APME, Member Papers Turn Reporters Loose on Earmarks


So what happens when reporters around the country investigate earmarks, digging into resources like the exhaustive compendium of fiscal year 2008 earmarks put out by Taxpayers for Common Sense and the wealth of influence data that the Center for Responsive Politics assembles on Open Secrets, and then ask members of Congress about what they’ve found? Well, they get incredibly revealing defenses of how earmarks work, like this one from Rep. Tim Holden that was reported by the Republican Herald of Pottsville, Pa:

“People you do business with contribute to your campaign,” Holden said in a phone interview Friday. “This was a constituent of mine who was having trouble doing business with the Pentagon, having trouble getting through the bureaucracy.”

So are some members of Congress in business with their earmark recipients, exchanging help getting through the bureaucracies for campaign cash? That’s what a remarkable project that the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Sunlight Foundation, scores of reporters at dozens of newspapers tried to find out.

I’m going to be highlighting some of the stories tomorrow (I’m still trying to digest them all!), but first a little background on the project: Last fall, David Ledford, APME’s president and the executive editor of the Wilmington News Journal, talked to us about doing something on earmarks, trying to engage some of APME’s member papers around the country in a reporting effort that would shine some light on the practice. There were more than 13,000 earmarks in FY2008, and the only way to really make an investigative dent in them is to distribute the reporting across a lot of local papers.

We were thrilled with the idea. Sunlight developed a training curriculum, and Larry Makinson and I traveled to 13 different cities, giving a roomful of reporters–anywhere from 12 to 20–from the host paper and others in the region about six hours of follow-the-money database training, showing them where to look for connections between campaign contributions, lobbying and earmarks.

APME deserves a tremendous amount of credit for doing this the way they did it. With the exception of the Rep. Don Young / Coconut Grove earmark, these really are local stories — members bringing the money home. Looking at them from the ground up — from the perspective of local papers in each member’s district — is a great approach.

Let’s hope, as the FY 2009 earmarks are announced, we see more reporting like this.