A Footnote on Disclosure Prompted by the Ongoing Weldon Investigation


The Washington Post, and reporters R. Jeffrey Smith and Carol D. Leonnig, have more on the investigation of Rep. Curt Weldon, his daughter, and some of his close political allies. What’s interesting to me is how much of the information in the story comes from documents that federal law requires lawmakers and the lobbyists that try to influence them to disclose, and how little of that information is actually available to the public in a useful, searchable form.

For example, Smith and Leonnig report on privately funded junkets to Serbia, Russia and Jacksonville, Fla., taken by Weldon and a member of his staff; if it weren’t for the efforts of groups like the Center for Public Integrity and now the Center for Responsive Politics, those reports would be available only to researchers who trekked down to the Capitol.

Smith and Leonnig also report on filings that the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration Act registration unit maintains–these filings specified, among other things, that Weldon’s daughter’s firm would be paid $300,000 a month by Itera International Energy Corp., a Russian oil and gas management firm that’s part of the investigation. Back in 2004, colleagues of mine at the Center for Public Integrity tried to get the database of these filings from the Justice Department in order to present them to a broader public; CPI even went to court to force Justice’s FARA Registration Unit to make the data available. In the course of trying to pry loose the data, they learned that the computer system that preserves this data was in less than excellent shape:

Responding to a recent Freedom of Information request from the Center for Public Integrity, the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit said it was unable to copy its records electronically because their computer system was “so fragile.” In a letter, the head of the unit’s Freedom of Information office said that simply attempting to make an electronic copy of the database “could result in a major loss of data, which would be devastating.”

The database details millions of dollars spent on lobbying activities by foreign governments, companies, and foundations.

Those activities include everything from wining and dining lawmakers to broadcasting issue ads on American television and radio stations.

You can only get information from the FARA Registration Unit by visiting its downtown Washington offices, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., looking it up on their balky computer system, and paying 50 cents a page to make copies. Not exactly robust disclosure–which makes this comment, from that same 2004 CPI story by Kevin Bogardus, surreal to say the least:

“The information itself still is very accessible,” said Bryan Sierra at the Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs. “The basic mandate of the office is to provide information to the public.”

They’ve got a funny way of fulfilling their mandate…