Online resources can make interns watchdogs, too


“I’m proud to present the second part in a series of research projects from the Sunlight Foundation spring semester interns. This post is by Tim Wiseman, he spent time looking into Rep. Hal Rogers (KY-5) earmark requests trying to find out if they are truly what the Congressman claims.” – Nisha Thompson

By Sunlight Foundation Intern, Tim Wiseman

Thanks to online resources, basic watchdogging is now so easy, an intern could do it. Unfortunately, complete and total answers about lawmakers and their activities are still elusive, whether you are an intern, a  journalist or anyone else. I learned these facts firsthand while spending some of my internship researching the earmark requests of Rep. Hal Rogers (KY-5).

The 22-page PDF of earmarks that Rogers posted to his Web site caught my eye, and not just because it was sideways. Looking through the list of 103 earmarks, which totaled $446 million, I found some names familiar to me from reading Sunlight’s Real Time Investigations blog. Outdoor Venture Corp. and Phoenix Products were in the running for earmarks again ($16 million for each). In late 2007, the Real Time Investigations blog had reported on the two Kentucky firms’ booming earmark business and their connections to Rogers, and more recent data showed those ties remained strong.

Additionally, earmarks for some non-profit organizations stood out since all are based in Rogers’ small hometown of Somerset, Ky.:

  • A $15 million request for the National Institute for Hometown Security, which had received an $11 million earmark in 2008
  • $2 million in requests for the Center for Rural Development
  • A $1 million request for the SEKTDA (South and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association)
  • A $13.75 million equest for Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education)
  • A $10 million request for Eastern Kentucky PRIDE (Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment)
  • $1 million request for SEKTDA (South and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association)
  • $500,000 request for SKED (Southeast Kentucky Economic Development Corporation).

In relatively little time, I had gone from scanning the list of earmark requests from Rogers’ Web site to clicking my way to finding connections to past earmarks and donors. While I was using spare moments to do this online research, the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader (my hometown paper) was undertaking a similar effort, eventually publishing a front-page overview of Rogers’ 2009 earmark requests. The article offered basically the same information as I had found, but with a few comments – including some from Real Time Investigations’ Bill Allison – about the earmark requests and earmarks in general.

“You’re using federal money to create organizations that wouldn’t exist,” Allison told the Herald-Leader. “They’re hiring people — sometimes bringing in political supporters. Sometimes (those supporters) promote the lawmaker as much as the group because they’re out in the community and people identify the group with the member. It amplifies the member and it raises a lot of questions.”

Since the Herald-Leader article left those questions hanging, I tried to find out more about those organizations, especially the National Institute for Hometown Security (NIHS), which Rogers had praised in a subsequent article in the (Somerset, Ky.) Commonwealth Journal.

“Unelected and uninformed editorial boards, such as the Herald-Leader, do not represent the interests of my district,” Rogers told the Commonwealth Journal. “These ‘vague non-profits’ that the Herald lampoons are very real and have made a measurable impact on people’s lives. To denigrate the organizations is to denigrate the tens of thousands of Fifth District residents who have poured their sweat, blood, and tears into making them a success.”

While I had hoped to discover the “measurable impact” of these organizations, I found more dead-ends. Using (free registration required), I downloaded 990 forms filed by the NIHS and the Center for Rural Development (CRD). These forms give a basic overview of the organizations: general spending and revenue categories/totals, salaries of top employees, mission statements, etc.

The NIHS declared its mission is “1) to provide national leadership in discovering and developing community-based critical infrastructure, 2) facilitate the commercialization of these solutions, and 3) encourage the deployment of these solutions.” The CRD declared that its mission is “to provide economic development to Southeastern Kentucky.”

The 990 form showed a majority of NIHS’s 2007 spending going out of Rogers’ district, such as $238,449 to Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C., for legal service, $497,246 to G & H International, also of Washington, D.C., for “management support services” and $530,786 to the Center for Technology Commercialization of Westborough, Mass., for “management support services.” NIHS spent $2.6 million total in fiscal year 2007, so I was curious about this spending pattern as well as the reason behind the jumps in earmarks – $11 million received in 2008, and now $15 million more requested in 2009. I also noticed that James Egnew, president of Outdoor Venture, was a member of the NIHS board, a connection I would have liked to explain.

The Web sites of both organizations did not do much to clarify those generic statements, or to answer the questions I had about budgets, etc. The sites provided press releases and “success stories” – many featuring quotes from, or photos of, Rogers – but little that demonstrated a truly “measurable impact.” There was information about the Rogers Scholar and the Rogers Scholars at the CRD Web site, and at the NIHS site, there was news about addditional funding for a “Milk Transport Security Project.” Again, I found little to explain or to help me understand the “measurable impact” of the organizations.

“There’s no question that those dollars have some positive impact in these areas,” Dr. Ken Troske, an economist at the University of Kentucky who has studies rural development, told me. “But you should talk about maximizing the effect of those dollars and that might mean not spending them there.”

Generally, Troske said there is often little evaluation when it comes to these type of rural development or non-profit programs, and those lists of grants or scholarship winners don’t count.

“That’s not analysis,” he said. “They aren’t looking at what the situation might have been had there been no federal money spent; they aren’t looking at how and why this money may have had a impact.”

While I had been able to track down Troske in Australia, I had less luck speaking with anyone in Somerset, Ky. I called the NIHS, but I bounced around the organization’s phone tree before leaving messages in the mailbox of President Ewell Balltrip. As of this posting, I have not heard from him. Only recently did I find staff e-mail information on the NIHS site; I am waiting for a response.

My calls to the CRD were not returned, nor were their staff e-mail addresses available online. Yesterday, I received an e-mail to the one I submitted through the CRD’s generic Web form. The response, however, was a copy of a recent promotional magazine produced by the CRD. I responded and hope to learn more, but weeks after beginning my search, I have made little progress.

In the first minutes of my search, online transparency tools brought information instantly to my cubicle. That information – on donors, on earmarks, etc. –  is valuable, but it also prompts more questions. Perhaps the NIHS and the CRD have the answers to these questions, and they very well could, but they certainly aren’t promoting it on their Web sites or eager to chat about it with inquiring interns. That’s far from transparent, and more than anything, it’s just frustrating for anyone – intern or not – who wants answers about the government’s impact at a local level.