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Still waiting on pay, funding delayed, business approvals stalled



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By Dareh Gregorian

With the threat of another government shutdown looming Friday, government workers, federal agencies and private sector businesses are still trying to dig out from the damage of the last one.

While the majority of 800,000 affected federal employees have been able to collect the wages they lost during the record 35-day partial government shutdown, some still have not received any of their back pay — and some government contractors have not been able to return to work two weeks after the partial closure ended.

There are other lingering problems as well — backlogs at federal agencies and the possibility of another shutdown are causing delays on everything from the approval of new craft beers to stalling major companies’ plans to go public.

“There’s still a lot of work to do before we can get to anything close to back to normal,” Alan Chvotkin, executive vice-president of the Professional Services Council, told NBC News.

The council represents 400 companies with government contracts, and Chvotkin said many are still waiting on payments for work done before the Dec. 22 shutdown. “There are millions and millions of dollars waiting to be paid out,” he said.

And some contractors given “stop work” orders during the shutdown still haven’t got the green light to return to work.

And while President Donald Trump signed legislation giving federal employees back pay and Congress has pushed for the payments to go out as soon as possible, some workers have received only a fraction of what they’re owed — and some haven’t gotten anything.

“We have people who are missing 25 to 30 percent of their pay,” said Dave Verardo of the National Science Foundation, a federal agency. “We have one guy who was paid three times in one day and still came up short.”

Officials say the problems are a result of “systems issues” at the National Finance Center, which is responsible for handling most of the paychecks for the 800,000 employees who were affected by the shutdown.

They added that about two percent of the Department of Homeland Security’s employees were hit by the pay problem, including some civilian Coast Guard employees.

“The Coast Guard is aware that approximately eight percent of our civilian workforce received pay for only one of the two missed pay periods during the lapse in appropriation. Additionally, approximately 0.2 percent of the civilian force did not receive either paycheck,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak.

“The NFC is now processing all time cards associated with the missed pay periods. Originally, the Coast Guard and the NFC announced that all corrections would be made by Feb. 4-5; however, it now appears that it may take until Feb. 11-12 to correct all deficiencies and deliver the requisite paychecks,” she said

Bradley Bishop, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, told the Associated Press earlier this week the Trump administration had taken “unprecedented steps to ensure federal employees impacted by the shutdown received back pay within a week.” He didn’t respond to questions about how many people still hadn’t been paid.

Most of the estimated 1.2 million government contractors who were affected, meanwhile, aren’t getting any back pay, although Chvotkin said he was hopeful Congress would pass legislation authorizing that pay before the next shutdown deadline. “It’s the first time this many members of Congress had talked about it,” he said.

Hangovers from the shutdown are also hampering private businesses.

Bill Butcher, founder of Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Virginia, testified at a congressional hearing this week that his business is still reeling because of a shutdown-caused backlog at the little known Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The agency signs off on labels and formulas for craft beers — and the brewers can’t sell new beers without a Certificate of Label Approval.

He said the process for getting a COLA typically takes two weeks, but the backlog has pushed the wait up to almost two months.

“On Dec. 18, we submitted a label for a beer we were planning to release in the spring. Until we get that approval, we can’t sell that beer and the entire supply chain is on hold. The uncertainty isn’t just impacting my business, it’s impacting everyone I do business with,” including wheat farmers, he told the House Committee on Small Business. “We are just one of the thousands of small businesses who are dealing with these repercussions.”

Another agency dealing with a significant backlog is the Securities and Exchange Commission, which reviews initial public offerings for companies. It reportedly had a backlog of 40 IPOs at the time the shutdown went into effect, and major companies that had been planning on going public in the beginning of the year are now holding off because of the possibility of another shutdown, said John Coffee Jr., director of the Center on Corporate Governance at the Columbia Law School.

“The SEC has not caught up on its backlog. The backlog is already there,” Coffee said, noting the procedure takes time. “It’s a process of 3 to 4 weeks of SEC evaluations and then three weeks of negotiations … we’ve had 35 days where nothing happened.”

And while analysts were hoping for a string of valuable multibillion-dollar companies to go public, those companies are now in a wait-and-see mode.

“They want to wait for the optimal moment. Who’s going to be encouraged if the government shuts down? It’s like a ‘Groundhog Day’ trap,” Coffee said, referring to the classic Bill Murray movie in which the main character lives the same day over and over again.

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Grilled by children, Feinstein tries to teach lesson in politics



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By Dennis Romero

U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-California, isn’t backing the Green New Deal, and she wasn’t shy about letting a group who does support it know it — even if they are children.

A group of schoolchildren visited the senator at her San Francisco office Friday and urged her to get on board with the renewable energy legislation. But the conversation quickly turned into somewhat of a confrontation, and Feinstein has been criticized online for the tone she took. Edited video of the 85-year-old lecturing more than a dozen kids went viral Friday.

One girl implored the senator to back the Green New Deal and argued that the government can afford it. “We have tons of money going to military,” the girl told the lawmaker.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” Feinstein said. “I know what I’m doing. You come in here and you say it has to be my way or the highway. I don’t respond to that.”

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Bigger is not better. Small dollars online are gold for Democrats taking on Trump.



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By Alex Seitz-Wald

WASHINGTON — The most coveted donor for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates may not be a Wall Street financier or Hollywood producer, but a grade school teacher in the Midwest who chips in $25 a month to her favorite candidate.

Small dollars are a bigger deal than ever because they can help organize and engage a large and committed group of supporters who invest more than just money in a campaign.

“Small-dollar donors are going to be a pivotal part of this election, both strategically and practically,” said Erin Hill, executive director of ActBlue, Democrats’ central clearinghouse for online donations. “Small-dollar donors don’t just give — they also vote, volunteer and tell their friends why they care about a candidate.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., proved that his supporters, or at least 225,000 of them, are still committed when he raised a whopping $6 million on Wednesday, the day after launching his presidential campaign.

Rufus Gifford, who served as national finance director for President Barack Obama’s re-election effort in 2012, called the haul “truly remarkable,” noting on Twitter that he was skeptical Sanders could match his 2016 effort: “I was wrong.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., announced raising $1.5 million on her first day in the race, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she brought in $1 million in her first 48 hours. The other candidates have not released numbers, but FEC data shows Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., raised about $300,000 online through ActBlue on New Year’s Eve, when she announced her exploratory committee.

Sanders, of course, had a head start thanks to his previous presidential run, which helped him grow a donor pool the size of every other perspective candidate combined, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

But the good news for the rest of the current field of White House hopefuls is that there is now more opportunity than ever for left-leaning candidates to tap into grassroots fundraising — if they know how to.

“As donors get younger and younger, and people get more and more used to the internet, and campaigns get savvier and savvier, there is very real money available,” said Teddy Goff, who was a top digital strategist on presidential runs by Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Goff recalled that as recently as 2012 people would call into the Obama campaign to make sure it was safe for them to donate online.

Now, thanks to Amazon and everything else that Americans do online, digital financial transactions have become second nature. And thanks to President Donald Trump, Democratic voters are eager to open their digital wallets.

In last year’s midterm elections, ActBlue processed more than $1.6 billion in online donations, up from $782 million in 2016 and $335 million in 2014 — a five-fold surge in four years. (Republicans just last month established their answer to ActBlue after years of false starts.)

And as donating online has become frictionless for Democrats, the party has grown increasingly hostile to traditional modes of funding campaigns and to big money in politics.

For the first time, the Democratic National Committee will allow candidates to qualify to take part in the party’s debates if they can secure donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 different states. In the past, only candidates who registered a certain amount of support in the polls were allowed to participate.

“Because campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots, we also updated the threshold, giving all types of candidates the opportunity to reach the debate stage and giving small-dollar donors a bigger voice in the primary than ever before,” DNC chairman Tom Perez said in a statement announcing the change.

That’s already altering some campaigns’ strategies, with lesser-known candidates like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, pursuing that path to the debate stage.

Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of the Democratic digital firm Acronym, said smart campaigns make donors “feel a sense of ownership” in the campaign and give them other meaningful ways to engage, like by volunteering or posting on social media.

“You run the risk of thinking of digital outreach as an ATM for the campaign,” she said. “You’re missing a real opportunity to help amplify your message if you’re not engaging people who are already raising their hand.”

Meanwhile, big donors simply aren’t as valuable as they once were, excluding groups that can take unlimited contributions like super PACs — and almost every major 2020 candidate has sworn off them already.

For Democrats, big checks also can come with a political cost, especially if they’re written by people who work in certain industries that have been targeted by the left, such as finance, fossil fuels and pharmaceuticals.

While large donors may expect something in return for their largesse, from a photo-op with the candidate to an ambassadorship to France, someone who gives $5 is not counting on much more than a feeling of connection to the candidate and solidarity with other small donors.

For instance, Warren has recalled how during her first run for the Senate in 2012, a young man approached her on a subway platform late one night to tell her he was working extra hours to donate to her campaign every month.

“I felt as if he’d hit me with a spear right between the ribs,” Warren wrote in her book, “A Fighting Chance.” “Good Lord — this kid was working until nearly 11 o’clock on a Saturday night and he was sending me money? I smiled weakly and said something along the lines of: ‘Uh, I’m doing OK in the campaign. Maybe you should keep your money. I’ll be fine. Really.'”

But she says he looked back and replied: “No, I’m part of this campaign. This is my fight, too.”

The first big fundraising test for every candidate will come at the end of March, when they have to file their first quarterly reports to the FEC. Early fundraising numbers are heavily scrutinized by party insiders and the media as a sign of a candidate’s strength, and historically they have been a better predictor of success than early polls.

As Democrats fight their primary race and chase small-dollar contributors, they’re not alone.

Trump’s forces have spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads since November alone to expand their list of supporters, and 75 percent of the money his campaign raised in the most recent quarter came from donors who give $200 or less.

“Realistically,” ActBlue’s Hill said, “our nominee is going to need to be primarily funded by grassroots donors in order to beat Trump, who already has widespread small-dollar donor support.”

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Cohen said to be providing new information to federal prosecutors in NY



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 / Updated 

By Tom Winter, Ken Dilanian, Jonathan Dienst and Monica Alba

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, facing jail in just over two months, has been speaking with and providing information to federal prosecutors in New York, according to three people familiar with the matter.

According to those sources and public statements, Cohen was questioned about a donor to the president’s inaugural committee, Imaad Zuberi, who is a political fundraiser with a history of donating to both Republican and Democratic candidates.

In addition, the sources said Cohen has discussed matters relevant to the Southern District of New York’s investigation into certain members of the Trump Organization and the Trump Inaugural Committee, investigations that have previously been reported publicly.

The New York Times first reported the discussions, which sources confirm occurred in January, on Friday evening. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Lanny Davis, an attorney and spokesperson for Cohen, said in a statement to NBC News: “We cannot comment on any matters that are still under investigation by the Special Counsel or the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.”

However, Davis added, “I can say that Mr. Cohen is interested in cooperating with and assisting the SDNY team in any way they believe is helpful.”

An inaugural committee spokesperson declined to comment.

The White House referred questions to the Trump Organization, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Michael Cohen leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 21, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP

Zuberi has previously been mentioned in reports surrounding the investigation into the Trump Inaugural Committee. His spokesperson has previously told the Washington Post that Zuberi’s funds did not come from a foreign donor and that the money he gave was his own.

Friday’s revelations have to do with a proposed consulting agreement between Cohen and Zuberi, an agreement Zuberi’s spokesperson said was never completed.

Steve Rabinowitz, a spokesman for Zuberi, said his client “received what I would call a speculative contract from Cohen to consult on a new, small private New York real estate fund they had spoken briefly of, but that never came to be.”

Rabinowitz said his client issued a check to Cohen as part of initiating the agreement and said Zuberi recently searched his records and found a $100,000 handwritten check to Cohen that was issued in February 2017.

“The check was never cashed and by March [of 2017], Cohen and Zuberi would not speak again,” he said.

“Imaad [Zuberi] did not pursue Cohen; it was the other way around,” Rabinowitz said. “And their would-be relationship fell apart when Zuberi didn’t sign the contract, not when Cohen didn’t cash the check. And how could he? They didn’t have a deal.”

Cohen, who pleaded guilty on charges related to tax evasion and campaign finance fraud, faces a three-year sentence and is expected to report to prison May 6.

Cohen pleaded guilty in August 2018 to the charges brought by federal prosecutors in New York — six counts related to his personal finances and two related to campaign finance violations involving hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with Trump.

Federal law allows prosecutors to seek a reduction in a jail sentence post-conviction and even post-sentencing for cooperation in an ongoing investigation.

A public court filing from prosecutors indicating that Cohen is cooperating or indicating that they seek a reduction in his sentence has not been made, and there’s no indication that there’s a formal agreement.

Cohen is expected to testify before several committees of Congress next week.

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