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VCU students reveal gifts to legislators
By Jeff C. South
The URL for the package of stories on legislative gifts is: www.people.vcu.edu/~jcsouth/on-the-lege/

In computer-assisted reporting, there’s a tendency to think that bigger is better: that the more records you crunch, the more impact your story will have.

But my Legislative Reporting students at Virginia Commonwealth University dispelled that notion this spring when they created and analyzed a relatively small database: a list of all gifts received last year by state legislators, the governor and other top officials.

The data set contained fewer than 1,000 records, totaling about $185,000 in gifts, taken from the conflict-of-interest forms officials filed in January. However, the resulting stories created quite a buzz at the Capitol and, thanks to AP, resonated across the state.

We put our stories online, with a searchable database detailing the gifts reported by each legislator. We highlighted the biggest gifts – including trips to hunt caribou in the Arctic Circle and quail in Georgia. And we raised ethical questions: Should lawmakers be accepting such freebies from businesses, interest groups and lobbyists seeking to influence the legislative process?

The gifts project struck a louder chord than I had expected. Stateline.org, a Web site devoted to state government issues, wrote a story about our efforts, and several journalists praised our efforts. Our Web site received thousands of hits – and numerous visitors sent appreciative e-mails. We got more response on our gifts package than on a much larger CAR project my Spring 2000 class did on campaign contributions.

Because that project was so time-consuming, I planned to scale back this year. I figured the gifts project would be more manageable: We’d get the Statements of Economic Interests filed by each legislator, type into Excel the information about gifts, then sort and subtotal the data. Not terribly flashy, I thought, but the project will teach students about the importance of getting – and computerizing – public records.

In retrospect, here are some reasons why our package on legislative gifts drew attention – and why you might want to put such a story on your to-do list:
  • Many gifts have a cachet that campaign donations don’t. A lobbyist may get more ingratiating bang for the buck with a $100 steak dinner than with a $100 or even $1,000 check to a campaign committee. In Virginia, where $5,000 campaign contributions are pretty common, an interest group could spend less money but make a bigger impression by sending a key legislator on a vacation.
  • Gifts often guarantee face time with lawmakers – giving lobbyists an opportunity to state their case for or against legislation. We found that legislators received $26,000 in meals and $24,000 in trips, with lobbyists usually serving as hosts. Access is the goal of most big gifts and campaign contributions, according to government watchdog groups.
  • Constituents may view certain gifts more suspiciously than campaign contributions. People might sympathize with politicians’ need for money to run for office. But they might think it’s grubby for Virginia lawmakers to accept free Washington Redskins tickets, golf equipment and eyeglasses – things ordinary folks must pay for.
  • The rules governing gifts may be looser than the rules on campaign donations. In Virginia, lawmakers cannot accept campaign contributions during the legislative session – but they can accept gifts any time. (Virginia has no limits on the amount or size of gifts or campaign donations legislators can receive.)
  • Campaign donations often are online (in Virginia, thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project [www.vpap.org]). Not so for gifts; those records had been available only on paper in Richmond. Our project made the gifts data available to the public for the first time over the Internet.
If you’re interested in doing a similar project in your state, first get the rules on legislative gift-giving. You can find them on the Web site of the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/).

Here’s how we did our investigation:

At the start of the session, we ordered copies of the Statements of Economic Interests for members of the House of Delegates (from the House Clerk’s Office) and for members of the Virginia Senate (from the Senate Clerk’s Office). These statements, also called conflict-of-interest forms, list legislators’ debts, investments, employers, real estate holdings and other financial information.

We zeroed in on Schedule E, on which legislators must list all gifts of $50 or more received the previous year. We had 140 legislators to contend with (100 House members and 40 senators); the class was made up of 13 students and an instructor. So we each took the records for 10 legislators and entered the Schedule E information into a spreadsheet.

We did the data entry in Microsoft Excel. For each gift, students entered the recipient’s name, the giver’s name, the giver’s city and state, the description of the gift, the value of the gift and any notes made on the legislator’s form.

We then combined each student’s data into a single spreadsheet – with all gifts on all legislators. We fixed typos and inconsistencies, especially in the spelling of donors’ names. Then we analyzed the data with Excel’s PivotTable Report feature. This allowed us to see how much each donor had given in gifts and how much each lawmaker had received.

After doing the analysis, the class discussed possible stories: about the top givers and recipients, about expensive or unusual gifts, about why donors give gifts to legislators. Each student was assigned a story.

One student decided to write about gifts given to Gov. Jim Gilmore, Lt. Gov. John Hager (who presides over the Senate) and Attorney General Mark Earley. These officials file their Statements of Economic Interests with the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

After obtaining those forms, the class again divvied up the data entry so we could sort and total the top officials’ gifts in Excel. (It would have been hard to do this by hand or with a calculator: Gilmore reported 337 gifts worth almost $55,500.)

To guide us in this project, we found an article Kit Wagar of The Kansas City Star did for the September 1999 issue of Uplink, the newsletter from the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting. Using Excel and FoxPro, Kit had analyzed the gifts given to the Missouri Legislature.

We found in Virginia what The Star found in Missouri: “A spending spree surrounds every legislative session, feeding a culture that sees no conflict in conducting the public’s business while on a corporate tab.”

Jeff South, a reporter and editor for 20 years, is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.