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Republican Election Commissioners Just Released Key Legal Documents—Nearly a Decade Too Late

Mother Jones

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A strange thing happened last week at the Federal Election Commission, the nation’s watchdog for campaigns and elections. On Friday evening, the FEC’s three Republican members quietly released a slew of missing legal memos related to cases dating back as far as 10 years. The commissioners gave no reason for why they decided to act now, after a decade of silence on the cases in question.

But it turns out that the newly released memos were the result of a Freedom of Information Act request recently filed by Mother Jones. The request was a modest one and asked only for a list of all such overdue legal documents at the FEC. That list would show every case for which FEC commissioners had failed to perform a customary part of their jobs: explaining to the public why they had voted a certain way on cases that had come before the agency. Dismiss a complaint, open an investigation, assess a fine—whichever way a commissioner decides, he or she is expected to explain that decision in a memo made available to the public.

In a move that perplexed several legal experts, the FEC denied our FOIA request. Yet soon after that, the FEC’s three Republican commissioners hastily wrote and released to the public 11 of these long-overdue legal memos. When Mother Jones asked the three Republican commissioners if our FOIA request had anything to do with their decision to act, two of them, Lee Goodman and Matthew Petersen, confirmed that it had. “Most of these were on the back burner as our reasons were either already clear or changes in the law made the issues moot,” Petersen says. “Your request was a useful reminder to bolster the record with formal statements.”

Congress created the FEC in the 1970s to police campaign-related abuses and enforce election laws passed in the wake of Watergate. Unlike most federal agencies, the FEC has an even number of commissioners—six—divided equally by political party. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, with frequent 3-3 deadlocks on key votes, it’s hard not to see the FEC as an institution designed to fail. (The commission will be without a sixth member now that Democrat Ann Ravel has announced her resignation, effective March 1.)

But for most of its 40-year history, the FEC worked mostly fine. The commissioners regularly found the four-vote majority they needed to act—to investigate potential wrongdoing, assess fines against lawbreakers, and provide guidance to candidates, committees, political parties, and other outfits looking to get involved in federal elections. That began to change in the mid-2000s. Three new Republicans came aboard who took a more ideological approach to campaign finance laws and free speech. Led by then-Commissioner Donald McGahn, who is now President Donald Trump’s White House counsel, the Republicans often voted in lockstep to block enforcement actions. A Public Citizen analysis found that the FEC hit a 3-3 vote on enforcement actions roughly 1 percent of the time between 2003 and 2007. In 2008, deadlocks rose to 10 percent. In 2013, they hit a peak of 23 percent. “For nearly every case of major significance over the past several years, the Commission has deadlocked on investigating serious allegations or has failed to hold violators fully accountable,” outgoing Democratic Commissioner Ann Ravel wrote in a recent report titled Dysfunction and Deadlock.

When FEC commissioners vote on a case to go against what the agency’s lawyers recommend, they are required to publish a legal justification—a Statement of Reasons, in agency jargon—for why they voted the way they did. These memos educate the public on the legal underpinnings of the commission’s decisions and give outside parties a basis to sue the agency if they disagree. But starting in the mid-2000s, the FEC’s Republicans simply stopped explaining many of their decisions. Some or all of the Republican commissioners failed to write Statements of Reasons in 25 such cases over a 10-year span, according to an unofficial tally obtained by Mother Jones earlier this month. (The tally shows that Democratic commissioners had no overdue Statements of Reasons.)

Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel who now works at the Campaign Legal Center, a group that supports tighter political donation limits and more transparency in elections, says that failure to file Statements of Reasons is longstanding problem that has worsened over time. “Delaying them deprives the public of knowing what’s going on or why commissioners did what they did,” Noble says.

A few weeks ago, Mother Jones filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the FEC’s own list of all overdue legal Statements of Reasons. In its February 17 denial letter, an FEC official cited FOIA Exemption 5, which shields from disclosure “documents covered by the attorney work-product, deliberative process, and attorney-client privileges.”

Two hours after the denial, the FEC posted its weekly digest. It included the 11 Statements of Reasons authored by Republican commissioners relating to old cases. The documents were all signed and dated within a four-day span last week, and each one is only several pages long, unlike the lengthy, footnote-laden documents typically produced by the commissioners and their staffs.

Ellen Weintraub, the senior-most Democratic commissioner at FEC, applauded the release of the 11 legal memos. “I am pleased on behalf of the American people that they are finally getting some kind of explanation for the commission’s failure to act in so many cases,” she says.

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Republican Election Commissioners Just Released Key Legal Documents—Nearly a Decade Too Late

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Conservatives Can’t Figure Out Whether to Embrace or Denounce the Alt-Right

Mother Jones

As they kick off their biggest conference of the year, leading conservatives from across the country can’t seem to figure out what to do about the alt-right, a movement with close ties to both white nationalists and the White House.

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference began Thursday morning outside Washington, DC, with a strange denunciation of the movement by the executive director of the organization behind the event. In a speech titled “The Alt Right Ain’t Right at All,” American Conservative Union executive director Dan Schneider said that the alt-right isn’t really a conservative movement at all. Instead, he said, “a hate-filled, left-wing fascist group hijacked the very term ‘alt-right.'” Schneider called the alt-right anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist.

“CPAC, we have been slapped in the face,” Schneider said. “There is a sinister organization trying to worm its way into our ranks. We must not be duped, we must not be deceived. This is serious business.”

It’s understandable why Schneider would want to distance CPAC from the alt-right. But his organization didn’t seem to mind associating itself with the movement when it created the schedule for this year’s conference. White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is scheduled to speak early this afternoon, just a few hours after Schneider and on the same stage. During an interview with Mother Jones at the Republican National Convention last summer, Bannon proudly tied Breitbart, the media organization he was then running, to the movement Schneider called racist. “We’re the platform for the alt-right,” Bannon said.

One of this year’s keynote speakers at CPAC was supposed to be Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart writer who called himself a “fellow traveler” of the alt-right. That view didn’t seem to trouble the organizers of CPAC, who rescinded his invitation only after a video circulated online of Yiannopoulos saying he didn’t have a problem with pedophilia.

But CPAC still appears to be just fine with the media organization that serves as the “platform for the alt-right.” As he was denouncing the movement, Schneider spoke in front of a banner featuring the logos of the event sponsors—including Breitbart.

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Conservatives Can’t Figure Out Whether to Embrace or Denounce the Alt-Right

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Donald Trump’s Mystery $50 Million (or More) Loan

Mother Jones

Among Donald Trump’s debts—the source of some of his most intractable conflicts of interest—is a mystery loan that Trump has not publicly explained. And this means that the president could have a secret creditor to whom he owes tens of millions of dollars.

According to Trump’s financial disclosure records and various news reports, Trump is carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. These transactions could provide his creditors with leverage over the new commander-in-chief. Moreover, it would be difficult for Trump to refinance or modify the terms of his various loans without raising suspicion that he is receiving favorable treatment because of his position. (Imagine a bank gives him a good rate. Would this suggest it might receive preferential treatment from the US government Trump heads?) Because Trump has refused to release his tax returns, it’s impossible for the public to know exactly how much he owes and to whom. And Trump never kept his campaign promise to reveal all his creditors and obligations.

The financial disclosure form he filed last year did note more than a dozen loans totaling at least $713 million. But the full amount could be more. And buried in the paperwork is a puzzling debt that ethics experts say could suggest that Trump has a major creditor he has not publicly identified.

According to the disclosure, in 2012, Trump borrowed more than $50 million from a company called Chicago Unit Acquisition LLC. (The true value of the loan could be much higher; the form requires Trump only to state the range of the loan’s value, and he selected the top range, “over $50,000,000.”) Elsewhere in the same document, Trump notes that he owns this LLC. That is, he made the loan to himself. There’s nothing necessarily unusual about that.

Here’s where the situation gets odd. With Trump owning the Chicago Unit Acquisition LLC—and the LLC being owed $50 million or more by Trump—this company should be listed on Trump’s disclosure as worth at least that much, unless it has debt offsetting this amount. Yet on Trump’s latest disclosure form, Chicago Unit Acquisition is not listed at all. The disclosure rules say that any asset worth more than $1,000 must be noted. So this is the mystery: Why is this Trump-owned firm that holds a $50 million-plus note from Trump not worth anything?

The answer could be that Chicago Unit Acquisition has its own debts that cancel out its value, says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who specializes in government and corporate ethics. In other words, Trump’s LLC could owe $50 million and possibly much more to one or more creditors that have not been disclosed to the public. Though the president essentially could be on the hook to some entity or some person for over $50 million, the financial disclosure rules do not require Trump to list the loans and liabilities of companies he owns. (He only has to reveal his personal loans.)

“I think the American people are at risk because we don’t know know with whom Donald Trump is entangled financially,” Clark says. “If I owe a lot of money to someone, I will probably want to do what I can to keep that person or institution happy. We don’t know the terms of this debt and we don’t know whether Donald Trump will be tempted to look out for his own financial interest in addressing the concerns of his creditor, whoever that is.”

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that Trump pays a minimum of $4.4 million a year in interest in connection with his loan from Chicago Unit Acquisition LLC. His disclosure form states he pays the prime interest rate plus 5 percent for this loan. (Consequently, Chicago Unit Acquisition would have at least that much in annual revenue, though none is reported.) And the Journal report deepened the mystery. It noted that it had paid two research firms to search for paperwork connected to this loan, but both came up empty-handed.

In a 2016 interview with the New York Times, Trump briefly addressed the loan. He said that he had purchased the debt, via Chicago Unit Acquisition, from a group of banks he had previously borrowed from. Jason Greenblatt, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, would not discuss with the Times why Trump had not simply retired the debt and instead was continuing to pay interest on it. “I am not sure it’s appropriate for us to discuss our sort of internal financial reasoning behind transactions in the press,” Greenblatt told the Times. “It’s really personal corporate trade secrets, if you will. Neither newsworthy or frankly anybody’s business.”

On his 2015 disclosure form, Trump did list Chicago Unit Acquisition LLC as having a value, putting it at between $1,000 and $25,000—still substantially lower than the sum Trump reports owing to it. When the Times asked Trump why Chicago Unit Acquisition LLC was valued so low on his financial disclosure, he replied, “We don’t assess any value to it because we don’t care. I have the mortgage. That is all there is. Very simple. I am the bank.”

“Whether or not Mr. Trump cares or not about a liability is irrelevant to his obligation to disclose information on the Form 278,” says Norm Eisen, who was a top ethics attorney in the Obama administration and who now co-chairs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Questions about the apparent inconsistency in how the loan was and is treated on his disclosures are legitimate, and a normal president would provide additional information to clear them up.”

Alan Garten, Trump’s personal attorney, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the White House.

Richard Painter, who served as the chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration and who co-chairs CREW with Eisen, says if there are no loans offsetting the value of Chicago Unit Acquisition, Trump’s disclosure form should list the outstanding debt as an asset. “None of the underlying assets or liabilities of the LLC owned by Trump need to appear on the 278—just its net value and Trump’s ownership in it,” Painter says. “That is one of the reasons the form is incomplete. If the LLC is owed money, that is a positive; if it owes money, that is a negative, for determining its value.”

Either Trump’s disclosure report is incomplete or there could be a hidden creditor, Eisen and Painter assert. If Trump were to release his tax returns, as all other major presidential candidates have done in recent decades, they point out, he could clear up the matter by providing information on his interest payments. (Eisen and Painter have filed a lawsuit against Trump alleging that the president has violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by maintaining a number of beneficial financial relationships with foreign governments.)

“Without more information, we cannot properly assess the import of this entry, or of the changes in how it was reported,” Eisen says. “We need those additional details, including to assess possible conflicts. It may well be the case that the answers lie in Mr. Trump’s tax returns, but he has refused to provide them. This is yet another transparency failure on the part of the president.”

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Donald Trump’s Mystery $50 Million (or More) Loan

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Congressional climate deniers are getting called on their BS at town halls this week.

The protesters gathered in Boston’s Copley Square with some impressively nerdy signs, including “Scientists are wicked smaht” and “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

The rally coincided with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held a few blocks away, but was not sponsored by the scientific organization. In fact, scientists have often been wary of participating in political demonstrations, citing the need for science to be objective and nonpartisan.

“We’re not protesting a party,” one scientist told the Boston Globe. “As scientists, we want to support truth.”

Truth, however, has increasingly become a political issue, with an administration that has denied climate change, attacked the value of the EPA, and put forward a non-evidence-based travel ban that would adversely affect many scientists and researchers in the United States. As one sign at the rally put it, “Alternative facts are the square root of negative one.” That is, imaginary.

Sunday’s rally was a warm-up act for the March for Science, which is expected to bring many thousands of scientists to Washington, D.C., on April 22, Earth Day.

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Congressional climate deniers are getting called on their BS at town halls this week.

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Raw Data: Retiree Spending Across the Country

Mother Jones

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In case you’re wondering what finally got me to try GeoFRED,1 it was a report I got this morning from the retirement boffins at EBRI, “Geographic Variation in Spending Among Older American Households.” This put me in mind of maps, and reminded me to check out FRED’s mapmaking prowess.

Anyway, the EBRI report turned out not to be all that interesting, but here’s a bit of raw data anyway about retiree spending:

The folks down in Texas and Arkansas sure have low expenses, though I’m not sure how much this tells us. Do they really have low expenses, or do they just have low incomes and can’t spend very much? Probably some of both. In any case, this gives you an idea of how much retirees spend in whatever part of the country you live in.

1I realize no one was wondering that. Work with me here.

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Raw Data: Retiree Spending Across the Country

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