Cover Ups Are Worse Than Vanishing Data: The Facts About the FEC’s Data Downloads

Editor's Note: This piece is a follow up to an article posted on July 16, 2012 on AlterNet: "Revealed: Key Files on Big-Ticket Political Donations Vanish at Federal Election Commission."

Yesterday, as an effort in the Senate to mandate disclosure of campaign contributions to non-profit groups fell a few votes short, we published our account of how FEC files relating to similar contributions made during the 2008 election had gone missing from the big data downloads that the FEC makes available to researchers. These are important, because private, for profit groups and public interest groups use as them as the basis for the data presentations that scholars, journalists, and the public usually rely on.

We approached the FEC press office some days ago. We inquired about the history of their rulings on 501(c) 4 groups, which is the Washington term of art for ostensibly charitable groups involved in campaigns. The spokesperson told us she could say nothing and advised us to call a public interest group. We didn’t know then what various sources have since claimed to us – that the press office can’t talk on the record to the press, only the (sharply divided) commissioners can. In any case, we went back to work on our own and published.

We have been interested to see how our analysis has been received. In mid-morning, certain reporters began tweeting that it was easy to find contributions that we specifically discussed on the FEC website. We checked one particularly famous name that we had also looked up only a few days before and found that he was indeed back.

We’re glad to see that the FEC is restoring its files, but our claims were exact and true. We think the agency should simply admit this; cover ups are always worse than the original foolishness. As our article describes, the FEC’s big data downloads define the history of contributions; they are what people rely on when they calculate totals and other numbers, as well sort through patterns for individuals, groups, and contributors.

These downloads are public and dated, so anyone can verify what’s in them. The 2008 contribution by Harold Simmons that we mentioned is in the January download. It is not in the July 8 download. The same is true for other contributions we discussed to Let Freedom Ring by John Templesman, Jr., and Foster Friess. More broadly, the entire set of “C9” files covering 501(c)4 that we discussed is gone from the July download, with the trivial exception we mentioned. Needless to say, we checked the FEC’s database many times ourselves and we indicated that the original record of contributions by Simmons (and others) could still be found, if you knew exactly where to look.

Enough is enough. Though it is supposed to be the official repository of campaign finance information, the FEC does not keep older downloads on its website. Thus we will soon be posting both the January 15 and July 8 downloads we used on a website we set up at If you have the technical capability – these files are too big for Excel and they will be in the text file format in which we downloaded them – you can just go see for yourself.

One last comment. We do not take kindly to suggestions that anyone could find these files all along or that nothing material changed in the crucial bulk downloads. Our review of the FEC’s data turned up a fair number of other missing files, as we briefly mentioned in connection with our independent expenditures. We rather doubt that efforts to claim these are all there will sound very convincing. We look forward to more public exchanges.


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