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Back to Tracker Summer 1998
Moneyed Interests
Jack Dolan and Aaron Rothenburger
CFIC
A direct link between campaign contributions and favoritism is the Holy Grail of campaign finance reporting.

In the 1997 series "Money and Influence," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Steve Schultze and Daniel Bice connected campaign contributions to preferential treatment by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.

The two reporters examined records from eight state agencies, state contracts, campaign contributions and expenditures, and Thompson's phone records. The eight-month investigation revealed a startling correlation between those who gave money to Thompson's campaign and those who got lucrative state contracts.

In one instance, Schultze and Bice found that Ron Van Den Heuvel, a Wisconsin businessman, donated $10,000 to Thompson's campaign fund the day before a state agency awarded him $24 million in tax-free bond financing to build a paper-manufacturing plant. Van Den Heuvel says a Thompson fund raiser asked him for the donation. The newspaper's inquiry forced Thompson to return the contribution.

Shultze and Bice say the Van Den Heuvel affair was not an isolated incident. "The [Van Den Heuvel] case and others reviewed by The Journal Sentinel in an eight-month investigation suggest a trend in which donors and well-connected firms enjoy a close and mutually beneficial relationship with the Thompson administration," they wrote.

You can investigate that claim for yourself by downloading current Wisconsin campaign finance data from the CFIC or by searching the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Web site at http://www.wisdc.org/.

Another strength of using campaign finance data is the ability to show how big money flows around the sometimes useless legal breakwaters that are meant to stem the tide.

Darrel Rowland of The Columbus Dispatch found that non-cash loans and in-kind contributions to parties or legislative campaign committees are exempt from state limits in Ohio. According to The Dispatch, the biggest beneficiary so far of this loophole is Cleveland area state Senator Robert A. Gardner. State Republicans funneled more than $900,000 into Gardner's last campaign, or more than 90 percent of Gardner's total reciepts. A sudden, last-minute $384,000 advertising campaign paid for by the state party and "loaned" to Gardner may have been the deciding factor in Gardner's narrow victory. The loan was especially generous since there is no time line for Gardner to repay it, no state law that prohibits the party from simply forgiving it, and no requirement to report who repays it if it is repaid. Rowland also reports that a new headquarters for the Ohio Republican Party was "custom-designed around the state's campaign finance laws." The building was financed by a party trust fund that allowed corporations to exceed normal contribution limits. Rowland calls the new Republican headquarters "a veritable factory for in-kind contributions" since the TV and radio ads, computer services, and direct mailings that originate in the new headquarters count as in-kind contributions to party candidates.

Rowland's series also details how the Democratic and Republican national parties used Ohio's less restrictive campaign finance laws to their benefit. In 1996, the Democratic National Committee directed out-of-state contributors to send unsolicited contributions to the Ohio Democratic Party. The money is then transferred, or even sold back, to the national party. The biggest single contributor to the Ohio Democratic party in 1992 was Indonesian businessman James T. Riady, who gave $75,000 to the state party six days before President Clinton's election.

The latest Ohio campaign finance data can be searched online at the Ohio Open Elections Project on the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics .

When the bureaucrats in charge of computerizing state campaign finance records settle into their customary glacial rhythm, reporters have two choices: cover well-rehearsed sound bytes and photo opportunities while waiting for an information thaw, or start a fire by building their own campaign finance database.

A consortium of 29 newspapers and two TV stations in New York lit their own fire under local politicians this year when they set aside traditional rivalries to join forces and turn over 10,000 paper records into the most comprehensive campaign finance database in New York history. The result, according to Newsday's Ford Fessenden, was "a blizzard of stories" putting state politicians on notice that the public is interested in their campaign finances. A telling example of the impact: A couple of years ago, a Newsday reporter noticed that the paper contribution reports from Governor Pataki's office came sorted alphabetically by the contributor's first name. Suspecting a computer was used to generate that order, the reporter called Gov. Pataki's press secretary, Zenia Mucha, to ask for the governor's campaign contributions in electronic form rather than on paper. Mucha laughed at the reporter.

Today, after hundreds of stories on state campaign finances generated by consortium members, Pataki files contribution reports electronically.

The CFIC library, located online at www.campaignfinance .org/stories/index.html, is an archive of local, state and federal articles that use campaign contribution reports to "follow the money." The library also serves as a complement to the CFIC's online databases of state campaign finance contributions.

The three investigative series described above are just a few of the excellent examples of how campaign finance data can enhance state and local political reporting.

If you have a relevant article or series to submit to the CFIC's growing repository of stories, or if you know of an article or series that should be submitted, contact Jack Dolan or Noemi Ramirez at noemi@nicar.org, or call (573) 884-1802.

Jack Dolan can be reached by email at jack@nicar.org. Aaron Rothenburger can be reached by email at aaron@nicar.org