Category Archives: Money in politics

2019 Assembly Had No Bark, Bite On Ethics

VPAP graphic showing a uptick in “things of value” received and reported by Virginia legislators. You can find the full report here.  Much is not reported.

It is always important to listen for the dogs that don’t bark, and the 2019 General Assembly showed neither bark nor bite on issues of money, politics and ethics.  Everything in Virginia is just fine with the legislators themselves, apparently.

So fine that the only significant bill involving the Virginia Conflict of Interests and Ethics Advisory Council eliminated its quarterly meetings and left it to meet only on call. The only significant bill dealing with campaign finances to pass involves reporting requirements for elections in Virginia towns. We head into the decisive 2019 General Assembly races with the same rules that have served so well for so long.  Continue reading

Proffers: They’re Baaaaack!

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but localities prefer proffers.  A proffer is an arrangement between a locality and a land developer whereby the developer offers something of value in order to get a rezoning request approved.  Why do developers want land rezoned?  For residential development they want to build more homes on the land than the land’s current zoning allows.  Why would localities object to these rezoning requests?  Theoretically, the locality’s strategic and financial plans are based on providing services at an overall population density dictated by the current zoning.  Adding more density increases the locality’s costs for services like public schools.  Localities are understandably worried about the unfunded mandates that up-zoning can cause.  How do proffers help?  Items of value (money, land, astroturf, etc) are given to the locality by the developer in order to fully or partly cover the additional costs to the locality of development at higher density than was planned.  These proffers reduce the developer’s profit margin on the project at hand so they are not popular with the development community. Continue reading

Sorry, Mr. Bloomberg, You Can’t Pay for Virginia Justice

Earlier this year I described how Attorney General Mark Herring had applied for funding from the Michael Bloomberg-funded New York University School of Law to hire a special assistant attorney to pursue climate-change and clean-energy initiatives. (See “Following the Dark Money.”) NYU had agreed to provide the funding but, for reasons as yet unclear, Herring’s office never made the hire.

Chris Horner, a Virginia resident and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, raised the alarm — entirely ignored by Virginia’s mainstream media — about the potential danger of allowing private interests, in effect, to commandeer the police powers of the state.

Herring’s bid to use private funds to hire an attorney also raised a separation-of-powers issue. While the OAG is arguably free to accept outside money, it has no authority to spend it unless it is appropriated by the General Assembly. Clearly, someone in the General Assembly was paying attention to the matter. Language in the budget conference report directly addresses the ability of the AG’s office to hire mercenary attorneys: Continue reading

Tommy Norment’s Turn in the Yearbook Whipsaw

Da Bomb. The Virginia Pilot is reporting that Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, Republican majority leader of Virginia’s State Senate, was an editor for a VMI yearbook called The Bomb that printed “racist photos and slurs, including blackface”.  The yearbook in question was published in 1968.  African Americans were allowed to enroll at VMI in the Fall of 1968, presumably just after the “Norment yearbook” was published.

Full disclosure. The VMI 1968 yearbook included a statement authored by Norment in his position as an editor. His missive included the somewhat ironic line, “Work on the Bomb has permitted me to release four years of inhibitions.”  Hmmm …  Maybe sometimes remaining inhibited isn’t such a bad thing.

Judgement lapses. While it’s fair to debate whether including pictures of white people in blackface in a 1968 yearbook was a lapse in judgement or a sad practice of the day, Mr Norment has been no stranger to continuing controversy.  He was charged with DUIattempted to chase reporters off the senate floor (where they had worked for a century), exposed as a customer of the adultery website Ashley Madison, and had an inappropriate “relationship” with a lobbyist. Norment hasn’t faced a competitive election in three senate campaigns but still receives large campaign contributions from “the usual gang of suspects”.

— Don Rippert

I’m Shocked, Shocked To See Corporate Checks In Here! (Your Donations, Sir.)

Interesting to see Governor Ralph Northam channeling Claude Rains Monday, choosing the first day of the annual two-day General Assembly campaign finance feeding frenzy to highlight his support for a series of campaign finance proposals.

Campaign fundraising by state legislators and their pooled caucus accounts goes dark with the opening of the regular session today.   The days leading up to the deadline are filled with final receptions, dinners and endless email appeals, a fundraising push similar to the final stage before election day.

Continue reading

Following the Dark Money: Bloomberg to NYU to Virginia’s OAG?

Mark Herring (far right) at 2016 launch of AGs United for Clean Power Plan.

Here is a counter-factual mental exercise for you. Imagine that former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative skeptic of climate change, had applied for a grant from the conservative-libertarian Koch Foundation to cover the cost of hiring an AG staff member dedicated to litigating environmental groups. Then imagine that Cuccinelli’s office had to compete nationally with other AG offices around the country for the grant, that the Koch Foundation would fund only those projects that best advanced its anti-climate change agenda, and, if approved, that the Koch Foundation would help select the attorney.

Would that have been a news story? Would the Washington Post and every other Virginia newspaper have given it front-page scandal coverage? Would Democrats and environmental groups decry the use of private dollars to hire lawyers to wield the legal powers of the AG’s office to harass and intimidate Koch brothers enemies?

Now flip the scenario. In the real world, Attorney General Mark Herring’s office submitted an application on Sept. 15, 2017, to the New York University School of Law’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center for funding to hire a NYU School of Law fellow “as a Special Assistant Attorney General” devoted to climate-change issues. The Virginia AG’s office, stated the application, “would work with the State Impact Center to identify, recruit and extend offers to appropriate candidates.” The Center is backed by billionaire, former New York Mayor, and anti-global warming champion Michael Bloomberg. Continue reading

Altria rumored to be in talks to buy Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group

High in Henrico.  Henrico County based Altria, makers of Marlboro cigarettes among other products, is rumored to be interested in buying Canadian cannabis company Cronos Group.  Altria is refusing comment while Cronos said it “confirmed that it is engaged in discussions concerning a potential investment by Altria Group … in Cronos Group.”  Cronos went on to say that no agreement had been reached and there is no assurance that the discussions will lead to a deal.

Is that really a maple leaf on the flag?  Canada legalized possession of marijuana nationally effective October 17, 2018.  Under the national law provinces have some latitude regarding specific cannabis regulation.   In Quebec and Alberta, the legal age is 18; it’s 19 in the remainder of the country for example.  However, unlike the United States, there is no dichotomy between national and provincial (state) law.  There can be no doubt that this legal clarity is encouraging companies like Altria to consider entering the Canadian marijuana market while sitting on the sidelines of American states which have legalized grass.

Implications for Virginia.  Pot legislation and the business of selling pot is moving quickly in North America.  In November Michigan became the tenth US state to legalize possession of marijuana.  There is legislation pending for the 2019 General Assembly session to decriminalize marijuana in the Old Dominion.  Now an iconic and politically connected Virginia-based company apparently sees no moral or ethical issue with participating in Canada’s legal marijuana market.  Given that Altria’s board includes Virginia luminaries such as Thomas F Farrell, CEO of Dominion and John T Casteen, former President of UVA one wonders if Altria’s plans might lend respectability to marijuana reform in Virginia.

I smell refund.  In 2018 a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana (SB 111) was defeated along party lines in the Courts of Justice.  Nine Republican state senators voted against the bill.  Over the years all nine have received campaign contributions from Altria.  Given that these nine politicians see marijuana possession as a serious crime one would hope they will return these campaign contributions given that Altria is trying to engage in marijuana production, distribution and sale.  After all, is it moral to keep money contributed by a company engaging in practices you think should be illegal?  Here are the amounts (per VPAP):

Obenshain – $44,250
Norment – $128,433
McDougle – $58,000
Stuart – $8,500
Stanley – $9,500
Reeves – $28,265
Chafin – $1,500
Sturtevant – $8,000
Peake – $500

— Don Rippert

Va 2019 General Assembly session – prefiled House of Delegates bills

Click here to see the 9 weird laws

Much ado about nothing.  As of this morning there were 83 prefiled bills for the House of Delegates and 225 prefiled bills for the State Senate.  With a few exceptions the House prefiles are pretty “ho hum”.  I will examine the Senate prefiles in a subsequent column.

One from column A and two from column B.  I use a somewhat arbitrary approach to categorizing the prefiled bills.  By my analysis … governmental process (17), education (12), crime and courts (10), election reform (8), finance and taxes (7), health care (6), nonsense (6), environment (6), transportation (4), campaign reform (4) and energy (2).

Governmental process.  These are the day to day clarifications, corrections and amplifications needed to make existing legislation more effective.  For example, HB246 clarifies the role of the code commission in preparing legislation at the direction of the General Assembly.  One of these bills will further depress Jim Bacon’s journalistic sensibilities.  HB1629 eliminates the requirement that Virginia procurement contracts be reported in newspapers.  Mixed in with the proposed routine legislation are some zingers.  For example, there are three separate bills to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (HJ577, HJ579, HJ583).  There are also four bills proposing changes  to the Virginia Constitution.  HJ578 would add a right to vote to the state constitution, HJ582 would establish a redistricting committee, HJ584 would allow the governor to run for a second consecutive term and HJ585 has the governor and lieutenant governor running as a single ticket instead of separate offices.

Education.  The only theme in the education prefiles is an attempt to provide financial incentives for localities to rebuild the physical plant of their schools.  One of the more interesting bills would allow commercial advertising on school buses (HB809) while another would guarantee that our children’s God given right to wear unscented sun block not be abridged (HB330).

Crime and courts.  Bail bondsmen and bondswomen are forbidden from having sex with their clients (HB525) and shooting a police dog, or even showing a gun to a police dog,  becomes a more serious crime (HB1616).  Other than that, pretty mundane stuff.

Finance and taxes.  Way too many people and too many companies are paying taxes (HB966) and veterinarians really need a break from those pesky sales taxes (HB747).

Potpourri.  The remaining categories contain a few interesting ideas.  Del Rasoul wants to ban the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation (HB1635), Del Cole wants to give I95 some love (HJ580, HJ581) and he also has the radical idea that campaign contributions should not be for personal use (HB1617).  In fact, Del Cole’s proposed legislation is putting him perilously close to making my very short list of competent Virginia legislators.

Closer to home.  My delegate, Kathleen Murphy, continues to propose jaw dropping, eye popping examples of legislative uselessness.  She proposes to let her pals skirt Virginia traffic laws by displaying a special sticker on their cars (HB295) and offers some odd rules on distance learning reciprocity (HB659).  I guess issues like mass transportation don’t cross her mind these days.

— Don Rippert.

Five Virginia Corporations Among Most Transparent

Five Virginia companies — including the frequently criticized Dominion Energy and Altria Group — are included among the 57 transparency “trendsetters” in the 2018 CPA-Zicklin Index. The others include Northrop Grumman Corp., Capital One Financial, and Norfolk Southern Corp.

The Index benchmarks political spending disclosure practices and political spending policies of S&P 500 corporations. The ideal political spending policy, according to CPA-Zicklin, explains: (1) the company’s process for making contributions or expenditures to influence political and/or judicial campaigns; (2) how management and the board oversee such decisions; and (3) the public policy considerations that influence such decisions.

The Index is published by the Center for Political Accountability (CPA) and the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here’s how the Virginia companies rank on a percentile basis compared to other companies in the S&P 500:

Northrop Grumman — 97.1%
Capital One Financial — 95.7%
Altria Group — 94.3%
Norfolk Southern Corp. — 94.3%
Dominion Energy — 91.4%

After the first full year of the Trump administration and a Republican majority Congress, this year’s Index finds that large public companies are holding steady in disclosure and accountability regarding election-related spending, states the press release announcing this year’s results.

Now, if only CPA-Zicklin would start monitoring dark money in the non-profit sector, where billions of dollars spent to shape public opinion and public policy (though not elections) go largely unaccounted for. Here in Virginia, the Piedmont Environmental Council sets an extremely high bar for transparency, listing all major donors and the size (within a range) of their contributions, while the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club provides virtually no information about its funding sources at all. Other environmental and social-justice groups vary considerably in their transparency.

Transparency? No, Alignment Drives PAC Decisions

Money In Politics

Abigail Spanberger won’t take money from corporate political action committees but will from ideological political action committees because the issue PACs have their position statements on their web pages.

Spanberger said that Friday to a business organization that donates no political money, Virginia FREE, but there were plenty of big donors or their representatives in the room.  Jeff Schapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch was there but didn’t really cover her remarks, other than to note she didn’t mention President Donald Trump (so he kindly did that for her.)

Continuing an argument I have made before, Spanberger’s careful tiptoe through this minefield is additional evidence of the powerful corrupting nature of our campaign finance system.  She tried to put a nice spin on her position that business money is too tainted to accept, blaming that in large part on voter perception.  When “face to face with voters” she hears that in Virginia corporate money has too much influence.

Here is what she says on her campaign web page:  “As we’ve increasingly dealt with the effects of special interests in campaign finance, it’s important that all elected officials take a stand against letting a small group of funders influence our elections. And because my commitment to campaign finance reform starts now, with my campaign, I will not accept any corporate PAC donations.”

Abigail Spanberger

Federal election rules have caps on donations that reformers at the Virginia state level can only dream about.  Corporations cannot write checks directly but must set up political action committees collecting funds from employees using the same strict limits.  She is probably correct however that the average voter has no clue about that.

In response to a line of questions from Virginia FREE director Chris Saxman she said hers was really a “a pro-business stance” because it allows her to meet with business leaders and lobbyists with no talk of money.  It’s “taken off the table.”

But then Saxman asked her about all the groups she does take money from.  Business PACs are only a subset of the giving world.  Special interests abound on all sides.  That’s when she said a big difference is those groups have their agendas on full and open display, but with a company “I can’t go to their website and see what those priorities are.”

Continue reading

CrowdLobby: A Cool Idea Still Needs Work

Samantha Biggio and Heidi Drauschak, both recent University of Richmond law school grads, had an idea for a new business, and they raised $35,000 through the crowd-funding Kickstarter website to fund it. Their business idea? To launch a website, Crowdlobby… where people can raise money through crowd funding to launch lobbying initiatives.

The idea has obvious appeal. The legislative process in Washington, D.C., and state legislatures across the country is dominated by big-money special interests — corporations, unions, advocacy groups — that can afford to hire lobbyists. Individual citizens may share common goals but they aren’t organized enough to raise the kind of money they need to engage a pro.

The Crowdlobby website allows visitors to browse active fund-raising campaigns, submit their own campaigns, commit funds, and select lobbyists. As with other crowd-funding sites, donors are not charged unless the fund-raising objective is reached. Crowdlobby keeps 25% of the proceeds for its role in vetting campaigns, vetting lobbyists, maintaining the website and covering other overhead costs.

The website is just getting off the ground, so at this point it has only nine active fund-raising efforts going on — five in Richmond, three in Washington, D.C., and one in New York. Based on current activity, it may be a long time before anyone sees any tangible results. After six days the most successful fund-raiser so far — to raise Virginia’s minimum wage — has garnered $650 in commitments. Out of $50,000. But the campaign still has 84 days to go.

One Virginia campaign seeks to rejigger the state education funding formula to steer more money to districts with low-income students. Another would decriminalize marijuana. Yet another would lobby for the creation of an independent redistricting commission. And a fifth would lift the 1% cap on the amount of energy that could be generated through the net-metering program. So far, five people have committed a grand total of $31 to support that last one.

Americans have a constitutional right to petition government. In the abstract, the idea of democratizing access to lobbying talent has great appeal. But I’m thinking that Crowdlobby needs to go back to the fund-raising well for a second round of financing to upgrade its website.

The campaign-submission template asks would-be campaigners to provide background information about the issue, a description of the proposed legislation, a history of the issue, polling data, and endorsements. I see no mechanism to include white papers, backgrounders, videos, graphs, charts, spreadsheets, databases or other documentation in support of their position — or even to direct potential donors to a website or other social media with more information. Individual citizens aren’t going to get anywhere on this website because Crowdlobby is unlikely to ever generate the volume of traffic needed to attract hundreds of small donors. This tool could  be used by citizen groups who are already utilizing email, social media and other tools to get the word out. If citizens groups — #MeToo, Tea Party groups, whatever — are already doing the heavy lifting, though, will they be willing to part with 25% of what they raise?

Perhaps the most obvious flaw in the model is that the fund-raising profiles don’t say who is behind the appeal. Once money is raised, someone has to call the shots. Who is that person? If you’re receptive to the idea of donating $100 or $200, who are you entrusting your money to? Who is in charge of framing detailed instructions to the lobbyist? Who makes the decisions when tactical decisions, compromises, and amendments are called for? There is no way to know. Donors are buying a pig in a poke.

I wish Biggio and Drauschak the best of luck because I would love for Virginia citizens to be empowered to participate in the legislative process. I could see Bacon’s Rebellion potentially using crowdsourcing to lobby for more transparency and openness in government. But I would not use Crowdlobby in its current incarnation. The website doesn’t look like it’s ready yet for prime time.

Update: Heidi Drauschak responds to this post, adding details on changes Crowdlobby is making to the website — in particular, describing the mechanism by which a majority of donors will direct lobbyist activities.

Will Virginia Legalize Recreational Marijuana Use?

High times today.  The marijuana legalization wave is beginning to wash over North America. Nine states (WA, OR, CA, NV, CO, MA, VT, ME and AK) along with the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana.  Well over 20% of Americans now live in states which have legalized recreational marijuana use. On Oct 17 of this year recreational marijuana use will be legalized across Canada. While the various provinces will regulate the sale and use of marijuana in their own unique ways, it will be legal across Canada.

Higher times to come. Several more states are slated to decide the question of legalized recreational marijuana use this November (or sooner)…

Michigan – Voter initiated measure to permit those over 21 to grow and possess personal use quantities of cannabis and related concentrates.  Statewide polling data from this spring shows 61% of voters intend to vote “yes” on the measure. While you may not be able to drink the water in Flint it looks like you’ll be legally able to use it in a bong come this November.

New Jersey – The New Jersey legislature is debating bills that would legalize recreational marijuana in the Garden State. Interestingly, some of these bills would also expunge the criminal records of anybody convicted in the past of marijuana-related crimes. Was I ever arrested for weed?  Fuhghetaboutit!

North Dakota – A voter – initiated referendum will appear on North Dakota ballots this November. Uniquely, the North Dakota initiative would set no limits on the amount of marijuana people can possess or cultivate. Perhaps a large stockpile is required to get through those long, dark winters.

New York – A recent state commissioned study on recreational marijuana legalization came out strongly in favor of making ganja legal. Gov Andrew Cuomo quickly sprang to action setting up a working group to write a marijuana legalization bill. Put New York in the “when, not if” column.  This should give new meaning to Billy Joel’s song “New York State of Mind” (which has the opening line, “Take a holiday from the neighborhood”).

Oklahoma – This June Oklahoma voters approved a broad medical marijuana usage law. Activists have collected a lot of signatures to get the question of legalized recreational marijuana on the Nov 6 ballot. Whether there are enough signatures or enough time to get the ballot question approved this year remains to be seen. Sadly, Merle Haggard died in 2016 before being able to revise the first line of his famous song Okie from Muskogee … “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”.  It seems that sooner, rather than later, people will be openly smoking marijuana in Muskogee.

Delaware – In June, a majority of House lawmakers voted in favor of legislation to legalize marijuana use and retail sales. However, because the legislation imposed new taxes and fees, state rules required it to receive super-majority support. Lawmakers are anticipated to take up similar legislation again next year. I’ll predict that by 2020 people will be legally getting small in the Small Wonder.

A spot of hemp, Mr. Jefferson? Five of the first six presidents of the U.S. were Virginians and there is evidence that all five of them smoked a little hootch from time to time. You can read the evidence from an unimpeachable source … High Times …  here.

Will River City go up in smoke? But what of modern Virginians and Virginia politicians? In a 2017 Quinnipiac poll Virginia voters supported allowing adults to legally posses and use small amounts of marijuana by 59 – 35 percent. So, the voters would like to see marijuana legalized in Virginia. But since when did the voters matter to Virginia’s political elite? They don’t listen to voters, they listen to dollars. The Virginia Public Access Project tallies up the following donation totals for “all years”:

Beverages – Alcohol Distributors / Brokers – $20,885,384
Retail Sales – General $10,113,070
Restaurants – $6,533,357
Beverages – Alcohol Manufacturers – $3,993,418

As point of reference, Dominion Energy donated $11,354,842 during the same period.  Meanwhile, PepsiCo, owner of Frito-Lay – the maker of Cheetos – only donated $82,385.

— Don Rippert

Higher Ed’s Hidden Influence: Alumni Legislators

Fund-raising tip for public colleges and universities: Get more of your alumni elected to the General Assembly. Across the country, a higher number of graduates of public colleges and universities is associated with higher funding for a state’s public higher-ed system, finds a new study, “School Spirit: Legislator School Ties and State Funding for Higher Education.

“One additional legislator who attended the state’s public college or university is associated with a 0.5% increase in the total state funding for that state’s total higher education system, holding all else constant,” write Aaron K. Chatterji, Joowan Kim, and Ryan C. McDevitt in a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

For an average state, an elected representative is associated with an additional $4.9 million in annual state funding. For a specific institution, election of an alumnus is associated with $49 million increase in funding.

By the tenets of conventional political analysis, higher ed would be a weak player in the political system. In Virginia, public universities don’t organize political action committees, and they don’t raise money for political candidates. In marked contrast to real estate/construction, financial services, health care, law, energy, and other money powerhouses, higher ed does not even warrant a breakout listing in the Virginia Public Access Project data base of major campaign donors. Over the past 20 years, “professors/staff” of public colleges (a category that includes university foundations) have donated only $4.3 million to Virginia political campaigns (overwhelmingly to Democrats).

But public universities do tap alumni to advocate on their behalf. And, as it turns out, among the most effective of those alumni are state legislators, according to the Chatterji et al study.

One might suggest that the authors of the study developed a data set of 96,000 legislators for the years 2002 through 2014 and ran a complex statistical analysis to document the obvious. But what might seem “obvious” isn’t always true. And the magnitude of the effect is not always evident. It is clear from Chatterji et al’s data that on average the effect is significant.

What may be true on average across the 50 states, however, is not necessarily the case here in Virginia. Average numbers can conceal considerable variability. So, consider the study as an indicator of what might be the case in the Old Dominion, pointing the way for follow-up research.

I knocked out some quick numbers this morning, inspecting the biographies of Virginia’s 100 House of Delegates representatives to see which institutions of higher education they attended, if any. Not all of our delegates attended college. Eleven, by my count, attended community college but did not pursue advanced degrees. Many attended private colleges, often out of state, who are not included in the numbers. But 46 have undergraduate degrees from Virginia public colleges and 16 (often overlapping with those with undergrad degrees) have graduate degrees from public Virginia institutions.

Without question, Virginia’s public institutions of higher education have an extensive alumni network to tap when pushing for legislation. To what degree do old-school loyalties affect delegates’ decisions? Do graduates of in-state institutions vote any differently from grads of out-of-state colleges and universities? That question will take extensive additional investigation to answer.

Who Are These Guys, and Where Do They Get All Their Money?

Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center

The report issued by the Northam administration investigating charges of abuse at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center has come under withering criticism by nonprofit groups that filed a lawsuit last year bringing attention to the treatment of unaccompanied immigrant children held there. The Virginia Mercury has the story here.

While I used the Department of Juvenile Justice report as the basis for a blog post yesterday arguing that people were making much ado about a non-scandal, I have to concede that the criticisms of the report are substantive. By substantive, I don’t presume them to be valid. But they are are not frivolous. If I were reporting the story, I would deem them worth probing to see if they were valid.

An interesting sidebar to the controversy is the revelation of the existence of two nonprofit groups that revealed (or, depending upon your viewpoint, concocted) the abuses the first place. One is the Washington, D.C.-based Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. The other is the Henrico County-based disAbility Law Center of Virginia. Both pursue social-justice work. One hews to high standards of transparency; the other does not. 

The Washington Lawyer’s Committee (WLC) is forthright about its commitment to social justice — or at least a leftist perspective on social justice. States the organization’s Guidestar profile: “While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combating and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression.”

The organization reported more than $5 million in revenue in its 2016 990 form, makes the forms accessible on its website, and lists 27 employees on its website. Unlike many nonprofits, the WLC is open about where its money comes from. in 2016 about $3 million came from “contributions and grants,” $830,000 from fund-raising events, and $1.8 million from “legal fees and court awards.”

Most impressively (from a transparency perspective), WLC lists many of its major donors, which include Wiley, Rein & Fielding, a K Street law firm ($414,000); Dentons US LLP, also a K Street Law firm ($173,000), and the Morrison & Foerster Foundation, a San Francisco-based foundation ($215,000); the D.C. Bar Association ($80,000); and Kirkland and Ellis, a Chicago law firm ($153,000), among others. WLC reported another $1.7 million in contributions from unnamed individuals who contributed less than 2% of total revenue.

What emerges is a picture of a well-funded activist group funded mainly by wealthy lawyers, which supplements its income by collecting legal fees and awards from the lawsuits its files. This is not a grassroots organization. It reflects the views of the nation’s liberal legal elite.

In describing what it does, WLC notes a special concern for “people of color, women, children and persons with disabilities [who] are disproportionately forced to live in poverty” (my italics). That may explain the connection with the disAbility Law Center of Virginia. which provides advocacy services across Virginia for people with disabilities.

The disAbilities Law Center is not nearly as transparent. Its 2015 990 form reported $2.9 million in revenue, and its website lists 34 employees. But the nonprofit did not reveal who its major contributors are. More than $2.6 million was classified as “Government grants (contributions),” another $109,000 was described as “National Disability Rights,” $61,000 came from “other attorneys fees,” and $4,000 from settlement fees. The nonprofit reported no revenue from membership dues or fundraising events. As with the WLC, it is safe to say that the disAbilities Law Center is not a grassroots organization, but rather relies upon generous benefactors. I would conjecture that the group’s priorities reflect the preoccupations of liberal elites, but further research is required to document the suspicion.

How does a nonprofit focused on disabilities get mixed up with a center holding illegal unaccompanied-minor immigrants? In its own description, the disAbilities Law Center is part of a “nationwide network of organizations known as ‘Protection and Advocacy systems,’ designed to offer an array of education and legal representation services to people with disabilities and to combat abuse and neglect in both governmentally operated and privately operated facilities.”

The federal government officially recognized the disAbilities Law Center in July 2018 as a group with “authority to monitor conditions and treatment in immigration facilities if those facilities have residents with disabilities.”

So, what does all this mean? The Virginia Mercury was the only media outlet to report today on the follow-up criticism to the report. Reporter Ned Oliver describes the groups as “advocates for the immigrant teens,” never mentioning their social-justice mission or the fact that they are part of a larger constellation of organizations seeking to influence public policy.

Now, this network may be totally benign and above-board. Or it may be part of a larger coalition of nonprofit and advocacy groups intent upon undermining the Trump administration immigration policy by filing lawsuits and generating publicity. I don’t know the truth of the matter. My point here is not to criticize either group, for I have no tangible basis for doing so, but to raise the kind of questions that the media should be asking when they report on the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center controversy. If a right-wing legal advocacy group were filing a lawsuit, the ideological orientation of the group surely would be noted in any story. The same rule should apply to liberal-progressive groups and their causes.

Transparency for Thee But Not for Me

Is Ralph Nader the driving force behind UnKoch My Campus?

In response to attacks from left-wing critics, the Charles Koch Foundation said last week that it will post all future multiyear agreements with universities online. The Foundation is one of the nation’s most generous contributors to higher education in the United States, ladling out $90 million in gifts in 2017. Among the biggest beneficiaries has been the Mercatus Center, a free market/fiscal conservative think tank, and to a lesser degree the Antonin Scalia Law School, at George Mason University

Reported the Wall Street Journal last week:

Private colleges and universities aren’t subject to public-record disclosures; some public-university relationships are forged through the schools’ foundations, which can also be exempt from disclosure requirements. Some schools receiving Koch grants have shared the agreement details publicly, but historically not all have been required to do so.

The UnKoch My Campus group has led the criticism of Koch Foundation influence at GMU and elsewhere nationally. Ironically, it is not clear who funds UnKoch My Campus or what strings might be attached to its funding agreements.

In an age in which politics is polarized — and in which everything is deemed political — “dark money” is a massive issue. Millionaires and billionaires influence public policy not just directly through campaign contributions and paid lobbyists but indirectly by funneling foundation money through programs to influence public opinion — as well as those, such as university scholars and new media outlets, who shape public opinion.

Although the Koch Foundation has committed to increased transparency, its critics are not satisfied.

“Unless they are going to release all past agreements, and documentation for all their programs, Koch is not providing clarity, but simply executing a p.r. move to deflect scrutiny from the programs on hundreds of campuses where they continue to leverage undue influence for private gain,” Ralph Wilson, research director for UnKoch My Campus, told the Journal.

At least the Koch Foundation files a 990 form with the Internal Revenue Service, which you can view here. The foundation may not live up to UnKoch My Campus’s lofty ideals for transparency, but then… neither does UnKoch My Campus.

UnKoch My Campus does not publish any agreements it has with funders. It doesn’t even identify its funders. Indeed, it doesn’t even file a 990 form. Here’s what you see when you search the Foundation Center’s 990 finder:


While UnKoch’s web page says nothing about where it gets its money, if you want to donate, you can stroke a check to “Essential Information,” a Washington, D.C.,-based outfit, founded in 1992 by Ralph Nader, whose affiliation is not explained.  You can see a a 990 form for Essential Information here.

Reporting total assets of $86,000, Essential Information does not appear to have an endowment or to be otherwise self-funded. The group reported receiving $382,000 in gifts, grants and contributions in 2016 but it did not identify the source of those funds.

The foundation listed $97,000 in salary and other administrative expenses, and it listed the Free Africa Foundation as the recipient of a $25,000 grant. (The previous year, it gave $50,000 to the Environmental Action Center.) The foundation provided no indication of how the other $260,000 was spent.

The president of Essential Information is listed as John Richard, who devoted on average five hours of week to foundation duties. And who is John Richard? According to the Public Citizen website, upon whose board he sits, he “supervises staff at The Center for Study of Responsive Law, the hub of Ralph Nader’s public interest activities in Washington.”

The Center for Study of Responsive Law takes donations on its website, but does not say where its money comes from. The Center’s 990 form is only partially illuminating. The group collected $808,000 in 2016, and it supported a staff of 11 with wages, payroll taxes and benefits of $574,000. Where did that money come from? The group didn’t say. And what did the Center spend its money on? Three things mainly: two Breaking Through Power conferences, the DC Library Renaissance Project and “a wide variety of research and educational projects to encourage government and corporate institutions to be more aware of the needs of the citizen consumer.”

Did Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law donate money to Essential Information and/or UnKoch My Campus? Publicly available data provides no answer. Where did Nader’s $808,000 in 2016 contributions come from? Did he rely upon small-dollar donations? Did he self-fund? Did he rely upon one or two big donors? If there is a funding agreement in the mix, I’d love to see it. Good luck with that.