John Bonifaz has spent years working to get big money out of politics and checking excessive corporate power. Recently he helped the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, ban super PACs and prevent foreign-influenced corporations from spending money in the city’s elections. In 2016, after the election of President Trump, Free Speech For People expanded its mandate to call for his impeachment on the grounds that by retaining ownership in his businesses, Trump violates the emolument clauses of the Constitution.
Bonifaz, an attorney specializing in constitutional law and voting rights, is president and co-founder of Free Speech For People, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to getting big money out of politics. At 33, after founding the National Voting Rights Institute, he won the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius award” for advancing the legal argument that big money in politics violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. He and fellow attorney Jeffrey Clements founded Free Speech For People on Jan. 21, 2010, just moments after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission that found corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money in elections.
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Fran Korten talked with Bonifaz about his passion for getting big money out of politics and his recent work of building momentum to impeach the President.
Fran Korten: Tell me about your recent victory in St. Petersburg, Florida. What was that about?
Bonifaz: On Oct. 5, we had a huge victory in St. Petersburg. By a vote of 6–2, the city council passed an ordinance to ban super PACs and to prohibit foreign-influenced corporations from making expenditures in St. Petersburg’s local elections. This model law is the first of its kind in the country.
You call it a “model law.” Are you planning to get it passed in other cities?
Yes, and other states too. Connecticut and Massachusetts each have had bills introduced into their legislatures that we helped to draft. St. Petersburg was a great example of a local community where thousands of citizens stepped forward to demand that their city take this action. Others can do this too. At our FreeSpeechForPeople.org site, people can find resources to mount such a campaign. They can learn about other campaigns too, including overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
How does the St. Petersburg ban work?
At the federal level, the donation limit to a regular PAC is $5,000. But a federal appeals court ruling, known as SpeechNow.org v Federal Elections Commission, said you can give unlimited donations to a super PAC. St. Petersburg established a $5,000 donation limit to all PACs for their local elections. That effectively abolishes super PACs in their area. The law takes effect January 1, 2018. So now multimillionaires, billionaires, and big corporate interests cannot make unlimited donations to PACs that operate in St. Petersburg.
Is the St. Petersburg ordinance legal and constitutional?
We argue that it is legal and constitutionally grounded. The Supreme Court has for many years, including in recent years, upheld the principle that we need limits on contributions to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption. The ruling that enabled super PACs did not come out of the Supreme Court. It came out of a federal appeals court. The Supreme Court has not ruled on the question of super PACs. What the Supreme Court ruled on in Citizens United was on the question of corporate and unionexpenditures in our elections. Here we are dealing with contribution limits to PACs.
The St. Petersburg law also dealt with expenditures made by foreign-influenced corporations, which represent an emerging threat to our democracy. We know, for example, that the Saudi Arabian government last year made a $3.5 billion investment in Uber. As a result, the Saudi government now has stock ownership of more than 5 percent of the company and a seat on the company’s board of directors. Uber is spending millions of dollars in elections around the country to try to influence the regulation of its industry. St. Petersburg made such expenditures by foreign-influenced corporations illegal in its local elections.
What led St. Petersburg to take on this issue?
They have a history of activism around money in politics. They were one of the first to recommend an amendment to the Constitution to overturn the Citizens United decision. Then in 2014, an 82-year old woman named Rhana Bazzini walked 400 miles from Sarasota to Tallahassee to call for massive campaign finance reform. I joined her in the last couple of days. I got to know Rhana and also Rae Claire Johnson, who coordinated the walk. I said to Rae Claire that there’s another way we can fight big money in politics—we could pass a model ordinance at the city level. She and others mobilized more than 25 groups, including the League of Women Voters and American Promise/Tampa Bay, to push the city to do this.
I was at the city council hearing on Oct. 5 for the vote on the ordinance. It was one of the most inspiring days I’ve experienced in all my years in this work. We had citizens, one after the other, step up to the microphone and speak personally and powerfully as to why they wanted to see their city take this action.
Aside from the general principle of getting big money out of politics, what were reasons people gave to pass the ordinance?
Some had concerns around the environment; some around health care; others around the disproportionate number of men versus women in power; some about gun violence and the living wage. All were concerned about the effects of big money on the laws that get enacted. What happened in St. Petersburg shows you the power of people stepping up and demanding their democracy back.
On the day of President Trump’s inauguration, Free Speech For People and Roots Action called for an impeachment investigation. What were your grounds when Trump had barely stepped into the office?
After being declared the winner of the November 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was warned repeatedly, by legal scholars, ethical experts, and others that he needed to fully divest from his business interests in order to comply with two anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution: the foreign emoluments clause and the domestic emoluments clause. These provisions make clear that the president cannot receive payments from foreign governments or from states or the federal government other than his federal salary. So even though he turned management over to his eldest sons, he retains ownership of his company. So we knew he was violating the Constitution from the moment he took the oath of office.
How has the public responded to the call for an impeachment investigation?
It’s been phenomenal. Over 1.2 million Americans have signed a petition calling for this impeachment investigation. And 15 communities, including Los Angeles, have passed a resolution calling on Congress to take this action. We’ve seen three members of Congress call for impeachment proceedings.
Where would somebody go to sign the petition?
Free Speech for People and Roots Action have a site, ImpeachDonaldTrumpNow.org. We have the petition and resources on why this investigation should go forward. We have since expanded the arguments to include obstruction of justice; potential coordination with a foreign government to interfere with our elections; giving aid and comfort to neo-Nazis and White supremacists; the abuse of the pardon power in the pardon of Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who flagrantly violated the constitutional rights of thousands of citizens; and recklessly threatening nuclear war against foreign nations.
I want to be clear, this is a nonpartisan campaign. What’s at stake is whether we’re going to stand up for our Constitution and our democracy. If we are true to the idea that we are ruled not by men and women, but by laws, then we are going to hold people to account when they violate the rule of law.
Impeachment has to originate in the House. Then the Senate must hold a trial to convict. What are the chances that could happen with our current Congress?
We think the chances are high when it comes to the evidence. What is needed is courage on the part of those in Congress. But ultimately it is going to be people at the grassroots level demanding this.
I take a historical perspective on the possibility. In 1972, when Richard Nixon was running for re-election, Woodward and Bernstein were already reporting in The Washington Post on the Watergate scandal. Despite that, Nixon won in a landslide against George McGovern. Then, after the election, more evidence came out. By August 1974, Nixon resigned, under threat of likely impeachment. Given that history, I think the question of impeachment in our current context has to be put forward now.
I heard that Free Speech For People submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on the question of whether Trump is a moron. That sounds like something straight out of The Onion. Were you serious?
Very serious. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, according to NBC News, that Donald Trump is a moron. He has refused to answer whether he actually said that. We thought it incumbent upon the government to inform the public whether or not there is any documentation of him or anyone else within the State Department, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security or other departments saying something like that. Because if they actually think that the President is mentally unfit for the presidency, then that is a 25th Amendment question.
The 25th Amendment was enacted after the Kennedy assassination. A concern was what would have happened if Kennedy had been injured and unable to carry out his duties. The Amendment states that the cabinet has a special role in removing the president if he or she is unfit to carry out the duties of the office. So, is President Trump seen by senior members of his cabinet as not having the mental capacity to do his job? If that’s true, we think the public ought to know it.
You have been in the middle of a lot of contentious constitutional issues. If you could change just one ruling to advance fairness in elections, what would that be?
It would be the 1976 Supreme Court ruling in Buckley v. Valeo. That ruling equated spending money with speech and set us on this course of unlimited campaign spending. If we could overturn that ruling, money could no longer be the factor that it is today in influencing who gets elected, what policies are on or off the table for discussion, and how people’s voices get drowned out.
Many Americans are alarmed about the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. You’re going back several decades to Buckley v. Valeo. Why?
The Buckley v. Valeo ruling was the starting point that gets us where we are today. In 1974, after the Watergate scandal, Congress passed reforms that included mandatory limits on overall campaign spending by independent groups and candidates. James Buckley, who was running for re-election as a US senator, wanted to spend more than was allowed. So he, along with others, sued. When that case came before the Supreme Court, the Court overturned the decision of the federal appeals court that had ruled in favor of the mandatory spending limits. The Supreme Court said these limits violated the free speech rights of the candidates and independent groups. That then led to the system we have now of unlimited campaign spending.
You and your colleagues at Free Speech For People take on some hot political topics. Do you get any threats?
When we launched the impeachment campaign, some people called and wrote us with hostile statements. That will not deter us. A real danger of this moment is that if we act out of fear, if we hide away because we don’t want to stand up, then we are going down a very precarious road, where our democracy and our republic are at stake. At Free Speech For People, we believe that we have to stand up at this critical moment and lift up the basic requirements of the Constitution and the rule of law.