Hurdle one: Getting the data
Hurdle two: Knowing what to do with it
By Lori Prichard
Click here to read one of Clifford Levy's many articles
Go back to Tracker -- Summer 2000
Any campaign finance reporter knows, the devil is in the details.
Philadelphia Daily News reporter Bob Warner suggests: "add up numbers so that the contributions (to campaigns) match paper reports, look at how many different occupations and employers are described, call the campaign to go over field by field what they had given to make sure your understanding is the same as there's."
Warner recalls learning the hard way.
"We had run a story on a gubernatorial race based on the figures they had in the amount receivable fields. Got a confusing call from the candidate, he had seen the list and said we had some names in the paper he hadn't actually gotten money from. He wondered where I'd gotten that. It turns out his staff had given me a fundraising table that had all the people the candidate planned to contact, what the target amount was and what he wanted to get out of them."
"Made for an embarrassing correction in the paper the next day," Warner says to a crowd of chuckling journalists at the 2000 IRE National Conference held in New York.
Warner and Clifford Levy, of The New York Times, offered a how-to guide on collecting and crunching campaign finance data to reporters at the conference.
Warner suggests sending formal letters to candidates, asking each to share their campaign finance data. "Follow up with phone calls to make sure it doesn't fall through the cracks," he adds.
Approach the weakest candidates first, Warner said. Obtaining campaign finance data from them will put pressure on the front runners to comply.
Warner cautions that any reporter must steer clear of the "off the record" conversations with campaign managers or candidates. "You either get a diskette or an on the record explanation," he says.
Be mindful of the "technobabble" excuses that can often be used to deny electronic record requests. Those excuses come in the form of citing technical problems such as computer can't perform file exports or the information is proprietary.
"If they cite a technical problem, immediately take the candidate up on it," Warner argues. Pin the candidate down by asking if the problems can be worked out, will he give you the data? Bottom line. If the candidate won't give you the information, immediately take them to task.
"There's [only] one legitimate explanation for not providing the list, he's protecting his contributors," Warner adds.
Once the haggling is complete and the files are in hand, Warner begins to look for patterns in the database.
"There's always stories interwoven, the question is how are you going to pull them out?"
Levy picks up with a modus operandi in how to do just that.
Levy usually begins by sorting the data by state. The donations from out of state are "immediate red flags."
"That's an immediate source of story ideas," Levy offers. "People don't give to people in other states…because they like their ideology. It's usually because they want something, a contract, a bill."
Levy found this to be true while digging into New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall's campaign records. In 1998 ("Donors to McCall Campaign Got Pension Fund Contracts", The New York Times, October 3), Levy discovered contributions given to McCall by a prominent Los Angeles investment firm. Further digging led him to a "pay for play" game, wherein pension fund contracts were awarded by McCall after sizable donations were made to his campaign.
Stories like this are exposed by looking for inconsistencies.
"The first thing I do when I see a name I don't recognize, I immediately go to the FEC database to find out who these people are." Levy says. "If that doesn't pan out, I go to a general search engine and plug in their name. If the name is not common, you usually get hits. If that doesn't work, I go to the clippings databases."
Next, Levy sorts his data by date.
"You'll be surprised how often people bundle the contributions together and they give them to the candidate at one time," Levy says. "And they're all listed on the same date."
That's usually a tip that the donor has an interest in something.
"I've given you all that money at one time, see how I'm supporting you?" Levy asks in his best donor voice.
"It often means something," he adds.
Levy also suggests sorting the data by address. "People often try to mask donations by using shell corporations, subsidiaries, secretaries, low ranking executives," he warns. "Usually, they do it from the same address. That can jump out at you."
He found this to be true in 1998 ("G.O.P. Donor Won New York Contract As His Gifts Soared", The New York Times, March 25) when looking at then-Governor George Pataki's campaign records as well as the New York State Republican Party. Levy found a bundling of contributions totaling $100,000 coming from one address.
There are stories like this waiting to be uncovered. But, Warner warns that reporters can't rely too heavily on the diskette for a daily article.
"Have a contingency plan," Warner says. "And have paper records as a crutch."