Tag Archives: Money in Politics

DONEGAN: Citizens United Ruling Lets Advocacy Groups Expose Politicians’ Voting Records

Since the dawn of human history, wealthy people have had a disproportionate level of influence over the political process, regardless what policies are enacted in an effort to prevent it. When the Supreme Court overturned the government’s ban on citizens organizing in groups and expressing themselves in political advertisements via the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, some well-meaning politicos declared that moneyed interests would soon buy up the U.S. government, creating an impermeable billionaires’ club establishment that can never be defeated politically.

In reality, Citizens United v. FEC has, rather than further entrenching existing industrial complexes, unleashed a multi-billion dollar negative advertising machine, trashing candidates from coast-to-coast by exposing their voting records to voters, most of whom have little time in their day-to-day lives to follow all of their legislators’ moves. If a candidate for re-election votes in a way that is offensive to an advocacy group, that group can now blanket the airwaves with ads educating voters on that fact.

Meanwhile, the criticism that free speech in political advertising will favor billionaires at the expense of the poor assumes that people align politically on the basis of their income level, rather than their political views. In reality, rich and downtrodden Americans alike each have their own opinions and often align individually on issues. The 2016 presidential race, where billionaire Donald Trump is attempting to seize the Republican nomination while the even-richer Koch brothers fight against him, shows that America’s ultra-wealthy are not in lock-step agreement with each other. Prior to the Citizens United ruling, a candidate like Donald Trump would have had an even larger advantage than he does now that the Koch brothers can weigh in on the race with advertisements letting citizens know what to expect from a Trump presidency.

On the center-right side of the political spectrum, billionaires like socially-conservative Sheldon Adelson fight for different candidates and issues than the more libertarian-leaning billionaires like PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Leftist George Soros can do battle dollar-for-dollar with nearly any conservative-leaning ultra-wealthy philanthropist.

Citizens United allows companies to educate voters when regulations will have an impact on their prices and products. It allows policy advocates to raise money, often from smaller donors through fundraising vehicles like money bombs, to educate voters when the outcomes of elections will affect the issues that are important to them.

Prior to the Citizens United ruling, it was already impossible for a candidate to win a state-wide political race without a massive war chest filled with donations, and nothing in that sense has changed. The wealthiest people can always hire lawyers to conjure loopholes through which their interests can be achieved no matter what laws are passed in an effort to block them. However, Citizens United has opened up political advocacy to groups funded by large numbers of small donors who previously couldn’t use billionaires’ legal maneuvers to sidestep campaign finance limits.

Citizens United has also evened the playing field between citizens and owners of corporate media outlets. What is the fundamental difference between a billionaire starting a media company that publishes opinion articles and an advocacy group expressing a political viewpoint by purchasing a commercial on that same media outlet to expose a vote from a politician’s record that the media is not publicizing?

Regarding the 2016 presidential campaign, Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote, “The best-financed candidates seem to be enjoying no dramatic advantage over their less-well financed opponents. On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has collected $120 million in donations to lead all Republicans in the money sweepstakes, yet he trails Donald Trump badly in the polls. Trump has raised a mere $1.9 million—and $1.8 million of that is a Trump loan! Ben Carson is beating both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the polls despite raising a fourth of their loot.

He added, “On the Democratic Party side, poll leader Hillary Clinton leads the money race with $67.8 million, but her poll numbers are dropping at about the same rate that Bernie Sanders’ are rising, and the Sanders campaign has raked in only $15.2 million.

It is also worth noting that prior to the Citizens United ruling, billionaire Donald Trump still would have been able to self-finance his own campaign. Now that free speech has been unleashed in political advertising, advocacy groups and other wealthy individuals can self-finance the opposition to a candidate’s campaign, thus neutralizing, rather than empowering, particular moneyed interests’ control over politics.

Koch Brothers Launch Fight for Justice for Man Sentenced to 55 Years for Pot

“I sometimes drive near the prison where he’s held, and I think, ‘Gosh he shouldn’t be there. Certainly not as long as I had to send him there. … That wasn’t the right thing to do. The system forced me to do it,'” said former federal Judge Paul Cassell in comments to ABC News about the plight of Weldon Angelos, a father and rap record label founder whom Cassell was forced to sentence to 55 years for three low-level marijuana sales due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. In 2002, then 24-year-old Angelos, whose record label had recently attracted a collaboration with rap superstar Snoop Dogg, had also been moonlighting as a pot dealer. Federal authorities caught wind of his side gig and launched a sting operation against Angelos, purchasing small amounts of marijuana from him on three separate occasions through an informant. Angelos, who happened to be carrying a gun for protection which he did not brandish or use for any violent purpose, was subsequently tried and convicted on three counts of selling narcotics while in possession of a firearm. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws forced Judge Cassell to sentence Angelos to 55 years with no chance of parole, a near-life sentence for the Salt Lake City father of two.

“If he had been an aircraft hijacker, he would have gotten 24 years in prison. If he’s been a terrorist, he would have gotten 20 years in prison. If he was a child rapist, he would have gotten 11 years in prison. And now I’m supposed to give him a 55-year sentence? I mean, that’s just not right,” said Cassell of Angelos’ case.

According to The Daily Beast, Angelos’ plight caught the attention of the billionaire Koch brothers, whose millennial outreach group Generation Opportunity used some of the duo’s oft-demonized out-sized wealth to produce a documentary, which debuted last week at the Newseum in Washington DC, highlighting Angelos’ unjust sentence. The documentary release coincides with a broader Koch brothers initiative to promote criminal justice reform throughout 2015. A trailer for the film can be seen in the above-embedded video player.

“[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system]. We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses,” said Generation Opportunity president Evan Feinberg in comments to The Daily Beast.

Weldon Angelos’ family requested two years ago that President Obama grant clemency for the father of two, who has already spent 11 years behind bars, but the administration has yet to respond. Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s sister, described the impact his incarceration has had on his children, “Being around them you can feel their heart ache, even though their laughter, and watching them play and do the fun stuff, you can still feel it. Seeing what they have gone through by losing their father, it just emotionally destroys me.”

The Koch brothers, who are often accused by left-leaning politicos of using their disproportionate wealth to buy elections in an effort to bend policies in favor of the rich and at the expense of the poor, have in the past used their hard-earned dollars to help poor people facing unjust prosecutions obtain legal representation.

Ben Swann took on the federal government’s mixed messages on marijuana prohibition in a September 2014 Truth in Media episode, seen in the player below.