Downloading Dirty Campaign Dollars
As we all know, this thing called the World Wide Web has gotten pretty big. In addition to giving rather extensive -- and more importantly anonymous -- access to pornography, the ability to follow three baseball games simultaneously while appearing to be hard at work and the chance to download every musical arrangement in Metallica's catalog for free, it's also got some more useful, albeit less fun, functions.
Thanks to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) generously putting their myriad files online at Edgar.com, the would-be Warren Buffetts and Bill Gates of the world can get a leg up investing by following the financial moves of the REAL Warren Buffetts and Bill Gates. Then there are sites like The Island and InsiderTrader, which offer you a real-time order book and a listing of stock trades by company insiders, respectively.
So what's next? Well, in the midst of an election year, and one that has been mired by investigations into the use of soft-money donations, it only seems logical to crank up the computer and take a look at what's out there online to help the electorate figure out who's paying off -- ahem, contributing -- to which political campaigns and causes.
There's no shortage of watchdog sites out there, but your standard searches on Yahoo! or Google produce a myriad of hits, and some of them are far more useful than others. What's more, even with a list of decent sources for such things as which political action committees (PACs) have been contributing to which campaigns, or how much the political hopefuls have expended on their efforts at achieving office, some sites are more easy to navigate than others. As with most things Internet related, the information's usually out there, but finding it can be a harrowing experience. Hopefully we can make it a little easier for you.
Keeping an eye on the Joneses
Being a snoop's a good time, especially when you can justify it under the auspices of being an informed voter. In August, New York's own Daily News ran an article inked by business writer Paul Colford looking at the political contributions of media heavyweights like Tina Brown, Rupert Murdoch, Martha Stewart, Gail Sheehy, Jann Wenner and Mel Karmazin. In the article, Colford notes that Tina Brown contributed 1,000 bones to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign -- the maximum contribution allowed an individual to a candidate -- and that Hearst Magazines president Cathleen Black has contributed $6,000 to a slew of Republican campaigns and causes.
Colford cites online records from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) as the source for his info, and the FEC does offer a bevy of resources concerning campaign finance reform, as well as general information on the electoral system, voting requirements and recent government announcements. However, as with most governmental sites, FEC is not all that easy to navigate, and the information you receive is never quite as to the point as you would like.
Instead, try PublicDisclosure, a non-profit site that not only gives individuals access to the FEC database of political contributors, but also provides detailed breakdowns of where the candidates are spending your hard-earned money, and actual representations of forms filed by various PACs, individuals and politicians. Any fans of The Smoking Gun will be quite impressed.
As an example, scroll down on the home page until you come across a listing in the left-hand column for "Look Up Contributors By Their Name" (Hint: It's right below a graphic titled: "The Cost of Corporate Illegal Political Activity). After clicking on this icon, you'll be given a search box into which you can enter any name of your choice. Much like Daily News' Colford did, you can discover that Vanity Fair scribe Dominick Dunne contributed $1,000 to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign in March of this year. You can also learn that Wenner Media chairman and publisher of Rolling Stone Jann Wenner not only forked over money to aid the campaigns of both Gore and Bradley last year, but also tossed $1,000 at the McCain campaign. The filings are even there to view, by simply clicking on the "View Image" button. Moreover, Wenner Media itself this year contributed a whopping $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, buttressing $50,000 in contributions from Citigroup and another $50,000 from the New York Mercantile Exchange, among others.
But the best part about the database is that you can search for anyone who may have made a contribution of more than $200 to their favorite candidate or candidates or PACs. A search under the name Paltrow, reveals that Gwyneth has been actively supporting the Democratic party, contributing money this year to Hillary Clinton for Senate -- Gwyneth's mom Blythe Danner also contributed $1,000 to Hillary last year, the FEC filings reveal -- as well as a group called Emily's List, which describes itself as a "... nationwide network of political donors helping to elect pro-choice democratic women." For the more extended skinny on Emily's List, just click on the hyperlinked "Emily's List," and you'll bring up a page that lets you check out what groups have been contributing to Emily's List, and what contributions Emily's List has been making. You can also take a look at who's given the group money this year, but bear in mind that more than 13,000 individuals have made contributions to Emily's List in 2000 alone -- and that's not an unusual number -- and the only way to get through them is by scrolling.
Most celebrities, however, are rather vocal about the political groups and candidates they support, so it's not nearly as much fun checking out to whom they've been giving. Checking on your neighbors or extended family is a lot more fun. If they've contributed more than $200 politically in the last 20 years, then they're on the FEC lists. A word to the wise, though: Make sure you get spellings, addresses and occupations correct before accusing Uncle Fred of being a fascist Republican or chewing the fat with your neighbor about her liberal ways.
It's on the corporate side of the fence that searches really get interesting. Right below the button for searches of individuals' contributions is a button that allows you to search contributions by individuals by whom they're employed. For example, placing "Goldman Sachs" in the query box reveals that some 2,047 Goldman employees have made political contributions this year -- and from a quick sweep of the A's, it appears former Goldman CEO Jon Corzine is receiving pretty solid support from his former co-workers in his bid for one of New Jersey's Senate seats. Any employee can now figure out whether her political leanings match up with those of the company at which she works and, in cases of industries that are under fire, which candidates have been dubbed most likely to respond to contributions with favorable legislation.
For example, doing a corporate search for tobacco company Brown & Williamson will unveil an avalanche of political contributions to various facets of the Republican Party -- surprised, right? -- totaling nearly $300,000. Admittedly, a drop in the bucket for a large corporation, but when compared to individuals' contributions it dwarfs them. It's soft money contributions like these that have allowed the Democratic and Republican national parties to raise a record $256 million in the first 18 months of this election, according to non-profit political watchdog Common Cause. That's an increase of some $115 million from the 1996 fund-raising cycle. Good to keep in mind.
Especially when you start witnessing the ramifications these contributions can have. Common Cause took a look at the impact that political contributions have had on industry regulation in an article from earlier this year. The article notes that the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, which was set up by Congress, recommended the repeal of a 3% telecommunications excise tax at the end of March, and that Congress further was considering limiting the amount of time the Federal Communications Commission would have to review telecommunications mergers. Interestingly enough, the largest contributor of a single donation of soft money at the time of the article -- April -- was telecommunications company SBC Communications, which contributed $350,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Other major contributors included AT&T, which contributed more than $728,000 to a variety of both Republican and Democratic election committees, and Bell Atlantic -- now Verizon BellSouth and Sprint. The article goes on to look at similar situations with the pharmaceutical industry and government-chartered corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
And if you want to get really down and dirty -- or at least find out which politicians appear to be the down and dirtiest -- take a look at Dirty Money, another non-prof that's obsessed with getting the word out on which politicians have been accepting donations from PACs or corporations that have little regard for the environment. You not only can perform a search by PAC or candidate, but you also get a top-ten list that gives you the amounts of the donations received by the worst offenders in a variety of subject headings.
So there you have it: A smattering of offerings from the Internet that could help you come to a decision on Decision 2000 -- or at the very least help you kill some down time on the Internet.
Bob Dunn is Senior Editor at GreenMagazine.com. He's written for Newsday, Investment Dealers' Digest, the Syracuse newspapers and has appeared in The Financial Times, on CNN, and CNNFN.