Public Advocate Letitia James Introduces Bill to Fight Foreign Influence in NYC Elections

Today, Public Advocate Letitia James introduced a proposed local law that prohibits foreign-influenced entities from spending money in New York City elections.

Foreign interference in local, state and federal elections poses a serious threat to the integrity of our elections. With the Federal Election Commission deadlocked, cities and states are leading the charge to get foreign-influenced corporate money out of our elections. The proposed local law in New York City is modeled on an ordinance in St. Petersburg, Florida that was enacted on January 1, 2018. The local ordinance abolished super PACs and prohibits spending by foreign-influenced corporations in St. Petersburg city elections.

Although federal law prohibits foreign nationals from spending in U.S. elections, the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC swept away longstanding precedent barring corporate money in our political process.  Since that ruling, we’ve witnessed growing amounts of foreign corporate money flowing into our elections. For example, in May 2016, Uber teamed up with fellow ride-hailing service Lyft to drench Austin, Texas, in $9 million worth of election spending in the hope of overturning a city law requiring drivers to submit to fingerprint-based criminal background checks. Then, just weeks later, Uber disclosed an unprecedented $3.5 billion investment from the Saudi Arabian government, meaning that the Kingdom owns more than five percent of the company, along with a seat on its board of directors.

Here in New York, Uber has also been active spending $3.3 million on lobbying at the New York State Legislature from 2013 through 2016 alone. Uber also spent over $1.2 million in the first half of 2017 lobbying to permit ride sharing in upstate New York and Long Island. Airbnb is another major corporate spender in New York that would likely meet the definition of foreign-influenced entity. In October 2016, Airbnb responded to the New York Legislature’s growing interest in regulating the homestay industry by arming a super PAC with $10 million to influence New York’s legislative races.

“We applaud Public Advocate Letitia James for introducing this landmark legislation in the New York City Council,” says John Bonifaz, the Co-Founder and President of Free Speech For People, a national non-profit organization fighting to reclaim our democracy.  “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.”

Free Speech For People, a national non-profit public interest organization founded on the day of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, assisted in drafting the proposed local law being introduced by Public Advocate Letitia James.

“We are proud to be working with Public Advocate James in this historic fight for our democracy,” says Free Speech For People Senior Counsel Shanna Cleveland. “Foreign influence is about much more than hacking, and the Public Advocate’s proposal is a critical step in keeping foreign nationals and foreign influenced corporations from influencing elections by funneling foreign money through secret intermediaries.”

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