Photo of Lawrence H. Norton

Larry Norton, a former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), advises clients on federal and state campaign finance laws, lobbying disclosure, gift and ethics rules, pay-to-play laws, and the tax implications of political activities. His clients include corporations and their PACs, advocacy groups and trade associations, candidates, super PACs, lobbying shops and law firms, and high-net-worth individuals. Larry recognizes the unique issues facing organizations seeking to influence public policy and elections. He provides pragmatic and creative solutions to complex problems, troubleshoots new projects and programs, and helps clients manage their legal and reputational risks.

For many years, supporters of a candidate or a cause simply wrote a check and asked friends and colleagues to do the same. But the opportunities to influence elections and public policy have evolved significantly, allowing today’s high-net-worth individuals and family offices to better maximize political influence, while balancing those gains with financial goals and

Starting this July, Maryland’s “pay-to-play” law, which requires public contractors to file campaign contribution disclosure reports with the State Board of Elections, will require for the first time that local government contractors disclose their beneficial owners while streamlining such reporting for state contractors. The law hands authority to the state election board to impose penalties on contractors who fail to disclose their beneficial owners and will likely increase public scrutiny of ties between political contributions and the award of public contracts.

Under current law, all organizations that have a single contract with the state, county, or other political subdivision of the state with a total value of at least $200,000 must register with the State Board of Elections and, for as long as they hold government contracts, file semi-annual reports disclosing certain political contributions made by the contractor, its principals, and, if it has one, its affiliated political action committee. Separately, under Maryland procurement law, contractors with state agencies must file reports with the Secretary of State identifying each person who has “beneficial ownership” of the contracting entity, defined as:Continue Reading Changes to Maryland Pay-to-Play Law Will Expand Reporting Obligations, Boost Public Scrutiny of State Public Contractors

New Jersey has overhauled its pay-to-play and campaign finance laws, dramatically changing the rules for government contractors, nonprofits, and individual donors. The passage of the Elections Transparency Act has been accompanied by considerable controversy, including litigation and the resignation of all four members of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). In the meantime, some provisions have already taken effect. Others are slated to take effect after the June 2023 primary and apply to the 2023 general election and future elections.

Here are the most important things to know.

Pay-to-Play

Since 2006, New Jersey’s complex state pay-to-play law has barred contributions over $300 by companies and nonprofits bidding for, or under contract with, state agencies, including colleges and universities. The contribution ban applies not only to bidding and contracting entities, but also to their principal owners, officers and directors, and even their spouses.

Over the years, New Jersey’s pay-to-play law has ensnared dozens of government contractors, resulting in disqualified bids and voided contracts. Adding to the compliance burden, the prior state law permitted local governments to enact their own pay-to-play laws provided they were at least as stringent as the state law. Dozens of localities adopted such ordinances. This patchwork of pay-to-play laws has drawn criticism from government contractors as well as ELEC’s executive director who has called the state pay-to-play regime “convoluted and complicated,” and cited its “stunning inconsistency.”Continue Reading New Jersey Overhauls Pay-to-Play and Other Campaign Finance Laws

The Federal Election Commission last week approved a final rule establishing requirements for sponsorship disclaimers on political ads. The Commission’s internet disclaimer rule has been unchanged since 2006, at times leaving advertisers and platforms for political ads uncertain about how the rule applies to evolving technologies. The FEC’s review is ongoing, and the public is invited to comment on whether additional rules are necessary to regulate social media influencers, boosted ads, and other forms of digital advertising.

What’s New?

Technological Modernization. The rule approved this week incorporates proposed changes we first wrote about in 2018. To start with, the new rule makes clear that the current disclaimer requirements for ads placed for a fee on websites also apply to paid advertising through other digital platforms, such as social media, mobile apps, and streaming sites. This modernizes the rule to accommodate emerging technologies and is consistent with what has become common practice on major social media platforms and online advertising networks.Continue Reading FEC Adopts New Disclosure Rule for Digital Political Ads

California recently expanded its pay-to-play law to prohibit a company seeking a license, permit, or non-competitively bid contract, along with certain of the company’s affiliates, agents, and employees, from contributing more than $250 to a local elected official of the agency in question. This will include city councils and county boards of supervisors, and their

Pay-to-play laws present a minefield for compliance because they can be found not only at the state level, but also the local level. As one of the most recent examples, beginning on April 1, 2022, Delaware County Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, will require disclosure of certain political contributions by county contractors and subcontractors anticipating receiving $50,000 or more under a covered contract required to be approved by the county council. Contributions made by the contractor’s and subcontractor’s corporate affiliates, officers, directors, partners, and their spouses are also subject to disclosure. Violations may result in the loss of contracts and a contract ban.

What contributions must be disclosed

Contributions of any amount made in the 24 months prior to the date the county council will consider the contract:Continue Reading Remember Local Pay-to-Play Laws: Delaware County, Pennsylvania Imposes New Disclosure Requirements

The District of Columbia’s pay-to-play law will go into effect on November 9, 2022. The law was originally scheduled to take effect on November 4, 2020, but was postponed because of a lack of funding.

The law prohibits businesses seeking or holding contracts with the District government valued at $250,000 or more, and the business’s senior officers (e.g., president, executive director, chief executive officer, chief operating officer, or chief financial officer), from contributing to “covered officials.” Who is a covered official depends on who oversees the contract in question. For example, if a contractor is seeking or holding a contract overseen by a District agency that reports to the mayor, the prohibited recipients would be:

  • The mayor
  • Candidates for mayor
  • Political committees affiliated with the mayor and candidates
  • Constituent services fund of the mayor

Continue Reading DC Pay-to-Play Law Back on Track

A federal government contractor has agreed to pay a civil penalty of $125,000 for making prohibited contributions to super PACs. The penalty is the largest the Federal Election Commission has obtained for violating the ban on federal contractor contributions.

According to settlement documents made public earlier this month, a Florida-based disaster response firm made contributions

On July 1, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the consolidated case Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta in favor of the nonprofit organizations that brought the suits, holding California’s donor disclosure law to be unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment protection of freedom of association. The immediate effect of the Court’s ruling is that the Court invalidated California’s rule requiring charities registered to fundraise in the state to file with the state Attorney General an unredacted copy of IRS Form 990 Schedule B, which discloses the names and addresses of their major donors.

As we previously wrote when the Court decided to hear the case and later heard oral arguments, the case focused on two main issues: (1) the standard of review that must be applied to laws involving compelled disclosure that are challenged on First Amendment grounds, and (2) whether the law should be held unconstitutional only as applied to the two nonprofits that brought the cases, or if the law should be struck down on its face.Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court Finds California Donor Disclosure Law Unconstitutional