This Week In Transparency – May 29, 2009

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Here are a few of the more interesting media mentions on Sunlight and our friends and grantees from this past week:

Sunlight Labs’ launch of the Apps for America 2: The Data.gov Challenge in conjunction with the Obama administration’s launch of Data.gov generated a great amount of media interest. The contest is a development and visualization challenge to see who can come up with the best application and visualization for data from Data.gov. In an editorial about Data.gov, The New York Times mentioned Sunlight and the Apps for America 2 contest. The Times “Bits” blog mentioned the contest too in a post about Data.gov. The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Politics Blog,” in a post about Data.gov, mentions the Apps for America 2 contest and quotes Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs’ director, saying Data.gov itself is not meant for average people, but is geared more towards developers who will take the data and make it usable for the everyday person. Later in the week, Alyssa Fetini at Time magazine writes about Data.gov and the Apps for America 2 contest as well. She quotes Clay, “Government has made a move in the right direction — now it’s time for us to show them what we can do.”

Clay was a guest on the nationally-syndicated The Kojo Nnamdi Show, a program produced by National Public Radio-affiliated WAMU FM, where he joined a panel discussion on how non-profits and cities like Washington, D.C., are enlisting help from civic-minded developers to help make government data more open and usable. You can listen to the program here.

Peter Baker with The New York Times used data from the Center for Responsive Politics to show President Obama is continuing the practice of past presidents by awarding prestigious ambassadorships to top fundraisers. For instance, his emissaries to Great Britain and France raised respectively $550,00 and $800,000 for Obama’s election and inauguration. The Boston Globe’s Susan Milligan used CRP data to show how the business community, faced with Democratic congressional majorities, a Democratic president, and a voting public furious over Wall Street lapses, have shifted their campaign contributions dramatically toward the Democrats from the 2006 election through 2008.

The Associated Press’ Jim Abrams reports on a Congressional Research Service survey that found that federal employees in a wide range of agencies misuse travel cards to buy goods for their personal use, travel first-class or simply bilk the government. Abrams quotes Scott Amey, counsel with the Project on Government Oversight, “A private travel agency would be out of business running this kind of operation.” Scott also said the CRS report points out the need for immediate improvements, including better oversight of all transactions and increased penalties for misuse.

The Washington Times‘ Stephen Dinan reported on President Obama’s failure to fulfill his promise to post bills on the WhiteHouse.gov for comment for five days before he signs them. Dinan notes Sunlight’s push for a 72-hour waiting period for Congress, and quotes John Wonderlich, Sunlight’s policy director, saying the White House is not making it a priority to live up to the pledge. John said that Congress is where the actual changes to a bill can happen. By the time it gets to the president, he can only sign or veto it. In light of that, John said, some transparency advocates have questioned the value of Mr. Obama’s five-day pledge.

Michael Crowley, columnist at Reader’s Digest, wrote about how leaders on Wall Street and Washington have let America down, and gives tips on what citizens can do to hold them accountable. He mentions Sunlight is a resource for keeping tabs on Congress.

The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate editorialized about earmarks and quoted Bill Allison, Sunlight’s senior fellow, saying with 435 house lawmakers and 9,000 specific earmarks finding information about them can be difficult.

The Wall Street Journal’s Amy Schatz reported on a government-advisory board that recommended the government adopt new practices and update current laws to better protect private information citizens send to government agencies or leave behind when they surf government Web sites. Schatz notes that the Center for Democracy and Technology proposed draft legislation that would help update privacy laws and regulation.

Bara Vaida, writing at the National Journal‘s “Under the Influence” blog, highlighted a blog post by Nancy Watzman, director of Sunlight’s Party Time campaign, about health care lobbyists hosting fundraisers for lawmakers as they prepare to take up the health care reform debate next month.

Nicholas Thompson at Wired‘s “Epicenter” blog wrote about the memo President Obama issued Wednesday on secrecy and transparency, and how he continues to reverse the Bush administration’s secrecy policies. Thompson links to a blog post written by Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s director, about the memo.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Walter F. Roche Jr. reports that U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) was involved in a personal financial transaction with a federal judicial nominee, his Philadelphia neighbor whom he recommended, while the nomination was pending before his Senate committee and the full Senate. Roche interviewed Bill Allison about the matter. “Obviously the public should have known, and certainly his colleagues on the committee should have known. In a way, (Specter) pulled a fast one on them,” Bill said. Roche notes that the transactions were three mortgages on a Georgetown condominium. And under a 1978 federal law and legislative ethics rules, congressional lawmakers are not required to disclose details of the purchase or financing of personal residences. Roche quotes Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, “There is no logical reason for the exemption.” Melanie also pointed out that for most people, a personal residence is their biggest asset.

Bob Collins at Minnesota Public Radio links to Bill’s Real Time Investigations report on how New York State Veteran’s Home at St. Alban’s, in Jamaica, N.Y., is using $109.5 million in Recovery Act spending to retrofit the facility for energy efficiency. “Just curious — let’s say the improvements cut the facility’s power bills by half,” Bill wondered. “How many years will it take for those savings to equal the cost of the $109.5 million spent to achieve those reductions?”

Information Aesthetics writes about The Pew Charitable Trusts’ SubsidyScope, and how it is pulling together data on the financial institutions that are receiving benefits from the various U.S. federal programs in order to understand how and where taxpayer dollars are being spent.

Thanks and see you next Friday.

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