Late Night with Jimmy Fallon devoted a special slow jam to President Obama and super PACs with Brian Williams joining the musical stylings of the Legendary Roots Crew. The topic is nothing new to Sunlight, but we always appreciate a new format to publicize the issue and love to see more late night shows addressing the shadowy dealings of campaign finance. Follow Sunlight's Super PAC Tracker for updated filings and in the meantime, check out last night's segment:
Super PACs have been a hot topic in the news recently as reporters, advocacy groups, and the public try to follow the money flowing into the political system as the 2012 elections approach.
On January 31st MSNBC reported that Stephen Colbert's super PAC, Americans for A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, was the first to submit its end-of-year report to the Federal Election Commission. The deadline for these reports was January 31st.
Colbert included his super PAC's filing on his super PAC's website, ColbertSuperPac.com, but this is not required. This kind of information can generally be found on the FEC website under Campaign Finance Reports and Data, but you have to know exactly what you are looking for.
The FEC portal includes a variety of search tools, including a searchable database of disclosure reports, downloadable copies of electronic filings, images of all financial reports, and other campaign finance data. However, these search tools suffer from a lack of a user-friendly interface. Several organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica, and the New York Times, have taken FEC data and put it in more user-friendly formats while focusing on information most relevant to the upcoming presidential election.
A search for Colbert's super PAC using the FEC's Disclosure Database search tool returns 13 filings, including the Year-End report displayed on Colbert's super PAC website. This report indicates that the super PAC has raised $825,475.46 since July 2011 and spent $151,521.01 as of December 31, 2011.
TPM published an article as the FEC deadline approached as well that focused on Newt Gingrich's campaign filing. The article cited several specifics regarding Gingrich's campaign spending, all of which are publicly available using the same online FEC portal. A search for "Newt 2012," the official name of Gingrich's presidential election campaign, under the "View Images of All Financial Reports" tab returns a list of documents filed. Viewing the PDF of the Year-End report shows all the numbers used in the article mentioned above.
It is necessary to emphasize again that these tools can be extremely hard to use, and you have to be very precise in your search terms. For example, a search for "Gingrich" using either search tool will return many results for other organizations related to Gingrich, such as "Friends of Newt Gingrich," but it will not return other better options.
The TPM article stated that the campaign had $2.1 million at the end of 2011 and owed over a million dollars in debt. The top level summary on page two of the Year-End report shows the $2.1 million the campaign has in cash and the $1.2 million it currently owes.
The article specified that the campaign's debt includes $1,666.66 to Rick Tyler - a former Gingrich aide who currently manages a super PAC in support of his candidacy. A search for "Rick Tyler" shows the $1,666.66 the campaign owes this former Gingrich aide on page 5166.
The debt also includes $350,000 for private jet flights. A search for "Moby Dick Airways," the private jet company that it has been reported Newt Gingrich uses, shows that the campaign began the quarter owing $451,946, incurred an additional $33,008 in charges this quarter, then made a payment of $133,008 to conclude 2011 with an outstanding balance of $351,946.
Lastly, the article says that the campaign paid $47,005 to Gingrich to buy a mailing list. A search for "Newt Gingrich" shows the campaign's $47,005 disbursement to the candidate for the express purpose of "list purchase" on page 4954.
Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey helped with the research for this post.
"The News Without Transparency" shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we've redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you'd like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at email@example.com.
In case you missed it, last night some-time South Carolina Presidential candidate and super PAC founder Stephen Colbert gave a great rundown of the new campaign finance landscape in our elections. Colbert and his team of very sharp writers have smartly illustrated just how out of control our campaign finance system is. In short, it’s crazy: A handful of billionaires pouring incredible amounts of cash is fundamentally changing what our democracy looks like. Colbert’s team doing a great job making sure this news gets outside the Beltway. Watch the video here:
|The Colbert Report||Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|America's Biggest Super PAC Donors|
As you’ll see above, Colbert makes the point that these billionaires are doing this out in the open. There’s a little bit of truthiness to that. Yes, super PACs disclose their donors, but there’s plenty we don’t know. That’s because the FEC has done absolutely no work to regulate this new influx of cash. And neither Congress nor the FEC has had the guts to require the real-time, online reporting that would give the public an actual sense of who’s trying to influence their votes. After all, we only just got the super PAC disclosures from last year (!) on Tuesday, and many of the crucial primary elections are already over -- the Republican field is down to just a few left standing. It might have been helpful for voters in those early primary states to know just who was trying to influence them before they cast their votes. And although it’s great that we can name the top 22 donors, there may still be other billionaires who are funneling their money to super PACs through 501c4s, nonprofits which don’t have to tell anyone who their funders are.
Sunlight’s been working on this issue for a while, so we’ve got plenty of info if you’re interested. (Who doesn’t love a little campaign finance disclosure to spice up your Friday?) Our one stop shop for everything you ever wanted to know about super PACs but were afraid to ask is here: http://sunlightfoundation.com/superpacs/. We’ll be continuously updating that page, so make sure to bookmark it and come back.
We also have draft legislation that we think can solve many of the disclosure problems around super PACs, the SUPERPAC Act. We’re writing it out in the open (the way we wish Congress would write legislation) and we welcome your feedback to make it stronger. You can comment on any particular section or on the whole thing. Check it out: http://publicmarkup.org/bill/superpac-act/
The SUPERPAC Act hasn’t been introduced, yet, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt for you to get in touch with your representatives and let them know they should be on the side of transparency, which they could do simply by introducing and/or cosponsoring this legislation.
You can also read more about it, like -- Lisa’s blog post that Colbert showed on-screen and Lee’s analysis of the 22 donors that gave 48% of the presidential super PAC money (with fun charts!).
Our reporting group has also been spending some late nights going through the documents released Tuesday -- and they’re the ones who are tracking the spending so we can give you detailed data.
Want to help shine a light on super PACs in your area? We’ve also got the super PAC sleuth project -- you can check to see if there’s a super PAC in your area, take a picture, and upload it -- and if you want to dig in even further, you can join our Little Sis group, too.
It’s not enough to hope that the 22 billionaires that we know about pick someone we like for our next president (or representative, or senator -- super PACs aren’t limited to presidential contests). It’s up to us to demand transparency and make sure that everyone knows just who is trying to influence our elections.