Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Failings of the IRS Go Far Beyond Targeting Conservative Groups

Here is my latest op-ed on the IRS "scandal."

Here are the first two paragraphs:

Public outcry regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s apparent targeting of conservative groups has been swift but largely misguided. The so-called “IRS scandal” essentially boils down the following: conservative groups that applied for 501(c)4 status were subject to more rigorous vetting by IRS employees than liberal groups.

At first blush this is no doubt problematic. The IRS, a vitally important government agency, must function in a neutral and non-partisan manner. However, the true scandal behind the IRS’s actions stretches far beyond this incident targeting conservative groups.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Vote on pot shops could end lingering LA issue

Quoted in this piece in the AP. 

Here is an excerpt:

The new law will do little to serve as a model for other cities, said professor Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School.

"I think we've been the perfect picture of dysfunction," she said. "Most of the guidance is actually what not to do."
"The pot shops are not going to take this lightly," Levinson said. "I think they will drag their feet exactly as long as it takes until police officers are at their door."

If people don't want to vote, should we want them to?

My op-ed in the Los Angeles Daily News on this topic is here.

Combo of record spending and low turnout in LA mayoral race sees 87 dollars spent per vote

Quoted in this one on the California Forward blog. 

Some argue that money doesn’t matter, but Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson disagrees.

“Heavy spending can crowd out other voices and harm the diversity of the debate,” she explained. “It drives the campaign narrative, the issues that are being discussed and what the candidates talk about.”
Additionally, the rising influx of campaign money can undermine the democratic principal of one person, one vote. Large political donors expect a return on their investment and can often exert a greater influence on policy-making than the average voter.
The issues important to special interest groups do not necessarily overlap those in the public interest. In an election where less than one-fifth of eligible voters actually voted, it would be particularly easy to ignore the concerns of the general electorate.
Full campaign finance disclosure is the best way to level the playing field. It ensures that elected officials feel held accountable to voters and not special interests.
To confidently make an informed decision at the ballot box, voters need to know who is funding who and why. If money is speech, as the Supreme Court has ruled, Levinson says, “it’s really important for the public to know who is speaking.” Californians deserve to know who is trying to influence elections.

In Los Angeles mayor's race, a big win for Eric Garcetti

Quoted in this one in the Christina Science Monitor. 

“Garcetti did not receive the vast majority of the union endorsements and may be seen now as in a good position to extract concessions from the city's labor unions,” adds Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Many voters in this very low-turnout election saw union endorsements as toxic. Garcetti was not viewed as beholden to the unions. He will now have to negotiate with them.”

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Union money looms big in L.A. mayor's race

Quoted in this one in the LA Daily News.

In race with two pro-labor candidates, with similar backgrounds, the unions' power is noticeable, say political observers.
"The outside spending is changing the campaign narrative," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School. "It's changing the tenor and tone."

The flood of money concerns Levinson, who said the outside spending dilutes the "one vote, one voice" concept of the electoral process. The spending also shapes the conversation along the campaign trail, she believes.
A confusing County Fed-backed mailer promising a $15 wage if Greuel is elected forced both candidates to weigh in last week. And Greuel has spent months seeking to prove to voters that she'll be independent from the DWP, despite the union's spending.
At a recent debate in Sherman Oaks, the moderator intervened, asking the candidates to stop bickering about DWP, and move on to new topics.
Outside money "changes what issues they talk about," Levinson said. "It's not even the candidates' debate anymore."

Chris Christie is Silicon Valley's new favorite cause

Quoted in this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

One explanation for Christie's dot-com cash is, simply, Zuckerberg.
"They may be giving because Mark Zuckerberg said, 'Come to my house and give money,' and they want to do business with [Zuckerberg] in the future," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in campaign finance.
Christie's foray into Silicon Valley is a recognition of the region's potential should he defeat his expected Democratic gubernatorial challenger, State Sen. Barbara Buono, in the fall. If he could tap more money from Silicon Valley than Democrats have in the past, he could use it as a 2016 presidential campaign ATM to counter Democratic money from liberal Hollywood.
"I think this is a group and a generation that has been less politically involved, but we may be seeing that changing," Levinson, the professor, said of the tech industry. "They're tycoons, they're aging, and they're getting wealthier. . . . While they may wear sweatshirts and flip-flops, they have a lot of money they want to protect."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Who Is Funding the LA Mayor Race?

Quoted in this article

Here is an excerpt:

Campaign finance experts say that most donations are given to influence candidates or gain access.

“There’s this question of why we give money,” said Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson. “Is it legalized bribery, or do we just support candidates and expect nothing in return, or is it okay to expect something in return?” 
She said figuring out who's donating what and to whom is an important step in figuring out donors’ motivations.

It's Time for the IRS to Crack Down on Phony Non-Profits

Here is my latest on Huffington Post

Here is the beginning of the piece:

For many of us, the initials I, R and S strike fear into our heart. But now the Internal Revenue Service is apologizing. The IRS has admitted that during the 2012 elections some relatively low-level employees in Ohio required additional information from some conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Groups with the words "tea party" or "patriot" in their applications were flagged and asked to submit additional materials. Other groups may have been targeted as well. There is little doubt that the IRS' approach to determining whether to grant tax-exempt status should be politically even-handed, without regard to partisan affiliation. But this kerfuffle is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The IRS' actions evoke a much larger question about which groups should be able to obtain the benefit of tax-exempt status and lack of transparency that inures to certain non-profit organizations. Thanks in large part to the United States Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, corporations are constitutionally free to raise and spend unlimited sums to advocate for the election or defeat of political candidates as long as that spending is not coordinated with candidate campaigns. This is true for non-profit corporations as well, unless, as discussed below, there are statutory or regulatory restrictions placed on those groups.

How important are nonprofit organizations and other committees to election campaigns? Estimates put independent spending by nonprofit corporations -- political action committees (PACs) and super PACs -- at more than $1 billion during the 2012 elections. Unlimited spending by all of these entities is harmful to the integrity of our electoral process, but the worst offenders may be those entities organized under section 501c4 of the IRS code.

The 501c4s, as they are commonly known, are social welfare organizations. However, the IRS has interpreted the regulations affecting these nonprofit organizations as allowing them to engage in some political activity, as long as that does not become the organization's primary activity. This is, at best, a line drawn in the sand on a windy day, to quote Justice Scalia in another campaign finance case.

And here is the kicker: while these 501c4 non-profit corporations can engage in some political activity, they need not disclose their donors. This leaves the public without the most important piece of information about those spending money to try to sway their votes; the identity of those organizations' supporters. While other organizations, such as PACs and super PACs, must disclose their donors, when those donors are 501c4 corporations then all that is disclosed is the name of the corporation, but again, not those supporting that corporation. This situation blasts an enormous hole through our nation's web of disclosure provisions.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Reverse Revolving Door: How Corporate Insiders Are Rewarded Upon Leaving Firms for Congress

Quoted in this article

Here is an excerpt:

“It strains common sense that when employers are giving employees who are about to enter government work these huge bonuses, that there isn’t a hope that there will be influence and access,” say Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who compared the bonuses to how special interests seek access to politicians using campaign donations. “I think the main gist of the payment is the same,” notes Levinson. “It’s: ‘I hope when I’m pushing a piece of legislation, you’ll remember me with fondness.’”


At least eight financial firms, including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, have had employment policies that provide executives with financial incentives to join the government. The bonuses on Capitol Hill appear so routine, law professor Jessica Levinson noted, “This is becoming the way we do business.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Welcome to the Super PAC Era

Is candidate centered campaign fundraising a thing of the past?
Greetings, and welcome to the Super PAC era. Thanks in part to the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, we now have new entities called "Super PACs," which are organizations that can raise and spend unlimited political funds.
Contributions given directly to candidates are unlimited, but again, contributions to outside groups such as Super PACs are not. Therefore, as many predicted, individuals and entities who wish to support candidates but have given up to the legal limit, now have a new outlet for their campaign donations. This pattern, however, is nothing new. Before there were Super PACs big donors gave to political parties or other outside organizations like independent expenditure groups.
Campaign fundraising by candidates is increasingly being marginalized and fundraising by independent groups including Super PACs is coming to the forefront. We are seeing this phenomenon play out real time in the Los Angeles mayoral race where the contribution limit to candidates is $1,300 both in the primary and the runoff elections. 
While fundraising by candidates is still outpacing fundraising by Super PACs in the mayoral race, at some point in the near future that could change. In this election both candidates have raised approximately $5.7 million and independent groups have raised roughly $4.7 million for Greuel and $1.3 million for Garcetti. That means about one-third of the money raised in the mayor campaign has been raised by outside organizations. Again, the lion's share has gone to groups supporting Greuel.
Of course those giving money to outside groups are generally those who have a financial interest in what happens in City Hall. For instance, donors include real estate developers, labor unions, members of the entertainment industry, and lawyers and lawfirms. This set up raises a host of problems including corruption, the appearance of corruption, undue access and preferential treatment.
Because of the Supreme Court's misguided interpretation of limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, there is little hope, at least in the short term, of limiting how much can be given to and spent by outside groups.

Do California Lawmakers Actually Write Our Laws?

Who writes the law? Many of us assume that legislators or their staffers perform this task. But that answer may be only partially complete.
In California, a bill's "sponsor" is listed in legislative analyses. This purportedly gives the public important information about the identity of those supporting measures which may become law.
Who are these sponsors? Often they are special interest groups, and specifically lobbyists, who supported or authored proposed legislation. A recent report found that more than one quarter of the approximately 4,800 bills introduced in California last legislative session were sponsored bills.
But the listed sponsor may not tell the entire story. The rule requiring that sponsors be listed on bills appears to be inconsistently applied. Members of the public still lack information that would give them a complete picture of the lawmaking process. For instance, legislators may rewrite bills which were sponsored by a special interest before the legislative session, legislators may be squeamish about identifying bills as sponsored if the sponsoring group is unpopular, or staffers may fail to list as sponsored when writing an analysis.
It would be interesting to determine whether outside groups have more influence over legislators after the advent of term limits. Thanks to term limits legislators have less seniority, experience, and expertise. It seems logically that they have to rely more heavily on outside groups.
With respect to the electoral process, campaign disclosure, meaning disclosure of political contributions and expenditures, gives the public information about who is trying to influence their vote on candidates or measures. The same is true with respect to the legislative process. Full and complete disclosure regarding who is sponsoring bills allows the public to obtain a fuller picture about which groups are seeking to work with our legislators to enact laws. Legislators are, after all, representatives of the people, sent to city halls, state capitols, and the nation's capitol to serve the public.

L.A. Election: 3 Medical Marijuana Measures, a Long Way to a Solution

On May 21 voters in Los Angeles will have the opportunity to vote for the city's next mayor. But that is not all. Those few Angelenos who venture to the polls or send in their ballots will also weigh in on three competing ballot measures all dealing with medical marijuana. Two qualified for the ballot via the initiative process, one was put on the ballot by the City Council.
As with all other types of ballot measures, those supporting the various measures will financially benefit from their passage. Indeed, the measures have divided the medical marijuana community, to the extent that there was such a community.
(To understand the specifics of these measures, Ballot Brief's Ben Gottlieb has done some great in-depth reporting here.)
It is possible that none of the measures will garner the 50 percent of the vote necessary to become law. In that event it seems likely that the next election will bring one or more new proposals concerning the sale of medical marijuana.
In any case, the May election will not be the end of the story. The city is facing dozens of lawsuits, suits which are likely to continue. All of this wrangling occurs against the backdrop of a stark contrast between state and federal laws.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Will the SEC save us from Citizens United?

I wrote an op-ed in the Sac Bee, which you can find here.

Here is a portion of the first paragraph:

An unlikely government agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, may help to stem the tide of undisclosed money pumping through our political system in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The SEC is not the first government agency that comes to mind when thinking of campaign finance regulations.

Read more here: