Archive for the ‘Open Government’ Category

Every recent presidential transition has set a new precedent in terms of transparency of operations.

Until now.

The lack of details coming out of the Trump Tower and other hubs of the transition has led to an ever-growing list of unanswered questions about how the transition team is conducting its business. These are questions that President-elect Donald Trump should answer for the public — not only to make good on his pledge to “drain the swamp,” but also to show good faith to the taxpayers, who are footing the bulk of the bills for the transition.

A central question is this: What is the transition team’s ethics code?

For a long time, the transition team’s leaders deflected questions about whether it had an ethics code at all. A week after the election, when Vice President-elect Mike Pence took over the transition, newspapers reported that an ethics code was newly finalized and they published the purported document.

Later the same day, Politico reported on the existence of a brand new ethics code that apparently superseded the earlier one, although the paper did not publish the code itself.

A key component of an ethics code is how it treats lobbyists, whom Trump singled out in his swamp-draining pledge. The two ethics codes reported on by the press conflict on whether recently active lobbyists may participate on the transition team simply by cutting their ties to current clients.

It is also unclear how the policies handle quasi-lobbyists who do not officially register as lobbyists. Candidate Trump pledged to “close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisers when we all know they are lobbyists.”

How is he managing that promise for the transition?

For its part, the transition team has not officially announced anything on its ethics policies. The Obama-Biden transition team, in contrast, published its ethics code within a week of the general election. A strong ethics code is foundational to any commitment to run a clean, unconflicted government. The public deserves to know the steps the Trump team has taken to ensure that the architects of the next administration aren’t designing it for their own benefit.

Trump also owes it to the public to announce these steps officially to demonstrate that he is accepting accountability for them.

The transition also has neglected to share the specific details of the nondisclosure agreement (NDA) team members reportedly have been required to sign. The mere existence of a nondisclosure agreements raises all sorts of troubling questions.

For instance, does the agreement preclude rank-and-file members of the team from revealing details of the agreement?

Do the terms of the agreement violate whistleblower protection laws?

Would the agreement be enforced in secret arbitration proceedings, as with agreements that Trump previously has required his employees to sign?

The public also deserves to know which outside experts and advocates team members have met with and what policy proposals outsiders have submitted. By this time in the Obama-Biden transition, the team was disclosing with whom it met and was posting policy documents submitted by outside groups on its website.

We have seen no indication that the Trump team intends to follow suit.

As Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Brandeis’s metaphor is particularly apt today, as the president-elect was elected on a promise to “drain the swamp.”

Even though it predates the inauguration, the transition process is one of the most influential periods in an entire presidential administration, as it sets the stage for staffing and policy. The transition is largely funded by us, the taxpayers, and so we should given an opportunity to monitor and evaluate its work.

This post originally appeared in The Hill.

By Eren Orellana, Congress Watch legal intern and Susan Harley, Congress Watch Deputy Director

Recently, consumer advocate and Public Citizen founder, Ralph Nader hosted Breaking Through Power, a four-day conference highlighting the different ways Americans can work together to organize change in a political system that has been overrun by wealthy corporate special interests. A longtime advocate for consumer rights, starting in the automobile industry, Nader dedicated the last day of the conference to speaking about the underutilization of the civil law system.

logo225Special topics included “The Need to Educate the Public on The Importance of Tort Law” and “Why Lawsuits are Good for America.” In a panel discussion titled “Plaintiffs for Justice” victims shared their stories and their road to advocacy. Laura Christian, an auto safety advocate, urged the need to create a system that regulates and provides notice of recalls to buyers and existing owners of used cars. Todd Anderson, a victims advocate, shared the personal story of his son’s death. Anderson’s son was killed in a car accident due to an automobile malfunction that he was not notified of in time to correct. Susan Vento, a mesothelioma advocate, spoke about the need to ban asbestos and the legal rights victims of mesothelioma have against corporate negligence. Overall, the panelists pushed the point that greater advocacy is needed to improve consumer protections and positively increase the utilization of the court system.

In the much-anticipated session “Litigating for Justice,” renowned trial lawyer, Thomas Girardi spoke about how corporations attempt to shame lawyers and how he has succeeded in trying his cases and breaking the stigma associated with personal injury suits. In 1970 Girardi became the first attorney to win a one million dollar award for a medical malpractice case. However, Girardi is best known for the part he played in the Pacific Gas & Electric case of the Hinkley groundwater contamination. In that case, residents of Hinkley brought a class-action suit against PG&E for claims of contamination of the town’s water supply due to a leak from PG&E’s gas compressing station. The leak apparently began as early as the 1950’s and the residents did not receive notice until 1987. The residents blamed incidents of cancer and other diseases on the contaminated water and in 1996 PG&E settled the suit and agreed to pay the town’s residents $333 million. This case was the inspiration for the film Erin Brockovich.

More recently, Girardi was on the team of lawyers who tried Bryan Stow’s case. Bryan Stow was the man brutally beaten after a baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Girardi reasoned that the Dodgers and the stadium’s personnel were partially to blame for the incident due to a lack of organized and effective security personnel, which was not suited to handle such large crowds. Girardi described his pride in the fact that after winning the verdict of Stow’s case, Dodger Stadium heightened security and started regulating the consumption of alcohol during games.

In addition to the important monetary compensation lawyers, like Girardi, earn for their clients in these cases, there is the societal benefit of trying these cases. Win or lose, civil law cases bring to light many of the ways corporations fail to protect consumers, sometimes even at the cost of death. These cases expose corporate lawbreakers and force them to better protect their customers. Utilizing the justice system to compensate victims has proven to be one of the best mechanisms to hold corporations accountable. Conferences like Breaking Through Power are doing a great service to society by bringing this very powerful tool to light. Even better, videos from the conference are available so you too can learn how to join the Breaking Through Power movement.

– Eren Orellana

 

Last week, Ralph Nader headlined a panel at the 2016 Freedom of Information Summit focused on dissecting the challenges facing the open government movement, but also celebrating the victories. At the top of the list of successes is the Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA,) which gives the public the right to access government records subject to nine limited exemptions. Recently having celebrated the 50th anniversary of FOIA’s passage, the panel on which Nader spoke was aptly entitled “FOIA at 50.”

Nader and the other panelists spoke about critical consumer protections that were achieved as a direct result of the public’s right-to-know as granted by FOIA. The panelists also addressed areas where the law continues to fall short, even after the open government community’s recent victory in securing passage of bipartisan FOIA reforms that were signed into law by President Barack Obama right before the law hit its 50 year mark.

It was especially moving to hear the other panelists speak so eloquently about the steadfast commitment that Public Citizen has to protecting FOIA. Notably, for most of the organization’s 45 year history, our litigation group has been a national leader in upholding the public’s right-to-know. Getting access to government records had uncovered threats to public health, safety, and the nation’s financial security. This law is an invaluable tool for holding the government accountable and ensuring it is acting in the public’s best interest.

Nader said it best during the panel: FOIA is the ultimate tool of democracy.

And Public Citizen will be there for the next 45 years protecting our right-to-know.

-Susan Harley

 

497px-edward_snowden-2Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden debuted at the height of a controversy over whether or not President Obama should pardon Edward Snowden. His defenders argue that his disclosures prompted important legal and policy changes, while his opponents argue that he’s a criminal who should come back to the United States to stand trial.

The film itself paints a portrait of Snowden as a young conservative from a military background. He begins his career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with a loyalty to the United States and a desire to serve his country. As he transitions through different positions with private contractors in the intelligence community, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the breadth of government mass surveillance systems. What he witnesses at work haunts him – he develops an aversion to being photographed – and plagues his relationship with his girlfriend. Eventually, it leads him to flee to a hotel room in Hong Kong where he works in secret with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. They race against the clock to make his story public before the government can arrest him.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s easy to get lost in the controversy of Snowden’s disclosures, but it’s important to remember the context of his decision to go public. Snowden was familiar with the whistleblowers in the intelligence community who came before him. Despite making their own disclosures through designated channels within the government, these workers had no safeguards against the severe retaliation they faced.

Take the case of Ed Loomis, a former National Security Agency employee and contractor within the intelligence community. After he reported an ineffective and wasteful surveillance program through a designated government hotline, the government responded by revoking his Top Secret security clearance, rendering him unable to work in the intelligence community. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also raided his home for five hours. He and his wife watched as agents in Kevlar vests confiscated their possessions.

Contractors in the intelligence community deserve better than what happened to Ed Loomis. Public Citizen and many other organizations committed to open and transparent government support extending protections to contractors who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse in the intelligence community.  Without safeguards against employer retaliation, whistleblowers may either stay silent about government wrongdoing or make disclosures through the media.

Lawmakers recognize the urgent need for reform, but change has been slow. In 2015, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced a bill to extend whistleblower protections to contractors in the intelligence community. In theory, this bill should not be contentious. Certain intelligence community contractors had access to such protections for a limited time without any evidence of negative consequences to national security. But, lawmakers controversially revoked these rights in 2012. So far, Congress has failed to take action on Sen. McCaskill’s critical measure.

Snowden ends with familiar audio clips from the 2016 presidential primary debates where the candidates voiced their opinions about his actions. Their reactions are mixed, but frustratingly, there is no discussion of the much-needed whistleblower protection reforms like those in Sen. McCaskill’s bill.

The controversy over Snowden and his 2013 disclosures is unlikely to end anytime soon. However, if policymakers want to prevent future national security leaks, they should make whistleblowing safe for all intelligence community workers – including contractors. Congress should enact Sen. McCaskill’s bill to protect these individuals who bravely risk so much in serving the public good.

Unless we act, Arizona will lose its long-standing progressive campaign finance laws.

Earlier this year, a piece of state legislation (SB 1516) set in motion a plan that would reverse 20 years of state-required political spending disclosure and cripple the ability of Arizona’s Citizens Clean Election Commission to enforce Arizona’s campaign finance laws.

Some of the egregious provisions of the bill would:

  • minimize the state’s role in clean elections;
  • effectively delegate policing “dark money” compliance to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Washington, D.C.;
  • allow campaigns to spend money from their own funds in order to donate to other candidates;
  • reduce penalties for candidates that overspend; and
  • take away the right of state election officials to subpoena candidate records.

When he signed the bill, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey contended that the law would make it easier for everyday citizens to run for office – but how does an endless supply of undisclosed, “dark money” flowing in to campaigns make it easier for citizens to get involved in our democracy?

In reality, laws like SB 1516 make it increasingly more difficult for voices of everyday Americans to be heard over the avalanches of money that billionaires, corporations and dark money nonprofit organizations they funnel their spending through are able to play in politics. After the disastrous 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, these conduit organizations can collect and spend unlimited amounts to promote their special interests — so long as they keep their spending “uncoordinated” with candidates and parties. This new law would allow much more of that unlimited spending to occur without even any disclosure of who is really behind it by allowing Arizona political spenders to hide behind claims of federal tax exemption.

We need your help to bring the law back for a citizen referendum – so that Arizona citizens, and not the wealthy few, can decide if a murkier campaign finance system is in their best interest. State disclosure laws, like the one that was overturned by SB 1516, are the only antidote to this corruption of our democracy.

Before SB 1516 was passed, AZ’s Citizens Clean Election Commission was actively enforcing the important state campaign finance laws– but lawmakers catering to their big money donors schemed to write this bill to make sure that spending went back into the dark.

We need just 75,321 signatures to send SB 1516 to citizen referendum and give Arizona residents a say in whether dark money will continue to permeate their elections.

But the biggest loss of all would be the further weakening of our democracy.

Please join us in pushing for a citizen referendum to reverse SB 1516.

 

By Jaimon Olmsted, advocacy intern for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division

50DaysOfFOIA

This July 4th will mark the 50th birthday of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). To honor the occasion, Public Citizen is joining our partners at OpenTheGovernment.org in the #50DaysofFOIA campaign, which highlights the importance of the public’s right-to-know as granted by FOIA, as well as the significance of the critical FOIA reform legislation that is currently pending in Congress.

The landmark FOIA law, enacted by Congress in 1966, gives the public the right to access government records — subject to only nine exemptions for categories of information like national security, privacy, and when disclosure is prohibited by another law. FOIA was designed to be relatively simple to use, as anyone can file a request for information from a government agency and appeal denials of those requests within the agency without legal representation. FOIA plays an essential role in our democracy by allowing regular individuals to monitor the government and hold officials accountable for their actions.

But FOIA is far from perfect. Federal agencies routinely withhold huge amounts of information by applying overly broad interpretations of the exemptions. Although someone requesting information can challenge in court assertions that an exemption applies, lawsuits are drawn-out and costly procedures that often could have been avoided by simply releasing the documents. For the most part, FOIA exemptions are not mandatory bars to disclosure, and agencies may use discretion and release the information in question, but they rarely do.

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