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.

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Comments on “John Oliver Exposes The Sketchiness Of Political Grandstanding State Attorneys General”

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Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Video Unavailable

So weird. It’s working for me. Thought maybe it was a location issue, and through the magic of VPNs just tried accessing it “from” a variety of different countries around the world (Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Germany) and had no problems in any of them. And having no problems here in the US. Not sure what’s up…

Not.You says:

My state AG

I work for a non-profit. A couple of years ago a doctor in my state was arrested for child molestation. For reasons unknown the AG put out a statement about the arrest that said the doctor worked at our non-profit at the time he was arrested when in fact he had never worked here. The story was picked up and repeated by newspapers and TV stations around the state. As you can imagine it resulted in horrible public opinion for us. When our executive director met with the AG and tried to get him to issue a retraction, even though he admitted it was inaccurate, he refused to issue a retraction and even refused to use words like “mistake” or “error”. It was apparently inaccurate in some sort of vacuum where he had no responsibility. This is also part of the power these idiots have to shape society, not just who they go after in court or threaten to go after.

Christenson says: and Kamela Harris, anyone??? is a double-edged example here.

They clearly became the go-to place to advertise sex, and, to hide the fact that some of it involved children and teenagers, they directly helped their advertisers re-write the copy to look legal. (One wonders what the ethics and practical effect of a few black-letter notices about and to underagers might have been, along with takedowns of content obviously involving underagers).

Now we have SESTA and its chilling effects and re-creation of streetwalkers…largely due to the efforts of one or two crusading state AGs, and it wasn’t even necessary to shut down backpage.

carlb (profile) says:

Re: and Kamela Harris, anyone???

It’s not just Backpage. A long list of state attorneys general managed to pretty much blackmail Craigslist into removing all of the “adult services” categories – that’s how this stuff ended up moving to Backpage in the first place.

Craigsfist even removed the category for many non-US cities where the services may have been lawful. They shouldn’t have caved in this manner, but as a small organisation who is up against an adversary with unlimited access to taxpayer-funded lawyers, their resources to defend basic liberties are limited – and that’s typical of many victims.

SESTA is a bad law which has only made this worse. Instead of removing “services” categories, all of the Craigsfist personals (except “missed connections”) are gone… even for Canadian cities which should’ve been beyond reach. The price of hosting anything stateside?

Anonymous Coward says:

“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. “
LOL. I loved his end-of-segment in trying to get people to do this very thing, and I can bet not a single fucking person took any time to care, let alone to look up their candidates.

But more importantly: what fucking good will it do when ALL candidates are part of this “soft” corruption.

Fix your damn government, people, instead of bitching about it.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

That is, when are the mail-ins counted

Election day.

Sometimes races are called before all the mail-in and provisional ballots are counted, but this is reasonable — they know how many votes they have so far, they know how many votes are uncounted, and they know whether a race is close enough that they can’t call it until all the ballots are counted, or so lopsided that the not-yet-counted votes wouldn’t be enough to change the outcome of the race.

what do they count against

I’m not sure what you mean by that.

and if you mail it in, are you guaranteed it will get counted and not discarded?

I don’t know that guaranteed is the right word. Nothing in life is certain. Even if you vote in person, you can’t absolutely guarantee your vote will be counted and not discarded; remember the hanging chads in Florida in the 2000 election?

Once, when I was in college in Flagstaff, my mail-in ballot for an election in Tempe arrived on election day. If this had been a state or federal election, that wouldn’t have stopped me from voting, as you can drop off a mail-in ballot at any precinct. But because it was a city election, there was no polling station in Flagstaff where I could drop it off. That’s the only time I’ve ever been unable to vote by mail, and I suspect it was a mistake by the university mail system, not the USPS.

There was also one occasion when I received a letter that my ballot had been marked provisional because my signature did not match the one on file (I had spent the past few months working a retail job that involved signing my name all day, and my signature had changed). I filled out the form that came with the letter, verified my signature, and I haven’t had any other issues since.

I’m confident enough in the USPS to deliver my ballot, and the recorder’s office to correctly count it, that I’m not concerned that it will not be counted, or that it will be miscounted (provided I get it in the mail on time). Indeed, given the issues my county has had in the 2016 and 2018 primaries, I’d be more worried about whether I’d be able to vote at a precinct than whether I can vote by mail.

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Even if you want to look up information about your candidates and where they stand on the issues, that’s often impossible.

Their websites are often filled with promises so vague that virtually anyone could agree with it, often because it only states end goals (“we want a stronger economy”), or vastly oversimplifies complex things (“we want to lower taxes to give us a strong economy”).

And it’s even worse the lower the office. Good luck finding anything meaningful on them, especially if they have a common name.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I can’t speak to other states, but the Arizona Republic has a rather good voter guide where you can enter your address and it gives you a list of candidates and, where applicable, their responses to interview questions.

It’s not perfect — as you say, there’s candidate spin, and down-ballot races aren’t well-covered — but it’s a good start.

stderric (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Good point, it doesn’t seem terribly useful for state AGs… (the National Institute on Money in State Politics) looks like it might have more info in some cases, but it’s still patchy and the data isn’t presented as well. (In any event, I gotta admit that I was just taking a cheap & easy shot by equating corporate contributions with candidates’ positions.)

Chip says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

I am very Smart.

You can “tell” that I am very Smart because I do my own Foot WORK.

And when Other “people” talk about Sources that they can “use” to do Their own Foot work, I tell them that they are Stupid, and not SMART like “me”. That is how you know that I am SMART.

Every Nation eats the Paint chips it Deserves!

CrushU (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is something I’ve been noticing recently. A lot of the ‘voter guides’ I see have “No Response” from a lot of candidates. I generally assume that this indicates someone who isn’t paying attention to constituents, so I’ll generally vote for anyone who responded at all.

But then I came across one candidate who had all their responses as “For more detail on this question, see <candidate’s website>”

That made me extremely annoyed. If you can’t at least give a summary of your position on the question, and instead try to subvert the ‘100 words or less’ limit by trying to redirect to a website… Never voting for you.

Still, I wonder if candidates respond to all of the surveys they receive, maybe I’m looking at the wrong voter guide that certain candidates don’t respond to. I try to verify that whatever voter guide I’m using is a nonpartisan one, but it’s not always clear. I almost think this should be some kind of regulation, that this guide is the one every candidate should respond to and every voter should reference for answers. But I think that runs into First Amendment issues pretty fast.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: I'm the one guy.

After the bagpipes started I looked up California AG Xavier Becerra who is fairly scandal- and weirdness-light. Though people who are afraid of that invading caravan of desperate migrants

His opponent, Judge Steven Bailey, wants to bring back three-strikes (which doesn’t help but to fill up our impacted prisons), push for more capital punishment, and ban sanctuary cities. He’s also tough on crime which means put more poor people in prison for being poor.

So my research was super easy and short.

Incidentally: Why doesn’t the markdown markup for strikeout work?

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

I noticed the beginning of the current “in your face” corruption about midway through clinton’s first term.

Prior to that, “everyone KNEW”, but at least some effort was made to hide what was really going on.

It’s just become more and more blatant since that point.

“Yeah, I did it. And I’m the (president/senator/AG/FCC Head/cabinet member), so WTF you gonna do about it?”

And please don’t invoke party tribalism – BOTH sides are ridiculously corrupt.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Agree, but you are still going to get someone trying to blame you for false equivalence because they can’t help themselves.

No matter which team is in power, there is a steady and aggressive decline in liberty and a waterfall of corruption pouring out of Washington at a rate that makes Niagara Falls looks like a peaceful and slow pour.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I don’t think it’s really much more corrupt than it was a century and more ago.

It’s that there’s no effort made to hide it anymore.

Yeah, an Aide will write a puff piece full of lies for release to the press, but if the VIP is questioned directly, you get the “Yeah, so what?”.

Nobody even tries to hide that it’s become “get elected, steal everything” anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

No, there is obviously more corruption now than before. It’s just that simple. The corrupt always starts small and then grows. Keep in mind that the point is corruption here. Not the measurements of the enormity of evil committed. Corruption is not necessary to commit evil. An evil person in politics can totally be a straight shooter can commit far more evil than a corrupt bastard only out for themselves lying every step of the way.

I do agree that the corruption seems more open and embraced these days. But that is part and parcel of the Us vs Them politics that both sides are currently playing.

Both have fringe elements accusing the other of extremism…

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

More corruption now? I’m not so sure.

From Witchfinders through Rail Barons, Carpetbaggers, some of the things past Presidents have gotten away with, Chicago under Prohibition comes to mind as well, no governments have ever been lacking in serious corruption.

But most of that “stuff” we didn’t hear about until years, decades, or centuries later.

Now nobody denies their corruption. Because there doesn’t seem to ever be any serious penalties applied to them.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Really this indicates a lack of confidence on Valve's part.

The primary thing Steam sells is its distribution service on the premise that it is actually better than other distro-vectors, including piracy.

So blocking sites that allegedly provide torrents for games or are even only related to torrents for games is kinda like Amazon blocking

Ultimately this kind of restriction draws more people towards those sites by way of the Streisand Effect.

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