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WASHINGTON - Today, Senator Tom Udall joined Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Congressman Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) in unveiling legislation on a conference call with reporters to close a glaring ethics loophole that allows executive branch appointees to avoid disclosing their ties to shadowy political spending groups and other interests they may oversee as federal officials. The Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act would require presidentially appointed executive branch officials to disclose whether they have solicited donations for or contributed funds to political action committees (PACs), political nonprofits, and industry trade associations. This would prevent potentially serious conflicts of interest for cabinet secretaries and other top executive branch officials who may be charged with regulating the very donors who propelled their political careers.
Joining Udall, Whitehouse and Deutch in introducing the bill are Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Tom Carper (D-Del.). A fact sheet on the bill can be found here.
"With out-of-control campaign spending drowning out the voices of regular voters - thanks to the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision - it's understandable if millions of Americans feel like the deck is stacked against them. And now, instead of making good on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has broken the mold for swampy behavior, appointing more super-wealthy, connected special interest donors and insiders to high-level positions than any president before him," said Udall, who is leading the fight to overturn Citizens United and get big money out of politics. "The American people deserve to know who might be influencing the appointees at the very top of our government. Our bill takes action by closing a huge loophole in the law. By requiring high-level government officials to provide some real answers about whether they have received or contributed campaign donations we can help rein in the power of dark money interests."
"Citizens United unleashed a tsunami of corporate spending in our politics, threatening to drown out the voices of individual citizens. It's time to update our ethics rules to prevent that spending from hatching serious conflicts of interest at the top levels of our government," Whitehouse said. "We ask high-level appointees to disclose their financial relationships, which may have a serious influence on the work they do if confirmed. We also need to ask about fundraising relationships, which can be just as thorny. That will help us avoid potentially serious conflicts of interest and the scandal that would follow."
"Because of the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, big money has too much influence in our elections. That's why we need to be certain that presidential nominees aren't going to put their own political interests above the interests of the American people," Deutch said. "Under current law, billionaires can anonymously flood our elections with unlimited amounts of money one day and become heads of an agencies the next. We can't let the failures in our campaign finance laws be compounded by failures in our ethics laws. That's why we need to close this loophole. Until we overturn Citizens United, the American people won't be able to place their full trust in the president's highest-ranking appointees unless they are required to disclose their fundraising activities."
Under current law, presidential appointees must disclose their personal financial information to the Office of Government Ethics to identify and address any potential conflicts of interest. However, appointees are not required to provide information about their political solicitations or contributions, which may also raise conflicts of interest or the appearance thereof. For example, if an appointee asked a corporation for a $1 million contribution to a political action committee before her appointment, she should disclose that so steps may be taken to address her conflict of interest with that corporation.
"The torrent of undisclosed corporate and major donor dollars that have flooded our political system since the Citizens United decision has made it critical to understand the nexus of conflicts and cash. The public has a right to know the major donors of presidential appointees that could impact their policy decisions. Public Citizen strongly supports the Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act and applauds the critical disclosure it creates," said Lisa Gilbert, Vice President of Legislative Affairs at Public Citizen.
President Trump has already nominated and appointed several individuals who would have triggered the reporting requirements of this legislation. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, while Oklahoma Attorney General, solicited funds from fossil fuel corporations for the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a PAC, and its affiliate, the Rule of Law Defense Fund (RLDF), a 501(c)(4) political nonprofit. He has brought on as Director of EPA's Office of Policy Samantha Dravis, who previously served as Policy Director and General Counsel to RAGA and President of the RLDF.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her family have given massive sums of money to influence politics at all levels of government, including pressing for school voucher programs. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, DeVos and her family have donated over $20 million to Republican candidates, party committees, PACs, and super PACs. Much of DeVos's political spending has been focused on education issues she now influences as Education Secretary.
During their Senate confirmations, both Pruitt and DeVos were asked to provide information to senators about their political and dark money contributions and solicitations. Both refused.