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MILLARD: The British Are Coming: English Baroness Lobbies to Change U.S. Internet Laws

D.C. insider publication Politico recently published a glowing, subscriber-only profile about a “British baroness writing American online safety laws.” But did the publication miss a major scoop in recounting the tale of how Beeban Kidron, a member of the House of Lords and film industry bigwig, succeeded in pushing California into passing its Age Appropriate Design Code law (AADC)?

It appears Kidron and/or her advocacy group 5Rights may violate the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

In its piece, Politico dubbed Kidron “one of the most important architects” of the AADC and “arguably the most important and effective driver of data privacy and social media rules in the United States.” She de facto wrote the British version of the AADC, which California copied after “Kidron first reached out in late 2021 to Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks…”

“This was not a homegrown bill,” Wicks explained to Politico. “We borrowed this from another country.” A California Republican with whom Wicks partnered characterized Kidron as “instrumental in getting the bill passed.”

Politico reported Kidron “exercises outsized influence by working behind the scenes” and how she does it—through her non-profit. “This year, Kidron’s 5Rights Foundation pushed hard for other states like Maryland and Minnesota to follow the U.K.’s lead in passing their own kids-focused rulebooks.”

The publication cited Sen. Dick Blumenthal (D-Conn.) as saying Kidron “has enormous influence” and referenced Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) meeting with her repeatedly over eight years, meetings relevant to federal legislation.

And a former advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is quoted saying Kidron “gets sh*t done” like no one else. Clearly, Kidron is a force to be reckoned with.

And clearly, she and her organization, 5Rights, are actively seeking to influence legislation and stakeholder opinion on kids online. That puts 5Rights, if not Kidron herself, in clear danger of violating federal law—specifically FARA.

FARA requires agents of foreign principals—like Kidron, or 5Rights, which “is headquartered in London with an office in Brussels”—to register or face criminal sanctions.

Yet according to FARA database searches conducted on August 7, 2023, no FARA filings have been made by or in respect of 5Rights, or Kidron, or figures identified as working on their behalf on legislative initiatives.

If the FARA law sounds familiar, it should. During the federal court hearing last month over Hunter Biden’s plea deal, federal prosecutor Leo Wise confirmed to Judge Maryellen Noreika that Biden was under investigation over a potential FARA violation. According to the DOJ, a willful violation of FARA could result in five-year imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, or both.

In June 2022, 5Rights hired Nichole Rocha, a former staffer “from the California Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee” who previously “was counsel to the California Senate Judiciary Committee” as its head of U.S. Affairs. In that role, she “work[ed] closely with stakeholders to ensure that the bill was practically feasible from their perspective, without watering down the rights provided to children and youth.”

Rocha has advocated for the AADC in media, nationally, and in states like Nevada. In New MexicoMaryland, and Minnesota, Rocha testified in support of the AADC. In Minnesota, 5Rights also submitted an FAQ document about AADC; the metadata of that document showed 5Rights Lobbyist Elizabeth Galicia created it. Neither Rocha, nor Galicia, nor 5Rights staffer Marisa Shea (who authored a column advancing 5Rights’ position in Maryland and works for 5Rights from Washington, D.C.) nor 5Rights’ California lobbying firm Capitol Connections has registered under FARA.

However, a search of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission database earlier this year did reveal Capitol Connections registered to lobby for 5Rights on the California AADC. That showed some willingness to engage in some public disclosure. But where California lobbying disclosure requirements might be the equivalent of high school football, FARA is the NFL. The DOJ doesn’t routinely comment on FARA matters, but one has to think they are looking at this.

British sources say it is possible Kidron and her group were just thoroughly unaware of U.S. law requiring registration since nothing comparable exists within the United Kingdom. However, it is somewhat embarrassing to have a baroness merrily proceeding with lobbying and advocacy while very possibly committing a federal crime. It is also noteworthy that the FARA unit of the Department of Justice has become much more active in recent years, famously targeting figures associated with everyone from President Joe Biden to former President Donald Trump to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But even if Kidron, 5Rights, or its staff comply with FARA and register, there is also something a little out of kilter with U.S. tradition where we see American politicians taking marching orders from a member of the British House of Lords. That is perhaps less galling where Democrats are concerned, given their demonstrated interest in borrowing from abroad where models for bigger government are concerned. The story is, or should be, different for Republicans who famously oppose things like federal courts looking at international or foreign law when deciding cases, and many of whom spent years flocking to conferences littered with tricorn hats and invoking America’s independence from Great Britain.

The story, of course, also should be different for Washington, D.C.-based policy reporters. Surely after the last few years, they should know that every time a foreign individual or entity is name-checked as advocating a particular policy unless it is literally a country’s embassy or president or prime minister, it is probably prudent to check the FARA database, and see if that person or entity complies.

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How Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying Stalls Education Reform Favored by Taxpayers

Taxpayer-funded public school lobbyists who favor increased funding at taxpayer expense typically oppose legislation that would expand educational opportunities for the children of those same taxpayers, according to policy analysts and elected officials.

That’s a lose-lose arrangement for Pennsylvania parents who are dissatisfied with the performance of their public schools. But it’s also one they are largely unaware of, said Rep. Andrew Lewis, a Dauphin County Republican, in an interview. He finds that too many lawmakers are “cowed” by well-funded pressure groups.

“It’s sad to see how much influence these comparably small organizations have when you contrast them with the magnitude of all the parents across Pennsylvania who want to be able to send their kids to a school of their choice,” Lewis said. “But if you’re lawmaker just listening to this alphabet soup of groups like the School Boards Association, or say, the Association of School Business Officials, then you’re inside the bubble and you’re not listening to parents.”

Lewis is the lead the sponsor of House Bill 1, which would implement a wide range of public and private school options. The bill would remove current impediments to the formation of new charter schools while also increasing the amount of scholarship funds that would be available to cover private school tuition. But Pennsylvania taxpayers who support these proposals are funding public school lobbyists who do not, which would help to explain why the bill has not yet moved out of the House education committee.

Rep. Andrew Lewis

At least $24.1 million in tax dollars were spent on membership organizations that participated in lobbying efforts from 2017 to 2020, while 26 local governments and agencies spent $18 million in tax dollars to hire contract lobbyists since 2007, according to two new reports from the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank based in Harrisburg.

Here are some of the key findings:

The largest association representing school officials is the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PBSA), a $9 million outfit with 9 registered lobbyists, funded by $7.2 million in taxpayer-funded dues. The PBSA has made it a priority to cut funding for charter schools and increase funding for conventional public schools while opposing school choice measures.

But it’s not alone. Since 2007, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials has received $735,000 in tax dollars, the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Administrators has received $490,000, the Pennsylvania Principals’ Association has received $150,000, and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small School has received $94,000.

“I never hear these groups talk about what’s best for parents or what’s best for kids even though these entities are funded by the taxpayers,” Lewis said. “They’ll often complain about charter school funding, and they’ll often describe this as their number one problem plaguing their districts. But what they fail to realize, or mention, is that any parent that sends their kid to a charter school has determined that this is a better option for them than what the school districts currently provides for their kid. So, these taxpayer-funded entities are advocating directly opposite for what’s in the best interests of those parents and their kids. They also ignore the fact the public school district gets to keep 25 percent of the funding and they don’t have to pay for any of the actual educational costs borne by the charter.”

Under HB 1, Lewis would open new avenues for charter schools, expand existing tax credit scholarship programs and create Education Opportunity Accounts where the state would deposit about $6,000 per student for parents to spend on education. The bill also provides protections and incentives for “learning pods,” which groups of parents formed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lewis would create “affirmative protections” to ensure that parents and children who take part in learning pods “are not subject to undue surveillance, reporting, regulatory demands or harassment,” according to a legislative memo attached to the bill.

“This might be the most aggressive school choice bill in the country now,” Lewis said. “But getting this bill out of committee has been a challenge. One option we have considered is a discharge resolution, and how this works is you get a couple dozen members to sign on and force the bill out of committee. That’s step one, but then you still have to get leadership to run the bill. But with school choice being as important, timely, and crucial as it is, we should vote so the people can see where legislators stand.”

Lewis favors the creation of a statewide authorization board as part of HB. 1 to empower local communities with more options to create charter schools.

“Right now, we have a situation where the school district decides whether to authorize a new charter and what this means is you have the fox guarding the hen house. Often times, the people making these decisions are the ones running the failing schools and they know that if a new player comes in who is competitive it’s going to take away some of their student population.

“So, you’ve got this double situation where not only is a school failing, but these school officials are blocking any entity that would provide new opportunities for families. My bill creates an independent statewide charter authorizer that bypasses the local districts so charters can gain approval from an unbiased board,” Lewis said.

What then are the prospects for education reform?

Lewis sees an opportunity to expand both the Education Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Tax Credit programs as part of the budgetary negotiations that will take place over the next few months. He’s less certain about the possibility of charter school proposals and Education Opportunity Accounts gaining traction at least in the near term.

“There are several promising proposals,” he said. “But I don’t know if our leadership has the stomach or the willpower to fight for these reforms so they can come to fruition. The charter school component of my bill, for example, is a heavy lift because special interests see it as a threat to their monopoly.”

Dave Hardy, a senior fellow with The Commonwealth Foundation, who is also the co-founder and retired CEO of the Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia charter school, expects to see parents operating at disadvantage so long as their tax dollars are used to support lobbying against legislation that they favor.

“If the people who operate charter schools want to do any lobbying, they have to do it out of their own pockets,” Hardy said. “But there’s a whole apparatus that has been set up and funded by the taxpayer to lobby against charters. It’s really an insane situation. Parents who want to talk to lawmakers and pay for their own traveling are on a limited budget. They are at a huge disadvantage.”

The Commonwealth Foundation performed its studies by submitting Right-to-Know requests to local government agencies including school districts. But only about 40percent of those agencies responded and out of the 571 school entities that received open records requests, just 105 responded – a response rate of just 18 percent. For this reason, the reports understate the amount of taxpayer money that is devoted to opposing school choice. Even so, the reports produce several major takeaways that help to explain why reform measures like HB.1 have stalled.

The bottom line is that public school lobbyists have a huge financial advantage over taxpayers who do not support their policy agenda. The Pittsburgh School District, for example, paid $552,075 to Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney from 2013 to 2020, according to Right-to-Know records. A search of the Pennsylvania State Department’s lobbying database shows the district spent an added $293,467 for lobbying from April 2008 to December 2012.

A complete list of the expenditures where taxpayer money has been used to pay lobbyists is available here. Some of the school districts that ring the bell include the Hempfield Area School District, the Philadelphia School District, the Pittsburgh School District, the Bloomsburg Area School District, the West York Area School District, the Harrisburg School District, and the Sharon City School District.

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MENSCH: Restoring Public Trust in State Government

For years, there have been calls from both inside and outside the Capitol from people asking that more be done to curb the influence of lobbyists and political consultants in Harrisburg. Government, which is supposed to serve the will of the people, can unfortunately be swayed by outside sources.

Pennsylvanians deserve to have faith in their government. They deserve to trust that government officials are acting in their best interests, rather than on behalf of others whose influence is shrouded.

That is why some of my colleagues and I came together to rise to the challenge that Sen. Jake Corman laid out in his first speech as Senate Pro Tempore in January.

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill of York County, Sen. Lisa Baker of Luzerne County, Sen. Tommy Tomlinson of Bucks County and I introduced a package of bills that would subject lobbyists and political consultants to new transparency and ethical standards that limit their level of influence in state government.

My legislation, Senate Bill 801, would require lobbyists to register any clients seeking state financial assistance or grants. It would also prohibit kickbacks and inducements for referrals or performance bonuses for a successful application for taxpayer-funded grants.

Senate Bill 802, sponsored by Sen. Phillips-Hill, would prohibit any state entity from hiring an outside lobbyist or political consultant to lobby any branch of government. The bill would also prohibit former lobbyists who become employees of the General Assembly from being lobbied by their previous colleagues for one year after separation from employment. This would prevent the revolving door of individuals leaving a lobbying firm to join the legislature and immediately being influenced by their former coworkers.

Senate Bill 803, sponsored by Sen. Baker, would prevent lobbyists from also being registered as political consultants and would prohibit a political consultant from lobbying a state official who was a client for the remainder of the term for which consulting services were provided.

Senate Bill 804, sponsored by Sen. Tomlinson, would require all registered lobbyists to complete mandatory annual ethics training developed by the Department of State.

Legislation passed earlier this summer, Act 70 of 2021, requires lobbyists to disclose any equity they hold in any entity for which they are lobbying. While passage of this bill was a good start to stifle the influence of lobbyists and political consultants in Harrisburg, more work remains to make our government serve its people in more transparent and effective ways.

We will continue to work legislatively to bring openness, transparency and improved ethical standards to the Commonwealth’s lobbying industry so public trust in state government can be restored.