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[l] at 10/17/19 1:39pm
swing districts Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) (L) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) are among the 11 swing district Democrats who have thrown their support behind an impeachment inquiry. Both are posting strong fundraising numbers so far this cycle.

National Republicans see impeachment as self-destructive for House Democrats running in swing districts. But some of those frontline members are using impeachment to cash in with donors as House Democrats approach 2020 with far more money than Republicans. 

Of the 17 House Democrats in races rated as toss-up by the Cook Political Report, 11 have thrown their support behind an impeachment inquiry. Those members, all of whom represent districts carried by President Donald Trump in 2016, have had no issues bringing in cash. 

These pro-impeachment freshmen have so far raised an average of nearly $1.7 million through the end of September, based on reports filed Tuesday. That’s far more than the average House member’s haul of about $787,500. They haven’t had to splurge to get there, holding an average of $1.3 million cash on hand. 

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The incumbent advantage is working well for team blue so far. Through the end of September, Democrats running for House had a combined $292 million on hand compared to Republicans’ $208 million.

Some vulnerable Democrats are avoiding the subject of impeachment. Others are embracing it, noting their support for impeachment in fundraising appeals to supporters.

Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), whose Staten Island-centric swing district went for Trump by 10 points, ran a series of Facebook ads defending his decision to “defend the Constitution” and trashing his Republican opponents.

“First of all, I am not concerned at all by the NRCC or anyone that wants to try to challenge me because they already tried once and we kicked their ass,” Rose tells reporters in his campaign video, just before calling his opponents “absolute jokes.”

Another vulnerable member who joined the impeachment party late, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) urged supporters to back her campaign due to Republican attacks. 

“As a Navy Commander, I swore an oath to defend this country from enemies both foreign and domestic,” Luria says in a campaign ad. “That’s why I took a political risk and supported impeaching Donald Trump.” 

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a fellow Virginian who joined Luria and other freshman Democrats in a video interview with CNN about impeachment, also ran ads on the subject to raise cash.

“This week, national Republican groups started running attack ads against me for standing up for the Constitution and our nation’s security,” Spanberger says in one ad

Those vulnerable members in ultra-red districts haven’t been as aggressive. Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah), a top target of Trump, instead went after the Trump administration’s rollback of environmental regulations in fundraising appeals. 

Some of the notable members to avoid endorsing impeachment include Reps. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) and Lucy McBath (D-Ga.). Regardless, they’re still being targeted over impeachment by House Republicans’ top super PAC.

Republicans are on the attack — but will it work?

Republican groups continue to say that impeachment will hurt frontline Democrats in red-leaning districts, and they are running early ad blitzes to force the issue.

Pro-Trump “dark money” group America First Policies announced a $1 million ad campaign targeting 28 Democrats in swing districts over impeachment. The Republican National Committee recently targeted more than 60 incumbent Democrats — including the most vulnerable Democrats — with a $2 million TV and digital ad buy focusing on impeachment. 

Democratic dark money group House Majority Forward countered by airing ads backing 11 vulnerable Democrats over their “legislative accomplishments.” The ads do not mention impeachment. 

Vice President Mike Pence is traveling to House districts around the country to attack vulnerable Democrats over impeachment. He recently traveled to Iowa to support Republican David Young in his bid to take back his old seat from Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa).

Young is one of the few Republican challengers with money to spend. The former member has nearly $567,000 cash on hand, less than half of Axne’s total but still better than most Republican challengers at this stage. 

Max Rose’s likely opponent, Staten Island assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, is the top fundraiser among Republican challengers. She’s raised $757,000 and has $600,000 on hand, compared to Rose’s nearly $1.7 million in the bank. 

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) has emerged as a top target of Republican groups. But the former Department of Defense official has a $1.7 million head start over her eventual opponent — and she just got her first major challenger in early October. 

Meanwhile, most of the most vulnerable Republicans have already announced they will retire at session’s end. Those who plan to defend their seats don’t have much money to speak of. 

Scott Perry (R-Pa.) has raised less than $614,000 to defend his redistricted seat. Swing district Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who won by 2 points in 2018, has raised just over $1 million and has about $588,000 on hand. 

Some moderate Republicans have found themselves playing defense over impeachment, which has become more popular in recent weeks following revelations that Trump urged Ukrainain President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his potential 2020 opponent. Trump doubled down by telling reporters China should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden — and his allies are sticking by a message that the president did nothing wrong. 

The post Swing district Democrats build on cash advantage amid impeachment push appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, 2020, Abigail Spanberger, Anthony Brindisi, Ben McAdams, Cindy Axne, Donald Trump, Elissa Slotkin, freshman, freshmen, fundraising, house, impeach, impeachment, karl evers-hillstrom, max rose, outraise, q3, republican, swing district, vulnerable]

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[l] at 10/16/19 3:18pm
(SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

While some Democrats are spending more money than they are raising to stand out in a crowded presidential primary, President Donald Trump continues to expand his robust fundraising machine.

Trump enters the final quarter of 2019 with $83 million cash on hand, far more than the $61 million then-President Barack Obama had in the bank at this point in 2011 during his record-breaking fundraising effort to keep the White House. 

Meanwhile, the 2020 Democrat with the most cash on hand — Bernie Sanders — has $33.7 million. Polling leaders Elizabeth Warren ($25.7 million) and Joe Biden ($9 million) have far less than the president. 

If these trends continue, the upcoming election won’t be a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign had $773 million behind it compared to Trump’s $449 million. Instead, the Republican incumbent is approaching 2020 with a massive cash advantage

Crediting Trump’s monster $41 million third-quarter haul in part to Democrats’ impeachment push, the Trump campaign has momentum with both coveted small donors and wealthy financiers. 

OpenSecrets estimates that roughly 59 percent of Trump’s fundraising to date — around $97 million — has come from small donors giving $200 or less. That includes money transferred from Trump’s two joint fundraising committees, which route contributions to the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee accounts. 

Trump brought in just 38 percent of his campaign cash from small donors in the third quarter, dropping his overall percentage. That’s because his small-dollar joint fundraising committee spent nearly $15 million on operating costs to pay for merchandise, direct mail services and WinRed online fundraising fees, among other things, rather than transfer the money to the campaign. 

Still, president’s small donor support is unprecedented for a Republican presidential candidate. For reference, Mitt Romney brought in just 18 percent of his money from small donors in 2012. Republican candidates generally don’t do well with bite-sized contributions — the only ones who do happen to be top Trump allies, such as Lindsey Graham in the Senate and Devin Nunes in the House.

Trump unofficially launched his 2020 campaign within a month of taking office. It was an unprecedented move at the time, but it paid off. The Trump campaign has been running Facebook and Google ads for years in order to harvest contact information from supporters, building a massive database of potential donors it can draw from at a moment’s notice with an email or text message. The president continues to outspend his Democratic opponents on digital ads in 2019. 

The Trump campaign complements its small donor army with a battalion of wealthy supporters.

Trump Victory, the big-dollar joint fundraising committee, reported bringing in nearly $28 million in the third quarter, just $1 million shy of its previous three-month haul. It reported taking in bundled contributions from three Trump tied lobbyists — Brian Ballard ($295,000), Jeff Miller ($255,000) and Jason Osborne ($360,000). 

The joint fundraising committee is allowed to cover the cost of fundraisers by using donor money, potentially cutting costs for the campaign. As some wealthy donors give upwards of $700,000 to the committee, there is more than enough left over to pay for catering and other fundraising expenses. Like other Trump campaign groups, the committee tends to generously funnel cash to Trump properties, to the tune of more than $377,000 from July through September. 

Together, Trump’s joint fundraising committees transferred $26.6 million to Trump’s campaign and another $31.7 million to various RNC accounts in the third quarter. 

Now the undisputed leader of the Republican Party, Trump has almost singlehandedly willed the RNC to its best fundraising figures — $54 million cash on hand through October — in recent years. The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has just $8.3 million cash on hand and is now asking 2020 Democrats to raise money for the party long before the primary is over. 

The Trump campaign said it received a fundraising bump due to Democrats’ embrace of impeachment. The Center for Public Integrity found that the campaign did indeed capitalize on impeachment, reporting an uptick in fundraising shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed an inquiry. The deep-pocketed RNC is trying to take advantage of impeachment, too, airing ads to target House Democrats in red districts who threw their support behind the inquiry. 

The post Trump was outraised by hundreds of millions in 2016. That won’t happen again in 2020 appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, 2016, 2020, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, fundraising, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, karl evers-hillstrom, outraised, Pres2020, Republican party, rnc, small donors, trump]

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[l] at 10/16/19 1:46pm
Joe Biden 2020 Democrats Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

As the Democratic presidential field narrows, some of the top-tier candidates remain strong in fundraising while others struggle to garner enough support to stay in the game, Tuesday’s quarterly filings show.

Having sworn off high-dollar fundraisers, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the two frontrunners popular among grassroots donors and ranking near the top of all polls, respectively brought in $27.6 million and $24.5 million during the third quarter. Sanders now tops all his Democratic opponents with $33.7 million on hand, with Warren ranking second with $25.7 million.

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The pair is followed by South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who raised $18.9 million in the past three months and has $23.4 million on hand. The top-tier fundraiser is the most popular among high-paying jobs such as CEOs, consultants and physicians, OpenSecrets previously reported.

Tom Steyer, who jumped in the race in July and made his debut on Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate, injected $47.6 million of his own money into his campaign in three months, surpassing the $40.8 million President Donald Trump raised from donors during the same period. The billionaire’s self-funded campaign received criticism from his opponent, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who accused Steyer of buying his way onto the debate stage.

Others are lagging in fundraising efforts — but spending heavily nonetheless. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who had led national and Iowa polls until being overtaken by Warren earlier this month, raised $15.3 million in the past three months, significantly less than Sanders or Warren. The campaign spent $17.2 million during the same period. 

Trump, who was accused of soliciting foreign help from Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, launched a $10 million ad blitz against the former vice president. The Biden campaign countered the attacks with $6 million of TV ad buys.

Like Biden, most 2020 Democrats spent more than they raised during the third quarter, and some have little cash left on hand. The heavy spending comes less than four months before the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses — the kickoff event to the primary nomination season.

Sanders, who is recovering from a recent heart attack, won the backing of three progressive congresswomen — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The 78-year-old Vermont senator received an official endorsement from Omar on Tuesday and will appear with Ocasio-Cortez at a Saturday New York rally, where the congresswoman will announce her support for Sanders.

Appealing to grassroots fundraisers, Sanders hauled in a total $43 million from small donors — by far the most among his peers — which accounts for almost 60 percent of his campaign funds. The campaign spent $21.2 million during the third quarter, including roughly $2 million on Facebook ads. Sanders’ campaign also resumed a previously held-off $1.3 million TV ad buy in Iowa earlier this month. 

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Warren has received $31.9 million from small-dollar donors, which accounts for 53.2 percent of her total. The now-frontrunner spent $18.6 million in the past three months, including $1.7 million on Facebook ad buys. 

Buttigieg raked in less money this quarter than the near $25 million he brought in between April and June, exceeding all other candidates’ quarterly fundraising at the time. His campaign spent almost all it raised within the past three months, but still ended the quarter with more cash on hand than before.

Steyer’s campaign, by far the largest spender among all Democratic candidates, spent $47 million but still remained at a single-digit low point in polling results. The campaign announced a $100 million budget in July to advance Steyer’s presidential bid, and has spent more than $9 million in digital ad buys by far. He has spent almost $26 million on TV ads since entering the race, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Others are burning money faster than they can raise it, chipping away at what’s left in the bank. Former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who entered the third quarter with $7.4 million in the bank, ended September with only $548,601 on hand and more than $10 million in debt mostly to himself. Delaney has loaned his campaign $24.4 million, but has paid himself back $15 million. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who attracted $4.8 million in contributions during the third quarter, spent $7.8 million. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) raised $4.4 million but burned $6.3 million over the three months. Some candidates, such as former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Marianne Williamson, have less than $1 million left in the bank.

Some candidates invested hundreds of thousands flying in private jets. The Washington Post reported that Biden paid private jet service company EJCR LLC $924,000 during the third quarter, even as he lost his edge in polls. Buttigieg also paid Advanced Aviation, a private jet rental company, nearly $288,000 during the same period. 

The post 2020 Democrats are burning cash faster than they can raise it appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, Campaign finance, Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, campaign finance, Cory Booker, democratic debate, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Julian Castro, Marianne Williamson, Pres2020, tom steyer, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 10/16/19 10:58am
Lindsey Graham President Donald Trump introduces Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) during a rally (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) continues to reap the benefits of his national visibility as a powerful Republican lawmaker and ally of President Donald Trump.

The U.S. senator from South Carolina raised $3.3 million in the third fundraising quarter of 2019, the most money Graham has ever raised in a three-month fundraising period.

It also marks the biggest quarterly haul of any candidate in South Carolina history — and the most any of Graham’s fellow Republican Senate candidates raked in between July and September of this year.

He now has $8.4 million cash on hand in what is on track to become the most expensive race in South Carolina history: Graham is likely to face off in November 2020 against Jaime Harrison, a former state Democratic Party chairman who raised $2.2 million in the third quarter.

Graham is running for reelection at a time when he enjoys soaring popularity with the conservative base, won over by his continued support for Trump — who is now under threat of impeachment — and his viral defense last year of then-embattled Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Graham has looked outside of South Carolina to raise most of his money. Only 13% of his haul from July through September, or $224,237, came from 630 donors in state.

But Graham has grown his network of small donors giving less than $200. In the last quarter, Graham raised 36% of his money from these small donors, amounting to $1.2 million — a significant jump from the previous quarter when he raised $700,000 from donations under $200.

The money flowing into his coffers could be a recognition from supporters that Graham is facing his first viable Democratic challenger, assuming Harrison becomes his party’s nominee as expected. Though engineer Joe Reynolds and businessman Michael LaPierre are challenging Graham in the Republican primary, neither pose a serious threat.

Graham’s connections to Trump might also have helped him win more grassroots support, as trends show allies of the president tend to do well with small donors.

Graham might have even gotten a particular bump for his defense of Trump amid congressional Democrats’ announcement they were launching an impeachment inquiry.

It’s impossible to prove for certain that Graham got a fundraising boost from supporters energized against the impeachment efforts: Democrats set these gears in motion on Sept. 24, just days out from the third quarter fundraising deadline, and campaigns tend to report lots of contributions right at the end of a filing period as a result of last-minute fundraising appeals.

However, a look at Graham’s contributions show that the senator received $522,000 in the eight days following the start of impeachment proceedings.

Fundraisers, PACs and Bundlers

Grassroots support helped offset the apparent lack of big-dollar fundraisers Graham held this quarter as compared to the previous three months. Still, the Republican lawmaker still took in plenty of money from deep-pocketed donors between July and September.

Graham received nearly $116,000 from three joint fundraising committees, including roughly $67,000 from Graham Majority Fund, which is financed mostly by California donors.

The Graham campaign reported receiving $35,000 in bundled contributions from the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund, which backs politicians who support anti-abortion platforms. As the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham is helping confirm conservative judges who tend to oppose abortions to lifetime appointments on the federal bench. He also routinely introduces legislation attempting to curb access to abortion after 20 weeks.

Lobbyists and special interest groups also showered Graham with cash.

Norman Brownstein, a founding member of the powerhouse lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, raised $80,000 for Graham’s reelection campaign.

As the incumbent, Graham is favored by PACs representing powerful companies and other interests. PACs for media conglomerates Comcast and NBCUniversity ($10,000), News Corp ($7,500) and Amazon ($3,500) continued giving to Graham through the third quarter.

As a lawmaker closely involved in national security issues, Graham has received $8,000 from Lockheed Martin and $5,000 from Northrop Grumman, major defense technology companies.

Graham has also received $10,000 from Free Syria PAC, which opposes Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Graham is a strong opponent of Assad as well and is closely involved in the affairs of that region, so the campaign contribution may be a gesture of thanks and encouragement to continue looking out for the interests of the opposition.

This past quarter, Graham spent a total of $1.3 million on campaign consultants, office and travel expenses and meals at typical haunts around Capitol Hill. Chick-fil-A was a favorite choice for event catering for the Graham campaign.

And on August 12, Graham — a frequent golfing companion of Trump — spent $367 on accommodations at Trump’s golf result in Bedminster, New Jersey.

This story was produced in partnership between McClatchy and OpenSecrets. Redistribution for any purpose requires permission from both parties.

The post Lindsey Graham builds grassroots support amid defense of Trump appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Election 2020, Donald Trump, Emma Dumain, fundraising, Jaime Harrison, karl evers-hillstrom, Lindsey Graham, q3, scs1, South Carolina, third quarter]

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[l] at 10/15/19 4:01pm
Democrats (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Following Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) plan to bar corporate money from federal politics, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) each proposed overhauls to federal election rules early this week ahead of the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night.

The three Democratic frontrunners each say they want to radically change the current campaign finance system. The proposals come as Democrats increasingly run on the popular message of getting big money out of politics.

The candidates’ plans share common ground on implementing stricter contribution limits, steering toward a publicly financed election system and pulling off the improbable feat of repealing Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark Supreme Court case that allowed for unlimited independent expenditures on federal elections. 

What do they agree on?

Each of the leading candidates agree on reducing the influence of corporate money in federal elections. Both Warren and Biden proposed a sweeping ban on corporate PAC giving to campaigns and party conventions, whereas Sanders primarily focused on keeping corporate money out of party conventions and inaugural committees.

The candidates also want to limit the influence of wealthy donors on federal elections. While Warren and Sanders have long taken pride in their commitments to running grassroots campaigns attracting small-dollar donors, Biden is backed by a pool of high-dollar fundraisers. However, Biden is the only candidate who proposed to rid the federal election system of private dollars with a public financing system. 

Warren wants to establish a public funding system giving a 6-1 match to every contribution under $200, whereas Sanders’ plan would set up a mandatory public finance system for national party conventions. 

The candidates all put forward plans to either strengthen or replace the Federal Election Commission, which is currently paralyzed due to lack of a quorum. While Warren wants to reduce the number of commissioners to five and expand the commission’s power, both Biden and Sanders recommend replacing the agency altogether. Biden proposes a five-member commission overseen by a 11-member oversight board, whereas Sanders envisions a three-member commission with a background in law or ethics enforcement. 

The three front-runners also hope to overturn Citizens United and further regulate coordination between super PACs and candidates, which is supposed to be forbidden. Sanders pledged to support a constitutional amendment stating that money is not speech, which is likely to be met with court challenges. 

While the presidential contenders’ plans are ambitious and unlikely, campaign finance reform groups see the fleshed out proposals as a positive sign.

“It’s such a welcome development that top candidates … are focusing on fixing the democratic process,” said Adav Noti, senior director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “That hasn’t happened in decades, and it’s not just lip service. Top candidates are putting out detailed plans, committing themselves in writing to taking these steps if they get elected.”

Joe Biden (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Biden, who is often described by political analysts as the moderate and safe candidate in a field of trailblazers, proposed an aggressive campaign finance overhaul. The former vice president called for a constitutional amendment to eliminate private funding of federal elections and move to a system where campaigns are solely funded with public dollars. 

“This amendment will do far more than just overturn Citizens United:  it will return our democracy to the people and away from the corporate interests that seek to distort it,” Biden’s campaign wrote in the proposal.

Candidates who outraise their opponents win more often than not. Election spending is always increasing, culminating with a midterm-record $5.7 billion spent during the 2018 cycle. Biden’s proposal — extremely unlikely to pass as it is — would throw the current system out. 

Biden proposed legislation to match public funds for candidates receiving small-dollar contributions while the constitutional amendment is considered. He also urged legislation to ensure super PAC independence and require real-time donor disclosure from federal campaigns and outside groups airing ads within 60 days of an election. 

The former vice president proposed to ban political spending by dark money groups, which would likely be met with court challenges over the First Amendment, Noti said. 

Biden would establish a new agency, the Commission on Federal Ethics, to enforce all campaign finance and corruption laws, effectively doing away with the FEC. 

If Biden’s plan to combat big money comes off as surprising due to his reliance on wealthy donors, Warren’s is right in line with her campaign’s grassroots-focused message. 

Elizabeth Warren is spending heavily on national Facebook ads (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Warren unveiled an anti-corruption plan in September, which included bans on foreign lobbying and elected-official-turned-lobbyists, expansion of financial conflict of interest laws and stronger disclosure rules for lobbyists and government officials. 

Warren released another plan on campaign finance reform Tuesday morning, in which she reiterated her pledge against money from federal lobbyists and PACs and proposed several policies in addition to her September plan. The new plan, titled “Getting Big Money out of Politics,” aims to end the practices of corporate PAC contributions, lobbyist bundling and foreign corporate spending in U.S. elections. 

The plan doesn’t aim to eliminate private funding of campaigns, instead establishing a public financing program that matches small-dollar contributions 6 to 1 while lowering campaign contribution limits. 

The Massachusetts senator said she would increase oversight of outside groups, barring anyone with a close connection to a candidate from running a super PAC backing that candidate, and barring subsidiaries of foreign-owned corporations from contributing to super PACs. Warren’s plan also attempts to shine a light on dark money contributions to outside groups, which totaled $176 million during last year’s midterms. 

Warren also called for disclosure of bundlers — elite fundraisers who solicit contributions to a candidate from wealthy friends, business associates and other contacts — among her numerous proposals. 

“The system of money for influence is helped, at every stage, by secrecy,” Warren’s campaign wrote. “Presidential campaigns keep secret whole systems of recognition and special access events.”

Just two presidential candidates have disclosed information about their bundlers. Warren and Sanders, who have both rejected big-dollar fundraisers, say they do not have bundler programs. 

Bernie Sanders small donors (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Sanders’ upstart 2016 campaign was powered by small donors and a message of rejecting big money. The Vermont senator was the first of the leading 2020 candidates to release a plan to combat big money in politics, though his plan is not as comprehensive as Biden’s or Warren’s.

In attempting to state that money is not speech, Sanders’ plan would aim to overturn both Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruling that set the precedent that direct contributions to candidates can be limited but independent political spending by individuals or groups cannot be. Sanders would attempt to end political spending by super PACs and dark money groups, and replace the FEC with the Federal Election Administration, which Sanders dubbed a “true law enforcement agency” that can impose civil and criminal penalties. 

Sanders would aim to pass public financing laws for federal elections, introducing publicly financed vouchers that would allow any voting-age American to donate to candidates. Like Biden and Warren, he would also mandate public funding for national party conventions. 

The leading 2020 Democrats haven’t provided details about how they would pass their plans to overhaul campaign finance rules. Congressional Republicans have long opposed stricter campaign finance laws that they believe restrict or chill free speech. House Democrats passed an omnibus bill to overhaul election, campaign finance and ethics rules this year, but the bill has not received a vote in the Republican-held Senate. 

The post Leading 2020 Democrats want to get money out of politics — here’s how they plan to do it appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, 2020, 2020 Democrats, Bernie Sanders, big money, campaign finance, campaign finance reform, debate, Elizabeth Warren, fec, Federal Election Commission, Joe Biden, Pres2020, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 10/15/19 8:52am

Two years after the 2017 report that examined the continued practice of ‘shadow lobbying,’ researcher Dan Auble and journalist Karl Evers-Hillstrom are taking another in-depth look at the world of lobbying in President Donald Trump’s Washington.

While OpenSecrets.org has long been the go-to resource for lobbying data at the federal level, there is only so much straight data can reveal. Several loopholes in the Lobbying Disclosure Act allow top executives and other key players to get by without registering as a federal lobbyist. This can leave some or all of a lobbying operation’s details hidden from the public.

This practice can extend to former members of Congress. Since the end of the 111th Congress, 176 former members of Congress have taken a spin through the revolving door to enter the world of advocacy. Of the 32 senators to go into the world of buying and selling influence, only 13 have registered as lobbyists. House members are more likely to register, with 55 percent of the 144 former representatives registering as a lobbyist.

Despite repeated calls for reform from activists and from within the lobbying industry itself, Congress has yet to make substantial changes to the Lobbying Disclosure Act. 

“Our current lobbying disclosure rules have become an obstacle to transparency, leaving the American public in the dark about how influential forces attempt to shape federal policy,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “The time to revisit the rules and close the lobbying loopholes that are so commonly exploited is long past due.”

This new report takes an in-depth look at the practice of ‘shadow lobbying’—focusing on several aspects of unreported influence activity.


Read the Report Here

For any questions, please email Outreach Manager Brendan Quinn at bquinn@crp.org

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 22: Lawmakers arrive to the House chamber to vote on the continuing resolution to fund the federal government, Capitol Hill, January 22, 2018 in Washington, DC. The U.S. Senate has voted to end the shutdown, and Congress will now need to wait for the House of Representatives to approve the legislation. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


The post The Center for Responsive Politics is excited to reveal a new report on the status of lobbying in the U.S. appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Press Releases, press release, shadow lobbying]

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[l] at 10/10/19 10:13am
Kurds Syrian Kurds gather around a US armored vehicle during a demonstration against Turkish threats next to a US-led international coalition base on October 6, 2019. (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey launched its long-planned military operation on Wednesday to wipe out the Kurdish militia along its southern border with Syria, following a White House announcement on Sunday that the U.S. would step aside by withdrawing all its troops from the region.

The decision quickly drew criticism, with some of President Donald Trump’s fiercest allies condemning him for leaving behind Kurdish forces who helped fight against the Islamic State. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) swiftly proposed legislation within hours of the attack to sanction Turkey for invading northern Syria. 

Trump’s sudden shift in the U.S. foreign policy in the region comes amid controversy over his business connections with Turkey and aligns with the president’s pledge to stay out of foreign conflicts. It also takes place at a time when Turkish interests hired an army of lobbyists to sway U.S. politics.

The administration’s decision to pull out of northern Syria, which came shortly after a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made way for Turkey to launch the Wednesday attack. Trump threatened on Twitter to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy, but his Wednesday statement that called the Turkish offensive “a bad idea” stopped short of taking action to sanction the foreign government.

The Turkish government has long considered the Syrian Kurdish forces as terrorists allied with Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The two sides had multiple bloody conflicts in recent years. Touting the “defeat” of ISIS, Trump defended his decision to withdraw troops despite warnings from congressional Republicans about the rise of terrorist forces in the region

Trump ran on his promise of less interference in foreign wars during the 2016 presidential campaign. The president announced his plan last December to pull the troops from Syria due to a largely diminished Islamic State force, but eventually left behind 400 troops in the Kurdish-held region due to backlash from his Republican allies in Congress. 

The Turkish government has alone spent roughly $12.3 million hiring high-profile Washington lobbying firms — including one with close ties to the Trump administration — to influence the U.S. government since 2017. Turkish government-linked entities, such as Halkbank, Turkish Exporters’ Assembly and Turkey-US Business Council, combined to spend another $4.3 million in U.S. lobbying. Together, Turkish interests have doled out more than 20 times what major pro-Kurdish groups in Turkey and Syria have collectively spent during the same period. 

The U.S. Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, has spent just $112,000 on lobbying since 2018. The council lobbied Trump, lawmakers and administration officials earlier this year against the U.S. troop withdrawal. Syrian-Kurdish leader Ilham Ahmed also met with Trump at the president’s Washington hotel in January to discuss U.S. military presence in Syria and the fight against ISIS. 

The Kurdish effort was nonetheless diminished by heavy spending from Turkish interests. The Turkish government entered a $1.5 million contract this year with lobbying powerhouse Greenberg Traurig to promote its image and agenda in the U.S., Foreign Agents Registration Act filings show. OpenSecrets previously reported that the firm helped shape Turkey’s response to sanction threats from the U.S. earlier this year over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile system.

Greenberg Traurig is also, however, representing the Kurdistan Regional Government, an autonomous Kurdish-held region in Iraq that Turkey said was linked to the PKK. The KRG pays the lobbying firm a monthly fee of $20,000 to elevate the group’s profile and help gather support from the U.S., records show. 

The KRG released a statement Tuesday expressing concerns about the Turkish offensive following the U.S. troop withdrawal. The Iraqi Kurdish group has spent more than $7.5 million on its foreign influence campaign since 2017, inking high-dollar contracts with lobbying firms such as the BGR Group to garner U.S. support for the Kurds. Paul Manafort, former chairman of the Trump campaign, helped the group promote a referendum in 2017 that called for Kurdish independence from Iraq. 

Other Kurdish groups have spent significantly less on foreign lobbying. The Republican People’s Party in Turkey, which advocates for the Kurdish independence, has spent around $650,000 on foreign influence operations as it lobbies State Department officials and think tanks.

Meanwhile, some Turkish interest groups are the top clients of several prominent Washington lobbying firms, including Ballard Partners and Mercury Public Affairs. Both firms have retained multiple revolving-door lobbyists, including one foreign agent that represented Turkey’s interests while serving as a Trump White House appointee. Starting in 2017, Ballard Partners received $1.5 million from Halkbank and $750,000 from the Turkish government each year. Brian Ballard, the firm’s president, was a top fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 presidential bid and the vice chair for the president’s inaugural committee.

Mercury Public Affairs, which received almost $650,000 from the Turkish government in 2018, circulated an article earlier this year by Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, calling the PKK a terrorist that NATO should help Turkey fight against. The firm received $970,044 from the government-tied Turkey-US Business Council in 2018, and also represents the American-Turkish Council on a $50,000 agreement.

Several early members of the Trump administration had ties with the Turkish government. 

Before he became the national security adviser to Trump, Michael Flynn supported Erdogan in a 2016 op-ed after the Turkish president imprisoned thousands following a military coup. Flynn and his associates were later indicted for secretly lobbying on behalf of Turkey. A district court judge last month tossed out the case on Flynn’s business partner Bijan Kian, saying there wasn’t evidence to prove Kian was acting as an undisclosed lobbyist for Turkey.

The abrupt troop withdrawal also put a spotlight on Trump’s business interests in Turkey, which allowed him to rake in between $100,001 and $1,000,000 last year on Trump-licensed hotel towers in Istanbul. The Turkish-US Business Council has also held major conferences at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, featuring top Turkish officials such as Turkey’s Minister of Treasury and Finance Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law. 

Researcher Anna Massoglia contributed to this report.

The post Turkey outspends Kurdish forces on influence activities in Washington appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Foreign Lobbying, Anna Massoglia, Ballard Partners, Donald Trump, foreign lobby watch, Greenberg Traurig, iraqi kurds, kurdistan regional government, kurds, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, PKK, syria, Syrian Kurds, Tayyip Erdogan, turkey, Turkey-US Business Council, YPG, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 10/9/19 1:02pm
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In a break from tradition and a blow to transparency, presidential candidates are still not revealing information about the well-connected donors helping them raise campaign cash.

Federal candidates are not required to disclose information about bundlers — elite fundraisers who solicit contributions to a candidate from wealthy friends, business associates and other contacts — unless the bundler is a federal lobbyist. However, previous presidential candidates such as George W. Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voluntarily disclosed at least some information about their bundlers. 

As with his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump is hiding the fundraisers who are powering his 2020 reelection bid. And Trump’s Democratic opponents appear to be following his lead. 

None of the 2020 Democrats have released comprehensive information about their big-dollar fundraisers. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the only candidate to disclose a list of bundlers, but it doesn’t include any information about how much money each bundler raised, and has not been updated since April. 

A coalition of 16 pro-transparency organizations, including the Center for Responsive Politics, sent a letter Wednesday to 23 major Democratic and Republican presidential candidates urging them to disclose their big-money campaign bundlers.

“Implementing a robust bundler disclosure system that publicly displays information about all individuals who raise $50,000 or more for your campaign would help demonstrate your commitment to transparency as you seek your party’s presidential nomination,” states the letter, authored by campaign finance reform organization Issue One. 

Several candidates, including Tim Ryan and Andrew Yang, have said they would disclose information about bundlers but said they don’t have any. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar said they would disclose their bundlers but have not done so. Top contenders Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who both reject big-dollar fundraisers, have said they do not have “official” bundler programs. 

Trump and Joe Biden are among the candidates who have not responded to requests for comment on the subject. Trump rolled out a bundler program in May and has since amassed record breaking fundraising for both his campaign and the Republican National Committee. Biden’s bundlers may not be providing as much cash, but the former vice president is the most dependent on big-money fundraisers of the top 2020 Democrats. 

A donor can only give $5,600 to a presidential campaign, but they are free to ask their associates and friends to contribute in order to curry favor with their preferred candidate. These efforts often pay off, as presidents of both parties typically give sought-after positions in government to top bundlers or donors to the campaign. 

Michael Beckel, director of research, investigations and policy analysis at Issue One, said in an email that bundlers often ensure they get credit for raising large sums of money for a campaign. As such, donors are sometimes asked to write a specific code in the memo line of a check so the bundler gets credit, he said. 

“It’s plausible that a lower tier presidential candidate might not have a system in place to track the precise amounts of money by bundlers, but it’s inconceivable that a major presidential candidate with a bundler program would not be tracking how much money their top fundraisers had raised,” Beckel said. 

Among those candidates who did disclose their bundlers in past races, the quality of information varied. 

In 2012, the New York Times obtained a detailed list of bundlers to Obama’s campaign, including how much they raised for Obama since 2007. Obama’s actual disclosures only revealed how much his bundlers raised in wide ranges, as did McCain’s. In 2012, Obama used the same method while his opponent Mitt Romney didn’t disclose his bundlers.

In 2016, Clinton released a list of individuals who raised more than $100,000 for her campaign but didn’t specify how much they raised beyond that. Her opponent, Trump, didn’t disclose his bundlers.

The pro-transparency letter asks that candidates disclose the exact amount of money each bundler raised for the campaign. It also requests that campaigns upload bundler information in tandem with Federal Election Commission deadlines and in a format that is accessible and searchable.

These organizations previously sent similar letters in April and June but heard back from only a handful of campaigns.

The post Presidential contenders still not disclosing bundlers appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, bundler, bundlers, Center for Responsive Politics, Elizabeth Warren, fundraiser, George W Bush, Hillary Clinton, Issue One, Joe Biden, John McCain, Kamala Harris, karl evers-hillstrom, Michael Beckel, Pres2020, Tim Ryan, transparency]

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[l] at 10/9/19 11:05am
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Over the last decade, at least 176 members of Congress joined the influence industry, according to a new report from OpenSecrets that focuses on “shadow lobbying” and the revolving door

Leaving Congress for lobbying or consulting work is bipartisan. Since the 111th Congress, which ended in January 2011, 94 Republicans took a spin through the revolving door as did 81 Democrats. 

A whopping 26 of the 29 members of last Congress to join the influence industry were Republicans — a lopsided number driven by a wave of Republican retirements ahead of House Democrats’ sweeping win in November. The reverse happened during the red wave in 2010, when 40 of the 56 members who went through the revolving door were Democrats. 

A majority of the former members took their talents to K Street lobbying firms or major law firms that engage in federal lobbying work. 

Powerhouse lobbying firms Squire Patton Boggs and Akin, Gump are the top collectors of congressional talent, taking in five former members each since the 111th Congress. To kick off 2019, Squire Patton Boggs hired former Reps. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who retired at session’s end, and Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking Democrat who lost in a primary upset to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The firm also retains former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as an unregistered adviser. 

DLA Piper, Venable, Cannae Policy Group, Greenberg Traurig and King & Spalding each hired four members of Congress each over the same time period.

High-ranking members of Congress have no trouble finding high-paying jobs where they can leverage their extensive experience and connections. 

Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) received a seven-figure job at financial firm Moelis & Company, which advises corporations on strategic decisions. Former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.) worked as an adviser for Gephardt Group after retiring from Congress in 2011. Former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who read talking points from Saudi Arabia on the House floor, became policy director for Brownstein, Hyatt, which lobbies for the Middle Eastern country. 

None of those three representatives registered as lobbyists for their new gigs. But OpenSecrets’ analysis found that representatives on average are more likely to register as lobbyists than senators. Forty percent of senators joining the influence industry registered to lobby compared to 55 percent of representatives. 

The revolving door is nothing new, but an increasing number of lawmakers are trying to shut it through new policies, including Democratic presidential contenders Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Warren’s plan bans presidents, vice presidents, members of Congress, federal judges and cabinet secretaries from ever becoming lobbyists and limits other federal employees. It also attempts to expand the definition of a lobbyist to any individual paid to influence government. 

This week, Sanders released his plan to stop Washington corruption, which includes a ban on lobbying from former members of Congress and their senior staffers. 

“Congress cannot represent their constituents while special interest groups have the ability to influence decisions with corner offices and lucrative job offers,” Sanders said in a press release.

Lobbying experts say a ban on lobbying for former members — unlikely to pass Congress and survive the courts as it is — would actually encourage “shadow lobbying” if lobbying disclosure laws are not made more rigorous. 

Click here to explore a searchable list of revolving door members. 

The post Congress to K Street: 176 members left for influence gigs over last decade appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Influence & Lobbying, Akin, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Cannae Policy Group, congress, Dave Obey, DLA Piper, Ed Royce, Elizabeth Warren, Eric Cantor, Greenberg Traurig, gump, house, influence, Joe Crowley, John Boehner, K Street, karl evers-hillstrom, King & Spalding, lobbying, Revolving Door, senate, shadow lobbying, squire patton boggs, venable]

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[l] at 10/8/19 10:53am
A Dollar (Allef Vinicius on Unsplash)

Fewer competitive special elections and an aversion to super PACs in the Democratic presidential primary are tamping down outside spending so far in the 2020 campaign cycle.

The $27.5 million in outside spending through Oct. 7 is less than half of what it was at this point in the 2018 cycle ($63.9 million) and substantially lower than 2016 ($49.1 million).

But with more than a year to go until November 2020, there’s still plenty of time for independent spenders –– typically super PACs that aren’t supposed to coordinate with candidates –– to catch up.

In OpenSecrets data going back to 1989, every full election cycle has seen at least 25 percent more outside spending than the one four years prior. So what’s behind this cycle’s decline thus far?

The big drop-off from 2018 can be summarized in two words: special elections. The 2018 cycle featured the most expensive House race of all-time in Georgia’s 6th District, in which outside groups dropped nearly $27.3 million on what was seen as an early referendum on President Donald Trump’s popularity. 

While 2019 featured the second-most expensive House special election ever in North Carolina’s 9th District, the $12.4 million spent on that race simply can’t compare to GA-06. In addition, by this point in 2017 the spending in the Alabama Senate special election was in full gear, with $11.7 million already spent out of an eventual total of $20.5 million. This cycle doesn’t have a special Senate election to match.

What about the drop-off from 2016? That cycle featured competitive presidential primaries in both parties, with the Republican primary in particular shaping up to be a record-setter (remember Jeb Bush’s $100 million super PAC?). Through Oct. 7, 2015, the presidential primaries had already attracted $38.5 million in outside spending, $36.3 million of that on the Republican side. Seven single-candidate outside groups — each backing a different Republican presidential hopeful — had spent more than $1 million each.

In contrast, most Democratic contenders have either sworn off super PAC assistance entirely or failed to attract the wealthy donors who could support one. So far, the only single-candidate group to spend more than $1 million on the Democratic primary is the super PAC Act Now On Climate, which spent $1.8 million in support of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee before he dropped out. One other single-candidate group, the pro-Cory Booker Dream United, has raised over $1 million, but has made less than $10,000 in independent expenditures so far.

On top of that, the single-biggest donor to outside groups in 2016, Tom Steyer, has shifted his money into his own presidential bid.  As a result, the presidential race has been the target of only $8.4 million in outside spending so far — less than a quarter of the total at the same point in 2016. The majority of that has come from two groups supporting Trump, the Committee to Defend the President and Great America PAC, the two biggest non-party outside spenders of this cycle.

Some super PACs appear to be saving cash to spend in the general election that’s still more than a year away. For example, last cycle’s second-biggest outside spender, Senate Majority PAC, had already raised nearly $13.6 million through June 2019, more than any other super PAC, but has made barely more than $200,000 in independent expenditures this cycle. Three conservative super PACs —  Senate Leadership Fund, Americans for Prosperity Action, and America First Action — each had at least $10 million on hand as of their mid-year FEC reports.

But while those fundraising numbers indicate that there’s plenty of outside spending to come, it will take much more than that if 2020 is to approach the pace set by previous cycles. Most likely, some of the liberal megadonors currently taking a wait-and-see approach to the presidential primary will need to open up their wallets in a hurry once the nomination is decided. 

The post Why are super PACs and other outside groups spending so little this cycle? appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Outside Money, 2016, 2018, 2020, andrew mayersohn, Cory Booker, cycle, GA06, gas2, Jay Inlsee, low, Outside groups, outside spending, Pres2020, special election, Super Pac, tom steyer]

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[l] at 10/7/19 12:35pm
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Donald Trump (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

A little known U.S.-based attorney quietly poured six figures into foreign influence operations for President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, hoping to be rewarded with a job in his administration, foreign agent records identified by OpenSecrets show.

The new Foreign Agent Registration Act records reveal previously unreported meetings with Trump administration officials and details of a six-figure lobbying campaign promoting Zelensky’s interests in the U.S. during the leadup to his election and now-infamous phone call with President Donald Trump

The attorney, Marcus Cohen, claims his advice focused on “interactions with the U.S. government” in an “effort to offer advice to a potential new administration in the Ukraine” on issues such as “anti-corruption efforts.” Trump used similar language to push back against calls for impeachment after he reportedly pressured Zelensky to investigate his potential 2020 presidential election opponent and former Vice President Joe Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine.

Cohen’s foreign agent registration follows a request by the Justice Department, the FARA records show, as first noted by public relations outlet O’Dwyer’s. He has previously operated under the radar with little paper trail. Cohen previously said he voluntarily helped Zelensky “out of good will” after meeting him in Kyiv during the presidential campaign earlier this year, though Zelensky has vehemently denied any links to Cohen and told RFE/RL he did not recall the meeting.

However, Cohen’s new filing suggested that his efforts were not driven purely by good will after all. Instead, they were made “with the hope (but not expectation) that any eventual new Ukrainian administration might formally hire [Cohen] for a position within the Government,” the filing noted. 

Despite his lack of notoriety, Cohen not only provided “internal advice to the Zelensky campaign” but continued advising Zelensky’s representatives after his election, according to new FARA records.

Cohen’s FARA filing also reveals a previously undisclosed meeting with former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and former Trump campaign manager Mike Rubino along with Matt Mowers, a Trump campaign adviser who was on Trump’s State Department “beachhead team” and among the president’s first batch of political appointees. Foreign agents from Signal Group Consulting attended the April 16 meeting, according to Cohen, but had not disclosed it in earlier FARA records on file with DOJ.

Since his first reported meeting with Zelensky in February, Cohen’s spending benefiting the Ukrainian president’s campaign has topped $100,000. That’s on top of $70,000 in payments to Signal Group Consulting previously reported by OpenSecrets. Cohen spent more than $35,000 between February and June on other expenses such as travel, food, beverages and lodging. The American attorney frequently flew to Kyiv for ambiguous matters related to the Zelensky campaign, staying at the hotel Premier Palace and sometimes traveling by cruise with Riviera Travels and Tours. 

Cohen claims he received no compensation and had no contract or agreement with Zelensky despite multiple meetings with the Zelensky campaign.

Amended FARA paperwork filed by Signal Group around a week before Cohen’s registration also divulged initially undisclosed contacts with Trump administration officials after the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election earlier this year. Notable among the Trump officials contacted was Alexander Vindman, who oversees European affairs at the National Security Council. Vindman was one of five Trump administration officials chosen for a delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration featured in the whistleblower complaint alongside Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine who resigned after fallout from the whistleblower’s allegations.

The White House announced that the trip was led by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who Trump claims urged him to make the now infamous call to Zelensky, Axios reported over the weekend. 

Also among the delegation members was the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, a longtime Republican donor and Trump campaign bundler who funneled $1 million into Trump’s inaugural committee after he won the race. Text messages surrounding the Trump-Ukraine controversy, released following Volker’s testimony before Congress last week, suggested that Sondland was coordinating the communications between U.S. and Ukrainian government officials. 

The post US-based foreign agent bankrolled Ukraine President Zelensky’s DC lobbying in hopes of Ukrainian government job appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Foreign Lobbying, Alexander Vindman, Anna Massoglia, Axios, bundlers, Department of Energy, Donald Trump, EU, europe, european union, fara, Foreign Agents Registration Act, foreign influence, foreign lobby watch, foreign lobbying, foreign lobbyist, impeachment, Joe Biden, Kurt Volker, Marcus Cohen, Matt Mowers, Mike Rubino, Rick Perry, Sean Spicer, Trump admin, Trump inauguration, Ukraine, Ukrainian, Volodymyr Zelensky, whistleblower, whistleblower complaint, White House, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 10/4/19 2:02pm
Joe Biden Joe Biden speaks during the 2020 Gun Safety Forum in Las Vegas (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Joe Biden is losing ground among likely Democratic voters. And now he’s being outraised by his primary opponents. 

The former vice president reported raising $15.2 million in the third quarter, which runs from July through September. Biden’s campaign said the haul “put the campaign in a strong position as we enter the fall,” but didn’t acknowledge that three other candidates raised much more over the same period. 

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Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led the pack during the most recent period, raising $25.3 million and $24.6 million respectively. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought in $19.1 million, further cementing his status as a top-tier fundraiser. 

Many of the presidential contenders have not said how much cash they have in the bank, making it difficult to tell how well the candidates actually did until they file their numbers with the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 15. But Biden’s third-quarter haul represents a steep drop-off. Other candidates, particularly Warren, continue to build momentum. 

“The way I’m looking at it, Biden and Warren may be co-frontrunners right now, whereas a month ago Biden clearly was,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. 

Biden’s polling average has dropped to 26 percent, down from his peak of 41 percent, according to RealClearPolitics. Warren has overtaken Biden in some Iowa polls, and a recent CNN poll found that far more Iowa residents are considering Warren (71 percent) than Biden (60 percent). Warren is also dangerously close in Nevada and New Hampshire. 

Warren has so far achieved her poll numbers without a major ad blitz, allowing her to roll out a $10 million ad campaign in early primary states. Biden announced a $6 million ad campaign of his own on Thursday. Sanders, sitting in third, also launched his first TV ads this week. 

Underlying numbers foreshadowed the former vice president’s disappointing fundraising total. A whopping 2,819 donors have already given the maximum $2,800 to Biden through the first half of 2019, accounting for a far higher percentage of funds than to any other candidate. Those donors who already gave the maximum contribution for the primary election can no longer help fund Biden’s bid for the nomination. 

What’s potentially more concerning is Biden’s lack of support from small donors. He collected just $8.3 million from these coveted donors through the first half of the year, fifth among the 2020 Democrats. 

Biden gets little small donor support despite spending millions of dollars on Facebook ads, the go-to method to find bite-sized contributions. After shelling out more than any other 2020 Democrat on digital ads to start his campaign, Biden has slowed down in recent months. 

Kondik said Biden is running as the safe, electable caretaker candidate, which may not inspire as much enthusiasm from supporters. 

“Sometimes candidates who are the most ideological can inspire some of the strongest support,” he said. 

Joe Biden has become known this cycle for drawing much of his campaign cash from wealthy donors at big-dollar fundraisers. OpenSecrets found that Biden gets a large chunk of his cash from attorneys, physicians, CEOs and other donors in typically high-paying jobs. He doesn’t get much from those in working class jobs or donors who tend to be younger, unlike Sanders, the top fundraiser. 

Both Sanders and Warren got a head start by transferring more than $10 million from other federal accounts to their presidential campaigns. Buttigieg comes close to number two overall when excluding these transfers. Despite their major fundraising hauls, Sanders is stagnating in the polls and Buttigieg isn’t gaining any more steam. 

Biden’s allies are reportedly considering launching a super PAC to defend the Delaware politician from Republican attacks and to help him stave off Warren’s rise in the polls. Biden, like most candidates in the Democratic field, has said he would reject support from a super PAC. As these groups are supposed to be independent of campaigns, Biden would not be able to stop wealthy supporters from spending millions to back his bid. 

The post Biden far from frontrunner in Q3 fundraising appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, 2020 Democrats, Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, frontrunner, fundraising, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, karl evers-hillstrom, Pete Buttigieg, poll, Pres2020, presidential, primary, trump, Ukraine]

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[l] at 10/4/19 10:06am
Gordon Sondland Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union (DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images)

A series of text messages between U.S. diplomats released Thursday night reveals an apparent effort to pressure Ukraine into performing an investigation that could prove harmful to President Donald Trump’s potential 2020 opponent. 

One of the diplomats involved has a lengthy history as a Republican donor, while another performed lobbying work for foreign clients and a major defense company. 

In the exchanges, acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor asked Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union, if U.S. security assistance to Ukraine was dependent on “investigations.” Sondland responded, “Call me.”

One week later, Taylor texted Sondland: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland responded by texting Taylor he was “incorrect,” then said the diplomats should stop communicating by text.

As House Democrats pursue an impeachment inquiry against the president, they say the messages reveal that Trump demanded Ukraine investigate Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and his son in exchange for military assistance that was being withheld by the administration. State Department officials said the texts don’t tell the whole story. 

Also involved in the exchanges was Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine who resigned a week ago after being mentioned in the explosive whistleblower complaint.

While Taylor is a career diplomat with no record of political contributions in OpenSecrets’ database, Volker and Sondland were GOP donors before taking their new jobs in government, though one gives far more than the other. 

Sondland, who was considered an unlikely choice for his position, is a major Republican donor and bundler. He has given more than $446,000 to federal candidates and groups, 94 percent of which went to Republican causes. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Sondland denied he was sponsoring a 2016 fundraiser event in Seattle for the Trump campaign and said he did not agree with Trump’s values. 

But Sondland was listed as one of Trump’s bundlers in 2016. And after Trump won, he funnelled $1 million into Trump’s inaugural committee through four different LLCs, OpenSecrets reported

Political donors and bundlers are often selected to ambassador and diplomat positions, with the cushiest jobs going to the most generous givers. 

The White House tapped Sondland as the U.S. ambassador to the EU in March 2018. He was confirmed by the Senate two months later. One of Sondland’s biggest supporters in the upper chamber, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), received a total of $17,900 since 2016 from the to-be diplomat between his campaign and leadership PAC. Katherine Durant, Sondland’s wife, is a big donor herself, giving nearly $294,000 to federal candidates and groups and $57,900 to a Tillis-related joint fundraising committee in May. 

Also assisting Sondland in the nominations process was former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a perpetual revolver. Sondland reporting paying $60,000 to Kyl and two other Covington & Burling lobbyists to help him prepare for the confirmation process. 

Sondland’s political contributions date back to the 1980s when he was still an investor. He started his real estate investment company, Dunson Equities Corporation, in 1989, which was dissolved in 2013. He’s now the director of private equity firm Aspen Companies and the CEO of Provenance Hotels. 

Since 2007, the Portland, Oregon businessman has personally given the Republican National Committee $218,300 and the National Republican Senatorial Committee $68,400. Before bundling for Trump, Sondland gave more than $23,000 to Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise USA super PAC. He also gave $5,400 to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and $2,700 to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who reportedly pushed Trump to give military aid to Ukraine. CNN revealed this week that Portman supported U.S. efforts to pressure Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor in 2016 along with then-Vice President Biden and other Republican senators.

Appointed to his post in 2017, Volker is less prolific as a donor, giving just $3,000 to federal candidates and groups, including $1,000 to then-presidential contender Mitt Romney in 2012 and $1,000 to Bush’s Right to Rise. Volker was a registered lobbyist for BGR Group from 2011 to 2012, where he lobbied for former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and defense giant Raytheon, among others. Volker came under scrutiny for promoting weapons manufactured by Raytheon while in government. 

Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine, doesn’t have a record of federal political contributions.  Trump personally ordered Yovanovitch to be removed from her position after complaints from Rudy Giuliani that she was blocking investigations into Biden, the Wall Street Journal reported. Yovanovitch is set to testify before Congress on Oct. 11. 

Another State Department official House Democrats want to hear from is Ulrich Brechbuhl. The State Department counselor was appointed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018 after giving $12,200 to Pompeo’s congressional campaigns since 2009. 

Trump doubled down Thursday when he told reporters that Ukraine, as well as China, should look into the Bidens. Ukraine has said the Biden-linked case will be reviewed.

Most campaign finance experts agree that soliciting a criminal investigation into a potential political opponent, at a bare minimum, likely goes against campaign finance law. Campaigns are barred from accepting or soliciting a “thing of value” from foreign nationals or governments in connection with an election. The Department of Justice, led by Bill Barr, said Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not constitute a campaign finance violation

The Federal Election Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance law, cannot do its job as it is down to three commissioners out of a possible six. Only Trump and the Senate can change that

Researchers Doug Weber and Alex Baumgart contributed to this report.

The post The political giving history of Trump’s Ukraine diplomats appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, ambassador, Bill Barr, Bill Taylor, contributions, diplomats, Donald Trump, fec, Federal Election Commission, Gordon Sondland, Hunter Biden, impeach, impeachment, Joe Biden, karl evers-hillstrom, Kurt Volker, Marie Yovanovitch, Pres2020, trump, Ukraine, Ulrich Brechbuhl, William Taylor, Yue Stella Yu, Zelensky]

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[l] at 10/2/19 11:39am
Michael Mukasey Michael Mukasey (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

As U.S.-Iran tensions escalate, Iran’s domestic opposition group is courting allies in the U.S in hope to replace the current authoritarian Iranian regime. 

Last week, another former high-ranking official joined the camp.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, registered last week as a foreign agent lobbying pro bono for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a major Iranian dissident group pushing to topple the country’s current administration. Mukasey’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this week, Mukasey received attention for defending President Donald Trump in an op-ed, pointing to the Justice Department’s statement that declined investigations into the president’s July call with Ukraine. 

The council is the political arm of Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK. Responsible for killing Iranian and American citizens in the past, the group was a U.S.-designated terrorist group before its delisting in 2012 following a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign

The group also had close ties with Iraq President Saddam Hussein, who in 1986 sponsored MEK with weapons, funding and a military base in hope for help against the Iranian government. 

Although Mukasey officially registered his ties to the group just last week, he had previously met with the group several times between 2015 and 2018, Foreign Agents Registration Act records in OpenSecrets’ Foreign Lobby Watch database show. Mukasey is among a list of high-ranking former officials who gave paid speeches at conferences in support of the MEK, and was investigated, but never sanctioned, by the Treasury Department for potential violations of law for accepting speaking fees. 

Mukasey spoke last year in Paris at the “Free Iran” conference — a gathering of Iranian opposition groups — in favor of a regime change in Iran, promising that he would never rest while supporting the effort. “We hope that the mullahs will topple,” Mukasey said, “but it’s gonna take more effort.” 

The former attorney general joined lobbying firm Debevoise & Plimpton after he stepped down as attorney general in 2009. Since 2011, Mukasey and his family members have given more than $50,000 to mostly Republicans and their affiliated PACs, records show. Much of the money went to hawkish lawmakers including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

All three senators spoke vocally against the Iranian government in the past. In 2017, Tillis was part of a U.S. delegation led by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to Albania to meet with MEK’s leader Maryam Rajavi. She later thanked the Blunt-led delegation for the Senate’s effort to protect MEK members in Iraq. 

Cotton, a longtime critic of the Iranian government, pushed the Trump administration in June to launch a “retaliatory strike” against Iran after the U.S. blamed the country for a series of attacks. McCain backed Trump’s decision to shelve the Iran nuclear deal long before the president withdrew from the agreement, arguing that Iran has “literally been getting away with murder.”

Mukasey’s registration comes at a time when the U.S.-Iran tensions continue to build since Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.The already-strained relationship took a downturn after multiple attacks and U.S. military movements near the Persian Gulf.  

As the bilateral disagreement intensifies, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently warned that the Middle Eastern country will defend itself with an “all-out war” if the U.S. launches a strike against it. Last Saturday, the U.S. Air Force pulled its longtime Qatar-based Middle East command center back to South Carolina for the first time, the Washington Post reported, saying Iran-related incidents sped up the decision.

Amid rising distrust, the National Council of Resistance of Iran claimed last week that it has evidence proving the Iranian government dictated the attack on Saudi oil facilities, further fueling the conflicts.

Raising its profile in Washington, D.C., over the past few years, the group often participates in congressional briefings, receptions and other events, FARA filings show. They also frequently run opinion pieces in conservative media outlets such as The Washington Times, the Washington Free Beacon and Fox News.

The council has paid American lobbying firm Rosemont Associates $1.4 million since 2013 to lobby the government. Senator-turned-MEK-lawyer Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) — lobbying on behalf of the group — received backlash in 2002 for his support for Iranian opposition groups. While senator, Torricelli met with the council twice in 2001 discussing human rights issues and Iranian missile attacks, records show.  

Mukasey’s registration is only the most recent revelation in a network of current and former government officials and ambassadors with ties to the high-profile opposition group. 

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, well-known for his aggressive foreign policy views on Iran and other countries, is a longtime critic of the Iranian regime. He advocated for the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and proposed to bomb Iran to stop nuclear proliferation in an op-ed

For over a decade, Bolton publicly backed the MEK as a replacement for the current Iranian administration. His personal financial disclosures revealed that he was paid $40,000 in 2016 to conduct a speech to the group.

Between 2015 and 2018, the group met multiple times with Rudy Giuliani, former New York City Mayor and now Trump’s attorney, records show. Representing foreign clients while offering legal services to the president, Giuliani has invited scrutiny. The attorney, with rich connections with Ukraine, pushed the foreign government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden in the most recent Trump-Ukraine controversy. 

Giuliani spoke publicly on several occasions in support of overturning the Iranian regime.  “The mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go,” said Giuliani at last year’s “Free Iran” conference, “and they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents.” 

Torricelli, who has long lobbied on behalf of the council, published a Politico op-ed in 2016 arguing that Giuliani’s ties to the group should not be concerning.

Officials of the council met Giuliani in July 2015 to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, days after Iran reached an agreement with six other countries in Vienna to scale back its nuclear commitments in exchange for sanctions relief. Since Trump pulled from the deal, Iran has ramped up uranium production, potentially setting the country on a path to breaching the agreement as the U.S.-Iran tensions worsen. 

The post Former AG Michael Mukasey set to lobby for Iranian dissident group appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Foreign Lobbying, AG, foreign lobbying, Foreign Lobbying Watch, iran, Iran Nuclear Deal, John Bolton, lobbying, MEK, Michael Mukasey, National Council of Resistance of Iran, Robert Torricelli, Rudy Giuliani, trump, Ukraine, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 10/2/19 6:40am
Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is seen during a meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

Foreign influence and lobbying spending targeting the United States on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s interests has grown precipitously in the year since the death of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

Some firms attempted to publicly distance themselves from Saudi Arabia due to the controversy over Khashoggi and mounting allegations of human rights abuses. But other foreign agents and lobbyists capitalized on the opportunity to try to help improve the country’s reputation on the global stage. 

Saudi Arabian interests reported spending just over $16 million on foreign influence operations from October 2, 2017, until October 2, 2018, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis. In the year since Khashoggi’s death, Saudi interests have poured more than $27 million into influence operations disclosed in Foreign Agent Registration Act filings in OpenSecrets’ Foreign Lobby Watch database.

The vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s influence spending targeting the U.S. in the past year went to a lobbying and communications firm called MSLGroup in a stream of payments starting days after Khashoggi’s killing. From October 2018 to January 2019, MSLGroup raked in more than $18.8 million from Saudi government — more than Saudi Arabia spent lobbying the U.S. in the entire year leading up to Khashoggi’s death. 

Registrants are supposed to file every six months, but FARA filings often are submitted late. That can cause additional delay between when payments take place and when they are disclosed — meaning that Saudi foreign influence spending this year is likely to be even higher once other foreign agents submit their FARA disclosures.

Saudi Arabia deployed 39 lobbying firms and other registrants under FARA this year, down from 49 registrants in the year leading up to Khashoggi’s death. Those firms that stuck with Saudi Arabia were rewarded with big paydays. 

Overall, Saudi interests spent more than $38.5 million in the 2018 calendar year, up from around $19 million in 2017 and and just over $15 million in 2016.

Saudi interests have spent roughly $60 million on foreign influence and lobbying operations in the U.S. since President Donald Trump took office. 

Saudi influence networks deploy a wide array of strategies, ranging from more traditional lobbying campaigns to extensive digital operations. But even Saudi Arabia’s most conventional lobbying efforts are notable for more than just the vast amounts spent. 

An impassioned 2017 speech on the House floor defending U.S. support for war in Yemen by former Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) was taken almost verbatim from a lobbyist’s script handed to him earlier that day by a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia. After leaving Congress in 2018, Royce took a job at Brownstein Hyatt, which is one of the major firms representing the Saudi government.

Foreign agents and lobyists from at least two K Street firms worked directly with the aide who allegedly engineered Khashoggi’s murder. 

Sitting lawmakers targeted by foreign influence and lobbying operations are hardly the only politicians whose names show up in FARA disclosures.

Foreign agents working for Saudi Arabia’s U.S. influence or lobbying operations made over $1.6 million in political donations in the 2018 election cycle, and 2020 presidential candidates face the decision of whether to pocket money from foreign lobbyists or reject it. 

FARA disclosures are also rife with former elected officials who’ve since entered the revolving door. 

Multiple former members of Congress now registered as foreign agents used leftover campaign money in so-called “zombie campaign” accounts to funnel political contributions to the same lawmakers they were lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

Former Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) is one such former lawmaker who used leftover campaign money to make political contributions to House Armed Services Committee members while working as a registered foreign agent of Saudi Arabia and lobbying for defense contractors on legislation related to arms deals under the committee’s purview. 

Some of McKeon’s political contributions to lawmakers’ campaigns were made the same day he spoke with their congressional offices. McKeon’s firm continued to rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars just days after Khashoggi’s death.

At least one foreign agent simultaneously held a U.S. government appointment while being paid to represent Saudi interests as a foreign agent. Richard Hohlt registered as a foreign agent of the Saudi Arabian government weeks before the 2016 presidential election and just months before President Trump appointed him to the Commission on White House Fellowships. Hohlt continued raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars to represent  Saudi interests while serving on Trump’s commission but ultimately terminated the arrangement following backlash.

Trump’s campaign aides and allies have also been enlisted in Saudi lobbying efforts. 

One of Saudi Arabia’s highest-paid firms since Trump took office is Sonoran Policy Group, a lobbying firm founded by Trump campaign advisor Robert Stryk. The firm received a $5.4 million cash infusion from the Saudi government paid up front for “broad advisory services” under a contract that was reportedly terminated shortly after it was signed, resulting in the Stryk’s firm essentially being paid more than $5 million to “do nothing.”

Another avenue of Saudi influence in the Trump administration has been through Trump’s many business entanglements with foreign countries.

Saudi foreign agents and lobbyists spearheaded by MSLGroup have come under fire for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to put up a group of veterans at Trump International Hotel while lobbying for changes to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act — legislation that enabled 9/11 lawsuits against the government of Saudi Arabia — after those veterans claimed they did not know their trip had been organized and financed by the government of Saudi Arabia.

A 2018 report to Trump Hotel Chicago investors obtained by the Washington Post showed a 169 percent increase in Saudi Arabia-based patrons since 2016. 

While the Trump Organization pledged to contribute all profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, Saudi Arabia’s government alone spent more at Trump International Hotel in the four months after Trump won the presidency than the entire Trump Organization donated to cover foreign profits either year he has been in office.

And that’s only what Saudi Arabia’s foreign influence agents and lobbyists have readily disclosed. 

In addition to shelling out millions for lobbying campaigns, Saudi Arabia has also quietly strengthened its brand in the U.S. through less traditional channels of foreign influence.

Many of Saudi Arabia’s creative influence operations stem from psychological research built by a subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, a secretive defense and intelligence contractor called SCL Group hired by the Saudi Arabia to build a “psychological road map.”

A secretive cultural-exchange project called Gateway KSA enticed hundreds of social media influencers with invitations for all-expenses-paid trips to Saudi Arabia chock full of amenities ranging from VIP tickets to concerts and safaris.

The trips generated social media fodder from non-Saudi influencers across the world in advance of Saudi Arabia’s new tourist visa formally launched Sept. 27 as part of efforts to rehabilitate the country’s image and develop its tourism industry, according to reporting by Bloomberg and Insider. Gateway KSA is run by a cousin of Crown Prince Mohammed and receives support from Saudi government-owned entities.

Influencers were reportedly not permitted to explore Saudi Arabia outside their official itineraries, effectively limiting the content they shared to the parts of Saudi Arabia the country wants to promote. Instead of relying solely on posts by Saudi Arabia’s official government accounts to promote the country’s interests, the program enabled Saudi actors to amplify their message through non-Saudi social media accounts across the world and effectively curate what content influencers who accepted the invitations shared about the trip.

In August, Facebook suspended hundreds of accounts, pages and groups it determined were tied to the Saudi government due to “coordinated inauthentic behavior” attacking Saudi Arabia’s rivals and promoting the government’s propaganda. The ring of accounts spent six figures on  on Facebook and Instagram ads reaching more than a million people across the platforms, according to the company.

Last week, Twitter disclosed the removal of 4,525 more accounts linked to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

At least four of the accounts were verified, including one that belonged to a U.S. meteorologist who died more than two years ago. They appear to have been hacked and sold to pro-Saudi entities, according to research from an assistant professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar.

The thousands of suspended Twitter accounts were tied together by their frequent interactions with a recently-rebranded verified Twitter account called @TheGlobus, which as a news outlet. The same account had been previously linked to a pro-Trump information operation trying to denounce the special counsel report as a “Russiagate hoax.” Prior to its rebranding, the Globus was named Arabian Veritas and primarily posted news and memes favorable to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to researchers who uncovered the network.

In October 2018, Twitter suspended thousands of bots flooding the platform with favorable messages about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman days after Khashoggi was killed.

Following violations of “platform manipulation policies,” Twitter also suspended the account of Saud al-Qahtani, a Saudi official sanctioned by the U.S. after being implicated in Khashoggi’s killing. Qahtani is considered the “architect” of Saudi Arabia’s digital media operations, procuring bots and spyware to target perceived critics of the country.

Following Khashoggi’s death, the New York Times reported that the Saudi government reportedly had a spy working inside Twitter to help track dissidents like Khashoggi online and deployed an army of over 100 people working as a “troll farm” to go after them.

The post Saudi Arabia ramped up multi-million foreign influence operation after Khashoggi’s death appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Foreign Lobbying, fara, foreign lobby watch, Jamal Khashoggi, saudi arabia]

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[l] at 10/1/19 12:01pm
Impeach (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump took center stage last week and helped both parties rake in millions of dollars. While the president’s campaign and his political allies countered the inquiry with a rain of anti-impeachment ads, Democrats appear more reserved on the ad front. 

House Democrats overwhelmingly supported the inquiry, which came amid growing criticism over Trump’s July phone call with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky. During that call, the Republican president asked for a “favor” from the foreign leader to investigate his potential 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden. Trump is said to have likely pressured Ukraine on the issue by holding back U.S. military aid packages to the country before his phone call with Zelensky. 

In response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) launch of the inquiry last Tuesday, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee quickly set up an “Official Impeachment Defense Task Force,” sending out fundraising emails to conservative voters asking them to defend Trump’s presidency. 

The campaign sent out the message via all platforms: digital ads, emails and text messages to collect signatures for the Impeachment Defense Team. In three hours after Pelosi’s announcement, the initiative brought in a reported $1 million.

That number rose to $5 million within 24 hours of the impeachment announcement and climbed to $13 million the next day following several fundraising events, adding 50,000 new donors to the Trump campaign, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale said on Twitter. 

Democrats also saw an uptick in their fundraising efforts. ActBlue, an online fundraising platform for Democratic candidates, said it saw $4.6 million of contributions last Tuesday, following $4.2 million the day before, the New York Times reported.

The money Trump and his party raised was soon put to use, as the campaign and the party announced last Friday a $10 million TV ad blitz slamming Biden for pressing Ukraine to fire its former chief prosecutor Viktor Shokin for failure to investigate corruption. The ad, which Trump tweeted out last Friday, accuses Democrats of attempting to use the impeachment inquiry to hijack the election.

In the face of a personal attack from the president, Biden countered with his own digital ad campaign condemning Trump’s behaviors and painting himself as posing “the biggest threat” to Trump’s presidency, spending $106,197 last week. In one of his Facebook ads, Biden said Trump’s “smear campaign” targeted him because he could “beat him like a drum.” Biden’s ads did not mention the term “impeachment.” 

Former Biden staffers are planning a super PAC to help counter attacks against the former vice president from Trump and pro-Trump groups. However, Biden’s campaign had said it wouldn’t welcome outside spending to aid him. 

Trump’s campaign, along with his joint fundraising committee — the Trump Make America Great Again Committee — spent more than $2.1 million last week running Facebook ads, sending similar messages to appeal to his voters. The ads denounced the impeachment as “baseless and disgusting attacks” and an attempt to take away votes from Trump. Some of the ads also called for voters to join his impeachment defense task force against the Democratic “witch hunt.” 

Trump’s effort is joined by a cash-rich Republican Party and some of his political allies. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who on Monday acknowledged a successful House impeachment would leave the Senate no choice but to put Trump on trial, spent $35,547 on Facebook ads last week, calling those who support impeachment “Nancy Pelosi and the left-wing mob.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee bought $17,656 worth of Facebook ads last week asking voters to protect Trump from the “radical left.” The conservative group started running Facebook ads last week to target several Congress members, including Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Elaine Luria (D-Va.), two Democrats facing re-election in Republican-leaning Virginia districts. The two congresswomen co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with five other Democrats last week supporting the impeachment inquiry. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent almost $60,000 on Facebook ads, claiming that any donation would be quadruple-matched. Due to campaign finance limits and the lack of accountability oversight, however, it remains unclear how exactly campaigns can deliver the promise of donation-matching.

Outside Washington, D.C., Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last week the establishment of the “Presidential Protection Fund” to fight impeachment,  Local 10 News reported. 

One group of conservatives isn’t defending Trump. Republicans for the Rule of Law, a group run by Republicans long critical of the president, said it launched $1 million of TV and digital ads during the past weekend. The ads target multiple Republican members of Congress, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), McClatchy reported. The half-minute ad blasts Trump’s request of Zelensky as an “abuse of power” and calls for Republicans to hold Trump accountable.

Democrats are falling short of a clear and united message, however, with party moderates worrying progressives are too strong-headed on impeaching Trump, Politico reported. Lawmakers are also concerned that the party does not have a fleshed-out strategy moving forward with the inquiry. 

While the Republican Party committees are sending out strong anti-impeachment messages, their Democratic counterparts are acting gingerly without mentioning impeachment. Pelosi’s campaign and her leadership PAC — PAC to the Future — spent more than $26,000 on Facebook ads last week, calling for support to “end corruption.”

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopefuls focused on raising as much as they could before the end-of-quarter FEC deadline on Monday. Few of them mentioned the term “impeachment” in their online advertising campaigns. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) specifically asked his voters in one of his ads to drop the “obsession” with Trump and impeachment and instead focus on social issues such as expanding the Medicare system. 

The post Amid impeachment inquiry, Democrats can’t keep up with multi-million dollar spending by Trump allies appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, Political Ads, Abigail Spanberger, actblue, Democratic Party, Donald Trump, Elaine Luria, impeach, impeachment, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, national security, political ads, Pres2020, Republican National Committee, Republican party, Trump Make America Great Again, Ukraine, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 9/27/19 8:09am
Trump (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Stephen Cory set up his first pro-President Donald Trump billboards a few days ago. Printed in bold blue-and-red font, the billboards called for America-first healthcare and foreign war prevention.

The ads are part of a “billboard campaign” Cory helped launch for America First Victory Fund, a new super PAC. The group hopes to convey conservative messages through billboards, Cory said, because he thinks conservative voices are being unfairly banned on social media platforms. The group also promised donors a chance to win “exclusive rewards,” details of which are still in the works, Cory said.

The name of the group resembles America First Action Inc., the only Trump campaign-approved super PAC raising money to support the president’s re-election. The name is also similar to Trump Victory Fund, a mysterious group which the Trump team disavowed earlier this month for falsely associating itself with the president.

Trump’s victory in 2016 was boosted by a group of super PACs and tax-exempt organizations fundraising in his name, even though the then-presidential candidate appeared to loathe them. The billionaire distanced his campaign from such groups as they pushed for his agenda, spending more than $72 million to help secure his win against Hillary Clinton by the end of 2016. 

As the 2020 election nears, similar groups are again on the rise, adopting names with key terms that align with Trump’s policies or slogans that appeal to his voters. Instead of aiding Trump and his political allies’ campaigns, some of these groups use the money they raise in Trump’s name to fill their own coffers. 

Although America First Action is closely tied to the Trump campaign, super PACs are generally supposed to be independent of campaigns, meaning Trump cannot stop the spread of “unofficial” pro-Trump groups. 

Cory said he picked the name simply because the idea of “America First” appeals to him. Identifying as a group of “nationalists,” the organization labeled itself a “PAC for the American people.” It also refers to itself as “the America First Team” in short. 

“If there’s other PACs that have similar names … I hope they agree with us politically,” he said.

The Florida-based super PAC isn’t the only political group branded “America First” while aligning with Trump’s agenda.

Another Sunshine State group pushing Trump’s message, America First Agenda, has been around a bit longer. Formed during last year’s midterm election cycle to boost a Florida Republican’s congressional campaign, the super PAC is still raising plenty of money — and spending it generously. 

Through the first half of the 2020 cycle, America First Agenda raised nearly $478,000, 91 percent of which came from small donors giving $200 or less. The group hasn’t spent a dime on independent expenditures to back Trump or any other Republican candidate, instead shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to direct mail companies to attract a constant stream of small-donor cash. 

The super PAC spent money on hotels, car rentals and dinners at expensive Florida restaurants. To pay for them, America First Agenda reimbursed $5,868 to Reaganista LLC, an obscure company owned by the group’s chairman, Christian Camara.

Camara is an alumnus of the free market think-tank R Street Institute and now runs a company called Chamber Consultants LLC, according to his LinkedIn page. 

The super PAC followed a similar game plan in 2018 when it claimed it was supporting Florida congressional candidate Javier Manjarres. During last year’s midterms, it raised nearly $1.6 million and spent nearly all of that money on direct mail and political consulting, also sending nearly $35,000 to Camara. 

Following Manjarres’ loss in the Florida 22nd District Republican primary, the group stopped posting on its Twitter and Facebook pages. But it continued to send out fundraising appeals throughout the country. The super PAC continues to collect most of its cash from donors who list their occupation as retired, benefitting from direct mail fundraising companies like Image Direct and HSP Direct. Camara did not respond to a request for comment. 

Many more political groups adopted similar methods to attract mostly small-dollar and elderly donors. The Trump campaign released a statement in May condemning groups that confuse voters and profit from the Trump brand and its likeness.

The statement came shortly after a report found that Trump’s former deputy campaign manager David Bossie raised millions for his political organization — The Presidential Coalition — in the name of supporting Trump’s “conservative agenda.”

Touting Bossie’s close ties with Trump and using the president’s name to draw support from conservatives, the group raked in millions of dollars after Trump won the election in 2016, raising $5 million the following year and $13 million last year, according to the report by the Campaign Legal Center and Axios.

Instead of helping Republican candidates, most of the money the group raised — mainly from small-dollar donors and seniors who thought they were supporting Trump — ended up covering fundraising and administrative costs, including Bossie’s six-figure salary. Of the $15.4 million it spent between 2017 and 2018, only 3 percent went to support political activities, the report found. 

Pro-Trump group Keeping America Great PAC, run by former Trump campaign staffer Corey Stewart, also drew ire from the president. Almost exclusively funded by Florida donor William Cooley, the group spent nearly $120,000 supporting former Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) in his unsuccessful congressional race last year.

With a name echoing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” appeal, the group reported spending $5,000 supporting the president during the 2020 election cycle thus far. The Trump team, however, worried that Stewart’s group would use the appeal to mislead donors to believe they were giving directly to the campaign, ABC News reported. The team filed a notice of disavowal of the PAC in March.

After sparking criticism from the Trump campaign, Stewart changed course and took down Trump images from the PAC’s website, CNN reported.

The president’s campaign also disavowed several other groups over the past months, including Latinos for Trump, Latinos for the President and Support American Leaders PAC. 

Great America PAC reported shelling out $23.6 million to fuel Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, and has reported spending $2.1 million so far this cycle. “We have been and continue to be President Donald Trump’s strongest and most active independent ally,” the group’s website noted.

The group recently launched a six-figure ad blitz urging Congress to investigate in Biden and his son, The Hill reported. The ad campaign comes at a time when the president is facing an impeachment inquiry from the House and receiving backlash for potential abuse of power over his phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky. 

FEC chairwoman Ellen Weintraub and then-commissioner Ann Ravel released a memo in September 2016 warning the public of so-called “scam PAC” operations. Managers of these groups line their own pockets by raising money from small-dollar donors in the name of certain candidates or charitable causes. 

High operating expenses and large payments made to groups associated with their managers are telling signs of scam PACs, the memo noted.

“Scam PACs” have run rampant in recent years. The number of such PACs spiked over the past four years, some of which contracted with telemarketing companies that raised them more than $31.8 million, The Center for Public Integrity recently reported. Meanwhile, their operations face little scrutiny.

In March, a federal judge struck down an FEC rule prohibiting PACs and super PACs from using a candidate’s name — potentially enabling more groups to inject confusion into the political process and extract money from unknowing donors. 

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

The post Despite Trump’s distaste, ‘unofficial’ pro-Trump groups continue to raise cash in his name appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, Outside Money, 2020, America First Action, america first agenda, America First Victory Fund, Clinton, Donald Trump, fec, Great America PAC, karl evers-hillstrom, keeping america great pac, Pres2020, presidential coalition, scam pac, Super Pac, Trump Campaign, trump victory fund, unofficial, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 9/25/19 12:47pm
Drug pricing (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As millions of Americans skip their medication due to the ballooning high prescription costs, Congress is seeking ways to cap drug pricing. 

The legislative effort, however, touched a nerve in the deep-pocketed pharmaceutical industry. Big Pharma’s largest trade group, along with its front groups and conservative organizations that receive funding from the industry, pushed back with millions of dollars of spending.

Prices of more than 3,400 drugs surged in the first half of this year, compared with 2,900 drugs that experienced a similar price hike a year ago, CBS News reported. Costs spiked by an average rate of 10.5 percent, five times the rate of inflation, the article noted.

Meanwhile, a third of uninsured Americans cannot afford to take their medication, and almost half of those who are not covered by insurance asked their doctors for cheaper options.

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) unveiled her party’s plan last week to give the government a say in prescription drug price-setting. Dubbed the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, the legislation would allow the government to negotiate the Medicare price of up to 250 medications each year, including insulin, the cost of which tripled over the past decade

Under the bill, companies that do not comply would face steep fines. The idea irked many Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said the Senate would stop the bill cold. 

The Senate rolled out its own legislation to lower drug costs, which the Senate Finance Committee passed in July. A bipartisan effort, committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) championed a drug pricing bill that would cap the annual drug price hike and limit out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare beneficiaries. 

The Senate bill would not, however, provide ground for price-setting negotiation between the government and drug companies. 

President Donald Trump has praised both bills for addressing the sky-rocketing drug prices — a key issue during his 2016 presidential campaign. One of his proposals — establishment of an international pricing index — is now being reviewed by the White House. 

Nevertheless, many Republicans are reluctant to get behind price-setting bills, saying such legislation poses a government overreach to disrupt a well-functioning program

Pharmaceutical companies, which stand to lose the pricing power over top-selling drugs, are writing large checks to key lawmakers and spending millions on ad buying and lobbying. The industry is against some of the hard-line measures and the Trump administration’s international pricing proposal, but is willing to back the expense cap for seniors covered by Medicare in the Senate bill and negotiate on other provisions, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the industry’s largest trade group, issued a statement opposing Grassley and Wyden’s bill after it cleared the Senate Finance Committee, claiming it would harm patients. 

Some with rich connections to the pharmaceutical industry are now working for the Trump administration. Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, was the president of Lilly USA, a branch of drugmaker Eli Lilly. The company faced a class-action lawsuit for tripling the price of insulin under Azar’s watch. 

Eli Lilly has spent $4.2 million on lobbying so far this year. Dave Boyer, former White House special assistant to President George W. Bush between 2007 and 2009, is now lobbying on behalf of the company. 

As usual, the industry is giving campaign cash to key decision makers in Congress. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) received $205,100 from those affiliated with the industry this year, the most among his congressional colleagues. The industry also gave $135,486 to McConnell’s campaign during the 2020 cycle thus far.

The House Ways and Means Committee, one of the committees that will consider the Democratic House bill, recently released a report stating that drug prices in the U.S. are “unfairly high.” Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), committee chairman and co-sponsor of the legislation, received $67,500 from the industry during the 2020 election cycle. 

Some of the top recipients of money from the industry are lawmakers who face upcoming challenges during the 2020 election cycle. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who received $163,897 from the industry, is only two points ahead of his potential Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham in a recent North Carolina poll. 

Drugmakers and health product dealers have spent $4.2 billion in lobbying since 1998, ranking first among all industries. PhRMA has spent $16.3 million on lobbying this year. More than 70 percent of its lobbyists previously held a position in government. 

PhRMA has spent $3.5 million running Facebook and Twitter ads since last May. Most ads blame hospitals and insurance companies for high drug prices and oppose the establishment of an international pricing index. The group’s Let’s Talk About Cost campaign, which started running TV ads in July, said 40 percent of the medicine price goes to benefit insurance companies, government entities and pharmacy benefit managers. 

PhRMA also announced a “national multi-year” ad and public relations campaign on behalf of America’s biopharmaceutical companies in 2017, appealing for support for medicine research and treatment development. The ad blitz is estimated to cost millions of dollars each year.

“If Washington isn’t careful, we might leave innovation behind,” one of the ads said. “Let’s fix the system the right way. Innovation is hope.”

The trade group previously ran similar ads for multiple side projects such as Prescription for Medicare and ProtectRX, which hit pharmacy benefit managers for contributing to rising drug prices.

Tax records show that PhRMA also funded healthcare coalitions and conservative groups, doling out billions of contributions in recent years. America First Policies Inc., a pro-Trump dark money group, received $2.5 million from PhRMA in 2017.  

The trade group also gave American Conservative Union $150,000 in 2017, tax records show. Coalition Against Socialized Medicine, a project of the conservative group, spent $10,900 promoting Twitter ads attacking Pelosi and the House drug pricing bill. The project labeled the legislation “socialized medicine,” stating that the House bill would allow the government to seize control of the healthcare system and restrict patient access to medical care. 

Other groups bolstered the effort. Alliance for Aging Research, which received $64,250 from PhRMA in 2017, spent almost $40,000 running similar ads on Facebook, attacking the Institute of Clinical and Economics Review for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of drugs. The evaluation, the group said in an ad, threatens access to affordable medical coverage of senior patients. 

Emerging as a Facebook-based campaign criticizing drug companies for the high drug costs, Citizens for Truth in Drug Pricing has spent more than $200,000 running digital ads on the platform. Most of its ads ran on conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt’s Facebook page, which has almost 130,000 followers. Stephanie Miller, a liberal political commentator and comedian, also promoted the ads on the Facebook page of her show

AARP, a group representing the country’s retired community, is in a decades-long partnership with UnitedHealth Group, the largest health insurance company in the country. AARP announced its support for the Senate bill on drug price reduction, and UnitedHealth promised in March that insurers will expand drug discounts to benefit patients. 

AARP spent $3.7 million on lobbying this year while UnitedHealth spent $2.2 million. The association has spent almost $3 million on Facebook ads since last May, some of which call for lower prescription drug costs. The group’s executive vice president, Nancy LeaMond, is the former chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky. 

The post Big Pharma invests millions as Congress readies drug pricing bills appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Influence & Lobbying, aarp, big pharma, Donald Trump, drug pricing, Eli Lilly, healthcare, insurance industry, Lower Drug Costs Now Act, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, pharmaceuticals/health products industry, phrma, Thom Tillis, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 9/24/19 9:14am
Global Climate Strike Protesters advocating for new policies to combat global climate change close an intersection September 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Following a global climate strike over the weekend, climate activists in Washington, D.C., raged on and flooded the district Monday as the United Nations Climate Action Summit took place in New York. 

Participating groups issued several demands, including the passage of the Green New Deal, the halt of deforestation by 2030 and an end to fossil fuel extraction.

The protest, dubbed “Shut Down D.C.,” aimed to bring the city to “a gridlocked standstill.” While the protesters may have successfully shut down downtown D.C.’s rush-hour traffic, environmental advocacy groups cannot shut down ⁠— or even rival ⁠— the fossil fuel industry’s multi-million-dollar spending to shape energy policies. 

The groups’ demand for government action against climate change stands in contrast with the Trump administration’s recent plan to roll back federal oversight on the emissions of methane gas, a huge contributor to global warming. The proposal drew opposition from environmental activists and even some carmakers and fossil fuel companies

Faced with a pressing climate crisis, the country’s political climate is shifting as many Democratic presidential hopefuls are rejecting contributions from fossil fuel executives. Within the energy industry, some companies are investing in clean energy research and carbon removal. 

But oil extraction and exploration shows no signs of slowing down, as fossil fuel companies are set to add hundreds more natural gas power plants, USA Today reported. Meanwhile, the industry has contributed millions to President Donald Trump’s joint fundraising committees, Trump Victory and Trump Make America Great Again Committee. 

Trump Victory received $2.9 million from the oil and gas industry, including a total of $721,200 from CEO of Energy Transfer Partners Kelcy Warren and his wife, Amy Warren. 

The energy and natural resources industry has given almost $30 million — more than twice as much as the environmental groups’ spending during the same period — to mostly Republican candidate campaigns, party committees and outside spending groups during the 2020 election cycle. 

Paul Foster, founder of Western Refining, gave $1 million to Engage Texas, a super PAC formed earlier this year to register more Republican voters in the state. The group mustered almost $10 million in a few months from the state’s largest GOP donors, including oil company Energy Transfer Equity and J. C. Walter III, chairman of Walter Oil & Gas Corp.

Marathon Petroleum, an Ohio-based petroleum refining company, now owns the company that acquired Western Refining. In an effort to fund Republican candidates in congressional races, Marathon Petroleum affiliates gave $407,420 to the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee

Koch Industries, a long time investor in oil and gas, gave $1 million to the Koch brothers-founded Americans for Prosperity. The super PAC has so far spent $74,366 during this election cycle advertising in favor of Republicans and targeting Democrats. 

Affiliates of Koch Industries also gave House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) $12,800. Scalise attended a fundraiser hosted by oil and gas lobbying firm BGR Group last week and hosted an industry dinner the following day, The Intercept reported.  

Pro-Trump super PAC America First Action received $750,000 from oil mogul Javaid Anwar, CEO of Texas-based Midland Energy.  

The American Petroleum Institute and the National Propane Gas Association, two of the leading industry trade groups, are also sponsoring the National Clean Energy Week Policy Makers Symposium on Thursday. Among the keynote speakers are senators sitting on the Environment and Public Works Committee and representatives from the Department of Energy. 

Unlike the energy industry, which comprises dozens of giant fossil fuel companies, most of the environmental advocacy groups are nonprofits such as NextGen America. The organization is founded and funded by billionaire and now Democratic presidential contender Tom Steyer. It launched a multi-million-dollar ad campaign mainly focused on fighting climate change and impeaching Trump before Steyer entered the race. 

Affiliates of the groups have collectively spent $11.9 million contributing to candidates and outside spending groups so far, with Steyer single-handedly giving $10.4 million to his own super PAC Need to Impeach.

NextGen Climate Action, a super PAC Steyer founded, also gave $1.3 million to For Our Future, another super PAC established by NextGen America and labor unions. 

Other environmental groups lack the spending force Steyer has. League of Conservation Voters, one of the top-spending groups, spent $263,530 on independent expenditure and gave $287,927 mostly to Democratic congressional candidates such as Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Dan McCready, who lost his bid against Dan Bishop in the recent North Carolina special election.

The post Fossil fuel industry continues to dwarf environmental interests in election-related spending appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: Campaign finance, American Petroleum Institute, Americans for Prosperity, campaign finance, climate change, energy transfer, environmental, fossil fuel, Koch Brothers, national propane gas association, oil and gas, outside spending groups, protest, Shut Down D.C., Trump Make America Great Again, Trump Victory, Yue Stella Yu]

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[l] at 9/23/19 11:38am
Donald Trump vis Flickr

President Donald Trump acknowledged this weekend that he discussed former Vice President  Joe Biden and his son during a July phone call with Ukraine’s president, leading critics to question whether Trump is courting foreign interference ahead of the 2020 presidential election. 

Trump reportedly urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his potential 2020 opponent over an unsubstantiated claim that Biden blocked a Ukrainian investigation into his son’s business dealings in the former Soviet country. A whistleblower in the intelligence community reportedly said Trump urged Zelensky to work with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Biden’s son in exchange for “promises.”

The exact contents of Trump’s call with Zelensky remain hidden from the public since the White House has not released a transcript of the call, citing concerns that it could set a “bad precedent,” though Trump himself told reporters that he hopes “they release” the transcript. 

Giuliani joined Trump’s personal legal team in April 2018 as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election heated up. Last week, Giuliani admitted he had asked Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden, simply stating, “Of course I did” after initially denying the allegation.

Today Giuliani couldn’t confirm whether or not Trump threatened to withhold $250 million in military aid for Ukraine during the call with Zelensky. But Trump himself alluded to the claim Monday, asking “why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”

“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters Sunday.

Although the incident has some critics alleging a quid-pro-quo between Trump and Zelensky, campaign finance experts say there may already be evidence of a campaign finance violation. 

Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California Irvine School of Law, wrote in Slate Monday that Trump may have violated campaign finance law with the call, given the value that an investigation into Biden and his son could bring the Trump campaign in the event of a 2020 clash. 

Under federal law, campaigns are barred from accepting or soliciting a “thing of value” from foreign nationals or governments in connection with an election. 

“Certainly, the Ukrainian government spending money to investigate the family of Trump’s potential challenger would be of immense value to Trump’s reelection campaign, and requesting such a probe would bring the foreign national solicitation ban into play,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at Campaign Legal Center, told OpenSecrets in an email. 

“But ultimately, whether the president might face liability for campaign finance violations is separate from whether the underlying conduct is an appropriate use of power,” he added.

This is not the first time the Trump campaign has come under investigation for soliciting help from a foreign government. 

Mueller probed the Trump campaign’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya over promised “dirt” about Hillary Clinton. Mueller declined to prosecute members of the Trump campaign, arguing in his report that he couldn’t prove the information shared at the meeting had any value, and that he couldn’t prove the Trump team acted with “general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct.”

Campaign finance experts are concerned that Mueller’s reasoning could embolden Trump to solicit help from foreign powers. Trump created a media firestorm in June when he said he would accept damaging information about his 2020 opponent from a foreign government.

“It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” FEC chair Ellen Weintraub cautioned in a June statement. “This is not a novel concept. Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation.”

Unlawful in-kind contributions have landed Trump associates in hot water before. Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is serving a three-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to an array of charges, including one that he violated campaign finance law by paying two women to keep their stories of alleged affairs with Trump from going public. 

Still, the federal agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance law is currently unable to do its job and it is up to Trump and Congress to fix that.  

Giuliani’s foreign influence operations

Just before Zelensky’s win in Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, a delegation of Zelensky campaign representatives orchestrated a secretive influence campaign during which they reportedly paid Trump International Hotel’s BLT restaurant $1,912 to dine with “around a dozen unknown others.”

Giuliani was one of the political players introduced to Zelensky’s rival in Ukraine’s presidential election, Yulia Tymoshenko, as part of another secretive lobbying operation funded by opaque shell companies and offshore accounts.

Some question Giuliani’s work for foreign clients while simultaneously serving as Trump’s personal attorney, saying it raises potential ethics issues and conflicts of interests.

In 2018, Senate Democrats asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Giuliani’s work conducting “a number of political and public relations activities on behalf of foreign” interests may have triggered disclosure requirements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act

In August 2018, a leaked letter from Giuliani’s global consulting firm to the president of Romania revealed that he was paid to “lobby” a foreign government for policies contradicting U.S. State Department policy. Giuliani confirmed the payment’s existence to Politico but has not disclosed the amount.

At the helm of Giuliani’s efforts to set up meetings with top Ukrainian officials were two Soviet-born businessmen, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas.

After years of maintaining lower profiles, Fruman and Parnas quickly ramped up their political activities and rose to prominence in Republican circles around Trump’s election, funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns and groups. Like other operatives seeking to influence the administration, the Soviet-born businessmen became known for staying at the Trump International Hotel just blocks from the White House, and at one point even had a “power breakfast” with Donald Trump Jr. 

Fruman and Parnas boasted of their close relationship with Trump’s personal attorney, according to court records. The Soviet-born businessmen introduced Giuliani to multiple Ukrainian officials and politicians in meetings revealed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Spanning across at least five countries, the meetings led them from Washington, D.C., to the Israeli office of a Ukrainian oligarch accused of multi-billion dollar fraud.

Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch recently returned to Ukraine following Zelensky’s election and is known for his reportedly close ties to Zelensky, told OCCRP that Fruman and Parnas asked him to help set up a meeting with Zelensky for Giuliani. Kolomoisky reportedly rejected the implication that he would act as a backdoor to Zelensky, however.

During an interview at Trump’s D.C. hotel, Parnas told Buzzfeed News the backchannel was initiated so Ukrainian officials could meet with U.S. authorities — and eventually led to Giuliani. “All we were doing was passing along information,” Parnas said, insisting the duo was not paid for facilitating the backchannel.

Fruman and Parnas’ significant political contributions thrust them into the spotlight due to the substantial cash flow suddenly materializing from relative obscurity and ongoing legal disputes over their business deals. 

The two served as executives of a mysterious limited-liability company called Global Energy Producers LLC that was disclosed as the source of a $325,000 contribution to pro-Trump super PAC America First Action. The Soviet-born businessmen personally met with Trump in a closed-door meeting just weeks before the date of the six-figure wire transfer was made to the pro-Trump super PAC. 

In June, court records revealed that America First Action may have attributed the $325,000 wire transfer to Global Energy Producers when, in actuality, the money was received from another limited-liability company run by Parnas and his wife. The apparent shell company, Aaron Investments I LLC, received a $1.2 million cash infusion just days earlier from a real estate lawyer specializing in money laundering law.  

As Giuliani famously speculated about suspected hush-money payments to a former Playboy bunny in another Trump campaign scandal, “You just don’t do any form of an illegal tax or campaign-finance violation by check.” 

The post Trump’s Ukraine call raises questions about campaign finance rules on foreign interference appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, America First, Anna Massoglia, biden, Campaign Legal Center, Donald Trump, fara, Igor Fruman, Ihor Kolomoisky, investigation, karl evers-hillstrom, Lev Parnas, Mueller, president, probe, Robert Mueller, Rudy Giuliani, trump, Trump Tower, Ukraine, Zelensky]

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[l] at 9/20/19 1:06pm
Mayor Pete Buttigieg South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

This is the second of two stories about the top donor occupations to 2020 Democrats. The first story examines the candidates getting support from working-class donors.

Wealthy donors have an abundance of options to choose from in the loaded Democratic presidential primary. But for the most part, they’re sticking with a small handful of White House hopefuls. 

Three candidates consistently rank among the top recipients from those in typically high-paying jobs, according to an OpenSecrets review of campaign contributions including small amounts given through the fundraising service ActBlue

South Bend, Ind., Mayor and top-tier fundraiser Pete Buttigieg is the most popular among CEOs, consultants, realtors, accountants and physicians, among others. Former Vice President Joe Biden gets the most from investors, presidents, attorneys and chiropractors. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wins with executives and entrepreneurs. 

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Buttigieg raised $32 million through the end of June, the second-most of all 2020 Democrats when excluding transfers from other federal committees. For a look into how Buttigieg, who runs a town of just 102,000 people, became an elite fundraiser, look no further than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

Among many of the working-class professions that Sanders dominates, Buttigieg is right behind him. He overlaps with Sanders in many instances — taking in similar sums from managers, salespeople and pharmacists — while also bringing in massive hauls from well-compensated donors. 

Buttigieg has traveled from coast to coast to woo wealthy donors, recently headlining a Los Angeles fundraiser with actress and musician Mandy Moore and planning a $2,800-per-ticket fundraiser on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with philanthropist Agnes Gund. 

Of all the money actors gave to 2020 Democrats, one-quarter went to Buttigieg alone thanks to his numerous Hollywood fundraisers. He is also by far the most popular with interior designers and architects. The sheer number of fundraisers Buttigieg hosts helps him finish in the top five with nearly every occupation. 

Buttigieg, Biden and Harris have relied on big-ticket fundraisers so far, drawing more than half of their campaign dollars from those giving more than $200 and taking in thousands of maximum $2,800 contributions. 

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Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sanders, on the other hand, receive a majority of their money from small donors as they angle for grassroots support. Both have both pledged to reject big-dollar fundraisers and were among the first 2020 Democrats to reject contributions from fossil fuel executives and lobbyists.

They’ve attacked Biden over his lavish fundraisers, particularly for an event hosted by the founder of a fossil fuel company. 

Biden funded his campaign early and often with pricey fundraisers with trial lawyers. A one-time public defender, Biden brought in nearly $428,000 from employees at personal injury law firm Morgan & Morgan, thanks in large part to an expensive Florida fundraiser from the firm’s founder in May. 

Lawyers and law firms are coming out in force to fund the top 2020 Democrats. Combined, Buttigieg, Biden and Harris collected more than $7.4 million from attorneys or lawyers — the rest of the Democratic field took in roughly $5.6 million combined. 

Biden’s Florida fundraisers have also netted him an unusually high amount of cash from chiropractors — 85 percent of the total $216,000 chiropractors gave to 2020 Democrats went to Biden. Almost all of that money came from Florida-based donors in May — around the same time when Biden was hosting a series of fundraisers in the Sunshine State. 

One potential issue for Biden is his lack of support from younger, well-paid donors. Software engineers, for example, gave just $30,485 to Biden while giving six figures to each of the other top-tier fundraisers in the field.

Harris may not be the top-tier fundraiser that Biden or Buttigieg are, but her California connections have provided her with wealthy donors ranging from Hollywood to Silicon Valley. 

Harris took home 36 percent of contributions from those listing “venture capital” as their occupation. She also received one-third of all funds from producers — drawing from award-winning Hollywood producers such as Michael De Luca and Brian Grazer, among others. Harris is also the top recipient of campaign money from retirees — taking in more than $2 million. 

Politico reported that Harris is shifting her strategy away from closed-door Golden State fundraisers and toward Iowa, the first state on the Democratic primary calendar. The move came as internal polls showed Harris’ poll numbers dropping in the Hawkeye State and as some wealthy donors reportedly expressed disappointment with her debate performance.

Researcher Alex Baumgart contributed to this report.

The post Which 2020 Democrats get the most campaign cash from wealthy donors? appeared first on OpenSecrets News.

[Category: 2020 Presidential, 2020 Democrats, alex baumgart, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, fundraiser, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, karl evers-hillstrom, occupations, Pete Buttigieg, Pres2020, presidential, primary]

As of 10/20/19 11:40pm. Last new 10/16/19 2:43pm.

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