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Lee Fang

Lee Fang

Investigating the intersection of politics, lobbying and public policy at RepublicReport.org.

A Kentucky Congressman Goes to Bat for His Wife’s Company on Capitol Hill

Ed Whitfield

US Representative Ed Whitfield, R-Kentucky (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

LaserLock Technologies, a firm that sells anti-counterfeiting products, won a powerful congressional ally on Capitol Hill after recruiting a Kentucky congressman’s wife.

Representative Ed Whitfield, a senior Republican lawmaker from western Kentucky, personally submitted company documents on behalf of LaserLock to the congressional record in support of legislation crucial to the firm’s business. Whitfield’s wife, Constance Harriman, a registered lobbyist, has come under scrutiny from Office of Congressional Ethics investigators for unduly influencing Whitfield and his staff for her client, the Humane Society. But new revelations about her role with LaserLock, a company in which she is an investor and where she serves as a board member, reveal that Representative Whitfield may have used his congressional office to boost the fortunes of his wife’s company.

Whitfield’s effort to assist LaserLock is captured on video. A tape of a subcommittee hearing on the morning of April 25, 2013, shows the congressman intervening to endorse LaserLock-backed legislation to create a national standard for tracking the distribution of pharmaceuticals.

Five months prior to Whitfield’s advocacy on behalf of the firm, in November of 2012, LaserLock appointed Constance Harriman, Whitfield’s wife, to its board of directors.

The April 25 tape shows that as the Energy and Commerce Committee began discussing HR 1919, the Safeguarding America’s Pharmaceuticals Act, Whitfield told colleagues that his interest was sparked by the threat of organized crime.

“Last week, I attended a forum over at Georgetown University,” said Whitfield. “I really was taken aback by the amount of money being made by organized crime and other groups and entering into our supply chain counterfeit prescription drugs.”

Whitfield then moved to submit a “statement from a company called LaserLock.” The statement, from LaserLock Chief Executive Neal Alpert, enthusiastically endorsed a digital tracking system for drug products to combat fraud. LaserLock sells SecureLight+, a labeling product the firm has pitched as a solution for pharmaceutical firms seeking to thwart counterfeiters.

Whitfield’s move to intervene on behalf of the company was a considerable endorsement. Whitfield is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversaw the markup of the counterfeiting legislation.

The congressman did not disclose his family’s investments in the company or his wife’s position as a board member during the hearing. Whitfield also did not disclose that the Georgetown University forum he referenced during his remarks was sponsored by LaserLock. Pictures from the event show Whitfield chatting with LaserLock executives and advisers, including Alpert and a company advisor named Brad Blakeman, a well-known DC lobbyist.

The counterfeiting legislation requires the Food and Drug Administration to implement a system for manufacturers, pharmacies and other distributors along America’s pharmaceutical supply chain to establish tracing and identification standards to track drug products.

LaserLock heaped praise upon the tracking system outlined by the legislation. “LaserLock is uniquely positioned to play a leadership role in designing such a system,” said Michael Sonnenreich, chairman of LaserLock’s board, in a prepared statement. “In passing this legislation, the House of Representatives has taken a strong first step in addressing the dangers that counterfeit pharmaceuticals pose to our nation,” Alpert said in a celebratory press release.

The bill backed by LaserLock later passed the committee and sailed through the House of Representatives on a voice vote, meaning a roll call of votes was not taken. The legislation merged with a Senate version of the bill and was signed into law by President Obama last year.

Upon her appointment to LaserLock’s board in 2012, Harriman was granted stock options valued at approximately $89,568, according to statements filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She was also granted the option to purchase 1 million shares of the company’s common stock at a discount price of $0.05, along with an additional 1 million shares at the same price that would vest upon completion of two years of service on the board. The Whitfield household continued to hold a significant stake in the company as the congressman submitted testimony on behalf of LaserLock’s CEO. Whitfield’s personal-finance statement shows the couple owned up to $100,000 worth of stock in LaserLock through 2013.

Though the firm may not be well known, LaserLock’s roster of advisers and board members reads like a who’s who of Beltway politicos. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele serves as an advisor to the firm, and previous board members include former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. LaserLock’s Alpert also has a history of notoriety. In 2007, Alpert was ordered by the District of Columbia to “repay nearly $70,000 in unauthorized expenses and unaccounted money from a pair of local baseball groups he had chaired,” according to a story in Politics Daily. He was accused of using the baseball charity’s money on to pay for food, drinks and charges at DC nightclubs. In 2011, The New York Times reported that Alpert was a member of a group of political consultants who attempted to land a $10 million contract with Muammar el-Qaddafi to help the Libyan strongman maintain power.

Earlier this month, the Office of Congressional Ethics completed its investigation of Whitfield and his wife over a complaint related to Harriman’s work as a Humane Society lobbyist. As part of that probe, OCE investigators interviewed Whitfield’s staff and discovered that Harriman routinely used her access to Whitfield’s office to gather information on congressional action. Whitfield’s chief of staff, for example, confirmed to OCE investigators that Harriman had “reached out to you and requested that Representative Whitfield sign on as a co-sponsor or vote a certain way or take any other form of an official act where ultimately that course of action was not taken.” Though OCE did not move to censure Whitfield, the report revealed Harriman used Whitfield’s staff to assist in scheduling “as many as 100 meetings with other congressional offices,” and contacted her husband’s congressional staff about “legislation she lobbied on numerous occasions.”

The investigation narrowly focused on Harriman’s work on behalf of the Humane Society, and did not involve her affiliation with LaserLock. The investigation also did not involve a separate ethics issue, reported in July by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s R.G. Dunlop, involving an investment property owned jointly by Harriman, Whitfield and a prominent lobbyist named Juanita Duggan.

The probe, however, inadvertently exposed e-mails showing further evidence of LaserLock’s influence through the Whitfield household. As part of the probe, the Ethics Committee released pages of e-mails between Harriman and Whitfield’s staff. The e-mails show that in addition to e-mailing Whitfield’s staff about Humane Society issues, Harriman used Whitfield’s staff to gather information on legislative developments on behalf of LaserLock.

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On April 13 of 2013, LaserLock’s Alpert e-mailed Harriman to ask about a customs bill sponsored by Representative Kevin Brady. Harriman, forwarding Alpert’s e-mail, queried Whitfield’s chief of staff Cory Hicks about the legislation. “Do you think Ed will be supporting this bill?” she asked.

Hicks responded on April 15, “That was a bill that was introduced last Congress. I don’t know much about it and to my knowledge it hasn’t been reintroduced. Should he be prepared to talk about this bill tomorrow night?”

The next day, Whitfield appeared at a LaserLock promotional event at Georgetown University.

Harriman and Whitfield’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Republic Report.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who focuses on ethics issues, told Republic Report, “I believe that the congressman should have disclosed his wife’s interest in the company prior to appearing at a hearing concerning that company. The public has an interest in knowing why their elected officials take certain positions. Most often disclosure and transparency laws focus on the need to report financial information. This case shows us why.”

The video of Whitfield submitting LaserLock documents is below:

 

Read Next: Post-midterm political coverage of GOP extremism fits the definition of media absurdity.

Obama Can Reform Dark Money With a Stroke of a Pen

President Obama

(Reuters/Jim Young)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

There’s a powerful solution for disclosing the secret-money sloshing around in our political system. It does not require an act of Congress or action from any of the effectively toothless campaign-finance watchdogs, like the Federal Election Commission. In fact, this solution could be passed in an instant, and the only requirement for action is political will.

President Barack Obama can issue an executive order today that requires government contractors to disclose their dark-money campaign contributions.

Why doesn’t he? And why don’t campaign-finance-reform organizations push for such a fix?

In 2011, following the first wave of undisclosed campaign money in the 2010 midterms, the administration floated such an executive order. The idea provoked furious lobbying from business groups concerned that their donors would have to take responsibility for their electioneering.

The US Chamber of Commerce, the largest dark-money group in the last two midterm elections, not so subtly threatened war with the White House over the order. “We will fight it through all available means,” one Chamber lobbyist told The New York Times, referencing the bombing campaign against Muammar el-Qaddafi, “To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.”

The order wouldn’t impact every dark-money donor. Individuals and companies without contracts with the federal government would remain untouched.

However, the order would likely impact dozens of firms. General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors in the country, has told shareholders that it has directly funded political dark-money groups, though it has declined to name them. As journalist Paul Blumenthal has pointed out, “JPMorgan Chase, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, and the aforementioned Koch Industries all hold government contracts.”

As Republicans prepare to focus narrowly on repealing the medical-device tax in the next Congress, a measure that would increase the deficit by nearly $30 billion over ten years, doesn’t the public have a right to know the full extent of medical-device manufacturers’ campaign donations? There’s evidence medical-device companies funded some of the largest dark-money campaign organs, but we do not have a full picture. Given that major medical-device firms hold federal contracts, an executive order could help reporters and members of the public understand what’s really motivating our policymakers.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have cried foul on the disclosure idea, claiming that the executive order would exempt unions. But that’s simply not true: several unions have contracts with the federal government and would be included in the rule with other federal contractors. Moreover, many unions already disclose dark-money payments through reports filed with the Department of Labor. The union argument is really a red herring, because the rule would not impact dozens of corporate and individual dark-money donors.

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When the idea was originally floated in 2011, congressional Republicans temporarily blocked any further consideration of the executive order with riders attached to the appropriations bills. “These riders have since expired,” says Public Citizen’s Craig Holman, “and with the pending Republican majority in both chambers of Congress, a significant amount of the president’s agenda will have to be achieved through executive action. Opening up the books on dark money is one such action.”

Holman, Public Citizen’s lobbying expert, e-mailed Republic Report to say that his organization “is renewing its call to the Obama administration to issue an executive order requiring disclosure of political spending by government contractors.”

After initially floating the possibility of issuing the executive order, the administration backed down. The question is, Will the failure to act on dark money be part of Obama’s legacy?

Read Next: “After the midterms: time to fight back

Gerrymandering Rigged the 2014 Elections for Republican Advantage

Florida Redistricting Map

Florida state Senator Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, looks at a map for proposed changes in congressional districts during a committee meeting on reapportionment, Wednesday January 11, 2012, in Tallahassee, Florida. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

In the midterm elections, Republicans appear to have won their largest House majority since the Hoover administration. Republicans won on the weakness of Democratic candidates, a poor resource-allocation strategy by Democratic party leaders—particularly Steve Israel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—and an election narrative that did little to inspire base Democratic voters. That being said, in many ways, the game was rigged from the start. The GOP benefitted from the most egregious gerrymandering in American history.

As Rolling Stone reported, GOP donors plowed cash into state legislative efforts in 2010 for the very purpose of redrawing congressional lines. In the following year, as the Tea Party wave brought hundreds of Republicans into office, newly empowered Republican governors and state legislatures carved congressional districts for maximum partisan advantage. Democrats attempted this too, but only in two states: Maryland and Illinois. For the GOP however, strictly partisan gerrymandering prevailed in Ohio, Pennsylvania Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, Tennessee and beyond.

Here’s an example from the election last night. In Pennsylvania, one state in which the GOP drew the congressional districts in a brazenly partisan way, Democratic candidates collected 44 percent of the vote, yet Democratic candidates won only five House seats out of eighteen. In other words, Democrats secured only 27 percent of Pennsylvania’s congressional seats despite winning nearly half of the votes. See the graph below:




A similar dynamic played in North Carolina, another state in which GOP control in 2011 created intensely partisan congressional boundaries. In the 2014 midterm elections, Democrats in North Carolina secured only three out of thirteen seats (23 percent of NC’s congressional delegation) even though Democratic candidates in that state won about 44 percent of the vote:




In 2012, the first congressional election after the last round of gerrymandering, Democratic House candidates won 50.59 percent of the vote—or 1.37 million more votes than Republican candidates—yet secured only 201 seats in Congress, compared to 234 seats for Republicans. The House of Representatives, the “people’s house,” no longer requires the most votes for power.

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As the results from this year roll in, we see a similar dynamic. Republican gerrymandering means Democratic voters are packed tightly into single districts, while Republicans are spread out in such a way to translate into the most congressional seats for the GOP.

There are a lot of structural issues that influence congressional elections, from voter-ID requirements to early-voting access. But what does it matter if you’ve been packed into a district in which your vote can’t change the composition of Congress?

 

Read Next: People voted for Republicans last night—that doesn’t mean they like them.

If the GOP Takes the Senate, Climate-Change Deniers Will Control Key Committees

James Inhofe

Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

It wasn’t long ago that coal executives were openly discussing their dream of Republicans seizing the White House and making Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe—who believes climate change is a “hoax” concocted by greedy scientists—the head of the EPA.

Now, they have a second chance. As dark-money groups and Super PACs backed by millions of dollars from the fossil-fuel industry are propelling Republicans to a Senate majority, climate science–denying politicians are likely to seize control of key committee chairmanships, a coup for companies seeking to pollute the atmosphere with impunity. What’s more, Inhofe is slated to become chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, with oversight of the EPA.

Republic Report took a look at how the US Senate would likely change under GOP control:

Environment and Public Works Committee: Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) is in line to take control of the EPQ chairmanship, which would give him authority over the EPA. Inhofe, who has compared climate-change activists to Nazis, has already signaled that he will go after regulators on a raft of issues concerning greenhouse gases, from methane leaks to the new rules over coal-fire power plants.

Subcommittee on Science and Space: As current ranking member of this subcommittee, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has a good shot at becoming the chairman. This vital subcommittee oversees the National Science Foundation, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and issues relating to federally funded scientific research. Cruz is a proud denier of climate-change science. When he ran for office in 2012, Cruz told reporters in Texas that global warming ceased in 1997. Earlier this year, in an interview with CNN, Cruz again questioned the science, claiming the “data are not supporting what the advocates are arguing.”

Homeland Security and Governmental Reform Committee: Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), in line to take control of the Homeland Security Committee, would likely use his perch to continue to harass scientists. The committee is the Senate’s chief investigative and oversight body. Johnson has already distinguished himself with outbursts against Dr. James Hansen, using a hearing earlier this year as an opportunity to tell the award-winning NASA scientist that climate “science is far from settled.” Johnson, who claims that “sunspot activity” is responsible for any changes in climate, has also railed against groups pushing for reform, accusing one of “environmental jihad.”

Budget Committee: Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) has brushed aside the threat of climate change, calling the debate over the issue a “waste of money.” As the next possible chair of the Budget Committee, Enzi may have a chance to rewrite the budget and reduce funding for agencies attempting to regulate carbon pollution. There has been talk about Republicans shutting the government down in a bid to defund the EPA over its climate-change rules. Enzi has already criticized the EPA’s coal regulations and could move such a strategy forward.

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Should Republicans take a majority of seats in the US Senate, the caucus would be led by Senators Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and John Cornyn (R-TX), two men who have refused to answer fairly simple questions about the threat of man-made climate change.

Moreover, the Senate Republicans have indicated that they will not only block the few and fairly weak proposals to deal with climate change but are just as interested in using their power to intimidate environmental nonprofits. Senator David Vitter (R-LA) has recently published reports listing the American Lung Association and the National Wildlife Foundation as part of a nefarious environmental cabal. Though the Vitter reports fail to show any wrongdoing by the nonprofits, he has already sent investigative letters to some groups.

Read Next: Why GOP control of the Senate would be a disaster.

Mitch McConnell Will Say Anything for a Ham

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In an election that could propel Senator Mitch McConnell to become Senate majority leader—a position that would give him wide sway over climate change policy, including influence over the Environmental Protection Agency—, the Kentucky politician declined to respond to a question earlier this month about whether he believes climate change is a real problem. “I’m not a scientist,” McConnell responded in an interview with The Cincinnati Enquirer’s editorial board.

But earlier in his career, when McConnell played a pivotal role on behalf of the tobacco industry against increasing government regulation and taxes, the Republican leader believed he had enough scientific knowledge to question public-health officials.

“There clearly is insufficient science or logic to justify this extreme action,” McConnell said in 1993, at the time enraged that the government had proposed a ban on smoking in federal buildings.

Starting in the 1980s when he joined the US Senate, McConnell sent multiple letters to regulators to question the science behind efforts to curb indoor smoking. In 1995, citing a CRS report, McConnell joined with three other senators to call into question the claim that indoor cigarette smoking causes “increased cancer risk.”

The close working relationship between McConnell and tobacco firms is spelled out in detail as a result of litigation that forced the disclosure of thousands of company documents. E-mails and letters show that representatives of tobacco firms R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris guided McConnell behind the scenes, providing the senator with talking points that he later used to criticize the FDA for proposing anti-smoking rules. As the Lexington Herald-Leader reported, tobacco industry “attorneys helped draft a bill [McConnell] filed to protect their companies from lawsuits, as well as his correspondence to the White House to oppose federal smoking-prevention programs.”

In many ways, McConnell’s willingness to help big tobacco was rewarded. The Nation has identified twenty-two different notes from McConnell and his staff to tobacco lobbyists, thanking them for various gifts. “Thank you so much for sending me the beautiful ham,” wrote McConnell in one such note to a representative of the Tobacco Institute. Other letters thank tobacco reps for their gifts of “delicious pecan candies,” “luscious citrus fruit,” Ringo Starr tickets and other tickets to various theater performances and football games.

The biggest payoff for McConnell’s advocacy related to election money. After helping to “kill a proposal to curb youth smoking,” McConnell reportedly asked an R.J. Reynolds lobbyist for $200,000 in campaign money for Republican senators. Philip Morris later provided the senator with $150,000 for GOP campaigns, according to a report by the Herald-Leader’s John Cheves.

When McConnell provided his “I’m not a scientist” response, he was quickly attacked by critics for a feckless dodge, particularly given the fact that US senators must decide on a range of national policies regardless of professional experience.

Seen through another prism, McConnell’s reply echoes the overriding concerns of his new campaign benefactors: the fossil-fuel industry. Peabody Energy and Alliance Resource Partners, two coals firms, now rank among McConnell’s top campaign donors. Other campaign outfits designed to boost McConnell’s election prospects are funded by oil and coal interests. Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by the oil and gas billionaire Koch brothers, set up a Kentucky chapter this year to boost get-out-the-vote efforts. Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a Super PAC set up to help McConnell’s campaign, also counts oil and coal companies as major donors.

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“Money plays a role in almost every decision Mitch McConnell makes,” says David Donnelly, president of Every Voice, a campaign-reform group that is spending money in the election this year. “In the ’90s, he shilled for tobacco as the industry promised him and his colleagues protection and now, with energy billionaires and oil companies fueling his campaigns, he’s covering for them on climate policy.”

Read some of the letters between McConnell’s office and tobacco lobbyists here, courtesy of the University of California, San Francisco’s archives:

Mitch McConnell and the Tobacco Lobbyists by TheNationMagazine

Read Next: Grimes beats McConnell in Kentucky debate.

Charles Koch Personally Founded a Group Protecting Oil Industry Handouts

Charles Koch

Charles Koch (AP Photo/Topeka Capital-Journal, Mike Burley)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

“Lifestyles of the Rich Environmentalists,” produced by a group called the Institute for Energy Research, is a slick web video campaign designed to lampoon Leonardo DiCaprio and will.i.am as hypocrites for supporting action on climate change. The claim is that wealthy celebrities who oppose industrial-scale pollution supposedly shouldn’t fly in airplanes that use fossil fuels. The group, along with its subsidiary, the American Energy Alliance, churns out a steady stream of related content, from Facebook memes criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency, to commercials demanding approval of new oil projects like the Keystone XL, to a series of television campaign advertisements this year attacking Democratic candidates in West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina and Alaska. On Capitol Hill, IER aggressively opposes any effort to repeal tax breaks afforded to the oil and gas industry.

Documents obtained by Republic Report reveal for the first time that the group was actually founded by none other than Charles Koch, the petrochemical, manufacturing and oil refining tycoon worth an estimated $52 billion.

IER has no information about its founding members on its website, and only lists a board composed of seemingly independent conservative scholars and businessmen. Earlier reports revealed that IER/AEA has received grants from Koch-funded foundations, and that its leadership includes several individuals who have at times worked for Koch or Koch-related interests. But this is the first time it has been revealed that Charles personally founded the organization.

In October of 1984, Charles, then using a Menlo Park, California, address, founded a nonprofit called the Institute for Humane Studies of Texas. That organization briefly lost its charter in 1989 for failure to pay the Texas state franchise tax. Four years later, incorporation documents reveal, the group rebranded as the Institute for Energy Research, or IER, which later formed a subsidiary called the American Energy Alliance.

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IER/AEA’s advocacy contrasts sharply with Charles’s personal brand as a selfless libertarian activist. The industrialist has argued that he is resolutely against special government handouts, such as tax credits or subsidies that benefit one industry over another. “Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs—even when we benefit from them,” Charles wrote in a column for The Wall Street Journal this year.

But Charles’s group, IER/AEA, has fought to protect special tax breaks that benefit fossil fuel producers. Along with issuing press releases against various federal efforts to eliminate oil and gas industry tax credits, IER/AEA commissioned a study claiming that such tax reforms would have an adverse effect on jobs and on oil production.

Charles and his brother David are personally responsible for founding and funding much of the modern conservative infrastructure. The popular libertarian think tank the Cato Institute was, in fact, first named the Charles Koch Foundation, Inc. before rebranding. The largest political organization in America outside the Democratic and Republican parties is Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party–organizing foundation also founded by the Kochs.

The latest organs in the Koch political network have carefully guarded the sources of their funding and direction. There is the new youth group Generation Opportunity, along with the new veterans-related campaign organization Concerned Veterans for America. But IER/AEA’s true origin casts new light on its motivations.

 

Read Next: Secret Koch Conference Recording Is Mitch McConnell’s ‘47 Percent Moment’

Does Senator Vitter Really Think Cancer Prevention Groups and Wildlife Nonprofits Are Part of a Nefarious Cabal?

Oil spill

Oil floats on the surface in Pass A Loutre near Venice, Louisiana (Reuters/Sean Gardner)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

Louisiana Senator David Vitter made headlines on conservative websites in the last few days by releasing a report called “Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.”

Below the lengthy title is a report that claims breathlessly that environmental and public health foundations are part of “a close knit network of likeminded funders, environmental activists, and government bureaucrats,” a cabal responsible for spreading “bogus propaganda disguised as science and news to spread an anti-fossil energy message to the unknowing public.”

The report goes on to list groups such as the American Lung Association and the Union of Concerned Scientists as “agenda-driven far-left elites” obsessed with using “secretive backroom deals and transfers” to hide their agenda from the public. To shine a light on these organizations, the Vitter report details annual budget numbers and board membership lists scrubbed from annual tax forms that these nonprofits, like any nonprofit, are required to publish.

Though the report scolds the nonprofits as untrustworthy and elitist, there’s virtually no information in the report that details anything they have done wrong. Rather, Vitter and his staff appear to disagree with the shared policy goals of these nonprofits, which include combatting global warming as well as reducing cancer-causing pollutants from the air and water.

If there is a conspiracy afoot, as alluded to in “Chain of Environmental Command,” perhaps Vitter himself is involved.

In 2009, Vitter co-sponsored the Lung Cancer Mortality Reduction Act, legislation to require several federal agencies to work together on a comprehensive plan for reducing lung cancer mortality. The American Lung Association, one of the groups targeted by the Vitter report as a purveyor of “bogus propaganda,” helped pass the legislation, which was signed into law last year.

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Or what about the RESTORE Act, which funds coastal restoration and economic recovery projects along the Gulf Coast using fines generated from the 2010 BP oil spill? The legislation was supported by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation. All four groups were named in Vitter’s report as members of the pernicious “Club of Billionaires.” Vitter regularly boasts that he was a champion of this environmental group-backed legislation, which was signed into law in 2012.

A request to comment from Vitter’s office was not returned.

The change in tone from Vitter corresponds closely to his new perch as the top Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, a position he secured last year. Since 2013, Vitter has positioned himself as a close ally of the fossil fuel industry, attempting to block the confirmation of the Environmental Protection Agency administrator and going so far as to proclaim, “God bless the Koch brothers.”

Fossil fuel companies have leaned on congressional Republicans to block new environmental regulations. But with little influence within the Obama administration and without control of the Senate, lawmakers close to the industry have lashed out at public health advocates and scientists. Just as Vitter is now targeting NGOs, the GOP on the House Science Committee has begun subpoenaing scientists that have researched air pollutants, a move widely condemned by observers.

 

Read Next: America’s New Harvest of Shame

Comcast-Affiliated News Site Censored My Article About Net Neutrality Lobbying

Net Neutrality Rally

Free Press activists rallied for net neutrality on President Obama's motorcade route in Los Angeles. (Photo by Stacie Isabella Turk/Ribbonhead, Creative Commons)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

In a move that smacks off censorship, Republic Report has discovered that a telecom industry-affiliated lobbying group successfully persuaded an African-American news website to remove an article that reported critically on the groups advocating against net neutrality. The order to delete the article came from the website’s parent company, a business partner to Comcast.

Last Friday, I reported on how several civil rights groups, almost all with funding from Comcast, Verizon and other Internet service providers, recently wrote to the Federal Communication Commission in support of Chairman Tom Wheeler’s plan, which would create Internet fast lanes and slow lanes, an effective death of net neutrality. That piece was syndicated with Salon and The Nation, and several outlets aggregated the article. For a short period, NewsOne, a news site geared towards the African-American community, posted the piece along with its own commentary.

Then, the NewsOne article with my reporting disappeared.

If you Google the term ‘MMTC NewsOne,’ the NewsOne article (“Civil Rights Groups Blocking Efforts To Keep Internet Fair?”) still appears in the result list, though if you click it, it’s been deleted from the web. Luckily, the Internet cache still has a copy.

According to discussions with several people at NewsOne, including an editor there, the decision to take down the article came from corporate headquarters. NewsOne editor Abena Agyeman-Fisher told Republic Report, “The company didn’t feel it was appropriate to have up and we were supposed to take it down.” NewsOne is owned by Radio One, a company with a 50.9 percent stake in a business partnership with Comcast, known as TV One.

NewsOne was also contacted by a lobbying group called the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), an organization that has gained infamy for frequently mobilizing black, Latino and Asian-American groups to advocate on behalf of telecom industry-friendly positions, including recent big media mergers. On Monday, according to an attendee at an MMTC conference, MMTC vice president Nicol Turner-Lee referred to my reporting as a “digital lynch mob.” Turner-Lee, who resigned her previous position at a nonprofit after allegations of financial impropriety, reportedly claimed that minority organizations that support Title II reclassification—the only path for effective net neutrality after a court ruling in January—are not “true civil rights leaders.”

Contacted by Republic Report, MMTC president David Honig confirmed that he reached out to NewsOne, and also stood by Turner-Lee’s comments from earlier this week. Asked about the “digital lynch mob” comment, Honig e-mailed us to say, “I stand with Dr. Turner Lee’s assessment of the various hit pieces written by you and others. She spoke in the vernacular of the movement to which she has devoted her life, and is referencing the divide and conquer tactics used for decades to undermine the civil rights movement.” Regarding the claim that no “true civil rights leaders” support reclassification, Honig replied, “she was correct. Not one of the leaders of the major national civil rights membership organizations has endorsed Title II reclassification.”

In fact, many civil rights groups and activists support reclassification and strong net neutrality protections. Reached by Republic Report, the organizations were livid about MMTC’s insults and the decision by NewsOne to retract its story.

“MMTC is not the arbiter of who is and who is not a true civil rights group,” says Jessica Gonzalez, vice president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which represents a broad coalition in support of net neutrality through reclassification. “For them to claim anyone who supports reclassification is not a true civil rights group is just laughable. We have gone to the mat for our community for decades.”

“It’s disturbing that an online news site would remove a story just because its owners and their allies might not like it,” said Joseph Torres of Free Press, the co-author of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. “This smacks of corporate censorship. A news organization shouldn’t be hiding the facts about the Net Neutrality debate because its corporate owners and their allies disagree with a journalist’s reporting. This is exactly why we need Net Neutrality. We don’t want to live in a world where Comcast or AT&T gets to decide which side of the story you see.”

Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, wrote to Republic Report to say, “I’m scared for our journalists, especially those that use the Internet to share their stories. When corporate or 20th century civil rights organizations silence the voices of journalists trying to simply report on the biggest first amendment issue of the 21st century, it only clarifies why we need strong rules that prevent censorship and discrimination on the Internet.” Cyril’s organization is a national organizing and training center for media rights that counts organizations such as Color of Change, Presente.org and others in its advocacy network.

NewsOne was not the only outlet lobbied by MMTC. The blog Field Negro was also contacted by MMTC’s David Honig, a longtime pro-telecom industry operative who told Field Negro that “no one disagrees about the desirability of an open Internet,” and argued that net neutrality activists are somehow equivalent to white liberals who support gentrification.

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In reality, Honig has waged a multi-year war against efforts to build an open Internet, and the groups in his network continually shift the goal posts to ensure ISPs are allowed to discriminate based on content. For instance, one of the groups that has collaborated with Honig, the Japanese American Citizens League, told the FCC in 2010 that net neutrality would “do more harm than good” and that they “remain unconvinced that there is a need for this type of regulation.” Well, in Honig’s latest letter on behalf of the Japanese American Citizens League, net neutrality is needed, but only if adopted through FCC Chairman Wheeler’s terms, which is to say, with Internet fast lanes and slow lanes.

The arguments keep changing. The only thing that stays consistent is the money and the ISP-friendly policy. Comcast, a major opponent of net neutrality, is a big sponsor of both the MMTC (which has received around $350,000) and the Japanese American Citizens League. Honig’s board of advisors includes Joe Waz, an executive who has led Comcast’s policy outreach.

Asked about the MMTC-organized civil rights group letters against net neutrality and ensuing controversy, Professor Todd Gitlin called them the “closest thing I can imagine to a political quid pro quo,” explaining, “The evidence they offer on the proposition that minorities would benefit in employment, in access, in the rejection of reclassification is nil. It’s a lot of huffing and puffing built on the gullibility of the reader.”

He added, “the fact NewsOne saw fit to delete a report that they previously posted without any claim that anything was mistaken in the report tells you something about their commitment to open discourse.”

Jeff Cohen, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College, also commented on the NewsOne decision. “Just as corporate cash can corrupt civil rights groups, this incident shows how corporate power can corrupt and censor the news.”

Advocates for strong net neutrality argue that the rule is necessary so ISPs do not squelch out minority viewpoints with slower speeds. ISPs, on the other hand, say they can be trusted. If just the debate around net neutrality is any guide, large media corporations seem willing to suppress unfavorable news content. “If this happens now,” says Cayden Mak, the New Media Director of 18MillionRising.org, an Asian-American advocacy group, “imagine how difficult it will be to criticize internet providers and their allies without strong Net Neutrality rules.”

Update: Turner-Lee's colleague e-mailed Republic Report to say that her resignation from the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications was unrelated to the charges, which she says were false and which NAMIC found to have no basis.

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After ‘Nation’ Investigation, DOJ May Investigate Shadow Lobbyists

US Capitol

US Congress on Capitol Hill, Washington, DC (Creative Commons)

Last February, The Nation, with support from the Investigative Fund, published a broad look into the many failures of America’s lobbying disclosure system. Among several revelations in the piece, we reported that major aspects of lobbying law have gone completely unenforced. The Department of Justice, we found, has never brought an enforcement action against an individual or firm for failing to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The only LDA enforcement actions to date have been from individuals who do register but fall behind in their paperwork. But for the thousands of influence peddlers in Washington, DC, who go about their trade without registration and disclosure, law enforcement has turned a blind eye.

That may be changing.

According to a story posted on Friday by The Hill, “the Office of Congressional Ethics has for the first time accused an entity of lobbying Congress illegally. The complaint has been referred to the Justice Department, which enforces the Lobbying Disclosure Act, but few other details are available.”

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Notably, the first law firm to receive notice of this referral was Covington & Burling, Attorney General Eric Holder’s previous employer. Covington’s Robert Kelner wrote:

For several years, we have been warning clients and others that it was only a matter of time before we would see criminal referrals against lobbyists who fail to register under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act (“LDA”). Until now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia has focused exclusively—and rarely—on bringing cases against registered lobbyists who fail to timely file reports. This week, however, the Office of Congressional Ethics (“OCE”) of the U.S. House of Representatives mentioned in its quarterly report that during the second quarter of this year, “OCE voted to refer one entity to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for failure to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.” This is big news.

It’s not clear yet which “shadow lobbyist” is being targeted for investigation. But just the fact that the DOJ is finally taking a look into this problem, which includes prominent members of both parties, is indeed big news.

 

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Disgraced Coal Baron Don Blankenship Rebrands As A Libertarian Activist

Coal processing plant

Coal processing plant in West Virginia (Jim Young/Reuters)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org.

Among visitors to Freedom Fest, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas, you might miss the aging Don Blankenship amid other middle-aged attendees and a swarm of college students in three-piece suits. Blankenship, wearing a bowling shirt and tan slacks, moves from panel to panel carrying a tote bag filled with free schwag—of which there was a lot to choose from, including this “water bottle” from the Charles Koch Institute—like anyone else. The former CEO of Massey Energy became the most feared man in West Virginia for his ruthless control over his mines and for busting unions throughout Appalachia. Now, he might be the most hated, after a 2010 blast at his company’s Upper Big Branch mine killed twenty-nine workers in one of the worst mining disasters in American history.

Blankenship, who retired from Massey after the tragedy at UBB, is now a political activist, and he’s in Nevada for several reasons. For one thing, he was there to attend the Heartland Institute’s conference on global warming denial, which preceded Freedom Fest. And in any case, he now resides in Sin City for tax purposes.

It’s the first time Blankenship has attended either event, he tells me, but he’s eager to gather intellectual fodder for a movie he’s creating on the US economy. “I’m basically looking for information and fresh ideas,” Blankenship says. “We’re in a reg-cecession,” he explains, which is a term he created for “a recession caused by excessive regulation, including many based on global warming.”

At the height of his power, shortly before the blast, Blankenship was already a powerful political player and served on the board of the US Chamber of Commerce, arguably the most influential business lobbying group in the world. After the mine tragedy, the Chamber and other coal-connected political groups successfully defeated congressional efforts to update the laws governing mine safety. Republic Report obtained a financial disclosure form that shows that under Blankenship his coal company donated $100,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that penned an op-ed after the mine collapse to warn against letting the tragedy be used by “anti-mining activists” for new regulations.

“Most people excuse their lack of involvement in politics as politics being dirty and politics causing problems,” says Blankenship, “but the only way to have good government is to have better candidates and elect better people and it’s why we have $17 trillion in debt and an economy that’s declining.”

Blankenship concedes that he is not as active in the political realm as he used to be, though he still gives an occasional phone call to his former colleagues. “I’ve spoken to the US Chamber and I’ve spoken to the coal associations. You can not just immediately have your hand out to compromise, you’ve got to have belief and you have to stand up for what’s right, not what’s politically correct.”

After listening to Blankenship’s short diatribe against the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, I asked Blankenship what should be done about these environmental groups. “You’ve got to fight them at every step,” he replies. “The environmental movement isn’t a great cause, it’s a great business.”

To Blankenship, the EPA’s coal power plant regulations and the mine safety crowd all represent the same ideology. “The actual UBB explosion was partially the result of the war on coal,” he says.

A minute later, after mentioning that he is going to be late to meet his date for lunch, he makes the connection even more explicit. “UBB is just another example of how willing the far left is to outright lie and of course when I was CEO of Massey I was coached to say ‘untruthful,’ but really it’s a lie. The reason you know they will lie about the science of global warming is because they lied about the very science of UBB. Their willingness to lie about that solidifies in my mind their willingness to lie about the science of global warming.”

Over the last year, Blankenship has tried to clear his name over the UBB mine disaster. He created a short video and has told almost any reporter willing to listen that the disaster was a freak accident relating to the buildup of natural gas. Reports from workers and subsequent investigations have made clear that Massey Energy’s mines had skirted safety rules and were infamous for allowing a dangerous build-up of methane and other flammable gas. A study from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University showed that Massey’s corner-cutting had led to the worst safety record of any coal mining company for ten years prior to the disaster.

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Blankenship continues to expound on his worldview. “Here’s where I get into answers that are very unpopular.” A wry grin creeps Blankenship’s otherwise expressionless face. “You’re basically seeing, well, I don’t want to use the word, but the way I describe fascism is the control of people’s lives by the combined efforts of big business and big government.” He rattles off several examples: GE’s getting sweetheart deals from the Obama administration, the bank bailouts, Warren Buffet. Publicly traded companies are increasingly making their money overseas, so they don’t have to comply with domestic regulations, Blankenship says. That’s why they support the Obama administration.

Before he has to go, he reminds me that his movie on regulation will come out on Labor Day. Its argument, he claims will even sell with union workers, who have been duped by their bosses into supporting anti-mining politicians like Obama and Joe Biden.

Who would better lead our country?

“I love Ted Cruz’s courage with the Obamacare filibuster,” he says. “I don’t like Rand Paul as much as father Ron Paul. Like what Rubio’s been saying. Ben Carson.” If he had his druthers, who would he pick for the White House? “I’d reincarnate Ronald Reagan.”

With that, he smiled for the second time in the conference, waddled into his seat and disappeared into a crowd of other libertarian activists.

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