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“I’m Not An ‘Official’ Candidate”: Will Jeb Bush Get Away With His ‘Scheme’ To Skirt Campaign Finance Rules?

With candidates and outside groups already raking in money for the 2016 presidential contest and the Federal Election Commission abdicating its duty to enforce campaign finance laws, watchdog groups are pushing the Department of Justice to fill the void. To start, groups are asking the DOJ to investigate one of the most blatant exploiters of lax enforcement: Jeb Bush.

For months now the former Florida governor has kept up the elaborate charade that he is not quite sure if he will run for the Republican presidential nomination. “No, no. I’m not an official candidate,” he said during an exchange with reporters a few weeks ago—never mind that he’s been crisscrossing the country raising amounts cash unprecedented for an undeclared candidate. Bush himself has struggled to maintain the farce, as he demonstrated minutes later when he accidentally declared, “I’m running for president in 2016.”

The implications of Bush’s protracted non-candidacy are serious. By waiting to announce his bid for the White House, Bush has skirted one of the last remaining campaign finance rules: the ban on coordination between candidates and super PACs. (To be sure, that supposed firewall already looks more like a shower curtain.) Once Bush officially declares his intention to run, his campaign will be bound by that rule and by limits on donations directly to candidates ($2,700 in the primaries). But until then, absent action by regulators, Bush is apparently free to raise money and direct strategy for Right to Rise, the super PAC that is expected to eventually take on many operations normally undertaken by a campaign committee—not just television and online advertising but also direct mail, data collection, and phone banking. And unlike a campaign committee, the Super PAC’s ability to raise money for these activities won’t be hampered by contribution limits.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Wednesday, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 allege that Bush and Right to Rise are “engaged in a scheme to allow unlimited contributions to be spent directly on behalf of the Bush campaign and thereby violate the candidate contribution limits enacted to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption.” The groups asked the DOJ to appoint a special counsel from outside the department to investigate the allegation, noting that it would look suspicious were a Democrat-appointed Attorney General to go after a Republican candidate.

The letter argues that Bush should be considered a candidate despite his disavowals, because he’s been acting like one “in all pertinent respects.” He’s hired strategists and buttered up local Republican leaders in early primary states like New Hampshire and Iowa. He’s headlined dozens of events for Right to Rise, many of them fundraisers with a $100,000 ticket price. His advisers are overseeing the super PACs operations. Reportedly Bush has even set the timing of his official campaign announcement—expected mid-June—to leave room for a “cross-country fundraising tour” for Right to Rise before the non-coordination rule kicks in.

Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer said that Bush’s association with Right to Rise is “the most blatant example to date” of how super PACs dedicated to a single candidate are being used to circumvent contribution limits. But Wertheimer’s group and the Campaign Legal Center are preparing to ask the DOJ to probe other potential violations by presidential candidates and individual-candidate super PACs.

While the FEC has jurisdiction over civil enforcement of campaign finance laws, the Justice Department can pursue criminal, or “knowing and willful,” violations. The DOJ’s first prosecution involving coordination between a super PAC and a campaign committee was announced in February, in a case involving a campaign manager for a Virginia congressional candidate who coordinated with a super PAC to leverage $325,000 in advertising against a rival. Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said at the time that the department “is fully committed to addressing the threat posed to the integrity of federal primary and general elections by coordinated campaign contributions, and will aggressively pursue coordination offenses at every appropriate opportunity.”

“The Justice Department is the only place where we have a chance of getting the laws enforced,” Wertheimer said. “The FEC is useless.” The chairwoman of the commission, which is hamstrung by a three to three split among the commissioners, acknowledged as much recently when she told the New York Times that “the likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim… People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.” If neither enforcer steps up, then according to Wertheimer “We’re going to see the most massive campaign finance violations in the history of the country, done by various presidential candidates.” (A DOJ spokesperson told The Nation that the department would review the letter, but declined to comment further.)

Daniel Weiner, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and a former FEC staffer, shares Wertheimer’s critique of the commission. “It beggars belief that there hasn’t been a single case worth bringing in the last six years,” he said, noting that the FEC hasn’t pursued any cases related to the coordination rule since the Supreme Court unfettered super PAC spending in Citizens United.

But Weiner doesn’t believe that the DOJ can “substitute for competent and active civil enforcement,” because not all violations that warrant a response from regulators rise to a criminal level. “Sooner or later we need to do something about the FEC. It’s nice to talk about the Justice Department, and I support efforts to get disclosure through other avenues, but as long as we have a completely dysfunctional civil regulator there’s going to be an elephant in the room,” he said.

And if that doesn’t happen before the 2016 contests truly heat up? “We’re going to have the Wild West,” Weiner concluded.

 

By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, May 27, 2015

May 28, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Federal Election Commission, Jeb Bush, Super PAC's | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Whatever Happened To Antitrust?”: Ambushed By The Giant Companies It Was Designed To Contain

Last week’s settlement between the Justice Department and five giant banks reveals the appalling weakness of modern antitrust.

The banks had engaged in the biggest price-fixing conspiracy in modern history. Their self-described “cartel” used an exclusive electronic chat room and coded language to manipulate the $5.3 trillion-a-day currency exchange market. It was a “brazen display of collusion” that went on for years, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

But there will be no trial, no executive will go to jail, the banks can continue to gamble in the same currency markets, and the fines – although large – are a fraction of the banks’ potential gains and will be treated by the banks as costs of doing business.

America used to have antitrust laws that permanently stopped corporations from monopolizing markets, and often broke up the biggest culprits.

No longer. Now, giant corporations are taking over the economy – and they’re busily weakening antitrust enforcement.

The result has been higher prices for the many, and higher profits for the few. It’s a hidden upward redistribution from the majority of Americans to corporate executives and wealthy shareholders.

Wall Street’s five largest banks now account for 44 percent of America’s banking assets – up from about 25 percent before the crash of 2008 and 10 percent in 1990. That means higher fees and interest rates on loans, as well as a greater risk of another “too-big-to-fail” bailout.

But politicians don’t dare bust them up because Wall Street pays part of their campaign expenses.

Similar upward distributions are occurring elsewhere in the economy.

Americans spends far more on medications per person than do citizens in any other developed country, even though the typical American takes fewer prescription drugs. A big reason is the power of pharmaceutical companies to keep their patents going way beyond the twenty years they’re supposed to run.

Drug companies pay the makers of generic drugs to delay cheaper versions. Such “pay-for-delay” agreements are illegal in other advanced economies, but antitrust enforcement hasn’t laid a finger on them in America. They cost you and me an estimated $3.5 billion a year.

Or consider health insurance. Decades ago health insurers wangled from Congress an exemption to the antitrust laws that allowed them to fix prices, allocate markets, and collude over the terms of coverage, on the assumption they’d be regulated by state insurance commissioners.

But America’s giant insurers outgrew state regulation. Consolidating into a few large national firms and operating across many different states, they’ve gained considerable economic and political power.

Why does the United States have the highest broadband prices among advanced nations and the slowest speeds?

Because more than 80 percent of Americans have no choice but to rely on their local cable company for high capacity wired data connections to the Internet – usually Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, or Time-Warner. And these corporations are among the most politically potent in America (although, thankfully, not powerful enough to grease the merger of Comcast with Time-Warner).

Have you wondered why your airline ticket prices have remained so high even though the cost of jet fuel has plummeted 40 percent?

Because U.S. airlines have consolidated into a handful of giant carriers that divide up routes and collude on fares. In 2005 the U.S. had nine major airlines. Now we have just four. And all are politically well-connected.

Why does food cost so much? Because the four largest food companies control 82 percent of beef packing, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of chicken processing.

Monsanto alone owns the key genetic traits to more than 90 percent of the soybeans planted by farmers in the United States, and 80 percent of the corn.

Big Agribusiness wants to keep it this way.

Google’s search engine is so dominant “google” has become a verb. Three years ago the staff of the Federal Trade Commission recommended suing Google for “conduct [that] has resulted – and will result – in real harm to consumers and to innovation.”

The commissioners decided against the lawsuit, perhaps because Google is also the biggest lobbyist in Washington.

The list goes on, industry after industry, across the economy.

Antitrust has been ambushed by the giant companies it was designed to contain.

Congress has squeezed the budgets of the antitrust division of the Justice Department and the bureau of competition of the Federal Trade Commission. Politically-powerful interests have squelched major investigations and lawsuits. Right-wing judges have stopped or shrunk the few cases that get through.

We’re now in a new gilded age of wealth and power similar to the first gilded age when the nation’s antitrust laws were enacted. But unlike then, today’s biggest corporations have enough political clout to neuter antitrust.

Conservatives rhapsodize about the “free market” and condemn government intrusion. Yet the market is rigged. And unless government unrigs it through bold antitrust action to restore competition, the upward distributions hidden inside the “free market” will become even larger.

 

By: Robert Reich, The Robert Reich Blog, May 24, 2015

May 26, 2015 Posted by | Antitrust, Big Banks, Corporations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Patterns Or Practice Of Unnecessary Force”: Justice Department Reaches Settlement With Cleveland Over Police Conduct

The Justice Department has reached a settlement with the city of Cleveland over the conduct of its police officers, the latest case in which the Obama administration has investigated excessive use of force and the violation of constitutional rights by a local department, according to an agency official.

The settlement, amid the growing national debate about American policing, is expected to be announced early this week, the official said. It comes just days after a judge acquitted a Cleveland police officer for his role in the fatal shooting of two unarmed people in a car in 2012 when officers thought the sound of the car backfiring was gunshots.

The Justice Department in December issued a scathing report that accused the Cleveland Police Department of illegally using sometimes deadly force against citizens. The Justice Department civil rights division found that the Cleveland police engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unnecessary force — including shooting residents, striking them in the head and spraying them with chemicals.

In one incident, an officer used a stun gun on “a suicidal, deaf man who committed no crime, posed minimal risk to officers and may not have understood officers’ commands.” The police were also accused of repeatedly punching in the face a handcuffed 13-year-old boy who had been arrested for shoplifting.

The Cleveland report was released the month after a 12-year-old African American boy, Tamir Rice, was fatally shot by a white Cleveland police officer. Cleveland officers had responded to a 911 call that reported a person pointing a gun. It turned out to be a toy pistol.

A Justice Department spokeswoman would not comment on the settlement, which was first reported on the Web site of the New York Times.

When last year’s report about Cleveland was released, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. traveled to the city to announce the findings and said the Justice Department and the city had agreed to establish an independent monitor who would oversee police reforms. The changes will include better training and better supervision of officers, Holder said.

In the past five years, the Justice Department’s civil rights division has opened more than 20 investigations of police departments across the country, more than twice as many as were opened in the previous five. The department has entered into 15 agreements with law enforcement agencies, including consent decrees with nine of them. They include the New Orleans and Albuquerque police departments.

The Cleveland settlement will be the first under the new attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch.

Justice Department officials would not provide any details of the Cleveland settlement. But other cases have required an independent monitor and significant changes in training and policies.

Since April 27, when Lynch was sworn in as the first African American woman to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement official, she has been immersed in the debate on policing tactics. Her first meeting with President Obama was to discuss the violence in Baltimore after the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody. Six Baltimore police officers have been indicted in connection with Gray’s death.

Lynch’s first official trip was to Baltimore to meet with the mayor, law enforcement officials and community leaders. She also met with Gray’s family and spoke with an officer who was injured in the violence.

At her first news conference, on May 8, Lynch announced that the Justice Department had opened a broad “pattern or practice” investigation into the Baltimore Police Department to determine whether officers have committed systemic constitutional violations.

The investigation is separate from the Justice Department’s criminal civil rights probe into the death of Gray.

Similarly, the settlement with the city of Cleveland is separate from the Justice Department’s investigation into the conduct of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo.

On Saturday, a judge found Brelo, a 31-year-old white officer, not guilty of two counts of felony manslaughter in the deaths of African Americans Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30.

Hours of protests ensued in downtown Cleveland, and the Justice Department released a statement saying that the Cleveland U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI and the Justice Department’s civil rights division were all still investigating the case.

Russell and Williams were killed in November after they led 62 police vehicles on a chase across Cleveland. When Russell’s car finally stopped, 13 officers opened fire and shot at least 137 rounds into the vehicle. Brelo was accused of being the only one who continued to shoot after any possible threat was contained. Prosecutors said he climbed onto the hood of the car and shot 15 rounds into the windshield, striking both Russell and Williams.

“We will continue our assessment, review all available legal options and will collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system,” said the statement from several officials, including Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

As with the Ferguson, Mo., civil rights investigation into the August death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, the Justice Department faces a high bar in bringing federal civil rights charges. Prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo intended to violate the constitutional rights of Russell and Williams.

When Holder released the December report about the “unreasonable and unnecessary” use of force by the Cleveland police, he said he was hopeful that “meaningful change” was possible in the police department.

“Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve,” Holder said.

 

By: Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post, May 25, 2015

May 26, 2015 Posted by | Civil Rights, Cleveland Police Department, U. S. Department of Justice | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Police Morale Can Wait”: How The Baltimore Riots Should Reshape Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s Agenda

Out of the many invisible and all-powerful forces that govern our universe, the cruelest must be Time. Whether you’re asking it to slow down for selfish reasons or to speed up for someone else, it doesn’t make a difference. Time is relentless and uncaring; it does not listen and it will not stop.

But even though it is ultimately an egalitarian ruler, wreaking havoc on the old, young, good and bad alike, Time seems to hold a special grudge against Loretta Lynch, the woman who, after an unprecedented delay, was finally sworn in on Monday as the 83rd attorney general in the history of the United States.

The first indication that Time has it in for Lynch was also the most obvious: the Senate’s 167-day-long dawdle. But while it was obviously wrong to make the first African-American woman ever nominated for the post wait so absurdly long to be confirmed (only two of Lynch’s 82 predecessors waited longer), I’m hesitant to throw the fault entirely on Time’s shoulders. The attack was launched by Republicans, after all; Time was merely their weapon.

But the second piece of evidence that Time may be holding a particular grudge against the attorney general was more palpable: the riots that convulsed Baltimore this weekend and paralyzed the city on Monday. Because although Lynch obviously had nothing to do with the disorder, the riots’ fires show with blinding clarity that Lynch’s first goal — which is “improving police morale,” according to the Times — is entirely premature. The wanton destruction of property cannot be legitimated; but simply criticizing anarchy and praising law enforcement won’t bring the mayhem to an end. And it won’t provide justice.

In many ways, the chaos in Baltimore is just the latest iteration of one of America’s saddest and longest-running stories. It is another example of what Martin Luther King once called “the language of the unheard.” King was speaking then of the riots that traumatized much of the country during the summer of 1966. But the social ills he described as kindling for the riot’s fire — poverty, police brutality and malign neglect — are, despite the nearly 49 years that followed, still powerful forces in America today.

For this particular moment, though, it’s Baltimore Police Department’s documented history of lawless violence that’s been identified as the riots’ inspiration. Protestors and rioters — who, it’s worth noting, are usually not the same — cite as their catalyst the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man and Baltimorean. On April 12, Gray was arrested by officers from the BPD. When police detained Gray and put him in a van for transportation, he was walking; by the time the trip was over, he had a broken neck. He died on April 19th.

No one yet knows for sure exactly what happened to Gray during that trip and in that van. There are reports that he was taken out at one point and beaten, but an autopsy showed no injuries except for those to his spinal cord and neck. The BPD has already admitted that its officers did not provide Gray with the necessary medical care. But the main question — Why was he able to run from the police in the morning, but struggling to breathe by nightfall? — has gone unanswered, though an increasing number suspect the widespread, grotesque practice of giving “a rough ride” is to blame.

Yet the fact that such a thing could happen, and only become a major story after the activism of peaceful protesters (and the destructive hijacking of violent rioters), is exactly the problem. The fact that the BPD’s reputation is such that many Baltimoreans heard Gray’s story with weary outrage rather than shock or indignation is exactly the problem. The fact that the BPD rank-and-file evidently feels so comfortable with extralegal brutality, and are so accustomed to wielding it, that demands for accountability has left them panicking — that, too, is exactly the problem.

I’m quite certain that, at least to some extent, Attorney General Lynch would agree. But that’s why it’s so unfortunate that news of her interest in “finding common ground between law enforcement and minority communities” came when it did. Because once the last stone is thrown, the fires are put out, and the state of emergency in Maryland is lifted, what Baltimore and the countless places in the U.S. like it will need is not another conversation. And finding “common ground” won’t be what America needs from its attorney general or its Department of Justice.

What will be needed instead is for the authorities in Baltimore, Maryland and D.C. to stop pandering to the police unions who demand carte blanche in the field and an endless line of officials singing about their valor. What will be needed instead are signs that the authorities take fears of the rise of the “warrior cop” and police militarization seriously, and that they will no longer see the deaths of people like Gray as “tragic.” Because they’re not cosmic acts of injustice; they’re crimes. To suspend (with pay) the officers who may be responsible is not enough — and Lynch needs to make clear that she understands that, and that her predecessor’s groundbreaking report on Ferguson, Missouri, was no aberration.

What will be needed, in short, is for the people most apt to use “the language of the unheard” to feel that someone who matters is finally listening. And that those in public office prove with actions that they believe it when they say an African-American life is worth no less than a cop’s. Now is not the time for Lynch to focus on making law enforcement happy. Now is the time for her to promote equal justice. Improving police morale can wait.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, April 28, 2015

April 29, 2015 Posted by | Baltimore, Baltimore Police Dept, Police Brutality | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ted Cruz Is So Done With The Senate”: Legislating Never Really Was His First Priority To Begin With

Ted Cruz was the only senator to miss the vote on Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as attorney general, despite his vociferous objections to her nomination, because he was on his way to a fundraiser—a circumstance that generated some predictable mockery. Yet as Philip Bump tells us, Cruz has actually missed lots of votes—70 percent of them this month, more than any other senator. Bet let me defend the gentleman from Texas.

Obviously, we want our senators to vote on bills and nominations. That’s a big part of what we send them to Washington to do. At the same time, there are very few votes where one senator’s vote makes the difference, and the outcome of this particular conflict was clear to all. Cruz’s opposition to Lynch would have been made no more emphatic had he actually been there to offer his official thumbs-down.

The fact that Cruz has missed more votes than anyone else isn’t too shocking either, not only because he’s running for president—an enterprise that takes up a lot of one’s time—but also because legislating never really was his first priority to begin with. He’s a show horse, not a work horse, and he sees his job not as passing legislation but as using his position as a platform to advocate the things he believes in. He’s certainly not alone in that.

And at a time when Congress accomplishes very little, there aren’t that many votes of consequence to begin with. Lynch’s confirmation may have been one of them, but as a general matter, not much depends on whether Ted Cruz is there to vote or not.

So go ahead, Senator—skip it. We don’t need to pretend that you’re really trying to legislate. That’s not your thing, and that’s OK. Of course, your constituents might not feel exactly the same way I do.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, April 24, 2015

April 25, 2015 Posted by | Lawmakers, Senate, Ted Cruz | , , , , | Leave a comment

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