OpenGov Voices: How VT Diggers is tackling state campaign finance

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the headshotAnneguest blog.

Anne Galloway is the founder of VTDigger.org — a statewide news website in Vermont that publishes watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business and public policy. She has worked as a reporter and editor in Vermont for 17 years covering the Vermont Legislature, the governor and state government. Anne can be reached at agalloway@vtdigger.org.

In 2010, I began reporting on campaign contributions in Vermont. That year, we had an open seat in the governor’s office and there were five candidates in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. I was shocked to discover that the only information available from the Vermont Secretary of State’s office came in the form of unsearchable PDF scans of spreadsheet forms. The secretary requires that candidates use a form available in Excel on the state website. Candidates fill out the form and submit it in paper format to the secretary. It is then scanned and posted on the website.

In spite of the fact that there was no easy way to search the information, I began scouring the web for information about people, advocacy groups and businesses. I soon discovered that many businesses, political action committees and unions had direct financial connections to the candidates. I wrote a series of investigative stories about contributions from out of state, from businesses and wealthy individuals to candidates of the two major parties in statewide races.

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Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont

We revealed that paving and signage companies donated thousands of dollars to a candidate for lieutenant governor who had served as chair of Senate Transportation and who owned a road construction and engineering firm. We also tracked a donor who contributed four times to Peter Shumlin, using four different LLCs. The Associated Press picked up our story about David Blittersdorf’s contributions and the more than $4 million in state tax subsidies that he garnered for his company’s solar projects.

As a result of these stories, news organizations and others pressured the secretary of state to develop a searchable campaign finance database in 2011. Though the secretary has said he is willing to take on the project, he has been unable to obtain funding. This fall, the secretary put out an RFP for the project, which would be completed in 2015 (at the earliest).

VTDigger applied for a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation in November 2012 to pursue a campaign finance database of our own. We won the grant in January and immediately contracted with a database developer. Early on, followthe money.org agreed to allow us to use their data.

We realized fairly quickly that the names had not been normalized, and many of the entries were redundant. We will return a cleaned up version to followthemoney.org once our project is complete. The cleanup has been the hardest part of the project.

We decided early on to merge the campaign finance with corporations data. This enables us to search the name of a principal of a company who may have contributed to a candidate as an individual. When you pull up the name of say, Tony Pomerleau, you’ll see his affiliation with his relative Ernie Pomerleau, and the names of their LLCs and what each of these individuals and their entities have contributed to candidates.

You will also be able to search for out of state donations, total donations from individuals and business and self-funded loans. All of this information will be available in charts and graphs.

A hot map will show the origination of donations to candidates. The database will show primary contribution information as well.

We have finished 2011, 2012 and we have added 2013 data for phase 1 of the project, which is scheduled to be complete on Nov. 1. Phase 2 will include data from 2009 and 2010.

By the end of 2013, we would very much like to incorporate the openstates.org database of statewide officeholders and lawmakers on the VTDigger website. If possible, we would like to integrate the cleaner campaign finance data we have been working on. In addition, we would also like to incorporate bill tracking information by sponsor, topic and keyword, if possible.

We believe these tools will make it easier for reporters and members of the general public to figure out how money is influencing politics, and ultimately public policymaking in Vermont.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com.

 

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