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Revealed: Key Files on Big-Ticket Political Donations Vanish at Federal Election Commission

Top money and politics researchers discover that the FEC is quietly deleting information on fat-cat funders.

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How can we be so sure of what has happened? The FEC makes its data available to researchers mainly via a computerized data download system on its Web site. Until recently, these data downloads were only slightly more accessible than the high Himalayas. Comprehending their formatting and correctly interpreting their myriad rows and columns required the patience of Job and the informal equivalent of a BS in computer science. As a consequence, most researchers threw up their hands. They didn’t directly use FEC data; instead they relied upon data reworked by some for-profit reseller, or more commonly, the Center for Responsive Politics.

A year ago, we decided to reexamine the entirety of the FEC’s datasets from the ground up – not because of any suspicions of the FEC, but because we know that real data is always very messy. We hoped that a fresh appraisal of the whole system for reporting political money could shed new light on the role large contributors actually play in American politics. This turned out to be true. For the 2007-'08 election cycle, for example, we found millions of dollars in political contributions that appear to have escaped earlier nets. We are also able to do a much better job of aggregating contributions by large donors, which is key to understanding how the system really works.

We discovered the FEC deletions when cross-checking our results for big-ticket contributors. These deletions do not at all resemble other post-election corrections that the FEC routinely makes to its data downloads. Some of the now missing contributions were extensively discussed in the media at the time they were made. In addition, if you know exactly where to look, you can go back to the original paper or electronic records that provide the raw material for the downloads that everyone relies upon. Between the media reports and the original submissions, it is obvious that the deleted contributions represent money that really did move. In some cases, even the specific places ads ran are mentioned. The missing entries do not represent refunds for good reasons or corrections of earlier mistakes, such as the FEC frequently posts.

Harold Simmons’ contribution to the American Issues Project in 2008 is a sterling instance of what we are talking about. The Texas tycoon, with major interests in minerals and waste disposal that critics charge have been furthered by his long history of political donations, was already famous for the millions he poured into the notorious “Swift Boat” campaign that shredded John Kerry’s 2004 bid for the presidency. In 2008, he came back with what, until the September financial collapse, looked like another potential game-changer. With almost $2.9 million dollars of his money, the American Issues Project financed a television ad linking Barack Obama to William Ayres, who decades before had been a member of the Weather Underground. The ad created a sensation, with many critics questioning both its verisimilitude and its legality.

Right through January 2012, the FEC’s database contained not only the record of the organization’s expenditures, but also Simmons’ contribution. Now only the former is there. We have identified many similar cases, including almost three million dollars that John Templeton, Jr. donated to Let Freedom Ring and another $100,000 contribution by Foster Friess to the same organization.

Also Missing in Action

We are on the outside looking in. We cannot say for sure who decided to make the deletions or why. But one fact is telling: the missing files include essentially all those of one type in particular – donors to the so-called “501(c) 4” “charitable” organizations now in the eye of the storm over dark money.