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MBNA's sudden generosity: Coincidence or quid pro quo?

By Aron Pilhofer
Campaign Finance Information Center

Sometimes, the best campaign finance stories happen right in your own back yard. That's what the News Journal in Wilmington, Del., discovered when the paper investigated a sudden upsurge in campaign spending by the state's second largest employer: MBNA, one of the nation's largest issuers of credit cards.

Reporter Robert Long, who led the project, became interested after noticing an unusually large number of contributions coming from company executives.

"After seeing MBNA ranking high in some presidential races, we started to take an in-depth look at their campaign activities," he said.

Poring through FEC reports in the Spring of 2000, when the paper first began its examination, the News Journal found that MBNA executives were the single largest identifiable group of contributors to then candidate George W. Bush's presidential campaign, giving more than $250,000.

At the time, MBNA was second only to investment bank Goldman Sachs in total contributions to presidential candidates.

In several follow-up articles, the News Journal documented the company's lavish campaign spending on state and national candidates and party committees throughout the 2000 election cycle.

MBNA ended up as the most generous campaign contributor among finance/credit companies in 2000, giving more than $3.5 million to federal candidates and committees. That's $1 million more than the company contributed during the previous four election cycles combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the course of reporting the story, the News Journal uncovered memos that showed how top MBNA executives were influencing employees to contribute to candidates the company favored.

Company executives said the firm was interested in promoting good government. But campaign-finance reform advocates said it was more than coincidental that the company's interest in national politics came at a time when an important piece of bankruptcy reform legislation was pending in Congress.

MBNA and others in the credit industry had been pushing hard to make it more difficult for those who file bankruptcy claims to walk away from debts they owe. Following the election, both houses of Congress passed similar bankruptcy reform bills.

The paper also tracked MBNA's soft money donations and donations made to all of the members of Congressional banking committees -- and found a close correlation between whom the company was giving to and how committee members voted on bankruptcy legislation.

The project involved compiling data from several campaign finance sources:
  • To compile the federal numbers, the News Journal used raw FEC data, downloaded from the agency's Web site.

  • Delaware had not yet begun computerizing state filings, so that data had to be typed into a database by hand.

  • The paper also keyed in some data from paper filings submitted by MBNA's federal political action committee.

As with any campaign finance project, there were problems.

"In many of the FEC filings, MBNA was listed as an employer for MBNA employees. But in the state reports and some of the FEC reports, they weren't," Long said. "So we built a database of corporate officers - which we got from annual reports, PAC reports and other sources - compiled addresses from voting records and were able to use those to match spouses who were also donating to Bush and other Republicans."

Other problems included:

  • Finding executives' spouses, which involved some guesswork because the FEC does not database the full address of contributors. The News Journal used a methodology similar to that used by the Center for Responsive Politics: Persons with the same last name; listing the same city, state and zip; contributing the same amount to the same candidate on the same day were considered related.

  • Juggling many different databases, from different data sources, which made the analysis tricky.

  • Managing a moving target. The paper constantly had to update numbers as the company made more contributions, and the reporters found more ways in which MBNA was contributing.

All in all, it wasn't a pretty collection of data, Long said, "but it was accurate and got the job done."

Aron Pilhofer is director of the Campaign Finance Information Center, and was previous CAR Coordinator at the News Journal. Read the MBNA story at: www.delawareonline.com/newsjournal/archives/mbna/0312200a.html.