This site aggregates blogs from the open government technology community and public sector bloggers on related topics in the United States. Planet oGosh is a part of the community.

April 24, 2014

Sunlight Foundation

Obama bundler Tom Wheeler helps his former industry from FCC perch

by Peter Olsen-Phillips at April 24, 2014 08:59 PM

When Tom Wheeler was appointed the 31st Commissioner  of the FCC, some media policy watchdogs were skeptical that the former telecommunications executive and Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association lobbyist would be willing to "stand up to industry giants and protect the public interest," when faced with important rule making decisions on net neutrality, media mergers and broadband competition. Now, with news that the agency plans to allow Internet service providers to charge higher rates for Internet "fast lanes," it appears that at least some of those fears have been vindicated.

Deemed the "Bo Jackson" of the communications world by a President Obama, Wheeler had played nearly every position in the telecom industry by the time he was nominated to Chair the agency. In addition to presiding over the CTIA and, before that, the National Cable Television Association, Wheeler was a managing director at a venture capital firm and a co-founder of SmartBrief according to his agency bio. But, beyond his experience on the front lines of the communications industry, Wheeler had ingratiated himself with the administration in another key way: bundling campaign cash for Obama.

Thanks to lists of bundlers voluntarily disclosed by the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns (available on, we know that Wheeler raised between $200,000 and $500,000 in the 2008 cycle, and at least half a million dollars for the President's reelection campaign. Wheeler personally gave $28,500 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2008. In Feb. 2012, he hosted a high-priced fundraiser for the president, where attendees to Washington's Mayflower hotel forked over between $5,000 to $20,300 to eat lunch and snap pictures with the First Lady.

Unfortunately, as there is no law on the books mandating bundling disclosure, it's not clear what sources Wheeler tapped to pull together the rest of this cash.

Major broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon also contributed large sums to Obama's campaign coffers. Influence Explorer reveals that the political committees and employees of the two Internet giants have contributed at least $530,000 and $450,000 respectively.

Jenn Topper contributing.

Happy birthday, Sunlight! Here's to eight great years (and many more)

by Ellen Miller at April 24, 2014 04:31 PM

Justice Louis Brandeis wearing a party hat Sunlight's muse, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

It’s almost hard to believe, but the Sunlight Foundation turns eight years old this week!

Here at Sunlight HQ, we’re marking eight amazing years of hard work spent demanding open government data and building the tools to help people like you hold government accountable for its actions.

We just wanted to take a minute to thank you for taking part in our incredible journey. Whether you’ve used our tools or APIs, attended Sunlight’s annual unconference, TransparencyCamp, stood up for real-time disclosure or donated to Sunlight -- it’s thanks to supporters like you that we’re celebrating our eighth anniversary this week.

And now you can help us celebrate, too. Your support ensures that we can continue working toward government transparency for many years to come.

Help celebrate our anniversary by contributing to the Sunlight Foundation today.

Thanks for eight great years. Here’s to 80 more!

Open Knowledge Foundation Blog

Draft Open Data Policy for Qatar

by Rayna Stamboliyska at April 24, 2014 03:13 PM

The following post was originally published on the blog of our Open MENA community (Middle East and North Africa).

The Qatari Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies (generally referred to as ictQATAR) had launched a public consultation on its draft Open Data Policy. I thus decided to briefly present a (long overdue) outline of Qatar’s Open Data status prior to providing a few insights of the current Policy document.

Public sector Open Data in Qatar: current status

Due to time constraints, I did not get the chance to properly assess public sector openness for the 2013 edition of the Open Data Index (I served as the MENA editor). My general remarks are as follows (valid both end of October 2013 and today):

  • Transport timetables exist online and in digital form but are solely available through non-governmental channels and are in no way available as Open Data. The data is thus neither machine-readable nor freely accessible — as per the Open Definition, — nor regularly updated.
  • Government budget, government spending and elections results are nowhere to be found online. Although there are no elections in the country (hence no election results to be found; Qatar lacks elected Parliament), government budget and spending theoretically exist.
  • Company register is curated by the Qatar Financial Centre Authority, is available online for anyone to read and seems to be up-to-date. Yet, the data is not available for download in anything other than PDF (not a machine-readable format) and is not openly licensed which severely restricts any use one could decide to make out of it.
  • National statistics seem to be partly available online through the Qatar Information Exchange office. The data does not, however, seem to be up-to-date, is mostly enclosed in PDFs and is not openly licensed.
  • Legislation content is provided online by Al-Meezan, the Qatari Legal Portal. Although data seems available in digital form, it does not seem to be up-to-date (no results for 2014 regardless of the query). The licensing of the website is not very clear as the mentions include both “copyright State of Qatar” and “CC-by 3.0 Unported”.
  • Postcodes/Zipcodes seem to be provided through the Qatar Postal Services yet the service does not seem to provide a list of all postcodes or a bulk download. The data, if we assume it’s available, is not openly licensed.
  • National map at a scale of 1:250,000 or better (1cm = 2.5km) is nowhere to be found online, at least I did not manage to (correct me if I am wrong).
  • Emissions of pollutants data is not available through the Ministry of Environment. (Such data is defined as “aggregate data about the emission of air pollutants, especially those potentially harmful to human health. “Aggregate” means national-level or more detailed, and on an annual basis or more often. Standard examples of relevant pollutants would be carbon monoxides, nitrogen oxides, or particulate matter.”)

This assessment would produce an overall score of 160 (as per the Open Data Index criteria) which would rank Qatar at the same place as Bahrain, that is much lower than other MENA states (e.g., Egypt and Tunisia). A national portal exists but it does not seem to comprehend what open format and licensing mean as data is solely provided as PDFs and Excel sheets, and is the property of the Government. (The portal basically redirects the user to the aforementioned country’s national statistics website.) Lastly, information requests can be made through the portal.

The 2013 edition of the Open Data Barometer provides a complementary insight and addresses the crucial questions of readiness and outreach:

[There is] strong government technology capacity, but much more limited civil society and private sector readiness to secure benefits from open data. Without strong foundations of civil society freedoms, the Right to Information and Data Protection, it is likely to be far harder for transparency and accountability benefits of open data to be secured. The region has also seen very little support for innovation with open data, suggesting the economic potential of open data will also be hard to realise. This raises questions about the motivation and drivers for the launch of open data portals and platforms.

Screenshot from the Open Data Barometer 2013.

2014 Open Data Policy draft

Given the above assessment, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a draft Open Data Policy is being composed by ictQATAR. The document sets the record straight from the beginning:

Information collected by or for the government is a national resource which should be managed for public purposes. Such information should be freely available for anyone to use unless there are compelling privacy, confidentiality or security considerations by the government. [...] Opening up government data and information is a key foundation to creating a knowledge based economy and society. Releasing up government-held datasets and providing raw data to their citizens, will allow them to transform data and information into tools and applications that help individuals and communities; and to promote partnerships with government to create innovative solutions.

The draft Policy paper then outlines that “all Government Agencies will put in place measures to release information and data”. The ictQATAR will be in charge of coordinating those efforts and each agency will need to nominate a senior manager internally to handle the implementation of the Open Data policy through the identification and release of datasets as well as the follow-up on requests to be addressed by citizens. The Policy emphasizes that “each agency will have to announce its “Terms of Use” for the public to re-use the data, requirement is at no fees”.

The Policy paper also indicates how the national Open Data portal will operate. It will be “an index to serve as gateway to public for dataset discovery and search, and shall redirect to respective Government Agencies’ data source or webpage for download”. Which clearly indicates that each individual Agency will need to create own website where the data will be released and maintained.

The proposed national Open Data portal is also suggested to operate as an aggregator of “all public feedback and requests, and the government agencies’ responses to the same”. Alongside, the portal will continue to allow the public to submit information requests (as per the freedom of information framework in the country). This is an interesting de facto implementation of the Freedom of Information Act Qatar still lacks.

The draft Policy further states:

Where an Agency decides to make information available to the public on a routine basis, it should do so in a manner that makes the information available to a wide range of users with no requirement for registration, and in a non-proprietary, non-exclusive format.

This is an interesting remark and constitutes one of my main points of criticism to the proposed paper. The latter neither contains a mention about what the recommended formats should be nor about licensing. Thus, one is left wondering whether the Agencies should just continue to stick to Microsoft Excel and PDF formats. If these were adopted as the default formats, then the released data would not be truly open as none of these two formats is considered open and the files are not machine-readable (a pre-requisite for data to be defined as open). Indeed, instead of going for a lengthy description of various formats, it would have been much more useful to elaborate on preferred format, e.g. CSV.

An additional concern is the lack of mention of a license. Even though the Policy paper does a great job emphasizing that the forthcoming data needs to be open for anyone to access, use, reuse and adapt, it makes no mention whatsoever about the envisioned licensing. Would the latter rely on existing Creative Commons licenses? Or would the ictQATAR craft its own license as have done other governments across the world?

An additional reason for concern is the unclear status of payment to access data. Indeed, the Policy paper mentions at least three times (sections 4.2 (i); 4.4 (ii); Appendix 6, ‘Pricing Framework’ indicator) that the data has to be provided at no cost. Yet, the Consultation formulates the question:

Open Data should be provided free of charge where appropriate, to encourage its widespread use. However, where is it not possible, should such data be chargeable and if so, what are such datasets and how should they be charged to ensure they are reasonable?

This question indicates that financial participation from potential users is considered probable. If such a situation materialized, this would be damaging for the promising Open Data Policy as paying to access data is one of the greatest barriers to access to information (regardless of how low the fee might be). Thus, if the data is provided at a cost, it is not Open Data anymore as by definition, Open Data is data accessible at no cost for everyone.

My personal impression is that the Policy draft is a step in the right direction. Yet the success of such a policy, if implemented, remains very much dependent on the willingness of the legislator to enable a shift towards increased transparency and accountability. My concerns stem from the fact that the national legislation has precedence over ictQATAR’s policy frameworks which may make it very difficult to achieve a satisfactory Open Data shift. The Policy draft states:

Agencies may also develop criteria at their discretion for prioritizing the opening of data assets, accounting for a range of factors, such as the volume and quality of datasets, user demand, internal management priorities, and Agency mission relevance, usefulness to the public, etc.

The possibility that an Agency might decide to not open up data because it would be deemed potentially harmful to the country’s image or suchlike is real. Given that no Freedom of Information Act exists, there is no possible appeal mechanism allowing to challenge a negative decision citing public interest as outweighing deemed security concerns. The real test for how committed to openness and transparency the government and its Agencies are will come at that time.

The Appendix 6 is thus very imprecise regarding the legal and security constraints that might prevent opening up public sector data. Furthermore, the precedence of the national legislation should not be neglected: it for ex. prohibits any auditing or data release related to contracting and procurement; no tenders are published for public scrutiny. Although the country has recently established national general anti-corruption institutions, there is a lack of oversight of the Emir’s decisions. According to Transparency International Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index 2013, “the legislature is not informed of spending on secret items, nor does it view audit reports of defence spending and off-budget expenditure is difficult to measure”.

Note: I have responded to the consultation in my personal capacity (not as OpenMENA). Additional insights are to be read which I have chosen not to feature here.

Sunlight Foundation

Influence Analytics: Why it's hard to follow hard-money bundling

by Nancy Watzman at April 24, 2014 01:30 PM

Welcome to another edition of "Influence Analytics," a recurring series on trends in lobbying — on and off Capitol Hill — that Sunlight's Reporting Group spots using our data analysis tools. Political fundraisers happen every day of the year in Washington, D.C.

A map displaying five years of political fundraisers in Washington, D.C.

This is the week that lobbyists had to file their first quarter reports on Capitol Hill, and while there's been lots of interesting analysis of what has been disclosed, we here at Sunlight got to thinking about what wasn't:

In the first three months of 2014, only 18 individuals and organizations were named by federal campaign committees as lobbyist "bundlers"--those credited with raising money from others and delivering it in one convenient (and large) package to a candidate or party committee, according to Sunlight's analysis of records filed with the Federal Election Commission.

While the FEC list includes high profile lobbyists (Tony Podesta and his estranged wife Heather Podesta are reported to have bundled $289,400 and $97,400, respectively, to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee), other names you'd expect to find aren't there.

Over at Sunlight's Party Time website, which tracks campaign fundraising parties, we count 513 people and organizations listed as hosts over the same time period. In other words, they are helping these candidates and party committees raise hard money by bringing together other donors. Sounds like bundling, no? Yet none of the Party Time hosts are reported as bundlers by campaign committees in the 2014 calendar year.

What gives?

No. 1: What looks like a bundle might not be a bundle, at least not in the strict legal sense. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007  brought us official disclosure of bundled contributions by registered lobbyists. But the rules allow plenty of bundles to be dropped down the black hole of non-disclosure.

Campaigns have to report only bundles of $17,300 or more. These totals do not count any money contributed personally by a lobbyist.

So if lobbyist A convinces six of her colleagues to each contribute the maximum amount to Representative Z, and her spouse and herself each kick in another $2,600 apiece, for a total of $20,800, Representative Z would not need to report that as a bundle. Or, say ten lobbyists serve as hosts of a single fundraiser and the event raises $100,000. If that amount is allocated evenly among the ten hosts, the reporting threshold will not be triggered. Bingo: no disclosure.

Of the 137 lobbyist bundlers reported by campaigns in 2012, 52 appear in the Party Time database as hosting fundraising parties. At these same parties, they shared their hosting duties with 295 other registered lobbyists, none of whom show up in the official lobbying bundling reports, according to analysis by Craig Holman of Public Citizen in a recent article for the Election Law Journal (subscription required).

This is likely an underestimate of the number of lobbyists involved in fundraising--the Party Time database is fueled by volunteers who send us invitations, and is far from a complete dataset.

"What is clear is that the public is not getting a full picture of bundling activity, and that many lobbyists who are participating in bundling events are going undisclosed in the FECA bundling database," writes Holman.

No. 2: The bundling disclosure law is limited to lobbyists. Many of the most prolific donors and bundlers in campaigns, however, are not registered as lobbyists--which is a very different thing from saying that they don't have a pecuniary interest in a politician's policies.

For example, Texas-based Republican donor Robert Rowling has opened his Dallas home to raise funds for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, and as head of the privately held TRT Holdings, he oversees an empire that includes Omni Hotels & Resorts, Tana Exploration Company, and Gold's Gym.  Rowling's giving patterns have supported his business interests: In 2009, he contributed generously to oppose a ballot initiative that would have squashed a Dallas development benefitting Omni; in the end, the Dallas City Council unanimously  voted to award TRT Holdings $2.3 million in tax abatements over ten years and a $200,000 economic development grant.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama declared he would not take any campaign money from registered lobbyists. But he still voluntarily disclosed plenty of bundlers supporting his campaign, nearly 770 of them. The top industry represented were law firms, many of which house lobbying outfits.  GOP candidate Mitt Romney made no such promise, but also reported plenty of bundlers, according to The federal bundling disclosure law would not capture the lion's share of these people.

In his Election Law Review article, Holman argues that an opportunity was lost in the 2007 lobbying reform law. “[T]he disclosure provision continues to apply only to lobbyists when it, too, should have been expanded to include all campaign finance bundlers," he writes.

That doesn't mean the law couldn't be changed now. Sunlight has long advocated for exactly this: our 2008 Model Transparency bill included a provision expanding bundling disclosure to all bundlers, not just registered lobbyists. But meanwhile, it's important to remember that what's disclosed is only a very small part of the picture--particularly troubling following the U.S. Supreme Court's in the McCutcheon case, which is expected to encourage more old fashioned maxed out hard money contributions to campaigns.

Also seen:  The Middle East is once again in the news with peace talks on life support. We took a look at some of the players in the crisis through the prism of Sunlight trackers.

Mentions of Hamas by lawmakers on the floor peaked in January 2009, when Israel invaded Gaza; mentions of Palestine Liberation Organization much lower overall (Capitol Words); Palestine and Israel foreign agent registration profiles (Foreign Influence Explorer); Hamas and Israel in legislation (Open Congress).

Today in #OpenGov 4/24/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 24, 2014 11:53 AM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including open public lands, open public education, and an open internet in Brazil.series-opengov-today

National News

  • Inspectors General are charged with investigating wrongdoing at federal agencies, but that doesn't mean they're always perfect. A preliminary investigation found a number of issues at the State Department's Inspector General office. (Washington Times)
  • America has vast public lands . A group in northeast Ohio is working to map and share data about various public lands in their area. (Code for America)
  • Republicans have reacted quickly to the McCutcheon decision, setting up new committees that allow donors to send more money towards party committees and more. (The Washington Post)
  • A year after a disastrous and deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas federal investigators have determined that a lack of oversight and effective regulation contributed to the blast. (New York Times)

International News

  • On the same day that word started to get around that the FCC would abandon net neutrality principles with new rules, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed a sweeping internet freedom law that enshrines net neutrality, user privacy, freedom of expression and more into law. (Tech President)

State and Local News

  • Code for DC is looking to change DC school policy with a new site,, which is designed as an open platform for school policy. (E Pluribus Unum)

Events Today

  • Informatica 2014 government summit. Government Executive. Thurs. 4/24. 8:00 am - 4:00 pm. Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, GWSAE Suite, Washington, DC 20004.

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

April 23, 2014

Sunlight Foundation

Cantor "joints" forces with six other VA Reps

by Sarah Harkins at April 23, 2014 09:49 PM

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican from Virginia, sits at his desk viewing a computer screen.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and a handful of other Virginia lawmakers have formed the latest "super joint" -- a Joint Fundraising Committee.  The rise of joint fundraising committees was expected after the Supreme Court’s decision in the McCutcheon v. FEC case, which eliminated aggretate limits on campaign contributions.

Individuals can now give to as many candidates and party committees as they would like.  As Sunlight pointed out after the Supreme Court released its decision, this makes it possible “for a single donor to contribute more than $3.5 million to one party during an election cycle.”

The Virginia Redistricting Defense Fund will collect contributions for the committees of Virginia Republican representatives Rob Whittman, Scott Rigell, Robert Hurt, Randy Forbes, Bob Goodlatte, and Morgan Griffith as well as Cantor. Individuals wishing to give the maximum contribution to all seven members for their primary and general election contests could write the committee a single check for $36,400.

Our previous coverage has already suggested the previous biggest spenders most likely to contribute to such “super joints.”


Open Secrets

Aereo Takes Its Case To Washington

by Robbie Feinberg at April 23, 2014 07:50 PM

The online streaming video provider Aereo is trying to shake up the television world, but its cause could get dealt a big blow if the Supreme Court rules that its practices violate copyright law.

aereokatojia.jpgThe dispute, which pits Aereo against major broadcasters and was heard by the justices on Monday, centers on the fact that Aereo receives over-the-air broadcast signals and redistributes them online to subscribers who pay a low monthly fee. Aereo doesn't pay the broadcasters, arguing that it's simply retransmitting content that's already free, but the broadcasters see it as copyright infringement.

But Aereo isn't making its case only in the courts. It has also taken to Washington in recent years, with the company and its CEO spending significantly on both lobbying and campaign contributions to get Congress to help out its cause. 
Aereo only entered the lobbying game in 2012, but the company hasn't been shy about throwing its money around. In its first year lobbying, the company spent $150,000 and nearly tripled that, to $440,000, last year. That rate stayed steady in the first quarter of 2014, with Aereo spending $110,000. The online video provider says on its lobbying disclosure reports that it's weighing in on issues "pertaining to antennas and broadcast television."

While the company doesn't yet have a PAC, its founder and CEO, Chaitanya Kanojia, has been contributed to a range of Democratic candidates over the last few campaign cycles. He  gave $7,100 in the 2012 cycle, with his largest gifts going to President Obama ($2,500) and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey ($2,400). In the 2014 race, Kanojia already has given out $8,600 -- topping his previous total -- including $2,000 to Markey , $2,600 to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and $1,500 to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Kanoija has also donated to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, giving him $1,000 in the 2012 cycle and throwing in another $1,000 for Rockefeller's leadership PAC, Mountaineer PAC, in the current cycle, even though Rockefeller announced in January that he won't run for re-election.

Rockefeller has championed Aero's cause through a bill he introduced in 2013 called the Consumer Choice in Online Video Act. The bill would force cable companies to offer services on an "a la carte," channel-by-channel basis, meaning consumers wouldn't have to pay for channels they didn't want. But for Aereo, the bill is important because it says that services like Aereo, if ruled legal under copyright law, wouldn't have to pay fees for retransmission of broadcasts.

Still, even if Aereo escapes the Supreme Court unscathed, Rockefeller's bill faces a tough slog. Cable groups, who tend to be against Aereo, have largely dominated the lobbying on bills like Rockefeller's that would benefit the company. Of the 20 organizations that lobbied on measure, 13 are cable and content providers or industry representatives, including giants like Verizon, Time Warner and 21st Century Fox.

The most notable is the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which listed the bill on its lobbying disclosure reports six times, more than any other organization. The group spent nearly $20 million on lobbying in 2013, a huge sum of cash that could present a difficult legislative obstacle for Aereo to overcome in Congress, even if the company's practices are found legal by the Supreme Court.

Image: Aereo CEO Chetanya Katojia at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Conference in 2013 (Flickr/Stuart Isett, Fortune Brainstorm Tech)

Follow Robbie on Twitter at @robbiefeinberg

Stand Back: NRA's PAC is Loaded on Eve of Convention

by Russ Choma at April 23, 2014 06:13 PM

The National Rifle Association's convention kicks off tomorrow in Indianapolis, and a lavish spectacle it will be -- celebrities, rallies and loads of firearms.

AP301860830210.jpgLess obvious will be the plump PAC account the group is sitting on. According to the latest campaign finance filings, the NRA Political Victory Fund has amassed about $14.1 million.*

The only groups that have more cash are the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee -- both party organs -- and the Service Employees International Union, which reported having $16.4 million in cash on hand. The next closest group involved in the gun debate is former Rep. Gabby Gifford's pro-gun control organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, a super PAC that reported having $7.6 million as of March 31. 

Of course, $14.1 million is a fraction of the $50 million that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pledged to spend promoting gun control. But the NRA is well-armed for this election -- and the PAC filing doesn't include whatever the group may want to spend from its 501(c)(4) arm, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without ever disclosing donors' names to the public. 

In fact, the NRA may be on track to raise and spend more than ever before. The most the group's PAC has raised in one cycle was $17.9 million in the 2000 election, according to an OpenSecrets Blog analysis. With nine months remaining in this cycle, the PAC has already raised $14.8, and has raised more than $1 million in numerous months.

The PAC has already given $246,000 to federal candidates and committees -- 95 percent of it to Republicans. Clearly, though, there's far more to come: In 2012, the PAC gave away $987,000 in 2012 and $1.2 million in 2010.

It's also likely to make some major independent expenditures -- spending that supports (or attacks) a candidate explicitly but isn't coordinated with his or her campaign. So far this cycle, the group has spent just $240,000 on independent expenditures, but in the 2012 cycle it spent $11.1 million and in the 2010 cycle, $7.1 million.

In other words, with seven months remaining before this year's election, the NRA has barely begun to fight. And fight is a key word. In 2012, the bulk of its independent expenditures -- $8.6 million -- was spent attacking Democrats, with just $2.3 million going to support GOP candidates.

The group is sitting pretty in other ways, as well: Currently, Congress isn't seriously considering a renewed assault weapons ban or expanded background checks, two measures that received legislative attention after the Sandy Hook killings of December 2012 and other shootings. Both proposals went down to defeat in the Senate a year ago.

One of the main attractions at the NRA's annual confab will be an appearance by former Alaska governor and GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Though Palin is not running for elected office (at least not yet), her leadership PAC, SarahPAC is alive and well. So far this cycle it has raised $1.6 million; it has spent nearly the same amount, though more than half of that went for fundraising -- only $10,000 was given to candidates. But SarahPAC still has $1 million in the bank.

*Note: There appears to be an error in the NRA's latest filing, which indicates the PAC has just over $1 million on hand. In the previous month, however, it reported having $13.2 million in the bank. OpenSecrets Blog determined the NRA's current cash on hand by adding April revenues to that figure and subtracting April expenditures. We attempted to contact the PAC's treasurer for an explanation but our messages were not returned.

Follow Russ on Twitter: @russchoma

Images: NRA Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre speaks during the leadership forum at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting Friday, May 3, 2013 in Houston. (AP Photo/Steve Ueckert)

Larry Lessig

The justice in coders

by Lessig at April 23, 2014 04:07 PM

Among the most important changes in the structure of this society is the rise of engineers and the…

(Original post on Tumblr)

Open Secrets

Koch Company and Labor Unions: One Degree of Separation

by Russ Choma at April 23, 2014 02:50 PM

The influence industry sometimes produces strange bedfellows. Case in point, according to recently filed lobbying disclosure reports from 2014's first quarter: The same lobbying firm that represents Koch Companies Public Sector and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in their efforts to keep the IRS from tightening up regs on dark money groups also represents one of the biggest names in organized labor.

Of course, organized labor is not necessarily unfriendly to the idea of outside money groups; unions have made great use of super PACs and have been linked to liberal dark money groups like Patriot Majority. But the prevailing narrative of partisan politics puts unions on the opposite side of the battlefield from the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch (and by extension the conglomerate they own, KCPS).

Last week, the lobbying firm Siff & Associates filed disclosures indicating it was paid $50,000 by KCPS to lobby on H.R. 3547, specifically a provision to "prevent the IRS from using funds to target groups based on their political views, or spending public money " as well as a proposed IRS rule to add more oversight to dark money groups. The firm described this activity as lobbying for "General oversight of IRS efforts to curtail public education by 501(c)(4) entities on issues contrary to the positions of the Administration."

While KCPS did not return multiple requests for comment, representatives of the company have previously gone to great lengths to insist that the company's own lobbying expenditures are not reflective of the political interests of the Koch brothers. This case may be an exception: The Koch brothers are arguably the two most prominent enthusiasts of the 501(c)(4) dark money model. And given the level of vitriol aimed at them -- the brothers, their dark money groups and the company they own -- by prominent Democrats and groups like the union-linked Patriot Majority, it is surprising to see Siff & Associates' other first quarter clients.

Besides the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's affiliate, the Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, Siff & Associates had three union clients: the Sergeant's Benevolent Association of New York City, which represents 13,000 police sergeants (active and retired); the Federal Law Enforcement Officer's Association (which represents 25,000 federal cops) and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

The Carpenters happens to be one of the largest unions -- second only to National Education Association in terms of political spending by unions so far this cycle -- and one of the most influential and well-connected in Democratic circles. The union's own super PAC affiliate, Working for Working Americans, has given $1 million this cycle to the Fund for Jobs, Growth and Security -- a super PAC run by a former aide of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- to support Democrats in New Jersey state elections. Working for Working Americans has also given $250,000 to Senate Majority PAC (the super PAC supporting Senate Democrats, also helmed by close associates of Reid) and House Majority PAC (which supports House Democrats). 

In recent weeks, the Koch brothers have become a major talking point for Reid, who accuses them of corrupting the political system. But more than sending money to groups affiliated with prominent opponents of the Koch brothers, money from the Carpenter's union coffers has wound up directly opposite from money strongly suspected to have Koch ties. A $100,000 donation from Working for Working Americans wound up with WIN Minnesota, a super PAC backing Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who has been attacked by American Encore, a dark money group run by Shawn Noble, the architect of the sprawling dark money network in 2012 funded, at least partially by Koch money.

Chris Granberg, who represents all three of the unions for Siff & Associates, did not return requests for comment, nor did a Carpenter's union representative. 

The Carpenters union spent $20,000 on lobbying in the first quarter, and spent $320,000 in all of 2013.

KCPS, on the other hand, spent $10.4 million last year on lobbying. 

One of Siff & Associates' other union clients -- the Sergeants' Benevolent Association -- lobbied on 501(c)(4) oversight, according to reports filed by the firm. The language is similar to what Siff used in the Koch filing -- albeit taking the tack that the legislation and oversight could hinder union political activity.

Follow Russ on Twitter: @russchoma

Images: David Koch speaking in Orlando, Fla., last year. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Sunlight Foundation

Today in #OpenGov 4/23/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 23, 2014 12:08 PM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including data feedback, fighting corruption in Lebanon, and education APIs.series-opengov-today

National News

  • The Department of Education is looking for public suggestions about how to use its data and build useful APIs. (Gov Fresh)
  • appears to be taking steps to comply with part of the Obama administration's open data policy that requires agencies to gather feedback from users of its publicly released data. (Executive Government)
  • A look at repercussions from the McCutcheon decision and potential paths forward. (Center for Effective Government)

International News

  • The Lebanese Transparency Organization is responding to the influx of refugees from Syria by setting up new Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres to help refugees and fight corruption. (Transparency International)
  • A new archaeological project embraces open science principles and releases all of its extensive data on a CKAN powered open portal. (Open Knowledge)

Events Today

  • TTIP Stakeholder Forum. Johns Hopkins SAIS. Wed. 4/23. 9:00 am - 5:00 pm. Johns Hopkins SAIS, Nitze Building, Kenney Auditorium, 1740 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Events Tomorrow

  • Informatica 2014 government summit. Government Executive. Thurs. 4/24. 8:00 am - 4:00 pm. Ronald Reagan Building, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, GWSAE Suite, Washington, DC 20004.

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

April 22, 2014

Sunlight Foundation

Today at Supreme Court: Influence heavyweights battle over access to TV airwaves

by Kathy Kiely at April 22, 2014 05:18 PM

A view of the west facade of the U.S. Supreme Court building, full of grand columns set to a blue sky background. The U.S. Supreme Court. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard two unrelated but potentially far-reaching cases that turn on the question of just how much authority the government has to regulate the airwaves.

At issue in the first case: political advertising, and a local regulation meant to keep outside groups from spreading falsehoods about a candidate. The other raises questions about the ever-more complicated issue of copyright and the rebroadcast of "free" TV. Both cases involve entities that appear frequently in Sunlight's influence trackers.

Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus

The Susan B. Anthony List is challenging an Ohio law that allows local authorities to block political ads that they see as making false statements. At issue are ads the anti-abortion group wanted to run during a 2010 campaign against Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus, who lost his bid for re-election that year.

While Ohio's "false statement" law shut down the Susan B. Anthony List's aggressive billboard attack ads aimed at Driehaus in the 2010 cycle, the setback has not stopped the group from running similar ads in other states. On April 11 of this year, the pro-life political committee announced a multi-state billboard campaign featuring material nearly identical to the controversial ads aimed at Driehaus. This time, they will run in hot button Senate elections, targeting Democratic candidates Mark Pryor, Ark., Mary Landrieu, La., and Kay Hagan, N.C (see below).

A billboard from the Susan B Anthony List stating Image credit: Susan B. Anthony List

In the same press release the group's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser pushed back on the idea that her group was pushing false claims about politicians that supported Obamacare, “[r]esearch both from the Charlotte Lozier Institute and the Kaiser Foundation found that millions of women will gain elective abortion coverage under Obamacare through the Medicaid expansion and new federal premium subsidies."

Filings collected by Sunlight's Real-Time FEC tracker show the group has spent just over $70,000 on independent expenditures in the 2014 cycle, focusing most of its financial muscle on the special Republican primary taking place Tuesday in Florida's 19th Congressional District. The committee spent $50,000 on campaign mailings and robocalls supporting Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican state senator in a three-way race for her party's nomination.

The 2014 cycle also saw the national group get active on the local stage. Of particular emphasis was a 2013 municipal referendum in Albuquerque, which would have banned abortions performed at 20 weeks or later. SBA List spent $50,000 on an ad campaign (see them all on Political Ad Hawk) featuring an OBGYN and parents that supported the Unborn Child Protection Ordinance. Though the referendum ultimately failed, the organization has made the prevention of post 20-week abortions its "top legislative priority" and supports federal legislation similar to the Albuquerque referendum in the House and Senate. The group's first quarter lobbying disclosure reveals that Susan B. Anthony's in-house lobbyists have been rallying support for the measure on Capitol Hill. SBA spent $110,000 on lobbying during that period, also targeting abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

ABC v. Aereo

In Tuesday's second case, American Broadcast Companies v. Aereo Inc., a flotilla of entertainment industry powerhouses are trying to convince the justices to keep an upstart company from snatching their works from the public airwaves and retransmitting them to paying customers on the Internet.

Aereo, the Internet rebroadcasting company, is backed by media mogul Barry Diller, whose campaign contributions include $7,000 to Barack Obama as well as other big-name Democrats. But Diller launched a broadside in the Wall Street Journal against the Obama administration recently for siding against Aereo in the Supreme Court case.

Diller accused Obama's Justice Department of having been "corralled" by the broadcasters. There's no question that the interests arrayed against Aereo have far more skin in the Washington influence game that even a major donor like Diller, according to campaign contributions analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics and compiled by Sunlight's Influence Explorer. Among the groups filing amicus briefs against Aereo: The National Association of Broadcasters, which has made more than $11 million in campaign contributions, according to Influence Explorer; Major League Baseball and the National Football League, which combined have funneled nearly $5 million into campaigns (and that doesn't count contributions from employees of individual baseball and football teams); Time Warner, $29 million; and Viacom, $10 million.

As you can see from the Influence Explorer profiles we've linked above, all of these organizations of wide experience in lobbying as well.

Beyond business — the impacts of open data

by Emily Shaw at April 22, 2014 02:45 PM

The Local team speaks regularly with people from all across the country about the benefits of open data. Though these in-person conversations are full of the kinds of tools, reportage and innovations that exemplify the benefits of open data to us, we realized that having our favorite examples written down would let us share them more easily. Our new “Impacts of Open Data” document is intended to provide a concrete overview of the kinds of benefits localities might enjoy from opening their data for public use.

Open Leatherman multitool Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When we’re talking with localities that are just beginning to learn about it, we find that it’s helpful to describe the benefits of opening government data in terms of broad categories. Recently, we've seen a number of great presentations on how open data can spur economic activity, and lists presenting the economic value of open data — like GovLab's Open Data 500, Socrata's Userbase and McKinsey & Company's Open Data report — provide useful demonstrations of the ways that open data can produce economic benefits.

As an organization focused on opening government, we emphasize other facets of the open data story. The Sunlight Foundation is particularly interested in the way that open data helps to increase transparency, allowing people a closer view of the decisions and processes that elected officials undertake on behalf of the public. We’re also interested in the accountability that can be enabled by open data. Democratic governance improves when people have data that helps them see how officials are doing relative to past or promised performance.

While transparency and accountability are of special interest to us here at Sunlight, we generally also mention a few additional categories of benefit we’ve seen governments enjoy from opening their data. We’ve seen ways that open data can be used to identify new efficiencies within governments — a variety of benefit likely to be of interest to any official watching their government’s bottom line. We’ve seen open data employed as a way to evaluate and improve local service quality. Finally, we’ve seen open data used to enhance two-way communication between the public and their governments and to thereby increase public participation.

What are the effects of open data? Take a look at our new collection of examples and see for yourself.

The Impacts of Open Data by Sunlight Foundation

Open Knowledge Foundation Blog

Open Knowledge Festival Call for Volunteers Opens Today!

by Beatrice Martini at April 22, 2014 02:44 PM


  • What: Join the Volunteers Team at OKFestival 2014!
  • When: July 15-17th, Berlin, Germany
  • Why? Lots of reasons! Find them here!

The OKFestival team is launching our call for volunteers today, and we are excited to bring on board amazing members of our community who will help us to make this festival the huge success we are anticipating. Apply now!

Volunteers are integral to our ability to run OKFestival – without you, we wouldn’t have enough hands to get everything done over the days of the festival!

Join Us!

If you want to come to Berlin this July 15th-17th and help us to create the best Open festival there has ever been, please apply today at the link above, and then spread the word to ensure others know about the festival too!

There is no hard deadline on applying, but the sooner you apply the better your chance of being selected to come and make Open history with us at this year’s OKFestival. We can’t wait to see you there!

Open Secrets

Many Candidates -- Political Opposites Included -- Share Common Donors

by Andrew Mayersohn at April 22, 2014 01:48 PM

Campaign finance is a small world. Through the first year of this election cycle, just 0.16% of American adults made campaign contributions of $200 or more, but that select group cory.booker.jpgaccounts for 63.9% of all contributions to federal candidates, PACs, and party committees. Consequently, the same donor names show up again and again on FEC reports.

Why so much overlap? First, the number of Americans with the resources to write the four-figure checks that sustain campaigns is relatively small, and only a fraction of those care enough about politics (whether for ideological or financial reasons) to make campaign contributions. And once a donor writes the first check, he or she (usually he) will stay on fundraising professionals' prospect lists forever, which ensures several friendly calls from candidates each cycle. Lastly, when politicians team up to form a joint fundraising committee, they are guaranteed to have donors in common by definition.

That said, some pairs of candidates have more donors in common than others.

Candidates with the most donors in common, cycle-to-date

&&&&& Not surprisingly, the top donor-sharers tend to be politicians with joint fundraising committees. This cycle's leaders, John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell, have more in common than being members of the GOP leadership with primary challengers; they belong to at least three JFCs together, including the McConnell Cornyn Leadership Victory Committee. Other candidates on this list are mostly from the same chamber, the same state, or even (in the case of the Udalls) the same family.

Odd as it may seem, some candidates from opposite parties share donors, too.

Opposite-party candidates with donors in common, 2014 cycle-to-date

&&&&&Some of these pairs make sense ideologically, like Stephen Lynch and Gabriel Gomez, both of whom were more conservative alternatives (in the primary and general elections respectively) to now-Senator Ed Markey. Others, like Cory Booker and Mitch McConnell, are miles apart on the left-right spectrum but share more important bonds, such as the affections of major donors from the financial and legal industries. Still others are members of the leadership and receive contributions from heavy hitters who may want to make sure that their interests are protected no matter which party controls Congress next year. Dick Durbin and John Cornyn, for example, received contributions from dozens of the same Lockheed Martin employees.

Both of the lists above are dominated by fundraising powerhouses, mostly in the Senate, since these are the candidates who have the most donors. A more diverse batch turns up when we look at opposite-party candidates with the largest percentage of their donors in common.

Opposite party candidates with largest percentage of their donors in common,
2014 cycle-to-date

This list includes some politicians who share territory, like Alaska's Don Young and Mark Begich, who both received contributions from employees of local powerhouses like Chugach Alaska Corporation. Topping the list, though, are Rep. Sam Graves and Sen. Mary Landrieu, who hail from different states but chair the small business committees in their respective chambers, and so were favored with contributions from several of the same lending firms.

As small as the universe of political donors is, it may be about to shrink even further thanks to the Supreme Court's recent McCutcheon decision removing the overall limit on how much any individual donor can give candidates, PACs and parties.  If so, expect to see more odd pairings in cycles to come as a small pool of very wealthy donors give to an unlimited number of candidates and joint fundraising committees become increasingly prevalent.

(A caveat: CRP relies on FEC data to attempt to assign unique identifiers to individual donors. This is complicated by the fact that different campaigns may refer to donors by different nicknames, place them at different addresses, or make typos, so donor matching is never perfect. As a result, the figures above are probably underestimates.)

Image: Former Newark mayor, now senator, Cory Booker, is a Democrat, but shares donors with several Republicans. (Flickr/Tris Hussey)

Why Should We Win a Webby?

by Sarah Flocken at April 22, 2014 12:52 PM

We've made no secret of the fact that has been nominated for a Webby Award. We're proud to be considered one of the top five politics sites in the world!

webbybadge_voteforus-sm.jpgBut we could be No. 1. We're currently in second place for the Webby People's Voice Award, and we need your votes to propel us to the top spot.

In fact, we need them in the next two days -- voting ends on April 24.

Please vote for us -- we can't do it without you!

Herewith, some grounds for persuasion: A quick look at all the new, groundbreaking, or just plain cool additions to this year.
1) Brand-New Issue Profiles

Passionate about climate change? Curious about the role of the defense industry in elections and policy decisions? We've added Defense and Energy & Climate Change pages to our Issue Profiles. We'll soon be posting one on gambling, and another on patents.

The Anomaly Tracker

Sometimes, when you're looking at campaign finance data, something looks amiss -- lawmakers sponsoring legislation that only one company -- whose PAC or employees donated to said lawmaker -- seems interested in, for instance, or members of Congress who receive more than 50 percent of their contributions from out-of-state. Last year, we developed a fun and easy way to look at these "anomalies" all in one place with the Anomaly Tracker.

3) 10 Things They Won't Tell You About Money in Politics

Tracking money in federal politics is essential to knowing more about political candidates, as well as to understanding what's behind election outcomes and even policy decisions, but what's in the data isn't always apparent to the naked eye. We tried to help with 10 Things Every Voter Should Know About Money in Politics.

However, we came to realize that that alone wasn't enough; the world of money-in-politics is filled with insider jargon and little tricks the average voter may not be aware of. We laid some of them out last year in 10 Things They Won't Tell You About Money in Politics.

4) A New, Improved Action Center

As an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, the Center for Responsive Politics does not advocate for specific legislation or regulations in any area -- with one important exception: transparency.

If you agree with our mission of empowering citizens with information made available by a more transparent, accountable government, explore our new and improved Action Center. We've listed Action Items, or current initiatives/legislation that our users can support, as well as an Action Wishlist of proposals we hope will gain momentum in Congress. Be sure to check our Calendar of Events and our revolving Featured Event, as well, for information on transparency and open government-related events in your area.

5) Data on Joint Fundraising Committees

Joint fundraising committees are organizations created by two or more candidates, PACs, or party committees -- or some combination of those -- that share the costs of fundraising and split the proceeds. Due to the recent Supreme Court Decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, some observers believe that JFCs will proliferate, and that they'll be bigger, since wealthy donors will no longer have to worry about hitting an overall cap on how much they can give. JFC's can potentially involve many different candidates or committees -- and solicit one donor for a mega-donation. In light of the possible rise of JFCs in this election cycle, we created our Joint Fundraising Committees page, with information on donors and recipients to these groups -- information not available in easy-to-use format anywhere else.

6) In-Depth Organization Profiles

Companies, unions, super PACs -- all the entities we categorize as organizations -- put a significant amount of money into the political process, whether through company PACs, union lobbyists, or super PAC ad buys. As of this year, all of our organization profiles -- not just those for the very biggest players -- contain detailed information

7) Huge Strides in Tracking Political Nonprofits

2013 was the year of dark money for! In addition to writing award-winning blog posts for our Shadow Money Trail series, we greatly expanded the scope of information we offer on nondisclosing political nonprofit groups in our Outside Spending section.

Because they do not disclose their donors, political nonprofits are notoriously hard to follow -- but we have the most information on these mysterious groups anywhere. Check it all out in our groundbreaking Political Nonprofits section, which includes our 990s Extracts Search.

Every day, our hardworking staff parses, slices, dices, and otherwise adds value to data from the FEC, IRS, and other government agencies to make it easily available and easy to use. We put the "real" in real-time data by making these numbers understandable and putting them in context through all parts of and the OpenSecrets Blog.

We're proud to have been a leader in following the money for the past 30 years. Please help us add a 2014 Webby Award to our list of hard-earned honors! Vote for us here.

P.S.: If you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Pinterest, you may have seen other reasons (some silly, some serious) that we think should #WinaWebby. Check them out.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sflocken

Sunlight Foundation

Today in #OpenGov 4/22/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 22, 2014 12:25 PM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including drone disclosure, a problematic open data roll out in England, and the changing role of the public library.series-opengov-today

National News

  • The Obama Administration warned most intelligence employees of dire consequences if they dare talk to the press. (The Hill)
  • The US Chamber of Commerce dropped a cool $19 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2014. (Roll Call)
  • A new report, out in the wake of high profile technology failures by government, shows that there is a deficit of tech talent in government and civil society. (E Pluribus Unum)
  • The Second US Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Obama administration to release the full legal justification for its targeting drone killing program, which includes American citizens on foreign soil. The administration has fiercely resisted releasing the full document. (Ars Technica)

International News

  • England's "open data" project is a text book example of how not to run an open data program. (Tech President)

State and Local News

  • Libraries are adapting for the digital age and beginning to embrace their role as "hubs of knowledge," where residents can tap into the larger information world and gain skills. (Data-Smart City Solutions)

Events Today 4/22

Events Tomorrow 4/23

  • TTIP Stakeholder Forum. Johns Hopkins SAIS. Wed. 4/23. 9:00 am - 5:00 pm. Johns Hopkins SAIS, Nitze Building, Kenney Auditorium, 1740 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

April 21, 2014

Sunlight Foundation

The money behind the ads in Florida 19

by Peter Olsen-Phillips at April 21, 2014 08:31 PM

Screen shot from a VAlues are Vital ad Image credit: Values are Vital Youtube channel

On Tuesday, voters head to the polls to decide a bitter special Republican primary for Florida's 19th district. The GOP winner will be the hands down favorite to win the general election in the conservative district formerly represented by Trey Radel, R, who resigned in the wake of an arrest for cocaine possession. Radel's departure — and former Republican congressman Connie Mack IV's decision not to run — paved the way for a bitter three way race in the Southwest Florida district. Candidates and outside groups have levied charges of ethical improprieties and pseudo-conservatism in an influence war that has cost over $6 million all told. With the aid of Sunlight tools, here are three quick insights into the moneyed interests behind the ad wars.

Clawson outspent his competitors thanks to personal wealth

The campaign committee of Curt Clawson, the Harvard-educated businessman, spent more than $2.2 million producing TV and internet ads, printing mailers and paying consultants in the abbreviated election cycle. So, who does Clawson have to thank for this political largesse? Mostly, himself. Clawson for Congress received $3.4 million from the candidate  compared to just under $210,000 raised from other sources — mostly individual donors based in the Sunshine state.

While Clawson leads in recent polls and scored the endorsement of retired Rep. Connie Mack IV, he hasn't gotten much boost from independent political groups except for the State Tea Party Express (based out of a Sacramento, Calif. political consulting firm) and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. Both entered the race in mid-April, combining to spend around $115,000 on direct mail and "telemarketing."

Kreegel received more financial support from outside groups than his two opponents combined

Values Are Vital (VAV), a super PAC established during the early stages of the Radel scandal by a Las Vegas lawyer and a Miami retiree, has outpaced other outside spending groups by a wide margin. The hard hitting committee — which has Paige Kreegel's opponents in TV attack ads — has spent a little less than $1.6 million on independent expenditures as of the most recent reports available Monday, compared to $780,000 of outside support for state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (mostly from the Liberty and Leadership Fund) and the $115,000 spent in support of Clawson by Tea Party groups.

VAV was behind a slew of ads questioning the apparent business dealings between Clawson and a convicted pedophile from Utah, though the victim's mother has since publicly defended Clawson against the ads, "it's wrong and I'm asking it to stop. My ex-husband and I don't know Curt Clawson very well. I was the real estate agent when he purchased a house and I met him one time."

As Sunlight previously reported, the group's founder and treasurer, Ronald Firman, declined to discuss why the PAC recently refunded over one million dollars to Firman and fellow financial backer Martin Burns.

The Liberty and Leadership Fund is financed in part by the state GOP

The Tampa Bay Times reports that the largest outside benefactor of Benacquisto, the Liberty and Leadership Fund, received around $300,000 from the state Republican party. According to the Times, the money passed through several other committees before reaching the super PAC. While coordination with super PACs is prohibited, a spokesperson for the Republican committee said the party has no control over what happens to their contributions after they have been transferred.

How Sunlight, EFF and 150 civic hackers reverse-engineered Congress' email system in two days

by ddrinkard at April 21, 2014 06:40 PM

Constituent communication is a big part of what we're into at Sunlight — we believe that a legislature in close touch with an active and engaged electorate is the most effective tool we have for maintaining a working democracy.

Understandably, then, it's long dismayed us that Congress doesn't provide an easy or straightforward way to have that kind of discourse. Each member's email is obscured by a contact form — and while perhaps it's fair that our legislators not be subject to constant bombardment and spam, these forms often aren't intuitive, accessible or sometimes even meant to be used. Many are guarded by CAPTCHAs or gated by a zip+4 requirement, ensuring that nobody living outside a lawmaker's home district (or perhaps even those who aren't able to find out what their zip4 is) is able to contact them for any reason. Sure there's the congressional phone tree, and phone calls are still the best way for Jane Q. Public to get her voice heard on the Hill outside of in-person visits, but operating hours are limited and, let's face it, phones are inconvenient.

Screenshot of OpenCongress' contact-your-reps tool Contact-Congress data is currently in use on OpenCongress' contact tool, originally built by the Participatory Politics Foundation

So we're left with forms that won't work unless you specify whether you're a Mr., Mrs. or Miss; that require you to know which side of the street you live on and how that maps to some arcane number maintained by the post office; and that demand you categorize your message into some predefined bucket, regardless of whether there's one that's appropriate or not. We live in a nation that invented the telephone and email, surely we can do better than this.

Building on a well-laid foundation

David Moore and the folks at the Participatory Politics Foundation thought so, too, and a few years ago — with funding from Sunlight — they built Formageddon, a tool for programmatically filling out reverse-engineered contact forms for members of Congress. Formageddon was, as far as I know, the first of its kind, and somewhat of a marvel — it dealt with CAPTCHAs, errors, retries and did a darn good job of letting users of their site OpenCongress contact all 3 of their lawmakers in one go. Pretty great!

Sunlight has been the maintainer of OpenCongress for almost a year now, and some of the original Formageddon code still powers our contact-your-rep feature on the site. It did a great job, but one thing that always irked us was that while the tool itself is free and open-source, the data that powered it — the instructions for how to fill out these forms — was locked away in our database. We had no great way to get more eyeballs on it, and we were solely responsible for maintaining it — knowing when it broke, figuring out a fix and resending any messages that had failed. With limited development resources, this seemed to us like a pretty bleak approach that we wouldn't be able to maintain over time.

Working out in the open

So while I was gearing up for the daunting task of fixing a huge number of representatives whose forms had fallen out of date, my colleagues Eric Mill and Amy Ngai were talking to the Electronic Frontier Foundation about a new mechanism for constituent communication that could be maintained in the open. We've had great luck collaborating with other folks in the open gov space in the @unitedstates organization on Github — a civic commons of sorts where folks who have to write data-ingesting or -cleaning code anyway can donate it to the greater good. @unitedstates repos power tools for not only us, but also the likes of folks working with, The New York Times, Yahoo! News, Time and probably many others by now. We're all incentivized to keep the code and data up-to-date and everybody wins as a result.

So we decided that any new effort should be done in this same spirit, and with that, Contact-Congress was born. As we began working, it turned out we weren't even remotely alone in looking for a solution to this problem. There are few vendors that provide constituent communication as a service, and even they are mostly locked in to one or two upstream providers who route their messages. We found that it was a common point of frustration among vendors that they were powerless to fix bugs as they came up, and it could take hours or days before upstream fixes were made, which sounds like an advertisement for open source in and of itself. I'm certain that we never would have found all of the folks in this same space with us, and that our work would have been far more difficult and far less successful had we decided to go it on our own, and I think that's a huge open source lesson totally validated by our experience — if it's worth doing, it's probably worth sharing.

How it works

The project's core data (like other @unitedstates efforts) is serialized in YAML, a compact and human-readable data format. Each member's form is codified into a couple lines of metadata followed by a set of steps to be taken by some piece of backend software to fill out and submit the form in question. When deciding on a language set to use for distilling this information, I looked at existing tools which seek to automate interaction with web pages.

Jonas Nicklas' Capybara stuck out to me as a great example of a pluggable system for scripting a web user, so I decided on a subset of its commands — a member's contact steps may include keys like "visit," "fill_in," "select," "click_on" and others to help determine what should be done and in what order. Repeated actions on different fields — such as filling in a dozen text inputs — can be collapsed into a single "fill_in" array for brevity, so long as the order of operations remains intact.

Following these instructions can be as simple as parsing and transforming the YAML out to a capybara script, or integrated into a much more robust system in whatever way the integrator sees fit. OpenCongress has been retrofitted to use this data, and the EFF's Congress-Forms project has been built around it from the get-go. You can see examples of the schema here, which should all look pretty readable if you're at all familiar with HTML forms and CSS selectors.

GitHub is seriously emerging as the backbone of modern civic hacking

If there's one takeaway from the whirlwind of the last week or so, this is it: Every aspect of our effort, from our first run at the Senate nine months ago to the awe-inspiring conquering of the entire House in two days by EFF's volunteer corps, worked as well as it did because we used git, and more specifically, GitHub.

Screenshot of the current status of legislators' contact forms A continuously updated readout of each member's status is available on the contact-congress project page, thanks to the hard work of Bill Budington and the EFF

We share all of our data as YAML files hosted in version control, and can easily pinpoint changes made to any lawmaker's form right at the instant that it's committed by a maintainer. We can use the log to find out whose forms have changed and selectively update those in our system without having to rebuild everything from scratch on each import, saving CPU cycles, energy and money.

The bookmarklet code I wrote to help contributors generate the YAML itself pulls live data from other GitHub repositories via their API in order to stay up-to-date as legislators are elected in and out. We built continuous-integration style testing which can be run automatically via GitHub's service hooks to make sure that new changes in fact fix the problem. We used GitHub issues to track every member's form and coordinate more than 150 individual contributors all pushing code at the same time.

GitHub brought sanity to total chaos throughout this process, and I found it fascinating how the workflow we're used to implementing with a pretty small team of developers at Sunlight scaled almost effortlessly (hopefully I can say this without slighting the heroic folks who also did tons of coordination on IRC while this was all going down; thanks Sina Khanifar, Bill Budington, Thomas Davis, Jason Rosenbaum and all the contributors who helped to shepherd folks once they got the hang of things) to a ludicrous number of contributors. Even the project's site and documentation are hosted for free on GitHub Pages. GitHub is seriously a national treasure.

How you can get involved

While an overwhelming amount of generosity and help went into getting this data gathered for the current Congress, this remains an ongoing need. With each election cycle comes a new crop of members who'll need to have their forms done. Likewise, websites change and are redesigned all the time, and just like any scraper, our forms will break. So, if this project sounds interesting to you, you can watch or star it on GitHub and pitch in when you see a member's form fall out of the green. Contributors are working on getting an automated system in place to re-open tickets when forms break, so it should be pretty easy to remain proactive about fixes. You can read all about how folks are contributing to the project, and about its current status at

Screenshot of the documentation for contributing to contact-congress It's easy to get started contributing, thanks to a series of videos created by Sina Khanifar of

Finally, a (long) word of thanks

So much collective time and effort went into getting over this hurdle in such an impressive fashion that I feel compelled to name names. I myself was out of the country when the volunteer call went out and so the hard in-the-trenches work was done by other folks who took to it more naturally than anyone could have hoped. So from Eric, Amy and myself at Sunlight to Rainey Reitman, Bill, Sina and Thomas working with EFF, Jason at Action Network, Paul Nickerson and all of the project's contributors so far:

@moizsyed, @darrikmazey, @fazam, @unthunk, @d-reinhold, @dsissitka, @kuyan, @sqweak, @agrif, @buchelew, @estiens, @Aaron1011, @livesurge, @mejackreed, @sinned, @lauradhamilton, @scrozier, @liviucmg, @timdavila, @stevenmg, @zanetaylor, @spulec, @akosednar, @makecakenotwar97, @ptariche, @ahdinosaur, @elcapo, @rhunbre, @NickMk, @amit, @anmonteiro, @rwinikates, @j4yd0rs3y, @cllunsford, @andylolz, @chill117, @shwei, @gcosta, @Braunson, @fly, @netinept, @spiggy, @pjfamig, @imthinhvu, @ralfharing, @gronkeff, @gruiz17, @ryan-ludwig, @schmich, @carter-sande, @johnjminer, @mandarg, @an, @fiendly, @radioation, @greggawatt, @kfinity, @jadient, @mariehuynh, @norova, @knoxzin1, @josegonzalez, @winterchord, @dmelliott0311, @wigginus, @trusche, @EhevuTov, @rayashman, @ricanking787, @6a68, @sodaplayer, @wxguychris, @noahc, @clindsay107, @rabdill, @ruishi, @benvinegar, @evonfriedland, @garrettpauls, @ericburns, @malikabdul, @sjs, @Edderic, @dustinbrownman, @abrudtkuhl, @billyvg, @ahadb, @deepakhj, @jonocodes, @morganestes, @danasf, @omsai, @cbumgard, @vincentbarr, the 50-some more whose names I can't get to on the project's contributors page, THANK YOU!

Quietly, American Crossroads raises money from LLCs

by Sarah Harkins at April 21, 2014 05:26 PM

Logo of the super PAC American Crossroads, which was founded by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. American Crossroads raised big bucks in March, and LLC money in February.

After an anemic February — when American Crossroads brought in only $260,000 — the super PAC scored big in March, raising over $5.2 million, including big checks from familiar donors like hedge fund mogul Paul Singer, leveraged buyout artist John W. Childs and former Univision chairman Jerry Perenchio, who chipped in $2 million.

But while big donors came up big in March, a pair of obscure companies made up more than half of American Crossroads' more modest take in February — ones that do not disclose their ownership in corporate filings.

American Crossroads' February fundraising suggests that the practice of hiding the identity of donors to super PACs behind limited liability companies will continue in 2014. Called LLCs, these companies can be owned and operated by any number of individuals, corporations or interests, and are established under state laws.

Not only can they donate money to super PACs while obscuring the identity or identities of the donors behind them, they can also spend directly to influence elections. A recently formed conservative group that churns out ads attacking Democrats, America Rising, organized as an LLC rather than a political committee, and CQ Roll Call reported that conservatives‚ increasingly frustrated with the Internal Revenue Service handling of the tea party nonprofit applications, may turn to LLCs as an alternative to dark money groups like Crossroads GPS that do not disclose their donors.

The latest FEC filing from American Crossroads lists two donors, LMD Properties LLC and Boston Holding Company LLC, which gave $50,000 and $100,000 contributions, respectively. Neither company has a website and neither is listed at the addresses they provided American Crossroads.

LMD Properties is listed in the PAC filing as being based in Greensboro, N.C. Its property tax filings with the Guildford County Tax Department in North Carolina indicate the company’s current mailing address is shared by New Breed Corp., which, according to its website, specializes in “solutions and infrastructure for supply chain transformation.”

A North Carolina Secretary of State filing lists Louis DeJoy as the company's manager. DeJoy is also chairman and CEO of New Breed. Since 2009, he's contributed $175,300 to Republican committees, and his wife, Aldona Zofia Wos, is a Republican fundraiser and served as ambassador to Estonia for President George W. Bush.

Though LMD Properties formed in 1998, a search of contributions from Influence Explorer’s bulk data shows this is the first year the company has donated to a federal committee.

The second company in American Crossroads’ filings, Boston Holding Company, LLC, shares an address with Boston Asset Management Inc. in Clearwater, Fla. That firm manages wealth for individuals and institutions; it also advertises its services to athletes. The Florida Department of State’s Division of Corporations website indicates the company was registered by Jonathan Golden, but lists Leo J. Govoni as an “authorized person.”

In December 2013, Govoni entered Florida’s 2014 general election for state representative in District 69. He bowed out of the race on March 3rd of this year, but before doing so, he raised more than $73,000 according to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Elections.

Both Golden and Govoni have ties to the Boston Finance Group, a private equity company that current U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., joined in 2012 as vice president. Sunlight’s Influence Explorer shows Govoni and Golden both donated to Jolly’s campaign. The Tampa Bay Times found Govoni and Jolly also have multiple business, however, Govoni claims it did not influence his run for office.

As of this posting, neither Boston Asset Management Inc. nor New Breed Corp. have returned calls requesting more information about their affiliation with the LLCs.

In 2011, NBC News reported on a $1 million contribution to Restore Our Future super PAC, which backed Mitt Romney in the GOP primaries and the general election, from W Spann LLC that dissolved within a month after making the donation. Ed Conard, who had previously been employed at Bain Capital, the asset management firm Mitt Romney co-founded, eventually identified himself as the donor behind the LLC.

Other limited liability corporations also tested the waters. In 2012, Sunlight reported on three companies — all linked to one man, Robert T. Brockman — that collectively donated $1 million to Restore Our Future. When the New York Times investigated another such donor, Glenbrook LLC, which contributed $250,000 to Restore our Future, it found a network of difficult-to-trace P.O. box addresses and could not identify the individuals behind it.

Open Secrets

Hot Races 2014: N.C. Senate Primary Pits GOP Groups Against Each Other

by Emily Kopp at April 21, 2014 05:09 PM

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) overturned four decades of precedent when she won her seat as a Democrat in 2008, and Republicans are not happy about it -- especially the eight Republicans vying for the opportunity to challenge her this fall.

Screenshot 2014-04-14 at 3.11.46 PM.png
Primary voters will cast their ballots on May 6th. Political operatives consider the contest a race to watch for a couple of reasons. First, the nominee's ability to appeal to the center will have consequences for the general election and more broadly, the GOP's numbers in the Senate. Also, the pattern of outside spending in North Carolina is emblematic of the split between business-aligned and socially conservative outside spending organizations. Outside groups have spent more in the North Carolina Senate matchup than in any other race this election cycle, save for the Florida 13th district race in March and the ongoing Massachusetts Senate race, according to current OpenSecrets rankings.

The primary pits a collection of insurgents against frontrunner Thom Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker. Opponents have deemed Tillis the "establishment" candidate. The Chamber of Commerce will endorse him, and his appeal to women includes a partnership with one of the founding members of the state's chapter of Planned Parenthood, a frequent target of anti-abortion advocates. 
With $2.6 million raised, Tillis has garnered more in contributions, mostly from large donors and PACs, than all of his primary opponents combined. Tillis has also invested at least $250,000 his own money into the campaign. The candidate retains $1.3 million in cash on hand.

But Tillis' tea party adversaries are unlikely to back down before the vote.

"You work your rear end off and get bloodied and beat up," said tea party candidate Greg Brannon of the primary contest at a campaign event in February. "If we are not prepared for that [general election] battle, we are going to get whupped."

Hagan's $8.5 million cash-on-hand war chest dwarfs the fundraising of even her most competitive Republican adversary.

Even with a formidable fundraising advantage though, Hagan remains vulnerable, in part because Americans for Prosperity -- a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that doesn't disclose its donors and is spearheaded by Charles and David Koch -- has spent more than $8 million on ads attacking her. A PPP poll published in February pitted Hagan against each of her seven challengers; she trailed every one, which could explain why so many opponents remain in the primary race.

AFP's spending hasn't shown up in FEC filings because the ads are so-called "issue ads." But outside spending that has been reported -- by super PACs, politically active nonprofits and party committees -- comes to more than $5.5 million, with about $4 million of that aimed at the primary. And not all conservative outside spending groups are thinking alike.

For example, Tillis has received a $1,100,733 boost from American Crossroads, the super PAC steered by Karl Rove

Other groups, meanwhile, have backed the tea party stalwarts

"The Big Government establishment knows I'm not 'one of their guys.' And they want nothing more than to see the Tea Party candidate go down in flames this election," wrote Brannon in a fundraising email.

FreedomWorks has dedicated almost $55,000 to Brannon, a physician, who has earned the endorsements of Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and has become a favorite of conservative pundit Glenn Beck. 

"I could tongue kiss you right now," Beck told Brannon on his talk radio show. 

Among Brannon's liabilities: he's been ordered to pay a $250,000 penalty for misleading investors about his now-defunct mobile tech startup. Brannon said he will appeal the February jury decision.

If Tillis fails to pick up at least 40 percent of the vote, he'll have to spend still more in the weeks leading up to a runoff on July 15th. 

Democrats have their fingers crossed for the already expensive GOP primary race to be as prolonged as possible; the competing spending and counter-spending by American Crossroads and FreedomWorks is only helpful, as far as they're concerned. The question is whether the groups will unite behind the eventual GOP candidate in a tandem effort to unseat Hagan -- and perhaps win a Senate majority.

Follow Emily on Twitter @emilyakopp

Image: A still from the FreedomWorks Action ad for entitled, "Vote for True Conservative Greg Brannon" depicting Brannon, April 8, 2014 (YouTube)

The Politics of Drought: California Water Interests Prime the Pump in Washington

by Kitty Felde and Viveca Novak at April 21, 2014 02:13 PM

This story is the result of a collaboration between Southern California Public Radio and the Center for Responsive Politics.

ObamadroughtAP.jpgLast year, as California endured one of its driest years on record, the Westlands Water District made it rain 3,000 miles away -- on Capitol Hill.

The nation's largest agricultural water district, located in the Central Valley, spent $600,000 on lobbying efforts, according to an analysis by KPCC in partnership with the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That's by far Westlands' biggest annual expenditure for lobbying -- about six times what it spent in 2010.

The lobbying comes as Congress and federal agencies consider how to respond to three years of drought conditions that have cut water supplies across the state and ratcheted up political pressure from the hard-hit agricultural sector, including many of Westlands' customers.
California farmers grow nearly half the nation's fruits, vegetables and nuts. The California Farm Water Coalition, an industry group, estimates farmers -- and the processors and truckers who get crops to market -- could lose $5 billion this year due to the drought.

How important is this issue? Well, in recent months it's brought President Obama, the House Speaker and the powerful House Natural Resources Committee to the Central Valley.
Congress is considering two major legislative packages -- one already passed by the House, authored by freshman Republican Rep. David Valadao of Hanford; and one introduced in the Senate by California Democrats Dianne Feinstein, with Barbara Boxer as a co-sponsor.
The bills have the common goal of redistributing water to meet farmers' needs, but they differ on execution and the ramifications.  
CAdrought.jpgThe House bill, which was co-sponsored by the state's entire GOP delegation, would rewrite water contracts and in the process set aside protections, which has environmental groups up in arms.

The Senate bill would allow regulators to "provide the maximum quantity of water supplies possible" to where it's most needed and boost existing federal drought programs by $200 million.

As is true with many issues in Washington, money is part of the fight. As Bay Area Rep. George Miller, a Democrat, says, "You can make water run uphill if you have enough money."

The DC bucket brigade

California water politics is mostly about geography -- Northern California's watershed versus the Central Valley, which relies on that water coming south to irrigate crops, versus Southern California, with its massive and thirsty urban population.

As the drought has worsened, those various interests have pushed harder for relief through campaign contributions to key members of Congress and by employing lobbyists. 

The two biggest spenders on water issues are Westlands, whose customers own 600,000 acres of farmland in Fresno and Kings counties, and the owners of Kern County-based Paramount Farms, the nation's largest grower of pistachios and almonds.

Just how serious is the quest for water? Last year, Westlands hired four different lobbying firms -- even as the overall amount spent by all groups and corporations on federal lobbying has been going down since 2010. All eight of Westlands' officially registered lobbyists previously worked in government -- including a former Republican congressman from Minnesota.

And the $600,000 Westlands spent in 2013 is only what was reported on required disclosure forms. According to an internal document obtained by Southern California Public Radio, Westlands also paid $90,000 last year to former California Democratic Rep. Tony Coelho for "Washington representation," which was not included in Westlands' lobbying reports.

Coelho, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is related to one of Westlands' board members and they are partners in a dairy farm. Westlands also paid another firm nearly $1 million for an "outreach and awareness" campaign.

Democratic lawmaker Miller, who has been on Capitol Hill for more than four decades, says lobbyists keep their "A-game" going all the time, rain or shine, "because you never know when the good Lord's going to turn off the water. So you'd better be ready."

Money is extremely helpful in obtaining access and influence, which is crucial whenever Congress gets involved. That's true whether the cash is in the form of spending on lobbying or campaign donations.

Paramount Farms is owned by Lynda and Stewart Resnick of Los Angeles. Their multi-billion dollar fortune comes from a diverse portfolio that includes Fiji bottled water. They have a controlling interest in the Kern Water Bank Authority, which stores underground supplies of water to irrigate Paramount's nut trees.

The Resnicks don't hire lobbyists at the federal level, but they're generous campaign contributors. They and people who work for their companies have given nearly $457,000 to candidates, political action and party committees since 2011. That includes nearly $321,000 from the Resnicks themselves. (See table at end of story.)

Setting the water table

resnicks.jpgYou can't just read the House and Senate bills and point to paragraphs that directly help either Westlands or the Resnicks. But John Lawrence, a former Capitol Hill staffer who currently teaches at the University of California's DC Center, says water bills are "very often written specifically in a vague sort of way." Congressman Miller adds: "There's rarely any word in a piece of water legislation that's there accidentally."

The bill that passed in the House would mandate an increase in pumping from the Sacramento Delta. Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that water would primarily go to Central Valley Project contractors, including the biggest -- the Westlands Water District.

The bill also extends for 40 years all existing federal water service contracts -- including the one for Westlands. Lawrence says that takes away any flexibility to make water decisions for a generation. He notes that once you've delivered a "signed, sealed contract, let alone been directed to do it by the Congress," you've taken away any chance at reviewing how future water should be allocated.

Feinstein's Senate bill includes several provisions that would allow Delta water to be sent farther south to Kern County. Patricia Schifferle of the environmental group Pacific Advocates says, because of previous legislative amendments, the water would be made available to the groundwater bank controlled by Feinstein's supporters -- the Resnicks.

(Neither Westlands nor the Resnicks' holding company, Roll International, responded to requests for interviews.)

Feinstein recently revised her bill. This latest version includes a provision to boost Colorado River storage in Nevada, home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This version could make it to the Senate floor for a vote without going through the committee process.

Horse trading on Capitol Hill isn't new. Some of the lobbying money goes to making sure everyone gets to wet their beak. Miller notes that deals get made -- trading something Midwest lawmakers want in the farm bill for something Central Valley interests need in the water bill. He says there are "a lot of chits out there that have been planted around the anticipation of a water bill coming to the floor of Congress."

If the House bill became law, Ron Stork of Friends of the River says not only would habitat restoration be hurt, but so would two other water consumers: farmers and residential users in the northern part of the state. Delta farmers, with some of the oldest water rights in California, and the city and county of Sacramento, which contract for drinking water, would find their supply "commandeered and delivered south."

The lobbying isn't limited to Capitol Hill. It also takes place at the agency level. John Lawrence says private meetings are held behind closed doors at places such as the Bureau of Reclamation or the Environmental Protection Agency, where there's "greater wiggle room" on how water policies are implemented. Those conversations are confidential, not debated openly in Congressional committee hearings.

Westlands' reports show it lobbied the EPA, the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department (which includes the Bureau of Reclamation) and the Council on Environmental Quality, in addition to Congress and the White House. Three of the water district's lobbyists are former high-ranking officials of the Interior Department.

There's even a place lobbyists and campaign contributions collide: Schifferle from Pacific Advocates notes a 2012 breakfast fundraiser for Feinstein in the offices of one of Westlands' lobbying firms, held "right around the time" of a budget amendment that gave water agencies access to federal water.

In Washington, certain wells never run dry.

Top Resnick family campaign contribution recipients from 2011-2013


Westlands Water District board members' campaign contributions from 2011-2013


Contribution totals include immediate family

Data Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Center for Responsive Politics senior researchers Dan Auble and Doug Weber contributed to this story.

Images: President Obama in February with California Gov. Jerry Brown and farmowners Joe Del Bosque and Maria Gloria Del Bosque near Los Banos. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin); U.S. Drought Monitor, California (National Drought Mitigation Center); Lynda and Stewart Resnick in 2011 (David Crotty/ Press/pompmcsipa.022/1104220054 Sipa via AP Images)

Sunlight Foundation

Today in #OpenGov 4/21/2014

by Matt Rumsey at April 21, 2014 02:09 PM

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including Bush II records, more fallout from the Moreland Commission in New York, and France joining the OGP.series-opengov-today

National News

  • George W. Bush moved to release many documents related to his presidency on a quicker timetable than his predecessor, according to a document recently uncovered via a FOIA request. (POLITICO)
  • A New York Hotel baron and notable Hillary Clinton bundler pled guilty last week to charges that he made more than $180,000 in illegal contributions over the past several election cycles. (POLITICO)

International News

  • Last week France, in a joint statement with Mexico, announced that it would be joining the Open Government Partnership. (E Pluribus Unum)
  • A look at how some of the most successful parliamentary monitoring and legislative information sites around the world have gained and held on to their audiences. (Opening Parliament)

State and Local News

  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) received significant blowback from lawmakers after he tasked a state commission with looking into the outside jobs held by many state legislators. Cuomo recently shut the commission down, presumably putting an end to the inquiry. (New York Times)
  • Despite a new transparency portal, Transparent Idaho, the state got a failing grade in a recent report on how transparent state government's make their spending. (Government Technology)

Events This Week

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

April 19, 2014

Open Secrets

The Comcast-FCC Revolving Door

by Robbie Feinberg at April 19, 2014 04:27 AM

The proposed merger between cable giants Comcast and Time Warner is a hotly contested issue in Congress, and angers flared again at a recent Senate hearing on the merger last week.

Thumbnail image for comcast.jpgMost of the senators seemed  ambivalent about the merger and wouldn't say whether they supported or opposed it, but one senator in particular stuck out from the rest: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

"I don't like this revolving door," Franken said in an April 13 interview with CNN. "I don't like this revolving door between regulators and Comcast. I thought that was kind of tacky that one of the FCC commissioners, I think just four months after they approved the Comcast/NBC deal, went over to work a high-paying job at Comcast. I just don't like that."

So how wide is the revolving door between the telecommunications giant and the FCC?  For Comcast's in-house lobbyists, it's significant and still swinging. According to an analysis byOpenSecrets Blog, 18 people have both lobbied for Comcast and spent time in the public sector. Of those, 12 are currently registered lobbyists for Comcast, with five of them having spent time at the FCC.

From FCC chair to Comcast lobbyist

The most prominent example of the Comcast/FCC revolving door is former FCC commissioner and current Comcast lobbyist Meredith Baker.

Baker, whose views tended to side with the industry even before she went to the FCC, was appointed to to her FCC position in July 2009 and stayed there for nearly two years, cutting her four-year term short in June 2011 to move to Comcast as its senior vice president of government affairs.

When she made the move, Baker said she didn't see any problem with moving from a regulatory agency to a company she regulated, explaining in a statement that she had "not participated or voted any item, not just those related to Comcast or NBCUniversal, since entering discussions about an offer of potential employment."

Due to lobbying rules, Baker wasn't allowed to lobby the FCC for the two years following her hire at Comcast, but she has lobbied the House and Senate on a range of issues. In 2013, she lobbied on 21 bills on behalf of Comcast, with much of the legislation dealing with deregulation of the Internet, including bills that would keep online purchases tax-free.

Baker's transition from FCC leadership to industry isn't unprecedented. Michael Powell, the FCC chairman from 1997 to 2005, made a similar move, heading to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry group, in 2011 as its CEO. And Jonathan Adelstein, who was an FCC commissioner from 2002 to 2009, became the president and CEO of PCIA: The Wireless Infrastructure Association in 2012.

Four other former FCC employees have followed Baker's path to Comcast. They include Rudy Brioche, who worked as an advisor to former commissioner Adelstein before moving to Comcast as its senior director of external affairs and public policy counsel in 2009. Brioche was so valued by the FCC, in fact, that he was brought in to join the commission's Advisory Committee for Diversity in the Digital Age in 2011.

Other revolving Comcast lobbyists include James Coltharp, who served as a special counsel to commissioner James H. Quello until 1997, and Jordan Goldstein, who worked as a senior legal adviser to commissioner Michael J. Copps. John Morabito, who served a number of roles in the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau, joined Comcast as one of its senior lobbyists in 2004. (He is no longer with the company.)

Comcast and Congress

But the revolving door doesn't just swing from the FCC to Comcast. Lobbyists also can head back to the public sector. That's been the case with David Krone. Krone has an extensive background with the telecommunications industry, holding leadership and lobbying positions with companies like AT&T, TCI Communications and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

In 2008, Krone worked as Comcast's senior vice president for corporate affairs. But since then, Krone has taken his telecommunications knowledge to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Krone started as a senior advisor to the senator in 2008 and rose to become Reid's chief of staff in 2011, a position he holds today.

Overall, Comcast has traditionally had a heavy lobbying presence Washington. The company has spent at least $12 million on lobbying every year since 2008, with that number peaking at $19.6 million in 2011. Last year, Comcast spent more than $18.8 million, making it the sixth-highest spender on federal lobbying.