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Rake Muck! One Way to Find Independent Expenditures that Might Not be so Independent

The Federal Election Commission has an ever-growing list of “independent expenditures” made by political corporations whose donors the American people are kept from knowing and whose actual independence from congressional campaigns is a matter of conjecture. All one of these political corporations has to do is attest in its filings that its “expenditure was not made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s committee, a political party committee or an agent of any of these.” But the Federal Election Commission doesn’t do much independent investigation to find out whether these expenditures actually are independent. That part is largely up to me and you.

Here’s one simple way to find possible cases of coordination in supposed “independent expenditures.”

1. Download the FEC’s latest data on independent expenditures. It looks horrible to the eye, but all the data you need to get started is right there.

2. Find the name of a candidate or corporation that you think might be up to something fishy. You can find names of candidates and political corporations pretty easily with a text search. Better yet, you could import the information to a spreadsheet program using settings for comma-delimited files.

3. When you’ve found an expenditure record that looks interesting to you, note the name of the candidate connected to the expenditure. Also note the name of the company or person that is the “payee,” the contractor carrying out services for the independent expenditure. Make sure that the 13th field of information reads “S.” That “S” stands for “support”; an “O” would indicate an expenditure made in “opposition” to a candidate, which we can be pretty sure wouldn’t be coordinated with any but the most masochistic of candidates. (Exception: if you’re feeling fancy, you can look at opposition expenditures, figure out who the rival of the attacked candidate is, and note the name of the rival.)

4. Now head over here to get information about disbursements made by candidates. Pick the file either for the House or the Senate, based on the the office for which your candidate’s running. (Be sure to read the description of the data so you know what you’re looking at.) This is a big file; give it time to download.

5. Using either text searches in the raw file, or sorting in a spreadsheet program, see whether the candidate being supported uses the same payee for similar services. Better yet, did they use the same payee in the same month? This is suspicious, although for some payees that are especially common (think “U.S. Postal Service” or “Thrifty Rent-a-Car”) we should expect some overlap. Is this a payee that a lot of candidates and corporations use, or is this a payee used ONLY the suspicious candidate and the suspicious corporation making “independent expenditures?” The latter is pretty close to a jackpot.

6. The last step is to contact the candidate, to contact the corporation making the “independent expenditure,” and to contact the payee. Without threats and with all careful politeness, give them a chance to explain the apparent coordination. Write down exactly what they say and don’t say. Share what you learn with the public.

Politicians are our public servants; they work for us. Corporations making expenditures to try to swing elections should be accountable to the public that grants them charters. We have a right to know who’s zooming who, even if the information is obscured. With a little diligence you might uncover some pretty suspicious patterns of behavior. You could help uncover a little corruption.

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