What we’re up to


We’re launching a number of real time investigative projects at the Sunlight Foundation, and this blog is sort of a diary of the investigations, where you can follow, day by day, what my colleague, Investigative Writer Anupama Narayanswamy, and I are up to as we go about our business trying to make Congress more transparent.

Right now, Anupama’s main focus (you’ll be hearing a lot more about this in the days to come) is FOIAing all of the roughly 120 federal agencies, requesting correspondence logs from members of Congress for January and February 2007. As they come in, we’ll start putting them online in a searchable database, with the name of the member, the date of the letter, its subject, and whether the agency responded. Our intention is to continue FOIAing these records month by month, regularly updating the database. If a member writes to the Justice Department about a U.S. Attorney, or the Defense Department on behalf of a company seeking a contract, a user will be able to find out by searching our database. A side benefit is that we’ll also be able to measure the speed with which various agencies respond to FOIA. Hats off, by the way, to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, which responded the same day Anu sent out the request (although in a PDF rather than in a more database-friendly format).

We’re both going to work on what I’m starting to think of as the mystery of form SF-LLL, a federally mandated disclosure that contractors and grantees have to file if they’ve lobbied the government to get contracts or grants. This may sound a bit arcane–and not just to you; some government officials I’ve asked about it have reacted by saying, more or less, “an SF-what-what-what?” But the form has to be filed “for each payment or agreement to make payment to any lobbying entity for influencing or attempting to influence an officer or employee of any agency, a Member of Congress, an officer or employee of Congress, or an employee of a Member of Congress in connection with a covered federal action.” I should add that the covered federal actions are contracts and grants and few other types of federal funding (loans, etc.). So in theory, if you could get all SF-LLLs, you could distinguish between contractors that win federal dollars solely through the merits of their goods and services, and those that attempt to involve political influence in the process. That seems to me to be a not insignificant bit of information.

We’ve got other things cooking, but that’s enough for a first post on our rather unfurnished blog. (It reminds me of my first apartment–hardwood floors, nice windows, and little more than a futon in the corner and a pile of books on the floor…)

Onwards and upwards!

— Bill Allison