State of the Investigative Art

Letters to the Editor: A guide to political funding across the country, courtesy of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
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Letters to the Editor: A guide to political funding across the country, courtesy of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Wonderful article in (the January/February) magazine on how the Internet is opening new doors to journalists investigating political money and its role in both the electoral and public-policy processes ("Deep Throat Meets Data Mining").

While the Sunlight Foundation is doing some great stuff, I would like to alert you to groups like ours that have been doing data acquisition and analysis. We're doing amazing stuff (I should say the youngsters here who live and breathe the 'Net are ... ) with new data visualization tools. We have been for more than 15 years.

By way of background, you should know that each election cycle, the National Institute on Money in State Politics compiles donor data at the state level, from all 50 states, by aggregating paper, PDF and electronic information into one database, information filed in more than 100,000 reports by more than 16,000 committees nationwide. The 3 million-record file has totaled more than $3 billion the last couple of election cycles. Our data includes donors to candidates, party committees, judicial candidates, ballot-measure committees and a few independent expenditure committees. (We're the sister organization to the Center for Responsive Politics,, and use the same methodology in donor coding.) We've also compiled the only 50-state file of registered lobbyists in the states, along with firms and clients, and cross-indexed the clients with their political donations.

Let me introduce you to just a couple of our cool tools:

1. Our Legislative Committee Analysis Tool groups political donors by legislators and their legislative committee assignments.

If you chose a state and select House or Senate, you'll see who sits on the committee, how much they raised from specific industries and the top donors to the committee members. You also can filter the data by industry. So for example, the Illinois House Insurance Committee will show you who gave to the committee members, and by filtering by the Finance/Insurance/Real Estate Sector, you can focus on just the insurance donors.

2. Our Lobbyist Link Tool lets you see who is registered to lobby in a state and, more important, you can see how many lobbyists a company or interest has hired across the country and whether they gave contributions in the states.

I might suggest that you search for Merck. You'll see that Merck hired more than 130 lobbyists in 44 states in 2006 and 2007. Click on the 2007 link with 137 lobbyists and you'll see a chart that shows which state's lobbyists are active and where the company gave money. Click on a state and you'll see more detail. (Remember the HPV controversy? See patterns here.)

3. Our PULSE Tool lets you see donors, using scatterplot charts, in specific states and see things like incumbent advantage, the median costs in states and, over time, how campaign reforms change donor patterns.

I'd suggest you click through Arizona to see how the campaign-reform effort of 2000 has changed the way money flows in that state. The PULSE is excellent for examining public funding, term limits and redistricting changes.

4. Our (m)c50 Tool shows how competitive legislative races are in the country and each state. Based on some very academic methodologies, this tool shows which state-level races are contested, which aren't even close to competitive because of monetary advantages and which are competitive in both bodies and money.

5. Our Industry Influence Tool lets you select an industry and see its total giving across the country or in a specific state over multiple election cycles, which is perfect for the investigative reporter looking at, say, the oil and gas industry's political donating.

Our effort to make all this data and these tools available to the public on the Web for no charge is what we're calling Full Circle Transparency. We're working with groups now to link subsidies and state contracts with donors and hope to eventually link to legislation, although academics agree that the real influence-peddling is in committees.

I could go on, but I hope you get the picture that the institute, as the only comprehensive resource for state-level donor data, is a very useful resource for investigative reporters, as is the Center for Responsive Politics.

We've worked with Sunlight on several projects (check our page to see how we linked top federal donors with top state donors) and will continue to make data available to innovative academics, journalists and activists who understand that good data, analyses and storytelling are the only way to change public perception of our democratic system and to force lawmakers to think of the public first when developing public policy.

Ed Bender
Helena, Mont.

The Malignant Criminal Justice System
Steve Weinberg has written a most elegant article about the most ugly of topics, namely the innocent who are convicted ("Innocent Until Reported Guilty," October 2008). The blatant evidence of malfeasance at every level of the criminal justice system is overwhelming. I would like to suggest four areas where his investigative reporting expertise could be well applied. The first is the general failure of the juvenile justice system to operate in a manner that reclaims our youth. I suggest that the system operates in a vacuum and not only fails those youth and society but also makes society more dangerous through their failure. Second (is) that the adult correctional system, through no fault of its own, cannot institute reform because the resources must go to custodial operations. Legislation has bankrupted the system, driving it into crisis past an uninformed public and media that operate in the dark. Third, the condition of those coming home from prison is deplorable and dangerous for society. And fourth, criminal justice and corrections systems suffer from too little and ineffective oversight, allowing the travesties to occur.

The innocent, released by the courts, are the more to be pitied because they often remain tarred by the brush of conviction. Their records are still available electronically, and they will have to check the box that asks about prior arrests and convictions.

Society has no reason to expect ex-convicts to remain crime free when nothing has been done to improve or correct their circumstance, and imprisonment worsened it. One statistic alone illustrates the dire nature of re-entry: Our adult prison population is 70 percent illiterate and re-enters society without remediation. Hats off to Steve Weinberg for what one reader hopes may be the beginning of a dialogue for change.

Matthew J. Sheridan
Professor, Georgian Court University
Jackson, N.J.

Miller-McCune welcomes letters to the editor, sent via e-mail to; via the comment sections of our Web site,; or by standard mail to The Editor, 804 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101. Letters published in the print magazine may be condensed for space reasons.