This Week In Transparency – June 12, 2009

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

Federal law prohibits lobbyists and those that hire them from giving gifts or campaign contributions to congressional lawmakers. No such law exists prohibiting them from spending unlimited amounts to honor lawmakers or contributing to non-profits connected to them. Quite a limitation on the distinction, if you ask me. However, Congress passed ethics rules in 2007 requiring for the first time that lobbyists must report all such payments. On Monday, USA Today‘s Fredreka Shouten and Paul Overberg reported on the paper’s comprehensive analysis of lobbying reports that found 2,759 payments, totaling $35.8 million, were made in 2008. They quote Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s executive director, “It’s another example of the many pockets of a politician’s coat.” The spending amounts to an “end-run” around campaign-finance laws “that are designed to limit the appearance of undue influence.” National Public Radio‘s “All Things Considered” interviewed Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs’s director, about U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley‘s (Iowa) use of Twitter to criticize President Obama’s call for action on health care. Grassley’s message: “Pres Obama you got nerve while u sightseeing in Paris to tell us ‘time to deliver’ on health care. We still on skedul/even workinWKEND.” Clay said, “He may not be the most prolific writer in 140 characters or less, but there’s something really authentic about it.”

NPR Interview

Federal News Radio interviewed Daniel Schuman about how the U.S. Supreme Court’s nine-year old Web site is hard to navigate, difficult to use and in need of a significant upgrade. Daniel had blogged about the SCOTUS site last week. You can listen to the interview here.

Federal News Radio interview

Journalists used Center for Responsive Politics data to show how two important congressional battles are shaping up. With the debate over health reform intensifing, The New York Times’ Robert Pear looked at the political spending of doctors. Since the 2000 election cycle, their political action committee has contributed $9.8 million to congressional candidates with Republicans got more than Democrats in the four election cycles before 2008, when 56 percent went to Democrats. Congress is also considering legislation that would mandate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate and approve the use of tobacco. Halimah Abdullah with McClatchy Newspapers reports that CRP data shows that among the 17 senators who voted against tasking the FDA with the tobacco regulatory role are top recipients of campaign contributions from the industry.

The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Carol D. Leonnig researched the House lawmakers’ annual financial disclosure reports released Wednesday. They found lawmakers had significant investments in the financial institutions that took billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts at the end of last year, raising conflict-of-interest questions. They quote Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as being critical of congressional lawmakers investing directly in companies they oversee. “You wonder if they’re voting on things because it’s good for the country or because it would increase their personal wealth,” Melanie said.

Bara Viada at National Journal‘s “Under the Influence” blog reported on and links to Party Time’s post about how the National Republican Campaign Committee inadvertently included a fundraising event for a Democratic lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (Mich.), on a list of fundraising events the party committee sent out earlier this week. Roll Call‘s (subscription required) Emily Heil and Elizabeth Brotherton, writing at their “Heard on the Hill” column, also report on Party Time’s catch, as did Politico’s Glenn Thrush.

ProPublica’s Christina Jewett reported on the Project for Government Oversight’s call on the FDA’s inspector general to investigate the agency in light of its failure to stop contaminated syringes from reaching the market. An earlier report said the FDA’s inaction allowed 74,000 contaminated syringes to be shipped. “Authorities connected four deaths and 162 illnesses to the syringes,” Jewett wrote.

At his Joho the Blog, David Weinberger, live blogged a talk Clay participated in yesterday at the New Media Academic Summit held by public relations firm Edelman at Georgetown University. When asked how government and others can be encouraged to produce data in open formats Clay responded, “I’m more focused on just getting the data out. I don’t care about the format. We should tell them just to do it in plain text, if that’ll get it out faster. Once the government starts pumping it out we can have the debate about which standards.”

InformationWeek’s Thomas Claburn reports on a court case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit over the issue of whether e-mail messages deserve the same privacy protection as telephone calls. He notes that Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU of Ohio, and the Center for Democracy and Technology filed an amicus brief in the case, Warshak v. USA, in support of added privacy protections.

T. J. Kelleher, writing at science magazine Seed’s “Week in Review” editorial, looked at Data.gov, the federal government’s site that promises to provide free access to data generated across all of its agencies. Kelleher asked, “Where’s the sunshine?” Kelleher mentions Sunlight Labs’ Apps for America 2 contest, which is encouraging developers to build tools that will enable the common citizen to engage with the information Data.gov will be making available.

Federal Computer Week’s Ben Bain reported on Miriam Nisbet’s appointment to be the first director of a new office at the National Archives and Records Administration that will provide policy guidance to agencies for the handling of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and mediate disagreements about agency decisions not to grant requests. Some have referred to the new position as an “ombudsman” for FOIA, a development that open government advocates have welcomed wholeheartedly. Bain quotes Patrice McDermott, OpenTheGovernment.org’s director, as saying Nisbet has a deep knowledge of the issues and has strong ties to the open-government community. Patrice worked directly with Nisbet for four years at the American Library Association, Bain reports.

Tim Catts at AOL’s Daily Finance site reported that the ten banks cleared by the feds to buy back $68 billion in preferred stock investments they sold under the Treasury Department’s rescue program aren’t quite in the clear yet. They still have to settle on a price to repurchase hundreds of millions of warrants held by the government. Catts suggests his readers turn to SubsidyScope for a quick rundown of what goes into valuing a warrant.

In case you didn’t see it, Jake Brewer, Sunlight’s engagement director, briefly profiles RaceTracker on The Huffington Post, the “non-partisan, fully-referenced, open-source and crowd-sourced wiki project that lists every candidate running in every U.S. Senate, House and governor’s race” that soft launched yesterday.