On day one of Sunlight’s money-in-politics training, some two dozen journalists learned how to track campaign contributions to federal candidates, PACs and even dark money nonprofit groups.
But influence isn’t just campaign donations. What tools can reporters use to track other forms of influence?
One tool is the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer. The Explorer allows reporters to enter the name of a company and see information on everything from donations from that company’s employees to bills that company has lobbied on.
Using another of the Explorer’s tools, Realtime FEC, reporters can enter a Congressional race and see real-time data pulled from the Federal Election Commission’s website, including information on campaign contributions and independent expenditures. Journalists can also sign up for alerts on specific races and be alerted via email whenever a new report is filed.
Another Sunlight tool is Political Ad Sleuth. The Sleuth pulls in realtime data from the Federal Communications Commission’s website of political television advertisements. Currently, ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates in the 50 largest television markets (as of July 1, all stations will be required to post information). Journalists can download the information in bulk.
Fundraising is a full-time job for politicians and the Sunlight Foundation is doing their best to keep track of it with Political Party Time, a tool that tracks political fundraisers. Tipsters upload emails and other invitations to fundraisers and Sunlight incorporates info from the invitations to a downloadable database.
But what about tracking money flowing from corporations to politically-active nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their donors?
The Center for Public Integrity’s Michael Beckel says it’s possible to get that information in some instances but you have to know where to look.
“There are a lot of backdoor ways to find out who might be giving to these organizations,” said Beckel.
Beckel spearheaded a project that looked at 300 of the largest publicly-traded companies in the U.S. One-third of them voluntarily disclosed information on the trade associations and other nonprofits they made donations to.
Beckel found that more than five dozen corporate members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave more than $11 million to the largely pro-Republican trade association.
Beckel says that the quality of the disclosure varies greatly from company to company.
Some companies list ranges for giving. Other companies only list the organizations they give to, without listing any amounts.
Most companies include this information in annual reports that are often posted to their websites.
The Center keyed in the contributions data from the reports and uploaded the information as a searchable database.
Finally, Beckel says that many state attorneys general will require additional disclosure forms of politically-active nonprofits.
So, how to track the payback?
Russ Choma, a reporter at the Center for Responsive Politics, demo’d some of the site’s advanced features, including comprehensive lobbying reports for businesses and other organizations. CRP even matches campaign contributions data and lobbying data to reveal which corporations’ lobbyists gave to which politicians and PACs.
CRP also has something called the Anomaly Tracker–a tool that highlights anomalies in the organization’s money-and-politics data, such as lawmakers sponsoring legislation that was lobbied by only one company or other organization whose employees or PAC also donated to the sponsoring lawmakers. Choma says such a happenstance is a classic marker of political payback.