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:
- Library on Money and Politics. (202) 857-0138. Using FEC data, the library will prepare floppy
disks on contributors from states for $10 per 1,000 records that can be loaded into a personal
computer. Prices can vary depending on what you request.
- The Federal Election Commission (202) 219-3440, PCs equipped with modems can plug into the
FEC's $25-an-hour on-line network. Access is available around the clock, seven days a week for a
majority of FEC computer indices. The FEC makes available statistical studies of candidates, PACs,
parties and individual contributors. On-line records go back to 1987. The FEC's in-house computer
system has records on file back to 1979.
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.
3. Business Records:
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.
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.
4. Reference Works:
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.
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.
Standard and Poor's Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives. McGraw-Hill Inc., New York,
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.
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