Former Sens. Trent Lott and John Breaux were part of a team paid $150,000 by a Russian bank to lobby on U.S. sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, according to a new disclosure their firm has filed with the U.S. Senate.
The former senators and their colleagues at Squire Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C., were retained over the summer by a banking subsidiary of the Russian oil giant Gazprombank and lobbied the Senate and the Department of State on the sanctions and other banking laws, according to the filing.
Disclosure of their connection with Gazprombank by The Center for Public Integrity on Sept. 2 sparked widespread public criticism of the former senators. The new filing confirms that Breaux and Lott “acted as a lobbyist” on issues related to sanctions, but also states that they “are no longer expected to act as a lobbyist” for the bank.
Gazprombank is Russia’s third largest bank. On July 16 — a month and a half before Breaux and Lott filed a document stating they had begun their lobbying — the U.S. Treasury Department added the bank to a list of Russian firms barred from debt financing with U.S. institutions.
Lott and Breaux were listed as the main lobbyists in that initial lobbying registration. The new disclosure covers the period from the registration through the end of September.
Breaux and Lott declined to respond to inquiries by the Center. But Breaux, in an interview with The Times-Picayune newspaper published on Sept. 9, said they registered to lobby “out of an abundance of caution.” At that point, Breaux and Lott hadn’t done any lobbying for the bank, the newspaper quoted him as saying. It said the firm’s Moscow office had asked them to look into possible Congressional actions related to Gazprombank.
The current disclosure does not say what work Breaux or Lott did during the filing period, covering late August through September. It also does not — because such forms typically contain only vague declarations — disclose whether and what others at the firm have done or are still doing for the bank.
Three other members of Squire Patton Boggs have worked with Breaux and Lott on the Gazprombank account, according to the disclosure. In addition to Joseph LeBaron, a former ambassador to Mauritania and Qatar during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the filing lists partners Joseph Brand, whose clients have included foreign governments and multinational corporations, and Stephen McHale, whose multiple former U.S. government positions have included serving as the first deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and Treasury’s acting general counsel during the Clinton-Bush transition, according to their biographies on Squire Patton Boggs website.
Neither Breaux, Lott or Squire Patton Boggs responded to the Center’s inquiries. Sergey Perminov of Gazprombank’s media relations office in Moscow said he could not respond by publication time.
U.S. sanctions against the bank remain in place.
Douglas Birch contributed to this report.
Super PACs must, by law, publicly reveal their donors.
Except, that is, for those that materialize during the final days of the 2014 midterm election.
Thanks to a contentious quirk in federal law, at least six new super PACs may hide their funders from public scrutiny until early December, no matter how much money they raise or spend from now until Election Day on Nov. 4.
Why? Federal campaign finance reporting regulations state that various political committees must file this week "pre-election" financial diclosures that cover activity through Oct. 15. Any political committee that forms after Oct. 15 gets a free non-disclosure pass for up to seven weeks.
Charles Philipp, a New York City media professional who created the Trucks for Cowboys Super PAC on Thursday, says he's well aware that his committee need not disclose its funders until after Thanksgiving.
That's part of the point of forming what Philipp described as a "farcical" super PAC that's "a way for me to make fun of the system."
Philipp explained his super PAC will support candidates who, as its name suggests, support cowboys driving trucks over, say, electric vehicles.
"I'm creating this in the vein of a single-issue super PAC that a special interest may create," Philipp said.
He added, however, that his fundraising efforts are sincere, and that he'll potentially spend money during the 2014 election if he can raise it.
Their chairmen, respectively, are Abner Bonilla, a New Jersey-based political consultant at firm Arkady — clients include Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. — and Daniel J. McCarthy, a Cranford, New Jersey, lawyer with ties to Democratic politicians. The PACs share an official address — a mailbox at a UPS Store along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The creator and treasurer for both PACs is Gianni Donates of Harrison, New Jersey. Reached by phone Monday, Donates declined to comment on what the super PACs intend to do, saying he "had a meeting" and would call back. Since then, he could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, a New Jersey-based super PAC called Hip Hop United, which officially formed Oct. 16, states in its federal filing that it aims to "run advertisements for or against candidates and/or support issues relevant to the Hip Hop Community" and "use Hip Hop style mediums and entertainment functions to uplift, empower and educate citizens."
Futhermore, a South Dakota-based super PAC calling itself Many True Conservatives sprung into existence on Oct. 15, meaning that it, too, may temporarily hide any donations it receives, save for those obtained on its creation day.
As of today, none of the nascent super PACs have spent any money to advocates for or against a federal political candidate — activity that federal law does require them to report, usually within 24 hours of making such an expenditure.
That certain super PACs may hide their donors during the final weeks of a major election, when the control of Congress is at stake, is "damaging" and undermines the core of our campaign laws and our elections," said Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel who now advises election law reform group Campaign Legal Center.
The FEC, Noble said, should change its regulations and compel super PACs to reveal their donors regardless of when they form.
But Dave Mason, a former FEC chairman and current senior vice president of compliance at campaign consulting firm Aristotle, disagrees. He argues that Congress would need to pass a law requiring late-filing super PACs to disclosue donors before Election Day.
In the meantime, he notes, super PAC creators are "simply following the law" as written and doing nothing wrong.
Reporters Without Borders is relieved to learn that Nguyen Van Hai, a citizen journalist better known by the blog name of Dieu Cay, was released today, but points out that 26 other citizen journalists are still held in Vietnam, the world's third biggest prison for netizens.
The Vietnamese authorities confirmed this afternoon that Dieu Cay, who had been held since 19 April 2008, was taken to Hanoi's Noi Bai airport and was put on a flight to the United States.
Vietnamese media said his family was not notified in advance but relatives went to the airport and were able to confirm the presence of US diplomats even if they were not able to see or speak to Dieu Cay. By contacting Dieu Cay's wife, Voice of America's Vietnamese service learned that his son, Nguyen Tri Dung, received a call from him at 22:45 local time while he was in the Hong Kong transit lounge.
“We are delighted to know that Dieu Cay is free and no longer has to fear for his health, which suffered from the mistreatment he received in detention,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific Desk. “We hope he will not be kept apart from his family and that ways will be found for him to be reunited with those who have waited courageously for him for more than six years.”
Lucie Morillon, the organization's programme director, added: “We would like to stress that 26 other bloggers and citizen journalists are still being held for exercising their right to freely inform their fellow citizens and the entire world about the human rights situation in Vietnam. We again urge the authorities to free all detained netizens.”
Sentenced in December 2012 to 12 years in prison for “anti-state propaganda,” Dieu Cay continued to criticize the authorities while detained, denouncing the conditions in his prison in the central province of Nghe An, which badly affected his health and where his family was repeatedly prevented from visiting him.
At one point he began a hunger strike that he terminated only when the Nghe An provincial authorities, after 35 days, acknowledged receipt of his letter condemning the conditions in the prison.
Vietnam is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
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There’s been much talk lately about the possibilities offered by new technologies in opening up restrictive regimes and democratizing the production of journalism. So last week, at a conference marking the launch of Anya Schiffrin’s anthology Global Muckraking, I posed this question to a panel of journalists from South Africa, Latin America and China.
Are we living in a Golden Age of Global Muckraking?
The answer I got was not a resounding yes. It was more like, it depends. Investigative journalism certainly survives, and even thrives, sometimes in the most difficult of conditions. But technology, often cited as a superweapon in the arsenal of modern muckrakers, is perhaps less a factor than something much more old-fashioned: tradition. In some countries, a proud history of watchdog journalism matters more in terms of sustaining such reporting, as do political junctures and – choose your metaphor – an infrastructure or ecosystem that supports accountability reporting.
In South Africa, said Anton Harber, investigative reporting is robust, with full-fledged investigative teams based in dailies and weeklies and staffed by reporters aiming their sights at both high-level political corruption and the dismal state of public services. Even during the earlier decades of the apartheid era, the smaller, feistier South African newspapers provided space for exposure journalism, and through the years, they have invested in getting the big stories and building their brands.
Now a journalism professor, Harber was editor of the muckraking Mail & Guardian in the late 1980s, at the height of the struggle against the apartheid regime. He was prosecuted numerous times and the paper itself was banned for a month by the government. The current crop of South African investigative journalists builds on this tradition, and newspapers like the Mail & Guardian have created a following because of their ability to deliver high-impact, high-profile exposés.
Other countries don’t have that tradition. Harber cited the example of Rwanda: Despite the recent opening up of the country, journalists there are still wary about exposing wrongdoing. The legitimacy of watchdog journalism is not backed by history or practice and there are few examples of success to draw on. Unlike South Africa, where exposés are taken up by civil society and opposition parties, a watchdog culture does not yet exist.
Tradition was very much a topic at last Friday’s conference. Global Muckraking, the book around which the conference was built, looks back at a hundred years of investigative reporting around the world and explores questions like how and what kind of journalism brings about social change.
Difficult questions, for sure, although the panels throughout the day did tease out some common themes. The impact of exposés tend to be individualistic, not systemic; that is, individual officials may be booted out of office but the underlying causes of the problems are not addressed. Long-term reforms, like those banning child or slave labor take years, sometimes decades, and are the result not just of the work of journalists but also that of activists, reformers in public office and other citizens.
Corruption exposés may make immediate, dramatic impact but they seldom change the system. Most of them show proof of wrongdoing and name names, but often, corrupt practices continue or take other forms even after the crooked officials have been booted out.
These exposés are like the tango, said Silvio Waisbord, who has written about investigative reporting in Latin America. There is much drama and movement, with the dancers swirling around in a circle, only to end up where they began.
Latin America saw a wave of investigative reporting in the 1990s after the fall of authoritarian regimes and the consolidation of democracy. There is still tremendous investigative energy in the media there, although the situation differs from country to country. While newspapers have been the traditional torchbearers for muckraking journalism, new online only sites are making waves by experimenting with new ways of storytelling and engaging audiences.
El Faro in El Salvador, La Silla Vacia and Verdad Abierta in Colombia, Animal Politico in Mexico and Plaza Publica in Guatemala are producing innovative, in-depth investigations that incorporate data, narrative and interactivity. There are also what Waisbord calls “hybrid” sites run by NGOs and journalists and that employ crowdsourcing and cross-border collaboration. Infoamazonia, which tracks deforestation in the Amazon region, is a good example.
In many places, however, newspapers are still largely the sites of exposure, especially of high-level political corruption. In Argentina, La Nacion has built a reputation for getting documents and data in a country without a freedom of information law and for interactive news projects that involve readers in the reporting.
In Brazil, said Angela Pimenta, who has followed investigative reporting there since the 1980s, the biggest newspapers are at the forefront of the exposés that have rocked the country’s political elite, including bribery, the extravagant lifestyles of public officials, and kickbacks from the state oil company Petrobas that were allegedly used to finance the ruling party’s election campaign.
These exposés have captured the popular imagination and enraged citizens. Timing is important. As Waisbord observed, certain political junctures are ripe for high-impact muckraking. In Brazil’s case, there is intense rivalry among competing political factions and popular dissatisfaction with corruption and the quality of life.
A newly minted freedom of information law is providing fodder for the reporting and a strong anti-corruption law has raised the stakes for the wrongdoers. Technology, especially mobile phones, has also helped make it easier to disseminate news of the latest political scandal.
China is different from Brazil, but there, too, despite the constraints, there is far more exposure of corruption and environmental damage than ever. Recent restrictions are worrisome, but there has been groundbreaking work thanks to journalists and citizens who have striven to overcome the restraints.
While China has a tradition of crusading journalism from the early 20th Century, the seeds of contemporary investigative reporting were sown in the 1970s with market reforms and the withdrawal of state subsidies for the media. News organizations had to rely on circulation and advertisement for their survival, and exposés were part of a revenue-generating strategy. The Internet expanded the space for exposure, especially blogs and weibo, the Chinese Twitter. But, as BBC journalist Vincent Weifing Ni said, some of the most stinging exposés have come from independent publications like Caixin, a business weekly, and even China Central Television (CCTV), the state broadcaster.
In 2011, on the heels of a train crash that killed 40 people and stoked the public’s ire, Caixin revealed large-scale corruption in the building of the country’s high-speed rail system. The magazine exposed the “broken system” in the Railways Ministry and in a subsequent issue, put the railways minister on its cover and reported that he had purchased a luxury mansion near Los Angeles in 2002, when he was earning less than $300 a month. The minister was tried, accused of funneling as much as $2.8 billion to overseas accounts.
Scandal sells and makes an impact, and in many cases, the officials’ excesses prove to be their undoing – whether it’s fancy mansions, as in the case of railways minister Zhang Shugang, or red-soled Christian Laboutin shoes as in the case of South Africa communications minister Dina Pule, whose improprieties in public office provided grist for many exposés.
Without doubt, the Communist Party tolerates and even encourages the exposure of corruption. These provide a safety valve for venting public fury and also allow the Party to purge its ranks. Journalists take advantage of the openings to expose wrongdoing and keep probing.
As Ni explained, Chinese journalists view themselves as “woodpeckers,” chipping away at the tree of state power, rather than cutting it down. Woodpecking can be dangerous, however, as the number of Chinese journalists and activists in prison attest to.
In the end, whether it’s a golden age or not, whether it’s watchdogging or woodpecking, the practice thrives, despite the challenges and even in the most adverse of circumstances.
Sheila Coronel is dean of academic affairs at the Columbia Journalism School, where she founded the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. She is co-founder and former executive director of thePhilippine Center for Investigative Journalism. This is reprinted from her blog, Watchdog Watcher.
Think back on the last couple of weeks (or so), when the Ebola crisis really started to pervade all of our media sources. There has been sensationalism, misinformation and more sensationalism that has led to sheer ignorance, in some cases, plus unnecessary (if not illogical) panic. This is not to take away from the severity of the disease whatsoever, as it should be treated with delicacy; somehow, though, the virus and its victims have been so oversimplified because news organizations have not been careful in their approach.
For these reasons and more, Lara Setrakian of the news microsite network News Deeply has introduced Ebola Deeply, which Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram reports will cover both immediate impacts of the disease and longterm effects on society. Setrakian, whose Syria Deeply site has been quite effective in disseminating valuable information and reporting regarding the complicated situation in the Middle East, has a team of African freelancers contributing content and will aggregate wire stories on Ebola, too.
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When nuclear engineer Donna Busche was fired in February from her job managing safety at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state, she complained that it was a reprisal for her repeated warnings that the government and its contractors were ignoring serious safety risks there.
Energy Department inspector general Gregory Friedman took the allegations seriously enough to open an investigation after the department asked him to in March. But on Monday, his office announced in an exceptionally brief report that it had been blocked from conducting its work by the refusal of primary Hanford contractor Bechtel National Inc., as well as Bechtel subcontractor and Busche’s employer, URS Energy and Construction Inc., to turn over 4,540 documents.
Those documents included emails that referenced Ms. Busche during the period just before her firing, according to Tara Porter, a spokeswoman for the inspector general.
“We did not have access to the full inventory of documents which we felt were necessary to conduct our review,” wrote Friedman in Monday’s report. “Thus, we were unable to complete our inquiry and accordingly disclaim any opinion regarding the circumstances of Ms. Busche's termination.”
According to Friedman’s report, the Energy Department’s contracts with Bechtel and between Bechtel and URS require the companies to “produce for government audit all documents acquired or generated under the contract” — even those for which an attorney-client privilege could be asserted. But Bechtel and URS refused to do so because they concluded that releasing the emails would “constitute a waiver of privilege” in future litigation with Busche, and because they felt the contract provisions they signed were unenforceable, his report states.
In a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Monday afternoon, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., noted the failure of Friedman’s office to reach any conclusions and asked the department for a briefing about “DOE’s plans to address the contractors’ lack of cooperation with the Inspector General’s request.” She asked that the information be provided to the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which she chairs, by the end of October.
Bechtel, in a statement published on its website on Monday, denied that the company had been uncooperative. Bechtel offered to give the inspector general’s office access to legally protected documents “in a way that preserves those protections,” but the inspector general declined that offer, according to the statement.
In response, Porter reiterated that Bechtel “never proposed a process which addressed the legitimate needs of the Office of Inspector General” to access the documents it needed. URS, for its part, only agreed to provide documents that were non-responsive to the inspector general’s needs, according to Friedman’s report.
URS spokeswoman Pamela Blum said in an emailed statement that the company “respects” the inspector general’s decision.” The statement also said Busche’s claim is “without merit” and that each URS employee is “encouraged and empowered to raise concerns about safety.”
In a telephone interview, Busche said she is satisfied that the inspector general tried “diligently” to get the documents. But she said that in her experience, this was “exactly how Bechtel and URS operated at Hanford.”
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a nonprofit in Seattle that has assisted Hanford whistleblowers, expressed skepticism about Friedman’s diligence. “They call this a law enforcement agency?” he said. “They’re letting Bechtel and URS fail to comply with an OIG request for information. That’s obstructing justice.” He called Busche the highest-ranking nuclear whistleblower he knows about.
The public affairs office at the Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.