The News Without Transparency: Colbert Super PAC Leads FEC Reporting, Gingrich Campaign and Others Follow

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Super PACs have been a hot topic in the news recently as reporters, advocacy groups, and the public try to follow the money flowing into the political system as the 2012 elections approach.

On January 31st MSNBC reported that Stephen Colbert’s super PAC, Americans for A Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, was the first to submit its end-of-year report to the Federal Election Commission. The deadline for these reports was January 31st.

Colbert included his super PAC’s filing on his super PAC’s website, ColbertSuperPac.com, but this is not required. This kind of information can generally be found on the FEC website under Campaign Finance Reports and Data, but you have to know exactly what you are looking for.

The FEC portal includes a variety of search tools, including a searchable database of disclosure reports, downloadable copies of electronic filings, images of all financial reports, and other campaign finance data. However, these search tools suffer from a lack of a user-friendly interface. Several organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica, and the New York Times, have taken FEC data and put it in more user-friendly formats while focusing on information most relevant to the upcoming presidential election.

A search for Colbert’s super PAC using the FEC’s Disclosure Database search tool returns 13 filings, including the Year-End report displayed on Colbert’s super PAC website. This report indicates that the super PAC has raised $825,475.46 since July 2011 and spent $151,521.01 as of December 31, 2011.

TPM published an article as the FEC deadline approached as well that focused on Newt Gingrich’s campaign filing. The article cited several specifics regarding Gingrich’s campaign spending, all of which are publicly available using the same online FEC portal. A search for “Newt 2012,” the official name of Gingrich’s presidential election campaign, under the “View Images of All Financial Reports” tab returns a list of documents filed. Viewing the PDF of the Year-End report shows all the numbers used in the article mentioned above.

It is necessary to emphasize again that these tools can be extremely hard to use, and you have to be very precise in your search terms. For example, a search for “Gingrich” using either search tool will return many results for other organizations related to Gingrich, such as “Friends of Newt Gingrich,” but it will not return other better options.

The TPM article stated that the campaign had $2.1 million at the end of 2011 and owed over a million dollars in debt. The top level summary on page two of the Year-End report shows the $2.1 million the campaign has in cash and the $1.2 million it currently owes.

The article specified that the campaign’s debt includes $1,666.66 to Rick Tyler – a former Gingrich aide who currently manages a super PAC in support of his candidacy. A search for “Rick Tyler” shows the $1,666.66 the campaign owes this former Gingrich aide on page 5166.

The debt also includes $350,000 for private jet flights. A search for “Moby Dick Airways,” the private jet company that it has been reported Newt Gingrich uses, shows that the campaign began the quarter owing $451,946, incurred an additional $33,008 in charges this quarter, then made a payment of $133,008 to conclude 2011 with an outstanding balance of $351,946.

Lastly, the article says that the campaign paid $47,005 to Gingrich to buy a mailing list. A search for “Newt Gingrich” shows the campaign’s $47,005 disbursement to the candidate for the express purpose of “list purchase” on page 4954.

Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey helped with the research for this post.

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“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.

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