Interior nominee David Bernhardt’s ethics problems aren’t going away

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

President Trump’s pick to the lead the Interior Department heads for a confirmation vote as early as Thursday, with his career as a lobbyist raising ethical and legal concerns and doubts about his independence from the energy and water industry groups he long represented.

Acting Secretary David Bernhardt spent about eight years as a partner in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, one of the nation’s top-grossing law and lobbying firms, according to public rankings. There he represented energy, mining and Western water interests that deal with the Interior Department, including two California entities, Westlands Water District — the nation’s largest irrigation district — and Cadiz Inc.

Bernhardt’s firm sued the department four times on Westlands’ behalf. He personally argued one appeals case challenging federal endangered species protections for imperiled salmon. He did legal work for Cadiz, which wants to build a water pipeline on a railroad right of way that crosses federal land in the California desert.

When Bernhardt was confirmed as deputy secretary in 2017, he had to sign the administration’s ethics pledge and recuse himself from participating in “particular matters” involving more than two dozen former clients. Some of the recusals were effective for two years, others for one. In the last year, he has helped put policies in place that benefit businesses he once represented as a lobbyist.

Read the complete article here.

Amendment 4 restored voting rights to felons In FL–Now that’s back in doubt

From today’s NBC News Online:

Desmond Meade thinks he may have talked to more Floridians about felon voting rights than anyone else. Since 2009, he has put thousands of miles on his car each year, driving to every corner of the state talking to people about felon disenfranchisement.

By the time a formal campaign to amend the Florida Constitution and restore felon voting rights ended in 2018, it was clear to him which arguments worked with the largest share of people. Among them: second chances and redemption are moral and national values that Americans have a collective duty to uphold, and making way for redemption is the right thing to do.

Eventually, Meade, who is black, and Neil Volz, a white man convicted of felonies in connection with the former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, connected with a bipartisan funding and support network. It included the Koch brothers. And the redemption narrative — one that pushed the racist origins and racially disparate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws just beyond the spotlight — won a whopping 64 percent of deeply purple Florida’s votes in the November referendum on Amendment 4.

“The messaging was totally organic, totally grassroots,” said Meade, a convicted felon who after his release from prison earned a law degree. “It wasn’t a black or white thing, a conservative or liberal thing. It was a real people thing, people understood.”

But just as the campaign settled into victory, both the politics and the policy of felon voting have become unsettled again.

On Thursday, a committee of the Florida House of Representatives voted along party lines to advance a bill that could bar from the ballot box many of the estimated 1.5 million convicted felons who just regained the franchise.

Now the issue of voting rights for ex-felons is back in doubt. It looks as if the limited talk about race and partisanship during the Amendment 4 campaign created space for opponents to engage in debates about the bill’s language without attending to the racial impact of any legislative tweaks.

Read the complete article here.

Kavanaugh Seems Conflicted About Gerrymandering at SCOTUS Arguments

From today’s NPR News Online:

The Supreme Court appeared sharply divided on the question of whether there’s any limit on what the courts can impose on partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the newest member of the court, appearing at least somewhat conflicted.

“I took some of your argument in the briefs and the amicus briefs to be that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy,” Kavanaugh told the lawyers arguing the case, “and I’m not going to dispute that.”

On Tuesday, the court considered challenges to congressional district maps in North Carolina, drawn by Republicans, and in Maryland, drawn by Democrats.

The question of how political boundaries are drawn has taken on increasing importance for both parties over the past decade.

After the 2010 midterms, Republicans used their control of many state legislatures to draw favorable congressional maps for the GOP. An analysis this month by the Associated Press found that Republicans very likely won about 16 more House seats last fall than they would have been expected to based on their share of the vote owing to those lines. Still, Democrats did win control of the House.

Read the complete article here.

FBI analyzed NC political operative in May, took no action to stop fraud

From today’s Washington Post:

The FBI participated in a May surveillance operation of a GOP political operative at the center of an election fraud investigation in North Carolina, newly released court documents show, raising fresh questions about how long it has taken federal prosecutors to pursue the matter.

Federal and state investigators observed Leslie McCrae Dowless meeting with people he hired to collect ballots ahead of last year’s primary election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, according to state search warrants released Wednesday.

At the time, Dowless was working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris, who went on to beat GOP incumbent Robert Pittenger by 828 votes. Dowless also worked for the Harris campaign in the fall, when Harris narrowly edged out Democrat Dan McCready in the unofficial results.

State officials ordered a new election in the 9th District last month after concluding that Dowless orchestrated a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced” scheme to collect, fill out, forge and in some cases discard absentee ballots on behalf of Harris.

Separately, the Wake County district attorney’s office in Raleigh last month charged Dowless and four others on felony counts, including possession of absentee ballots and obstruction of justice.

Harris has denied knowledge of the scheme. He said last month he would not run in the special election scheduled for later this year.

Read the complete article here.

Can Courts Strike Down Right-to-Work?

From The American Prospect:

Last week, in a move that’s as likely to baffle union activists as it is to encourage them, a West Virginia judge struck down key portions of the state’s “right-to-work” law.

The Kenawha County judge’s ruling may amount to no more than a temporary hiccup in West Virginia Republicans’ war to destroy unions. But it’s another example of how hotly provisions of the 1947 federal Taft-Hartley Act are being contested in the courts as it becomes clearer that the anti-union impact of the law has contributed to an era of massive inequality that threatens our democracy.

West Virginia’s “right to work” law was rammed through on a party-line vote prior to 2016’s presidential election and the recent statewide teachers strikes. It had survived a Democratic gubernatorial veto and a previous injunction based in part on its ridiculously sloppy drafting. Last week, however, siding with a coalition of unions that included the building trades, Teamsters and Mineworkers, Judge Jennifer Bailey ruled the law  “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally imposes an excessive burden on Plaintiffs’ associational rights,” and that the goal of letting workers opt out of union membership “can be, and have been, fully accomplished without taking the additional steps of prohibiting agency fees, and giving free riders something for nothing.”

Anne Marie Lofaso, a professor of law at West Virginia University, describes Bailey’s ruling as “an extremely well-done decision that holds together and reflects some excellent lawyering for the union plaintiffs.”

In many respects, the West Virginia decision is a replay of a briefly encouraging moment in April of 2016 when a Dane County judge struck down Wisconsin’s recently enacted “right-to-work” law. That decision was predictably reversed by a Republican-dominated higher state court one year later.

Read the complete article here.

McConnell maintains that Senate won’t take up election reform bill because GOP doesn’t want Americans to vote

From The Hill Online News:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) maintained Wednesday that the upper chamber wouldn’t take up a House election reform bill.

McConnell reiterated his position when pressed about why he has only pledged to bring the progressive Green New Deal to the floor for a vote and not the election reform bill.

“Because I get to decide what we vote on,” McConnell quipped.

The Kentucky senator said earlier this week that House Democrats’ sweeping anticorruption bill, known as H.R. 1, would never become law.

“This sprawling 622-page doorstop is never going to become law. I certainly don’t plan to even bring it to the floor here in the Senate,” McConnell said of the legislation Monday.

The legislation aims to expand voting rights by creating automatic voter registration and making Election Day a national holiday for federal workers.

Read the complete article here.

New election ordered in NC House district due to voter fraud in GOP candidate’s campaign

From today’s NBC News Online:

The North Carolina Board of Elections on Thursday ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after allegations of illegal activity in the handling of mail-in ballots.

The five-member board’s unanimous action came after several days of hearings into Republican ballot-collecting practices in the 2018 general election.

Their decision was made after the GOP candidate, Mark Harris, surprisingly suggested Thursday that there should be a new election because the public had lost confidence in the results. On Election Day Harris had narrowly topped Democrat Dan McCready in unofficial results.

“Through the testimony I listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called. It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the ninth district seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted,” Harris said.

It was a dramatic turn for Harris who had been aggressively defending himself throughout the months-long investigation and the four-day hearing, insisting that he had no knowledge of fraudulent activity involving absentee ballots in two rural counties in the ninth district.

Harris made his declaration one day after his son, John Harris, testified that he warned his father of the possible illegal tactics political operative McCrae Dowless used in an absentee ballot operation. Harris hired him anyway, saying on the stand that it was his son’s “opinion” about Dowless but that he was assured that Dowless worked within the confines of the law. He insisted that he that he had no knowledge of alleged illegal activities regarding mail-in ballots.

But Harris was at risk of perjuring himself during his testimony over a discussion he had with his son about emails being used as evidence. He said from the witness stand that he did not discuss the emails with anyone ahead of the hearing. After he said that, his attorney, David Friedman, immediately asked to speak to his client behind closed doors. The board agreed, called for a lunch break and then went into closed session. When they returned, Harris corrected the record.

Read the complete article here.

Texas is the Voter Suppression State

From today’s New York Times:

For those of you keeping track of the “As Texas goes, so goes the nation” notion, I have either very good or very bad news.

The state that gave you two recent mediocre-to-crummy Republican presidents (who are starting to look downright Lincolnesque compared to you-know-who), gerrymandering in the guise of redistricting (thanks a lot, Tom DeLay) and a profound if misguided antipathy to government in general is now surging ahead in a new field: voter suppression. As someone who loves Texas with a triple shot of ambivalence, I take no pleasure in spreading this news. But if it is your goal to keep people of color from the polls — some Republican leaders come to mind — it’s time once again to look to Texas for guidance.

Our state officials in their infinite wisdom last week announced that they hoped to excise 95,000 people from voter rolls because they didn’t seem to be citizens. Our secretary of state, David Whitley, insisted that, with the help of the Department of Public Safety, he had been able to compile a list of those supposedly illegally registered. It was even suggested that 58,000 of those folks had actually already voted, a felony in these parts. This finding was heralded in a tweet by ourattorney general, Ken Paxton, as an all-caps “Voter Fraud Alert.” Paxton, you may or may not know, is himself under indictment for securities fraud.

The state, which as yet cannot take anyone off the voter rolls, turned to county officials, who can. They are supposed to hunt those miscreants down by sending notices demanding they appear at voter registrars’ offices with proof of citizenship (birth certificate, passport, etc.) within 30 days. Otherwise, they would be stricken from the rolls and, presumably, ICE would be pounding on their doors soon after.

Among many who seized on this appalling narrative was President Trump, who tweeted: “These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. All over the country, especially in California, voter fraud is rampant. Must be stopped!”

Well, yes, someone had to be stopped here in Texas, and the narrative was appalling, but not for the stated reasons. Within 24 hours, various groups devoted to voting rights had put on their thinking caps — they don’t give them out at the Statehouse — and were noting a few problems with the list.

Read the complete article here.

Thousands of Furloughed Federal Workers File for Unemployment Benefits

From today’s New York Times:

On the second day of the year, Danielle Miller gave up on the federal government.

Furloughed from her Internal Revenue Service job near Cincinnati and fearful of running out of money during the partial government shutdown, she filed for unemployment benefits: $414 a week, about $200 less than usual.

“Once Christmas came and went, after New Year’s, I was like, I can’t go on,” said Ms. Miller, a single mother who has worked for the I.R.S. for almost 14 years. She spent part of this week calculating when her first unemployment check would arrive. “It’s disappointing, and it’s frustrating,” she said. “I have a job.”

The shutdown, the longest on record, is prompting tens of thousands of federal employees to seek jobless benefits. As the impasse meanders through its fourth week and more bills come due, their numbers have been growing.

On Thursday, two days after the White House doubled its projections and warned that the shutdown was reducing quarterly economic growth by 0.13 percentage points per week, the Labor Department reported 10,454 initial claims by federal workers for the week that ended Jan. 5, doubling the previous week’s figure. Thousands more have applied since, state officials said.

Read the complete article here.

Interactive Map: Government Shutdown Is Affecting Federal Workers in All States

From today’s New York Times:

About 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay across the country because of the government shutdown, many of them concentrated in the West.

Over all, federal workers account for about 1.5 percent of the country’s labor force, with a fifth of them in the Washington metro area. But the shutdown has hit some agencies — and states — harder than others.

Outside the capital, states with large numbers of workers for the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior are more likely to feel the shutdown’s effects. And nearly the entire staff of the Environmental Protection Agency is furloughed, including hundreds of workers in North Carolina and Illinois.

A budget agreement to end the shutdown remains the subject of a fierce partisan fight in Congress, with federal workers caught in the middle. Some senators who count these workers among their constituents are pushing for an end to the impasse, but federal employment does not appear to have a clear relationship to lawmakers’ positions on the shutdown.

Read the complete article here.