New York State Announces Broad Set of Ethics and Campaign-Finance Reforms

Late last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and State legislative leaders announced agreement on a broad set of ethics and campaign-finance reforms focused on increased disclosure, transparency, and public trust.

Pursuant to this reform package:

  1. Super PACs (also known as Independent Expenditure Committees) may make and receive unlimited contributions so long as they do not coordinate with a political candidate. New York’s agreement expands the definition of coordination in this context to include the retention of a common vendor, the employment of a candidate’s former staffers, and the sharing or rental of common space. This agreement also increases disclosure requirements for Super PACs.
  2. Any public officer convicted of corruption is precluded from collecting a public pension.
  3. New disclosure requirements will be put in place for political consultants who represent both political officeholders or candidates and also private-sector clients with government business.
  4. Various reporting thresholds have been lowered under the State’s lobbying laws, including a reduction from $50,000 to $15,000 of the reporting threshold for organizations that lobby on their own behalf.
  5. 501(c)(4) social-welfare organizations are permitted to engage in political activities so long as political activity does not become the primary purpose of the organization. In contrast, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations are strictly prohibited from engaging in any political activity. Under New York’s agreement, 501(c)(4)s will be required to disclose funding and support received from 501(c)(3)s.  Additionally, a 501(c)(4) will be required to disclose its funding sources if they engage in political activities.

Comments due for JCOPE Proposed Guidance on Consultants and Grassroots Lobbying

In May, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) issued proposed guidance on consultants and grassroots lobbying and is currently seeking informal comments on the proposal by July 10, 2015.

The proposed guidance would broaden the definition of lobbyist to include individuals who have “direct interaction” with public officials in connection with lobbying or lobbying activities.  Direct interaction would include verbal or written communications, including communications made for the purpose of facilitating access to a public official, and attendance at a meeting or presence on a phone call with a public official.  In other words, if a consultant facilitates a meeting with a public official or attends a meeting with a public official (and meets the threshold requirements) the consultant would be subject to registration and reporting with JCOPE.

The proposed guidance would also broaden the definition of “grassroots” lobbying, which is commonly understood as using media, including newspaper and television ads, to encourage the public to engage in lobbying.  Not all states require registration or reporting for grassroots lobbying – New York does. The proposed guidance would clarify that individuals or entities that “control” the content and delivery of a message that encourages grassroots lobbying is engaged in lobbying.  As per the proposed guidance the definition of “control” includes participation in the formation of the communication or some influence over reviewing or editing the communication.

The Next Domino – New York Knocks Down Limits to SuperPACs

Last week, Judge Paul Crotty of the Southern District of New York ruled that New York Election Laws §§ 14-114(8) and 14-126, which impose limits on the amount of money that may be contributed to political candidates, are unconstitutional as applied to independent expenditure-only organizations. The full opinion can be downloaded here. 

New York’s Election Law had applied the $150,000 aggregate contribution limit to SuperPACs. In other words, a contributor could only give up to $150,000, despite contrary rulings in Citizens United and SpeechNow v. FEC (see here).  The Second Circuit made clear back in October that it disagreed when it reversed the district’s decision to deny the preliminary injunction sought to prevent enforcement of the limit and sent the case back down.

Consequently, contribution limits to independent expenditure-only committees have seen their last day in New York. This decision represents the fall of yet another domino in the ongoing movement away from contribution limits by U.S. courts.  The next one? New York’s $150,000 annual aggregate limit applicable to all political recipients, including candidate committees and political parties.

FEC Roundup

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) had a busy fall season, beginning with the announcement of two new appointments, and culminating in the consideration of several important matters. The following summary represents a few highlights:

New FEC Membership Announced

Lee E. Goodman and Ann M. Ravel assumed roles as Commissioners of the Federal Election Commission. President Obama nominated Commissioners Ravel and Goodman on June 21, 2013, and the United States Senate confirmed their nominations on September 23, 2013. Commissioner Goodman was also elected as Vice Chairman of the FEC.

No Opinion Issued on Whether Bitcoins are Considered a New Form of Political Campaign Currency

Following a request by the Conservative Action Fund (CAF) to issue guidance on the permissibility of using Bitcoins for political campaign contributions and expenditures, the FEC considered four separate draft Advisory Opinions but was unable to garner the requisite four affirmative votes to issue a final opinion.

Bitcoins are a form of virtual, peer-to-peer currency that can be exchanged online for goods and services anywhere in the world without using a bank or third party financial institution to host the transaction. Once a merchant or individual has received a transfer, the value is calculated by a constantly fluctuating currency conversion rate. Bitcoins differ from traditional online payments because they are regulated by software and user agreements and cannot be regulated by governments, banks or any other central authority. Instead, the transactions are managed collectively by the community of Bitcoin users.

While the Commissioners were unable to agree on official guidance, the Commission did discuss the possibility of developing an interim policy and commencing a rulemaking to address the issues raised in the Advisory Opinion request.

Draft Interpretive Rule on NY Primary Elections Announced

The Commission introduced a draft Interpretive Rule that clarifies the Commission’s interpretation of its rule for determining the date of a special primary election as the rules apply to nominations for federal office conducted under New York Election Law. Consistent with state law, which vests the power in party committees, the Commission clarified that the date of a special primary election is the date of the party committee’s nomination vote. The Commission directed the Office of General Counsel to make the draft available for solicitation of public comments before a vote by the Commission.

FEC Fails to Rule on Tea Party Request

The Commission considered two drafts responding to an Advisory Opinion request from the Tea Party Leadership Fund (TPLF), but it was unable to reach agreement by four affirmative votes in order to issue a formal Advisory Opinion. In its request, TPLF sought an exemption from the regulations requiring reporting to the Commission of contributors to the TPLF and of recipients of TPLF disbursements.

Important Reminder Regarding Holiday Greetings

The same disclaimer rules that apply to campaign-related mailings also apply to all holiday greeting cards, even if the communication does not solicit funds or contain express advocacy. If a federal campaign sends out more than 500 holiday greetings, (which constitutes a mass mailing) it must include a box on the card to inform recipients that it was paid for by the campaign committee. A PAC or party committee that sends a holiday mass mailing must also include a box on the card that lets recipients know the committee paid for it, identifies the committee’s full name and street address, phone number or web address, and states that the communication is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. For additional information, see the Commission’s brochure: Special Notices on Political Ads and Solicitations.