IRE/NICAR Tipsheet No. 99

Investigating Individual Contributors
By: Bob Mitchell, Thomas Newspapers

Identifying individual contributors in a large geographical area such as a state or a region requires a personal computer. In a fraction of the time it would take you to sort through FEC records by hand, the computer can identify big contributors and provide a rough figure on how much they gave.

But a word of warning about computer data is in order. High technology creates the impression of infallibility, but numbers spewing from a printer or flashing across a computer screen are not guaranteed to be error-free.

Two problems often arise. AN FEC worker's input error might, for example, turn a $500 contribution into a $5,000 contribution. Another problem is the computer's need for specificity. Contributions from one person can often come from different locations, but computer database programs may not sort them together because they have different zip codes or towns in the address.

Whenever possible, double-check computer data against microfilm or photocopies of campaign reports on file at FEC headquarters.

1. Computer Data Base of Contributors:

2. Campaign Finance Reports:
For the reporter interested in finding out who wields influence with campaign contributions, the first place to go is the campaign finance reports filed by political candidates. The reports are on file (and microfilm) in the records room at the FEC, 999 E. St. NW.

Because conventional wisdom in Washington says that PACs ARE EVIL, many reporters pore over the lists of contributions to the candidates and ignore how they spend the money. That's a mistake. Study expenditures as closely as donations--you will find campaign funds are spent on "political" items such as season tickets to baseball and football games and meals at four-star restaurants.

Although most reporters who use the FEC record room focus on campaign reports filed by congressional and presidential candidates, don't overlook fundraising reports filed by PACs or laws and regulations. Big contributors have often run afoul of federal campaign laws, and you can find out what they did and how the FEC handled it. Correspondence from contributors' attorneys is often included in the public record.

3. Business Records:
When businesses incorporate, they often have to provide states with data on officers, stock holdings and other data. This can be an invaluable source if you need background on a low-profile business or a tight-lipped executive listed as a contributor.

Many companies incorporate in Delaware for tax reasons. A franchise tax report can be obtained for $1 per page from the office of the Delaware Secretary of State (302) 739-4425. This document lists corporate officers, gross assets and date of incorporation. One warning: It takes several weeks for the secretary of state's office to comply with requests for information.

4. Reference Works:
Fritz, Sara; Morris, Dwight. Handbook of Campaign Spending: Money in the 1990 Congressional Races. Congressional Quarterly Inc., Washington, 1992.

Makinson, Larry. Open Secrets: The Dollar Power of PACs in Congress. Congressional Quarterly Inc. Washington, 1990.

Standard and Poor's Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives. McGraw-Hill Inc., New York, 1992.

Thompson, Alice K., ed. Law Firms Yellow Book. Monitor Publishing Co., New York, 1992.

Zuckerman, Edward. Almanac of Federal PACs. Amward Publishing Inc., Washington, 1992.




Back to more Campaign Finance Tips