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“Evasiveness And Apparent Misstatements”: Rubio’s Controversial Finances Keep Getting Messier

The most damaging political controversies tend to be the easiest to understand. To this extent, Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) current flap has the potential to do some harm: in the broadest sense, it’s a story of a presidential candidate who’s made a mess of his personal finances and who’s made claims about the controversy that don’t appear to be true.

Rubio’s rivals are likely to present a question the typical voter will probably find pretty straightforward: should a politician who’s struggled to responsibly oversee his own finances be trusted to help oversee the entire country’s finances?

It’s the details, however, that get a little more complex. The New York Times reported this morning:

A decade after he began using a Republican Party credit card for personal purchases like paving stones at his home, Senator Marco Rubio on Wednesday pledged to disclose new spending records from that account as he sought to inoculate himself against what could be his biggest liability as a presidential candidate: how he manages his finances.

The decision to release the records highlights the enduring potency of a controversy rooted in Mr. Rubio’s days as a young state representative in Florida that he and his aides thought had been put to rest with his 2010 election to the Senate.

I’m not sure I’d characterize this as Rubio’s “biggest liability” – his bizarre mishandling of the immigration issue strikes me as more important – but as Republican primary voters weigh their 2016 choices, the senator’s difficulties in managing his own money probably won’t do his candidacy any favors.

The basic outline is made up of a few embarrassing elements. During his time as a Florida legislator, for example, Rubio occasionally mixed personal and business expenses, including using party money to repair his minivan, and charging $10,000 to attend a family reunion, which is legally questionable, before eventually paying the money back. He also co-owned property with a scandal-plagued colleague, failed to detail the mortgage on financial disclosure forms, and then faced foreclosure.

There’s also the odd liquidation of Rubio’s retirement account – even after the senator received a seven-figure book deal – and the fact that he took on more than $900,000 in debt when his net worth was about $8,300.

But it’s Rubio’s evasiveness and apparent misstatements that arguably matter just as much.

For example, Rubio has acknowledged improperly using a Republican Party credit card for personal use, but at least so far, he’s “refused to provide credit card statements from 2005 and 2006.”

The GOP senator said yesterday he intends to release the records “in the next few weeks.” Why it’s taken so long to prepare the records – materials Florida journalists have sought for years – is unclear.

Rubio has acknowledged “a lack of bookkeeping skills,” which may or may not bother voters. But there’s the related question of whether he’s been fully forthcoming about his messy finances.

For example, Rubio said yesterday that he went through his charges “every month” and reimbursed the personal expenses initially paid for with party money. However, the Tampa Bay Times reported, “Records show Rubio sent payments to American Express totaling $13,900 for his personal expenses during his tenure as House speaker. But those payments were not made monthly. He made no contributions to the bill during one six-month stretch in 2007, the records show.”

Rubio also said yesterday, “[E]very expense on that card is detailed in the Republican Party accounts that they file every month with, reports that they have to file with the state.” But this doesn’t appear to be quite right, since there are still two years of undisclosed charges.

Rubio claimed two weeks ago that all of these line of inquiry have been “discredited.” But we know this isn’t true – all of these questions point to evidence that hasn’t been refuted. Indeed, let’s not forget that while a state ethics commission did not pursue the matter against Rubio, a commission investigator accused Rubio of “negligence” on the credit card issue, adding that his failures were “disturbing.”

As a general defense, the presidential candidate said yesterday, “[The] bottom line is I obviously don’t come from a wealthy family.” That’s true, but I’m not sure how it’s relevant. The typical American doesn’t come from wealth, either, but they don’t routinely find themselves in the kind of messy situation Rubio created.

Put it this way: if Hillary Clinton’s finances were this messy, some of her documents went undisclosed for years, and some of her claims appeared dubious under scrutiny, isn’t it fair to say it’d be the biggest political story in the country?

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 5, 2015

November 6, 2015 Posted by | GOP Voters, Marco Rubio, Republicans | , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Supreme Court’s Extreme Faith”: The Menendez Case Proves The Supreme Court Was Naive About Campaign Finance Laws

No cameras are allowed inside the main Supreme Court chamber, but on Wednesday, a group of activists—for the second time this year—evaded tight security controls and snuck one in to record themselves causing disorder in the court. Their goal: Decry two of the court’s most controversial rulings on campaign finance, Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, which have paved the way for powerful donors and corporations to influence elections.

“Justices, is it not your duty to protect our right to self-government?” a protester is heard yelling in a video posted on YouTube. “Reverse McCutcheon. Overturn Citizens United. One person, one vote.” Court police escorted her out, followed by other protesters, including a man chanting, “We who believe in freedom shall not rest.”

Chief Justice John Roberts was not impressed. SCOTUSblog’s Lyle Denniston, one of the few reporters at the scene, noted he grew impatient and later said, “Oh please,” on top of threatening contempt sanctions against the protesters.

Say what you will of the activists’ stunt or the chief’s reaction—because really, no protest in the world will ever overturn a Supreme Court precedent. But consider what Roberts himself proclaimed in McCutcheon, which turned one year old today: “Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s duties, does not give rise to quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner influence over or access to elected officials.”

McCutcheon invalidated something very specific—the limit on the total amount a person can give to all federal candidates during a two-year election cycle—but Roberts didn’t stop there. Time and again he kept singling out blatant quid pro quo arrangements as the only thing Congress could regulate. Not so with meager attempts to “prevent corruption” or curbing “the appearance of mere influence and access.” Those things aren’t as big a deal under the Constitution. Only tit-for-tat corruption is.

Compare that to the other case the protesters targeted, 2010’s Citizens United, a ruling as grand as it was shocking for the dearth of evidence on which it rested: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” The court went on: “The appearance of influence or access … will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democratic order.”

But it turns out corruption, appearances, and influence-peddling are all at the crux of federal charges against New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. He was indicted Wednesday on several counts of bribery and other offenses, stemming from an allegedly cozy relationship with Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist and longtime friend who is accused of giving lavish gifts to the senator. These included a trip to a luxury hotel in Paris, a stay at an upscale villa in the Dominican Republic, contributions to a legal-defense fund, and more than $1 million in donations to various political action groups supporting Democratic candidates—all in exchange for political favors for Melgen, his business interests, and his numerous girlfriends.

Whether these salacious allegations stick or lead to some kind of plea deal will soon be decided; Menendez pled “not guilty” on all charges Thursday. But a sizeable contribution listed in the indictment calls into question the Supreme Court’s extreme faith that large sums of money not directly given to a candidate fail to amount to corruption.

According to prosecutors, Melgen, through his own company, contributed $600,000 to a political action committee aimed at helping Democrats retain control of the Senate. That’s all well and good under Citizens United,except Melgen allegedly earmarked the money so it went directly to the Menendez re-election campaign. That’s also kosher under campaign regulations, except the indictment alleges Menendez “sought and received” the donation—comprised of two checks for $300,000 each, sent to the super PAC in exchange for Menendez’s assistance in resolving a Medicare-related dispute. Interestingly, the indictment notes that Melgen cut one of the checks on the same day he attended an annual fundraiser Menendez hosted.

The legal process will determine the extent to which the alleged favors and contributions are related. But even if they weren’t and the case went away, the Menendez indictment undermines the Supreme Court’s facile conclusion that merely spending large sums of money—absent a clear showing of quid pro quo—isn’t enough to prove that corruption has taken hold. Or the notion that the mere appearance of influence and access to elected leaders fails to be an interest compelling enough to require strong campaign-finance laws—the kind that governs how big donors and big money behave each election cycle.

Chief Justice Roberts may not be too pleased with the recent protests and security breaches at the Supreme Court, but the Menendez case opens the door for some introspection on how recent campaign-finance rulings are reshaping who calls the shots in our democratic order.

 

By: Cristian Farias, The New Republic, April 2, 2015

April 3, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Democracy, John Roberts | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Political System Owned Outright By The Wealthy”: In A Citizens United World, We Should At Least Know Who Is Buying Our Politicians

In 1899, an ultra-wealthy Montana copper magnate named William Clark wanted to be one of the state’s U.S. senators. In those days, senators were elected by state legislatures, so Clark tried a straightforward tactic: mass bribery. He gave $10,000 to every legislator who would take it, which worked like a charm. Unfortunately for Clark, the Senate got wind of this, and refused to seat him. He resigned, though he tried again without the overt bribery and won in 1901, when he served a full term.

Mark Twain wrote of Sen. Clark: “He is said to have bought legislatures and judges as other men buy food and raiment. By his example he has so excused and so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has an offensive smell. His history is known to everybody; he is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag…”

Such stories inspired some of the original reforms against organized money in politics. Indeed, Clark was almost singlehandedly responsible for the direct elections of senators.

But we should not be too self-righteous when it comes to poor old William Clark. Not only is the problem of political corruption fast returning to its Gilded Age nadir, in some respects it is actually worse than in Twain’s day. Then as now, our political system is essentially owned outright by the wealthy. But today we have allowed them to hide their identities behind legal chicanery.

Removing the money from politics altogether is a worthy goal. But until then, simple transparency about who is buying which politician would be an excellent stopgap measure.

It was Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote the Citizens United decision, which abolished limits on independent political spending by unions and corporations and sparked a stupendous growth in shadowy nonprofits allied with various parties and candidates. The decision’s most famous line is this: “Independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption.”

I would like to direct Justice Kennedy’s attention to this story by Michael Isikoff, about a Wisconsin hardware store magnate named John Menard, Jr. When Menard wanted to help Gov. Scott Walker (R) defeat a hard-fought recall attempt in 2012, post-Citizens United groups were a handy weapon of choice — especially 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which do not have to disclose their donors:

He wrote more than $1.5 million in checks to a pro-Walker political advocacy group that pledged to keep its donors secret, three sources directly familiar with the transactions told Yahoo News.

Menard’s previously unreported six-figure contributions to the Wisconsin Club for Growth…seem to have paid off for the businessman and his company. In the past two years, Menard’s company has been awarded up to $1.8 million in special tax credits from a state economic development corporation that Walker chairs, according to state records. [Yahoo News]

According to Isikoff, Menard has also benefited from regulatory laxity under the Walker regime — the Wisconsin government had previously levied stiff fines against him and his company for “illegally dumping hazardous waste.” In a telling coincidence, an old William Clark mining site is now one of the biggest contaminated Superfund sites in the country.

These documents were obtained as part of a state investigation into whether Walker’s campaign committee actually violated the few remaining stipulations of campaign finance law. But this says more about the carelessness and arrogance of these people than the laws themselves — it is pitifully easy to do an end-run around disclosure or non-coordination requirements.

Justice Kennedy’s assertion that a tsunami of corporate money cannot even create the appearance of corruption is so preposterous it surely has to be willful ignorance. Nevertheless, I defy him to argue with a straight face that Isikoff’s story is not the foulest of quid pro quo corruption.

And even if he can manage that, it is utterly indefensible for the ultra-wealthy to purchase state governments whole without disclosing who is doing the purchasing. An email sent to Walker by one of his aides stressed the importance of secrecy to the scheme: “Stress that donations to WiCFG [Wisconsin Club for Growth] are not disclosed and can accept corporate donations without limits… Let them know you can accept corporate contributions and it is not reported.”

So if the conservative majority on the Supreme Court insists on government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich, there’s precious little the citizenry can do about it. But can we proles at least know which plutocrat deserves our cringing deference?

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, March 26, 2015

March 27, 2015 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Citizens United, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Is Corruption A Constitutional Right?”: Public Pension Contracts Would Be For Sale To The Highest Bidder

Wall Street is one of the biggest sources of funding for presidential campaigns, and many of the Republican Party’s potential 2016 contenders are governors, from Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Perry of Texas to Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. And so, last week, the GOP filed a federal lawsuit aimed at overturning the pay-to-play law that bars those governors from raising campaign money from Wall Street executives who manage their states’ pension funds.

In the case, New York and Tennessee’s Republican parties are represented by two former Bush administration officials, one of whose firms just won the Supreme Court case invalidating campaign contribution limits on large donors. In their complaint, the parties argue that people managing state pension money have a First Amendment right to make large donations to state officials who award those lucrative money management contracts.

With the $3 trillion public pension system controlled by elected officials now generating billions of dollars worth of annual management fees for Wall Street, Securities and Exchange Commission regulators originally passed the rule to make sure retirees’ money wasn’t being handed out based on politicians’ desire to pay back their campaign donors.

“Elected officials who allow political contributions to play a role in the management of these assets and who use these assets to reward contributors violate the public trust,” says the preamble of the rule, which restricts not only campaign donations directly to state officials, but also contributions to political parties.

In the complaint aiming to overturn that rule, the GOP plaintiffs argue that the SEC does not have the campaign finance expertise to properly enforce the rule. The complaint further argues that the rule itself creates an “impermissible choice” between “exercising a First Amendment right and retaining the ability to engage in professional activities.” The existing rule could limit governors’ ability to raise money from Wall Street in any presidential race.

In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, a spokesman for one of the Republican plaintiffs suggested that in order to compete for campaign resources, his party’s elected officials need to be able to raise money from the Wall Street managers who receive contracts from those officials.

“We see [the current SEC rule] as something that has been a great detriment to our ability to help out candidates,” said Jason Weingarten of the Republican Party of New York — the state whose pay-to-play pension scandal in 2010 originally prompted the SEC rule.

The suit comes only a few weeks after the SEC issued its first fines under the rule — against a firm whose executives made campaign donations to Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, and Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat. The company in question was managing Pennsylvania and Philadelphia pension money. In a statement on that case, the SEC promised more enforcement of the pay-to-play rule in the future.

“We will use all available enforcement tools to ensure that public pension funds are protected from any potential corrupting influences,” said Andrew Ceresney, director of the SEC Enforcement Division. “As we have done with broker-dealers, we will hold investment advisers strictly liable for pay-to-play violations.”

The GOP lawsuit aims to stop that promise from becoming a reality. In predicating that suit on a First Amendment argument, those Republicans are forwarding a disturbing legal theory: Essentially, they are arguing that Wall Street has a constitutional right to influence politicians and the investment decisions those politicians make on behalf of pensioners.

If that theory is upheld by the courts, it will no doubt help Republican presidential candidates raise lots of financial-industry cash — but it could also mean that public pension contracts will now be for sale to the highest bidder.

 

By: David Sirota, Staff Writer at PandoDaily; The National Memo, August 15, 2014

 

August 16, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Politics, Wall Street | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rmoney”: Mitt Is The Lobbyists’ Candidate

When you think of Mitt Romney, you probably think of a tall, robotic fellow with no discernible strong beliefs or stances (at least, none that can survive longer than a week at a time). That’s terribly unfair, and you should be ashamed for thinking it. He may have started out as an empty husk devoid of strong personal beliefs, but thanks to a crack team of industry insiders, he now is quite filled with opinions. Coincidentally, they happen to be the opinions of an army of top lobbyists in Washington, and the companies they lobby for. Funny how that works.

[Mitt Romney’s] kitchen cabinet includes some of the most prominent Republican lobbyists in Washington, including Charles R. Black Jr., the chairman of Prime Policy Group and a lobbyist for Walmart and AT&T; Wayne L. Berman, who is chairman of Ogilvy Government Relations and represents Pfizer, the drug manufacturer; and Vin Weber, the managing partner for Clark & Weinstock. […]Other lobbyists serve on one of Mr. Romney’s policy advisory teams, have hosted fund-raisers for his campaign or have joined the many influential Republicans whose endorsements Mr. Romney’s campaign has hailed.

Want to know what Mitt Romney’s true policies are? Well, you should have attended Mitt Romney’s $10,000-and-up policy round table, where industry lobbyists led “discussions” on what his policies towards those industries should be:

Mr. Romney’s campaign held an elaborate “policy round table” fund-raiser at a Washington hotel, featuring panel discussions run by lobbyists and former cabinet officials or members of Congress.James Talent, a former senator who runs the lobbying and public affairs firm Mercury Public Affairs, led a panel on infrastructure, according to an invitation. William Hansen, a former deputy secretary of education who is president of the lobbying firm Chartwell Education Group, led the education panel.

Wow. I can’t imagine why anyone would be cynical about American politics these days, can you?

The entertaining thing about this story is just how many large companies are represented. Among those specifically mentioned (and kudos to the three reporters for linking the lobbyists with actual clients, which is rather important information for readers) are Walmart, AT&T, Pfizer (drugs), Microsoft, Altria (tobacco), General Dynamics, Dominion (power), Barclays (finance), Allegheny (steel) and Peabody Energy (coal). Lobbyists are cutting the checks; lobbyists are bundling other people’s checks; lobbyists are holding the panel discussions about how the candidate can best serve the specific industries they represent; lobbyists make up the inner circle of “policy makers,” advising the candidate as to what his own core positions should be.

As for the candidate himself, he’s almost irrelevant at this point. You might as well nominate a bunny named Mr. Buttons: If you surround it with the exact same lobbyist-advisors, you’ll end up with the exact same policies. Sigh, if only we could teach that bunny to hold a pen—but for now we’ll have to settle for our current crop of Republican candidates, all of whom have near-identical policy prescriptions, all of which favor the exact same subset of people and the exact same handful of industries. Go figure.

I’ve given up on the notion that we can keep lobbyists from capturing our politics. I’ve also given up on the notion that we can prevent interests like the oil sector or our current handful of top financial companies from tailoring the American government specifically to serve their needs. Want more profits? Want less environmental protections? Want to crush some emerging industry that threatens to make yours less profitable? Just buy a few congressman, or a senator, or a president. At a few million here and there, it’s cheaper than advertising, and the results are far more secure.

So I’m in the Bill Maher camp on this one. Lobbyists and industries want to buy our politicians? Fine, I give up, let them. Just pass a law saying the candidate has to wear those corporate logos on their jackets whenever they appear on the campaign trail or when they are in office. The more money is contributed, the bigger the logo has to be. Top presidential candidates will look like military dictators-in-training, with badges and medals and ribbons sticking out from them in every direction, and just from looking at them we’ll be able to tell who they serve, and in what proportions. That would certainly be more educational than any rhetoric coming from the candidates themselves.

 

By: Hunter, Daily Kos, February 15, 2012

February 16, 2012 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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