University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter believes that Republicans should be afraid — very afraid — of the campaign finance system. And, as a Republican himself, he intends to do something about it.
Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, is on leave from the U of M as a fellow at the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard. He’s writing a book on campaign finance and how Republicans have left themselves vulnerable to agendas of foreign businesses and government.
“I spell out that this is a serious issue, how money from China, from the Middle East is so easy to get into our corporations,” he said. “The social conservatives – whether I agree or disagree with them – will be in the minority of influence compared to the influence of energy companies, gambling, pharmaceuticals, and now, with legalized marijuana, drugs.”
Painter has disagreed with social conservatives. He is one of a handful of Republicans in Minnesota who joined the effort to defeat the marriage amendment in 2012. He has gone against the Republican grain on other issues, as well. His proposals to establish ethical guidelines for securities lawyers became a key provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which redefined how public corporations must comply with the law.
But on campaign finance reform, he is squarely on the side of conservatives. The problem, as he sees it, is that the heavier the hand of government regulation, the more that hand can extract political contributions to mitigate the damage.
“The traditional business community should be worried” about the cause and effect of the current finance system, he said. Painter said he hopes the book will be published “before the 2016 election cycle heats up.”
Painter believes that the state attorney general offices are a subset of the problem. “A bunch of AG’s is looking to the energy drink business. Defense attorneys go to an AG fundraiser and the investigation is dropped next month,” he said, summarizing an article on the practice reported in the New York Times.
Another article reported on plaintiffs attorneys that encourage attorneys general to investigate businesses and then retain the private attorneys on contingency. “That’s a great way to drive industry out the state,” Painter said. “There ought to be a rule that prosecutors never talk about potential cases at a partisan political event.”
Painter submitted a proposal to the American Bar Association to formally adopt such a restriction. “You could also have state legislatures pass a law,” he said, noting that a Missouri legislator has asked him about such language.
Ben Wogsland, a spokesman for Minnesota attorney general Lori Swanson says that she has never attended a meeting of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “We were told she’s the only attorney general in the country that doesn’t attend meetings of either the Democratic Attorneys General Association (DAGA) or the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA),” said Wogsland.
Painter, meanwhile, has more on his agenda than professional guidelines and academic discussion. He says that he will have an active role in a group that will debut later his month to push for campaign finance reform.
The group, tentatively called “Take Back our Republic,” will offer solutions “from a Republican, conservative perspective,” he said. Painter will be joined in the effort by Trevor Potter, the Republican lawyer who was campaign counsel to John McCain’s and George H.W. Bush — but who may be best known as the lawyer who, in 2012, helped Stephen Colbert set up his own SuperPac.