GOP Blocks Voting Rights Bill Requiring Candidates to Disclose Tax Returns

From today’s Newsweek Online:

Republican senators have blocked an effort by Democrats to vote on a voting rights and election ethics bill.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) blocked a request that the For the People Act of 2019 be voted on Wednesday. Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) launched the latest attempt to bring the bill to the senate floor.

“The For the People Act repairs our broken campaign finance system, opens up the ballot box to all Americans, and lays waste to the corruption in Washington,” said Udall. “These are all reforms that the American people support. Why won’t the Senate Majority Leader let us vote on them?”

The bill was introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) in January. It passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 234–193 in March. The bill has been repeatedly blocked by Senate Republicans since then.

One of the bill’s many provisions attempts to increase voter participation by making Election Day a federal holiday. Another provision is aimed at eliminating so-called “dark money” from campaign funds by requiring that super PACs and other organizations disclose the identity of their donors.

Merkley claimed that the failure to pass the bill was symptomatic of a “corrupt system” and that the senate was controlled by “powerful special interests.” After blocking the bill, Blunt countered that the bill represents an overreach of power that would allow the federal government to take control away from states.

One of the bill’s major hurdles for Republicans is an ethics provision that would require candidates for president and vice president to disclose the last 10 years of their income tax returns. President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to disclose his tax returns, and is currently embroiled in a legal fight to keep the information secret.

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Montana Gov. Bullock eyes public financing for 2020 run

From today’s AP News Online:

Steve Bullock will apply to be the first — and perhaps only — Democrat in the presidential primary who accepts public financing for his campaign, a potentially risky move that could give his struggling fundraising a boost but would also require the Montana governor to abide by a cap on the amount of money he can spend.

Top presidential contenders for years fueled their campaigns using the public financing system, which was established to reduce the influence of big donors in the wake of the Watergate scandal. But that’s waned ever since George W. Bush rejected the assistance in 2000. And the trend has become even more pronounced following a series of court rulings and regulatory changes that allowed even more cash to course through elections.

Bullock, who filed legal challenges to reverse those rulings when he was Montana’s attorney general, says his turn to public financing demonstrates that he is “walking the walk” at a time when rejecting big money in politics has become an animating issue for party activists. He will submit his application to the Federal Election Commission after the close of the third fundraising quarter, which ends Monday.

“As the only candidate for President who is choosing to participate in the public finance process, Governor Bullock is leading with his values and defending our shared belief that our democracy should never be for sale to the highest bidder,” campaign manager Jennifer Ridder says in a memo provided to The Associated Press that outlines his rationale.

Yet Bullock’s decision comes as he has trailed far behind the leading fundraisers in the race. While he is touting it as a demonstration of his commitment to campaign finance reform, he also has little to lose in doing so and would have to see a dramatic increase in fundraising to hit an estimated $60 million spending cap triggered by his acceptance of the money.

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Corruption: Cohen’s Testimony Opens New Phase of Turbulence for Trump

From today’s New York Times:

A small group of Republican strategists opposed to President Trump, branding themselves Defending Democracy Together, quietly conducted polling and focus groups last fall to gauge whether the president was vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2020. Assembling a presentation for sympathetic political donors, they listed points of weakness for Mr. Trump such as “tweeting/temperament” and “criminality/corruption.”

The group concluded that Mr. Trump’s scandals were not yet badly damaging him with Republican-leaning voters: “Even relatively high information voters aren’t paying particularly close attention to day-to-day scandals,” the presentation stated. But it added that there was “room to educate voters” on the subject.

Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, may have begun that education on Wednesday.

With Mr. Cohen’s appearance before a House committee, the public airing of ethical transgressions by Mr. Trump reached a new phase, one that may be harder to ignore for friends and foes alike. The spectacle of Mr. Trump’s onetime enforcer denouncing him in televised proceedings, detailing a catalog of alleged cruelty and crimes, signaled the pressure the president’s already strained coalition could feel in the coming months as Congress scrutinizes him and the special counsel Robert S. Mueller III completes his investigation.

Republicans still find it difficult to imagine that Mr. Trump’s electoral base would ever desert him, though they acknowledge that bond may soon be tested as never before. Mr. Trump’s core supporters — numbering about two in five American voters, polls suggest — have stayed with him through revelations of financial and sexual impropriety, painful electoral setbacks and the longest government shutdown in history.

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Drive Against Gerrymandering Finds New Life in Ballot Initiatives

From today’s New York Times:

The movement to take politics out of setting legislative district boundaries seemed to suffer a grievous, and perhaps even mortal, blow this spring when the Supreme Court passed up three chances to declare partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.

But it turns out that reports of its death are exaggerated. As federal courts dither over how to resolve the issue, activists have begun tackling it state by state at the grass roots.

In Michigan, a proposed constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering, written and promoted by a nonpartisan group called Voters Not Politicians, will be on the ballot in November, unless blocked by a court challenge that has so far fallen short. So many Michiganders signed petitions to bring the measure to a vote — 110,000 more than state law requires — that the group ended its signature campaign 70 days short of the six months allowed.

In Missouri, another nonpartisan group called Clean Missouri needed 180,000 signatures to get its anti-gerrymander initiative on the ballot; it collected 346,000. Final certification is expected next month.

In Utah, a group called Better Boundaries collected 190,000 signatures, 75,000 more than were required, to place its proposition to end gerrymanders on the November ballot.

And in Colorado, both the Democratic-run state House and the Republican-run Senate voted unanimously in May to place two proposals on the November ballot that would shift the duty to draw state legislative and congressional districts away from lawmakers and into the hands of independent redistricting commissions.

Those proposals join another, in Ohio, that became law in May. The state legislature there put a measure to curb partisan gerrymandering of the state’s congressional districts on the ballot for the state’s May 8 primary, after it became apparent that a citizens’ campaign for an even tougher measure was likely to succeed. Ohioans approved the legislature’s version by a three-to-one margin.

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Trump pardons Dinesh D’Souza on felony campaign contribution violation

From today’s CNBC “Politics” site:

Conservative commentator and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza revealed on Friday what he said President Donald Trump told him about why he was getting a pardon.

On Fox News, D’Souza said he didn’t know he was going to get it. “I was just in my office working away. And an operator came on the line and said, ‘Is this Dinesh D’Souza?’ Yes. ‘Hold the line for the president of the United States.’ And there was Trump.”

He said Trump said: “”You’ve been a great voice for freedom. I’ve got to tell you man to man, you’ve been screwed.’ He goes, ‘I’ve been looking at the case. I knew from the beginning that it was fishy.'”

D’Souza, who was convicted in 2014 of making an illegal campaign contribution, said, “[Trump] said upon reviewing it, he felt a great injustice had been done. And using his power, he was going to rectify it, sort of clear the slate. And he said he just wanted me to be out there and be a bigger voice than ever defending the principles that I believe in.”

A day earlier, Trump announced on Twitter his decision to pardon D’Souza, an outspoken critic of Democratic former President Barack Obama. D’Souza was prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, an Obama appointee who was later fired by Trump.

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Trump Undercuts Giuliani’s Comments About Payments to Stormy Daniels

From today’s New York Times:

President Trump undercut his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani on Friday, and said the former New York mayor will eventually get the facts right regarding a payment to a pornographic actress who said she had an affair with Mr. Trump.

“And virtually everything said has been said incorrectly, and it’s been said wrong, or it’s been covered wrong by the press,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Giuliani, who joined Mr. Trump’s legal team last month, “just started a day ago,” Mr. Trump said, speaking to reporters on Friday as he left Washington to attend a National Rifle Association convention in Dallas.

“He is a great guy,” Mr. Trump said. “He’ll get his facts straight.”

It was the first time the president addressed the inconsistent narrativeabout the payment made by his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to the actress, Stephanie Clifford, who goes by the stage name Stormy Daniels. Mr. Trump did not offer any details on Friday to clarify the confusion, but said, “It’s actually very simple. But there has been a lot of misinformation.”

Mr. Giuliani released a statement Friday trying to clarify the confusion, saying that his “references to timing were not describing my understanding of the president’s knowledge, but instead, my understanding of these matters.” He also said there had been no campaign violations in the matter.

The comments capped a week of evolving facts surrounding the Oval Office.

The American public learned its president, once described by a doctor as “the healthiest individual ever elected,” actually wrote that description himself, leaving his health ranking among those who held the office before him a mystery. Mr. Trump also hired an attorney he previously had deniedrecruiting. And the president contradicted himself when, this week, he said he paid back Mr. Cohen for the $130,000 given to Ms. Clifford just days before the election. Last month, the president said he did not know anything about the transaction.

Mr. Giuliani kicked off the confusion about the payment with an interviewon Fox News on Wednesday, surprising even some of Mr. Trump’s other attorneys.

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A Flurry of Courts Have Ruled on Election Maps. Here’s What They’ve Said

From today’s New York Times:

Judges in a number of states have recently thrown out election maps, saying that they have been gerrymandered to the point of being unconstitutional, effectively dooming one party to permanent underrepresentation.

The decisions are certain to have drawn the Supreme Court’s interest as it mulls a resolution to the question of extreme partisan gerrymanders. The justices are expected to decide this spring whether the practice violates the Constitution, and if so, how to determine whether an electoral map is fairly drawn.

Here are the basics of the major contested cases.

Wisconsin: State Assembly districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In the most recent general election, 52 percent of the votes were cast for Republican Assembly candidates, who won almost two-thirds of the seats — 64 out of 99. Democrats received 46 percent of the vote and won 35 seats.

What’s happened so far?

In November 2016, a panel of three judges ruled that the map was unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans, the first time a partisan gerrymander was struck down in federal court. The ruling was notable, according to experts, because it provided a clear mathematical formula to measure how partisan a district map is.

The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case(known as Gill v. Whitford) and heard arguments in October 2017.

What’s next?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the spring, probably setting the course for the other cases in federal court as well.

North Carolina: Congressional districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In 2016, Republican candidates received 53 percent of the votes cast, and won 10 of the state’s 13 seats; Democrats received 47 percent of the votes and won 3 seats.

What’s happened so far?

The map was thrown out and ordered redrawn by a panel of three federal judges on Jan. 9, who said that Republicans had drawn it most recently in 2016 in an attempt to gain a political advantage. The

Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s order to redraw the map nine days later.

What’s next?

It’s unclear. The Supreme Court has not said whether it will schedule arguments in the case, known as Rucho v. Common Cause. The court may choose instead to let whatever ruling it issues in another gerrymandering case stand as its final word on the matter. Because of the temporary block, experts say the current North Carolina map will probably remain in effect for the midterm elections this fall.

Read the complete article here.

When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

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Justice Department Dismisses Corruption Case Against Menendez

From today’s New York Times:

The Department of Justice on Wednesday dismissed all the remaining charges against Senator Robert Menendez, a decision that underscores how a 2016 Supreme Court ruling has significantly raised the bar for prosecutors who try to pursue corruption cases against elected officials.

The motion to dismiss comes less than two weeks after prosecutors said they were intent on retrying Mr. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and it allows him to run for re-election without having to face a second trial.

The Justice Department on Wednesday cited last week’s decision by Judge William H. Walls to throw out several charges the senator had faced, including bribery counts stemming from accusations that Mr. Menendez lobbied on behalf of a wealthy Florida eye doctor in exchange for political donations. All charges against the doctor, Salomon Melgen, were also dismissed.

“Given the impact of the court’s Jan. 24 order on the charges and the evidence admissible in a retrial, the United States has determined that it will not retry the defendants on the remaining charges,” said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declining to provide any more details about the agency’s rationale.

The unraveling of the case against Mr. Menendez is the latest example of how difficult it has become to win public corruption cases after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to overturn the conviction of the former Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, who had been accused of accepting luxury items, loans and vacations in exchange for helping a businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.

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ParadisePapers show Trump Commerce Secretary Has Ties to Putin Cronies

From today’s Slate Magazine by Daniel Politi:

Looks like it’s Panama Papers Part Two. The non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began publishing on Sunday what it is calling the Paradise Papers. More than a year after the organization’s network of journalists around the world shook up politicians in several countries with leaked data on offshore havens, another trove of documents taken from a Bahamas-based firm promises to expose how companies and the wealthy use complicated structures to skirt taxes. Most of the more than 13.4 million documents, which were analyzed by a group of more than 380 journalists in 67 countries, are from Bermudan law firm Appleby.

Among the most explosive revelations so far involves news that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross shares business interests with close allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he failed to fully disclose during confirmation hearings. The documents show Ross continues to have a significant interest in a shipping firm that has a Russian energy company as one of its main clients. The owners of that company include Putin’s son-in-law and an oligarch under U.S. sanctions. The stake in the firm is held in Cayman Islands, just like much of the commerce secretary’s massive wealth that has been estimated at more than $2 billion.

The Commerce Department is not disputing the allegations. Ross “recuses himself from any matters focused on transoceanic shipping vessels, but has been generally supportive of the administration’s sanctions of Russian and Venezuelan entities,” a spokesman said. “He works closely with Commerce Department ethics officials to ensure the highest ethical standards.”

Lawmakers who were part of Ross’ confirmation hearings say they feel duped. During the process, Ross was asked about his ties to Russia and his investment in another shipping company, but Navigator never came up. Sen. Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut told NBC News that the general impression was that Ross had gotten rid of his stakes in Navigator, and they didn’t know about the firm’s ties to Russia. “I am astonished and appalled because I feel misled,” Blumenthal said. “Our committee was misled, the American people were misled by the concealment of those companies.” Ethics experts say that even if there is nothing illegal about the arrangement, it still raises several ethical questions because one of the lead voices in the administration’s trade policy could make money from business with Russia.

Read the entire article here.