Facebook, Google and Blue Shield of California are among the companies that contributed $226 million to government causes on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s behalf last year, an unprecedented level of spending that is raising alarms about the influence large corporations are amassing in Sacramento.
State records reviewed by The Times show that so-called “behested payments” surged in 2020 compared with the year prior, when companies gifted $12.1 million on Newsom’s behalf. The governor’s haul last year during the COVID-19 pandemic was six times as much as that reported by former Gov. Jerry Brown during his final eight years in office combined.
With no limit on how much money can be donated by organizations or individuals at the behest of the governor, millions of dollars flowed in to prop up public services during the pandemic and fund Newsom’s favored programs, including an effort to address homelessness and a public safety campaign promoting the importance of wearing masks.
The corporations say they were simply trying to help the state in a time of need. But no matter how noble the cause, critics fear the donations could allow corporations to hold more sway in state government. They noted many of the donors have other business before the governor, received no-bid government contracts over the last year or were seeking favorable appointments on important state boards, which they say creates the appearance of a pay-to-play system….
Under California law, a donation is considered a behested payment when an elected official or someone acting on their behalf asks an organization to donate money or services to a nonprofit or government agency for a legislative, governmental or charitable purpose, such as supplying free air time to run public health ads or giving cash to the governor’s program promoting volunteerism. General requests for charitable donations not directed at any particular organization are not required to be reported as behested payments, according to the state’s campaign finance watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission.
The top donor of behested payments to Newsom in 2020 was tech giant Facebook, which gave $27 million for gift cards that went to front-line healthcare workers and for public health ads. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, gave another $3.7 million for COVID-19 related efforts such as polling services aimed at improving public health response and help with the state’s public awareness campaign, as well as money for the state’s wildfire recovery efforts.
The decision by the Republican National Convention to feature President Trump conducting official business inside the White House underscores how he is leveraging the powers of his office for political gain, raising questions about whether an event featured Tuesday night violated federal law.
In a remarkable pretaped scene packaged as part of the convention’s prime time programming, Trump took part in a naturalization ceremony for five new citizens as acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf administered the Oath of Allegiance….
Kathleen Clark, a legal and government ethics professor at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said that the event appeared to be designed as part of the convention, an action that would violate a criminal provision of the Hatch Act, which bars executive branch employees from participating in politics in their official capacity.
Under the act, federal employees are prohibited from using their authority to influence the election of a presidential candidate, she said, calling Trump and Wolf “breathtaking in their contempt for the law.”
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the legal basis of the event, said it was part of the president’s official schedule that was publicized on a public website.
“The campaign decided to use the publicly available content for campaign purposes,” the official said. “There was no violation of law.”
The most widely known civil provisions of the Hatch Act do not apply to the president and the vice president. But the law applies to executive branch employees who are involved in planning or executing any political events staged at the White House, including video segments filmed there, experts said.
When President Trump holds official taxpayer-funded events outside Washington, his audiences are treated to campaign-style speeches and rock music playlists drawn from his political rallies. His appearances at the White House, most recently a rambling Rose Garden news conference, are increasingly devoid of policy and filled with attacks on the “radical left” and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
And on Tuesday, Mr. Trump’s eldest daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, a White House employee, posted a photograph online celebrating Goya Foods, whose chief executive had recently praised her father, in what government ethics experts called a clear violation of federal law. The president followed up on Wednesday with his own photograph, featuring the company’s products arrayed on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
Mr. Trump and his advisers have long tested — and often crossed — the boundaries between the official and the political. The Office of Special Counsel, an independent government watchdog agency, has found 13 Trump officials in violation of the Hatch Act, the 1939 law limiting the political activities of government employees, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. Staff members with the watchdog group said they could recall only two such instances under President Barack Obama.
But with the general election in November little more than 100 days away, the coronavirus quashing Mr. Trump’s raucous rallies, and the White House lacking a clear policy agenda, the Trump administration seems almost entirely unconstrained by traditional divisions between politics and governance.
“Every White House I have known until this one — of both parties — has rigorously worked to separate campaign activity and official business,” said Trevor Potter, a Republican and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who is now the president of the Campaign Legal Center.
Federal agents seized a cellphone belonging to a prominent Republican senator on Wednesday night as part of the Justice Department’s investigation into controversial stock trades he made as the novel coronavirus first struck the U.S., a law enforcement official said.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, turned over his phone to agents after they served a search warrant on the lawmaker at his residence in the Washington area, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a law enforcement action.
The seizure represents a significant escalation in the investigation into whether Burr violated a law preventing members of Congress from trading on insider information they have gleaned from their official work.
U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s most recent financial disclosures show that millions of dollars in stocks were sold on her behalf at the same time Congress was dealing with the impact of the coronavirus.
The largest transactions — and the most politically problematic — involve $18.7 million in sales of Intercontinental Exchange stock in three separate deals dated Feb. 26 and March 11. Loeffler is a former executive with ICE, and her husband, Jeff Sprecher, is the CEO of the company, which owns the New York Stock Exchange among other financial marketplaces.
During the same time period reflected on reports filed late Tuesday, the couple also sold shares in retail stores such as Lululemon and T.J. Maxx and invested in a company that makes COVID-19 protective garments. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got the first look at these reports, covering mid-February through mid-March and shedding new light on Loeffler’s financial transactions during the pandemic. Previous reports — which have put Loeffler in the national spotlight — covered her trading during the first six weeks of 2020.
Soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus, the powerful chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, sold off a significant percentage of his stocks, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions.
As the head of the intelligence committee, Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has access to the government’s most highly classified information about threats to America’s security. His committee was receiving daily coronavirus briefings around this time, according to a Reuters story.
A week after Burr’s sales, the stock market began a sharp decline and has lost about 30% since.
The Senate’s newest member sold off seven figures worth of stock holdings in the days and weeks after a private, all-senators meeting on the novel coronavirus that subsequently hammered U.S. equities.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) reported the first sale of stock jointly owned by her and her husband on Jan. 24, the very day that her committee, the Senate Health Committee, hosted a private, all-senators briefing from administration officials, including the CDC director and Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institutes of Health of the United States, on the coronavirus.
“Appreciate today’s briefing from the President’s top health officials on the novel coronavirus outbreak,” she tweeted about the briefing at the time.
That first transaction was a sale of stock in the company Resideo Technologies worth between $50,001 and $100,000. The company’s stock price has fallen by more than half since then, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average overall has shed approximately 10,000 points, dropping about a third of its value.
It was the first of 29 stock transactions that Loeffler and her husband made through mid-February, all but two of which were sales. One of Loeffler’s two purchases was stock worth between $100,000 and $250,000 in Citrix, a technology company that offers teleworking software and which has seen a small bump in its stock price since Loeffler bought in as a result of coronavirus-induced market turmoil.
My tweet thread begins here:
Three years ago, the North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows sold a hundred-and-thirty-four-acre property in Dinosaur, Colorado. The buyer was Answers in Genesis, a Christian nonprofit based in Kentucky, which was founded by the Australian creationist Ken Ham. Answers in Genesis is dedicated to promoting young-Earth creationism, which holds that the Earth was created in six days, several thousand years ago. According to documents related to the sale, Meadows was to be paid about two hundred thousand dollars for the property, in monthly installments, the last of which was paid last year.
Neither the sale nor any such payments are noted on Meadows’s congressional financial disclosures, which he is required by law to file annually. Meadows is a founding member of the very conservative House Freedom Caucus and is one of the more prominent members of Congress; last year, Donald Trump reportedly considered making him the White House chief of staff. Why didn’t Meadows disclose the property or the sale? The congressman declined to comment for this story. In August, the Charlotte Observer reported that Meadows—who, before becoming a congressman, was a successful real-estate developer—owned land in northeastern North Carolina that he had also failed to list on his disclosure reports. It’s possible that these nondisclosures reflect a pattern of ignoring congressional reporting rules.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a new plan Monday to tackle corruption in Washington, part of the Democratic presidential candidate’s ongoing promises to enact “big structural change” if elected.
Warren’s wide-ranging new proposal seeks to dramatically limit the influence of federal lawmakers and lobbyists while also expanding protections for workers. Under the plan, lobbyists would be banned from all campaign fundraising activities — including serving as campaign bundlers — and campaigns themselves would not be able to receive “intangible benefits” such as opposition research from foreign governments.
Under a new definition of “official act,” politicians would not be able to accept gifts or payments in exchange for government action. Senior government officials and members of Congress would be prohibited from serving on for-profit boards, even if they receive no compensation.
As the majority put it, “But while the existence of a political motivation for a lawsuit does not supply standing, nor does it defeat standing. “
“The District Court did not adequately address whether — given the separation of powers issues present in a lawsuit brought by members of the legislative branch against the president of the United States — resolving the legal questions and/or postponing discovery would be preferable, or whether discovery is even necessary” to establish whether the plaintiffs were entitled to judicial intervention, the judges stated.
They sent the case back to Judge Sullivan, essentially telling him to give the Justice Department permission to appeal his rulings because they raise “open threshold cases of pure law.” In response, Judge Sullivan halted discovery in the case while he considers whether to issue new orders.
You can find the opinion here.
I wonder whether this will go en banc to the entire 4th Circuit. The panel certainly went further than it had to here at this point given the procedual posture of the case.