National ethics group broke state laws to acquire signatures

Source: Wikimedia

By Yaël Ossowski | September 1, 2015 | Watchdog.org

Wherever it campaigns for political ethics reform, the activist group Represent.us seems plagued by legal and ethical challenges of its own.

Earlier
this week, Watchdog.org reported that the Represent.us-backed ethics
board in Tallahassee, Fla. was slammed – by its own former supporters – for conflicts of interest in the July hiring of legal counsel.

At almost the same time, a Lansing,
Mich., city attorney ruled that a Represent.us-backed ethics group
there broke state laws in acquiring signatures for a ballot initiative
that would require lobbyists to register with the government and offers
public financing of political candidates.

“The
Lansing ballot initiative on the ethics board was deemed
unconstitutional because it violated numerous provisions of the charter
as well as state law,” Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope told Watchdog.org.

The city attorney determined
Represent.us, campaigning to get money out of politics, broke the law
when it put money into politics. In hiring a California firm for $25,000
to help acquire signatures in the state, the city attorney charged, the
group violated a law that requires that any group that spends more than
$500 register with authorities of the state of Michigan as a
ballot-question committee.

“These
actions, confirmed by you, have indicated to me that the formation of a
Ballot Question Committee was necessary and that you have violated
Michigan Campaign Finance Law by failing to form a Ballot Question
Committee upon spending or receiving more than $500.00,” Ingham County
Clerk Barb Byrum wrote in a letter in July to Walter Sorg, head of the Lansing Citizens for Ethics Reform.

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Sorg told Watchdog.org the problem was “a drafting error” by Represent.us.

“The
ethics proposal will not appear on the ballot due to claims (by the
city) of a drafting error by the attorneys retained by Represent.us,”
said Sorg. “That organization decided not to appeal the ruling in
court.”

Lansing city attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

The Lansing ballot initiative written by Sorg with the help of attorneys from Represent.us would have installed an ethics board much like in Tallahassee, but would also have created “limited” public financing for political campaigns.

“The
proposal would have strengthened the powers of the existing Board of
Ethics, instituted more extensive reporting of finances by public
officials, provided for a form of limited public financing of city
campaigns, require registration and disclosures by those lobbying the
city, and closed the ‘revolving door’ between public service and
lobbying,” Sorg told Watchdog.org.

The national campaign by Represent.us to propose changes to campaign and ethics laws in municipalities across the country next moves on to Seattle in November, where a ballot initiative will bring up the question on ethics committees and much more.

Yaël Ossowski is a Canadian-American journalist and writer living in Vienna. He is founder and editor of Devolution Review, deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, and senior development officer for Students For Liberty. He was previously a national investigative reporter at Watchdog.org. He has a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) from the CEVRO Institute in Prague and a Bachelor's in Political Science from Concordia University, Montreal. Born in Québec and raised in the southern United States, he currently lives in Vienna, Austria, and his writings have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and online outlets across the world in multiple languages.
Website https://yael.ca
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