Leading Constitutional Lawyers Back Bill to Close Loophole Allowing Foreign Contributions to NYC Political Campaigns

In a press release issued today by New York Public Advocate Letitia James, it was announced that Federal Election Commission Vice-Chair, Ellen Weintraub, and Harvard Law Professors, Charles Fried and Laurence Tribe, have submitted letters to the New York City Council in support of legislation introduced by PA James on August 8, 2018, to end foreign corporate money in New York City elections. Free Speech For People worked closely with the NY public advocate’s office in drafting this legislation.

Public Advocate James’ legislation to prevent foreign money influencing New York City elections got a boost of support today from top legal experts Introduced in the wake of substantial new evidence of a coordinated Kremlin effort to illegally funnel money through the NRA to benefit Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, the bill will help ensure that New York City elections are free from corrupt foreign influence.

Supporters include former Solicitor General and former Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Professor Charles Fried; Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard University and Harvard Law School Laurence H. Tribe; and Vice Chair of the Federal Election Commission, Ellen Weintraub.

“While Citizens United v. FEC made clear that this principle extended to independent expenditures by corporate entities as well, nowhere has there been any intimation that this ruling undermined the principle that foreign intervention in American elections is abhorrent and forbidden,” said Professor Charles Fried in his letter to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Chairman Fernando Cabrera of the Committee on Governmental Operations.

“I consider this bill to be a valuable tool for protecting and preserving the integrity of local elections, including New York City’s, from the threat to the American ideal of self-government posed by foreign-influenced political spending,” Professor Laurence Tribe wrote in his letter.

“This proposal will make New York City a leader in the United States’ so-far halting efforts to respond to the corporate and foreign money flowing into our elections since the 2010 Citizens United decision,” wrote Ellen Weintraub, Vice Chair of the Federal Election Commission.

“At a time when concerns about foreign influence in our elections have never been higher, it is imperative that New York City take the necessary measures to protect our elections from foreign influence,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “Closing this loophole created by Citizens United does not just protect New York City’s campaign finance system, it is also an important step in developing a national model that other levels of government, especially the federal government, should follow. I thank Professor Fried, Professor Tribe, and Vice Chair Weintraub for recognizing the importance of this issue.”

“With this bill, New York City has the opportunity to help lead the way in banning foreign corporate money in our elections. A vote for this bill will be a vote for the basic principles of American self-government,” says John Bonifaz, the Co-Founder and President of Free Speech For People, a national non-profit organization fighting to reclaim our democracy which worked closely with the Public Advocate’s Office in drafting this legislation.

New York City’s campaign finance laws are already a national model, but Citizens United created a loophole through which the longstanding ban on foreign spending in elections can be circumvented when corporations give money to a political action committee for independent expenditures. Given New York City’s position as the world’s capital of finance and, in many cases, real estate as a safe investment for wealthy investors from unstable countries, this loophole creates an unacceptable risk of foreign influence in city elections through the corporate form.

In order to protect the integrity of New York City elections, the bill would strengthen the existing prohibition on direct foreign and corporate campaign contributions by extending the ban to American corporations under substantial foreign ownership or control.

Under longstanding federal law, foreign governments, companies, and individuals are expressly prohibited from making direct contributions to any local, state, or national political candidate in the United States. New York City, long a national leader on campaign finance reform, also strictly limits individual contributions and prohibits entirely direct corporate donations to candidates running for local office. However, Citizens United created a gaping loophole in not just federal law, but in state and local laws across the country. Foreign individuals and entities can simply buy stakes in American companies and then use the corporate treasury to spend an unlimited amount of money on independent expenditures, which is permitted as a result of the ruling in Citizens United. This bill will close that loophole by extending the prohibition to not just foreign entities but those entities under substantial foreign influence or control.

Photo: By Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

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