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[l] at 6/2/20 2:53pm
Police Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators outside of the White House, June 1, 2020 (JOSE LUIS MAGANA/AFP via Getty Images)

Clashes between protesters and law enforcement around the country have led to a bipartisan call from congressional lawmakers to demilitarize America’s police. 

Several lawmakers have focused that effort on amending or repealing the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to request military-grade surplus equipment from the federal government. That equipment ranges from high-powered weapons to armored vehicles. 

The calls for demilitarization are familiar, but lobbying efforts by police unions, most notably the National Fraternal Order of Police, appear to have hampered proposed legislation in the past.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has expressed support for an early return to session to address police reforms. The National FOP’s PAC has contributed more to Hoyer between 2014 and 2020 than any other representative.

The 1033 Program, which has been around for over two decades, has seen intense scrutiny in Washington since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police. Images from those protests showing local police with military gear clashing with citizens are being evoked now as protests over the death of George Floyd have erupted in violence across the country. The deaths of Brown and Floyd are two of many highly publicized killings of black men by police over the last decade that have sparked protests against systemic racism.

The most recently available data from the 1033 Program shows local law enforcement agencies country-wide currently hold over $1.75 billion worth of surplus gear including mine resistant vehicles, grenade launchers and aircrafts.

In spite of the bipartisan introduction of multiple bills since 2014 aimed specifically at demilitarizing police, as well as an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2015, the 1033 Program has seen no lasting change. Seven bills introduced in the House and Senate, all titled the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” never saw a vote. A 2014 amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act to cut funding for the transfer of military gear to local law enforcement was rejected 62-355 in the House. 

Obama’s executive order curtailing 1033 was overturned by President Donald Trump in 2017. The FOP endorsed Trump in his 2016 campaign with union president Jim Cantenbury declaring “he understands and supports our priorities and our members believe he will make America safe again.”

Pro-police lobbying groups have fought to keep the 1033 Program in place in spite of bipartisan support for reform. Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National FOP, one of the largest police lobbying groups in Washington, told The Hill in 2014 that “we are the most vigorous law enforcement advocacy group, and we intend to be at our most vigorous on this issue.” The statement was made shortly after lawmakers began calling for reforms in the wake of the Ferguson protests. 

The National FOP has spent $220,000 a year in lobbying efforts since 2007, but its influence far outweighs its spending. The Union represents more than 351,000 members nationwide. It also has vast influence over state and local chapters that regularly endorse candidates running for elected office at all levels. Pasco, the FOP’s executive director who is also listed as a lobbyist, worked on the Bush administration’s transition team while still with the FOP. Before that he handled congressional affairs for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

When Trump overturned Obama’s executive order, the FOP released a statement saying “the FOP has been working to roll back these restrictions since the day they were announced.” That effort appears to have been focused on the Trump administration and his former Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who the FOP supported in his nomination. Lobbying records show the FOP focused its lobbying efforts on the White House and the Department of Justice in 2017.

Other groups have fought hard against the program. The American Civil Liberties Union reported lobbying on the issue every year since 2014. The conservative Charles Koch Institute has an issue page on its website with several critical statements about the militarization of police.

The fight looks slated to continue through the year as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle renewed calls to reform police militarization. The chairmen of both the House and Senate judiciary committees, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have announced plans to hold hearings and consider legislation aimed at police reform.

The National FOP released a statement condemning the actions of the officer who’s been charged with killing Floyd on May 28. The statement also said that “Law enforcement officers are empowered to use force when apprehending suspects and they are rigorously trained to do so in order to have the safest possible outcome for all parties.” 

A separate statement was released by the FOP on the same day voicing confidence in Trump’s Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement to help guide the union through restoring trust. Trump has called for increased militarization in American cities as protests have resulted in violent clashes and looting.

The post Renewed calls to demilitarize police set the stage for familiar union fight appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Defense, Influence & Lobbying, FOP, Ian Karbal, police, Police reform, Police Unions]

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[l] at 6/1/20 8:29am
Trump Tweet (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed to strip long-standing legal protections for internet platforms, including social media sites, that protect tech companies from litigation over content posted by users on their sites. 

The move is a response to Twitter’s Tuesday decision to fact-check two of the president’s tweets about voter fraud. The move angered many of the president’s supporters, but others have called for Twitter to remove the Tweets altogether for apparently violating the site’s terms of service. The feud escalated Friday when Twitter placed a warning over one of Trump’s tweets about the riots in Minneapolis, which started after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police.

The order also follows years of accusations from Republicans of anti-conservative bias on the sites, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was brought to testify about in front of congress in 2018. The claims eventually culminated in a 2019 bill introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) which Trump’s executive order closely resembles.

The bill and the executive order strike at the law that is among the most consequential in the history of tech regulation. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects tech companies from being sued for the content that people post on their sites. 

In response to Hawley’s bill, Twitter took to Capitol Hill. Four lobbying disclosures reveal Twitter’s lobbyists discussed the bill with lawmakers between April 2019 and March 2020, costing the company around $240,000. Twitter is also a member of Netchoice, a group that represents, among others, Facebook, Google and TikTok. Those companies also lobbied against Hawley’s bill.

Lobbying disclosures show that three companies, two conservative think tanks and an industry group representing 35 online companies lobbied for or against Hawley’s “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act.

The fight over the 2019 bill was merely the latest in a long history that’s seen tens of millions spent by companies fighting for or against laws that threatened the broad protections offered by Section 230. 

Created in the early days of the internet, Section 230 was written in part to encourage growth in the sector and assuage start-ups’ fears of litigation. Since then, it has become a point of contention for lawmakers and competing industries as social media sites grapple with their place among the world’s largest disseminators of information — and disinformation. Over the past decade, tens of millions of dollars have been spent lobbying for and against the law as its Silicon Valley proponents became some of the biggest spenders in Washington.

Since 2017, 37 companies and industry groups lobbied on Section 230, and spent a total of  $242.5 million lobbying on all issues. Facebook was one of the two companies which filed the most disclosures referencing Section 230, along with Oath Inc., the parent company of Yahoo! and AOL.

While the social media giants that have found themselves in Trump’s crosshairs have long been proponents of keeping Section 230 in place, other industries have lobbied to weaken its protections. 

In a letter to the Department of Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America urged lawmakers to consider narrowing the scope of Section 230, which they accused of helping to foster content pirating. The MPAA represents Disney and Fox, both of which have spent money lobbying to remove or narrow the protections of Section 230. A 2019 New York Times report found that Marriott opposed the law because of protections it offered to home-sharing platforms such as Airbnb

While the current dust-up is centered around conservative anger at what they perceive as censorship, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised issues with Section 230. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “it is not out of the question that it could be removed,” in a 2019 interview, amid rising Democratic concern over foreign election influence and misinformation proliferating on social media platforms. Although the greater threat appears to come from conservatives. While Trump’s executive order is likely to be challenged in court, he appears to be rallying conservatives to his side. 

“If we just wait around, big tech will steal this election from Donald Trump and the American people,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on Fox News. Fox, along with another Rupert Murdoch company, News Corp, have both disclosed lobbying on Section 230-related issues. How they lobbied is impossible to tell from disclosures alone, but one of Fox News’ biggest personalities, Tucker Carlson, advocated for changing Section 230 on his primetime show the night Trump signed the executive order.

The threat from conservative lawmakers comes as contributions from employees at Facebook, Twitter and Google have swung strongly to the left. At Facebook, 46 percent of employee contributions to political campaigns and PACs went to Republicans in 2014. That number has shrunk each cycle since, down to just under 11 percent this year. At Google, that number shrank from 40 percent to 12 percent over the same time period. At Twitter, which has always bent more Democratic in contributions, the number went from 22 percent to less than 1 percent.

Among the three companies named in Trump’s executive order, Facebook has been the biggest spender on lobbying, spending over $16 million in 2019 alone. This year, Facebook spent $5.26 million on lobbying in the first quarter, the most the company has spent in a single quarter in its history. This put Facebook in the top 10 spenders of 2020 so far. 

In 2019, Twitter spent nearly $1.5 million on lobbying, putting it in the top 10 percent of all spenders on lobbying that year. Like Facebook, Twitter has increased its lobbying spending almost every year.

The post Tech giants named in Trump’s executive order lobbied against similar laws for years appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Influence & Lobbying, Donald Trump, Ian Karbal, lobbying, twitter]

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[l] at 5/28/20 1:28pm
(Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Political groups that don’t fully disclose their sources of funding have already spent more than $100 million to influence 2020 races, a figure that is sure to rise as “dark money” backed super PACs unload their unprecedented cash reserves

Dark money groups such as political nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors have spent nearly $14 million to influence 2020 races, according to Federal Election Commission filings. “Grey money” outside groups that disclose a portion of their funding — such as super PACs that take money from shell companies or political nonprofits — have spent over $89 million. 

By choosing to keep their donors secret, these groups leave voters in the dark as to exactly who is funding their political activities. Under a new Trump administration regulation, the Internal Revenue Service won’t know either. 

The IRS finalized a rule this week that will exempt some dark money groups from disclosing their donors to the IRS. Many of 501(c)(4) nonprofits affected by the new rule already don’t disclose their donors to the public. But some experts have expressed concern that the elimination of donor reporting could hurt government investigators’ efforts to uncover the illegal use of foreign money in U.S. elections.

The Trump administration attempted to enact the rule last year, but a federal judge in Montana blocked it, arguing that the government needed to go through a public comment period first. Two 501(c)(4)s that don’t disclose their donors, FreedomWorks and People United for Privacy, directed thousands of their supporters to the IRS website to support the proposed rule.

The Treasury Department noted the rule would prevent the IRS from leaking confidential donor information as the agency did in 2013

Groups that argue for stricter campaign finance rules opposed the IRS rule. Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter, a former Republican FEC commissioner, said this week the rule would leave federal agencies such as the recently restored FEC “without another tool to enforce the campaign finance laws under-girding our democracy.”

“Enforcement agencies need every tool available to safeguard our elections against foreign interference,” Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee said in a statement this week. “Congress must now step up and strengthen our transparency rules to ensure foreigners aren’t using opaque tax-exempt organizations to meddle in our elections.”

The IRS has rejected any role policing foreign money in U.S. elections and generally doesn’t share donor records with other federal agencies unless there is a court order. But the rule change still stands to lend momentum to wide-ranging efforts to errode donor disclosure.

Conservative groups attempted to eliminate nonprofit donor reporting to the IRS through the courts but judges repeatedly ruled that government requests for the names of donors are not a violation of the First Amendment.

David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, which argues against campaign finance restrictions, said this week the rule “will encourage more people to give and protect groups that criticize government.”

Dark money groups have spent close to $1 billion influencing elections in the decade since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that opened the door for political nonprofits to make independent expenditures. That total doesn’t include dark money groups’ issue ad spending boosting candidates without explicitly pushing for votes, which is not disclosed to the FEC outside of a reporting window shortly before elections. When counting these kinds of ads, more than half of all TV ads related to 2020 elections are sponsored by dark money groups.

With so little information available, only a few politically active nonprofits are known to have taken money from foreign sources. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce runs political ads to influence elections and receives some money from foreign companies, but the business group says it does not use those funds on election activities. The National Rifle Association, which spent $31 million to back Donald Trump in 2016, received a relatively miniscule amount of cash from Russian nationals but also gets funding from foreign companies and reported spending on overseas fundraising for the first time last year. The gun rights advocacy group has said it does not use foreign money on its election activities. 

Dark money accounts for just 6 percent of total outside spending reported to the FEC this cycle, a low figure compared to nearly 9 percent at this point in the 2016 cycle and 14 percent in the 2018 midterms. However, spending by groups that only partially disclose their donors makes up nearly 40 percent of 2020 outside spending, a record high. 

That’s because dark money groups are increasingly funneling their cash to super PACs, which can then spend that money freely. Each of the top congressional super PACs affiliated with party leaders in the House and Senate are partially funded by dark money. The top outside spender this cycle is Democratic group Priorities USA Action, which receives millions from its nondisclosing nonprofit arms. The hybrid PAC has spent nearly $22 million this cycle and hopes to shell out $200 million before the Democratic convention. 

Researcher Anna Massoglia contributed to this report.

The post Election spending boosted by secret money tops $100M as IRS ends donor reporting rules appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 501(c) groups, dark money, disclose, donors, FEC, foreign money, grey money, irs, karl evers-hillstrom, nonprofit, nra, rule, super PAC]

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[l] at 5/27/20 2:33pm
Image from Yvette Herrell campaign ad, captured via YouTube

A Democratic super PAC is funding attack ads in an already derisive GOP primary race in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District, calling attention to years-old anti-Trump tweets by one of the candidates.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) won the long-held Republican seat by less than 2 points in a 2018 race against former state Rep. Yvette Herrell, who is again seeking the Republican nomination.

Democrats appear to be pushing for a rematch. Liberal super PAC Patriot Majority is funding attack ads targeting Herrell’s opponent, Claire Chase, the former chairwoman of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association who is married to the heir of Mack Energy. The ads call attention to anti-Trump tweets made by Chase in 2015 and 2016 as both Republican candidates try to frame themselves as bigger supporters of the president. Both candidates’ campaigns have run attack ads painting the other as anti-Trump.

In Federal Election Commission filings, Patriot Majority reported spending around $123,000 opposing each Republican candidate, totaling nearly $250,000. The ad they spent that on, however, frames Chase as “opposed” to President Donald Trump, and Herrell as “100% loyal.” In the 2nd District, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than 10 points in 2016, though Clinton ultimately won the state.

As a super PAC, Patriot Majority is required to disclose its donors. But the group didn’t report any contributions through the end of March, so New Mexico voters will have no way to know who exactly funded the ads until after the June 2 primary. Both Herrell and Chase have denounced the ads along with 124 other Republicans.

The strategy of attacking the other party’s stronger primary candidate is not unique. In February, a Republican-funded super PAC spent millions on ads unsuccessfully propping up North Carolina State. Sen. Erica Smith over Democrats’ preferred challenger to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). 

The Patriot Majority money is part of a major outside spending push in New Mexico’s 2nd District. The seat is seen as key in the Republican effort to retake the House. 

Patriot Majority’s spending makes up more than a quarter of the nearly $1 million spent on attack ads so far, almost all targeting the two Republicans. Most of that spending comes from conservative super PACs that have thrown their support behind one candidate or the other. 

The attacks are also personal. According to an Associated Press report, Chase called on Herrell to drop out of the race, accusing her of spreading rumors about infidelity in Chase’s first marriage. Chase and her ex-husband have both denied the rumors, while Herrell has denied having any part in spreading the rumors. But leaked text messages show that Herrell offered edits on a meme created by Roger Rael, a politically connected provocateur who once showed up at Santa Fe’s city hall carrying a gun. Herrell even started a website, NeverClaire.com, attempting to tie Chase to the #NeverTrump movement.

Torres Small appears to be staying silent until the general. Her campaign has managed to save $3 million of the $3.7 million it’s brought in, while Herrell and Chase’s campaigns have exhausted most of their resources. Torres Small is one of many incumbent Democrats whose seats have been identified as vulnerable to have outraised their Republican challengers.

Herrell still appears to have the support of the greater Republican Party, taking in more than $101,000 from leadership PACs run by Republican lawmakers. Chase’s campaign, which has raised more than Herrell’s, has been propped up by large donations from the oil and gas industry totaling over $136,000.

Chris Mathys is also running for the Republican nomination, though dismal fundraising has made his candidacy largely unviable.

The post Democratic super PAC meddles in contentious GOP primary appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Congressional Elections, Hot Race, Claire Chase, Ian Karbal, New Mexico, NM02, Xochitl Torres Small, yvette herrell]

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[l] at 5/27/20 10:13am
(Mark Makela/Getty Images)

High-powered super PACs are helping presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden make up ground on social media against President Donald Trump, who has dominated online advertising since he took office. 

The Trump campaign outspent Biden $18.5 million to $11.2 million on Facebook ads since the start of 2020, according to new online ad data published on OpenSecrets’ presidential profiles in partnership with the Wesleyan Media Project. But outside groups spent $9.1 million backing Biden and just $2.8 million boosting Trump, giving the Republican only a slight spending advantage on the nation’s largest social media platform this year. 

Both presidential contenders buy Facebook ads to attract small-dollar donors. Some of their ads directly ask for money or attempt to sell campaign merchandise, while others are meant to acquire supporters’ emails through provocative polls or petitions. 

However, only Biden receives significant support on Facebook from outside groups that are trying to sway how users in swing states will vote on Election Day. 

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Biden’s online operation is still in development, while Trump’s well-funded campaign has only grown its massive digital footprint over the last four years. That’s where big-dollar outside groups are helping the Biden campaign by launching attacks on the president. 

Priorities USA, the leading Democratic outside group, spent about $5 million on Facebook ads between several different pages. “Cost of Chaos” and “Facts First” hammer Trump over his administration’s response to the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Another of its pages, “Hablemos Claro USA,” attempts mostly to reach Latinos in Florida, attacking Trump over his administration’s proposed Medicare spending cuts. 

PACRONYM, the super PAC arm of a Democratic “dark money” group, spent $1.9 million on Facebook ads through its page “Four is Enough.” The group’s attacks are mostly focused around COVID-19 testing shortages and the Trump administration’s support for a lawsuit to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. It’s also running Instagram ads attacking the bipartisan expanded small business loan program for giving loans to large companies.

Pro-Biden super PAC Unite the Country shelled out over $878,000 on Facebook through mid-March but slowed its spending after Biden effectively clinched the Democratic primary. Biden recently signaled to donors that Priorities USA is his campaign’s preferred outside group, leading to a massive drop-off in donations to Unite the Country. Another pro-Biden super PAC, American Bridge, spent nearly $700,000 on Facebook ads. 

Less prominent groups, like the Committee to Protect Medicare and the dark money group Fellow Americans, are running anti-Trump ads on the social media platform. 

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Trump doesn’t receive the same kind of outside support on Facebook. America First Action is the only outside group spending big to back Trump. The president’s preferred super PAC has spent over $721,000 on Facebook, with its recent ads focused on a sexual assault allegation against Biden. 

The Trump campaign doesn’t need as much outside help because it is flush with cash, holding nearly $108 million in the bank to Biden’s $57 million. The campaign’s most recent digital ad campaign attempts to capitalize on Biden’s comments that African-American voters “ain’t black” if they support Trump.

Pro-Biden Facebook advertisers have spent slightly more money on Facebook ads in swing states than Trump and his supporters, edging them out in Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump spends more in redder states such as Texas and Georgia. 

The post Outside groups help Biden close the digital ad gap with Trump on Facebook appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, Political Ads, digital ads, Donald Trump, facebook, google, Joe Biden, karl evers-hillstrom, Online Ads, pacronym, Priorities USA, super PAC]

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[l] at 5/27/20 7:14am
Trump President Donald Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This story was reported in collaboration with The Guardian

A powerful new conservative organization fighting to restrict voting in the 2020 presidential election is really just a rebranded group that is part of a dark money network already helping President Donald Trump’s unprecedented effort to remake the federal judiciary, the Guardian and OpenSecrets reveal.

The organization, which calls itself the Honest Elections Project, seemed to emerge out of nowhere a few months ago and started stoking fears about voter fraud. Backed by a dark money group funded by right-wing stalwarts like the Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos’ family, the Honest Elections Project is part of the network that pushed Supreme Court picks Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsurch, and is quickly becoming a juggernaut in the escalating fight over voting rights. 

The project announced it was spending $250,000 on advertisements in April, warning against voting by mail and accusing Democrats of cheating. It facilitated letters to election officials in Colorado, Florida, and Michigan, using misleading data to accuse jurisdictions of having bloated voter rolls and threatening legal action. 

Calling voter suppression a “myth,” it has also been extremely active in the courts, filing briefs in favor of voting restrictions in Nevada, Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, among other places, at times represented by lawyers from the same firm that represents Trump. By having a hand in both voting litigation and the judges on the federal bench, this network could create a system where conservative donors have an avenue to both oppose voting rights and appoint judges to back that effort.

Despite appearing to be a free-standing new operation, the Honest Elections Project is just a legal alias for the Judicial Education Project, a well-financed nonprofit connected to a powerful network of dark money conservative groups, according to business records reviewed by the Guardian and OpenSecrets.

“These are really well-funded groups that in the context of judicial nominations have been systematically, over the long term but also the short term, kind of pushing an agenda to pack the courts with pretty extreme right wing nominees,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The infrastructure that they’ve built over the years has been a really important vehicle for them to do this.”

For nearly a decade, the organization has been almost entirely funded by DonorsTrust, known as a “dark money ATM” backed by the Koch network and other prominent conservative donors, according to data tracked by OpenSecrets. In 2018, more than 99 percent of the Judicial Education Project’s funding came from a single $7.8 million donation from Donors Trust.

The Judicial Education Project is also closely linked to Leonard Leo, one of the most powerful people in Washington who has shaped Trump’s unprecedented effort to remake the federal judiciary with conservative judges. 

The organization has deftly hidden the changes to its name from public view. In December, the Judicial Education Project formally changed its legal name to The 85 Fund, a group Leo backed to funnel “tens of millions” of dollars into conservative causes, according to Axios. The Honest Elections Project is merely a fictitious name — an alias — the fund legally adopted in February. The change was nearly indiscernible because The 85 Fund registered two other legal aliases on the same day, including the Judicial Education Project, its old name. The legal maneuver allows it to operate under four different names with little public disclosure that it is the same group.

The Judicial Education Project is closely aligned with the Judicial Crisis Network, a group with unmatched influence in recent years in shaping the federal judiciary. Judicial Crisis Network spearheaded the campaigns to get Gorsuch and Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court, spending millions of dollars in each instance. It has also spent significantly on critical state supreme court races across the country. 

There is a lot of overlap between the Honest Elections Project and the Judicial Crisis Network. Both groups share personnel, including Carrie Severino, the influential president of the Judicial Crisis Network. Both groups have been funded by The Wellspring Committee, a group Leo raised money for until it shut down in 2018.  Both have also paid money to BH Group, an LLC Leo once disclosed as his employer, that made a $1 million mystery donation to Trump’s inauguration.

“This is a small community that is really trying to push forward these more suppressive tactics that will be challenged in court and having those judges on the bench, they’re really hoping it’s going to continue to rig the system in their favor,” said Lena Zwarensteyn, who closely follows judicial nominations at the Leadership conference. “By changing the rules of the game and who the referees are, they’re trying to change the landscape.”

Neither the Honest Elections Project nor the Judicial Crisis Network responded to requests for an interview.

The Honest Elections Project has become active as Republicans are scaling up their efforts to fight to keep voting restrictions in place ahead of the election. The Republican National Committee will spend at least $20 million on litigation over voting rights and wants to recruit up to 50,000 people to help monitor the polls and other election activities.

The post Conservative ‘dark money’ network rebranded to push voting restrictions before 2020 election appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 501(c) groups, Anna Massoglia, Axios, Brett Kavanaugh, dark money, dark money nonprofit, Donald Trump, donorstrust, election 2020, Fiscal sponsorship, Honest Elections Project, Judicial Crisis Network, judicial education project, Koch Brothers, koch network, leonard leo, Neil Gorsuch, nonprofits, opensecrets, politically active nonprofits, Sam Levine, SCOTUS, Supreme Court, tax-exempt, The 85 Fund, The Concord Fund, the guardian, Vanita Gupta, Voting Rights, Wellspring Committee]

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[l] at 5/22/20 11:33am
Trump (SAUL LOEB,JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Each of the leading presidential campaigns are courting wealthy donors to boost their bottom lines. But President Donald Trump has a distinct advantage in the money race over presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden — small-dollar fundraising. 

OpenSecrets estimates that 64 percent of Trump’s campaign cash comes from small donors when accounting for transfers from Trump’s small-dollar joint fundraising committee, totaling $174 million through April. Biden has raised $69 million from those giving $200 or less. Small donors make up about 39 percent of his total fundraising. 

That small-dollar discrepancy could make it more difficult for Biden to cut away at Trump’s fundraising advantage. Trump and the Republican National Committee have $255 million cash on hand, while Biden and the Democratic National Committee have less than $98 million in the bank. Notably, Trump raised most of that small donor cash before the coronavirus pandemic left millions unemployed and put a dent in political fundraising. 

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Trump began his 2020 reelection bid shortly after he was inaugurated, investing heavily in social media and email harvesting to build a reliable base of small-dollar supporters. Team Trump’s online footprint is lightyears ahead of Biden’s, and the self-proclaimed “Death Star” recently launched an app for Trump supporters that Democrats envy. 

Most Republicans don’t attract large numbers of small donors. Trump’s unprecedented money machine is an outlier. Biden, on the other hand, fell behind his Democratic primary opponents with small-dollar donors. Still, at this point in the 2016 cycle, Hillary Clinton raised $40 million from small donors, making up just under 20 percent of her total haul.  

Some Democratic strategists want Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to share his immense donor list with Biden to give him a boost. OpenSecrets previously reported that Sanders’ donors gave relatively little to Biden, and the Wall Street Journal found that Biden didn’t generate enthusiasm with Sanders backers even after the Vermont senator endorsed Biden. 

While Biden isn’t catching up to Trump with small donors, he is upping the ante in the race to court wealthy patrons. 

Biden recently launched a joint fundraising committee that will allow donors to give up to $620,600 to benefit Biden’s campaign, the DNC and Democratic party committees in 26 states. That big-dollar fundraising venture will help the DNC catch up to the RNC, which benefits from two Trump joint fundraising committees. Trump Victory allows donors to write $580,600 checks to boost Trump’s campaign, the RNC and 22 state parties. 

These joint fundraising committees allow campaigns and parties to effectively bypass contribution limits. Trump and Clinton used joint fundraising committees to transfer unlimited sums of state party money back to the RNC, abusing loopholes created by a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that struck down limits on how much a single donor can give in each election cycle. 

Biden’s joint fundraising committee has not filed with the Federal Election Commission yet, but it’s already bringing in money for the Democrat’s White House bid. One recent virtual fundraiser with Clinton netted the committee $2 million, Politico reported. Biden’s campaign recently limited press access to a virtual fundraiser with Wall Street donors. Trump generally does not allow members of the press to attend his fundraisers. 

The post Presidential candidates court wealthy donors while Trump dominates small-dollar fundraising appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, April, DNC, Donald Trump, fundraising, Joe Biden, joint fundraising committee, karl evers-hillstrom, Pres2020, RNC, small donors]

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[l] at 5/22/20 6:50am
A screenshot of a Facebook ad run by ACRONYM.

At a time when trustworthy journalism is more important than ever, political operations are pouring millions of “dark money” dollars into ads and digital content masquerading as news coverage to influence the 2020 election.

One newer group heralding the new era of pseudo-news outlets is ACRONYM, a liberal dark money group with an affiliated super PAC called PACRONYM. The nonprofit also is an investor in a for-profit digital consulting firm that gained notoriety for its role in launching Shadow Inc., the secretive vendor behind a vote tabulation app at the center of the pandemonium at the Iowa Democratic caucuses. ACRONYM announced it was divesting in Shadow Inc. shortly thereafter.

ACRONYM is behind Courier Newsroom, a network of websites emulating progressive local news outlets. Courier has faced scrutiny for exploiting the collapse of local journalism to spread “hyperlocal partisan propaganda.” It claims to operate “independent from” ACRONYM and says ownership is shared with “other investors.” But a new tax return obtained by OpenSecrets lists ACRONYM as the full owner of Courier as of April. 30, 2019, the most recent date on record. An ACRONYM spokesperson told OpenSecrets that Courier has attracted multiple private investors since that time.

Websites affiliated with Courier Newsroom that appear to be free-standing local news outlets are actually part of a coordinated effort with deep ties to Democractic political operatives. OpenSecrets first revealed the network’s digital ad spending at the Investigative Reporters and Editors NICAR conference in March. 

Most of the websites that make up Courier Newsroom received failing grades from NewsGuard, a group launched in 2018 by Steven Brill and Louis Gordon Crovitz that rates the reliability of online news sources. The low scores are due largely to an “undisclosed partisan Democratic perspective” and lack of financial transparency. 

Courier’s newest appendage, Cardinal & Pine, spent more than $20,000 on digital advertising targeting North Carolina since launching its first Facebook ad campaigns in late March. The page’s ads give the appearance of news but are mostly focused on the coronavirus pandemic or on criticizing President Donald Trump.

Digital ads for another nascent member of the Courier Newsroom network called The Americano cater to Puerto Ricans living in Florida launched but the ads appear to have since disappeared from Facebook. But the website’s content matches the other state-specific sites nearly verbatim. Because many of the Americano’s ads are not considered political by Facebook, however, the Americano’s ad spending information is not accessible through the Facebook political ad archive and the ads do not show up in searches of political or issue ads. 

Many of the digital ads for Facebook pages affiliated with Courier Newsroom disclose Courier’s role in the “paid for” disclaimer while others list the sponsor as “FWIW Media” or “For What It’s Worth,” a name adopted by Courier Newsroom.

Operations tied to ACRONYM spent nearly $10 million on digital ads in the time period since online platforms first began disclosing political ad spending in mid-2018, with more than $7.3 million of that spending through pages with obscured or secret funding sources, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis. 

Tax records analyzed by OpenSecrets reveal ACRONYM’s most recent financial information and shine light on its cozy relationship with affiliated entities. 

ACRONYM raised $9.4 million from secret donors during its second year of operation through April 2019, more than seven times the prior year according to its tax returns. Three anonymous donors giving more than $1 million each made up more than half of that, with the top donor giving more than $2 million.

Launched in 2017, ACRONYM received financial backing from Investing in US, an investment vehicle funded by Silicon Valley donor and billionaire LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. ACRONYM received $250,000 from New Venture Fund the following year, according to New Venture’s most recent tax return.

Along with the allied Sixteen Thirty Fund, New Venture Fund’s operation has fiscally sponsored at least 80 groups and acted as a pass-through agency funneling millions of dollars in grants for wealthy donors to opaque groups with minimal disclosure. 

New Venture Fund’s revenue topped $405 million in 2018, a moderate increase from the roughly $350 million it brought in each of the prior three years and more than twice the $179 million it raised in 2014. Sixteen Thirty Fund’s operation also ballooned since Trump’s 2016 election, with annual revenue swelling from around $5.6 million in 2015 to nearly $144 million in 2018, the most recent year on record in tax returns.

Sixteen Thirty Fund sponsored social media pages and digital operations for five pseudo local news outlets in three states in 2018. They appeared to be independent of each other, but promoted themselves with nearly identical digital ads. 

Facebook pages operating under the auspices of the Colorado Chronicle , Daily CO, Nevada News NowSilver State Sentinel and Verified Virginia gave the impression of multiple free-standing local news outlets with unique names and disclaimers. But the sponsors of those ads are merely fictitious names used by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, according to digital ad data and incorporation records from the D.C. government. 

Although some of the Facebook pages have since been deleted, at least some of their ads are preserved in the social media giant’s political ad archive. 

Another Facebook ad sponsor emulating a news outlet called Supermajority News also has deep ties to Sixteen Thirty Fund.

Supermajority News’ Facebook page was initially the public face of Pantsuit Nation, an invite-only Facebook group created to support Hillary Clinton weeks before the 2016 election. That group is now part of Supermajority of Supermajority Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit founded in 2019 that does not disclose its donors or other details of the organization’s finances. 

A news standards policy on the Supermajority News website claims its content will “avoid editorializing” but notes “”we recognize that there are not two sides to issues related to civil and human rights, including women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBTQ+ equality.”

Supermajority’s charitable arm is a project of New Venture Fund and “shares resources with Sixteen Thirty Fund’s Supermajority project.” 

Supermajority also has a super PAC, with most of its money, $2 million, from Democracy PAC, a super PAC created by George Soros in 2019 to influence the  presidential election. FEC records show Democracy PAC shelled out $1.75 million to PACRONYM as well as $5 million to Priorities USA Action and $2 million to Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century

American Bridge also used digital operations mimicking mainstream media to further its political agendas. 

American Bridge’s nonprofit arm recently came under scrutiny for using its tax-exempt nonprofit arm to transfer millions of dollars to a closely-tied for-profit company called True Blue Media. True Blue is the parent company of ShareBlue, a media company now known as The American Independent

April 2020 updates to the Independent website note that it “relies on ad revenue, charitable donations, and investors, including American Bridge 21st Century Foundation” and The American Independent Foundation. The American Independent Foundation is a tax-exempt nonprofit that does not disclose its donors. Helmed by David Brock, founder of American Bridge and Media Matters, the foundation saw its revenue spike to more than $1.3 million in 2018, up from roughly $50,000 the prior year. That was shortly before ShareBlue was rebranded to use its name according to financial records.

Democratic super PAC American Bridge 21st Century launched a website and Facebook page for its own pseudo news outlet called American Ledger in 2017 with a series of posts timed to coincide with Democratic National Committee debates in Detroit focused on Trump’s Michigan supporters. 

Previously called AmpliFire News and The Opposition, American Ledger’s digital ads on Facebook are paid for by American Bridge’s super PAC and nonprofit. Like other center-left operations disseminating partisan messaging under the guise of news, American Bridge’s operation has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from Sixteen Thirty Fund and its affiliated New Venture Fund. 

Priorities USA took a different approach, instead using its super PAC and dark money arm to support groups with allied media operations then boosting them on social media. from Priorities USA’s super PAC was previously run by Brock, who now serves on Priorities USA’s board, and ACRONYM founder Tara McGowan became the super PAC’s digital director in 2016.

According to its most recent tax return, Priorities USA Foundation raised nearly $5.6 million in 2018, with $1 million of that from George Soros’ Foundation to Promote Open Society. Priorities USA’s foundation gave more than $3.1 million of that in a grant to its sister 501(c)(4) advocacy arm, which passed along more than $1.3 million to the Priorities USA super PAC.

The 501(c)(4) nonprofit arm of Priorities USA gave $50,000 to New Venture Fund for “advocacy.” 

Another media network tied to Sixteen Thirty Fund was spawned by its lesser-known sister organization, the Hopewell Fund, a multimillion-dollar tax-exempt nonprofit that “shares resources” with Sixteen Thirty Fund and New Venture Fund.

In June 2019, the IRS granted tax-exempt status to the States Newsroom, which functions as an umbrella organization for multiple state-focused news outlets. But the Hopewell Fund registered to use the names of multiple outlets affiliated with the States Newsroom as its own legal aliases.

The States Newsroom doesn’t “accept corporate donations or underwriting” but does not disclose its financial supporters, according to Chris Fitzsimon, the publisher and director of States Newsroom.

“That model may not work for everyone, but it works for us. We’re proud to be growing and providing a valuable service to our readers at a time when most traditional outlets are pulling back from state house media coverage,” Fitzsimon told OpenSecrets. However, multiple States Newsroom affiliates fail to meet “basic standards of credibility and transparency” according to NewsGuard.

IRS application records obtained by OpenSecrets show the States Newsroom was offered a $1 million donation from the Wyss Foundation, a private foundation primarily funded by Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, who made his fortune as CEO of a controversial medical device manufacturer called Synthes. 

A financial statement in the IRS records obtained by OpenSecrets shows that the States Newsroom plans to bring in more than $27 million in contributions before the end of 2021.

In addition to incubating the States Newsroom, the Hopewell Fund’s most recent tax return shows it gave $1.72 million to an organization called News for Democracy that was at the crux of a network of seemingly independent Facebook pages disguised as news outlets that started spending on digital ads in 2018. Like ACRONYM, News for Democracy received backing from both Sixteen Thirty Fund’s network and Hoffman’s Investing in US. 

Some of the ads were purchased through LLCs tied to MotiveAI, a Democratic digital firm with financial backing from Hoffman. 

MotiveAI rolled out a new social media-based pseudo news agency in 2019 called Versa LLC that disseminated video clips and aggregated news-like content with Facebook ads for state-specific pages through September 2019 but the pages appear to have since gone dormant.

Operations tied to ACRONYM and Sixteen Thirty Fund are some of the biggest coordinated efforts using pseudo news for political gain discovered to date. But other groups have used similar tactics. 

In 2014, the National Republican Congressional Committee created a web of pseudo news sites to further political agendas of House candidates on the right and an anonymous blog called the Arizona Monitor launched in 2018 to do little more than support Republican Kelli Ward’s Senate bid in Arizona. 

The Republican Governors Association operated a pseudo news site called The Free Telegraph without disclosing its involvement and was also tied to a similar site called The Republican Standard Facebook ads for the Republican Standard through the end of 2019 with the disclaimer “paid for by the Republican Standard” and no indication of its ties to the RGA. Another conservative news aggregator called American Action News is based in the same office as a hub of closely-tied Republican super PACs.

More pseudo news sites with hidden ties to political operations continue to launch in 2020.

A website called NC Examiner has paid to promote multiple videos emulating local newscasts, WRAL reported. The website looks like a local news outlet focused on health care in North Carolina. But a closer examination reveals that the site has little, if any, original reporting and a common theme among the aggregated articles is a negative portrayal of Republican politicians in North Carolina.

In fact, the videos and digital content are paid for by a left-leaning 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Piedmont Rising run by Casey Wilkinson, the former director of North Carolina’s House Democratic caucus. Financial records obtained by OpenSecrets show Piedmont Rising was created in July 2019 and projected it would raise more than $3 million during its first six months.

Piedmont Rising spent more than $118,000 on Facebook ads , most of which portray the website as a news outlet. In addition to pseudo news ads, Piedmont Rising paid for a handful of promoted digital ad campaigns posted by pages of social media influencers targeting Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) on health care issues. 

Like most other political operations mimicking newscasts, NC Examiner’s ads and website content avoid explicitly calling for the election or defeat of a candidate so their spending is not disclosed to the FEC.

May 22, 2020: This post has been to incorporate comments from representatives of States Newsroom and ACRONYM, including ACRONYM’s statement that Courier has attracted other investors since April 2019 and to reflect an announcement of its plan to divest interest in Shadow Inc.

The post ‘Dark money’ networks hide political agendas behind fake news sites appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Outside Money, 2020 presidential, ACRONYM, American Bridge, American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, American Ledger, Anna Massoglia, Courier Newsroom, dark money, Democratic Party, digital ads, digital advertising, election 2020, facebook, fake news, Fiscal sponsorship, form 990, google, google ads, Hopewell Fund, influencers, Media Matters, National Republican Congressional Committee, New Venture Fund, news websites, NewsGuard, North Carolina, Online Ads, pacronym, Piedmont Rising, political ads, Priorities USA, Republican Governors Association, Sixteen Thirty Fund, Snapchat, Social Media, States Newsroom, Steven Brill, super PACs, Supermajority, tax returns, tax-exempt, Thom Tillis, twitter, WRAL]

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[l] at 5/21/20 8:41am
Georgia The retirement of Rep. Rob Woodall (pictured) has set off hotly contested primaries for both parties in the 7th Congressional District of Georgia (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

A closely contested race with crowded primaries for both Democrats and Republicans in Georgia’s 7th District is grabbing national attention. 

Six Democrats and seven Republicans are scrambling to clinch their parties’ nominations. Historically held by Republicans, this time the suburban Atlanta seat which includes most of Gwinnett County and a portion of Forsyth County is a likely toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report.

Five-term incumbent Rep. Rob Woodall’s retirement prompted the scramble on both sides. Woodall narrowly defeated Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux by just 419 votes in the 2018 midterms, who now leads the crowded Democratic field raising $1.5 million in campaign cash for the 2020 election cycle. The Georgia State University public policy professor is trailed by Republican candidate Renee Unterman, who has raised $958,000. 

But the Democratic frontrunner faces stiff competition from a diverse set of candidates seeking the party’s nomination in the June 9 primaries. State Sen. Zahra S. Karinshak and political activist Nabilah Islam have raised nearly $665,000 and $536,000 respectively. 

While Bourdeaux received 88 percent of her money from large individual contributions, almost 23 percent of Karinshak’s campaign is self-financed, with nearly 68 percent coming from large individual donors. 

Islam received over 70 percent her campaign cash from large individual contributions with an estimated 66 percent coming from out-of-state donors. Meanwhile, other front-running Democratic candidates got a majority of campaign cash from in-state contributors. Islam also bagged endorsements from progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)

In the Republican primaries, businesswoman Lynne Homrich and physician Richard McCormick aren’t trailing too far behind Unternman, raising over $907,000 and $867,000 respectively. 

Club for Growth has also jumped in the race, spending over $280,000 opposing Unterman and $105,000 backing McCormick. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and the House Freedom Fund have also endorsed McCormick. 

Notably, a significant amount of campaign cash from the front running Republican candidates has come from their own pockets. 

Unterman self-financed nearly 63 percent of her campaign with $603,000. More than 60 percent of McCormick’s and 37 percent of Homrich’s campaign cash came from their personal funds.

While candidates are pouring money into the race, Bourdeaux is sitting on over $1 million cash on hand. 

Woodall took office in 2010 and won comfortably until 2018 when Georgia’s 7th Congressional District was the closest House race in the midterms. Bourdeaux’s narrow loss combined with increasing diversity in the district has improved Democrats’ chances of flipping the seat. Additionally, Gwinnett County voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in 2018, indicating a shift in the electorate’s demographics. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee listed the seat as one of 39 for their “red to blue” program that aggressively targets vulnerable Republican seats.

The post GOP retirement spurs crowded primaries in Georgia’s 7th district appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, DCCC, forsyth county, GA07, georgia, gwinnett county, Hillary Clinton, House Democrats, out-of-state donors, ro khanna, Rob Woodall, Stacey Abrams]

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[l] at 5/20/20 1:18pm
Joe Biden (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting Joe Biden’s White House bid, saw its donations disappear after the former vice president signaled to donors that they should give to a different Democratic group. 

Formed last year to back Biden’s primary campaign, Unite the Country raised just $723,000 in April, its worst month of 2020. Only about one-tenth of the group’s monthly fundraising came in after April 15. That’s the day Biden’s campaign put out a statement praising Priorities USA, the super PAC that backed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the last two presidential elections. 

Priorities USA had a much better month. The group announced Tuesday it raised $7.6 million in April and already brought in $9.3 million in May. Priorities USA seized on the Biden campaign’s statement, announcing on April 15 that it would aim to raise $200 million before the Democratic convention, an increase from its previous $150 million goal.

Biden’s statement was viewed as a signal to influential donors that they should bankroll Priorities USA. The stark drop-off in donations to Unite the Country demonstrates how candidates can legally guide wealthy donors to their preferred super PAC without violating rarely enforced laws barring coordination between outside groups and candidates. 

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Unite the Country’s biggest April donors gave before Biden’s campaign released its statement. Bain Capital executive Joshua Bekenstein and his wife Anita, a supporter of liberal nonprofits, each gave $250,000 at the start of the month. They made up most of the group’s April fundraising. 

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose daughter is on the board of Unite the Country, criticized the Biden campaign’s statement in an interview with the Washington Post. He warned that it would be “a horrible mistake to put all the eggs in one basket.” Others in the party questioned Priorities USA’s effectiveness after the 2016 presidential election when the group spent $133 million backing Clinton in a losing effort. 

The Biden campaign later released another statement saying it applauds Priorities USA’s efforts “while fully appreciating the roles that other independent groups can and will play.”

Priorities USA has already spent $19 million on independent expenditures backing Biden and shredding President Donald Trump on the airwaves. That’s more than any other group. Unite the Country shelled out $15 million, but a large chunk of that money was spent on the Democratic primary, which Priorities USA avoided. 

Biden’s preferred super PAC is attacking Trump over his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 90,000 Americans. Priorities USA released a new ad in swing states Tuesday bluntly stating that Trump “is failing America.”

Closely tied candidates and super PACs are commonplace in the post-Citizens United era. Trump headlines fundraisers for his preferred super PAC, America First Action, and has been caught on tape giving special access to those wealthy backers. President Obama and his 2012 opponent Mitt Romney attended fundraisers for their preferred outside groups. 

Prominent Democratic presidential candidates launched the 2020 election cycle with the promise that they would reject super PAC support. Biden was the first major candidate to break with that position, hinting to his allies in October 2019 that he needed outside support to survive the heated primary. As the cycle went on and candidates became more desperate, even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), an opponent of big-money groups, refused to disavow support from a super PAC that used loopholes to hide its donors from voters. 

The post Biden statement guides donors from one super PAC to another appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Super PACs, April, Citizens United, coordination, Donald Trump, donors, fundraising, Joe Biden, karl evers-hillstrom, obama, Pres2020, Priorities USA, super PAC, Unite the Country]

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[l] at 5/19/20 3:19pm
Federal Election Commission (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

The U.S. Senate confirmed Republican lawyer Trey Trainor to the Federal Election Commission over the objections of campaign finance watchdogs, giving the agency the fourth member it needs to enforce election laws. 

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Trainor on a party-line vote Tuesday. Democrats and prominent good government groups opposed Trainor’s nomination, concerned by his history of defending “dark money” groups that exploit loopholes to keep their donors secret. Campaign Legal Center President Trevor Potter, a former Republican FEC commissioner, said Trainor was being nominated to “render the agency toothless.” 

Commissioner retirements and inaction from the Senate reduced the six-person commission to just three members last year, leaving the FEC without a quorum for 262 days. Without four commissioners, the FEC could not change existing rules or pursue complaints alleging campaign finance violations.

The partially restored FEC is tasked with revisiting an extensive backlog of cases and ongoing investigations ahead of the 2020 election. But Democrats and Republicans on the ideologically divided commission typically disagree on how to enforce campaign finance laws and the addition of Trainor won’t change that. Any specific action, such as pursuing an investigation, levying major fines or issuing advisory opinions, requires four “yes” votes. That kind of consensus is unlikely. 

Hefty backlog of cases awaits divided commission

The FEC had 333 cases outstanding as of March 31, according to a recent report from the commission’s lawyers. The report found that 138 cases are currently in limbo as they await a vote from the commission. 

The commission is often asked to weigh in on issues such as dark money, foreign interference and unlawful coordination between candidates and outside groups. But since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Republicans on the commission have often voted to dismiss investigations into members of both parties, while Democrats have voted to pursue them. The FEC cannot have more than three commissioners from the same party, so most matters “deadlock” on 3-3 votes. 

Democratic commissioners argue that Republicans are failing to enforce the law. Republicans say they need to see strong evidence to pursue allegations of campaign finance violations, arguing that aggressive regulation of political groups chills free speech. Trainor echoed that sentiment during his confirmation hearing. He also said the FEC already has a system to tackle dark money, despite the FEC’s failure to compel dark money groups to disclose their donors.

Good government groups that argue for strong campaign finance laws, such as Issue One and the Campaign Legal Center, opposed Trainor’s nomination despite the fact that it would restore the FEC’s quorum. They argued senators should only confirm commissioners who will strongly enforce both the letter and the spirit of campaign finance laws.

“Reopening the FEC with a commissioner who does not think we should enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws will only make matters worse,” said Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee Tuesday.

The FEC already has a track record of deadlocking on high profile cases in recent years. During the era of unlimited-spending super PACs closely tied to political parties, the commission has not once punished a group for illegal campaign coordination. Republican commissioners dismissed complaints against a dark money nonprofit that spent its entire budget on political ads during the 2014 North Carolina Senate election. And the FEC failed to investigate alleged foreign contributions to groups backing President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign despite considerable evidence that later led to indictments. 

FEC commissioners have also struggled at times to agree on how to update its rules to accommodate technological advances. The FEC hasn’t come to a consensus on how to regulate online ads, which are a crucial part of modern political campaigns.

Commissioners came to a rare agreement to fine pro-Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise for taking money from foreign nationals through a shell company. However, it took “smoking gun” evidence for commissioners to agree to launch an investigation. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he wanted to replace the entire commission with six new members, noting that the current commissioners are staying on long after their terms expired. Republicans are particularly unhappy with longtime Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub, who has publicly rebuked President Donald Trump on his statements about foreign interference and voter fraud

The post The FEC is back, but challenges await the divided commission appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Campaign finance, Citizens United, coordination, dark money, FEC, Federal Election Commission, karl evers-hillstrom, mcconnell, nomination, quorum, senate, Trey Trainor]

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[l] at 5/19/20 2:09pm
Screengrab from an ad by the group One Nation – captured via YouTube

More than half of all TV ads in the presidential election and congressional races since the start of the 2020 election cycle were sponsored by “dark money” groups that keep their donors secret.

That’s according to a new analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project in partnership with OpenSecrets examining 2020 election cycle political ad spending through May 10.

Liberal groups aired nearly three times as many of these dark money ads during the 2020 election cycle than their conservative counterparts. This comes after the first election cycle where Democratic dark money groups reported more spending to the Federal Election Commission than their counterparts on the right. 

More than seven out of every 10 ads in House and Senate races were paid for by dark money groups that do not disclose donors, the analysis found.

Since many dark money group ads stop short of explicitly calling for the election or defeat of a specific candidate, the spending doesn’t have to be disclosed to the FEC. Multiple top Senate ad sponsors since the start of the 2020 election cycle are dark money groups that have reported no spending to the FEC whatsoever, including powerhouses Majority Forward on the left and One Nation on the right.

One Nation spent over $7.3 million on TV ads boosting Senate Republicans during the 2020 election cycle but disclosed no spending to the FEC during that time period. Linked to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) Senate Leadership Fund, the group is focusing on backing incumbent senators facing strong Democratic challengers.

One Nation spent on ads in Arizona and Maine where Democratic challengers Mark Kelly and Sara Gideon have outraised incumbent Sen. Martha McSally and Sen. Susan Collins respectively. It is also backing the reelection bids of Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) — candidates considered to be running a tight race. 

Masterminded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, the group is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not disclose its donors’ identities. One Nation spent more than $2.4 million on digital ads since Facebook and Google started making data available in 2018.

Going head to head against One Nation in two states is Democratic dark money group Majority Forward, linked to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer‘s Senate Majority PAC. Also listed as a nonprofit organization, Majority Forward has spent over $2.9 million on TV ads in Arizona, Maine and Michigan in recent months.

In Maine, the Majority Forward released a 30-second ad titled “Scrounging” attacking Collins for not scoring enough protective gear for healthcare workers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Responding to the ad, One Nation released an ad titled “Fighting for Healthcare” featuring Collins’ efforts to provide resources to frontline workers. 

The group also spent in Michigan where Republican challenger John James is trailing just behind incumbent Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in campaign cash.

Majority Forward has spent more than $1 million on digital ads since Google and Facebook started tracking them in June 2018 plus even more on ads sponsored in collaboration with other Democratic groups such as Priorities USA. 

In addition to ad spending by dark money groups that keep their donors secret, nearly half of all spending in Senate races sponsored by outside groups since the start of 2020 was paid for by “grey money” groups that only disclose some of their donors.

Only one of the 10 top spenders in Senate races since January 2020 fully discloses its donors. 

Democractic super PAC Senate Majority PAC tops political ad spending in Senate races followed by liberal group VoteVets. Both groups only partially disclose their donors. 

Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $12.4 million in the 2020 election cycle with much of that attacking incumbent Republican senators in five states including Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan and Montana. VoteVets spent more than $7.8 million on ads backing Senate bids of Democratic candidates in states such as North Carolina and Texas.

Democratic challengers have an advantage with an estimated 61 percent of TV ad spending used to support the Senate bids of Democratic candidates over their Republican opponents. Democrats received $34 million in air support compared to $20 million for Republican Senate candidates from Jan. 1 through May 10. 

Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action outspent all other groups on ads in the past month and sponsored the second-most ads overall during the 2020 election cycle despite not kicking off its spending until February 2020.

Political ad spending in the 2020 election cycle is projected to top $6.7 billion overall and outside groups backing candidates from both sides of the aisle have already poured tens of millions into congressional races alone. These outside groups disclosed spending more than $76.8 million in 2020 Senate races and $45.1 million in House elections to the FEC, but have poured millions more into ads where the donors and even the spending have yet to be disclosed.

The post ‘Dark money’ overshadows 2020 election political ad spending appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, 2020 house race, 2020 senate race, arizona, dark money, dark money nonprofit, election 2020, maine, Majority Forward, Martha McSally, Mitch McConnell, nondisclosing political entities, One Nation, Priorities USA Action, senate election, senate leadership fund, Senate Majority PAC, TV ads, votevets]

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[l] at 5/15/20 12:38pm
Biden (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden have different ideas about how to spend campaign cash. 

Flush with cash, Trump’s campaign is shelling out millions of dollars on ads blasting the former vice president, while Biden’s camp is still staffing up as it transitions into a general election campaign. 

All political candidates are currently limited in what they can do. The coronavirus pandemic has forced campaigns to move online, with candidates hosting campaign events and fundraisers from their homes. Still, OpenSecrets’ expenditures database shows how the presidential contenders’ strategies differ. 

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The Trump campaign spent relatively little on fundraising despite raking in more campaign cash than Biden. That’s because Trump’s joint fundraising committees that distribute contributions to the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee handle those costs. Make America Great Again, Trump’s committee that attracts small-dollar donors online, has spent nearly $76 million on fundraising expenses. Trump Victory spent $21 million on fundraising, most of which went to hosting lavish in-person events for wealthy donors. 

Those joint fundraising committees also help pay salaries for Trump campaign staffers. As a result, the Trump campaign spends less than 8 percent of its money on salaries compared to 26 percent for the Biden campaign. 

Biden recently launched a joint fundraising committee with the Democratic National Committee to court big-dollar donors. Its first virtual fundraiser was headlined by 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The committee encouraged attendees to give as much as $100,000. 

The Trump campaign spends nearly 41 percent of its resources on media compared to 37 percent of Biden’s spending. Both candidates are lobbing attack ads at each other amid the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has tried to portray Biden as being sympathetic to China in its campaign ads, while Biden’s ads accuse Trump of listening to China over his own advisers during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Trump has released a flurry of new campaign ads this month, including one that casts Biden as confused and others that applauds the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. 

Presidential spending surpasses $2 billion mark

Presidential candidates have spent $2.3 billion, with Democratic candidates accounting for nearly $2.2 billion. Presidential spending has already blown away previous marks, cruising past the record $1.7 billion spent in the 2008 cycle

Michael Bloomberg accounts for over $1 billion of that total. The former New York City mayor’s short-lived campaign faces class-action lawsuits from ex-staffers who were told they would be paid through the general election. Bloomberg had said he would keep his campaign going as a super PAC if he did not win the Democratic nomination. Instead, the billionaire businessman fired his campaign staffers and used a glaring loophole to give $18 million to the DNC. 

Presidential campaigns spent $523 million on broadcast ads, $418 million on online ads and $307 million on unspecified media buys. Campaigns spent another $308 million paying their staffers. The most expensive presidential primary ever led to an explosion of business for some of the top campaign vendors. 

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Assembly, the firm that purchased Bloomberg’s television and radio ads, brought in $507 million. That’s the highest single-cycle total on record. Hawkfish, a digital firm founded by Bloomberg, received nearly $67 million from Bloomberg’s self-funded campaign. He firm is reportedly in the running to work with the Biden campaign but has struggled to find other clients. 

American Made Media Consultants, an ad buying firm led by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, has received over $51 million from the Trump campaign alone. The campaign purchases all of its ads through that firm but doesn’t disclose how much it spends to pay sub-vendors, obscuring the campaign’s spending and making it difficult to identify coordination with closely tied outside groups.

Researcher Andrew Mayersohn contributed to this report.

The post How are Trump and Biden spending their campaign cash? appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, Expenditures, Bloomberg, coronavirus, COVID-19, DNC, Donald Trump, expenditures, Joe Biden, karl evers-hillstrom, pandemic, Pres2020, RNC, spending, Trump Victory]

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[l] at 5/14/20 11:24am
Telecom President Donald Trump and FCC Chair Ajit Pai (Tom Brenner/Getty Images)

Chinese telecommunications operators poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into foreign influence operations targeting the U.S. amid escalating tensions between the two countries over a range of issues from cybersecurity to trade and the coronavirus pandemic.

China Telecom shelled out more than $428,000 to foreign agents paid through its U.S. subsidiary since the start of 2019 and leading up to the Federal Communications Commission’s April threat to revoke the Chinese government-owned telecommunications operator’s license to operate in the U.S. That’s according to new disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act identified using OpenSecrets’ Foreign Lobby Watch tool. 

An executive order signed April 4 by President Donald Trump turned an ad hoc interagency group dubbed Team Telecom into the official Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector chaired by Attorney General Bill Barr. Like its predecessor, the committee is intended to limit foreign influence on U.S. telecommunications where security risks are identified. 

New applications and existing licenses may be reviewed at the committee’s discretion without referral from the FCC and without any specific deadlines. While the ultimate decision to revoke or reject a license still rests with the FCC, the order formally shifts significant power from a commission designed to operate independent of presidential control to committee members in federal executive departments serving at the pleasure of the president. 

On April 9, less than a week after the executive order, the Department of Justice released executive branch agency recommendations calling on the FCC to terminate China Telecom’s authorization to provide mobile internet, cloud data storage, television, voice platforms and other telecommunications services in the U.S. 

The recommendations were based on a review by the ad hoc Team Telecom group in place prior to Trump’s executive order, echoing earlier concerns such as potential risks of “exploitation, influence, and control” of the company by the Chinese government.

By April 24, the FCC threatened to revoke authorizations for U.S. operations of China Telecom along with three other Chinese telecommunications operators unless they can each show they are independent from the Chinese government and “China’s communist regime.”

The Chinese telecommunication operators, including China Unicom Americas and Pacific Networks along with its subsidiary ComNet USA LLC, were given until May 24 to respond to the federal government. China Telecom’s legal counsel filed a motion asking the FCC for extra time to respond and seeking clarification on the scope of information required to respond. In a May 4 reply, the FCC agreed to consider extending the deadline if China Telecom identified which  parts of the order it wanted clarified by May 11. 

In a May 8 letter, China Telecom told the FCC that its response is “frustrated” by lack of access to classified information and other information related to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act notice. The notice revealed the government’s intent to use information from classified information-gathering methods, including electronic surveillance, in the investigation of China Telecom.

In the year leading up to Team Telecom’s recommendations, China Telecom racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending on foreign influence and lobbying operations targeting the U.S. 

China Telecom first hired Ogilvy Group to target the U.S. with lobbying, public relations campaigns and other influence operations from January through July 2019, including “social media research and analysis, influencer identification” and “audience analysis”

Ogilvy’s strategy was to “activate” at least 10 “third-party influencers” to “reinforce a positive narrative” about China Telecom with tactics such as posting content on social media, publishing research briefs and opinion pieces, and submitting information to policymakers.

The agreement between China Telecom and Ogilvy specifies that “should a negative story appear, the firm will recommend and execute a response” such as requesting clarification to the story from the editor or a briefing with the reporter and “mobilizing” a third-party influencer.

In October 2019, China Telecom inked a new agreement with Levick Communications, a PR firm with a history of handling crisis communications for high-profile cases. Levick was promised a $45,000-per-month retainer from China Telecom and a $400 hourly rate for crisis communications support. Originally slated to last through the end of that year, China Telecom’s arrangement with Levick continued through at least March 2020. 

Both firms registered under FARA as part of the foreign influence operation acknowledge that their client is a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned China Telecom Corporation Limited, a joint stock limited company that originated as a government agency. However, they maintain that they are “without knowledge that any foreign government or political party controls, directs, finances or subsidizes Chinese Telecom.”

While Chinese telecom operators have taken center stage in the Trump administration crackdown on China’s technological influence in recent weeks, the recent executive order could potentially impact a wide range of operations since some foreign-owned media outlets fall under the FCC’s purview. The agency issues licenses for a variety of services including television or radio broadcasting.

Chinese telecommunications manufacturers ZTE and Huawei have long faced accusations from the administration and members of Congress, who say the company could endanger national security by providing espionage opportunities for the Chinese government. This week, Trump extended his May 2019 emergency declaration aimed at Chinese telecommunications manufacturers to bar U.S. companies from using telecommunications equipment made by foreign firms posing national security risks through at least May 2020.

ZTE spent nearly $4 million on lobbying in 2019, more than the Chinese telecom giant spent any prior year. Huawei budgeted more than $3.5 million for foreign influence operations targeting the U.S. in 2019 in a multi-part strategy to reshape the embattled Chinese telecom giant’s image through litigation, lobbying and public relations efforts.

The post China Telecom spending on foreign influence amid Trump admin crackdown appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 5G, Ajit Pai, Anna Massoglia, Bill Barr, china, China Telecom, Chinese government, Chinese telecom, Department of Justice, DOJ, Donald Trump, Executive Branch, fara, fcc, Federal Communications Commission, FISA, foreign agent, Foreign Agents Registration Act, foreign influence, foreign intelligence surveillance act, foreign interference, foreign lobby watch, foreign lobbying, foreign media, foreign money, huawei, influencers, Levick Communications, oglivy associates, Social Media, technology, telecom industry lobbying, telecommunications, Trump admin, White House, zte]

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[l] at 5/13/20 2:46pm
Washington Lobbying (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

House Democrats’ newest coronavirus relief proposal would allow influential Washington lobbying groups — funded by deep-pocketed corporations — to access forgivable small business loans. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) unveiled Democrats’ $3 trillion relief package Tuesday. The bill would provide nearly $1 trillion in relief to states, cities and tribal governments and authorize a second round of direct payments to American families. But buried in the 1,815-page bill is a provision that allows trade associations, unions and 501(c)(4)s, not just charities, to access coveted small business loans. 

The bill sets aside a portion of small business loans specifically for nonprofits with 500 or fewer employees. The Democratic Policy Center, a progressive group that opposes government assistance to lobbying groups, found that over 99 percent of trade associations and chambers of commerce have fewer than 500 employees. Some of the top lobbying spenders this cycle, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Realtors and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, could qualify for that pool of money, according to their most recent tax filings. 

Most of these lobbying giants aren’t short on cash. The pharmaceutical industry’s top trade group brought in $459 million in 2018 and had over $43 million in the bank, according to tax filings. 

“The fact that there’s no revenue cap here, that it can go to organizations that receive hundreds of millions of dollars every year and that exist as lobbying operations first and foremost, is just crazy,” said Andrew Perez, co-founder of the Democratic Policy Center. 

Trade associations are primarily tasked with lobbying Congress and the federal government on behalf of their members. Their influence operations include dispatching revolving door lobbyists with close ties to key officials, launching expensive public relations campaigns, flying their members to the Capitol and making PAC contributions to lawmakers’ reelection campaigns. A majority of the most powerful trade groups are led by former government officials who earn seven-figure salaries to leverage their connections. 

Trade groups have sizable sway over legislative battles. Congressional Republicans are currently pushing to shield businesses from lawsuits related to the coronavirus outbreak. That measure is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the big business lobbying group that spends millions backing Republican reelection campaigns with “dark money” each cycle. 

Prominent Democrats, whose campaigns and party committees are bankrolled by trial lawyers’ trade group the American Association for Justice, have attacked the Republican proposal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Congress must act to prevent the “biggest trial lawyer bonanza in history” while Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused McConnell of “fighting to protect corporate executives.”

Senate Republicans told reporters that House Democrats’ $3 trillion proposal is “dead on arrival” in the upper chamber. Democrats’ small business provision is a spin-off of a bipartisan measure introduced last week that would allow 501(c)(6)s with fewer than 300 employees to access small business assistance. Those lawmakers said the bill was meant to help local and state-level chambers of commerce. Major trade groups endorsed the legislation.

Trade associations’ PACs provide a large chunk of campaign cash to incumbent lawmakers. The National Beer Wholesalers Association PAC has already given $1.8 million to candidates this cycle, funneling campaign cash to over 400 members of Congress. The American Bankers Association and Credit Union National Association PACs each gave around $1.6 million. 

Corporations and trade associations cannot donate directly to candidates. But they can spend unlimited corporate funds on lavish fundraisers or create incentives for their employees to contribute to the PAC. About three-fourths of PAC giving comes from business interests, giving private industry an advantage over unions and issue organizations. 

Businesses and their trade groups dominate lobbying too, accounting for 89 percent of lobbying spending through the first quarter of 2020. The $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed in March is already the second most-lobbied bill on record. Even as corporations were hurting for cash, clients managed to shell out near-record amounts of money on lobbying to start 2020. Main Street businesses, meanwhile, are struggling to stay afloat as many have yet to receive small business loans.

Disclosure: The Center for Responsive Politics has received a loan from the Small Business Administration authorized by the CARES Act. Additionally, Andrew Perez previously co-published stories with OpenSecrets.org during his time with MapLight, an organization that tracks money in politics. 

The post House Democrats’ relief package would give Washington lobbying giants access to small business aid appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Influence & Lobbying, Chamber of Commerce, coronavirus, HEROES Act, karl evers-hillstrom, lobbying, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, National Association of Realtors, pac, pharma, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, stimulus, trade association]

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[l] at 5/12/20 10:54am
Trump Legal Fees (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign is spending unprecedented amounts of donor dollars on lawsuits and case-and-desist orders as it wages an expensive reelection battle.

The Trump campaign has spent more than $16 million on legal and compliance services between the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of campaign expenditures. That sum accounts for roughly 10 percent of the campaign’s total spending through the end of March. 

No other presidential campaign has ever spent that much money on legal services, including President George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign ($8.8 million), Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign ($6.5 million) and President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign ($5.5 million). Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has spent roughly $1.3 million on legal services this cycle. 

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, his campaign has helped pay legal fees for associates caught up in high-profile lawsuits and investigations. Now the cash-rich Trump campaign is using costly litigation in an attempt to crack down on negative news coverage and attack ads aired by his political rivals as November nears. 

The Trump campaign spent its biggest sum, totaling $7.9 million, with Jones Day, the law firm that retains former White House counsel Don McGahn. McGahn is at the center of a U.S. Court of Appeals case over whether Trump can block his former employee from testifying before the House.

The Trump campaign’s payments to Jones Day fell off over the last year, with some White House aides blaming that on Trump’s soured relationship with McGahn. Trump’s reelection committee has also shelled out $1.2 million to New Jersey law firm LaRocca, Hornik et al. The campaign has shifted many of its payments to Harder LLP, spending $2.9 million with the Los Angeles-based law firm led by Trump attorney Charles Harder. 

Harder and the Trump campaign have used litigation as a defense mechanism against what they view as negative or misleading press. They won retractions from London’s Daily Telegraph and MSNBC last year over misleading news coverage. The Trump campaign in February sued The New York Times for libel over an opinion piece that alleged a “quid pro quo” between Russian government officials and Trump’s 2016 campaign. It sued the Washington Post for libel a few days later over opinion pieces that alleged Trump campaign coordination with Russia. 

The Trump campaign has also used its legal team to go after individuals making unofficial pro-Trump merchandise and rogue PACs that pledge to support the president’s reelection bid. These companies and political groups are harming the Trump campaign’s bottom line by siphoning off potential donations from Trump supporters. Trump’s massive fundraising edge over Biden is lessening, with both candidates reporting raising around $60 million for their campaigns and party committees in April. 

The campaign is now leveraging its extensive legal budget in an attempt to remove anti-Trump political ads from the airwaves and intimidate news outlets airing those ads with costly lawsuits. The Trump campaign recently sued a Wisconsin TV station for airing an ad from Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, arguing that it misrepresents the president’s statements on the coronavirus outbreak. The TV station asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, calling it “speech-chilling litigation.”

While the Trump campaign is filing defamation lawsuits now, it previously invoked free speech to defend itself in several cases, including a defamation lawsuit from adult film actress Stormy Daniels and a lawsuit from donors to the Democratic National Committee

The Trump campaign is looking at the possibility of further legal battles in the near future. CNN recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Trump campaign over a TV ad that the network says deceptively uses CNN footage to mislead viewers. And the committee still owes at least $1.8 million to cities that hosted Trump campaign rallies. The largest bill, over $569,000, is owed to the city of El Paso, Texas, which is threatening to sue the Trump campaign. 

Although none spent as much as Trump, other presidential campaigns have had their own legal battles, In 2012, President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign sued Ohio over a law that restricted in-person voting. Obama’s 2008 campaign had some legal issues, including settling a copyright dispute with the Associated Press over the campaign’s iconic “Hope” poster. It also paid a $375,000 fine from the Federal Election Commission for failing to disclose some of its donors.

The Supreme Court will hear two crucial cases regarding presidential powers this week unrelated to the Trump campaign. The high court will weigh in on whether Trump can block prosecutors and congressional committees from subpoenaing his personal financial records.

Researcher Andrew Mayersohn contributed to this report.

The post Trump campaign spending unprecedented sums on legal fees as lawsuits pile up appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, Expenditures, Barack Obama, battle, Don McGahn, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Jones Day, karl evers-hillstrom, lawsuit, legal fees, Pres2020, Priorities USA, reelection, Supreme Court, trump, TV station]

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[l] at 5/11/20 2:19pm
California 25 A couple uses the curbside option to vote at an early voting station for the special election in California’s 25th District (MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

The special election being held for former Rep. Katie Hill’s open seat in California’s 25th District on Tuesday is being closely watched as polls and early voting figures suggest that the district could go red. 

Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia are facing off for the second of three times this election year to determine who holds the seat until January. The two finished ahead of 11 other candidates in a March primary to compete in Tuesday’s runoff. But they’ll also compete in November’s general election.

With a relatively older electorate that historically favored the GOP, Democrats are setting low expectations. Around 44 percent of the 118,000 ballots returned as of Friday are from registered Republicans, while 36 percent from Democrats, Politico reported.

In a tight race that is receiving national attention, including President Donald Trump accusing Democrats of rigging the election, Smith maintains a marginal $21,000 fundraising edge over Garcia. While Smith raised close to $2.3 million, Garcia raised over $2.2 million. The candidates spent around $1.9 million each, with both having over $300,000 cash remaining through May 2020.

Over 58 percent of Smith’s funds came from large individual contributions totaling $1.3 million, and almost 24 percent came from PACs. Garcia’s fundraising totals were driven by large and small individual contributions, which accounted for 50 percent and 40 percent of his campaign cash respectively. 

Outside groups poured millions into the contest, spending nearly $2.5 million against Smith and $1.8 million opposing Garcia.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent close to $1.7 million supporting Smith. It also released a 30-second ad targeting Garcia’s stance on healthcare and his relationship with big corporations. Democrats’ House Majority PAC spent another $502,000 on the race. 

Meanwhile, outside groups backing Garcia spent similar amounts opposing Smith, with the National Republican Congressional Committee and super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund spending nearly $1.5 million and $627,000 attacking the Democratic candidate. Over $381,000 was spent supporting Garica. The NRCC aired an ad slamming Smith, a member of the California State Assembly, for voting in favor of a controversial law that requires gig-economy companies to give workers employee status. 

The tightly contested race also saw the candidates’ get high profile endorsements. Smith was backed by president Barack Obama and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, while Garcia received Trump’s endorsement. 

The suburban Los Angeles district had been held by the GOP since 1992. Hill unseated Republican incumbent Steve Knight in the 2018 midterms, which was considered a big win for Democrats. But the party is in a vulnerable position following Hill’s resignation last year after intimate photographs of her were released online along with accusations of an unethical relationship with a staffer.

Hill came into the spotlight recently when she spent $200,000 from her political action committee to air an ad urging voters to cast their ballots.

Tuesday’s election could also be a litmus test for upcoming voting as the coronavirus pandemic is altering the course of elections. Roughly 425,000 voters in the district were mailed ballots, and the number of votes that end up being cast will be crucial for both Democrats and Republicans to chart future campaigning strategies amid the pandemic.

“If it’s a choice between ‘I’ve got to spend a little time thinking about who my congressional candidate is’ or ‘I’ve got to figure out a way to apply again for my unemployment insurance that I haven’t gotten yet,’ the answer is obvious,” Smith told The New York Times. “People are going to take care of their families. We get the challenge.”

A win for former Navy officer Garcia, a new entrant in politics who defeated Knight among others in the March contest, would be a boost for Republicans even as their chances of flipping the House seem to be dwindling

Tuesday’s election will fill the remainder of Hill’s term until January 2021, but both candidates will run again in the November general election for a full two-year term.

The post Millions pour into California’s heavily contested special election appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, Barack Obama, ca25, california, California House races, Christy Smith, Congressional Leadership Fund, Hillary Clinton, House Majority PAC, Ilma hasan, katie hill, Mike Garcia, steve knight]

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[l] at 5/8/20 2:12pm
Steve Daines Jon Tester Montana Senate E-filing Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, and Steve Daines, R-Mont., (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock might be trailing Sen. Steve Daines in fundraising, but his recent edge over the incumbent in polls has led national groups to pour money into the critical Senate race.

While outside groups backing Bullock are spending money to flip the Senate, the GOP is attempting to widen the field via third-party candidates in order to split votes. 

Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC is spending nearly $700,000 on ads attacking Daines as Bullock’s campaign gains momentum despite a late entry. The 30-second ad, which hit the airwaves this week, accuses Daines of protecting the interests of big corporations amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The ads come after the Montana Republican Party paid at least $100,000 for signature gathering to help qualify the Green Party for the November election. The GOP says it boosted the Green Party to provide more choice for voters, and accused Democrats of trying to “limit ballot access” to smaller political parties.

In response, the Montana Democratic Party accused the GOP of committing election fraud in order to siphon off votes. Democrats also reportedly told retired professor Dennis Daneke to file to challenge Wendie Fredrickson in the June 2 Green Party primary. Daneke claims he was contacted by Democrats after the GOP supposedly propped up Fredrickson for the Senate race.

“We didn’t want that Green Party candidate to get on the general-election ballot because she was unopposed, so I went online and filed,” Daneke told MTN news. He plans to take his name off the ballot if he wins the primary, in order to not pull any of Bullock’s votes. Daneke also urged voters to not vote for him because it would be “wasting their vote.”

As the state’s GOP and Democratic parties exchanged words, the Montana Green Party disavowed both candidates stating “none of those running under the Montana Green Party ticket this season are actual Greens.”

Despite Bullock entering the race in early March, he quickly raised over $3.3 million and has since held his lead over Daines in polls. However, polls also show 6 percent of Montanans plan to support other candidates, while 7 percent remain undecided. With third party candidates in the fray, the narrow margin could end up making it a tight race.

Bullock got the majority of his contributions from large individual contributions. Additionally, outside group Protect Our Care says it’s spending $250,000 on TV ads attacking Daines’ vote to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act. 

Meanwhile, the incumbent senator has raised over $7.9 million, of which 49 percent came from large individual donors and 31 percent came from PACs. Additionally, super PAC Americans for Prosperity spent over $283,000 on digital ads and canvassing backing him, while the Senate Leadership Fund spent $148,000 attacking Bullock before he even entered the race. 

Both candidates received considerable campaign cash from outside Montana, which has a population of just more than 1 million. While Daines received over 69 percent of his campaign cash from out-of-state donors, Bullock got over 85 percent.

Montana witnessed a similar phenomenon in 2018 when outside groups spent a record amount of $33 million as Democratic Sen. Jon Tester successfully defended his seat. That year the state’s Democratic Party sued to remove the Green Party from the ballot

Political parties have a record of using deceptive tactics in crucial Senate races, especially in Montana. With Daine’s touted as one of the most vulnerable senators, national attention is on the state’s race as Democrats need to gain four seats to flip the Senate

The post Outside groups, third-party candidates meddle in Montana Senate race with party backing appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, Affordable Care Act, Americans for Prosperity, Ilma hasan, out-of-state donors, Outside groups, outside spending, Steve Bullock, steve daines]

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[l] at 5/7/20 2:15pm
Amash Rep. Justin Amash (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Democrats’ hope for a three-way race in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District is now on the back burner with Rep. Justin Amash (L-Michigan) seeking the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president. 

Amash is leaving behind a highly-contested seat that at one point had 10 challengers in the field running to unseat the five-term incumbent. 

The Michigan lawmaker has been hinting at a presidential run for months. In February, Amash temporarily stopped campaigning for his House seat to “carefully consider a presidential run.” Amash told Reason last week that he will not return to his congressional campaign. 

Amash raised over $1.1 million to defend his seat through the end of March. Amash was the first Republican to publicly support impeaching President Donald Trump. Last summer, he left the Republican Party to become an independent. Now, Amash is the first Libertarian lawmaker in Congress. 

His flip from Republican to independent triggered the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to add the district to its list of targets in 2020. Democrats saw potential in a three-way race in November between Amash, a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate. A Democrat hasn’t held the seat since 1976. 

The Cook Political Report rates the district as leaning Republican. Hillary Clinton lost the key battleground state to Trump in 2016 by just over 10,000 votes. 

Immigration attorney Hillary Scholten is the sole Democrat still vying for Amash’s seat. Scholten raised over $510,000 through the end of March and has more than $259,000 in cash on hand. Scholten’s campaign reported that they raised more than $100,000 since Amash announced his presidential bid last week. Scholten has picked up a collection of endorsements, including shout-outs from EMILY’s List and the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.

Amash’s comments condemning Trump cost him reliable funding from the DeVos family who have a long history of giving to conservative causes. They also earned a challenge from Michigan state Rep. Jim Lower, a pro-Trump loyalist. Lower raised over $258,000 but ended his campaign in November with zero cash left in the bank. 

The highest remaining fundraiser in the pack, army veteran Peter Meijer brought in nearly $1.1 million. He self-financed over $334,000 of that total. Meijer secured high-profile endorsements from the DeVos family and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). He is the son of Hank Meijer, CEO of a prominent Midwestern supermarket chain. The DeVos family gave a total of $39,200 to Meijer’s campaign. The DeVos’ family company RDV Corporation is Meijer’s top contributor. Affiliates of the company gave Meijer over $42,000. 

Paul Rozicky, a political science professor at Mott Community College in Flint, predicts that other Republican candidates’ campaigns seeking the nomination in the August 4 primary could suffer because of the limitations that coronavirus has put on in-person campaigning. 

“Coronavirus has put so many things on hold,” Rozicky said. “That’s going to be an advantage for Meijer because there’s going to be a lot of voters who will at least have heard the name before.”

Meijer outraised his Republican competitors by hundreds of thousands of dollars. State Rep. Lynn Afendoulis raised over $453,000 through the end of March, while Army National Guard member Tom Norton raised only close to $27,000. 

Amash’s presidential exploratory committee has also raised questions about the implications of a third-party candidate in the presidential election. If he were to run, Amash’s presidential committee would be able to receive an instant influx of cash from his House committee. 
Amash has spent over $570,000 of the $1.1 million he raised. He stopped his congressional reelection efforts with over $644,000 left in the bank at the end of March. He still would be largely outraised by his opponents. Former Vice President Joe Biden and liberal outside groups collectively raised over $211 million but still trail Trump’s fundraising by millions. Trump and his allied outside groups have amassed nearly $294 million in campaign cash.

The post Amash presidential bid gives GOP an edge in Michigan House race appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, devos, Donald Trump, EMILY’s List, house of representatives, Joe Biden, Justin Amash, Kevin McCarthy, lcv, tatyana monnay]

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[l] at 5/7/20 9:07am
Lincoln Project A screencap form a Lincoln Project ad (via YouTube)

President Donald Trump is directing his rage at a new super PAC ad that accuses him of ignoring the coronavirus that has now killed more than 70,000 Americans. 

The Lincoln Project, a super PAC launched by prominent anti-Trump Republicans, aired an ad this week on Fox News that trashes Trump over his response to COVID-19. Trump responded with a tweetstorm ripping the group and its members, with much of his ire directed at George Conway, husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. 

That response seems to be exactly what The Lincoln Project was looking for, as it reportedly raised $1 million shortly after Trump slammed the group on Tuesday. The Republican super PAC has amassed a substantial war chest, but it has come under scrutiny for funneling money to its advisory board members and spending relatively little airing political ads to influence voters. The group also hides some of its vendors by stealthily paying subcontractors, making it difficult to follow the money. 

The Lincoln Project reported spending nearly $1.4 million through March. Almost all of that money went to the group’s board members and firms run by them. The super PAC spent nearly $1 million with Summit Strategic Communications, a firm run by Lincoln Project treasurer Reed Galen. Another $215,000 went to Tusk Digital, a company run by Lincoln Project adviser Ron Steslow. Both companies received little business from other federal committees since Trump’s inauguration. 

That seven-figure spending, noted earlier by campaign finance expert Rob Pyers on Twitter, comes as the group spends relatively little on direct political activity. The super PAC shelled out $364,000 to Galen and Steslow’s companies to run independent expenditures opposing Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. But just 52 percent of that money went to buying and placing ads, with the rest spent on producing the ads themselves. 

That’s an unusually high rate for production costs compared to most super PACs. At least 2 percent of independent expenditures from pro-Trump super PAC America First Action this cycle were labeled as production costs, with the rest going to ad buying. And that group has come under fire from Republican operatives for spending donors’ money generously

The Lincoln Project spent more than $19,000 on one ad opposing Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.). But just one-quarter of that money went to placing the ad online with the rest spent on production costs. In response to the group’s attacks on Senate Republicans, the National Republican Senatorial Committee called The Lincoln Project a “scam PAC” and accused its members of “lining their own pockets.” The Lincoln Project did not respond to a request for comment. 

Still, Federal Election Commission filings don’t tell the whole story about The Lincoln Project’s spending. The group buys its television ads through a little-known Maryland firm called Ashton Media, according to OpenSecrets political ads database, but doesn’t disclose paying that firm in FEC filings. 

Another firm, Howe Creative, appears to produce some of The Lincoln Project’s ads, but also isn’t listed as being paid by the super PAC. This suggests that Galen and Steslow’s companies are likely paying these firms as subcontractors. This process is also used by the Trump campaign to hide the specifics of its spending. 

Ashton Media was incorporated in March 2019 by Republican ad buyer Steve Hazleton, according to Maryland state records. Hazleton’s firm, SRH Media, was paid by two Republican committees this cycle, including former White House physician Ronny Jackson’s unsuccessful House campaign in Texas. Howe Creative most recently purchased ads for a super PAC supporting Democrat Dan McCready in last year’s expensive special election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District

Raking in small donor dollars

The Lincoln Project has spent over $276,000 running ads on Facebook. However many of these ads are geared toward attracting donors, often linking to the group’s donate page. 

Roughly 59 percent of the Lincoln Project’s $2.5 million haul this cycle comes from small donors giving $200 or less. That significant small-dollar proportion could be partially due to the popularity of the group’s members on Twitter. The Lincoln Project’s most prominent voices on social media include Conway, along with former GOP strategists Steve Schmidt and Rick Wilson. Those anti-Trump Republicans have promoted the group on high-profile cable channels like MSNBC and have authored opinion pieces in major news outlets including the Washington Post and the Daily Beast

It’s rare that a super PAC gets more than half of its funds from small donors. Of groups raising over $1 million this cycle, only 29 have done so. At least a dozen of those are so-called scam PACs that make their money by sending out automated robocalls to older Americans and spend next-to-nothing on actual political activity. Several other small-dollar super PACs are pro-Trump groups that have not received the president’s stamp of approval. Some of those groups have been accused of greatly inflating their political spending totals while funneling donor money to closely-tied vendors.

Only a handful of donors have given big money to The Lincoln Project. Its top donor is Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway, who gave $50,000. He also contributed to Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC and dozens of Democratic lawmakers this election cycle. 

Other big donors include hedge fund manager Andrew Redleaf, a traditionally Republican donor who contributed $25,000, and Walmart heir Christy Walton, who gave $20,000. Walton also contributed six figures to Shared Purpose PAC, a super PAC formed to back former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper

Ilma Hasan contributed to this report.

The post Lincoln Project capitalizes on Trump’s rage as its spending comes under scrutiny appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Super PACs, Donald Trump, George Conway, karl evers-hillstrom, Lincoln Project, Mourning in America, Never Trump, republican, scam pac, spending, Super Pac]

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[l] at 5/5/20 2:27pm
Real Estate (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

The story is part of a series about lawmakers’ personal financial disclosures. OpenSecrets recently updated its personal finances database to include data from lawmakers’ most recent filings released last May.

Congress slipped a provision into the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill that will save wealthy real estate investors billions in taxes. Some lawmakers stand to profit from the legislation meant to weather the impact of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed tens of thousands and left tens of millions out of work.

Members of Congress invest more cash in real estate than any other industry. That’s been the case every year since 2008, the first year OpenSecrets began tracking lawmakers’ personal finances. 

Under the bipartisan CARES Act, investors may use depreciation on their real estate properties to shield unlimited profits made in the stock market from taxes. The provision reverses restrictions in the 2017 Republican tax bill that allowed couples to only offset up to $500,000 in capital gains from taxation. 

Under the new law, investors and business owners may get retroactive tax refunds for business losses incurred in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The bill also eliminates a restriction that business losses may only offset 80 percent of taxable income in a given year. 

The Joint Committee on Taxation estimated that the tax changes will save taxpayers $135 billion over 10 years, with the vast majority of the benefit going to households making at least $1 million. The CARES Act also allows real estate owners to write off costs of interior improvements in the first year instead of spreading them out over the property’s useful life, which could lead to significant tax savings, The Real Deal reported.

President Donald Trump and his family members could personally benefit from the CARES Act, given their extensive investments in real estate. Members of Congress who helped craft the stimulus bill could also benefit from its tax provisions. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her husband Paul, a real estate investor, have millions of dollars invested in several properties. The Pelosis own up to $25 million in Russell Ranch, a lucrative residential real estate project they avoided disclosing for over a decade. They also own up to $25 million in Auberge du Soleil, a luxury Napa Valley resort.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) owns several office buildings in Bozeman, Mont., worth up to $5 million each. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) owns between $25 million and $50 million in Carlton Hotel Properties, which owns the Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) owns tens of millions in rental properties. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) owns tens of millions worth of rural real estate. 

The New York Times reported that Senate Republicans pushed to include the tax changes in the stimulus bill with the idea that it would provide needed funds for cash-strapped businesses. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) invests most of his millions in index funds and mutual funds. He reported owning one rental property worth up to $5 million. 

The CARES Act is already the second most-lobbied bill on record, with over 1,500 clients from every major industry reporting trying to influence the stimulus package. Political donors in the real estate industry gave $133 million to candidates and groups this cycle, including $32 million to super PACs. Some of the most generous political donors, such as Joe Biden backer George Marcus and Trump fundraiser Geoff Palmer, are prolific real estate investors. 

Since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses in mid-March, 30 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. With the jobless rate reaching depression-era levels, renters are increasingly struggling to make payments. Nearly 4 million homeowners entered mortgage forbearance plans through April, up from fewer than 150,000 in early March. As Americans battle to keep their residences, private equity firms are licking their chops at the prospect of once-in-a-lifetime deals. 

The post Congress invested in real estate, then it gave tax breaks to real estate investors appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Personal Finances, CARES Act, congress, Dianne Feinstein, Donald Trump, invest, karl evers-hillstrom, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, personal financial disclosure, profit, real estate, steve daines, stimulus, Vern Buchanan]

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