decision.
Hillary Clinton called for a constitutional amendment to address the influx of “unaccountable money” in politics during her first official day of campaigning in Iowa. “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if it takes a constitutional amendment,” she said during an event at Kirkwood Community College in Monticello. She added that campaign finance reform is one of the “four big fights” that her campaign is focused on. The others include building the “economy of tomorrow, not yesterday,” strengthening both families and communities, and protecting the country from current and future threats.
Was this election the most expensive midterm in history? It’s possible, but nobody really knows for certain. That’s because we don’t know the total cost of the 2014 elections, or pretty much any federal election. Here’s why: Despite the efforts of the Federal Election Commission, which has been faithfully disseminating campaign finance data since 1975, there are limitations in the ways that data is collected and summarized that make generating totals and comparisons very difficult. And there are other problems, too. In describing federal elections, users of the F.E.C.’s data — The New York Times among them — have regularly cited statistics that are aren’t strictly accurate or have made comparisons without regard to the impact of inflation or population. In a paper presented at the American Political Science Association conference this year, Robin Kolodny, a political-science professor at Temple University, challenged the idea that we know each election is more expensive than previous ones, or that we even know how much campaigns really cost. This lack of knowledge fuels our perceptions of money in politics as an issue, she concludes.
What started as a Fountain Hills woman’s attempt to protest a local bond issue could lead to the demise of Arizona’s oversight of campaign finances. A federal judge has tossed out the key component of the state’s campaign-finance law, opening the prospect of future elections in which there is no disclosure of who is raising and spending money to influence voters. The state Attorney General’s Office said Monday that it plans to seek a stay of U.S. District Judge James Teilborg’s ruling while state officials contemplate an appeal. Teilborg on Friday ruled that Arizona’s definition of a political committee is unconstitutional because it is vague and overly broad. The definition, which runs 183 words, has resulted in conflicting interpretations from various attorneys and election regulators.
Arizona: Groups no longer required to disclose money sources to Secretary of State’s Office | Arizona Capitol Times
A federal judge late Friday voided state laws requiring groups to register before spending money on campaigns – and with it, the reports they’re supposed to file on who is behind all that cash. Judge James Teilborg accepted arguments by challengers that the statute dictating who must register is “vague, overbroad, and consequently unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment.” Teilborg said that means it cannot be enforced.
Deputy Secretary of State Jim Drake said his office will ask Teilborg to delay the effect of the ruling to provide a chance for an appeal. If nothing else, Drake said his office needs time to figure out how badly this undermines years of laws designed to give the public a better idea of who is contributing to political campaigns. But Drake said he’s not optimistic. “It does kind of turn campaign finance on its head,” he said. At the very least, Drake said Teilborg’s order eliminates the requirements for disclosure of funding by groups pushing or opposing ballot measures. It is not unusual for these campaigns to cost millions of dollars. But attorney Paul Avelar of the Institute for Justice said he reads the ruling to apply to all the independent groups pushing to elect or defeat candidates.
A federal judge has voided state laws requiring groups to register before spending money on campaigns — and with it, the reports they’re supposed to file on who is behind all that cash. Judge James Teilborg accepted arguments by challengers that the statute dictating who must register is “vague, overbroad, and consequently unconstitutional in violation of the First Amendment.” Teilborg said that means it cannot be enforced. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Drake said his office will ask Teilborg to delay the effect of the ruling, made late Friday, to provide a chance for an appeal. If nothing else, Drake said his office needs time to figure out how badly this undermines years of laws designed to give the public a better idea of who is contributing to political campaigns. But Drake said he’s not optimistic. “It does kind of turn campaign finance on its head,” he said.
The coming special election to fill the D.C. Council seat of Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser will be the first to test restrictive new campaign finance laws passed by D.C. officials last year. The D.C. Council adopted regulations that take effect Feb. 1 and include new disclosure requirements and limitations on donations from affiliated businesses as a means to increase transparency and accountability in campaign finance. The most lauded change in the law closes the District’s so-called “LLC loophole” by restricting campaign donations from affiliated companies, including limited liability corporations. Business owners traditionally could skirt the city’s maximum campaign contribution limits by donating multiple times to a candidate through different LLCs, which were not recognized as being affiliated even when they were owned or operated by the same people.
In politics, it is sometimes better to be lucky than good. Republicans and Democrats, and groups sympathetic to each, spend millions on sophisticated technology to gain an advantage. They do it to exploit vulnerabilities and to make their own information secure. But sometimes, a simple coding mistake can lay bare documents and data that were supposed to be concealed from the prying eyes of the public. Such an error by the Republican Governors Association recently resulted in the disclosure of exactly the kind of information that political committees given tax-exempt status usually keep secret, namely their corporate donors and the size of their checks. That set off something of an online search war between the association and a Washington watchdog group that spilled other documents, Democratic and Republican, into the open. The documents, many of which the Republican officials have since removed from their website, showed that many of America’s most prominent companies, from Aetna to Walmart, had poured millions of dollars into the campaigns of Republican governors since 2008. One document listed 17 corporate “members” of the governors association’s secretive 501(c)(4), the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee, which is allowed to shield its supporters from the public.
The country’s increasingly lawless political system needs a traffic cop to set clear rules and rein in violators who think nothing of breaking the spending limits. That’s supposed to be the job of the Federal Election Commission, but the agency has made a travesty of its mission, encouraging bad behavior rather than stopping it. There are six members of the commission, three from each party, with four votes required to take any significant action. In 1975, the agency’s architects in Congress might have had reason to believe that equal division would encourage nonpartisan thinking. But in the current age of outright hostility between right and left, the commission is unable to get four votes for any issue of importance. As Nicholas Confessore reported last week in The Times, those deadlocks mean more than simple paralysis; Republican commissioners are telling violators that a tie vote actually gives them permission to push past the old limits on spending and disclosure.
Citizens United filed a lawsuit against Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler in federal court in Denver Thursday, the first step in a legal fight that could rewrite the ways states handle election disclosures. The Virginia-based conservative group is finishing a movie called “Rocky Mountain Heist,” about those who have influenced Colorado’s political swing to the left over the past decade, calling out advocacy groups and politicians, likely including Gov. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Mark Udall, who are in tough races this fall. In June, Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert ruled that the group would need to disclose the movie’s financiers under state campaign laws. The organization contended it deserved the same free-speech protections as traditional media and liberal documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.
Yet again, the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission has deadlocked on a fundamental disclosure question involving whether politically active organizations that try to sway elections must identify their donors. Three Democratic-leaning commissioners insist the groups should disclose their donors. Three Republican appointees say these groups aren’t obligated to register with the commission or name their donors. Under rules by which the FEC operates, disclosure loses. The case dates to 2010, the year that Republicans took control of the U.S. House. One of the groups, American Action Network, spent $17 million in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and other states. That was nearly two-thirds of the money it spent that year, the Democratic appointees said. American Action Network is based in Washington, D.C., and chaired by former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican. The other group, Americans for Job Security, based in Arlington, Va., spent $9.5 million on election-related activity in 2010. That was three-fourths of its money that year.
There have long been plenty of methods for corporations, special interests and wealthy individuals to pour money into political campaigns without having to publicly disclose their activity, but recent action by Wisconsin regulators suggests even fewer state political groups will be subject to regulation, at least in the near future. Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, the state agency that monitors elections, recently told a number of electioneering groups — conservative and liberal — that they are welcome to disclose their spending activity and donors, but are not required to. That is a change from previous years in Wisconsin, when, at the very least, groups that expressly advocated for the election or defeat of a candidate have been required to periodically submit financial reports that listed their donors and spending activity. Groups that engaged solely in “issue advocacy,” meaning they did not produce advertising using words such as “vote for” or “vote against,” were not required to disclose. Now, however, the GAB is allowing even groups that engage in a certain amount of express advocacy to forgo disclosure. “We aren’t going to force you to report just because you’re making independent expenditures,” explained Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel for the GAB.
Michigan: U.S. Senate candidate Land discloses joint account, but questions remain | Detroit Free Press
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land’s campaign insisted Thursday that her nearly $3 million in contributions to herself are legal and proper, even as Michigan Democrats called on state and federal authorities to investigate. Land’s campaign this week filed a correction to her federal financial disclosure, revealing a previously undisclosed joint checking account she controls with her husband Dan Hibma from which she has drawn $2.9 million for her race. The Free Press first revealed the existence of the account a week ago, but the campaign’s filing still leaves doubts as to whether the funds drawn from it were put there expressly for campaign use and, if so, whether they may violate contribution limits. Candidates may give as much as they like to their campaigns and can tap liberally into jointly held bank accounts. But the law is murkier on spouses making funds available for a campaign, being constrained by the standard limit of $5,200 per election cycle.
Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices said Thursday that his office has worked out the kinks in the electronic reporting of state candidate and committee finance reporting. “The COPP’s new electronic campaign finance reporting system for candidates for public office in Montana worked. The new system was launched, literally, the day before 2014 primary election reporting was due and it had some glitches,” Commissioner Jonathan Motl wrote on the office’s website. The commissioner said all that’s left is to get candidates to use the electronic system. About 103 of the 319 primary election legislative candidates used electronic reporting. Motl said his office will contact the remaining 236 general election legislative candidates to encourage them to use the new system.
California: Highlighting Democratic losses, Republicans block campaign finance bill | The Sacramento Bee
Republicans on Monday blocked a California campaign finance reform bill that fell one vote short, demonstrating the limits of a diminished Democratic caucus. Senate Bill 27, by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, sought to lift the veil on outside campaign spending by compelling nonprofits to identify their donors if contributions hit certain benchmarks, such as when a nonprofit spends more than $50,000 in a given election cycle. The bill’s basic premise of requiring broader disclosure of campaign donations was sound, said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, but he objected to the timeline. The bill carried an urgency clause that would allow it to take effect in July, before the upcoming election. “We will be subjecting people to a different process,” Huff said. “They will not have had time to understand the rules of engagement changed.”
If you support Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s bid for reelection, stay away from annkirkpatrick.com. The site might greet visitors with a welcoming photo of the Arizona congresswoman and a screaming “Kirkpatrick for Congress” logo, but that design belies its true agenda. Funded and created by the Republican Party’s congressional campaign wing, the site’s true aim is in the fine print: to defeat Kirkpatrick, described as “a huge embarrassment to Arizona.” The National Republican Congressional Campaign bought up hundreds of URLs ahead of the 2014 election cycle and has created nearly 20 websites appearing to support Democratic candidates in all but the small print, a spokesman for the campaign confirmed Thursday. The NRCC rolled out the first such site in August, targeting Sean Eldridge, who is facing a tough race in New York’s 19th district. Since then, the organization has created mock campaign sites for 17 other candidates, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Alex Sink, a candidate for Florida’s 13th district.
Republicans are defending a series of websites they established that appear to support Democratic candidates for Congress, but instead direct contributions to the GOP. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) said its websites were not confusing, and accused Democrats of crying foul because their candidates were struggling. The sites, like this one for Arizona Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, feature a “Kyrsten Sinema for Congress” banner, and a picture of the first-term congresswoman from a competitive Maricopa County district. The sites also display a clear, but smaller secondary banner, urging contributions to “help defeat” (in this case) Sinema. At the bottom of the page, it features an NRCC disclaimer.
Ray Bellamy said he wanted to make a political contribution to Alex Sink a Google search landed him at “http://contribute.sinkforcongress2014.com.” “It looked legitimate and had a smiling face of Sink and all the trappings of a legitimate site,” Bellamy, a doctor from Tallahassee who follows Florida politics, wrote in an email to the Buzz. (Here’s Sink’s actual site, which uses a similar color scheme.) What Bellamy overlooked was that the site is designed to raise money against Sink. “I failed to notice the smaller print: Under “Alex Sink Congress” was the sentence ‘Make a contribution today to help defeat Alex Sink and candidates like her,’ ” he said.
The Montana Attorney General says a law on campaign materials passed by the Legislature last year is unconstitutionally vague, setting the stage for a federal judge to throw it out. Matthew Monforton, a Republican running for House District 69 in Bozeman, filed suit to strike down the law, which would have required candidates who publish campaign materials about their opponents’ records to include every vote taken on the issues over the previous six years. Monforton’s lawsuit against the state says the law chills free speech and is unconstitutionally vague.
A secret court ruling in the “John Doe” probe into campaign finance violations during Wisconsin’s 2011 and 2012 recall elections could have implications well beyond the investigation — if news reports from anonymous sources are accurate. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal editorial board reported that Wisconsin Judge Gregory Peterson had quashed subpoenas issued to Wisconsin Club for Growth and Citizens for a Strong America in the closed-door John Doe criminal investigation (which operates like a grand jury except in front of a judge), on grounds that it was not illegal for these supposedly independent groups to coordinate with the Walker campaign — since their ads supporting Walker’s reelection did not expressly tell viewers to “vote for” Walker or “vote against” his opponent. Wisconsin Club for Growth spent at least $9.1 million on these “issue ads” supporting Walker and legislative Republicans during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, and in turn shuffled millions more to Citizens for a Strong America, which funnelled the money to other groups that spent on election “issue ads.”
Lawyer and lobbyist Steve Bresnen is asking Texas’ campaign finance regulators to shine a light on secret campaign spending in state elections. Reinvigorating the debate over dark money spending in the Lone Star State, Bresnen filed a petition for rulemaking with the Texas Ethics Commission on Tuesday asking the state panel to ensure “all contributors of money used to influence elections would be disclosed.” (read full the petition here). “The purpose of my proposal is to eliminate ‘dark money’ from Texas elections by dragging it into the sunlight,” Bresnen wrote to acting Executive Director Natalia Luna Ashley. “Secret money influencing elections — the life blood of self governance — is intolerable as a matter of law and is against the public interest. The Commission should exercise its authority to do something about it.”