John Oliver Exposes The Sketchiness Of Political Grandstanding State Attorneys General
from the it's-even-worse-than-he-says dept
Once again, it appears that comedian John Oliver is doing much more to dig into actual political problems than much of the rest of the news. The latest was his show this past Sunday about the weird and wacky world of state Attorneys’ General. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a watch:
Oliver’s piece focuses on state AGs (of both parties) filing partisan lawsuits against the federal government (of the opposing party). But the real “scandal” is in how various corporations have recognized the power of state AGs to effectively create policy (mainly by causing trouble for competitors). We’ve discussed this aspect multiple times in the past, mainly around Mississippi’s Attorney General Jim Hood going after Google at the request of the MPAA. And, of course, it wasn’t just “at their behest,” it was literally Hood more or less rubber stamping a demand letter written by the MPAA’s lawyers and sending it on as his own. The emails from the Sony hack revealed that the plan was literally to have the MPAA lawyers do all the investigative work and prepare many of the documents, and hand them off to “friendly” state AGs to shake down and threaten companies such as Google.
And they didn’t come up with this idea out of nowhere. It came in response to a 2014 NY Times article detailing how corporate lobbyists were “pursuing” state AGs directly in plans to cause trouble for competitors (or to get themselves out of investigations).
Attorneys general are now the object of aggressive pursuit by lobbyists and lawyers who use campaign contributions, personal appeals at lavish corporate-sponsored conferences and other means to push them to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements or pressure federal regulators, an investigation by The New York Times has found.
A robust industry of lobbyists and lawyers has blossomed as attorneys general have joined to conduct multistate investigations and pushed into areas as diverse as securities fraud and Internet crimes.
But unlike the lobbying rules covering other elected officials, there are few revolving-door restrictions or disclosure requirements governing state attorneys general, who serve as ?the people?s lawyers? by protecting consumers and individual citizens.
Most normal people would look at this and see the horrors of soft corruption. The MPAA looked at this and appeared to think, “hey, we should get in on that.” (I’ll leave aside the irony of the strict copyright maximalist MPAA sending around an entire copy of a NY Times article with no commentary to all the top staff at the MPAA and all the top legal folks at its member studios…) That resulted in them crafting a big plan to “fund” significant amounts of cash directly for doing the dirty work for state AGs to target Google.
And, of course, it gets even worse than that. Years back, we wrote about Chris Tolles’ harrowing tale in which a long list of state AGs effectively tried to shake down his startup, despite everyone admitting it had not broken any laws. The whole story is worth reading, but perhaps the most incredible part is after Tolles spoke with the state AGs, openly provided all the details on how his site operated, and why it was clearly within the law… they then went after him in the court of public opinion by misrepresenting everything he said (but never actually going after him in court):
So, after opening the kimono and giving these guys a whole lot of info on how we ran things, how big we were and that we dedicated 20% of our staff on these issues, what was the response. (You could probably see this one coming.)
That’s right. Another press release. This time from 23 states’ Attorney’s General.
This pile-on took much of what we had told them, and turned it against us. We had mentioned that we required three separate people to flag something before we would take action (mainly to prevent individuals from easily spiking things that they didn’t like). That was called out as a particular sin to be cleansed from our site. They also asked us to drop the priority review program in its entirety, drop the time it takes us to review posts from 7 days to 3 and “immediately revamp our AI technology to block more violative posts” amongst other things.
That was hardly the only example. Over the years, we’ve regularly detailed state AGs (of both parties) specifically picking on tech and internet companies with bogus legal threats, but which easily made lots of headlines, and helped get their names and faces in the paper. A lawyer friend has joked that, NAAG, the National Association of Attorneys General, it really stands for the National Association of Aspiring Governors. That’s because many, many, many state AGs end up seeking higher office — either as governor or US Senator. So getting their names in the news, even for bullshit reasons, is seen as valuable for name recognition.
Oliver’s point in all of this is that with many state AGs up for election next week, you should take the time to understand who is really running. And this is not a partisan message. We’ve covered awful state AG practices from members of both parties (and, occasionally, good state AG actions from members of both parties). But who is in that role really does matter, and it’s time we really started paying attention to who we’re putting in those powerful positions.