Trump's Fetid Swamp Set A Tone That Has Left America Mired In Unending Corruption

Last night Roland came home and asked if I had seen any photos of Devin Nunes lately. "He sure hasn't missed any meals," he said. Nor will he ever. I've been complaining for years that Congress should not be policing itself. There is a distinct tendency, when writing laws, to tailor them to fit congressional behavior-- in other words, to legalized obviously criminal behavior by members of Congress, like taking bribery from special interests, for example, while defining the behavior as "not bribery."

One little trick/loophole they made for themselves allows Members of Congress to take millions of dollars in "campaign contributions" and then take it with them when they leave Congress and use it for ways that benefit themselves personally. Sure, at least in theory, they can't just put the hauls into their own personal bank accounts, but they can, for example, pay their spouses or children major salaries for managing the funds. There are dozens of little tricks the former congressmembers can do to live high on the hog from the political fundraising. Take Nunes. One of the most disreputable and shady members of Congress, he's leaving with over $12 million that donors gave him for his reelection. But he isn't running again and is instead transitioning into a job working for Trump as a well-paid CEO. If Congress was trying to foster ethics-- they never do-- they would have passed a law forcing Nunes and scores of other members to return the contributions to the donors. But that would be unthinkable for Congress.

This morning, writing for Roll Call, Kate Ackley reported that the laws Congress had passed are flexible when it comes to feathering their own nests. So far, she wrote that "More than 20 sitting lawmakers who have said they’re leaving after the 117th Congress-- or in Nunes’ case, in the middle of it-- will hit the exits with nearly $53 million in combined leftover political cash, including in their campaign accounts and separate leadership PACs. A few more have already left... Some departing members give refunds. Most often, they donate the money to political committees and charities, or they hang on to the funds to dole out after they’ve left office. Some may keep their political money around in case they make another run for office in the future."

“There are a lot of different things that the retiring members can use the funds for,” said Michael Toner, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who heads the election law and government ethics practice at law firm Wiley. “There’s no deadline by which federal officeholders have to close up their campaign accounts or leadership PAC accounts.”
Retiring lawmakers who keep their campaign committees active continue to face disclosure requirements, and there are limits on how much they can donate to candidates or other PACs. They may give an unlimited amount, however, from their reelection accounts to party committees.
... There was a time, before the Watergate-era overhauls and a late-1980s repeal of a provision that grandfathered some members’ accounts, that departing lawmakers could use leftover campaign funds almost as a supplemental pension. Today, officials face a prohibition on using that money for personal expenses. Any earnings generated by the accounts are subject to taxes. But former members, including those who take gigs in the private sector, such as the K Street lobbying corridor, may continue to donate money to their onetime colleagues after leaving office.
That means former lawmakers who work for lobbying firms can contribute cash to erstwhile colleagues even as different laws impose bans for a period of time on directly lobbying them.
“If you’re able to write checks for your former colleagues, that’s going to allow you to continue to stay relevant and to engage and participate in the fundraising process,” said executive recruiter Julian Ha, who leads Heidrick & Struggles’ global government and policy and association practices.
...The rules for spending leadership PAC funds differ from those governing campaign accounts. For one, some experts say former lawmakers can use leadership PAC funds for personal use, though they may be subject to income taxes. Leadership PACs aren’t permitted to give unlimited funds to the party committees.
“The rules governing leadership PAC spending are more lax than the rules governing spending by politicians’ official campaign committees, in part because the Federal Election Commission has not historically enforced the existing personal use prohibition in the context of leadership PACs, only in the context of campaign committees,” said Michael Beckel, research director at Issue One, a campaign finance overhaul group that has researched leadership PACs.
“In theory, leftover leadership PAC funds could be spent on just about anything,” he added. “In practice, leftover leadership PACs are often spent the same way as leftover campaign funds-- on contributions to other candidates, political party committees, and PACs, or on administrative costs associated with winding down the PAC.”
If leftover leadership PAC funds were spent on something that appeared to be for personal use, a watchdog organization might be inclined to file a complaint, Beckel noted. His group and others, such as the Campaign Legal Center, have argued that the prohibition on personal use should apply to leadership PACs too.
...Such pots of money can help smooth the transition for former lawmakers who go into lobbying.
“I’ve never seen it make a difference in the hiring of anybody, but it certainly helps continue your friendships after you leave the Hill with your former colleagues-- that’s for sure,” K Street headhunter Ivan Adler said.

And it isn't just Congress reeking of corruption. The executive branch stinks as well-- or at least it did under Trump. A couple of weeks ago, writing for The Hill, Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, noted that "It’s too easy for executive branch officials to abuse their office and use taxpayer funds to further their political careers. That much is clear from a report from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) last week outlining a series of ethics law violations under the Trump administration."

We hope Trump is an outlier-- not a trend-setter. But even if he's the most corrupt president in history--he is-- he isn't the first corrupt president. Brian continued, "It’s a reminder to voters just how easy it is for federal officials to get away with blatant corruption, and the latest violations will only deepen their distrust in government. The office found that at least 13 Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act, a law established to protect democracy by prohibiting government officials from misusing their platforms as government officials to influence elections. But these officials didn’t face any consequences for flouting the law-- sometimes knowing that their actions would violate ethics rules. The report issued by the OSC paints a bleak picture of the Hatch Act violations under the Trump administration. 'This failure to impose discipline created the conditions for what appeared to be a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch,' the report states."

As the OSC noted in its report, then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said in a media interview that “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about Hatch Act violations.
But this simply isn’t true. The American people are greatly concerned with corruption in government. In fact, a survey of voters in the battleground states of Michigan and Ohio sponsored by the Project On Government Oversight found that voters rank government corruption as a top concern. The sense that their leaders are using their government positions to advance political activities, rather than to serve the American public, contributes to significant distrust in government. This is especially true if they never face consequences for their misdeeds.
And yet leaders in Congress have done little to address the weaknesses in our ethics laws laid bare under the Trump administration. Political coercion will not fix itself with the election of new leaders. Policymakers need to act, and the recent OSC report should serve as a painful reminder that anti-corruption laws need an overhaul.
While it was a step in the right direction for OSC to release the findings of its investigations-- typically the office drops Hatch Act probes once an individual leaves their government post-- the office was unable to address violations while the individuals were still in government.
OSC has the authority to fine and otherwise reprimand career government officials, but lacks the power to fine presidential appointees for illegally using their official positions to advance campaign goals. So certain officials appointed by the president benefit from a loophole in the law, leaving OSC with little power to address their Hatch Act violations.
Historically, the federal government relied on the president to address Hatch Act violations by these appointees. Yet because President Trump was unwilling to reprimand his appointees, several officials in the last administration were able to violate the Hatch Act without fear of consequences and with great risk of taxpayer money supporting campaign and party activities.
This key anti-corruption law essentially creates a two-tiered system in which some officials face consequences for violating the law and others do not.
And such a system is clearly unsustainable. Congress should make it a priority to strengthen the OSC’s power to enforce the Hatch Act. Policymakers must also institute a better system for collecting fines and allow for larger fines.
The public clearly doesn’t want their leaders to campaign on the public’s tab. There must be a better way to deter this kind of behavior before it happens since it will never be possible to claw back the taxpayer funds misused by those officials in this way.
The Office of Special Counsel needs to step up its game on its own, as well.
Last year, Americans watched as the Republican Party broadcast key portions of its national convention from the White House, egregiously blurring the line between politics and nonpartisan democratic pillars. The OSC was aware of these plans, allowed it to happen and waited more than a year to issue a report on its findings.
In the report, for example, OSC reveals that it repeatedly warned the White House and the Department of Homeland Security not to allow acting Secretary Chad Wolf to record a naturalization service for the RNC; however, OSC, which issued a statement defending the White House’s decision to host the RNC, said nothing when Wolf publicly denied that there was anything unusual about the ceremony. Even with restrictions in the law, the OSC must do everything in its power to hold executive branch officials accountable when they violate the law.
The lack of consequences for Hatch Act violations should greatly alarm the American people and Congress. We’ve already seen several violations or near-violations under the Biden administration, and Congress must act swiftly to strengthen this anti-corruption law.

This morning, the Biden administration promulgated an exhaustive action report meant "to restore and strengthen American democracy, from cracking down on corruption and promoting transparency to taking critical steps to ensure the federal government works for every American-- no matter what they look like or where they live. This cause will be a guiding principle throughout the President’s time in office, and that includes prioritizing the fight to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect the sacred right to vote in free, fair, and secure elections." There are dozens and dozens of points, but not much that's going top end congressional corruption-- still in the hands of the shady self-serving and mostly unscrupulous politicians. I found two points that might prove useful under the section, "Fighting Corruption":

  • Developing a Strategy on Countering Corruption. The Biden-Harris Administration released the first-ever United States Strategy on Countering Corruption, outlining a whole-of-government approach to elevating the fight against corruption both at home and abroad. The Strategy includes the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) publishing proposed regulations requiring companies to identify to FinCEN the real people who own or control them, making it harder for criminals to launder illicit proceeds through shell companies. The Strategy also commits FinCEN to launching a regulatory process for potential new reporting and recordkeeping requirements to increase transparency in real estate transactions, diminishing the ability of corrupt actors to launder ill-gotten proceeds through real estate purchases.

  • Restoring Ethics, Transparency, and the Rule of Law. The Administration will continue working with Congress to restore democratic guardrails to prevent future abuses of presidential power and curtail corruption, with legislation that is consistent with our constitutional principles and that appropriately addresses the balance of powers between the three branches of our federal government. In doing so, the Administration will work to ensure that no branch is able to abuse its authority or undermine a co-equal branch’s constitutional prerogatives, no matter who is in power.

There are also 3 points under a heading "Fighting Corruption" that might prove useful, although I think was mostly meant to fight corruption abroad, not especially ion Capitol Hill, if they're taken seriously by anyone:

  • Developing a National Strategy. In response to President Biden’s National Security Study Memorandum establishing the fight against corruption as a core U.S. national security interest and a priority across the federal government, the Biden-Harris Administration released the first-ever United States Strategy on Countering Corruption. This strategy outlines how U.S. and its allies can curb illicit finance, effectively hold corrupt actors accountable, build stronger international partnerships, and improve foreign assistance.

  • Reducing the Ability of Corrupt Actors to Launder their Ill-gotten Gains via Shell Companies. Right now, criminals and kleptocrats can use opaque corporate structures to launder their criminal proceeds while keeping their identities hidden. The Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) will shine a light on these bad actors by finalizing requirements to make companies report who their true (“beneficial”) owners are. Companies will need to report this information at two key points: when new entities are formed (or, for non-U.S. companies, when they register with a state to do business in the U.S.), and when they change beneficial owners. FinCEN is also developing a new beneficial ownership database for this critical information so that law enforcement, among others, can use it to assist in investigations into corruption, money laundering, and other illicit finance transactions.

  • Supporting Enforcement. In June, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued the first government-wide priorities for anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) policy. The Priorities, which identify corruption as a significant threat, will guide institutions’ allocation of compliance resources and inform the promulgation of regulations.

Every aspect of the whole system stinks of corruption and it isn't any wonder that Americans are fed up. Almost everyone-- certainly virtually every Republican-- just seems out for themselves, one of the worst traits of Trumpism. Just this afternoon, the North Carolina Supreme Court slapped down an illegal gerrymander by the Republican-controlled legislature, a gerrymander the legislators knew was illegal but thought they could get away with it until after the elections so that even when the districts were fixed, their candidates would be incumbents. The Court halted the elections until after the gerrymander is thoroughly litigated.