If you watch cable news, it can be easy to think good government was a thing of the past. But if you look closer, past the president and his administration, we’re seeing wins for ethics and transparency across the country. From Washington, DC to Washington state, from Missouri to San Francisco, from Albuquerque to Ohio, positive change is happening if you know where to look. Here’s a few of our favorites:
Washington State Lawmakers Now Subject to Transparency Laws
In 2018, CREW and Giffords Law Center requested certain Washington state lawmakers’ correspondence with gun interest groups like the National Rifle Association in an effort to shed light on the influence of the gun lobby on state lawmakers. At the time, we were told that state legislators’ email communications have not been subject to the public records law, but there was a pending case in the state Supreme Court that could reverse that.
In December, the court released a decision that rejected a long-standing policy by Washington state legislators of both parties that the states’ open records law applied to the governor’s office, as well as state and local agencies but not to them. In the wake of this decision, the state legislature is now preparing for implementation of the new transparency regime. As a result, CREW and Giffords’s requests for email communications about certain legislation are being filled, and we expect to receive records soon. We look forward to receiving these records and making them public.
The ruling is the result of a suit brought by ten news organizations. An attorney representing them called the decision a “huge” win for transparency.
Missouri Forces Disclosure of Dark Money Donors
In January, the Missouri Ethics Commission found that Missourians for Patient Care (MPC), a group pushing medical-marijuana initiatives in 2017 and 2018, violated state ethics law and would have to publicly disclose its donors. This appears to be the first time that the Commission has forced a nonprofit to disclose donors. In a stipulation agreement, MPC admitted that it was acting like a political action committee, but trying to avoid the disclosure of its donors, as required by law.
Missourians for Patient Care is now dissolved, but the forced disclosure of its donors has provided much needed transparency about a growing industry in the state. MPC’s largest donor, at close to $1 million was a prolific Missouri campaign donor. As Missouri’s medical marijuana industry has grown, several companies that have obtained cultivation licenses have enlisted one of Gov. Mike Parson’s closest allies and top fundraisers, Steve Tilley, for assistance. Tilley, a former Speaker of the Missouri House supported MPC’s work and is now a lobbyist for the state’s largest medical marijuana trade group.
The Ethics Commission’s decision is a warning for dark money mega-donors that they cannot use non-profit organizations to exert unchecked and anonymous influence over state politics.
San Francisco Requires Transparency for Campaign Ads, Limits “Pay-for-Play”
In San Francisco, a ballot initiative won easily in November 2019, which is directed at increasing the transparency of who pays for political campaign ads and limiting potential pay-to-play arrangements. The “Sunlight on Dark Money” initiative, will require campaigns to disclose the names of individuals and committees that donate large amounts of money to a cause more prominently. Campaign ads now will have to publicly disclose the names and contribution totals of campaigns’ top three donors of $5,000 or more. The initiative also provided that “[i]f any of the top three donors is a committee, the ad must also show the name and the dollar amount contributed by each of the top two major contributors of $5,000 or more to that committee.”
In addition to addressing transparency, Proposition F will limit “pay-to-play” arrangements, especially from San Francisco’s booming real estate development community. The measure bars campaign contributions “from any person or company with land-use decisions going before the city.” The measure passed by city residents in November also prohibits limited liability corporations and limited partnerships from donating to candidate committees in local elections.
It was approved by more than 75 percent of voters, signalling that many people understand the corrosive effect of money in politics, and when given the option, choose to limit it.
Albuquerque Increases Public Financing
In Albuquerque, New Mexico voters passed an initiative modernizing the city’s public financing system by putting publicly financed candidates closer to equal footing with candidates who accept private money. The measure allows candidates for mayor or city council to receive more per registered voter. As one former city official noted, “[a] strong public financing system makes it easier for ordinary citizens to enter public life and run for office … without access to wealthy contributors, party bosses, lobbyists or special interest groups.”
Proposition 1 also strengthens the law to ensure that candidates who do not abide by the city’s rules do not get taxpayer money. The measure will bar “candidates from accepting large donations for the full year before they seek public funds.” In addition, Proposition 1 requires individuals “who act like candidates to follow candidate rules, whether they have filed a piece of paper or not.” Passage of Proposition 1 was lauded by good government groups as “diminishing the influence of wealthy special interests in politics” and “creating new avenues for engagement in politics.”
IRS Apparently Shutters Ohio Dark Money Group
CREW filed an IRS complaint against Freedom Vote in June 2018, and it appears that the IRS actually took action. The complaint requested that the IRS investigate whether the nonprofit group was operated primarily to influence political campaigns in violation of its tax-exempt status and if the group violated federal law by failing to disclose more than $1 million it spent to run one or more ads targeting the Ohio Senate race in 2016.
A year after CREW filed its most recent complaint, Freedom Vote filed its final tax return and officially terminated its existence on May 28, 2019. On the final page of the tax return, Freedom Vote revealed that before shutting down it paid $23,096 to the IRS for what it described as “tax, penalty, interest.”
The fact that Freedom Vote apparently faced IRS scrutiny was forced to shut down is an encouraging sign that government agencies can be effective at enforcement of campaign finance laws, if laws are on the books.
Representative Elijah Cummings Posthumously Donated Campaign Cash
Chairman Cummings’ campaign committee had more than $1 million in unspent funds remaining after his death, which he directed to be donated to benefit his community. Specifically he requested that they be “donated to youth programs, such as those helping needy students pay for college.” The chairman’s campaign treasurer said that after “winding down operations” any excess campaign funds “will be transferred to educational and charitable organizations for the purpose of need-based college scholarships and youth leadership programs.”
Chairman Cummings is still setting an example for what ethical leadership and good stewardship of campaign funds looks like. That stands in stark contrast to what we have seen from retiring members of Congress who have spent leftover campaign funds on personal extravagances, including a 5-star hotel stay, social club memberships, and baseball tickets. We’ve also seen questionable expenses from deceased members’ campaigns and indicted and convicted members who used campaign cash for personal vacations.