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Looking back at 2010

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Hard to believe that a year that began with the Reporting Team analyzing and critiquing federal data released under the administration's Open Government Initiative ended with our pursuit of political organizations that do not disclose campaign donors. In between, we continued to publish the only resource for tracking congressional campaign fundraising, Party Time, updated our Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, delved into Recovery.gov data and earmark disclosures, and, with the help of our friends at the Center for Public Integrity, identified dozens of high value federal data sets that government agencies have not released.

The Data Mine project delved into everything from PPIRS and FAPIIS -- respectively the Past Performance Information Retrieval System and the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, which are a pair of databases that track how well government contractors do their work and have never been publicly available -- to the Agriculture Department's Section 1614 database, which allowed the Environmental Working Group to identify who really benefits from federal farming subsidies until Agriculture decided to change the way it made the data available, limiting its specificity. While the Obama administration made an effort to get agencies to release three high value data sets on the way to making far more federal data available, the Center for Public Integrity and Sunlight found plenty of data sets that were simply off limits. Take one more example: In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, we found a data set that documented how many reported spills and other environmental accidents the company had had (more than 8,000); but to find out how severe these incidents were, or whether the company was fined or otherwise penalized for any of them was nearly impossible

Perhaps nothing better captures the state of transparency our reporters encountered in 2010 than Paul Blumenthal's February post, The Legacy of Billy Tauzin: The White House-PhRMA Deal. Paul used a number of resources--including White House visitor logs that the Obama administration began voluntarily releasing in the fall of 2009 (though note MSNBC investigative reporter Bill Dedman's critique of those releases) and Sen. Max Baucus' voluntarily released shcedule, to provide a blow-by-blow account of the lobbying effort that the Pharmaceutial Research and Manufacturers of America mounted to curtail some proposed reform measures and kill others in exchange for its support for the final bill. As Paul wrote, "[P]harmaceutical industry lobbyists and executives met with top White House aides dozens of times to hammer out a deal that would secure industry support for the administration's health care reform agenda in exchange for the White House abandoning key elements of the president's promises to reform the pharmaceutical industry. They flooded Congress with campaign contributions, and hired dozens of former Capitol Hill insiders to push their case. How they did it...is a testament to how ingrained the grip of special interests remains in Washington." And were it not for the availability of a handful of records out of the tens if not hundreds of thousands that should be routinely disclosed--lobbying contacts with members of Congress and administration officials--Paul would not have been able to tell that story. (Sunlight's proposals for lobbying reform can be found here.)

Paul's health care reporting came in handy when Sunlight launched an ambitious new project, Sunlight Live, to cover the administration's health care summit with members of Congress that same month. Our goal was to provide contextual data about each speaker, ranging from health care industry contributions to the participants to their personal investments in the industry to the number of their former staffers who had gone through the revolving door to lobby for pharmaceutical, insurance, hospital and other health care interests. Some asked whether the ambitious effort--that combined social media, data jamming, a live broadcast and a real time blog with input from commenters with good old fashioned investigative reporting--were a "game changer."  We're not in the business of making predictions, but after also covering events like the conference committee hearings for the Dodd-Frank bill and the Ethics Committee hearing and House censure vote of Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., we can say we're more excited about the platform's potential than ever before, and are looking forward to its technical build-out under the direction of Sunlight Labs and our new online content manager, Joshua Hatch, who joins us from USAToday.

In the wake of the Citizens United decision, we started looking into the impact that decision had on, first, state election laws and then on congressional elections, an effort that led to the creation of our Follow the Unlimited Money tool which tracked more than $454 million in independent expenditures and electioneering communications and identified what the Federal Election Commission calls "independent expenditure only committees" but what were quickly dubbed "Super PACs" by the media. We also delved into groups that don't disclose their donors, and even found examples of groups that did disclose, but whose disclosed donors were themselves shadowy organizations that keep the names of their funders secret (talk about deadend disclosure). Adding it all up just before election day, we found that Super PACs spent $110 million from undisclosed donors in an effort to influence 168 congressional elections in 2010. 

We followed the insiders as well as the outsiders. Party Time continued to document fundraisers held by members of Congress--often hosted by lobbyists or the heads of political action committees trying to influence those lobbyists. We looked at financial industry lobbyists who hosted fundraisers for members of Congress while the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill was under consideration, and health care lobbyists who hosted fundraisers for members of Congress at the height of the debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In June 2010, the Washington Post reported that the Office of Congressional Ethics had launched an investigation into eight House members who held "financial services breakfasts" or "investment industry receptions" while they considered the bill; invitations for most of those events can be found in our Party Time database.

As important as any of the stories we worked on ourselves, we also  taught other reporters how to use the resoures that Sunlight and our grantees provide for digging into federal data. We spread the word of Sunlight at the National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting conference, the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference, and the Online News Association conference, to name a few. We trained more than 1,200 journalists, sometimes partnering with great organizations like the Associated Press Managing Editors on specific projects and sometimes just showing off new Sunlight Labs tools like Influence Explorer, Poligraft and Politiwidgets and Reporting projects like Party Time, the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker and our Follow the Unlimited Money tool.

And we're already building new tools for 2011. Look for our Lobbyist registration tracker to debut early in January, the first of many exciting projects we have lined up for next year.