DIY Influence Tracker

So, you want to unleash the power of information on the forces of influence? Most of the
data you need to follow the money and connect deep-pocketed interests to politics is out there, but to find it, you have to be savvy. Luckily, the Sunlight Foundation has done some of the legwork for you. Here’s our step-by-step guide on how we’ve dug up data on high-powered lobbyists, big donor political fundraisers, the super spending Super PACs, and more -- everything you need to know to start tracking influence in government, politics, and power on your own.

Lobbying
To learn the major players in your local (and/or national) lobbying arena, find out what issues they lobby on, who they give money to, and how much they give* follow these steps. (*Note: All data is subject to what these lobbying firms themselves disclose to the FEC.)

Step 1. Pick the scope of your research.
Are you looking for lobbyists from a general industry, the most prominent lobbyists in a certain location, the top lobbyists overall? If it’s the latter, we’ve done the research for you. For the rest of them, you can easily pull together the information yourself once you’ve selected the scope of your research. The scope you choose could be based on anything from the interests of your group to pure, individual curiosity. For our example, we decided that based on our location (DC) and our proximity to K Street, looking up the Top Lobbying Firms was our goal.

Step 2. Get the lay of the land with a general Internet search.
Look for trusted sources (like well-known media outlets, respected think tanks, and watchdog blogs) that have done round-ups on “top” or “major” lobbying firms in the part of the country you’re interested in. In our research, we did a Google search for “top lobbyists in DC” and found this great list of the Top 50 DC-based Lobbying firms culled together by the Washingtonian: http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/mediapolitics/4264.html What you find won’t be the end of your research, but it will give you a good yardstick to measure the rest of your findings by and will help make you more knowledgeable about the subject. If you haven’t yet, now’s the time to start pulling together a document or spreadsheet to keep track of your targets and any data you’re collecting.

Step 3. Find the names of your targets.
Time for the fun stuff. Based on the scope you selected in Step 1, you can do a search on OpenSecrets.org: http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/search.php. There, you’ll have the option to search by name of individual lobbyists and lobbying firms, by industry, and by issues.

(There are other options, but these will be the most relevant for your work.) We cheated a little for our work: You’ll note that on the right drop down menu, under “Lobbying” there is a link that says “Top Lobbying Firms.” That’s how we looked up our data. http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?indexType=l The information you compile on OpenSecrets.org will further narrow down your search. Put the names of firms and individuals you want to investigate further in your spreadsheet, then...

Step 4. Follow the money.
Once you have collected the names of individuals and/or firms you want to dig up information on, head to Influence Explorer to fill in the details at http://influenceexplorer.com/. Influence Explorer is a product of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit organization devoted to using technology to make government more open and accountable. Influence Explorer is your one-stop search for campaign finance, lobbying, earmark, contractor misconduct, and federal spending data. Here you’ll use the search feature to dig deeper into the information you’ve already collected. Start by looking up the names of the firms and individuals you’ve found in Step 3, one at a time. When you search for, for example, the lobbying firm Patton Boggs you’ll come to this page: http://influenceexplorer.com/organization/patton-boggs-llp/52a1620b2ff543ebb74718fbff742529 Here you’ll find more information about this infamous lobbying firm than you’ve ever dreamed accessible. Although the page is slightly different when you look up an individual, here’s the information you get when you look up a firm.The page starts out with a quick bio about the firm or person and then is divided into 5 categories of data: Campaign Finance (AKA, money given and who gets it), Lobbying (which includes which lobbyists employed by the firm, the most frequently disclosed issues they lobby on, their clients, recent contracts, and the disclosed bills lobbied on), Regulations, Federal Spending, and Advisory Committees. You can adjust the data to be for “all time” or for specific years. For the work that you’ll likely be doing, only Campaign Finance and Lobbying will be the most relevant. When we researched Patton Boggs for the data included in this kit we pulled their top political recipients of all time and the top issues they report lobbying on.

Step 5. Compile and share.
Make sure that as you research and record the information you’re looking up that you place it in a format that’s easy to understand -- and easy to replicate. Feel free to model what you collect on the data we provide. After you’ve compiled your information in a format that you’re ready to share, blast it out! Upload the document to Scribd, where it can be easily shared, embedded, and downloaded by others, or use any other document uploader of your choosing. Then, blog it, share it all over social media, shove it in Tumblrs, and write up press releases announcing what you’ve found.

To make what you’ve collected even easier to access, take a page from our book and map your findings. Google Maps makes it easy to create public maps, but you could just as easily use Open Street Maps. If you choose Google, head to “My Places,” then click “Create Map.” From there you’ll be able to edit information about your maps and then add points by searching for locations on Google Maps and clicking “Save to Maps” in the info box that pops up on a location. SOME HANDY LINKS FOR MAPPING: Here’s links to the maps we’ve made while working on this project: For a map of our DC lobbying data: http://snlg.ht/dclobbyingmap For a map of our info on Super PACs: http://snlg.ht/dcsuperpacmap For a map mashing up a number of different “influencers” in DC: http://snlg.ht/dcinfluencemap We’re going to continue to update these maps with more data and information. Wanna help? Start plotting your info, or get in touch: Tweet @sunfoundation or email info@sunlightfoundation.com with MAPS in the subject line.

Fundraisers
Your politicians do a lot of wining and dining with big donors and special interests when they’re not out “serving the country in your interest.” Most of these parties happen in secret and are geared towards campaigns, but if you’re interested, there’s an easy way to shine light on your elected’s nightlife: Party Time (http://politicalpartytime.org). Party Time is a database of fundraiser invitations. All the invitations are received from reputable anonymous sources, scanned, uploaded, and categorized for easy discovery. Want to check out events by specific congressional committees, events held by big PACs or congressional or committee leadership? It’s only a mouse click away. Although the information on these invites may sometimes vary, they’re a great resource for folks examining how their politicians spend their off time, to see who’s courting their favor, and whether they prefer martinis, islands, breakfast get-togethers, or some combination of all three.

SuperPACs
SuperPACs are the products of the landmark Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, where the Court decided that corporations and unions may spend unlimited amounts of money on elections right up until Election Day itself (so long as they didn’t actually coordinate with

candidates directly). Almost two years later, the FEC (“Federal Election Commission”) still has yet to adopt final rules that will allow us to track this flood of money. Fortunately, organizations have to at least file with the FEC before achieving Super PAC status. Based on these filing letters, you can dig up a lot information about these groups, including their addresses, the name of their treasurers, and how much “outside spending” they’ve contributed. To see this information for yourself, head to Sunlight Foundation’s Follow the Unlimited Money, where you’ll find a whole page devoted to “committees intending to accept unlimited amount” -- http://reporting.sunlightfoundation.com/outside-spending/letters. Sunlight’s Reporting group collects this data from the FEC and OpenSecrets.org. If you’re interested in taking action to make SuperPACs more transparent, check out the Super PAC Sleuth project, run in partnership between the Sunlight Foundation and their grantee, Little Sis. More information at http://sunlightfoundation.com/superpacs/.

Bailout Recipients
If you’re trying to follow where “taxpayer money has gone from the ongoing bailout of the financial system,” ProPublica has a database for you. You can search by recipient name, or filter the data by type of organization (insurance companies, banks, etc), their location, the amount committed to them by the federal government, and the amount of revenue the government has collected on the bailout. We pulled out a list of bailout recipients for DC by doing a simple search. You can see our results here: http://projects.propublica.org/bailout/list/state/DC To get started with your own search head to http://projects.propublica.org/bailout/list. But don’t just stop there: After you pull the list of bailout recipients for your area of interest, try plugging their names into Influence Explorer to see what other information you find. Then, as always, share your results.

Fortune 500s
Whatever your feelings about CNN, CNNMoney maintains a strong database on Fortune 500s -- the list of the 500 largest US corporations ranked by their gross revenue, compiled annually. With CNNMoney’s database, you can search these groups by a number of different ways, including industry, location, and worth. Check out the list of the Fortune 500 companies near DC that we pulled: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune500/2011/states/DC.html.

With this list, we created a spreadsheet where we compiled the information and then did a simple Internet search for their websites and contact information. We could have also gone one step further and entered in these companies into Influence Explorer and Follow the Unlimited Money to see how much money they’ve contributed during election season (and to whom) and the issues the lobby the most on. Try it for yourself: Enter Fannie Mae into Influence Explorer...http://snlg.ht/MoreOnFannieMae

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