On the heels of a rousing campaign season and with a new president in power, the Center for Public Integrity’s federal politics team had no shortage of stories to cover.
Some of the gems we’ve uncovered this year: a Republican hideaway secretly bankrolled by corporations and trade groups, along with a look at the forces that propelled the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case into being.
Here are this year’s top political stories:
While campaigning, Donald Trump said he couldn’t “look the other way” when the nation’s political system “sold out to some corporate lobbyist for cash.” But behind the scenes, several major corporations and trade groups secretly bankrolled a plush hideaway for lawmakers at the same Republican National Convention in Cleveland where Trump gave the speech.
After an investigation by the Center into Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ investment in Diamond S. Shipping — one of the world’s largest owners and operators of medium-range tanker vessels — Ross divested from the firm, which had ties to China, Iran and Russia. Prior to his divestment, critics raised questions about whether overseas shipping investments were appropriate for Ross, who is among the Trump administration’s most influential trade policy players.
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may not remember much about the rallies they each held last year in Green Bay, Wisconsin. But officials at Green Bay City Hall sure did. And they were miffed the three politicos stiffed them on police protection bills totaling $24,000. Green Bay wasn’t alone. (And many cities, including Green Bay, are still awaiting payment.)
Kochs key among small group quietly funding legal assault on campaign finance regulation
Getty / AP
The billionaire Koch brothers are well-known for pumping tens of millions of dollars into so-called “dark money” nonprofits — groups that actively promote or criticize candidates for office but are not required to reveal their donors. Not so well known is the duo’s role in underwriting and sculpting the legal landscape that led to the court decisions that made possible these and other groups such as super PACs.
We investigated an array of organizations that have participated in legal challenges dating back 40 years — challenges that have resulted in a system allowing unlimited sums to be pumped into modern elections. It’s a system that both Republicans and Democrats now fully rely upon ahead of 2018 midterm elections that could reaffirm — or torpedo — President Donald Trump’s congressional majority.
>>Related: How slamming campaign finance laws helped Greg Gianforte get elected
AP / AP / Zero7 Images / AP
In July 2016, the Federal Election Commission slapped the 60 Plus Association with a $50,000 fine, charging that it hadn’t revealed its donors as legally obliged. But 15 months later, the Virginia-based 60 Plus Association has only paid one-tenth of its fine. The FEC, meanwhile, isn’t forcing the 60 Plus Association’s compliance — or anything close.
>>Related: Watchdog demands Federal Election Commission crack down on fine-dodging nonprofit
Veterans charity raises millions to help those who’ve served. But telemarketers are pocketing most of it.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
Think your money’s going to charities for veterans? You may want to take a closer look. We investigated a web of charities connected to a Virginia group that raises millions of dollars for veterans, but spends $9 out of $10 on overhead and telemarketing costs. That group is now entering politics.
>>Related: Charities employ controversial telemarketers to tug on heartstrings — and loosen purse strings
Democrats say ‘Citizens United’ should die. Here’s why that won’t happen.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Seizing on the specter of Russian election influence, Democrats have ramped up their effort — with minimal effect — to blunt Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the controversial 2010 Supreme Court decision that unleashed a torrent of special interest spending on U.S. elections. But none of the two dozen bills introduced have had a single formal hearing, much less an up-or-down vote in either the U.S. House or Senate.
>>Related: Statehouses, not Congress, hosting biggest political money fights
We looked at the mandatory personal financial disclosure forms filed by all current members of the House and Senate and found that at least 19 have accepted loans from organizations or moneyed individuals instead of a bank or traditional financial institution.
Often, these organizations and individuals rank among the lawmakers’ key political supporters. In two of these cases, the loans were made to members’ spouses.
Comeback for ‘legalized money laundering’ in party politics?
A Center analysis of campaign finance data shows Democrats and Republicans alike are now aggressively trafficking in a new — and perfectly legal — kind of soft money, enabled by a 2014 Supreme Court decision — the latest in a series gutting major parts of a law championed by John McCain that was enacted in 2002. We looked at how that new tactic is also changing political fundamentals.
In an arrangement ethics experts said is without precedent and potentially illegal, the White House referred questions for Stephen K. Bannon to an outside public relations agent while he served as a a senior presidential adviser to Trump. The agent’s firm at the time said she was working for free.
Alexandra Preate, a 46-year-old New Yorker and veteran Republican media strategist, described herself as Bannon’s “personal spokesperson.” But she also collaborates with other White House officials on public messaging and responses to press inquiries.
>>Related: Steve Bannon misreports $2 million debt in financial disclosure
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