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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

May 27, 2016

MORE EMAIL FALLOUT: The release of a critical report on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email practices by U.S. State Department’s inspector general answered some  questions that have lingered since last March, leaves others to linger, and provided a moment to think about what the whole affair can tell us about open government. [Sunlight Foundation]

The report confirmed what Josh Gerstein reported last March: Clinton's choice to use a private server exclusively for public business violated State Department rules and practices, but not laws. As Gerstein reported 14 months later, this matches what records experts and good government groups have argued since the beginning: A Cabinet-level secretary maintaining a private email server was a rare arrangement at odds with long-established procedures and policies for retaining and disclosing email records.

The timeline above traces the evolution of the State Department's records management requirements and practices since 1950 (click the image to enlarge).

While she has apologized for the mistake and disclosed 30,322 email records that the State Department has published online, Clinton has also continued to dispute this conclusion that she'd broken any rules, telling ABC on Thursday, “The report is consistent with what I have been saying, that the use of personal email was a practice by other secretaries of state, and the rules were not clarified until after I had left.” [Wall Street Journal]

IN DATA VERITAS: Sunlight added another 125 new datasets from the Police Data Initiative to our Hall of Justice database, adding them to almost 10,000 other criminal justice data sets from 50 states and the District of Columbia.

"In addition to including Police Data Initiative datasets, we have also updated Hall of Justice with information from other governmental agencies that reached out to us after our launch," wrote Damian Ortellado. "Users can now find datasets from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the inventory, among others. We appreciate feedback and encourage you to contact us with comments, questions or submissions to Hall of Justice. Finally, we’ve corrected several of the links that had broken since we completed our criminal justice research earlier this year."

404 OGE: The arc of openness does not always bend towards increased transparency. In 2012, Sunlight praised the Obama administration for making it easier to access public disclosure forms online. In 2016, the Obama administration has removed conflict of interest reports filed to the Office of Government Ethics by top federal officials from the Internet. Sunlight's John Wonderlich told former Sunlight staffer-turned-data reporter Luke Rosiak that this was a “big step backward,” saying “the administration should be demonstrating how digital disclosure should strengthen our accountability systems" and that "creating barriers to access is the opposite of progress.” [Daily Caller]

 

National

 

 

  • Lauren Harper's digest of news around the Freedom of Information Act continues to be a must-read for transparency advocates and activists. [National Security Archive]
  • At yesterday's DATA Act Summit, White House and Treasury officials and Members of Congress were all guardedly optimistic about the implementation of the DATA Act, although both of the authors of the landmark federal spending law expressed concerned about the law's future. [Fedscoop]
  • The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs passed four bills intended to improve accountability and transparency on Wednesday. [Federal News Radio]
  • The National Archives published a recap of the May inter-agency open government working group.
 

State and Local

 

 

  • Open government advocates and press associations are celebrating after the Massachusetts House and Senate voted unanimously to send the first major reform of the state's public records law in 43 years, sending the bill on to Gov. Charlie Baker's pen. [Boston Globe] [Mass Live]
  • Journalism organizations and consumer are appealing a recent Indiana Supreme Court ruling regarding the disclosure of lawmaker's emails, asking the court to reconsider that decision that they warn could gut the state's public records law. Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, warns that if the judiciary accepts Gov. Mike Pence’s argument about the separation of powers, "it will eviscerate the Access to Public Records Act, hamstringing the public’s ability to hold government officials accountable for their actions." [South Bend Tribune]
  • Flush with a new investment, NY-based startup Seamless Docs is moving into the state and federal sector. [Govtech]
  • The Arizona Capital Times used the Legislative Influence Detector developed by the University of Chicago’s Data Science for Social Good Fellowship program to analyze bill text in Arizona to find "model legislation" that mirrored (or liberally borrowed ideas from) bills in other states. Sunlight's Emily Shaw told the Times that one way to inform the public about the origins of influence of model legislation in their state legislatures is through increased transparency. “The effort to identify model legislation reflects a failure to capture this information through lobbying disclosure,” she said. [AZ Times]
  • The Open Media Foundation has been producing Colorado Channel for eight years, broadcasting every day of the state legislative session state-wide and then archiving them online for on-demand viewing. As Tony Shawcross, executive director of the Open Media Foundation, explained on our blog, the Foundation won a Prototype Grant from the Knight Foundation to add meta data to the videos:
    Through the prototype work, we were able to learn about statistical audio analysis and developed a toolset for identifying speakers in video files. Video files have noise and nonspeech segments removed. The toolset then assigns IDs to speakers and allows users to confirm their identity. This drastically reduces the amount of time required to identify when representatives speak in the files. While rudimentary, the toolkit is open source and publicly available. We are excited by the potential of this work both in and out of the civic sector.OMF synthesized our bill timestamps, the 2015 session speaker timestamps and bill and vote data from the Sunlight Foundation's Open States project to create She Said, He Said (SSHS). SSHS is a prototype app that allows users to search by legislator, bill or address to find related video and voting records. Visitors can see every time their representative spoke on the floor and what they said. [Sunlight]

International

  • "If you want to crack down on corruption, you'll need to crack down on offshore tax havens." It would certainly help. [Washington Post]
  • On that count, while it's not clear yet whether 2016 will be "the year for open government" – I think we may have hit "peak open" in 2013 — it could be the year that the worm turning on public registries of beneficial ownership. [Open Government Partnership]
  • The World Bank has reportedly "decimated" its capacity to support Freedom of Information initiatives, cutting three veteran staff this spring without replacing them. In doing so, the Bank is sending a worrying message about its commitment to a pillar of good governance and democratic accountability around the world, signaling to governments that enacting or reforms such laws is not a priority for the lending institution.Other "open" initiatives endure: Toby McIntosh writes that "the subjects of open contracting, open data, tax evasion and flows of funds seem to still be staffed, but work on FOI, extractive industry transparency, parliamentary strengthening and citizen engagement may suffer. A Bank spokeswoman told McIntosh that “there is some reorganizing going on to ensure that our global and local work is more integrated. Our commitment to transparency and access to information is unwavering.” [FreedomInfo]
 

EVENTS

 

 

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We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

May 26, 2016

The release of a critical report by the U.S. State Department’s inspector general on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email practices answers questions that have lingered since last March, raises new ones and creates a moment to reaffirm our expectations for accountability from public servants and their staff.

The former secretary of state's contention that she complied with the law evades the broader issue: She relied exclusively on a private, unaccountable email system that shielded public records from internal and external scrutiny, disregarded internal efforts that should have led to a change in that system, and then made a series of decisions that created much more difficulty for investigators auditing the systems to assess security or classification issues.

Unfortunately, Clinton’s arrangement, instead of protecting the public trust, seems designed to do the opposite — shield information from any potential public view.

Electronic records are getting harder to manage, but government security rules, regulations and laws exist for a reason. While compliance with them can be time-consuming, no official should be above the law. Proper records management empowers public oversight, and setting up a parallel email system allowed Clinton to evade the Freedom of Information Act, congressional oversight and the reach of inspectors general — all of which play a critical role holding agencies accountable.

Since Clinton left office without turning over her email records to the State Department, it has become extremely difficult to determine which records were governmental and which were not. Allowing a full, independent legal review of a cabinet secretary’s email account (covering both personal correspondence and official business) would have been an extraordinary concession for Clinton to make — but so was using a private email server exclusively for government business.

Gaps in the email trove turned over to the Department of State also drive home how problematic it was for Clinton’s private lawyers to review records to determine what was public business or not. Given that emails with government business have been found that were not turned over, public trust in that process is understandably shaken.

(Photo credit: Barbara Kinney for Hillary for America/Flickr)

In addition to the concerns about email practices and retention, the inspector general report raises questions about the security of the systems used to transmit data. The apparent disregard for internal checks and balances regarding securing legal authority or security assurance is far short of what we should expect of political appointees and their staffs. We expect government officials to respect security warnings when transmitting sensitive data. If legal and IT practices are in question, the agency and its leadership have a responsibility to address those and work together to develop secure mobile options for those who need them.

The report also indicates that Clinton’s former staff did not fully cooperate with investigators. The public should not have to expect the Department of Justice or a federal judge to compel executive branch secretaries to explain how they used personal email or detail how they protect and secure confidential diplomatic communications.

This occurred all at a time when the State Department is dealing with a huge FOIA caseload; vetting and disclosing the former secretary’s email has pulled in resources that could have been diverted elsewhere.

Shortly after Clinton left office, the State Department took significant steps to reform its records management policies, explicitly governing the use of personal email addresses. Congress passed the Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014, further codifying the requirement governmentwide. The National Archives has also issued guidance on email management across the U.S. government.

This report shows how important it is to have a functional inspector general. If Clinton had named a State Department inspector general, instead of leaving the position vacant for four years, this report could have been delivered in 2010 and allowed for a course correction, prevented a scandal, and permitted public oversight to function as designed. Thankfully, the State Department has now appointed an inspector general — the one who issued this report — a role that had been vacant during her tenure. (Regrettably, far too many other agencies do not have an inspector general today.)

Regardless of what the FBI finds, we now know more about how a major federal agency failed to prevent an ongoing shadow system for communication from its head.

As Clinton has acknowledged, she and her staff should never have set up this system nor should the agency have tolerated the arrangement. Conducting public business on a private server that was not properly secured, without ongoing testing, and proactive archiving with department staff was at best a bad decision. At worst, it represented a deliberate choice that avoided transparency and risked the security of sensitive materials.

The points outlined in the report illustrate choices that should inform not only how future executive branch secretaries and their staffs address internal practices around the use of communications technology in government, but how state and local government officials use it as well. Public trust in government is already at historic lows. We can and should expect public servants to proactively manage their records effectively, securely and transparently.

May 26, 2016

Screen of Hall of Justice website by Sunlight Foundation

Last month, the White House revealed new commitments to help improve open police data from over a dozen private, government and nonprofit groups. As a nonpartisan proponent of open data at all levels of government, the Sunlight Foundation was excited to be part of this contingent. As such, we committed to incorporate all datasets released through the Police Data Initiative into our inventory of criminal justice datasets, Hall of Justice.

Today, we are pleased to announce that Hall of Justice now includes 125 additional datasets made available to the public through the Police Data Initiative. These datasets are searchable alongside nearly 10,000 other criminal justice datasets from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Just search “White House Police Data Initiative” and you can browse through the data yourself, which include statistics on incidents such as officer-involved shootings, use-of-force reports and more from 26 agencies participating in the initiative.

Users can also learn more about these datasets through the Police Foundation’s Open Data Safety Portal, which is exclusively dedicated to contextualizing datasets released through the initiative.

But is there more, you ask? Why yes, there is!

In addition to including Police Data Initiative datasets, we have also updated Hall of Justice with information from other governmental agencies that reached out to us after our launch. Users can now find datasets from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the inventory, among others. We appreciate feedback and encourage you to contact us with comments, questions or submissions to Hall of Justice. Finally, we’ve corrected several of the links that had broken since we completed our criminal justice research earlier this year.

If you enjoy our work on this project, please consider donating to the Sunlight Foundation’s efforts towards making government more accountable and transparent.

May 26, 2016

Tony Shawcross
Tony Shawcross, executive director of the Open Media Foundation.

It's hard to evaluate the effectiveness of our representatives. This is never more true than at the state level. Their work is often done out of the public's view and legislation is written in frustratingly complex language. The end result is a massive barrier to civic engagement. Most people don't even know who their representatives are, let alone, their voting record.

In Colorado, the Open Media Foundation (OMF) is striving to overcome the barriers that prevent people from following their representative's daily work. We have operated the Colorado Channel for the last eight years, attempting to not only to increase the transparency of our capital, but to build literacy in the legislative process overall.

Every day during the Colorado state legislative session, OMF produces a live broadcast aired throughout the state. These sessions are archived – which dates back to 2008 – and available on demand online. The website features a live agenda stamping tool that allows broadcasters to label events like bill readings or votes. Users may then jump between these events in any session.

These tools were so successful for the Colorado state legislature that OMF abstracted them into a software as a service product, the Open Media Project for Governments. OMF now has many Colorado municipal governments and several out of state governmental entities leveraging the service.

"She Said, He Said" is a prototype app that allows users to search by legislator, bill or address to find related video and voting records.

For the Open Media Project for Governments, OMF has leveraged YouTube's live transcription service to make these sessions searchable by keyword. From topics such as gun rights to the legalization of marijuana, the archives may be searched and recordings found where key decisions were made. The search is performed on speech that is often in simpler terms than the complex titles of bills. The archive and searchable transcripts are a huge step forward in connecting constituents to their representatives.

During the 2015 legislative session, we realized that despite the versatility and exhaustiveness of the session archive, it was still difficult to separate meaningful content from the daily monotony. Connecting who was speaking in a clip to other metadata like bill and subject area, seemed like a great avenue to approach. Listing the times a legislator spoke and on what topic would provide a simple entry point.

Going forward it would be simple to add this metadata as the session was recorded. "Senator X spoke about bill Y that day." The real challenge was finding a way to add this metadata to the robust archive of video the Colorado Channel team had already collected.

The team decided to explore innovative and experimental approaches to make this resource more accessible. Nascent advances in speaker recognition bore some hope for identifying speakers. Unfortunately, nobody on the team was an audio expert or statistician. But we were fortunate enough to win a Prototype Grant from the Knight Foundation to explore this area.

Through the prototype work, we were able to learn about statistical audio analysis and developed a toolset for identifying speakers in video files. Video files have noise and nonspeech segments removed. The toolset then assigns IDs to speakers and allows users to confirm their identity. This drastically reduces the amount of time required to identify when representatives speak in the files. While rudimentary, the toolkit is open source and publicly available. We are excited by the potential of this work both in and out of the civic sector.

OMF synthesized our bill timestamps, the 2015 session speaker timestamps and bill and vote data from the Sunlight Foundation's Open States project to create She Said, He Said (SSHS). SSHS is a prototype app that allows users to search by legislator, bill or address to find related video and voting records. Visitors can see every time their representative spoke on the floor and what they said.

OMF is still in the process of evaluating the future of SSHS, but we plan on integrating the SSHS toolset into the Colorado Channel and OMP for Government workflows. Through Google and custom analytics, we hope to evaluate the usefulness of this extra metadata in improving overall transparency.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at [email protected]

May 26, 2016

DISCLOSE: A new Senate bill would mandate the presidential nominee of major parties to disclose their tax returns. The Sunlight Foundation called on Congress two weeks ago to pass such a bill into law.

86 NYC LLCs? Eight different bills outlined by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would treat limited liability companies (LLCs) like traditional corporations when it comes to campaign contributions. If enacted, the bill would close New York state's infamous "LLC loophole".

PROGRESS! The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee unanimously voted to pass the OPEN Government Data Act, signaling broad bipartisan support for the landmark open data bill. We and our allies hope the full Senate takes it up and passes it soon -- and that the U.S. House does, too.

FEC IMPASSE: A troubling campaign finance issue -- political coercion -- was dropped at the Federal Election Commission without the regulator even opening an investigation. As Yeager notes, three commissioners were sharply critical of the decision. The others have yet to issue a statement.

National

  • Journalist Patrick Gavin sat down with Sunlight's executive director, John Wonderlich, to get a "primer about governmental transparency and the current state of things." They talk first about the Obama administration's record on open government and then transparency in Washington more broadly. You can watch both interviews in the videos embedded below.
  • Speaking of transparency, former New York Times public editor-turned-Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan took the Obama administration to task in her newest column. In addition to secrecy over the use of drones, poor compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and prosecution of whistleblowers, Sullivan calls attention to a measure of accountability that doesn't get enough attention: how much the President of the United States sits down with the beat reporters who cover his administration day in and day out:
    Remarkably, Post news reporters haven’t been able to interview the president since late 2009. Think about that. The Post is, after all, perhaps the leading news outlet on national government and politics, with no in-depth, on-the-record access to the president of the United States for almost all of his two terms. I couldn’t get anyone in the White House press office to address this, despite repeated attempts by phone and email — which possibly proves my point." [Washington Post]
  • Good government groups -- including Sunlight -- are calling on President Obama to deliver the transparency he promised. [OtherWords.org]

  • A new GAO report on federal information technology found federal agencies still using 8-inch floppy disks for nuclear command software, running the Treasury Department's "individual master file" and "master business file" as assembly language code on an IBM mainframe, and that the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Treasury and Commerce all  "reported using 1980s and 1990s Microsoft operating systems that stopped being supported by the vendor more than a decade ago." The GAO also reported that the Social Security Administration is rehiring retired employees to maintain systems that run on use COBOL. Modernization can't come to these systems quickly enough. [CNBC]

  • The Chronicle for Higher Education relaunched its Title IX sexual assault investigations, which uses records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act to create some technology-infused transparency on an issue neither the colleges nor the government are proactively disclosing open data around. [Chronicle]
  • Speaking of open data, Tyler Dukes used open influence data to show readers more information about every sitting lawmaker in North Carolina. [WRAL]
  • Apparently Congress is dealing with many "impactful issues" right now. [Christian Science Monitor]
  • Good news: Cornell is going to host the Oyez Project, keeping audio of Supreme Court hearings free to the public online. [National Law Journal]
  • Crafting a national water policy to ensure communities across the country have clean, safe drinking water is…not one of them. [Politico]
  • Open question: What value does the U.S. Patent Office's new open data portal provide the public that Data.gov and Google's patent engine do not? Gray Achiu, a government contractor who works on open data at the Patent Office, shared some thoughts on Twitter.

State and Local

  • OpenGov Foundation director Seamus Kraft encouraged the country to "turn democracy up to eleven, asserting that " you have more leverage over government outcomes now than at any time in American history." Spinal Tap, meet civics. [OpenGov Foundation]
  • Speaking of democracy, the people most affected by new photo ID laws at the ballot box are elderly citizens, African Americans, Hispanics and low-income residents -- and it's not as easy to get a photo ID as many people think. [Washington Post]
  • West Virginia's recent state supreme court election was flooded with money from outside of the state. [Southern Studies]
  • State regulators and watchdogs are objecting to potential changes that would reduce disclosure requirements by nonprofits. [Nonprofit Quarterly]
  • A U.S. House bill that would change these disclosure requirements is setting off alarm bells among people who use Form 990s to detect nonprofit fraud. [WSJ]
  • Governments are using more algorithms to make important decisions about citizens every month, raising critical questions of bias and assumptions in the data and the code. [Govtech]
  • Boston hired Andrew Therriault, the former director of data science for the Democratic National Committee, as its first chief data officer. [CityOfBoston.gov]
  • Lawrence Grodeska blogged about what's happening with San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation's 2016 Startup in Residence Program. [Medium]
  • A multinational business owned by Toshiba is demanding that MuckRock remove documents about them disclosed through a FOIA request. "We believe that these legal threats are a chilling attack on free speech and we will not be complying with their demands," says founder Michael Morisy, a former grantee of Sunlight. [MuckRock]

International

  • How can open data and journalism beat corruption? As always, by following the money -- and hoping that government institutions and law enforcement agencies that they inform are responsive, effective and aren't corrupt themselves. [GIJN]
  • The Web Foundation is teaming up with All Voices Count to foster open data in cities in Indonesia. [Web Foundation]
  • It's Information Awareness Month in Australia. [Futureproof Records]
  • Seoul, Korea appears to be publishing open government data on Github. [Github]

EVENTS

The DATA Act Summit is taking place today in DC, and your faithful correspondent will be there. Come find me!

Tired of your boss/friend/intern/uncle forwarding you this email every morning? You can sign up here and have it delivered direct to your inbox!

We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

May 26, 2016

(Image credit: Sunlight Foundation)

Sunlight is thrilled that the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed the OPEN Government Data Act by a unanimous voice vote yesterday. We hope that the full Senate takes up and passes the legislation soon, and that the House moves the identical companion bill, H.R. 5051, forward soon as well. This legislation would codify an expectation into law that the Sunlight Foundation has been advocating for since we were founded a decade ago: Public data created with taxpayer dollars should be available to the public in open, machine-readable forms when doing so does not damage privacy or national security.

We're not alone. Sunlight stands with trade groups, transparency advocates and industry in endorsing the OPEN Government Data Act, including the Data Coalition, Center for Data Innovation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Taxpayers for Common Sense and BSA/The Software Alliance.

"I'm pleased that this bipartisan open data bill is heading to the Senate floor,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “In the age of Uber, data isn’t an abstraction and Washington needs to understand that innovation moves at the speed of information. Taxpayers are already paying for this data — let’s ensure that it is accessible and transparent.”

Making government data available to the public is not a new idea, nor a new practice in the federal government. The principle behind open data goes back to our nation's founding, when the Constitutional Convention made the U.S. Census Bureau a core part of how we understand ourselves. Today, census data is used by journalists, businesses, academics and millions of American to know who we are, where we live and how we are changing. In the 19th century, our military and scientific agencies collected and published data about the winds, currents and weather, enhancing both commerce and our growing understanding of the natural world.

In the 21st century, federal government agencies collect extraordinary amounts of data about every sector of our economy, from energy to labor to education to finance to campaign finance to foreign influence to the environment. Other data, collected and disclosed by regulators, can protect both consumers and the public interest. Administrative and performance data, when it's machine readable, can provide critical insight to policymakers about the efficacy of programs, the evidence that advocates need for reform, and the documentation that auditors want to reduce waste and fraud.

Far too often, that data has sat locked up in file cabinets or servers, hidden in proprietary documents or legacy systems that were never designed to export the statistics workers accumulated, much less hold up under the demand of search engines and the interest of curious citizens online. The OPEN Government Data Act is an important step toward making our government of the people, for the people, more open and accountable to the people. We're thrilled to see that so many senators agree and urge their colleagues to join them.

“When data is truly open and accessible, we can grow our data-driven economy and give the public more information about how their tax dollars are being spent,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “Government should help spur innovation, not slow it down. This is about accountability and transparency and making sure that we empower individuals and the private sector by giving them the information they need.”

May 25, 2016

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. (Photo credit: JD Lasica/Flickr)

A bill introduced in the Senate today would require presidential nominees to release three years of tax returns.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced the Presidential Tax Transparency Act today, saying in a statement: “Since the days of Watergate, the American people have had an expectation that nominees to be the leader of the free world not hide their finances and personal tax returns.” Wyden is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee which has jurisdiction over matters involving tax policy.

The bill, which you can read here, was introduced as a stand-alone measure, but a spokeswoman for Wyden told The New York Times that it would also be “put forward as an amendment to the annual military policy bill to increase its chances of getting a vote.”

A recent poll from The New York Times and CBS News showed a strong majority of registered voters think it is necessary for presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns.

The Sunlight Foundation recently called on Congress to pass such a bill:

Just as presidential candidates are required to submit personal financial disclosure forms to the Federal Election Commission, they could be required to submit their tax returns for public review. An orderly, enforceable, rule-based process would let us skip the drama and doubts, and ensure access to what we already expect of our candidates: a reasonably clear view into their financial lives.

Although all candidates over the past 40 years have voluntarily released some tax returns, they have not been required to do so. And some have released fewer than the three years that would be required by this bill: Mitt Romney and John McCain both released only two years of returns in their presidential campaigns. Donald Trump’s refusal to release any of his returns would make him the first major party nominee since 1976 not to release tax returns.

May 25, 2016

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Photo credit: Diana Robinson/Flickr)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants limited liability companies (LLCs) in his state to be treated as traditional corporations — at least in terms of campaign contributions. In a May 24 press release, the governor outlined eight different bills that would potentially eliminate the loopholes allowing LLCs to donate millions to campaigns in an effort to circumvent traditional disclosure requirements.

"Pass all of them, or as many as you’d like, but at a minimum, pass the one impacting anyone running for the office of the governor,” said Cuomo in the statement. “I will go first – pass it and I will sign it into law today."

New York state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, called the bill a "red herring," arguing that the campaign finance conundrum requires a more comprehensive approach that includes attention to enforcement issues.

We’ve written before about how transparency for LLCs varies substantially from state to state. In the case of New York, OpenCorporates’ report card on corporate data openness notes that the state fails to publish any information about directors or shareholders for companies registered in the state.

Transparency advocates have tried to close New York’s LLC loophole through the courts – unfortunately, to no avail.

Meanwhile, both Maryland and the District of Columbia have successfully worked toward closing the LLC loophole in campaign finance that allows anonymous donors to set up a company for the purpose of contributing to super PACs.

As we’ve explored in our study of Delaware LLC registration law, these insufficiently identified vehicles — or “shell-LCs,” as we think of them here — are particularly dangerous for their lack of transparency in campaign donations. These bills would help shine a light on who's really behind the money trying to influence elections in the Empire State.