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No Budget But a Lot of Bodies. Little Experience But a Lot of Enthusiasm.
By Jeff South
Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Click here to read the stories South's students wrote
  • Go back to Tracker -- Summer 2000

    Those were the resources we had at our disposal when my Legislative Reporting class at Virginia Commonwealth University embarked on its first computer-assisted reporting project.

    We designed a group project that would exploit our strengths and neutralize our weaknesses - a project that would demonstrate the power of computers and collaboration.

    The result: a package of 42 stories and graphics that identified the biggest donors to the Virginia General Assembly - and how they fared during the just-completed legislative session.

    We did the tricky stuff together: distilling a list of the Legislature's top 150 donors - groups, businesses and individuals who provided more than half the donations state lawmakers received for the 1999 elections. Then each student took three donors and, with computer-assisted and shoe-leather reporting, dug into their background: To whom did they contribute? Why? What, if anything, did they get in return?

    The stories, published on the Web, highlighted such donors as:

    • Philip Morris, the most generous corporation among legislators' contributors. During the last election cycle, the company gave $168,360 to 104 lawmakers. This spring, the 140-member General Assembly passed a bill to protect Philip Morris' Virginia assets from tobacco-related jury awards.

    • The Virginia Coal Association, which gave lawmakers $82,250. One recipient sponsored a bill to extend for six years a tax break for coal companies. The House and Senate unanimously passed the measure.

    • Paramount's Kings Dominion theme park, which donated $68,800 to General Assembly members. The park subsequently won a legislative battle to keep public schools from opening before Labor Day.

    We didn't find any broken laws. Virginia, after all, has no limits on campaign contributions, a distinction it shares with only seven other states, one student wrote in the package's mainbar.

    But we found several lawmakers concerned about limitless donations. "Anyone who tells you that these contributions don't affect the legislative process is lying," said Albert Pollard, a Democratic member of the House of Delegates.

    I have taught Legislative Reporting a couple of years. VCU offers the course each spring, when the General Assembly convenes for its annual session - conveniently, a few shuttle-bus stops east of campus. This was the first time I assigned a group project. I wanted students to experience working as a team - and to see how the combined results could exceed the sum of the parts.

    We kicked around a few possibilities, including a demographic look at the Legislature. We settled on campaign finance for a few reasons: Virginia's 1999 legislative races had been the most expensive ever, and the Republican presidential primary had pushed the issue onto the public's front burner.

    Although Virginia has no limits on donations, it has a great disclosure system - thanks to the press. Several news organizations have funded a non-profit organization called the Virginia Public Access Project, which computerizes the campaign finance records of statewide officials, legislators and candidates. (The funding consortium includes The Daily Press in Newport News, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.)

    After compiling and updating the records, VPAP makes the entire database available to the consortium members. It also opens the data to the public on the Web, searchable by donor or recipient.

    I know the VPAP data pretty well: I'm the organization's unpaid treasurer, and I've worked with David Poole, the executive director, showing reporters how to get the most out of the database.

    Since I was leading 10 CAR newbies, it was important to keep the project simple. We boiled it down to a pretty straightforward question: Who are the General Assembly's biggest political donors?

    To find out, we needed a database of all contributions to state legislators during the 1999 election cycle. Exploring the VPAP Web site, students realized they couldn't download such a database in one fell swoop. But they could download the data one legislator at a time. (You can ask the Web site to display a lawmaker's donors list, then save it.)

    So I had each student download the contributions data for 14 legislators. This step gave us 140 text files - one for each lawmaker. Using Microsoft Word, we massaged the text so it would flow into an Access database.

    None of the students had used Access before. So, we spent a session in a computer lab, exploring what a database manager can do. We totaled all the contributions and found that legislators had received $17,703,629 during the 1999 election cycle.

    Then we grouped the data by donor. This gave us a list of 10,533 contributors and how much each gave to legislators. We put this list in order from the largest donor to the smallest. Then we summed the donations for the top 100 contributors, the top 150 contributors and the top 200 contributors.

    We found that the top 150 donors gave legislators a total of $9,474,120 - or 54 percent of their donations. We decided to focus on this group.

    Each student was assigned stories on three of the top donors. Students extracted from the full database the contributions of the donors they were assigned. Then they analyze the contributor's records with Microsoft Excel: Which legislators got the most money? Which committees? How much went to Republicans and how much to Democrats?

    Students combined their research with traditional reporting - talking to lawmakers, donors, lobbyists and other sources. They also searched the General Assembly's online databases of bills and votes, to find legislation in which top donors had an interest.

    We posted our project April 24 as the final issue of our Web-zine, "On The Lege." Students contributed headlines (like "AOL: You've Got Money") and sidebars - including a first-person visit to a lobbyist's party for legislators. The online package contains extensive lists of who got how much from whom, as well as more detailed instructions on how we did the analysis.

    We got good reaction - including potential job offers for students! Poole sent the class a note saying, "As director of the Virginia Public Access Project, it warms my heart to see people putting the numbers to work."