FACT Releases Top Ethics Violators of 2020, Gubernatorial Candidate Mike Cooney Tops the List.
Ethics Watchdog Says Lt. Governor Cooney’s repeated violations set him apart
Washington, D.C.—December 15, 2020— The non-partisan ethics watchdog group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), today, released its annual top ethics violators of 2020. This year’s list includes illegal campaigning, conflicts of interest, illegal coordination, and violations of personal disclosure rules. The top violator, however, is failed gubernatorial candidate Lt. Governor Mike Cooney of Montana.
Twice in the past year, Cooney has been the subject of FACT complaints and twice the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices found Cooney guilty of ethics violations. According to FACT’s most recent complaint, in August 2020, Cooney and the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) coordinated on campaign advertising when Cooney released a campaign video and two days later, the DGA released a supporting website. Not only was the subject matter of the advertisements identical and both used the exact same slogan, but the DGA had purchased the domain name for the website a month prior to Cooney releasing his ad. The Commissioner of Political Practices found Cooney guilty of coordinating with the DGA on online advertising, resulting in an illegal in-kind contribution.
Even more egregious, this coordination occurred after Cooney had used his state office to participate in a “campaign strategy” conference call with the DGA in April 2020. As FACT outlined in an earlier complaint, a public official is prohibited from using state facilities for political purposes. This foundational ethics law prevents state officials from abusing taxpayer funded resources—and the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices found Cooney violated it.
“This decision against Lt. Gov. Cooney and the DGA is a victory for transparency and accountability. We expect elected officials to comply with the law and the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices rightly recognized this was a clear violation. This is a serious matter because when candidates illegally coordinate with outside groups they are both breaking campaign finance limits and creating an unfair playing field--all in secret. We hope Cooney and the DGA will receive the proper penalty for violating Montana’s campaign laws so that they, and future campaigns, are deterred from such conduct,” said Kendra Arnold.
FACT’S OTHER TOP ETHICS VIOLATORS OF 2020 INCLUDE:
U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN DONNA SHALALA: Ethics Watchdog Calls for Probe of Top House Democrat on Coronavirus Oversight Commission
In 2020, FACT twice requested the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate Rep. Shalala for failures to disclose financial transactions as required by law. Shalala reportedly sold at least six stocks between November 2018 and November 2019 without reporting the transactions. After the transactions were discovered, in an interview, Shalala claimed she made a “mistake” and missed the filing deadlines. However, FACT pointed out that Shalala’s failure to file her stock trades was not at all a matter of missing a “filing deadline” because a sale had been made well over a year prior. Rather, the facts in this case indicated a deliberate attempt to evade the legal reporting requirements. Ultimately, Shalala was fined for this breach.
Then, FACT filed a second complaint after it was discovered Rep. Shalala failed to disclose multiple stock transactions a second time. This occurrence involved two stock sales that happened in 2019 and 2020, both of which went unreported until July 21, 2020 – nearly a year after the first sale and three months after the second sale – again well past the 45-day deadline for reporting.
U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE SARA GIDEON: Ethics Watchdog Calls for FEC Probe of U.S. Senate Candidate in Maine
In January, Gideon’s campaign updated its website to use a known method for communicating with outside groups on advertising. This unique form of communication involved an “Important Update” icon and a link prominently displayed on the website’s home page. The linked page used coded language to identify the request and the content for the advertisement. A short time later, Majority Forward responded by running the advertisement Gideon requested, after which Gideon removed the “Important Update” link from her website’s home page. Majority Forward reportedly spent $500,000 to run such ads for Gideon, an illegal in-kind contribution if coordinated.
Moreover, in September, FACT called on the FEC to investigate Sara Gideon (Maine) and Senate Majority PAC for a second time. On September 1, the communications director for Sara Gideon’s campaign tweeted that voters in Maine needed “to see and hear” two extremely specific political messages and indicated which media markets they should be aired. The first requested ad was to run throughout Maine telling voters that Sen. Susan Collins voted for tax breaks for prescription drug companies and the other was to be run just in Portland tying Collins to President Trump. Not coincidentally, on the very next day, Senate Majority PAC put both ads on the air matching the content and target markets that Gideon’s communications director suggested on Twitter.
U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE THERESA GREENFIELD: Ethics Watchdog Calls for FEC Investigation of U.S. Senate Candidate and Super PAC
According to FACT, in February 2020, Theresa Greenfield for Iowa updated its website, using the precise format to provide information for an advertisement along with campaign video to be used in it. Just weeks later, Senate Majority PAC released an advertisement containing the information and video from Greenfield’s campaign, reportedly spending over $1 million on distribution. FACT maintains that such coordination between a Senate candidate and super PAC for the purpose of running advertisements is a violation of federal law. Additionally, Senate Majority PAC is prohibited from republishing campaign materials, including photographs and video from a campaign committee, as the action would constitute an illegal in-kind contribution to the committee and respective candidate.
Furthermore, FACT called for a second probe into Theresa Greenfield, her campaign, and Senate Majority PAC for coordinating to gain political advantage. Theresa Greenfield and her campaign apparently accepted another illegal “in-kind contribution.” Greenfield followed a known method by using an “Important Update” page on her website with content readily available for an outside group to quickly create an ad. After the super PAC ran the ad, Greenfield changed her website and deleted this alleged “update.” Additionally, Senate Majority PAC made an illegal contribution to Greenfield’s campaign by republishing Greenfield’s campaign materials, including photographs and video, as a television advertisement.
U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE CAL CUNNINGHAM: Ethics Watchdog Calls for Probe of U.S. Senate Candidate & 501(c)(4) Organization
FACT’s January 2020 complaint filed with the FEC maintained that Cunningham had been using a public Flickr account to illegally coordinate with VoteVets.Org Action Fund, an outside organization that supported his candidacy. On December 20, 2019, the Cunningham campaign uploaded multiple photographs to the aforementioned public Flickr account created that month. Just days later, on December 25, 2019, VoteVets.Org Action Fund began running TV advertisements on broadcast stations across North Carolina supporting Cunningham and emphasizing his service in the military and time as a state senator. The advertisement’s visual content consisted primarily of photographs, including five photos identical to those posted on the Cunningham campaign’s Flickr page. The timing and use of the photos clearly indicated the photos were uploaded by Cal for NC to be used in VoteVets.Org Action Fund’s advertisement. Moreover, the licenses for all the photographs were listed as “All Rights Reserved,” which would have required VoteVets.Org Actions Fund to request permission from the campaign to use the photographs. Furthermore, VoteVets.Org Action Fund and the Cunningham campaign also apparently coordinated online fundraising with both organizations sending simultaneous fundraising solicitations that benefited both organizations collectively through a “contribution split.” These nearly identical fundraising solicitations arrived in inboxes mere minutes apart on December 27, 2019. Additionally, evidence suggested that VoteVets.Org Action Fund repeated the exact same earned media messaging as Cunningham’s campaign website for their own endorsement press release.
FACT filed a second complaint because VoteVets.Org Action Fund violated the law again by running a second television commercial entitled “Answered the Call,” which used photographs and b-roll video provided by Cunningham’s campaign. In this case, the campaign material made up roughly 80 percent of VoteVets.Org Action Fund’s advertisement.
DISHONORABLE MENTIONS: Taking Advantage of the Virus: Reps. Haley Stevens, Susie Lee, and TJ Cox
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE HALEY STEVENS: Ethics Watchdog Calls for Probe of U.S. Representative Haley Stevens
According to FACT, Rep. Stevens sent a fundraising email on March 28, 2020, in which she used a photograph of herself on the House floor and solicited campaign contributions tied to her official actions.The email mentioned Rep. Stevens’ vote in favor of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, then requested a campaign contribution tied to the same subject. FACT maintains the email violates clear House ethics rules prohibiting Members from using government resources and action taken in their official capacity to fund their political campaigns.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE SUSIE LEE: FACT Calls for an Investigation into Rep. Susie Lee of Nevada
On April 7, 2020, Rep. Lee sent a letter to the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration in which she lobbied the federal agencies to expand government aid to gaming companies under the Paycheck Protection Program, which granted forgivable loans to businesses. Lee argued the current regulatory guidelines were “patently contrary to Congressional intent.” On April 28, 2020, the regulatory guidelines were changed as Rep. Lee requested. Two weeks later, Full House, a publicly traded company of which Rep. Lee’s husband is CEO, received two loans totaling $5.6 million. Lee couldn’t be any more directly tied to the company through both her own and her husband’s interests, and she advocated for regulatory changes that would, and in fact did, benefit the company – a clear conflict of interest.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE TJ COX: Ethics Watchdog Calls for Probe into California Congressman, TJ Cox
According to media reports, on July 1, 2020, Yosemite National Park officials denied Congressman Cox’s request for two vehicle passes on July 4, 2020. The request was denied “due to the personal nature of this visit” and the officials suggested he attempt to obtain passes (which were being limited to 340 for the day) through the same procedure the general public is required to follow. The National Park's general policy for when tickets were limited allowed for “tickets to be provided to Members of Congress outside the process available to the public only when the visit is for official purposes.” Rep. Cox then proceeded to schedule a call with the Superintendent on July 2, 2020 and apparently claimed that his visit to the park was for official business. However, the facts, including the video Cox took of himself, indicate his visit was clearly for personal or political purposes.
FACT is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting accountability, ethics, and transparency in government and civic arenas. For more on FACT, visit: http://www.factdc.org/.