May 18, 2017

Van Hollen, Whitehouse Introduce Conflicts from Political Fundraising Act

Today U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) joined Congressman Ted Deutch (D-FL) to unveil legislation 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 non-profits, 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 Van Hollen, Whitehouse, and Deutch in introducing the bill are Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Al Franken (D-MN), and Tom Carper (D-DE).

"There is no question that secret outside spending is having a dramatic - and detrimental - impact on our nation's democracy," said Senator Van Hollen. "We need to update our ethics rules to make sure that we prevent conflicts of interest with political appointees who serve at the highest levels of government. Increased transparency will limit the influence of dark money and strengthen our democratic process."

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 $1,000,000 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.