Opening the Floodgates on Corporate Influence

The Supreme Court reaffirmed its earlier decision in Citizens United, this time ruling that it overrides state campaign finance laws. / REUTERS

Montana has tried to keep its politics clean, and that effort was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

By a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court blocked an effort by the Montana Supreme Court to uphold a centuries-old law barring corporations from getting involved in state elections.

The high court ruled that Montana’s effort violated the court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. That highly controversial decision equated campaign contributions to the right to free speech, saying neither could be squelched. It opened the way for vastly higher corporate spending in political contests.

The Montana law in question was enacted in 1912 when “copper kings” and other mining barons largely controlled state politics. For a century, the law stood. When the Montana law was challenged in that state recently, the Montana Supreme Court upheld it.

But a group of Montana business interests decided to take their challenge to the U.S Supreme Court, and the high court agreed with the group.  In doing so, the high court said that the Citizens United decision trumps anything taking place on the state level and re-affirmed that all states are bound by it.  The Citizens United decision has resulted in a flood of unregulated and often undisclosed money into the presidential race that may well reach the $1 billion mark.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, has long decried the vast money pouring into politics.  He told The Washington Post that the Supreme Court decision “allows our government to be auctioned off to billionaires, millionaires, corporate funders and other special interests.”

In Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said the Supreme Court is now endorsing “dirty, secret, corporate, foreign money.”

Sweep to Supreme Court reaffirms Citizens United

No one said that bringing a lawsuit against Alcoa over its alleged involvement in international bribes would be easy.

The complications, however, do boggle the mind.  The case was brought four years ago in federal court in Pittsburgh by Aluminum Bahrain BSC, also known as Alba. It accuses Alcoa of inducing Alba to buy the raw material alumina at inflated prices as a result of bribes that went through a middleman.

At a status conference, it was learned that 23 of the people named in the court filings are located outside of the United States and only two are current Alba employees.  Even more, many are government officials in a country currently rocked by unrest and street demonstrations, making it hard to depose them.

U.S, District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose, however, has said that the case will move forward, while acknowledging the logistical difficulties.

“I think it’s going to be a problem,” said Judge Ambrose, in a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  “I don’t know how to solve it at this point.”

She suggested that the parties try mediation before a trial date is set.  She also disclosed that her father was an Alcoa laborer, that she was offered but did not accept an Alcoa scholarship to college and that her son works for the Securities and Exchange Commission, which, along with the Department of Justice, is involved in a criminal probe of the bribery allegations. Her son, however, does not work in the enforcement division.

Sweep to Judge: Alcoa bribery lawsuit complicated but can proceed

Two U.S. Border Patrol agents, and brothers as well, will stand trial in San Diego next month in one of the highest-profile cases the agency faces.   Raul Villarreal and his older brother, Fidel, are accused of smuggling hundreds of migrants into the country.

The Associated Press reports that this is the biggest case since the Border Patrol went on a hiring spree around a decade ago.  The brothers were arrested in Tijuana in October 2008, two years after they abruptly quit the patrol, and are charged with human smuggling, witness tampering and bribery.  They even used Border Patrol vehicles to transport their human cargo, the indictment said.  The brothers have pleaded not guilty.

Criminal indictments against Border Patrol agents and other border security officials have increased over the last four years.  There have been 232 indictments since October 2007 through last April.

In this case, Raul Villarreal appeared frequently on television as a spokesman for the agency.  He also played the role of a dangerous human smuggler in a public service announcement to warn Mexicans about the pitfalls of entering the United States illegally, A.P. reported.

Perhaps he knew his part all too well.

Sweep to Border patrol agents set for corruption trial




Leslie Wayne

Leslie Wayne

Leslie Wayne, former senior editor at 100Reporters, is an award-winning business reporter, formerly at The New York Times. Ms. Wayne joined The Times in 1981 and has covered Wall Street, banking industry regulatory reform, municipal finance scandals and, most recently, the aerospace and military industries. Ms. Wayne has an M.B.A. in finance from Columbia Business School and was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economic Journalism.