IRE/NICAR Tipsheet #19, Political Campaigns
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
In recent elections, the Chicago Sun-Times has routinely prepared stories profiling the personal finances of the candidates in major state and local races. These stories include what the candidates own and how they made their money. We concentrate, of course, on showing whether they have used public position for personal profit.
This approach has a couple advantages. By promising such a story to our editors, we have a fallback position that gets us a little free time to muck around for a possibly better story about an ethical breach by one or the other candidates. Also, the stories can be fun and reachable if the candidates have little money. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, you know.
ECONOMIC INTEREST STATEMENTS
If you don't regularly collect and keep these statements, this is a good first step. Go back as many years as you can. For candidates who are already officeholders, make note of whether they have accumulated wealth and investments while in public office. Try to figure out the nature of every investment, who the other partners are and how the candidate got involved.
Use either a database or state records to run a reverse search on the names of your candidates to find out if they are involved as an officer in any corporation. Don't forget to check whether or not they are a registered agent, which requires a separate search under some databases.
Try the name of the candidate's spouse, too. That's the simplest way for them to try to hide something but the spouse may also be a substantial businessperson whose holdings pose a conflict-of-interest for the candidate.
If anything pops up, pull the articles of incorporation and the annual reports from the Secretary of State.
INCOME TAX RETURNS
Prod candidates to release their income tax returns. Make them go back several years-perhaps to a time before they realized they were going to be running for public office, Make sure they release the backup schedules. If they don't, make sure you point that out to your reader or viewer. If one candidate ups the ante by releasing more information that his opponent, let the public know that, too.
If you can't analyze a tax return yourself, take it to an accountant. Try to talk the candidate into making his own accountant available if he can't answer all your questions. Watch those outside sources of income and tax shelters. Look for investments you didn't know about. Be sure to check tax returns against economic interest statements. Has the candidate failed to report something in the past?
You'll probably need to do a spot story when they release their return, but don't give up if you can't get all your questions answered that day. There might be something that would work well in the personal finance profile. Remember that people seem to like to know how much (or little) that candidates give to charity.
Check all properties the candidate owns to see how much he paid and how it is financed. Did he get a deal on a mortgage from a friendly banker?
Did he pay real estate taxes? On time? Be sure to go back a few years and note when the taxes were paid to make sure that the candidate didn't put his financial house in order just in time for the campaign.
Visit the local recorder's office and run your candidate's name through every index there. Again, try the spouse's name. Be sure to check for tax liens and military discharge records.
Stop by the tax assessor's office, too, to see if the candidate has appealed the valuation assessment on any of his properties.
If the candidates are state officeholders, run a check on them in the recorder's office of the state capitol. You might find that somebody let them in on a wonderful business investment where they thought you wouldn't notice.
Check for UCC filings on you candidate or any of his corporate entities. This might give you new ledes on investments or borrowings.
Look at all cases in state of federal court involving your candidates or any of their corporate entities. Don't automatically skip the cases that deal with the official duties of an officeholder. Although most will be routine, there might be a pattern that points out a problem in the office.
Divorce files have proven the undoing of many a politician. Don't be squeamish. Get a copy of the transcript if you can. Use some of the details for you financial profile.
Check the criminal index, too. You never know. Traffic and parking violations can be fair game, especially for scofflaws who don't pay up.
Bankruptcy court is another long shot, but worth a try.
People like to know who is putting up the money to get somebody elected. If your state has some kind of contribution limits, figure out how the candidates get around them. They always do.
Pay attention to who hosts the fundraisers. Often, they are more important than the donors. Keep track of when your candidates are holding their fundraising parties and make sure you get a copy of any official program. Demand that the candidates release a list of anyone who has hosted a fundraising reception.
Don't forget the in-kind contributions. Does somebody give the candidate free planes rides around the state? Rent-free office space? Both can be a lot more valuable to a candidate than a $1,000 contribution.
Also keep an eye on the spending side of the ledger. Pay particular attention to any money going to the candidate. If it's for expense reimbursement, are the expenses itemized? Do the amounts seem reasonable? If something is not completely disclosed, demand the backup documentation.
Pull all of the candidate's old campaign finance reports. They may reveal a pattern that you hadn't noticed when a banging out a story of the day of a filing deadline.
THE LEGISLATIVE RECORD
A lot of investigative reporters don't like to get involved in "issues," but if you're covering a campaign, you've got to take the time to learn how an officeholder has voted on major issues and what legislation they have introduced. Find the office in your state legislature of city council that can give you a list of all bills and amendments they have sponsored. Does the candidate carry water for any special interest groups? Note their committee assignments. This may tell you something about why certain groups are making campaign contributions to the candidate. Talk to your city council or statehouse reporter. They'll know tendencies about the lawmaker that don't show up in any cursory search of the public record.
Figure out what interest groups in your state compile voting record rating and collect all of them. Get a description of the pertinent bills. This could be a spot story on the campaign trail.
If the candidate has served as an appointee to a board or commission, pull the minutes of the meetings. Even a professional licensing and disciplinary board can handle controversial issues. How did that individual vote on major issues facing the board? A candidate's attendance record might be pertinent in the case of a political newcomer. Did the candidate abstain from any votes because of a conflict-of-interest?
THE EXECUTIVE RECORD
If your candidate is already in charge of some government office, check the payroll to see who he hired. Get a list of all consulting contracts that he has issued. Be aware of other forms of discretionary business where the candidates might show favoritism. Learn the pressure points of that office-how the politician can do favors for people if he chooses. Does the office control any funds directly? If so, where is the money deposited? Is it earning a market interest rate?
Collects any audit of the office, either internal or external.
Amazingly, some candidates for public office have not always bothered to vote in local elections. Their excuse might make interesting reading. If voters in your state have to declare a political affiliation to vote in a primary, check to see if the candidate has switched parties over the years. If so, has the candidate experienced a philosophical shift or engaged in political opportunism?
PULL THE CLIPS
All the clips. Don't forget the old stuff. The higher the office, the more that becomes fair game. I know this seems elementary, but how many times do you realize too late the you never bothered? Is there a library in your town that maintains clipping files from the weekly or neighborhood papers? Take a look at those, too.
All the candidates have an official bio. Collect as many as you can. Has the candidate changed anything over the years?
If your editorial board sends out endorsement questionnaires, get a copy. If they don't, talk them into starting. Volunteer to prepare the form, which naturally, you will mine with as many intrusive background questions as you think you can get away with. Candidates will give editorial boards a lot of info that they might not give you, not the least of which are home and car telephone numbers. The like to use those endorsements in their advertising.
If any community groups or do-gooder organizations in your town send out their own questionnaires, collect those, too.
--Get out the state code and figure out the statutory responsibilities of the officeholder. This may reveal responsibilities of the office that you didn't even know, which may show you how the office holder is able to wield influence in ways you hadn't realized. May government treasurers, for instance, automatically serve on public pension boards, where they can a lot of favors with very little attention.
--Know what charges were used against your candidate in past campaigns and what his defense is. Politicians always recycle old charges.
--Find out the candidate's friends and confidantes. If the candidate like to pal around with shady characters, the public ought to know.
--If the candidate owns a business, it is in an industry regulated by the government? This can open a lot of doors.
--Many political newcomers have been involved in not-for-profit groups. Get a hold of the organization's IRS 990s or any other charitable fundraising report required by your state. If the group receives federal grants, look for audits.
--Lawyers turned politicians always tell you they can't release the names of their clients, but you can try other avenues. Most importantly, check all branches of government to see if they are getting any public business, If it's possible in you county, run a computer check of every case in which the lawyer or his firm filed an appearance. Also, if the lawyer shows up as a registered agent for a company on a database search, he likely represent the principals in other mattes.