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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998

    Arranging the Data, Asking the Right Questions
    Diane Renzulli
    Director of State Projects, The Center for Public Integrity

    The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that combines investigative journalism and political science to investigate ethics-in-government issues. Since 1990 the Center has produced 30 investigative reports on lobbying, money in politics, revolving door and conflict-of-interest issues prevalent in government today. In January 1996, we issued The Buying of the President (Avon Books), which investigated the relationship between special interests and the major presidential candidates they support.

    Our in-depth campaign coverage in 1996 revealed in February that a co-chairman of Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign taught hate groups how to develop militia capabilities. In August, we profiled 75 fundraisers/donors for Clinton and the Democratic Party who had stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom and elsewhere at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We continue to investigate issues of national importance, most recently working on an in-depth expose of how decisions in Congress affect our daily lives.

    Focusing on States

    We decided to apply our "unique center approach" to state legislatures because as "devolution" shifts federal taxpayer money from Washington to the states, and as Americans continue to be concerned about the politcal corruption at all levels, it is crucial that the public gains understanding of its state legislatures and how they actually work.

    We worked with more than 40 news organizations and political scientists in Indiana to compile a database of 1994 campaign contributions to General Assembly candidates, then gave reporters three months to use that data as a springboard for investigative reporting on the state legislature. Week-long television and newspaper series and other articles by Center consortium members created a public outcry, and on the last day of the legislative session that year, the General Assembly passed a law that computerized campaign contributions, established a commission to investigate campaign finance issues and prohibited contributions from gambling interests. Last year, we continued our work in Indiana, updating our database and adding contributions to political party committees. We are currently working with more than a dozen news organizations in Illinois. In the spirit of disclosure, we make our databases available to reporters via our Web site (www. publicintegrity.org) after the consortium has used them.

    Database Tips

    These past three years, consortium reporters ranged from those who had never used a database to those who could analyze contributions in their sleep. Now, tips to prepare you for today's campaign finance databases land on your desk and you're expected to use them to generate stories.

    • To the reporters whose palms sweat at the mention of the word "database" start small. Find out what your newsroom's database software is and play with it. Use NICAR's tutorials so you become familiar with manipulating information. Try to find any contribution databases that exist in your state and, at first, put your local lawmakers into a smaller database. Get campaign data on your local congressional candidates from the Center for Responsive Politics, the nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C. that makes Federal Election Commission data available to reporters.

      When you get a database, play with it and follow the money: Who are your candidates' largest donors? Which industries are contributing heavily? What are the occupations or employers of individuals who donate to your candidates? Being able to do this will enable you to better understand the power plays going on in your community. Money is access. Access is power. All of your digging will lead you to ask, "How did these donors benefit from their access?" and "Were average citizens╣ concerns shut out because of that access?" You won't be able to analyze contributions in a database for the first time and walk away with a five-day series, but by becoming more comfortable with the process, you'll see firsthand how vital money is to your local and congressional candidates.

    • To the reporters who feel comfortable working with campaign finance databases, enhance the data you have. Some states don't require employer and occupation information for individual donors. Run a list of hospital executives through your data and see if there are matches. If so, is there important legislative activity concerning hospitals in this year's session? Run a list of lobbyists through your data and you will find many matches. If you are lucky enough to be in a state with readily available contribution databases, create a database of registered lobbyists if time permits. It helps immensely to be able to know in a few seconds the clients of a power lobbying firm when members of that firm contributed to the Senate Appropriations chair.

      If you have time, create an "edited" contributor name field in which names are standardized, so when you search for contributions from US Tobacco, you don't miss the ones spelled UST on the campaign records. This is a much larger job for statewide databases, but if you have assembled a database of local candidates, this won't take too much time and your searching will be much more efficient.

      Make a database of committee assignments and link that with your contribution data. In one state, the Senate Insurance and Pensions Committee chair received about $35,000 from insurance interests and sponsored 28 pieces of insurance legislation that session. When you analyze that legislation, you might find that consumers' rights are not placed ahead of insurance interests. Plot contributions by month. We did that and found that United Parcel Service's contributions jumped from $3,000 in September 1995 to nearly $40,000 in October 1995 and $56,500 in November. We discovered that legislation against class-action lawsuits over driver overtime was introduced in November of that year. Find out the dates the legislature was in session, add a field to your database to indicate that, and find out which donors give most of their money during session.

    • Experienced computer-assisted reporters and novices should track area lawmakers, the laws they sponsor and the laws going through their committees. Your expertise and your sources will add tremendously to any contribution database.

    • Finally, talk to candidates who appear to be fighting the system. Who returned contributions by certain interest groups? Who received little while the legislature was in session? Who disclosed donors who gave $25 even if the law states they don't have to? Who tried to raise money from individuals rather than PACs? These candidates will have incredible insights into running for election, and their voices should be heard.

    Keep in mind, these databases are only a starting point for your reporting. But the combination of your comfort working with these databases and your institutional knowledge is an extremely powerful one that will lead to interesting and much-needed work.

    Good luck!