Maryland politicians traditionally have had little trouble hiding details of their campaign fundraising activities. Until this year, they could file cumbersome, hand-written disclosure reports on stacks of dog-earred papers. Given realistic time constraints, the press and public found it all but impossible to identify the types of patterns and connections that form the heart of meaningful disclosure.
Beginning in 1998, statewide candidates had to file their reports on computer disks, making it easier to transfer the data to spreadsheets. But that left two major problems:
Reported activity for the first three years of the four-year election cycle remained on paper only. And, more important, Maryland law continued to make no requirement that donors list their occupations, as 25 states and the District of Columbia do. As a result, political reporters perused rows and rows of names associated with $500 or $1,000 donations to gubernatorial candidates and wondered, Who ARE these people?
Despite these handicaps, The Washington Post wrote two revelatory, page-one stories during Maryland's sharply contested gubernatorial race, divulging, for example, that Gov. Parris Glendening (D) aggressively solicited money from companies that had received state grants, while GOP challenger Ellen Sauerbrey received big donations from highway contractors angry with the governor, poultry companies being sued by the current administration for polluting the Chesapeake Bay, and bankers who traditionally support incumbents in Maryland's clubby political culture.
To do this, the Post built its own database for the 1994-98 campaign cycle and sought to identify the occupations and employers of as many major donors as possible. To begin, typists punched in data from the early campaign finance reports that remained on paper.
This enabled the Post to create a single spreadsheet with major donations for the entire four-year campaign cycle.
Corporate donations are legal in Maryland, and several news-worthy contributions were made in the names of companies. But the great majority of business-related contributions come from corporate officers sometimes, for example, $500 each from a dozen vice presidents of one firm seeking essential legislative help from the next governor. Since these people don't have to identify their employers or professions, reporters can't determine the full extent of influence from a given industry or company unless they make such identifications themselves.
The Post tried to do this for all persons who gave single contributions of $1,000 or more. We used high-tech and low-tech means: seeking matches on databases, looking up names in newspaper articles (mostly the Post and Baltimore Sun), and telephoning scores of contributors and asking: Who are you and what do you do for a living? Some hung up on us, but quite a few were happy to answer. Some even returned messages left on their answering machines! (A tip: Tell them exactly what you are doing and how the paper intends to use the information. Candor works.)
The bulk of the identification was done by Public Disclosure Inc., an Internet technology consultancy that works with nonprofits and media organizations. Tony Raymond, formerly with the FEC and the Center for Responsive Politics, and owner of the FECInfo site (www.tray.com/fecinfo), performed this task under a contract with the Post.
Corporations were matched by name and address with business directory phone disks and identified by Standard Industrial Classification codes, which the government uses to keep track of business growth. Individuals were coded based on their employers. Names and addresses were further matched against Federal Election Commission donor lists.
A key goal was to find the names of all corporate officers and directors for companies we were particularly interested in. With such names in hand, we could search our database to see if they made contributions. This is how we found aggregate contributions of $16,000, $20,000 and even more to Gov. Glendening from firms that had received special grants from the his administration. We found such officers' names through a variety of methods: Dunn and Bradstreet (accessed via Nexis) lists officers for many corporations. Some companies have web sites that list their officers. And sometimes we found news articles that listed many officers from one firm.
We managed to identify 78 percent of the major donors to the 1998 governor's race. That left a substantial number undone, but it was far and away the biggest such effort ever undertaken in Maryland.
The results allowed us to write authoritatively about special-interest giving in what was Maryland's most expensive general election in history. Such giving usually provides clear clues to what specific industries expect from...or, in some cases, have been promised by...candidates running for office. Of course, the data only provided a road map, one that no Maryland media outlet had seen before. Determining the motivations and what promises had been made in return for the money required traditional reporting, that is lots of phone calls to sources and time spent poring over public records.
The first story provided an outline of the different giving and a sense of why each candidate was attracting money from specific interest groups. These stories only work if you can link the public-policy implications to the specific giving. For example, a decision by the governor to slow residential growth half-way through his term prompted big development interests to abandon his candidacy and dump money into his rival's account. Promises by the Republican to limit the number of civil lawsuits in Maryland brought her opponent loads of money from trial lawyers.
The second story, which appeared a few days later, took a more precise look at how the incumbent governor had reaped big money from companies that had received state grants. Again, the data revealed the pattern. But reporter Charles Babington then contacted each company in question, matched corporate officers to the contribution database, and interviewed the governor about the findings.
Information revealed in these stories later turned up in both candidates' television advertising and during the race's one debate. And the database provided essential information for numerous other campaign-related stories written on daily deadlines.
Some tips for reporters making similar efforts: Don't rely solely on your newsroom in trying to identify major donors. We took our lists to friendly, well-connected lobbyists, professional fundraisers, and political activists who helped identify many donors unfamiliar to us. And don't overlook the campaigns themselves. Reporter Scott Wilson persuaded Sauerbrey's campaign finance chairman to tell us the identities of many of her major contributors. (Another tip: Use a challenger's pledge to run a more ethical, open administration to your advantage.)
In pitching an idea like this to your paper, make sure to emphasize that the time and money spent on assembling such a database will not only provide exclusive stories in the short-term but also an invaluable resource for future stories. Knowing the financial investment made by each special interest will allow us to monitor how the governor rewards his biggest supporters during his second term.
Charles Babington can be reached at (410) 626-2801 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Wilson can be reached at (410) 461-0073 or by e-mail at email@example.com