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By Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. — Republicans who control Michigan’s Legislature voted Wednesday to advance a measure that strips campaign-finance oversight power from the Democratic secretary of state-elect, and they were poised to give lawmakers authority to stand up for GOP-backed laws if they think the incoming Democratic governor and attorney general are not adequately defending the state’s interests.

The lame-duck moves followed within hours of similar efforts in Wisconsin, where lawmakers voted earlier Wednesday to shift clout to the Republican-controlled Legislature and weaken the Democrat replacing the GOP governor.

Michigan Democrats in January will jointly hold the governor, attorney general and secretary offices for the first time in 28 years, but the Legislature will continue to be controlled by Republicans.

A day after GOP lawmakers finalized an unprecedented maneuver to gut minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, a Senate panel passed legislation that would create the Fair Political Practices Commission to enforce the campaign-finance law rather than Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson, who ran in part on a pledge to advocate for election transparency.

Democrats called the bill a blatant power grab that would fly in the face of voters.

“At no point did voters say they wanted the rules manipulated. At no point did they say they wanted bills rushed through a hasty lame-duck session,” said Patrick Schuh, state director for the liberal group America Votes. He questioned the timing, saying such a commission was not proposed until a Democrat is on the verge of leading the secretary of state office for the first time in two-dozen years.

Republicans defended the legislation, saying the six-member panel of three Democrats and three Republicans would initially be appointed by Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer. Eric Doster, a former long-time lawyer for the state GOP, testified that the commission would operate similarly to those in other states and said “now the time is right.”

Other critics of the bill, however, contended that the commission would be ineffectual, saying its members would deadlock and be accountable to political parties that would submit a list of possible appointees to the governor.

Also Wednesday, the House planned to approve legislation that would empower the Legislature, House or Senate to intervene in any suit at any stage, a right already granted to the attorney general. It is seen as a maneuver to ensure that Republicans could support laws if Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General-elect Nessel are lukewarm about GOP-passed measures and drop appeals in cases the state loses.

Nessel, for example, has said she probably will not defend a law allowing faith-based groups to refuse to serve same-sex couples who want to adopt children.

Republicans disputed criticism that the legislation would undermine the role of the attorney general. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the bill is needed because “we’ve been shut out” in recent cases.

“We believe we have standing, and we want to make sure by law that we do because if somebody wants to ignore a law, we need to intervene because we made the law. It’s passed and signed by the governor and it needs to be enforced,” Meekhof said.

Democrats said the legislation would lead to increased legislative spending on lawyers.

“When we have roads to fix and schools to fund and health care plans to fund, how can you possibly justify setting up this parallel organization when we already have an attorney general and a process in place to take care of these issues?” said Rep. Christine Greig of Farmington Hills.

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North Carolina GOP candidate owes $34,000 to scrutinized consultant

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By Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Republican candidate in North Carolina’s unresolved congressional race has acknowledged owing $34,310 to a political consultant subpoenaed in a ballot fraud probe, according to a federal campaign filing that refers to work at the heart of the investigation.

The Mark Harris campaign listed its debt to the Red Dome Group in a late Thursday filing with the Federal Election Commission. The form said the nature of the debt included “Reimbursement Payment for Bladen Absentee” and “Reimbursement Door to Door.”

Bladen County’s absentee ballots are at the center of a fraud probe that has prompted the North Carolina Elections Board to refuse to certify Harris as the winner over Democrat Dan McCready. The board cited allegations of “irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities” involving mail-in ballots, and subpoenaed both the Harris campaign and Red Dome for documents.

The board could order a new election after meeting later this month to consider the evidence. For now, the vote count remains unofficial, with Harris leading McCready by 905 votes.

Some Bladen County voters have said strangers came to their homes to collect their absentee ballots, whether or not they had been fully completed or sealed in an envelope to keep them from being altered, according to affidavits offered by the state Democratic Party. State law allows only a family member or legal guardian to drop off absentee ballots for a voter.

Red Dome hired Bladen County contractor McCrae Dowless, whose criminal record includes prison time in 1995 for felony fraud and a conviction for felony perjury in 1992.

According to documents released by the elections board, Dowless seems to have collected the most absentee ballot request forms in Bladen County this fall. A copy of the Bladen election board’s log book shows Dowless turned in well over 500 applications.

McCrae Dowless.WECT

The FEC report also lists two other debts totaling nearly $20,000 to Red Dome for digital advertising, robocalls and mailings for Harris. The filing says those mailings were in Robeson County, another area where the state board has sought information as part of its probe. The details were part of a wide-ranging post-election report on the campaign’s finances.

McCready, expressing outrage over what he called a shameful attack on democracy, withdrew his concession in a video released late Thursday. He’s demanding that Harris explain what he knows about the absentee ballot allegations.

“He hired a criminal who was under investigation for ballot fraud to do his absentee ballot work, and it looks like he got what he paid for,” McCready told CNN on Friday.

Harris didn’t respond to a message seeking comment late Thursday. He issued a statement last week saying he supports a voter fraud investigation, but that the race should be certified in the meantime because there didn’t appear to be enough questioned votes to erase his lead. His campaign lawyer said this week the organization wasn’t aware of any illegal conduct during the race.

Dowless declined comment when visited by an Associated Press reporter this week at his home, and didn’t immediately respond to a phone message Friday. The head of the Red Dome Group, Andy Yates, also didn’t immediately respond to an email Friday.

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Sen. Cortez Masto hires Latino chief of staff as Congress faces scrutiny over staff diversity

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By Suzanne Gamboa

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who made history as the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, hired Reynaldo Benitez to be her chief of staff, making him one of two Hispanics to hold that influential Senate job starting next year.

Cortez Masto, D-Nev., announced Benitez’s promotion to the senior position on Friday. Benitez, 32, was working as her special adviser and before that, her communications director.

Chiefs of staff generally are the highest ranking and highest paid legislative staff members.

Currently, the only Hispanic Senate chief of staffs are Bianca Ortiz Wertheim, who works for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. and Susie Perez Quinn who works for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Nelson was not re-elected.

Benitez is replacing Scott Fairchild, who Cortez Masto tapped as executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Members of Congress have faced backlash for years over the lack of diversity in the staff in their Capitol Hill offices in the House and Senate.

The scrutiny and criticism have increased now that record numbers of women and people of color are heading to the Hill for the next congressional session, which begins in January.

Larry Gonzalez, a founding principal for the Raben Group, a lobbying firm, has pushed to improve staff diversity on the Hill. He said this hiring is a step forward when it comes to representation.

“It’s walking the walk instead of talking the talk,” Gonzalez told NBC News. “It’s a great choice. Hopefully, it’s reflective of a new kind of leadership that hires not only people who are qualified, but that are reflective of the district or state the (House or Senate members) represent.”



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Trump now says border wall could cost as little as $15 billion, pay for itself

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that a wall between the U.S. and Mexico could cost as little as $15 billion and pay for itself in as little as a month, a departure from the $25 billion barrier he once promised would be underwritten by Mexico.

Earlier this year, his administration sought $18 billion for the initial phase of wall construction over the next decade, covering a portion of the southern border.

“We’re talking about a wall for $20 billion, $15 billion,” Trump said at a Project Safe Neighborhoods conference in Kansas City, Mo. “I could even do it cheaper if I have to, and it will be better than anyone’s ever seen a wall.”

Trump, noting that most heroin comes across the southern border and that his Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that the cost of the drug — including lost earnings from fatalities — was over $200 billion in 2016 alone, claimed that the installation of a barrier would be quickly offset by the savings that resulted from limiting the flow of narcotics.

“You’d make it up in a month — a month — by having a proper wall,” he said.

Most independent estimates of the cost of opioids do not include the expected earnings of those who die from overdoses, and the president did not offer a dollar figure for how much money the federal government would actually reap in a month from staunching the flow of drugs.

But on the same day that he signed a two-week extension of federal funding for most agencies — which were due to shut down without a stopgap measure — Trump appealed to lawmakers to put money into the wall.

“Congress must fully fund border security in the year-end funding bill,” he said.

Still, he said, law enforcement officers are able to deal with efforts by undocumented immigrants to cross into the U.S., even without a wall.

“Our great people are able to easily handle it,” he said. “Without the wall, it gets tougher. But you know what, they still handle it.”

Trump’s various efforts to combine wall funding with the rewriting of the laws governing legal immigration have failed so far in Congress, and the idea of building a physical structure across the southern border has been a non-starter with Democrats, who will control the House in January.

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