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Some Republican Candidates Spend Big On Ads, With Little To Show For It

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a drumbeat that gets more insistent every week, viewers in early primary states have been subjected to a ceaseless cycle of ads for presidential candidates, courtesy of the big checks donors pour into super PACs and “dark money” groups.

What’s less clear: How much of it is getting through to voters?

In this strange primary season, there is little relationship between money spent on ads and poll numbers for candidates, at least on the Republican side. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, the top two spenders, have spent about 10 times as much on ads as have the two polling leaders in Iowa, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — who until recently bought far fewer ads than their rivals.

At this early stage of the race, the negative correlation between spending and support appears to be the result of the ever-evolving media landscape and a few other factors, some unique to 2016: a celebrity front-runner, a crowded field, questionable campaign strategies and voter burnout.

“It’s a complete waste of money, and I think people are starting to figure that out,” Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist, said of the expensive strategy of outside groups blanketing the airways with advertising at premium rates. Bennett, former campaign manager for Ben Carson, now is advising Trump.

Even at its best, television is a blunt tool for reaching the relatively small numbers of people who vote in small-state primaries. “The money spent per actual voter is huge,” said Joe Fuld, a Democratic campaign consultant. “It’s like trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.”

Some suggest that the problem isn’t the medium but the message; the ads aren’t working as well because they simply aren’t very good. No one has come out with a standout ad that generates its own buzz. And this year, ads that tout a candidate’s credentials or attack opponents with grainy footage aren’t getting through.

Some of the explanation also lies with which candidates were doing the advertising. Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Bush, raised more than $100 million before the campaign got underway and paid for a bombardment of ads in an attempt to jump-start his sputtering candidacy. After at least $60 million in spending, Bush remains stuck at about 6 percent in polls.

“Guys like Jeb Bush are spending more than anybody and he has absolutely nothing to show for it,” said Justin Holmes, a politics professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

“If they don’t like what you’re selling, it won’t matter how much you try to sell it.”

Trump, Bush’s antagonist, meanwhile, didn’t advertise at all until recently. But he stormed to the top of the field and has stayed there while dominating news coverage and speaking directly to millions of followers on Facebook and with a Twitter feed full of insults, incendiary statements and promises to restore America’s swagger.

For Trump, riding a wave of television celebrity and media fascination, buying commercials would have been overkill. Trump has been mentioned about 195,000 times on news shows since he entered the race, according to an analysis by the Internet Archive — more than twice the coverage of Bush, the next most-mentioned GOP candidate.

Whenever someone on television mentioned a Republican candidate, 4 out of 10 times it was Trump.

“That’s swamping some of the ad spending,” Holmes said, explaining that Trump’s free media exposure was more valuable than others’ paid airtime.

For candidates without Trump’s news saturation, an increasingly fractured media landscape also is making it tougher for them to get their messages across.

“You have more media outlets today than you’ve ever had, and the audience is more and more splintered,” said Dominic Caristi, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University. “It’s made anything less effective, whether we’re talking about an ad for Jeb Bush or an ad for Crest toothpaste.”

A recent Gallup survey found that fewer people than ever said that “watching television” was their favorite way to spend an evening. They might still be looking at some kind of screen, but the days of gathering around the set to watch a network show is on the wane, said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.

“Now it’s dispersed,” Newport said. “With so many different kinds of screens and different ways of watching, it’s more complex to try to reach them.”

Millions of dollars’ worth of ad spending blended into the background cacophony, with more than a dozen voices in the Republican field struggling to differentiate themselves and to be heard at a time when many voters simply weren’t paying attention.

“Until January, most people in Iowa weren’t thinking about this,” said Travis Ridout, a politics professor at Washington State University and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and studies campaign advertising.

“I think a lot of early advertising was wasted, in terms of trying to get votes on caucus day,” he said.

Burnout also might be a factor. With most states going safely Democrat or Republican, all the commercials are going to the relatively few places that are really competitive. For the last few cycles, that means the same viewers have been hammered in successive waves of political advertising.

“If you turn on your TV over the last few weeks, it’s one ad after another after another,” said Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire professor. “It just becomes wallpaper.”

Even with all the changes, most campaigns still regard broadcast as the most effective way to reach the most eyeballs. The volume of Republican presidential ads on the air for 2015 was up by nearly 45 percent over the same period four years ago — with outside groups, not campaigns, responsible for 81 percent of the spending, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, using data by Kantar Media CMAG, a media tracking firm.

Kantar is predicting about $4.4 billion spent on television this election, with most of it going to local broadcast stations.

The ads that are doing better, in a time of deep dissatisfaction with anything that smells of old-school politicking, offer a promise of authenticity and an aspirational, idealistic message, according to Ace Metrix, a company that measures ad effectiveness. Mark Bryant, a vice president at Ace, said the firm had shown each ad released this year to focus groups of 500 voters from different parties and demographic groups.

Among Republicans, Cruz seems to be getting the most bang for his bucks; three of his ads were the highest-scoring among GOP voters, Bryant said.

But the ads getting the best overall response so far are from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic nomination. He has the four highest-scoring spots and seven of the top 10. “Fairness, equality, an economy that works well for all — these are themes that are resonating with Democrats and independents,” Bryant said. “They love his stuff.”

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) Governor John Kasich, Governor Chris Christie, Senator Marco Rubio, businessman Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson and former Governor Jeb Bush pose together before the start of the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, South Carolina January 14, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Keane 

It’s Getting Harder To Tell What Separates A Super PAC From A Candidate’s Campaign

By Joseph Tanfani and Seema Mehta, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

Long before Ben Carson jumped into the presidential race, some of his biggest fans were scouring the country for supporters.

They set up a super PAC and began a mail campaign, eventually attracting thousands who signed up and gave money.

When Carson actually got around to running, those names jump-started his early fundraising, according to John Philip Sousa IV, great-grandson of the composer and chairman of the 2016 Committee, a super PAC backing Carson.

“It was that list that launched his campaign,” Sousa said.

The power of super PACs was unleashed by a series of Supreme Court decisions dating to 1976, including Citizens United in 2010, that opened the door to unlimited contributions to political groups — so long as they didn’t coordinate with campaigns.

This presidential cycle, that rule is being stretched like never before, as super PACs shadow candidates and take on roles once reserved for the campaign organizations themselves — even staging campaign rallies.

Many of the super PACs and the campaigns are run by a revolving door of close friends and staffers, ensuring that the two sides share a common playbook even when they avoid tripping over the vague Federal Election Commission rules banning coordination.

One Democratic commissioner at the FEC said that she is “very concerned” about the growing influence of super PACs and frustrated about the inability of her agency to do anything about it.

“These super PACS are more and more operating as arms of the campaigns,” said Ellen Weintraub, a former campaign finance lawyer. “I just find it hard to reconcile the notion that there’s no potential for corruption with super PACs raising and spending unlimited amounts of money.”

She said it was not surprising that campaigns and their allies were pushing the boundaries because the three Republican commissioners had blocked any attempt to write rules to limit super PACs.

“Our inaction is feeding a culture out there that says political actors don’t really have to abide by the rules, because if they don’t, nothing is going to happen,” she said.

The top Republican on the FEC, vice chairman Matthew Petersen, did not respond to a request for comment.

So far in the 2016 presidential cycle, super PACs have been particularly dominant among Republicans, as outside groups have raised a total of $236.5 million, dwarfing the $64.1 million in campaign accounts through June 15.

For Democrats, candidates have raised nearly $50 million while super PACs totaled $20.5 million.

Early this year, Republican Jeb Bush traveled around the country for a super PAC called Right to Rise America, helping it pile up an eyebrow-raising $103 million.

Routinely speaking in front of the super PAC’s banners, Bush sometimes stumbled when asked about his plans — saying he was running and then immediately taking it back. In his view, he never broke the law because he had not yet formally declared his candidacy.

Much of the basic political grunt work for Carly Fiorina’s campaign is being handled by a super PAC, CARLY for America, which sends staff and volunteers to shadow her on the campaign trail, setting up tables, taking down voters’ names and handing out buttons and bumper stickers.

The 2016 Committee backing Carson has paid staff in four states and volunteers that show up at his events and hand out copies of Sousa’s 212-page paperback “Rx for America,” which describes the retired neurosurgeon as “the one man who can save the America that our Founding Fathers created.”

Groups supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton are part of this phenomenon too. A rapid-response group called Correct the Record broke away from a pro-Clinton super PAC and is now working directly with the campaign. A spokeswoman for the group contends an FEC loophole means that the coordination regulation doesn’t apply to them because their work is posted only online.

Richard L. Hasen, an expert on campaign finance at the University of California, Irvine, said candidates were poking holes in the argument that, because super PACs are independent, there is no risk of corruption in unlimited donations to outside groups.

“The close relationship between super PACs and candidates this time really puts that to the test,” he said.

Many of the outside groups are run by old allies who intimately know their candidate’s thinking. Right to Rise, for example, is led by Mike Murphy, a GOP strategist who has been running Jeb Bush’s campaigns since 1998.

“He’s a good friend and I’m going to miss him,” Bush said two days before he entered the race.

Staff frequently move back and forth.

Terry Giles, a Houston lawyer, served as Carson’s original campaign chairman. He resigned in June, soon after Carson formally entered the race, so he could begin advising the super PACs — after a 120-day cooling-off period required by the FEC.

“I’ll be getting them in alignment with the message that I know Ben wants,” said Giles, who plans to meet with Sousa and leaders of two other pro-Carson super PACs. “There needs to be coordination on how the money is spent.”

After that task is done, Giles said, he will return to a role as a Carson advisor and debate coach, though without any position in the campaign. He said his plan to move back and forth complied with election laws.

He’s not alone: CARLY for America political director Tom Szold over the summer took a similar role in Fiorina’s campaign.

The super PAC representatives say it isn’t hard to avoid crossing the line on coordination. For instance, staff members at CARLY for America say they track Fiorina’s movements by checking the candidate’s schedule, posted online.

“We work hard to get our volunteers there and help the people on the ground,” said Katie Hughes, spokeswoman for the Fiorina super PAC. “We would love to help connect them with other Carly supporters.”

Sousa said his group had “bent over backward” to avoid coordinating. Sharing the list of supporters is no problem because the super PAC charged the Carson campaign a fair rate, he said.

(Los Angeles Times staff writer Maloy Moore in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

U.S. Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson speaks during the Heritage Action for America presidential candidate forum in Greenville, South Carolina September 18, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Jeb Bush Releases 33 Years Of Tax Returns

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made $7.4 million during 2013 and paid about 40 percent in taxes, according to his tax return, part of a disclosure of 33 years of tax information released Tuesday by his presidential campaign.

Bush released the documents on his website, making a case for transparency in an ever more crowded Republican presidential field. In a statement he released on his website, he said he paid an average effective rate of 36 percent.

Bush said there were a total of 1,150 pages, “largely because we have a broken tax system that’s one of the most convoluted and anti-growth in the world.”

In the statement, Bush said he’s released more tax information than any other presidential candidate, noting that he has also released 280,000 emails. Yet the release comes during continued scrutiny of Bush’s business dealings in South Florida, both before and after his two terms as Florida governor. He has made money as a real estate developer, worked the lecture circuit, served as a business consultant and served on a number of corporate boards, including corporate giants like Tenet Healthcare and Lehman Bros.

Some of those dealings have landed him in controversy: The head of one company for which Bush served as a board member and paid consultant went to jail for fraud, after getting millions in government loans. Bush has said he quit the company as soon as the problems surfaced.

He also set up funds that invested in foreign business ventures. He says he has unwound those partnerships, as well as his other business ventures, as he prepared to launch his presidential campaign.

“But one thing I didn’t do was get paid to lobby or cut deals with the state government I just left,” he said in the statement. “That was a line I drew and it was the right one.”

In 2013, he reported giving about $110,600 to charity, or 1.5 percent of his income.

In releasing the returns, Bush may be trying to sidestep the kind of controversy that dogged the GOP’s last nominee, Mitt Romney, who endured months of criticism and questions in 2012 about the taxes he paid on the fortune he earned as a private equity manager. He eventually released two years of returns.

So far, former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina is the only other candidate who has disclosed tax returns; she released two years.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Jeb Bush speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Fiorina’s Campaign-Trail Attacks Leave Out Her Own Ties To Clinton

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a crowd of Republican presidential contenders hammering away at Hillary Rodham Clinton, no one has been more relentless than Carly Fiorina.
In speeches and media interviews, some of them while shadowing Clinton on the campaign trail, Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, has attacked the Clintons’ family foundation for a lack of transparency amid reports that it accepted money from foreign governments.

“She is not trustworthy,” Fiorina says in a video on her website, itself named ReadytoBeatHillary.com.

In a Facebook post, Fiorina excoriated the Clintons for accepting donations from foreign governments “while making promises about transparency that they never intended to keep.”

“What else don’t we know? What don’t we know about your donors?” she asked last week on Fox News about the Clintons’ charitable efforts. “What don’t we know about the conflicts of interest that those donors represent?”

Fiorina’s criticism, however, comes after years of association with the Clintons’ foundation through her own philanthropic work.

One Fiorina charitable effort, a campaign to fund women’s empowerment projects around the globe, went forward with help from the State Department when Clinton was secretary, and Fiorina also has roles in two charities that participated in Clinton-fueled partnerships.

The attacks on the Clintons after years of a productive relationship with the foundation show how personal and professional ties can complicate life on the campaign trail for well-connected candidates such as Fiorina, who also unsuccessfully ran for Senate in California in 2010.

In addition to her charity ties, Fiorina has also twice participated in events that were part of the Clinton Global Initiative, one of the organizations in the Clintons’ worldwide philanthropic network.

In 2013, she spoke on a small panel that discussed how to boost female entrepreneurship. Last year, she appeared with former President Bill Clinton and three other people on a televised panel discussion on how best to pull people out of poverty.

Fiorina at times sparred with Clinton and criticized Democratic economic policies, saying that the Obama administration “made the rich much richer.” But she also argued for the role of small business and praised the initiative’s work.

“Seed capital, support, tools, energy, all of the initiatives that the Clinton Global Initiative invests in to try and build Main Street entrepreneurship — it has always been the hope of this country,” Fiorina said.

A spokeswoman for Fiorina said she was “delighted” to participate in a session advocating for women who are entrepreneurs and characterized the second discussion as “a debate with Bill Clinton.”

Fiorina did not respond to follow-up questions about her involvement with the foundation or her work with the State Department.

Bill Clinton, speaking at a CGI conference last week, said the foundation has always considered itself nonpolitical and has hosted a number of Republican politicians, including Mitt Romney and John McCain. He didn’t mention Fiorina.

Fiorina helped spark a charitable drive in 2008 called the One Woman Initiative, targeting women’s empowerment groups, mostly in Muslim countries. According to the organization, she set it up with help from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

It took about a year to raise the money. By the time the approximately $500,000 in grants were released, in June 2009, President Barack Obama was in the White House and Clinton was secretary of State. The initiatives included a microfinance program in Pakistan, a conflict resolution program in the Philippines and an economic development program in India.

The initiative aimed to distribute grants with the help of corporate sponsors, and with support from the Department of State and USAID. The agencies also declined to comment about the initiative.

The Clinton Global Initiative draws together corporate and charity leaders for networking and to announce commitments to complete projects together.

Fiorina is connected to two groups that participated in such programs. She is board chairwoman of Good360, a Virginia-based group that connects companies who want to donate goods with charities that need them. Hilton Worldwide made the program a CGI commitment in 2013.

Fiorina also is on the advisory board of the National Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, a group that wants to open a center celebrating inventors and entrepreneurs on the National Mall in Washington.

That, too, was announced as a CGI commitment in 2013. But the plans have stalled, in part because the Smithsonian decided it couldn’t devote resources to the project, said Philip Auerswald, the group’s board chairman.

The advisory board and Fiorina didn’t play a role in the decision to announce the project as a CGI commitment, he said.

“Carly has been nothing but supportive throughout this process,” Auerswald said.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Carly Fiorina speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Obama Immigration Program, Blocked By Texas Judge, Wins 14 States’ Support

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Fourteen states are joining in the push to salvage President Barack Obama’s plan to grant legal protection to millions of people in the U.S. illegally — even if it’s only revived in their parts of the country.

A federal judge has frozen the immigration program while a lawsuit filed by Texas and 25 other states proceeds. Those states, mostly led by Republican governors, contend Obama is forcing their taxpayers to pick up the financial burden for millions of immigrants.

Now, 14 mostly Democratic-led states — some with the highest populations of immigrants eligible for Obama’s program — are presenting an alternative argument: They say allowing immigrants some protections would actually benefit them, in the form of increased tax revenues and stronger families.

Lawyers for these states and the District of Columbia filed a brief Thursday arguing that a federal appeals court should lift the lower court’s order — or at least limit its effect to Texas and perhaps the other 25 states that are also suing.

“A single state cannot dictate national immigration policy,” the states wrote in their legal argument, filed in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The filing, part of a legal strategy coordinated with the Obama administration, cements a political rift between red and blue states on the president’s executive action. It also signals an effort by the immigration plan’s supporters to sustain momentum while the program is held up in court.

Justice Department lawyers also asked the appeals court Thursday for an emergency ruling that would allow the program to go forward, saying that the lower-court judge’s decision halting it was “unprecedented and wrong.”

The motion says states have no business interfering in the federal government’s job to enforce immigration laws. Allowing the decision to stand would hurt the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to police the border, the appeal says, by preventing authorities from concentrating on deporting criminals.

The dispute is probably headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the administration is trying to move the case along quickly — and to get the program up and running while Obama is in office. It asked the appellate court for a decision on the stay within 14 days and for arguments on the constitutional issues in the case to be held by June.

Announced last year, Obama’s plan would grant a three-year protection from deportation to up to 5 million people living in the country illegally. The largest piece, called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, would offer three-year work permits to parents of U.S. citizens or other legal residents. It wouldn’t be open to recent arrivals or to people with serious criminal records.

In the friend-of-the-court brief, California, New York, Illinois and the other states say that giving temporary legal status to millions of immigrants will have “far-reaching” benefits to local economies, by allowing people to earn higher salaries and pay taxes.

The majority of immigrants eligible for what the administration calls “deferred action” live in those states: California, with 1.5 million, New York, with 338,000, and Illinois, with 280,000. Texas has the second-highest number of eligible immigrants, with 743,000, according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute.

The left-leaning Center for American Progress says that Obama’s program could increase California’s tax revenues by $904 million over five years, and that Texas could get an estimated $338 million.

“With over 1 million hard-working Californians eligible … our state has a major stake in the successful implementation of the president’s immigration actions,” state Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement.

U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen froze the program nationwide based on Texas’ claim that the program would force them to incur costs by issuing drivers licenses to immigrants. The federal government and their allied states call that claim bogus, but say that even if the injunction stands, it should only apply to Texas, or the other states that oppose the program.

“There is no basis for forcing the injunction on us,” California and the states say in their brief.

The competing arguments from warring states underscore the point that only the federal government should decide questions of immigration and national security, immigration attorney David Leopold said.

“For states to stick their noses in it really is a violation of all notions that we have about how to run this country,” he said.

Some experts say it’s not likely the courts would allow the program to go forward only in parts of the country.

“If what they are doing is unlawful, it doesn’t make sense to allow them to do it in some states and not others,” said Josh Blackman, a professor at the South Texas College of Law, who filed a brief in the case supporting the coalition led by Texas.

Aside from the legal questions, it likely would be a logistical nightmare to only partly open the deferred action program. Applicants are to mail in paperwork that would be processed at a center in Virginia.

“In practice, it would be hard to have a program in some states and not other states,” said Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s just a little hard to imagine how that would be enforced, since no one is checking where these people live.”

Photo: President Barack Obama receives a standing ovation as he takes the stage to discuss college affordability and access to quality higher education at Georgia Tech on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in Atlanta.   (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Obama Administration To Ask Judge To Lift Block On Immigration Actions

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday it will ask a judge to allow it to continue with plans to offer protection from deportation to millions of people living in the U.S. illegally.

Department of Justice lawyers plan to file a motion by Monday requesting that a federal judge in Texas stay his order that temporarily blocks President Barack Obama’s immigration programs, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

If the judge, Andrew S. Hanen, denies the request, as many legal experts expect, the administration could file an appeal with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and later the Supreme Court.
Hanen issued the order Monday in a lawsuit filed by Texas and two dozen other states, mostly led by Republicans. They sued to block the president’s move last year to use his executive authority to shield from deportation about half of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

Immigrants who qualify would get a three-year permit to stay in the country.

In his order Monday, Hanen said Obama overstepped his legal authority.

The administration cannot “enact a program whereby it not only ignores the dictates of Congress but actively acts to thwart them,” Hanen ruled.

But he based his injunction on narrow legal grounds, saying that the underlying constitutional issues needed a full hearing and that his ruling would preserve the status quo in the meantime.

The decision by Hanen, who has a record of rulings harshly critical of what he views as lax immigration enforcement, created a stumbling block for the administration’s plans.

The first piece of the immigration program was due to roll out this week but has been put on hold. The biggest part of the program, which would cover up to 4 million adults who’ve been in the country since 2010, was scheduled to open to applicants in May.

Despite the ruling, Obama made it clear that the administration would press ahead with preparations for the immigration programs, which include the hiring of thousands of workers to process an expected rush of applications.

“We are doing the preparatory work because this is a big piece of business,” Obama told reporters this week. “We want to make sure as soon as these legal issues get resolved, which I anticipate they will in our favor, that we are ready to go.”

Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress are also fighting to stave off another assault on the executive actions, this one from Republican leaders who are trying to use a bill to fund the Homeland Security department to block the immigration executive actions. The measure passed the House, but ran into Democratic opposition the Senate.

Lawmakers on both sides have vowed not to back down in the standoff; the funding for the department, which handles all border and customs enforcement, runs out on Feb. 28.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with a group of young undocumented immigrants in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The five immigrants, known as “dreamers,” who meet with the president have received protections from deportation under a program Obama implemented in 2012. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Rollout Of Obama’s Immigration Plan Faces Enormous Challenges

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will soon roll out one of the most ambitious and controversial programs of his presidency, an effort to grant a reprieve from deportation to millions of adult immigrants living in the country illegally.

With time short and stakes high, the Obama administration knows it cannot afford another debacle like 2013’s botched introduction of the Affordable Care Act.

The challenges posed by the new immigration program will be enormous. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office projects that 1.3 million people will apply in the first six months, starting in May. Anything close to that would be a giant new workload for the agency, which processes about 6.3 million other applications annually.

The cost of implementing the president’s executive actions will be $324 million to $484 million over the next three years, according to a draft of a letter from Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson obtained by The Los Angeles Times.

The money to pay for the program will come from application fees, the agency says. Because of that, the administration says it does not need Congress’ authority to spend money on the program. The fee for DAPA — Deferred Action for Parents of Americans — will be $465. But the department will have to spend millions of dollars before the fees start coming in.

In addition to the growing bureaucracy, other challenges, including defining who is eligible, await the agency.
One key difference from the health care rollout: no complicated website. The immigration services agency still does most of its business on paper and through the mail, and applicants will mail in their papers.

The applications will be handled at an office complex in suburban Washington, with a new staff of 1,000 government workers, supplemented by as many as 1,000 private contractors.

“It’s going to be a monumental effort,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group that usually backs the administration. “It’s arguably the biggest (immigration) program they’ve ever had to implement, and with a population that has done everything possible to avoid contact with authorities.”

In November, Obama announced the executive action that would temporarily defer deportation for up to 5 million of the 11.2 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

An estimated 4 million people are thought to fit the criteria under DAPA: continuous residence in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2010, no serious crimes on record and a child who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident.

Many Republicans consider Obama’s action to be an unconstitutional overreach and have been looking for ways to stop the program. The House voted to block any spending on the new programs in the $39.7 billion budget for the Homeland Security Department, which includes the immigration services agency. That measure has not passed the Senate.

Also, administration officials are watching a federal courthouse in Texas, where a judge is considering a challenge to Obama’s plan from 26 states, mostly led by Republican governors.

“Processing these illegal actions will obviously be very expensive,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a vociferous critic of the executive action and chairman of the Senate Immigration and the National Interest subcommittee. “To carry out his plan he will need to move money from lawful enforcement programs of DHS to unlawful policies that undermine enforcement.”

The administration isn’t waiting to see how the Republican efforts play out. It signed a $7.8-million lease for 246,000 square feet on 12 floors in a complex outside Washington and is planning a cost of about $40 million a year for new employees’ salaries and benefits.

The program will be modeled on the administration’s 2012 deferred deportation program for young people, the so-called Dreamers. In that program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the agency has handled more than 860,000 applications, with some backlogs and delays but no major problems.

The new rules expanded DACA, making about 300,000 more people eligible; immigration offices will begin accepting those applications Feb. 18.

The DAPA application process will be low-tech. Like a lot of federal agencies, USCIS has struggled with information technology. It has spent about $1 billion on an electronic immigration system, ELIS, that is still so clunky and limited that immigration officers can work twice as fast on paper, according to an inspector general’s report from July.

The agency will rely on contractors to move the paperwork mountain. It starts with the banking firm of J.P. Morgan Chase, which will be paid to open envelopes, scan applications and deposit checks at centers in Dallas and Phoenix.

A spokesman for the Treasury Department, which handles those contracts, said Saturday that the cost of those services was about $96 million last year.

The immigration services agency will hire another firm to do records work for DAPA, which may cost as much as $40 million for the first year, according to contractor estimates. In a bid document, the agency projects that half of the eligible population for DAPA — about 1.9 million people — will apply in the first 18 months.

The immigration agency anticipates more than 800,000 applications in the first 90 days.

Getting enough staff in place by May will be difficult, a former Homeland Security official told a Senate committee last week. The agency will probably have to divert workers from other jobs — possibly leading to delays in green card applications or other programs, said Luke Bellocchi, the agency’s former deputy ombudsman.

The agency says it will be ready.

“USCIS is on pace to have several hundred employees on board and trained by mid-May, which will ensure every case processed by USCIS receives a thorough, case-by-case review,” said agency spokesman Chris Bentley, acknowledging that it may have to pull workers from other tasks if there’s an early surge.

The agency is also trying to solve other challenges with the program — starting with settling questions about who’s eligible. A big one: How will the agency define a parent? Will step-parents be eligible? And what happens if those parents get divorced? What about common-law spouses?

Another question has come up about the kinds of documents applicants will need to produce. Many Dreamers relied on school records, even attaching year-by-year class portraits and report cards to their applications.

For adults, leases, paychecks, utility bills and bank records will be acceptable, but for people who’ve been living here illegally and trying to stay under the radar, proof might be thin.

“Documentation is going to be much harder for this population,” said Michelle Sardone, legalization program director for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “You don’t want people to take advantage of the situation, but you don’t want to make it so difficult that people can’t get in.”

Advocates are planning a publicity campaign to coax people to step forward and apply. The political furor in Washington probably won’t scare people away, they say, but big delays and problems might.

“If it takes six months for anybody to get approved, that’s going to affect participation,” said Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza. “If they are getting approvals in two to three months, then the skeptics are more likely to come forward.”

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with a group of young undocumented immigrants in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The five immigrants, known as “dreamers,” who meet with the president have received protections from deportation under a program Obama implemented in 2012. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Democrats Could Uphold Obama Veto Of Pipeline Legislation, Schumer Says

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If Republicans push through Congress a measure approving the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline, Democrats would have the votes to uphold a presidential veto, a top Senate Democrat said Sunday.

Republican leaders say that when lawmakers return to Congress this week, a bill approving Keystone, which has support of most Republicans and some Democrats, will be an early priority.

But Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said President Barack Obama should not sign a bill approving the pipeline. If he does, Schumer said, the pipeline’s supporters in Congress won’t be able to get enough votes to override a veto.

Obama should reject the pipeline even if Congress approves amendments making it more palatable to opponents, such as a requirement that all the oil transported by the pipeline stay in the U.S., Schumer said.

“You know our Republican colleagues are doing what they always do: They’re appeasing a few special interests, in this case oil companies and pipeline companies, and not really doing what’s good for the average middle class family in terms of creating jobs,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

The planned 1,179-mile pipeline, intended to transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, has become a symbolic issue for both sides: Environmentalists say it will worsen global warming, while backers say the project will provide jobs.

Obama has not said whether he would veto Keystone legislation. But his public statements about the proposed pipeline have become increasingly skeptical over the past year. He has noted that the project would have little positive economic impact – the pipeline won’t require many workers to operate once it’s built – and has stressed the potential environmental problems.

Overriding a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. Republicans have majorities in both the House and Senate, but their numbers fall considerably short of that mark.

Polls show that overall the public supports building the pipeline by nearly two to one, but support has declined over the last year. The decline has been particularly sharp among Democrats, who are now evenly divided on the issue, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Several Republican leaders, including the incoming Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said on Sunday that passing the Keystone project will be a top priority, in part because the pipeline has some bipartisan support.

“We’re going to find out whether or not there are moderate Democrats in the Senate,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD) speaking on Fox News Sunday. “The question is, can we get to 67 if the president decides to veto it? And I think that’s a good question.”

One Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, said she believes that Obama, not Congress, should decide whether to approve the pipeline. But she said it’s time that Obama made up his mind.

“I think the president needs to make a decision,” she said. “A lot of us are frustrated it has taken this long.”

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad

Jeb Bush Quits Firm That Profited From Obamacare

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — When Jeb Bush completed two terms as governor of Florida in 2007, he reported his net worth was $1.3 million, about $700,000 less than when he took office.

Today, nearly eight years later, he is a wealthy man. He has plunged into business and entrepreneurial ventures involving consulting, the paid lecture circuit and energy development. He has developed real estate, advised international investment banks and joined high-paying corporate boards.

But as he considers running for president in 2016, Bush has begun to unwind some of his financial affairs, apparently to avoid the kind of criticism that hobbled fellow Republican Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful candidacy for the White House in 2012.

Bush is quitting Tenet Healthcare Corp., a company that has profited from Obamacare, and is ending a consulting contract with Barclays Bank to focus on his political future. Aides say he also has stopped giving highly-paid speeches to focus on traveling the nation, meeting with potential donors and testing what a friend calls a “visionary” brand of campaigning.

But Bush’s business record, enmeshed in international finance and some troubled former ventures in South Florida, could end up complicating his return to politics and his hopes to follow his father, George H.W. Bush, and his older brother, George W. Bush, into the Oval Office.

Last year, he took a step into the rarefied world of private equity and offshore investments, joining with former banking executives and a Chinese airline company to make bets on natural gas exploration and shipping. One of the funds was set up in the United Kingdom, a structure that allows the company to shield overseas investors from U.S. taxes.

During the 2012 race, Romney was attacked by Democrats for his lucrative work at Bain Capital, a pioneering venture capital company that bought scores of troubled companies, took over their management and sometimes laid off employees while collecting huge fees and payouts.

But Bush and his aides argue that his investments and entrepreneurial ventures are different because he didn’t taking control of companies and restructure them.

“These are all growth investments that the governor has worked on,” said Bush’s spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell.

Bush’s latest undertaking is as a partner in three privately-held funds that have raised a total of $127 million for investments in domestic and foreign companies. Bill Parish, an investment adviser in Portland, Ore., said the funds are fairly small in the private equity world.

But in the heat of a political campaign, Parish said, opaque investment vehicles, especially involving overseas accounts, inevitably will raise questions about the identities of his investors and the nature of their business.

“If he’s smart, he’s going to take care of it and shut them down,” Parish said.

Campbell said the 61-year-old former governor is “reviewing all his engagements and his business commitments” now that he’s begun to focus on a potential race. “That’s a natural next step,” she said.

Born and raised in Texas, Bush moved in 1981 to Miami, where his wife’s family lived, and went to work for a wealthy Cuban-born businessman, Armando Codina. Both had worked on George H.W. Bush’s failed 1980 re-election campaign, and Codina ultimately made the younger Bush a partner in a South Florida real estate development firm.

In 1986, Bush got into politics when he was named Florida’s commerce secretary. He quit in 1988 to help his father, then the vice president, win the White House. In 1994, the younger Bush lost his first race for the governor’s mansion but won four years later and ultimately became Florida’s first two-term Republican governor.

After leaving the governor’s office in 2007, he set up Jeb Bush and Associates, a management consulting firm. His son, Jeb Bush Jr., is managing partner. Bush has said the firm’s clients range from Fortune 500 companies to small tech startups, but Campbell declined to discuss the company’s business, or identify its clients.

That same year, Bush also was hired as an adviser to Lehman Brothers, the New York investment bank and financial services firm. When Lehman collapsed in bankruptcy in 2008 amid the global financial crisis, Bush shifted to Barclays, the London-based multinational banking and financial services giant that bought Lehman Brothers’ North American divisions.

He got involved in a venture that provides disaster response services. He and two partners also set up another company, Maghicle Driverless, that is trying to develop self-driving vehicles for passengers and cargo.

“He was grabbing at a lot of things to make money quickly,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Now Bush has begun to pull back.

Campbell, the Bush spokeswoman, said he will leave Barclays by Dec. 31, to focus on a possible presidential run. She said his work for Lehman Brothers and Barclays was mostly offering clients “his perspective on the impact of economic trends, regulations and policies.”

On Wednesday, Bush also resigned from the board of directors of Tenet Healthcare Corp., effective Dec. 31, according to a corporate filing. The Dallas-based company actively supported the 2010 Affordable Care Act, and its revenue has risen because of it — an issue that could hurt Bush in Republican primaries.

Bush earned cash and stock awards worth nearly $300,000 from Tenet in 2013, according to corporate filings. He also sold Tenet stock worth $1.1 million that year, the records show.

“Mr. Bush is not resigning on account of any disagreement with Tenet,” the company said.

A seat on the board of directors of a Florida-based timberland company, Rayonier, paid him about $200,000 last year, according to the company’s proxy statement.

Some of Bush’s business ventures have gone badly.

In 2007, Bush joined InnoVida, a Miami manufacturer of composite building materials, winning a seat on the board and a $15,000-a-month consulting contract. At the time, company president Claudio Osorio was a big player in Miami’s glitzy social and political world, hosting fundraisers at his Star Island mansion for Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton and in 2008, for then-Sen. Barack Obama.

In March 2010, InnoVida obtained a $10-million federal loan to build homes and a factory in earthquake-wrecked Haiti. But Osorio scammed millions from that loan and from investors, according to a federal indictment filed in Miami.

A Securities and Exchange Commission complaint in 2012 said Osorio had recruited Bush and other high-profile figures to lend “an air of legitimacy” to InnoVida and help him raise money. In 2013, Osorio pleaded guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Bush was paid a total of $468,901 before leaving InnoVida in September 2010. A court-approved settlement agreement in the company’s bankruptcy case says he provided “substantial assistance” to investigations into the company’s finances, and he agreed to pay back $270,000 to the bankruptcy court.

His foray into private equity began last year with three banking industry veterans: Amar Bajpai, formerly of Lehman Brothers; Ross Rodrigues, a former Credit Suisse analyst and hedge fund principal, and David Savett, a former energy trader at Credit Suisse. Details were first reported by Bloomberg News.

Their firm, Britton Hill Holdings, named after the highest point in Florida, raised $40.4 million from investors and put it in Inflection Energy, a Denver-based company that has been investing in hydraulic fracking natural gas wells in the Marcellus shale region in Pennsylvania and New York.

Bush and his partners also set up two other funds.

BH Logistics raised $26 million and invested it in Dorian LPG Ltd., a shipping company incorporated last year in the Marshall Islands to transport propane gas. BH Global Aviation, based in the United Kingdom., raised $60.8 million. That money was invested in Hawker Pacific, an aviation sales and services firm based in Hong Kong that mainly does business in Asia and Australia.

Hawker Pacific has no operations in the United States, and the investment fund was set up overseas to protect the company from having to comply with U.S. business regulations, Campbell said.

Nearly all of the money for Dorian LPG Ltd. and BH Global Aviation came from investors outside the United States, Security and Exchange Commission filings show.

The biggest investor was a Chinese firm called HNA Group, a conglomerate that includes an airline and other businesses. In a press release, HNA said its investment in Dorian was part of a plan to build a distribution network in China to “take advantage of the significant opportunities for growth” in propane.

Al Cardenas, former Republican Party chairman in Florida and a longtime friend of Bush, said he doesn’t think the former governor’s involvement with international finance will hurt his appeal should he run for president.

“I think he’s always been an honest man in business and in politics,” Cardenas said. “He’s comfortable with his actions and what he’s done. All the public wants to know is that you behaved honorably and that you care for them.”

MacManus, the political science professor, isn’t so sure. Some of Bush’s business dealings might draw heat during a campaign, particularly from unbridled outside political groups.

“The thing with investments, there’s always something to criticize,” she said.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Spending Bill’s Campaign Finance Provision Puts More Money In Politics

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — A proposal hammered out in private by congressional negotiators and buried at the end of a massive federal spending bill would dismantle some of the few remaining restrictions on campaign spending, allowing wealthy donors to dramatically increase their contributions to party organizations.

The provision, on page 1,599 of the 1,603-page bill, could mean that donors may give a total of $777,600 each year to various committees organized by the Democratic and Republican parties, including their national committees, according to lawyers who’ve studied the proposal. Now, donors can give $32,400 annually to each committee.

The proposal would make it easier for party organizers to collect big checks in the new era of unrestricted spending set in motion by court rulings such as the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

The parties have had to compete for dollars with outside political groups, which are able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash, sometimes without disclosing its sources.

The bill came as one of dozens of additions to the $1.1-trillion spending package, which Congress must pass by Thursday to avert a government shutdown.

The change was requested by leaders in both parties, including the Democratic National Committee, one Republican aide familiar with the negotiations said.

But the plan has drawn fire from reform advocates and some prominent Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who said it would “drown out the voices of the American people and massively expand the role of big money in our elections.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) defended the plan and the process, saying Wednesday that parties need an easier way to raise money for political conventions to replace the public funding eliminated by Congress this summer.

Boehner also said it wasn’t wrong for Congress to add such important proposals — another one would weaken a key regulation on banks — to a giant end-of-year spending package, a method that sharply limits the opportunities for debate.

“Understand, all these provisions in this bill have been worked out in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion, or they wouldn’t be in the bill,” Boehner said at a news conference.

Added Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel: “If Rep. Pelosi doesn’t think her negotiators did a good job, she should discuss it with them — but sour grapes doesn’t mean she gets to rewrite the deal after the fact.”

The provision would triple the amount that donors could give each year to the party committee, and to other party committees that pay for conventions, new buildings and recounts.

Campaign finance reform advocates were caught off guard by the measure and mounted a furious counterattack, denouncing it as a backroom deal that will increase the flood of big checks that fund campaigns.

“The numbers here are just outrageous,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, saying that the law, because of its complexity, will also be a boon to lobbyists and political fundraisers.

“Who do they turn to to help interpret what’s going on? They’ll turn to the K Street folks,” she said, using Washington shorthand for lobbying companies.

She said the bill would probably draw support from politicians in both parties, who are “scared to death” by the rise of nonprofit political groups not under their control.

Fred Wertheimer, an advocate for more controls on money in campaigns, called on President Barack Obama to veto the spending bill if it contains the campaign funding item. Wertheimer called it one of “the most destructive and corrupting campaign finance provisions ever enacted by Congress.”

He denounced Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for signing off on the package.

“It is very hard to fathom just whom Sen. Reid thought he was representing,” Wertheimer said in a statement.

Ending campaign finance restrictions has been a cherished cause for the incoming Senate majority leader, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He pushed a measure last week that would have allowed party groups to directly coordinate with candidates and their campaigns, but the plan died, and a spokesman said McConnell had nothing to do with the current plan.

Jan Baran, a Washington election lawyer who represents Republicans, called the bill “a good start toward restoring some party funding.”

But he said it still carried too many restrictions, because most of the extra money can be used only for limited purposes.

He said it was unlikely to diminish the appeal of donating to outside groups, which aren’t tied down by such rules.

“It’s not a terribly appealing proposition for a donor — ‘Won’t you give us money to help fund our recount?'” Baran said.
___
(Tribune Washington Bureau staff writers Michael A. Memoli and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.)

Photo: dpmshap via Flickr

Democrats Lost The Big-Money Game In Midterm Elections

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Facing tough midterm elections, Democrats put aside some of their remaining scruples about the new age of unlimited campaign spending and courted unions and hedge-fund billionaires for big checks to try to salvage a Senate majority.

They spent a lot of money. But not enough.

This year, in a reversal of 2012, the big-money Democratic donors watched their investments return little on election night Tuesday. Although Republicans outspent them overall, Democrats got beaten even in states like Colorado and North Carolina where they spent the same or even a little more than Republicans.

“We just saw a national tsunami,” said Ty Matsdorf, an adviser to the Senate Majority PAC, which spent about $50 million across the country in a mostly futile effort to keep Democrats in office.

“I don’t think there’s anything more we should have done,” Matsdorf said. “Here’s the truth: Everybody knew this was going to be a hard cycle. Everyone knew we were going to face extremely strong head winds.”

Republican donors credited their success to a number of adjustments they had made since the last election cycle: more say in choosing electable candidates, investment in get-out-the-vote efforts that had been a Democratic advantage, and a late spending push.

The spending in the 2014 midterms showed how the remaining restrictions on campaign spending continue to weaken. More money moved into “SuperPACs” and dark-money nonprofits, where donations are unlimited, and away from candidate accounts that are still subject to strict limits on individual giving and disclosure.

Overall, including spending by candidates and outside groups, Republicans spent about $1.75 billion to Democrats’ $1.64 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group.

But those numbers come with a big asterisk: They don’t include much of the spending by so-called dark-money groups.

Another tracking organization, the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, has traced about $145 million spent in dark money, but the real number is unknown. Dark-money spending overwhelmingly favors Republicans.

In Alaska, outside groups poured $40 million into the Senate race between Mark Begich, the incumbent Democrat, and Republican Dan Sullivan.

The votes are still being counted, but all told, candidates and groups will have spent about $120 per registered voter, more than double the figure in any other state — and more than $250 for every voter who made it to the polls.

Some players in the Republican money establishment say they also learned a lesson from the defeats of the last two elections: no more gaffe-prone, crash-and-burn candidates.

“We were not going to tolerate wacky candidates taking down the whole ticket,” said Andy Abboud, a political adviser to Sheldon Adelson, the casino operator and Republican mega-donor who spent close to $100 million in 2012 and ended up with a string of defeats. “Those candidates were largely discouraged.”

He said Adelson was wary of getting burned again by a candidate like Todd Akin, the former Missouri congressman and Senate candidate who became a national rallying point for Democrats in 2012 when he argued that women rarely became pregnant from a “legitimate rape.”

“All the money in the world cannot fix bad candidates,” Abboud said.

This time around, Adelson was also more skeptical of the pitches made by political consultants, Abboud said.

“We live in Vegas,” Abboud said. “We’re used to people coming here and trying to take our money.”

Adelson wanted to see less money spent on television ads (where consultants get a commission on spending) and more on the tougher work of building effective get-out-the-vote operations, Abboud said, and pressed operatives on what they were doing differently this year.

Adelson gave $5 million in reported spending to the Congressional Leadership Fund, and at least $20 million to two other groups that don’t disclose their donors, including another Rove group, Crossroads GPS, as first reported by Politico.

Abboud wouldn’t say how much Adelson spent overall, except that it was “less than $100 million.”

Republican groups invested heavily in field operations, particularly Americans for Prosperity, the organization supported by the billionaire conservative Koch brothers, which hired about 600 people to knock on doors in competitive states including Colorado, Florida and North Carolina.

Other Democrats said their get-out-the-vote efforts were overrun by a tide that swung toward Republicans in the final week.

Late spending by groups on the right helped to close the deals. American Crossroads, a super PAC that’s part of the political operation built by former Bush adviser Karl Rove American Crossroads, spent about $50 million overall this election, and spent nearly half that — more than $21 million — in key Senate races in October.

Democrats could not counter every Republican money move and had to triage between competitive states.

In Florida, backers of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Gov. Charlie Crist, scrambled to come up with extra donations after incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott put $13 million of his own money into more advertising.

“On the Friday before the election, the campaign fundraisers turned over every rock, mortgaged their children and begged another $500,000 from donors to better compete in Miami,” Jim Margolis, partner at GMMB, an advertising consulting firm that worked for Crist, said in an email.

“Thirty minutes after we bought the time, Scott simply sent over another $500,000 to cover our move. It was like play money to them.”

Now, both sides are already thinking about 2016, a presidential year in which Democrats will be waging Senate campaigns in much friendlier states. The super PAC and outside money wars will almost inevitably escalate.

Although Democrats say they still favor campaign finance reform, there is little chance of that passing the new Senate, expected to be led by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who for years has crusaded for unlimited donations without disclosure.

“Nobody likes the system. We wish campaign finance reform would pass so we could go away,” Matsdorf said. “I think our supporters, Democratic donors, decided you just have to play by the rules as they’re written, not what you want them to be.”

Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr

Border Surge Could Be Windfall For Senate Candidate’s Air Charter Firm

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — As a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New Mexico, retired Marine Col. Allen Weh says it’s time for tougher border security.

As a businessman, Weh stands to benefit from the border crisis. His air charter company, CSI Aviation Inc., is the largest private contractor for ICE Air, the aviation wing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, winning more than $560 million in ICE contracts since 2010.

President Barack Obama is seeking $3.7 billion from Congress to help stem the surge of young immigrants from Central America crossing the Southwest border. The proposal includes $116 million for transportation, and a good portion of that is likely to go to CSI.

Weh’s company is one of many that could profit if Congress approves Obama’s plan. They are at the intersection of the highly charged politics of immigration and the economic realities of government contracting.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which would get $1.8 billion from the plan, is already soliciting proposals for a $350 million contract to provide more shelter space for the children and teenagers.

ICE would get $1.1 billion, including $879 million to add detention facilities for adults with children. About half of ICE detention beds are now provided by private companies, but an ICE spokeswoman said she could not give a breakdown of the proposed new spending.

More than $433 million would go to Customs and Border Protection, including $39 million for added surveillance of smuggling routes and remote stretches of the border by drones. The money would pay for 16 more crews to maintain and fly the agency’s fleet of Predator B drones, and 16,526 additional hours in the air.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., based in Poway, Calif., has won more than $112 million in Border Patrol contracts since 2010 to maintain the drones, train staff, and provide technicians who operate airborne sensors that detect human heat signatures.

About $64 million will go to the Justice Department for more immigration judges and legal programs, an effort to ease the backlog of about 360,000 cases in immigration courts. The money includes $15 million to hire lawyers for the juveniles in court proceedings.

“They’re children,” said Alison Posner, director of advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. “Where are they going to get the money for a retainer to pay an attorney?”

The plan also sets aside $5 million for the State Department to develop bus placards, highway billboards, and radio, and TV spots in Central America aimed at discouraging parents from sending their children north. Contractors normally provide information services.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

He said the surge in immigrants had drained budgets, driving up overtime, detention, and transportation costs. At this rate, he said, ICE will run out of money in mid-August and Customs and Border Protection will do so in mid-September.

If Congress doesn’t approve Obama’s emergency spending request, Johnson warned, “we will have to go to a harsh form of reprogramming that will take money away from some vital Homeland Security programs I am sure members of this committee care a lot about.”

Obama has emphasized that he wants to speed up deportations of some of the 57,000 unaccompanied children and teenagers who have been apprehended at the Southwest border since October. Officials said Thursday that they expected 90,000 minors to arrive by the end of September.

ICE charter flights are likely to boom as a result.

Most of the minors have come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and they “must be flown back to their countries,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told a hearing Wednesday.

Thomas Winkowski, principal deputy assistant secretary of ICE, told the same hearing that his agency had “leased additional charter planes” to fly some of the minors to temporary shelters run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in several states.

Weh’s company has worked for ICE since 2006, and runs flights for ICE Air Operations from 26 cities, with hubs in Mesa, Ariz.; Alexandria, La.; San Antonio; and Miami. Last fiscal year, ICE Air made 2,256 flights to 16 countries, moving 257,000 people — including 189,000 deportations and other removals.

CSI Aviation doesn’t own the aircraft, but charters them from other companies. The Albuquerque-based firm also handles work for other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service, but the deal with ICE is by far its largest federal contract, records show.

Weh, former state Republican chairman in New Mexico, won the GOP primary last month and will face the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Tom Udall, in November.

Weh did not respond to requests for an interview. A CSI Aviation spokeswoman referred questions to ICE. An ICE spokesman, Bryan Cox, said the contract with CSI allowed the agency to obtain planes for its international flight network.

Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Photo: Steve Hillibrand via WikiCommons

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Former Christie Aides Seek To Block Subpoenas In Bridge Inquiry

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau

TRENTON, N.J. — It’s a question that might hold the key to explaining last fall’s traffic jam at the foot of the George Washington Bridge: What came before the now-infamous email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”?

Bridget Kelly, the former aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was in a state courtroom here Tuesday fighting a subpoena from a legislative committee that asked her to turn over more emails and text messages related to the decision last fall to shut off Fort Lee’s local access lanes to the bridge, the busiest in the world. Attorneys for her and Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, say the Fifth Amendment gives them the right to keep those documents to themselves.

Kelly and Stepien, central figures in the bridge controversy, also are under investigation by the FBI, their lawyers said, and turning over those records could place them at risk of incriminating themselves. They argued that the subpoena was overly broad, and required them to cull through their records and determine what might be related to the bridge closures, thus collecting evidence against themselves.

“I’m not saying thumbscrews, they’re not putting us on the rack,” said Kelly’s lawyer, Michael Critchley, holding aloft a copy of Kelly’s “traffic problems” email. “But they are in essence asking us to incriminate ourselves by asking us to turn over these kinds of documents.”

But Reid Schar, attorney for the committee that issued the subpoenas, said that under that argument, “No one’s ever going to be able to get anything.”

“This is not a fishing expedition,” he said. “There are additional emails out there. I’m not guessing, judge, because I’ve seen them.”

Arguing that the requests were not too broad, he said documents show that Kelly and others would start exchanges on their public email addresses but immediately move them to private accounts. “It can’t be that they get to take public information and privatize it,” he said. “It appears that a lot of the communication happened outside the servers of the office of the governor.”

Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson said she would take time to review the case before issuing an opinion. She probed Schar on the legal reasoning for the subpoena but also pressed Critchley: “‘Time for traffic problems in Fort Lee,’ it didn’t come out of thin air,” she said, saying it was a reasonable assumption there would be related emails before that one.

Kelly sent that email in August to David Wildstein, who worked at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and who ordered the road closures. Wildstein’s response was terse: “Got it.”

The closures last September spawned four days of traffic backups in Fort Lee and ongoing investigations by the legislative committee and the U.S. attorney’s office in Newark, N.J. Christie and his aides maintained it was a traffic study, but that story all but collapsed after Kelly’s email brought the scandal into Christie’s office. Christie immediately fired Kelly and Stepien, but the publicity has dented his standing as one of the Republicans most likely to grab the 2016 presidential nomination.

Kelly, looking pale and downcast, didn’t speak to a crush of reporters outside the courthouse steps afterward. Stepien did not attend the hearing, which featured more than two hours of attorney’s arguments but no testimony.

Critchley said Kelly has been enduring a tough time — she’s a single mother and now unemployed — but thought it important to attend the hearing. “She is not running away, living the life of a hermit,” he said.

Photo: Chris Christie via Flickr

Rabbi Is New Mystery Focus Of Chris Christie Team In Bridge Mess

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau

TRENTON, N.J. — In the mysterious political grudge-fest that spawned the George Washington Bridge traffic pileup, a new object of ire has emerged: a New Jersey rabbi.

A newly released version of a text exchange between David Wildstein and Bridget Anne Kelly, two key figures in the bridge scandal, shows them exchanging barbed jokes about Rabbi Mendy Carlebach of the Chabad of North and South Brunswick — and chaplain to the Police Department at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which controls the bridges.

Wildstein, appointed to a Port Authority post by Gov. Chris Christie, texted a picture of Carlebach posing with House Speaker John Boehner to Kelly, then working as Christie’s deputy chief of staff.

“And he has officially pissed me off,” Wildstein wrote, though what the rabbi did to earn that anger isn’t spelled out.

“We cannot cause traffic problems in front of his house, can we?” Kelly wrote.

“Flights to Tel Aviv all mysteriously delayed,” said Wildstein. (The Port Authority also controls the region’s airports.)

Carlebach, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has been around Republican politics for years, and has been a supporter of Christie’s. He gave the invocation at the 2004 Republican convention and also attended the last one, in Tampa, Fla., according to Chabad websites. Christie appointed him to a New Jersey Israel Commission. And Christie, in response to appeals from Carlebach and other rabbis at his annual Hanukkah party, allowed menorahs in state prisons.

Carlebach told reporters that he has no idea what spawned the grudge. “None of it makes any sense,” he told the Record of New Jersey.

The version released Thursday by a state legislative committee investigating the bridge incident contains some previously redacted details — though it does not explain the decision to redirect traffic leading to the bridge for four days in September, creating epic traffic pileups in Fort Lee.

As the controversy was gathering steam, and Patrick Foye, the New York-appointed chairman of the authority, was criticizing the lane closures, Wildstein got an obscenity-punctuated text from Bill Stepien, Christie’s campaign manager: “Who does he think he is, Capt. America?”

“Welcome to our world,” Wildstein replied.

The emails include urgent messages from the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, asking Port Authority officials whether the lane closures were directed against him as political payback for his decision not to endorse Christie.

This version shows that Kelly initiated a snarky text exchange with Wildstein during the traffic jam: “I feel badly about the kids. I guess,” she wrote.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein replied, referring to Barbara Buono, who at the time was Christie’s Democratic opponent.

Kelly and Stepien have refused to provide documents to the legislative committee, citing their constitutional rights against self-incrimination. A judge has set a March 11 hearing in the case.

Bob Jagendorf via Flickr.com

Investigative Committee Reissues Subpoenas In New Jersey Bridge Case

By Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau

TRENTON, N.J. — A new joint investigations committee began its work Monday, seeking to unravel the mystery of who gave the order for the now-notorious traffic jam in September in the lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge.

The new joint committee reissued the 20 subpoenas that another Assembly panel issued earlier this month, many to top officials in the office of Republican Governor Chris Christie and his appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly had started separate investigations before deciding to combine their efforts.

The votes to set up the new committee were unanimous, but that’s where the bipartisan spirit ended. Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, one of four Republicans on the new committee, says he sees no good reason for the investigation — other than to go after Christie.

“There’s been absolutely no credible evidence to support the idea that he was involved,” he said, adding that if there was a crime, federal prosecutors are already on the case; if the goal is reform of the port authority, the authority doesn’t need an expensive investigation. “That would lead to the impression that the direction here is less investigatory than partisan,” he said.

Republicans repeatedly tried to set boundaries on the committee’s activities but were rebuffed by Democrats, who said they never could have guessed last fall that the email trail about the lane closures would have led to Christie’s office, with a message from his now-fired deputy chief of staff: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Lee, said the committee had no plans right now to look into other matters, such as the Hoboken mayor’s allegations that Christie’s top officials used recovery funds from Superstorm Sandy to try to strong-arm her into backing a development deal. But Weinberg wouldn’t rule it out, either.

“We will go wherever those documents take us,” she said. “I’m not going to make any guesses whether it leads us to Hoboken or any other towns in the state of New Jersey.”

The subpoenas ask for documents by February 3.

Other investigations are now probing the same territory.

The U.S. attorney’s office — where Christie made his political reputation as a corruption-fighting prosecutor — has been interviewing witnesses and issuing its own subpoenas. Last week, the law firm of Patton Boggs, hired to represent the Christie for Governor campaign and the New Jersey Republican State Committee, confirmed that the two organizations had also received subpoenas from the U.S. attorney’s office seeking evidence related to the bridge.

As the investigation has widened, other figures in the scandal have also brought high-powered legal talent on board. The chairman of the port authority, David Samson, has hired Michael Chertoff, former Homeland Security chief, and Angelo Genova, a prominent Democratic lawyer in New Jersey who specializes in election law. Christie has hired Randy Mastro, a former federal prosecutor now in the New York office of Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

The state investigative committee hired Reid Schar, a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

AFP Photo/Eric Thayer