Trial lawyer Reuben Guttman questions how America's attorney generals and the political organisations with which they associate raise funds.
Sometimes the press has a way of seeing the tip of the iceberg without enquiring into the breadth and depth of the whole mass. Such is the case with Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general. Amidst her purported investigation of Trump University, she took a $25,000 campaign contribution from Donald Trump's Foundation. On the face of it, the payment violated federal law because charitable foundations cannot use their money for political campaign contributions. To make matters worse, while the New York State attorney general embarked on litigation against Trump University, Bondi chose not to jump into the fray. While it does not look good, this is perhaps the tip of the iceberg. So what's underneath the tip?
Compliance enforcement at the state level is either for sale or has the appearance of being for sale. And as lawyers are taught in law school, even the appearance of impropriety has the capacity to impact confidence in the rule of law.
State attorney generals control the enforcement spigot. They make threshold decisions about whether to enforce a law, whether a set of facts even constitutes a violation, and whether enforcement should be privatised through retention of outside law firms.
Given their roles in making critical decisions about law enforcement, one would think that efforts would be taken to ensure that attorney general decision making is not tainted by the appearance of impropriety. Curiously, rather than steer clear of that appearance, attorney generals have institutionalised it through creation of the Republican Attorney Generals Association (RAGA) and the Democratic Attorney Generals Association (DAGA). These organisations – the officers of which are elected attorney generals – raise funds from some of the very individuals and corporations who are within the orbit of the attorney general enforcement authority.
Through various functions, RAGA and DAGA arrange settings for regulators to mingle with the regulated. This year, RAGA has events scheduled at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado, a retreat at Pebble Beach, California and a meeting at Omni Barton Creek in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile DAGA will be holding a reception and dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, DC, a 2017 winter conference in Fort Lauderdale and a spring 2017 conference at the Nines Hotel in Portland, Oregon.
A glance at information gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics provides insight into DAGA’s funders and a hint at with whom the Democratic AG’s mingle. Funders range from large pharmaceutical companies – some of which have been the target of investigations and compliance enforcement – to a range of law firms, some of which have represented state agencies and even the offices of attorney generals.
A 2014 membership benefits breakdown by RAGA, disclosed by the New York Times, lists benefits accorded to those whose annual contribution is $125,000. Members of the “Edmund Randolph Club” get a “quarterly call with a featured attorney general,” the “opportunity to submit issue briefing topics and to be a panellist at a RAGA National Meeting,” and “Access to the annual RAGA (2014) retreat in San Diego.” For the record, Edmund Randolph was the first attorney general of the United States.
For its part, the DAGA website makes no bones about selling access to the offices of the attorney general the website claims to be the “second most powerful in state government.” The website states that as a supporter of DAGA, you will enjoy a list of benefits including “Issue conferences,” “AG roundtables,” “political updates,” and a “Democratic AG Directory” where “DAGA members receive a comprehensive directory of all Democratic Attorney Generals and their key staff and office contacts.” The description of the AG Roundtables makes clear that they are designed to “provide a unique opportunity for focused conversation with specific AG’s in small settings.”
The RAGA website is clear about its mission: to get Republicans elected as attorney generals. This year RAGA has focused its efforts on the race for North Carolina’s attorney general. Rather than merely promoting the qualifications of the Republican candidate, RAGA has gone one step further and launched a website dedicated to the Democratic candidate, Josh Stein. The site is called ExtremeHarvardRadical.com. This so-called “extreme radical” is a North Carolina state senator who spent seven years as senior deputy attorney general of North Carolina and was honoured by both Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the American Association of Retired Persons. Yes, Stein is guilty of securing degrees from Harvard Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His campaign website also discloses that he is Jewish and that he and his wife belong to a Synagogue, which makes one wonder if calling him a “Harvard radical” is a dog whistle for something else?
The DAGA site has a more vanilla message about elections: there are 27 Republican AG’s and 24 Democratic AG’s with key races in nine states this year, including North Carolina.
Placed in context, here is a message for those nine new AG’s: Maybe you should make a clean break from accepting campaign funding from those whom you regulate? And maybe membership in DAGA or RAGA is not something to brag about?
And what about Pam Bondi? It turns out that she is the immediate past chair of RAGA’s Executive Committee.
Reuben Guttman is a trial lawyer and founding partner at Washington, DC-based firm Guttman, Buschner & Brooks.