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  • Go back to Tracker -- Fall 1998

    Database Pitfalls
    By Virginia Ellis
    Los Angeles Times

    In late summer, the Los Angeles Times set out to analyze the campaign finances of California's two major gubernatorial candidates - Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren.

    A month later when our team finished the project, we had learned a very good lesson: Sometimes it's best to do things the old-fashioned way.

    The cautionary tale we took away from the story was this: While technology can be a great time saver and allow you to compile information that you could never do by hand, it can also, if you're not careful, lead to mistakes.

    In this case, our assignment was to examine as thoroughly as possible the political finances of the two gubernatorial candidates.

    Essentially we were looking for two things: what special interest groups were contributing to each candidate and which contributions might be questionable.

    Lungren ran unopposed in the primary. Dan Morain, who was assigned to look at his finances, would be taking our first thorough look at his contributions.

    Davis, on the other hand, had been closely examined in the primary because he had two well-financed opponents. Amy Pyle and Paul Jacobs, who did that story, discovered that among his many contributors were dozens who had received state contracts from boards and commissions Davis had served on when he was California's controller.

    For the general election, I decided to try to determine what special interest groups were giving to him and how much.

    What I ultimately learned was that his biggest contributors were the traditional Democratic backers - labor, trial lawyers and Hollywood. Different from the past was the amount they were giving. Labor eventually donated more than $7 million to his campaign, trial lawyers nearly $3 million and Hollywood a similar amount.

    In California, calculating contributions is a daunting task. With no limits on individual contributors, candidates amass huge amounts of money. Davis and Lungren together collected more than $50 million in donations.

    Creating the Database

    To make the task easier, the Times often contracts with the Campaign Study Group, a Washington D.C.-based consultant that maintains databases on state and federal contributions. The group can provide a historical context as well as a thorough rundown of the interest groups that are contributing to a candidate. But in the general election, the Times decided as a cost-saving measure, it would not use the group for the gubernatorial candidates. Instead, it would purchase a database of the contributions and we would do all our own analyses.

    So far so good. With the help of our computer experts, I loaded the Davis database onto an Excel spreadsheet. Then I set out to determine categories of contributors.

    Data Inconsistencies

    The database had not picked up most of the occupations of contributors, so there was no accurate way of determining whether they were doctors, lawyers or Indian chiefs. Next, I discovered the database did not include in-kind contributions, and I knew that millions of dollars in contributions had come to Davis as in-kind donations.

    Richard O'Reilly, our in-house computer guru, had discovered in the meantime that there were problems with the database. He offered to clean it up but said it would take at least a week. By then, I didn't have a week to spare. The only recourse I figured was to go back to basics - the 8-inch thick, hard copy list of contributions. I did an initial run-through without making any calculations.

    It was clear from examining contributors page by page that organized labor had dumped a whopping amount of money into Davis' campaign. It also appeared that many trial lawyer firms had given huge individual contributions and that the entertainment industry and Indian tribes that operated casinos had been generous to the Democratic candidate as well.

    Starting with labor, I went through each page looking for contributions and put them on a separate sheet. Then I did the same thing for each of the other groups.

    The Esternal Integrity Check

    Sometimes I returned to the database after I had the name of a labor group and tried to pull up all of its contributions. That's when I discovered that some of those on the hard copy were missing from the database.

    I completed my calculations about the same time O'Reilly finished cleaning up the database. To double check ourselves, he did a few runs to isolate labor and other contributions. They didn't match with my hand calculations. He showed labors as giving millions less than I showed.

    When he went back to the database, he found the problem. He had been using the occupation column to isolate contributor group, but organizations, like labor unions, had left that column blank. It was a problem we may never have caught if I hadn't done the hand calculations.

    Once I knew who Davis' major contributors were, I started doing the reporting for the story. It was then that I discovered that in a private meeting with some potential donors, Davis had vehemently denied that labor and trial lawyers were big contributors to his campaign. Unfortunately for Davis, the meeting was tape recorded.

    "If you want to talk cold turkey about who was there when you needed them, they were not there," Davis told the group, referring to unions and trial lawyers. "Unions were preoccupied...and a lot of trial lawyers thought I couldn't make it - too dull, too boring.''

    The tape-recorded remarks provided an anecdotal lede for the story.

    What we learned from this experience should be elementary. When using contribution databases, you should run some kind of random checks to make sure nothing is missing and that what is listed accurately reflects the original reports.

    Virginia Ellis can be reached at 916)445-8860 or by e-mail at virginia.ellis@latimes.com