Judge: Prosecutors violated law in dealings with Jeffrey Epstein victims

A judge ruled on Thursday that federal prosecutors broke the law by failing to keep victims adequately informed about a plea deal that Jeffrey Epstein, a prominent financier, cut to avoid federal prosecution for sexual encounters with numerous underage girls.

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta was the U.S. attorney for Southern Florida at the time the agreement was negotiated more than a decade ago. The Justice Department’s internal watchdog for attorney misconduct announced earlier this month that it had opened an investigation into the government’s conduct in the case.

U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra said Thursday that prosecutors violated the Crime Victims Rights Act by failing to notify victims before signing off on the arrangement, under which federal prosecutors promised not to prosecute Epstein in federal court if he pleaded guilty to a pair of prostitution-related offenses in a Florida state court.

“Petitioners and the other victims should have been notified of the Government’s intention to take that course of action before it bound itself under the NPA,” or non-prosecution agreement, Marra wrote.

Marra singed federal prosecutors for not only hiding the agreement from the victims but also actively misleading them about the state of the case.

“Particularly problematic was the Government’s decision to conceal the existence of the NPA and mislead the victims to believe that federal prosecution was still a possibility,” the judge wrote.

“When the Government gives information to victims, it cannot be misleading. While the Government spent untold hours negotiating the terms and implications of the NPA with Epstein’s attorneys, scant information was shared with victims. Instead, the victims were told to be ‘patient’ while the investigation proceeded.”

Evidence in the case showed that for years Epstein dispatched aides and associates to find teenage girls, many of them underage, to visit his Palm Beach home for “massages” that often involved sex acts. Epstein wound up with an 18-month sentence. He was cut loose five months early, and much of the time he did serve was under lax conditions where he was on work release during the day.

Marra’s 33-page ruling makes numerous mentions of Acosta’s direct involvement in the case, including his face-to-face negotiations with Epstein’s attorneys. Critics of the deal have said federal prosecutors were outmatched by Epstein’s well-connected, high-powered defense team, which included former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.

The Labor Department declined to comment on the judge’s ruling or the specifics of the case.

“For more than a decade, the actions of the office in this case have been defended by the Department of Justice in litigation across three administrations and several attorneys general,” a Labor spokesperson told POLITICO. “The office’s decisions were approved by departmental leadership and followed departmental procedures. This matter remains in litigation and, thus, for any further comment we refer you to the Department of Justice.”

Marra’s decision came in a lawsuit that some of Epstein’s victims filed back in 2008 seeking to have the non-prosecution deal nullified because of the treatment of the victims. In the ruling Thursday, the judge left open the question of what remedy should be imposed for the prosecutors’ legal violation in their handling of the deal.

The basic facts of the case have been established for years, but a Miami Herald report last November, including videotaped interviews with some of Epstein’s victims, drew new attention to the episode and prompted Democratic lawmakers to demand an investigation.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Michael Cohen to testify before Senate Intel panel Tuesday

Michael Cohen is set to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee behind closed doors on Tuesday, a source close to Cohen said, in what will kick off a three-day marathon of Capitol Hill testimony for President Donald Trump’s former attorney and fixer.

Cohen was due to testify before the committee last week, but asked to delay his appearance while he recovers from shoulder surgery. The panel had issued a subpoena to compel Cohen’s highly anticipated testimony as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Spokeswomen for Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and ranking member Mark Warner (D-Va.) declined to comment.

Last week, Burr accused Cohen of stiffing the committee.

“I can assure you that any goodwill that might have existed in the committee with Michael Cohen is now gone,” Burr said.

Cohen’s Tuesday interview with Senate investigators will be his first of three appearances on Capitol Hill next week. On Wednesday, Cohen is set to appear before the House Oversight Committee in a public hearing that is expected to focus on his work forthe president, including the payments made during the 2016 campaign to women who alleged that they had had affairs with Trump. The next day, he is scheduled to attend a closed-door interview with the House Intelligence Committee.

Earlier this week, a federal judge granted Cohen’s request to report to prison two months later than his initial date, citing his medical condition. Cohen, who pleaded guilty to financial crimes and lying to Congress, is set to begin his three-year prison sentence May 6.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Dem chairmen accuse Trump of withholding information on North Korea

Just a week before President Donald Trump is set to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, key Democratic House chairmen accused the president on Thursday of withholding information about his administration’s negotiations with North Korea.

“Our ability to conduct oversight of U.S. policy toward North Korea on behalf of the American people has been inappropriately curtailed by your administration’s unwillingness to share information with Congress,” Reps. Eliot Engel, Adam Smith and Adam Schiff — who chair the foreign affairs, armed services and intelligence panels, respectively — wrote in a letter to the president.

Their letter comes as Trump is preparing to meet for a second time with Kim next week in Vietnam. The lawmakers said the Trump administration has yet to fully brief Congress about the president’s first summit with Kim, which took place last June in Singapore. They demanded that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brief House members about the Vietnam summit within seven days.

“It is unacceptable that the administration is planning for a second meeting with Chairman Kim before Congress has been briefed by Secretary Pompeo on the June 2018 Singapore Summit,” the chairmen said. “There is no legitimate reason for having failed to provide regular, senior-level briefings to the relevant committees of jurisdiction on a matter of such significance to our national security.”

The White House did not immediately respond for comment.

Engel, Smith and Schiff also highlighted Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ recent public statements, which appeared to contradict Trump’s confidence that the Kim regime will fully denuclearize.

Coats testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that North Korea “will seek to retain its [weapons of mass destruction] capabilities, and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.” Senior Pentagon officials have backed up Coats’ assessment, telling lawmakers that full denuclearization was unlikely.

Their statements appeared to undercut Trump’s stated goal of achieving full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — a major priority for the president — and his belief that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the United States.

“We are perplexed and troubled by the growing disconnect between the Intelligence Community’s assessment and your administration’s statements about Kim Jong Un’s actions, commitments, and intentions,” the chairmen wrote, adding: “A summit that amounts to little more than spectacle will further erode the public confidence and the credibility of the United States, an outcome that we all wish to avoid.”

Trump is reportedly considering ousting Coats over the public contradictions, prompting lawmakers from both parties to rally behind the intelligence chief.

The House chairmen also said the administration has not complied with a provision in the defense authorization bill, which requires the Defense secretary to send Congress a report by last October about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Engel, Smith and Schiff said Congress “has still not received the report.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump criticizes Jussie Smollett for allegedly staged attack

President Donald Trump on Thursday criticized “Empire” star Jussie Smollett for making “dangerous comments” after Chicago police accused the actor of orchestrating a fake assault by attackers who he said referenced the president’s campaign slogan as they hurled racial and homophobic epithets.

".@JussieSmollett - what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA" the president tweeted minutes after the Chicago Police Department outlined the the allegations against Smollett in a news conference.

Police on Thursday accused Smollett of concocting an attack in Chicago after sending himself a homophobic and racist letter. Authorities said injuries that Smollett claimed came from the assault were likely self-inflicted.

The "Empire" actor, who is openly gay, had a colleague report the attack on Jan. 29, saying that two masked men put a noose around his neck, covered him in bleach, and yelled homophobic and racial slurs at him. Smollett, during initial investigations of the incident, told authorities that he heard his assailants say "MAGA Country," a reference to the president's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.

Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson on Thursday said Smollett faked the assault because of dissatisfaction with his salary and a desire for more attention.

"This announcement today recognizes that 'Empire' actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career," Johnson said at the news conference.

"Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter that relied on racial, homophobic and political language," Johnson said. "When that didn't work, Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and trash Chicago's reputation through the mud in the process. And why? This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary."

Trump called the attack "horrible," before allegations that Smollett, a vocal critic of the Trump administration, orchestrated it himself.

“I can tell you that it’s horrible. It doesn’t get worse,” the president told reporters in late January.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Manafort’s Virginia sentencing set for March 8

A federal judge on Thursday scheduled Paul Manafort to be sentenced March 8 for financial malfeasance in Virginia. It's one of two court hearings coming up next month that could send the former Trump campaign chairman to prison for the rest of his life.

U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III in a one-page order set out the sentencing plan for the 69-year-old Manafort, whom a jury in Northern Virginia convicted last summer on eight felony counts of bank and tax fraud.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecutors brought the case against Manafort and told Ellis last Friday that federal guidelines call for Manafort to get as long as 24½ years in prison in the Virginia case.

Manafort also awaits a March 13 sentencing date in a separate Mueller-led case in Washington, where he pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and has since been hit with additional charges of lying to federal prosecutors and a grand jury during his cooperation sessions. Mueller’s office must submit to District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson a sentencing memo recommending a length for Manafort’s prison sentence in that case by Friday.

In Virginia, Ellis had scheduled Manafort’s sentencing for early February but the hearing was postponed until attorneys resolved a dispute over the longtime GOP operative’s cooperation testimony. Jackson ruled last week that Manafort had purposefully lied about several important subjects, voiding the plea deal and allowing Mueller to suggest a more stringent sentence.

Both judges are likely to have a say in how Manafort serves his prison time from both the D.C. and Virginia cases. Mueller had agreed in the plea deal to recommend that Manafort serve his D.C. sentence concurrent with his Virginia sentence. But with Jackson’s ruling last week, the special counsel is now free to suggest Manafort serve the sentences consecutively.

Manafort could be spared prison if he were to secure a presidential pardon, though the move would be a controversial one with Democrats in Congress already vowing to investigate any clemency moves tied to the Russia probe. Of a Manafort pardon, President Donald Trump said last November he “wouldn’t take it off the table.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

North Carolina election board says Mark Harris' campaign withheld relevant documents

The fourth day of testimony in a North Carolina hearing on fraud allegations in a contested congressional election from last year's midterms began on a contentious note Thursday when state officials said Republican Mark Harris' campaign attorney withheld documents relevant to the investigation.

State board lawyer John Lawson said Harris' campaign attorney turned over documents late Wednesday night, a day before Harris was set to take the stand. The records in question should have been turned over earlier under a subpoena sent to the campaign committee, the board said.

Harris' campaign attorney, John Branch, said he mistakenly believed the documents did not fall under the subpoena.

"I'm here to own that," Branch said, adding that he did not think to ask Harris' campaign manager or other campaign employees paid by the consulting firm Red Dome Group to turn over records.

The revelation drew the ire of the election board chairman, Bob Cordle, who called Branch's actions "unacceptable."

Marc Elias, the attorney for Democrat Dan McCready, requested an "adverse inference" from the board, but barring that, he said, the board should subpoena Harris' campaign manager and other employees whose records were not searched under the original subpoena.

“I’m hearing a lot of parsing about what records were searched and what records weren’t searched,” Elias said. "We're going to have to expand our witness list."

The twist is the latest turn in an ongoing saga in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, which has left constituents without a representative in Washington for months. Following the vote count, Harris led McCready by fewer than a thousand votes, but the election board refused to certify the results, instead launching an investigation into allegations of fraud against Leslie McCrae Dowless, a political operative paid by the Harris campaign.

Harris began his testimony Thursday morning.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Jim Jordan: Michael Cohen’s testimony a ‘charade’ to begin impeaching Trump

The top Republican on the House Oversight Committee said Michael Cohen’s appearance before the panel next week will be “Phase One of the Democrats’ coordinated campaign” to impeach President Donald Trump, accusing Democrats of orchestrating a “charade” meant to embarrass the president.

“Giving a platform to Mr. Cohen is beneath the dignity of the Congress and I am saddened that Democrats have sunk so low as to promote an admitted liar just to satisfy Tom Steyer and the political forces on the left who will settle for nothing less than impeachment,” Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said in a statement Thursday, referring to the billionaire liberal donor who is pushing House Democrats to start impeachment proceedings.

“This charade is an affront to our committee's constitutional obligations,” Jordan added.

The Trump ally came out swinging a day after Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) announced that Cohen, the president’s former attorney and fixer, would testify publicly before the panel next Wednesday. Jordan and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) have written letters to Cummings in recent weeks saying that Cohen would not be a credible witness because he admitted to having lied to Congress, and they’ve asserted that such a hearing does not serve the committee’s investigative interests.

“Yet, Chairman Cummings is providing a Congressional forum for Mr. Cohen to avenge his grudge with the president and further feed his insatiable desire for celebrity while being a patsy for political aims of the far left,” Jordan said.

Cummings said the hearing’s scope would be limited to a few topics so that the Oversight Committee does not interfere with the House Intelligence Committee’s separate investigation. Democrats are expected to ask Cohen about the president’s payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump, among other issues.

“The Chairman indicated that he will be limiting the topics of the hearing to only a few areas of inquiry — all serving his interest in finding grounds for impeachment. I will not stand by quietly while an admitted liar comes before the Committee,” Jordan said.

Cohen is scheduled to testify before the Intelligence panel the next day and is expected to soon appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has already issued him a subpoena. On Wednesday, a federal judge granted Cohen’s request to report to prison on May 6 — two months later than U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley had ordered.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Booker has near universal support from New Jersey’s Democratic establishment

New Jersey’s Democratic establishment is notoriously fractious, but it’s in lockstep behind U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential run.

On Thursday morning, Booker (D-N.J.) released a list of endorsements from virtually every powerful Democratic elected official and leader in New Jersey.

The list of more than 50 Democrats includes Gov. Phil Murphy, First Lady Tammy Murphy, Sen. Bob Menendez, state Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, all 11 Democratic members of the state’s House delegation, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and all 21 Democratic county chairs.

“I’m honored to have the endorsement of so many great New Jersey Democratic leaders — people I've been proudly working alongside as a member of the Newark City Council, as mayor, and as Senator,” Booker said in a statement. “New Jerseyans are fortunate to have these Democratic leaders standing up for them, and I'm grateful to have their support on our campaign to reignite our country's sense of common purpose to build a more fair and just nation for everyone."

One glaring absence from the list was Steve Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City — the state’s second largest city.

Fulop said in a text message to POLITICO that he thinks Booker has done a good job as senator and that he may endorse him. However, he said, he is “holding off for now.”

“I’m going to wait until there is a clearer picture of the entire Democratic field for the 2020 race,” Fulop wrote. “Don’t get me wrong, I think the Senator has done a good job representing New Jersey and may end up there, but my number one priority is helping a candidate, both early and in a meaningful way, whom I feel has the best chance of beating [President Donald] Trump in a general election. That to me is more important than supporting someone just because we share the same home state.”

Murphy and Sweeney are on the same page in their support of Booker despite spending the last year feuding over a number of issues. Most recently, Sweeney has been holding town halls, calling for the state to cut back on its public worker retirement benefits, while Murphy has the unbridled support of the state’s public sector unions that have fought Sweeney for more than a decade.

For his part, Menendez has always had a warm relationship with Booker, the state’s junior senator who did not shy away from speaking out in support of Menendez during his 2017 corruption trial. Booker even testified as a character witness for Menendez.

New Jersey’s Democratic establishment has already helped Booker in one crucial way. Late last year, Murphy signed into law a bill to ensure Booker can run for president and reelection to the Senate on the same ballot in both the primary and general elections.

The show of support for Booker within his home state stands in contrast to some of the other Democratic contenders. California Sen. Kamala Harris, for instance, was endorsed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, but not by most of the Democrats in the state’s House delegation. Harris’ fellow California senator, Dianne Feinstein, has endorsed the as-yet undeclared Joe Biden.

This isn’t the the first time most of New Jersey’s Democratic establishment has united behind one presidential candidate. In 2016, nearly every one of the state’s powerful Democrats backed Hillary Clinton.

Murphy said in a statement that Booker would be a “president who will lift us up and bring us together, instead of knocking us down and sowing division.”

“I have known Cory since he was a Newark Councilman preparing his first run for Mayor — then watched as he breathed new life into our largest city,” Murphy stated. “Now, as a United States Senator, he is setting an example by working across the aisle to get things done, while never failing to stand up for his principles. We share a common basic principle — that social and economic progress go hand-in-hand, and must be achieved together.”

Menendez said Booker “has the ability to bring our nation together at a time when the country is being torn apart by the most divisive president in history.”

New Jersey’s June 2020 primary is one of the last in the country, so presidential contests are typically decided by the time state voters go to the polls. But the lockstep Democratic establishment could help keep New Jersey’s many wealthy political donors from straying from Booker, who already has a record as a prolific fundraiser.

New Jersey has voted Democratic in every presidential contest since 1992.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump cautions against 'blocking out' tech in call for 5G networks

President Donald Trump today argued U.S. companies must take the lead in the global race to build next-generation wireless networks — and made a cryptic warning against blocking certain technology from being used in their development.

“I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible,” Trump tweeted. “It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind.”

In a followup, he added, “I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies."

It wasn't immediately clear what he was referring to, though his administration has offered mixed messages on keeping Chinese telecom companies like Huawei and ZTE out of the U.S. over national security concerns, despite calls to do so from Democrats and Republicans alike.

A planned executive order to ban certain Chinese gear from being used in U.S. 5G networks has been long delayed, and Trump chafed against an export ban the Commerce Department placed last year on exports from ZTE, which the company said was poised to doom its global operations. The administration subsequently struck a deal with ZTE lifting the ban.

Trump in the midst of negotiations tweeted, "President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Pompeo on Kansas Senate run: 'It's ruled out'

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that he has "ruled out" running for a soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat in his home state of Kansas next year in favor of remaining in his role as President Donald Trump’s top diplomat.

The former Kansas congressman and CIA director has previously dodged questions about whether he plans on running in 2020 to claim the seat currently held by retiring GOP Sen. Pat Roberts, fueling speculation that he might by attending certain events and meeting with GOP operatives in the state.

But in an interview on NBC's "Today" show on Thursday, the secretary of state threw cold water on the prospect, telling anchor Craig Melvin that “it’s ruled out.”

“I love Kansas. I'm going to be the secretary of state as long as president Trump gives me the opportunity to serve as America’s senior diplomat,” Pompeo said. “I love doing what I'm doing and I have 75,000 great warriors out and around the world trying to deliver for the American people.”

Pompeo would likely have been a top recruit for Republicans looking to hold onto Roberts’ seat after he vacates it, and the secretary of State has confirmed previously that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has asked him to consider a run.

In multiple interviews over the last few months, Pompeo has emphasized that he’s happy at the State Department and that he’s not planning to leave his post any time soon. In an ever-changing administration where the president’s opinion of his advisers can change on a whim, Pompeo has been one of the few high-level officials who have remained in Trump’s favor since the start of his administration.

In an interview with CBS earlier this month, Trump called reports that Pompeo had met with McConnell about running for Senate “fake news,” though he later backtracked while maintaining that Pompeo was welcome in Foggy Bottom and planned to stay there.

“Well, [McConnell] may have spoken to him, but I think he loves being secretary of state,” the president said. “He's doing a fantastic job. And I asked him the question the other day, he says he's absolutely not leaving.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

California Democrats to Congress: Don’t bulldoze our privacy law

Congressional efforts to pass a national data privacy law could face a major obstacle: California's powerful bloc of House Democrats.

That’s because many California Democrats are happy with their home state's new privacy law, which is tougher than what Republicans in Congress seem likely to entertain. And those same Democrats are wary of giving Republicans a chance to pass federal legislation that weakens California’s rules, which could set a de facto national standard if left alone.

“California’s bill is the best. Why would we want to preempt it?” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) told POLITICO. “I would look askance at any measure that tried to preempt it … I would hope that all 53 members [of California’s House delegation] would oppose it.”

The California Consumer Privacy Act, passed and signed into law last year, gives internet users more control over, and information about, how big companies collect and use their data. It allows the state to fine companies for violations and, under certain circumstances, lets individual Californians sue companies for failing to keep their data secure. The law doesn't go into effect until 2020, but it already has the backing of many Democratic lawmakers at the federal level, particularly those from the California delegation.

That could be a problem for nascent efforts to pass a federal privacy bill — a goal that members of both parties have set for this year. In fact, the California law's 2020 effective date amounts to a natural deadline for GOP lawmakers to quash state-level privacy protections.

Democrats have been critical of any proposal to override state privacy laws since talk of a federal law began in earnest last year. Some lawmakers, like Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), have indicated that their opposition to state-law preemption could be a bargaining chip — they might accede to it if Republicans agree to beef up the Federal Trade Commission's enforcement powers.

Lately, however, California Democrats have been firmer in their outright opposition to crafting any federal law that either overrides or does anything short of replicating, and possibly expanding upon, their state's law. That push threatens to disrupt otherwise bipartisan and broadly supported talks that have gained urgency amid a barrage of data scandals in Silicon Valley.

Several California Democrats, including key Silicon Valley representatives like Ro Khanna and Anna Eshoo and Tony Cárdenas of San Fernando Valley, told POLITICO that the state’s rules should form the floor for any federal effort.

“It is a concern among the Californians. There is no question about it,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce consumer protection subcommittee, said of the GOP push to preempt state measures like California’s.

And Schakowsky said the delegation is not alone in its skepticism of preemption efforts, which come as several other states weigh their own data privacy proposals. “I am generally against preemption because it’s really often an excuse to water down whatever states are doing,” she said.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who chairs the full committee, was also critical of preemption. “I always prefer not to,” he said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as a member of the delegation, could be another factor to watch. Although a spokesman confirms she “wants a privacy bill that will put consumers nationwide back in control of their information,” the aide cautioned against diminishing any state authority: “States have been at the vanguard of protecting Americans. All Americans have benefited from state privacy and data breach laws, so their role as policy innovator and law enforcer must be respected.”

Members of both parties acknowledged that the preemption question is among the thorniest under discussion in legislative talks, which have already stalled relative to optimistic early projections. Senate negotiators had hoped to unveil a data privacy draft bill early in 2019, but week after week has slipped by without any release. The negotiators now say it’s unlikely a draft emerges by the end of February, when both Senate and House panels will hold their first hearings on the topic.

The negotiations could prove far messier if California’s Democratic representatives buck any deal to override the California law. Most negotiators closest to these efforts do not represent California, and lawmakers like Speier and some others may be reluctant to accept any emerging deal, potentially resetting talks just as consensus seems to be emerging.

“I’m always concerned about the California Democrats,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a lead Senate negotiator participating in a bipartisan working group on privacy. Moran is one of several Republican lawmakers to voice support for efforts to override state laws like California’s. “You have to have national preemption,” he said.

The Republicans who will have to negotiate a deal on privacy, including House E&C committee and consumer protection subcommittee ranking members Greg Walden of Oregon and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, said they view national overriding standards as important. At stake, they said, is regulatory certainty for a wide swath of companies. Republicans argue that the internet transcends state borders and thus merits a national set of privacy safeguards.

Walden, acknowledging pressure from California’s delegation on preemption, said he doesn’t blame the lawmakers for their position. “They want to rightly defend their law,” he said in an interview. And while he said Congress should “build off” what California has done, he suggested the law was rushed and problematic and would create a problem for industry if implemented.

Democratic leaders both inside and outside California, meanwhile, are facing pressure from advocacy groups and state leaders to protect the state’s sweeping privacy safeguards.

Alastair Mactaggart, who launched a California ballot initiative that paved the way for the state’s privacy law, has met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in recent weeks to lobby on privacy. He told POLITICO he plans to ramp up outreach efforts to California lawmakers to urge them not to preempt the state law with a weaker national statute.

“I do want to start making efforts to try to get people to contact their representatives and say, ‘Hey, look: You, California, absolutely decide the fate of this thing,’” he said during an interview. And within California, there's bipartisan interest in protecting the law. Earlier this week a group of Republican state lawmakers from California urged Capitol Hill committee leaders not to preempt state laws.

The next several months will test how much sway California and the federal lawmakers representing the state may hold on the Democratic caucus writ large. As some members, from Pallone to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), seem wary of a preemption provision generally, California’s influence could tip the scales on what sort of bill they would be willing to support — and whether Republicans and Democrats eventually land on the same page.

“Preemption’s always been a tough issue, particularly [when] the federal government hasn’t done anything and some states have provided leadership like California,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), an E&C panel member who has entertained a bargain involving preemption. “There’s a lot of respect for what California has done and how it’s taken the lead.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Canadian shelves ‘would run dry’ if U.S. imports drugs

Importing prescription drugs from Canada has long been seen as an easy solution to skyrocketing drug prices for U.S. patients.

But now that President Donald Trump and Democrats are pushing to make those cross-border sales legal, Canadian health experts are issuing a dire warning: It could destroy Canada's drug market.

Attempting to fill the United States' needs with pharmaceuticals from its much smaller northern neighbor could sap supplies in Canada, creating shortages and driving up prices in a government-run health system that itself is struggling to make drugs affordable, opponents of the import proposals say. And the result, they say, would be little if any relief for high prices in the United States.

“The Canadian shelves would run dry,” said Steve Morgan, a Canadian health economist who has advised the government on pricing reform.

The drug industry has cited such concerns as justification for blocking importation by U.S. wholesalers, pharmacies and consumers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration strongly discourages importing drugs even for personal use, saying it can't ensure they are safe.

But the idea is gaining momentum, as evidenced by five bills in Congress — including one promoted by presidential contender Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — while states like Vermont are barreling ahead with their own plans.

Sanders, a long-time champion of importation, has the most far-reaching plan, S. 97, which would allow wholesalers and licensed pharmacies to buy from FDA-approved counterparts in Canada. He argues that Canada’s fears are unfounded.

“For years the pharmaceutical industry has tried to scare Canadian officials into thinking that U.S. importers would drain the drug supply in Canada,” a Sanders spokesperson said. The bill attempts to head off such a scenario by barring drug companies from retaliating against Canadian pharmacies that sell medicines to U.S. buyers at lower Canadian prices. Identical language is in companion legislation by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who has launched drug pricing hearings this year as chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

GlaxoSmithKline and other big manufacturers have threatened such penalties in the past after internet pharmacies shipped cheaper medicines across the border. Some of those pharmacies scaled back after being forced to report shipment details while others struck deals with storefront pharmacies to avoid scrutiny.

But clamping down on drugmaker retaliation won't address all the possible consequences of widespread imports. Even if pharmaceutical companies don’t pull their stock, it’s far more likely that Canadian prices will jump with the boosted demand while U.S. prices remain largely unchanged, said former FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan, who is now director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy.

Even narrower proposals to allow American consumers to personally import drugs — such as S. 61 and H.R. 478 by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) — would have to overcome hurdles. Canadian pharmacists can’t accept American prescriptions, meaning patients would need to line up a Canadian doctor to co-sign their prescriptions — which is not an accepted practice up north, said Joelle Walker, director of public affairs for the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

“Even if the legislation did pass for Americans, it’s not going to be as simple as going through Canadian pharmacies,” Walker said. “And I assume it’s not inexpensive to get a Canadian physician to see you and sign a prescription.”

What the extra requirement could do is drive business to online pharmacies — a fast-growing market that both Canadian and American regulators have criticized as a potential conduit for counterfeit or ineffective medicines, as well as shipments of illicit prescription painkillers.

The Canadian government so far has held its fire, perhaps because none of the bills are likely to pass soon. It's instead focused on a variety of price-lowering initiatives, with a national election coming this fall. One such plan would change the formulas used to set domestic prices through the Patented Medicine Prices Review Board, which has only partial power over the cost of medicines and can't dictate the cost of generic drugs or what wholesalers and pharmacies pay for products. Partly for this reason, Canadians pay more for drugs than Europeans in government-run systems.

Sanders' staff has discussed his plan with the Canadian embassy and consulted with experts on the country’s drug system. But Walker said it's hard to imagine Canadian lawmakers and regulators are pleased with such ideas. Besides the Canadian Pharmacists Association, which has come out against U.S. import proposals in the past, Canadian patient advocacy groups and providers would need to sign off. And on top of federal regulators in Ottawa, Canada has regional pharmacy boards — known as provincial colleges — that ultimately issue guidance and standards for pharmacists in the various provinces.

The bureaucratic and legal landscape isn't much friendlier in the United States. A federal judge already struck down Maine’s attempt at letting citizens buy their own drugs across the border. Vermont’s similar plan, passed last year but yet to take effect, has to pass muster with the Department of Health and Human Services, where Secretary Alex Azar has frequently criticized even limited personal imports as potentially undermining strong U.S. safety standards.

Even when HHS announced a working group last year to explore importing certain drugs, Azar and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb stressed its narrow goals — saying the group would explore bringing in a medication only when it had a single U.S. manufacturer and evidence existed of supply problems or price gouging.

It comes down to FDA's limited capacity to oversee imports, said former commissioner McClellan.

“It’s an issue that has come up over and over again — FDA’s inability to ensure the safety and effectiveness of a[n imported] drug,” he said. Even doing that in narrow circumstances would require scaling up the agency’s resources and gaining access to each step of the supply chain.

Morgan said U.S. policymakers should be focused on fixing the broader health system instead of buying drugs from Canada.

“Why bother to import medicines from the country with the second-highest prices in the world? That is Canada. We’re second only to the United States in drug prices,” Morgan said.

There’s no question that Americans are paying too much for drugs, says Amir Attaran, a health-law specialist at the University of Ottawa who’s closely watching U.S. lawmakers’ efforts. “But ... tapping out your neighbor is a nasty, rotten thing to do.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Trump's War on California

President Donald Trump loves bashing California—its “ridiculous” sanctuary cities, its “gross mismanagement” of its forests, even the “disgusting” streets of San Francisco. He also enjoys slagging California liberals, like House Intelligence Committee Chair “Liddle” Adam Schiff, House Financial Services Committee Chair “Low IQ” Maxine Waters, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who “has behaved so irrationally & gone so far to the left that she has now officially become a Radical Democrat.” On Wednesday, after Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom decided to scale back the state’s troubled high-speed rail project, the president gleefully mocked it as a green fiasco: “Send the Federal Government back the Billions of Dollars WASTED!”

Now that progressive Democrats are pushing for a California-style Green New Deal to fight climate change, and progressive California Senator Kamala Harris has become a front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump, the president’s allies have begun framing 2020 as a last stand against the hippie-lefty Californication of America. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk has warned that “Democrats want California to be the blueprint for America,” while Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, has suggested that Trump’s reelection slogan should be: “I’m not going to let the Democrats turn America into California.”

California has earned its reputation as the politically correct capital of Blue America, a heavily urban majority-minority coastal state where it’s legal to smoke pot but illegal for retailers to provide plastic bags or cops to ask suspects their immigration status. Taxes are high, the first year of community college is free and driver’s licenses have a third option for residents who don’t identify as male or female. But while California has plenty of problems, from worsening wildfires to overpriced housing to that troubled bullet-train project that became the latest target of presidential mockery, there’s one serious hitch in the GOP plan to make California a symbol of Democratic dysfunction and socialistic stagnation: It’s basically thriving.

“California is doing awesome,” says Congressman Ted Lieu, an immigrant from Taiwan who co-chairs the policy and communications committee for the House Democratic Caucus. “It’s a beautiful, welcoming, environmentally friendly place that proves government can work. Who wants to run against that?”

California is now the world’s fifth-largest economy, up from eighth a decade ago. If it’s a socialist hellhole, it’s a socialist hellhole that somehow nurtured Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla, Uber, Netflix, Oracle and Intel, not to mention old-economy stalwarts like Chevron, Disney, Wells Fargo and the Hollywood film industry. California firms still attract more venture capital than the rest of the country combined, while its farms produce more fruits, nuts and wine than the rest of the country combined. During the Great Recession, when the state was mired in a budget crisis so brutal its bond rating approached junk and it gave IOUs to government workers, mainstream media outlets were proclaiming the death of the California dream. But after a decade of steady growth that has consistently outpaced the nation’s, plus a significant tax hike on the wealthy, California is in much sounder fiscal shape; while federal deficits are soaring again, the state has erased its red ink and even stashed $13 billion in a rainy day fund.

Of course, every state is in better economic shape than it was during the Great Recession, but California has enjoyed its renaissance while pursuing policies Republicans associate with economic ruin. It has an $11-an-hour minimum wage, scheduled to rise to $15 by 2023. Its unusually aggressive implementation of Obamacare since 2013 has reduced its uninsured rate from 17 percent to just 7 percent. Its ambitious clean energy and climate policies in many ways inspired the Green New Deal; the state is committed to generating 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045, and its stringent fuel-efficiency standards help explain why it’s home to half the nation’s electric vehicles.

In general, California is flourishing while pursuing the exact opposite of the policies Trump is pursuing in Washington. And it has sued the Trump administration dozens of times, not only taking the lead on the new 16-state lawsuit against the president’s emergency wall declaration, but fighting for loan forgiveness for students defrauded by for-profit schools, net neutrality and Obamacare’s guarantees of free birth control, while fighting to stop the ban on travel from several Muslim countries, the ban on transgender service members, and a slew of environmental rollbacks. For example, Trump is trying to dismantle California’s strict fuel-efficiency rules, which have become de facto national rules since other blue states have adopted them and every automaker has complied with them, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is now battling the administration in court to protect them.

“If people want to call what California is doing socialism, fine, but it isn’t having a negative impact on the economy,” says political scientist Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Center for Budget and Policy. “By just about every measure of productivity, we’re at the upper end of the spectrum.”

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from making California their go-to nightmare scenario. In 2018, Senator Ted Cruz warned that liberals wanted Texas to be “just like California, right down to the tofu and silicone and dyed hair.” Democratic candidates for governor were accused of trying to turn Nevada and Florida into California, and Colorado into “RadiCalifornia.” In the Georgia governor’s race, Republican Brian Kemp’s stump-speech mantra about Democrat Stacey Abrams was that she was trying to import “radical California values.” The Republican National Committee’s nickname for Harris in its news releases is “California Kamala,” and it rarely mentions her without mentioning her “San Francisco values.”

California is so gigantic that it’s hard to pinpoint what its values really are. There are huge differences between its cities, exurbs, and rural areas, between crunchy Northern California and glam Southern California, between upscale coastal California and downscale inland California. But it’s undeniably a socially and politically progressive state, with laws banning pet stores from selling dogs that weren’t rescued, restaurants from giving their customers plastic straws unless asked, and employers from asking job applicants about their current salaries. Even the traditionally Republican suburbs of Orange County voted Democratic in 2018. And while economic conservatives consider its high-tax, pro-regulation policies “anti-business,” researchers have not found evidence that those policies drive businesses to other states or squelch innovation in California, although they do seem to encourage some retirees to move elsewhere. The president tweets on a platform created in California. It’s somewhat odd to portray the state that created health clubs, blue jeans, Pandora and Hulu as Venezuela in the making.

In fact, the secret sauce of the California dream seems to have something to do with attracting entrepreneurs who want to change the world as well as their bank accounts. Christine Moseley, the CEO of a San Francisco business-to-business startup called Full Harvest, was an executive for a global logistics conglomerate and then an organic juice chain before moving to the Bay Area to start an eco-friendly company of her own. She ended up developing a kind of Airbnb for ugly produce, a platform that connects farmers who have fruits and vegetables they can’t sell to grocery stores with juice companies and other buyers who don’t care what the food looks like as long as it’s fresh. America wastes about 40 percent of its food, contributing to global hunger as well as global warming; in three years, Full Harvest has sold 10 million pounds of produce that would have gone to waste.

“California was the perfect place to do this,” Moseley says. “It’s the tech and innovation capital of the world, but it’s also the place for people who care about food and the environment, and the place for people who want to solve big problems.”

A lot of those dreamers come to California from abroad; more than 10 million of the state’s 40 million residents are immigrants, and a quarter of those immigrants are undocumented. “There is a Revolution going on in California,” Trump tweeted during the legal battle over sanctuary cities last April, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. In his Oval Office address about his border wall last month, the president pointedly cited two murders committed by undocumented immigrants in California, and earlier this week he complained on Twitter this week that California is leading the fight against his declaration of a national emergency.

But illegal border crossings into California are at their lowest level since 1971, and the state government doesn’t view its undocumented residents as a threat. They’re eligible for driver’s licenses, subsidized health care for their kids, and in-state tuition rates, while police officers are prohibited from working with ICE to try to deport them. University of California Chancellor Janet Napolitano, who ran the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama, created legal services centers throughout the system to help undocumented students.

“California recognizes their basic humanity,” says Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California-Davis law school. “And if you look at the labor market, immigrants are a big reason why California has such a dynamic economy.”

Traditionally, another reason has been government investment; for example, the strength of its public universities helped attract the aerospace industry, build the technology mecca of Silicon Valley, and turn the San Diego area into the national capital of “precision medicine.” But government also helped finance the ill-fated solar manufacturer Solyndra, as well as the beleaguered San Francisco-to-Los Angeles bullet train that Governor Newsom tapped the brakes on last week. Newsom is also scaling back a similarly massive water project designed to alleviate droughts and protect the Sacramento River delta. Sometimes Republicans cite misleading statistics to make California look bad—yes, it has the “most debt” and the “most families on welfare,” because it has the most people—but sometimes, California’s dreams have exceeded its government’s ability to execute them.

There has been no need to exaggerate California’s most serious problem, the exorbitant housing costs that threaten its middle class and, as Newsom warned in his State of the State address, are starting “to define life in this state.” The state’s highest-priced cities have blocked development of new housing through zoning restrictions and not-in-my-back-yard activism; a five-year-old plan to build 75 mixed-income apartments in San Francisco’s hip Mission neighborhood was just delayed again after opponents sought to protect a laundromat on the lot as a historic landmark. California’s poverty rate is near the nation’s average, but by a separate measurement that takes housing costs into account, it’s tied for the nation’s worst. Overall, California has dropped to 49th in the nation in per-capita housing supply, a trend Newsom has vowed to reverse; he has already begun suing California cities that don’t meet state-mandated affordable housing goals.

But while the problem of unaffordable housing is a real drag on growth, and a real threat to the social and economic mobility that drives the California dream, it’s the kind of problem that only desirable places have. There’s plenty of affordable housing in Siberia. “We attract people that places like Mississippi can’t,” Lieu boasts. Nancy Pfund, a Bay Area venture capitalist and “impact investor” who took early stakes in Tesla and Pandora, says California is still a magnet for talent, because it’s still a breeding ground for disruption. She’s now investing in local companies like Zola Electric, which is taking Silicon Valley solar technology to Africa; Apeel Sciences, which has created natural plant-based coatings that keep produce fresh for longer, attacking the food waste problem in a different way; and even the Real Real, the luxury consignment platform that helps consumers recycle their brand-name fashion and reduce the demand for manufacturing more of it.

“In California, we’ve got the combination of capital, innovation, and regulations that reward investments in progress,” Pfund says. “And that’s created an ecosystem of entrepreneurs who want to spread the progress around the world.”

She’s talking about entrepreneurs like Dawn Barry, the president of San Diego-based Luna DNA, a community-based Big Data genomics platform powered by blockchain, which is a very California collection of words. Basically, it’s a way for people to get paid for sharing medical data from genealogy services like 23 and Me as well as their iPhones so researchers can study them. It’s complicated, but it’s the kind of startup that makes sense in a place like San Diego, which has big research institutions like Sanford-Burnham, Scripps and UC San Diego, big tech companies like Qualcomm, and big genomics players like Illumina, where Barry was a top executive.

“There’s just this attitude here that we’re going to reshape medicine,” she says. “Nobody thinks it’s crazy that you want to do things totally differently.”

That attitude didn’t work out for Solyndra’s cutting-edge solar panels that looked like mini-ladders instead of rectangles, or for the high-speed rail project that started construction in the sparsely populated Central Valley in the middle of the line rather than the dense urban centers at the endpoints. California’s cap-and-trade program for reducing carbon emissions has gotten off to a bumpy start, too, and its leading electric utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, declared bankruptcy after the wildfires.

So the idea of California as a leftist hellhole is likely to persist. “California is going to hell in a handbasket,” Fox News personality Tomi Lahren declared during a recent segment on the border. A conservative Town Hall columnist, in a 2018 essay titled “To Hell With California,” urged the state to secede from the U.S., although he said he didn’t want to nuke it. (“Well … OK, I don’t.”) There’s already a Twitter meme proposing a new Harris campaign slogan: “Make America California.”

California does feel like a potential harbinger of a more multicultural, more progressive American future, which may be one reason Trump is so openly hostile to it, even threatening to withhold aid from its wildfire victims. A lot of Newsom’s plans for California are to counter what’s happening in Washington; he wants to reinstate Obamacare’s individual health insurance mandate in California, extend health subsidies to undocumented adults in California, and pursue even more ambitious climate goals. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates to take on Trump are pushing platforms that would take a lot of California policy to the national stage.

The story of California is the story of America—immigration, innovation, investing in what works,” Lieu said. “Plus we’ve got amazing beaches, and Disneyland! How cool is that?”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Miami makes last-ditch convention pitch

MIAMI — Miami fears the fix is in.

Local Democrats increasingly believe that the Democratic National Convention in 2020 will be sited in Milwaukee, Wis., a conclusion that’s led Florida politicians, donors and insiders to mount a final lobbying blitz to turn the tide.

The last-ditch effort began in earnest in recent days as speculation mounted that Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez would pick Milwaukee, where he has both family ties and the pressure of the Democratic governors of Wisconsin and Illinois weighing on him to go with a Midwestern location.

Perez has denied making up his mind or favoring any of the three finalist cities, a shortlist that includes Houston.

Still, the state’s Democratic congressional delegation has been pressed into service to persuade him. Hotel worker unions are also making a pitch to choose Miami — labor has a greater presence in the hospitality industry here than in Milwaukee.

Miami’s stable of Democratic donors — many of whom have hosted President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton multiple times and are already being hit up by numerous Democratic presidential hopefuls — are applying their clout to the city’s bid. Some of them say they’re already leaning on potential 2020 candidates — they won’t say which ones — to get them behind Miami’s convention bid.

Underpinning Miami’s pitch: It’s the heart of the largest Democratic county in the nation’s biggest swing state. Losing Florida — which is worth 29 Electoral College votes, compared to Wisconsin’s 10 — would likely cost President Donald Trump his reelection.

“We’re making a final effort to convince the DNC that Miami is the best place to go, that this could be a boost to the nominee,” said Chris Korge, the top financier of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a co-chair of Miami’s convention effort.

Korge said he was limited in what he could say due to a DNC request that the discussions not be made public.

Behind the scenes, the convention site selection has been a proxy fight over how the presidential campaign could play out, pitting the Rust Belt, and the white working-class voters there who deserted the party in 2016, against a diverse coastal megalopolis, where minority voter turnout will be essential to Democratic hopes in 2020.

Milwaukee officials play up their heartland connections and mild summers, contrasting those with Miami and the risk of hurricanes. It’s a talking point that irks Miami officials so much that they’ve researched historic storm data to make the case that hurricanes are a rarity in early July, when the convention would be held.

Miami officials have made a quality-of-life argument as well by claiming the accommodations in Milwaukee are so limited that California’s large delegation can’t fit in a single hotel in the city — an issue the Miami convention boosters expect to raise with California’s best-known politician, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to curry her support.

Midwest Democrats are approaching the decision with something of a chip on their shoulder. They contend Clinton snubbed Wisconsin and Michigan, and that the party needs to repair its relationship with the Midwest.

“Florida is a swing state. But we’re a swing region. The Midwest sticks together, and a convention has not been in the Midwest since 1996,” one Wisconsin official involved in the convention discussion said. “We are isolated from natural disasters. We don’t get tornadoes. We don’t get hurricanes. We don’t get earthquakes.”

As for Miami’s paranoia about Milwaukee, the official said, “they’re more confident than we are. It’s a jump ball ... it seems to change every day.”

There’s a sense among Democratic insiders that Houston is out of the picture, a victim of muggier summers than Miami, a relatively small Democratic delegation and concerns about the specter of oil money funding a convention for a party that believes in climate change and scaling back fossil fuel use.

In the run-up to the final decision, the mayors of Miami and Miami Beach have reached out to each of Florida’s 13 Democratic members of Congress in Florida to get them engaged. Some have called Perez already. Rep. Donna Shalala of Miami, who was Perez’s boss when she was President Bill Clinton’s health secretary, personally spoke to him about the Miami bid at a dinner hosted by former U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Paul Cejas, a major Democratic donor. A former Justice Department colleague of Perez, former South Florida U.S. Attorney Willy Ferrer, has chimed in as well.

The singer-songwriter couple Gloria and Emilio Estefan have also lent their star power and former New York Yankee Derek Jeter, now a part-owner of the Miami Marlins, has been “very eager” to help make his new club’s baseball stadium available for the convention, said a source.

Joe Falk, a major South Florida donor involved in supporting Miami’s bid, said Miami should be able to sell itself because it’s multi-ethnic, gay-friendly and a place where donors are much more likely to open their wallets than Milwaukee.

“How do you get the donor to dig deeper? Show him a good time,” Falk said. “The donors are here and we know how to treat donors. We have the facilities to make those incredibly wealthy people comfortable. And we know how to throw a good party.”

Another top Democratic donor from Miami who didn’t want to be identified said he’s already being besieged by presidential hopefuls for contributions. And he’s making sure to press the issue of Miami’s convention bid.

“If you want Florida’s support, you should support Florida. It’s a simple message,” the donor said. “You hear people say ‘Florida, Florida, Florida.’ They don’t say ‘Wisconsin, Wisconsin, Wisconsin.’ There’s a reason for that.”

But it’s not just stars, ambassadors and high-rollers helping out. UNITE HERE, a hotel-worker union, is calling Perez, DNC members and other top Democrats to boost Miami’s efforts.

“For our union in particular, it’s a no-brainer,” said Wendi Walsh, a UNITE HERE international vice president. “For this DNC, we’ve got almost 4,000 union hotel rooms here in South Florida compared to zero in Milwaukee.”

Wisconsin officials note, however, that they have a far-more union-friendly state than Florida.

Walsh, who said the public employee union AFSCME is also being engaged, said there’s a purely political dimension to the effort: “Florida matters a lot, and we want to win Florida.”

The convention would help inject a sense of energy into South Florida that could help cure the liberal bastion’s longtime turnout problems, which have led Democrats to lose recent statewide elections by about a percentage point or less, according to a Wednesday letter to Perez written by Christian Ulvert, a top Democratic consultant who has advised Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and his predecessor, Philip Levine, a co-chair of the convention effort with Korge.

Ulvert noted that Trump on Monday campaigned in Miami as part of an outreach effort to court voters of Venezuelan heritage and shore up support among Cuban-Americans.

“Republican strategy has been to maximize gains outside of South Florida and erode our support here,” Ulvert wrote. “Florida is ground zero for presidential elections — Miami-Dade is clearly ground zero for Florida.”

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Mark Harris' son warned him about operative in North Carolina scandal

In emotional testimony Wednesday, the son of North Carolina Republican Mark Harris said he warned his father about the absentee ballot strategy used by Leslie McCrae Dowless, the political operative now at the center of an election fraud scandal in the state's 9th Congressional District.

John Harris testified before the North Carolina State Election Board Wednesday about allegations of election fraud. Though Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the unofficial ballot count on election night in November 2018, the election board refused to certify a winner, pointing to the accusations of fraud.

John Harris, an attorney himself, said early on he was suspicious of Dowless' operation and shared his thoughts with his father and mother. John's testimony appears to refute comments made by his father that he was never warned about Dowless, who held prior felony convictions of fraud and perjury.

After Mark met with Dowless, John sent his father an email on April 7, 2017, that included text of the law on the illegality of collecting a person's absentee ballot.

"Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he uses being broadcast on the news," John emailed his father as Mark Harris contemplated hiring Dowless.

John said he believed his father's mind was already made up despite his warnings.

John added that there's no reason for him to believe his father, mother or anyone else within the Harris campaign knew what Dowless was doing.

"I raised red flags at the time the decision was made to hire Mr. Dowless," said John, whose testimony dominated the third day of the hearing.

"I love my dad and I love my mom. I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle," John said, holding back tears. "I think that they made mistakes in this process and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them."

After investigating the fraud allegations, the board began its evidentiary hearing this week. A state election board official kicked off the proceedings Monday by presenting evidence that implicated Dowless in an illegal absentee ballot collection "scheme." State officials and individuals employed by Dowless testified that Dowless illegally paid people to collect and manipulate ballots.

Mark Harris is set to start the fourth day of testimony on Thursday. It is unclear if the board will conclude its proceedings Thursday or stretch into a fifth day. Upon conclusion of the hearing, the board is expected to either vote for a new election, certify a winner or potentially reach an impasse.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Smollett charged with filing false police report

CHICAGO — “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett was charged Wednesday with making a false police report when he said he was attacked in downtown Chicago by two men who hurled racist and anti-gay slurs and looped a rope around his neck, police said.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said prosecutors charged Smollett with felony disorderly conduct, an offense that could bring one to three years in prison and force the actor to pay for the cost of the investigation into his report of a Jan. 29 beating.

Police were trying to get in touch with Smollett’s attorneys to “negotiate a reasonable surrender,” Guglielmi said. That could involve Smollett turning himself in to a Chicago police station.

He said he did not have a time frame for how long the actor would be given.

“We are trying to be diplomatic and reasonable, and we’re hoping he does the same,” Guglielmi said.

The charges emerged on the same day that detectives and two brothers who were earlier deemed suspects testified before a grand jury. Smollett’s attorneys met with prosecutors and police, but it was unknown what they discussed or whether Smollett attended the meeting. The attorneys did not reply to requests for comment.

The announcement of the charges came after a flurry of activity in recent days that included lengthy interviews of the brothers by authorities, a search of their home and their release after police cleared them.

Investigators have not said what the brothers told detectives or what evidence detectives collected. But it became increasingly clear that serious questions had arisen about Smollett’s account — something police signaled Friday when they announced a “significant shift in the trajectory” of the probe after the brothers were freed.

Smollett, who is black and gay and plays a gay character on the hit Fox television show, said he was attacked as he was walking home from a Subway sandwich shop. He said the masked men beat him, made derogatory comments and yelled “This is MAGA country” — an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” — before fleeing.

Earlier Wednesday, Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television issued a statement saying Smollett “continues to be a consummate professional on set” and that his character is not being written off the show. The series is shot in Chicago and follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the record industry.

The studio’s statement followed reports that Smollett’s role was being slashed amid the police investigation.

Whispers about Smollett’s potential role in the attack started with reports that he had not fully cooperated with police and word that detectives in a city bristling with surveillance cameras could not find video of the attack.

Investigators did find and release images of two people they said they wanted to question and last week picked up the brothers at O’Hare Airport as they returned from Nigeria. Police questioned the men and searched their apartment.

The brothers, who were identified by their attorney as Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo, were held for nearly 48 hours on suspicion of assaulting Smollett before being released.

The next day, police said the men provided information that had ”shifted the trajectory of the investigation,” and detectives requested another interview with Smollett.

Police said one of the men had appeared on “Empire,” and Smollett’s attorneys said one of the men is the actor’s personal trainer, whom he hired to help get him physically ready for a music video. The actor released his debut album, “Sum of My Music,” last year.

Speaking outside the courthouse where the grand jury met, the brothers’ attorney said the two men testified for about two and a half hours.

“There was a point where this story needed to be told, and they manned up and they said we’re going to correct this,” Gloria Schmidt said.

She said her clients did not care about a plea deal or immunity. “You don’t need immunity when you have the truth,” she said.

She also said her clients received money from Smollett, but she did not elaborate.

Smollett has been active in LBGTQ issues, and initial reports of the assault drew outrage and support for him on social media, including from Sen. Kamala Harris of California and TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Former Cook County prosecutor Andrew Weisberg said judges rarely throw defendants in prison for making false reports, opting instead to place them on probation, particularly if they have no prior criminal record.

Smollett has a record — one that concerns giving false information to police when he was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. According to records, he was also charged with false impersonation and driving without a license. He later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge and took an alcohol education and treatment program.

Another prospective problem is the bill someone might receive after falsely reporting a crime that prompted a massive investigation that lasted nearly a month and included the collection and review of hundreds of hours of surveillance video.

The size of the tab is anyone’s guess, but given how much time the police have invested, the cost could be huge.

Weisberg recently represented a client who was charged with making a false report after surveillance video discredited her account of being robbed by three men at O’Hare Airport. For an investigation that took only a single day, his client had to split restitution of $8,400, Weisberg said. In Smollett’s case, “I can imagine that this would be easily into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Also Wednesday, Chicago’s top prosecutor, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, announced that she had recused herself from the investigation.

Her office explained that Foxx made the decision “out of an abundance of caution” because of conversations she had with one of Smollett’s family members just after the report. When the relative expressed concerns about the case, Foxx “facilitated a connection” between the family member and detectives, according to a statement.

Foxx said the case would be handled to her first assistant, Joseph Magats, a 28-year veteran prosecutor.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Sanders campaign reports fast start on online petition

Bernie Sanders is more than halfway toward his goal of persuading 1 million people to sign onto a petition to support his presidential campaign, with 603,000 coming on board, according to his team.

The petition, a major part of his 2020 announcement rollout, gives the Vermont senator the opportunity to demonstrate his grassroots support in a crowded field of Democratic candidates — and build up his email list and base of donors and volunteers.

The half-million-plus figure is another display of Sanders’ digital strength in Week 1 of his bid. During the first 24 hours after his launch, his announcement video was viewed more times than any video of the other 2020 contenders, many of which have been online for weeks.

He raised more than $5.9 million from more than 220,000 donors in the first 24 hours of his candidacy, easily beating the other candidates in the race for first-day fundraising.

The Sanders campaign also said his supporters contributed $600,000 in donations that will recur monthly.

“That really allows a campaign to do a strategy beyond the next little while," said 2016 Sanders alum Pete D’Alessandro. "I think it would be almost impossible to say that was a bad 24 hours."

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine