Faulty reporting hampers access to lobbyists’ spending details
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New Mexico was less than 24 hours into the its 50th legislative session when protesters interrupted the governor’s state of the state address with screaming. The protests targeted the influence of corporate money in politics.
In the hopper on the first day of the session, a memorial introduced by Rep. Mimi Stewart, (D-Abq.) expressed opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling “concerning corporate campaign spending.” Occupy New Mexico protesters urged their ranks to phone in support for the non-binding measure, which passed 38-29.
Stewart might know a thing or two about corporate campaign spending. Ethics reports lobbyists filed on Jan. 15 disclosed $4,050 in lobbyists’ campaign contributions to Stewart. Her campaign contributions from lobbyists totaled about 7 percent above average for a House Democrat. All but one of the contributions — between $50 and $300 each – rolled in during the weeks before the session convened, between Nov. 28 and Dec. 28.
Lobbyists contributed about $450,000 to legislators’ campaigns since May, 2011 – much of it in the final weeks before the legislature convened. More than 25 percent of the money came in on one day – Dec. 20.
State ethics law requires lobbyists to disclose those donations on Jan. 15, before the start of annual legislative sessions. Irregularities in the way lobbyists and their clients report contributions, along with glitches in the way the Secretary of State’s office collects and posts those reports online make it difficult if not impossible to tell who gave what to whom.
The money went exclusively to incumbents, many of whom soon after announced they had no intention of running for reelection. Lame-duck incumbents nonetheless have ways of using campaign cash. State law also allows candidates to donate their excess campaign funds to the state’s general fund, or to a qualified charity, as defined by IRS rules. They can pay off old campaign debts, they can hand the money over to a PAC or to a candidate of their choosing, or they can return it to the donors.
Lobbyists who contributed to Stewart represent scores of advocacy groups, pueblos, school districts and corporations. Her donors also include lobbyists who represent Louisiana Energy Services & Uranium Enrichment, health-products maker Johnson & Johnson, Takeda Pharmaceuticals America, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Waste Management of New Mexico.
Did those corporations contribute to the legislator who sponsored the House Memorial – favored by Occupy New Mexico protesters – that opposed the role of corporations in politics? That’s not yet clear in public records – not until candidates file disclosures in April.
That’s the problem – or at least part of the problem. Lobbyists reports don’t consistently explain whether they lobbyist or their employer made the contributions.
What is apparent from lobbyists’ Jan. 15 ethics reports is that Democrats in the legislature on average netted more campaign cash from lobbyists than did Republicans. Lobbyists’ contributions to Senate Democrats topped those to Republicans by about 20 percent. House Democrats’ netted about 13 percent more than Republicans.
Source: New Mexico Secretary of State data and
New Mexico Watchdog analysis
To tally that sum of contributions to legislators along party lines required tedious sorting of recipients. Some were identified only by their last name. One lobbyist – Luke Otero – was identified in a report provided by the New Mexico Secretary of State’s office as contributing $18,900 to “various candidates.”
When the legislature convened in January, Otero’s name did not appear in the Secretary of State’s online campaign finance reporting system among lobbyists who filed a January report. He nonetheless filed that report. The gap between what he filed and what appears online suggests the state-run online system is not entirely reliable.
The contents of his filing were available in a custom report provided to the Watchdog on request by the Sect. Of State office. Indications of Otero’s January report also appear in the Sec. Of States campaign finance information system database, which the office released in its entirety in response to a Watchdog request.
When protesters marching under the Occupy brand crashed a Santa Fe dinner hosted for legislators by a state-policy research group on Jan. 27– a hotly contested event that resulted in allegations and counter-allegations that guests and protesters were injured and manhandled – the protesters had no ready way of knowing which corporations gave how much cash to which legislators in the weeks before the 50th Legislature convened on Jan. 17.
Broken windows, shattered views
The protesters could’ve known what special interests were spending at the legislature Maybe the should’ve known. The law requires disclosure. The state-run Web site provides the appearance of disclosure. Nonetheless, media, advocacy groups, lobbyists and Secretaries of State both current and former have collectively failed to maintain a dialogue sufficient to keep that system current, useful and compliant with the law.
Shortly after protesters crashed the private dinner, the Watchdog turned to the state’s online interface to find out who in the 50th legislature takes campaign cash from corporations. The Web site was broken.
The Watchdog asked King – an analyst at National Institute on Money in State Politics — to look at the site on Jan. 30. The site at that time didn’t distinguish between expenses from this year or last year, no matter how the search-menus were manipulated.
“They’re putting absolutely every lobbyist they have in the database and showing total expenditures,” King said.
Two weeks into the legislative session, there was no way to see who was filing 48-hour reports as the law requires of lobbyists who spend money to wine, dine, inform or persuade lawmakers. A few days after the Watchdog reported the breakdown, the Secretary of State’s office fixed that problem.
A few days later, the first media report of the session detailing lobbyists’ expenditures appeared under the byline of a long-time statehouse reporter. University of New Mexico was the number two spender, with $11,220 in special event expenses. New Mexico Golf Tourism Alliance’s $28,500 in entertainment expenses topped the list.
Those mid-session expenses were apart from the $450,000 in campaign contributions to lobbyists that rolled in prior to the session. King’s research estimated it would take a analysts three months to collect and organize lobbyists campaign contributions in New Mexico using online sources.
For the nationwide group that tracks spending in state politics, that made an effort to develop a nationwide lobbyists-expenditures-in-states site impractical using the state-run Web site. The shortcoming, in her view, makes the online reporting site useless for most practical purposes. (download their report here)
“It’s really hardly useful at all unless you can get the actual database and review the data,” King said.
Confronted with an unreliable and cumbersome online system., the Watchdog requested and received a copy of the actual database, and a brief custom report detailing contents of the Jan. 15 lobbyists reports. It’s more data than even followthemoney.org has ever received from New Mexico.
“If we could get the electronic database it would be a lot simpler for us,” said Linda King, whose works for the institute that hosts followthemoney.org.
With the contributions gathered in one data table thanks to the Secretary of States’s custom report, the Watchdog began sorting names of legislators. Some were spelled out. Others were identified only by last name, or by last name and first initial. Some legislators have similar first and last names, further complicating the chore.
Otero’s contributions were listed only as going to “various candidates.” Recipients of another lobbyists contributions were inexplicably listed in the wrong field.
In the end, careful data processing using manual and programmatic methods produced a tally of contributions for each party in each side of the legislature. Most individual legislators’ total receipts could be identified – with a few exceptions such as Otero’s $18,900 to various candidates.
A woman who answered the phone number listed on Otero’s report said her husband’s report was compiled with the help of the Secretary of State’s staff, which educates lobbyists in how to use the reporting system. She declined to identify herself other than as the lobbyists’ spouse, and as a person who was present when he filled out his forms with the help of staff at the Secretary of State’s office. Mr. Otero didn’t return the call.
On whose behalf is this money given?
While legislators contributions could eventually be counted with reasonable accuracy, it’s impossible to tell with any certainty on whose behalf those contributions were made. In addition to lobbyists’ expenditures, the state-run Web site reports $236,960 in campaign contributions from 29 lobbyists employers who filed Jan. 15 reports.
Many of those contributions, however, went to county-level political parties, or local candidates. An effort to sorting out recipients of those employers contributions would face the same challenges as sorting lobbyists expenditures – inconsistent formatting of names, use of abbreviations, and overlapping data with the lobbyists reports.
What’s more, in addition to those $236,960 in contributions explicitly reported by lobbyists employers, another group of contributions on behalf of lobbyists employers can be found in a small fraction of lobbyists’ Jan. 15 reports. A few lobbyists identified both the candidate who received money, and the client on whose behalf the contribution was made.
Constituents, activists or journalists who use the state-run ethics reporting site might expect that group of lobbyist-reported client contributions to be among those reported as employer contributions. They’re not. For most lobbyists, it’s not clear from ethics reports whether their contributions were personal spending or spending on behalf of their employers. Only tedious cross referencing with candidate’s reports – due in April – could provide systematic clues.
The state campaign finance database lists 1,674 lobbyist-employer relationships among 884 lobbyists and 1,101 organizations. At the Secretary of State Web site, fewer than 50 lobbyists-employer relationships could be found in the context of specific contributions reported in January – 29 reported by employers and 15 or so reported in vague shorthand by a handful of lobbyists who included the information.
Contributions that can be found both in the pages of available online lobbyists disclosures, but which aren’t listed among the few employers whose Jan. 15 reports appear online include those from TW Telecom of New Mexico, Occidental Petroleum Corp., El Paso Corp., Indian Pueblo Marketing, Isleta Pueblo, Okay Owingeh, Axcess Financial Services, Inc. Ace Cash Express, Loveless Health Systems, and Intel Corp.
Those companies – and pueblos — appear to have made campaign contributions but did not file Jan. 15 reports as required. Those contributions could only be identified because a few lobbyists entered more information than was required in their disclosure forms. Lobbyists who attempted to disclose on whose behalf they made contributions include Anthony (T.J.) Trujillo and attorney Daniel Najjar.
“I think i have to report it. I identify it. I know that I’m obligated to report contributions that I make,” Najjar said.
Asked to be more specific whether the law requires him to disclose on whose behalf he made contributions, he wasn’t as certain. Among his occasional lobbying clients, he lists the New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Assoc. He made no contributions on their behalf, he said. All other contributions he made, but which weren’t on behalf of clients, were his own money.
Though lobbyists employers are required to disclose when they make contributions, it’s unclear from available ethics-reports when lobbyists contribute on behalf of employers and when they gave on clients’ behalf.
State laws in at least two places discuss proxy donations and disclosure. The Lobbyist Regulation code requires in various terms explicit identification of those to whom lobbyists donate, including details of aggregated or bundled contributions. The Election Code prohibits anonymous proxy contributions.
“It is unlawful for a person to make a contribution in the name of another person, and no person shall knowingly accept a contribution made by one person in the name of another person,” states the state election code (NMSA 1-19-34.3)
New Mexico Rural Electric Coop Association’s lobbyist contributed $8,450 to 28 legislators. The associations contributions don’t appear on the list of contributions from lobbyists employers. Instead, they’re listed as contributions from Kevin Groenewold, the association’s executive vice president and general manager. He’s also registered as the association’s lobbyist.
The data is inconsistent from lobbyist to lobbyist and from employer to employer. With $29,7000 in contributions, including several to state legislators, Anheuser-Busch Companies appear at the top of the state-run ethics site listing of lobbyist’s employers. None of their contributions appear in the tally of contributions by lobbyists that company employs.
Groenewold confirmed that each of the contributions attributed to him were on behalf of his employer. “I’m the top guy here at the association and I make the contributions directly,” Groenwold said. “From my point of view, every contribution I make is on behalf of my association.”
A conversation with Groenwold revealed difficulty both lobbyists and their employers can encounter using what is for many lobbyists a new online filing system. It turns out, Groenwald is both – he’s a lobbyist and he’s a senior employee of at the company for which he lobbies.
After years of using paper forms, each lobbyist or employer who was required to file a January report this year was required to use the online system. The requirement proved difficult for some, and exposed limitations in the reporting system.
The online system allows state officials to efficiently extract, tally, track and report data from lobbyists mandatory filings. It also limits the information lobbyists can enter into the online form. Groenwald said he saw no way to alter his status from lobbyist to employer – if that’s what he needed to do.
Just tell us one thing…
For all the public money spent developing and maintaining an accessible system, and all the time power-players in the political process are required to spend updating the system, voters, reporters and political activists still can’t use the state-run Web site to reliably and quickly answer a simple question: how much did the chairman of a committee recently receive from lobbyists and their employers who are pushing bills through that committee.
The Watchdog’s research found that efforts to answer that question limited by omissions, vagaries and lack of ready access to complete data, each of which adds hours, days and even weeks to efforts to get an accurate answer. Even when contributions can be sorted, sometimes one-by-one, the tedious effort can’t keep pace with a rapidly moving legislative session – regardless lawmakers intent to require reports to be submitted immediately prior to a legislative session.
For a journalism, lawmaker or constituent, complete data is simply not available in the formats needed to quickly associate individual lawmakers with recent contributions from special interests. For Web developers who would bridge the gap, lack of clean, consistent data – normalized data in geek-speak – means time is wasted curating data rather than developing robust collections that collate data for useful analysis.
Publicly funded efforts to curate and publish the data often run into opposition among those who get campaign funds from lobbyists, King said. The remedy, for followthemoney.org, has been to acquire the data and create an independent Web site. In New Mexico, so far, followthemoney.org has relied on manual data retrieval from the state-run Web site.
The Watchdog posed several technical and legal questions about access to and organization of lobbyists reports to the Secretary of State’s office. Among those questions was whether the office had ever previously released a full copy of the campaign finance database, as it did at the Watchdog’s request. So far, Kenneth Ortiz, Duran’s Chief of Staff has not responded to questions he asked on Monday be submitted by e-mail.
King said followthemoney.org had not previously collected data from New Mexico in the preferred raw format as it does in some other states. Ortiz did say at that time his office has previously fulfilled requests for parts of the data, such as it did in response to the Watchdog’s other request for just those lobbyists contributions from January reports. He did not immediately answer whether anyone else had requested and received the full database.
Among questions the Duran’s office has not yet answered is whether it is now considered a legal requirement that complete data be available to the public on request. Two state laws imply that it is. Another state law (NMSA 14-3-15.1) allows state officials to decide whether they care to release public databases, and then only if requesters agree to pay royalties, allow state officials to inspect reports based on the data prior to publication and agree not to republish the entire dataset. Unlike this reporters earlier request of the Office of State Engineer for a copy of the public “WATERS” database, Duran’s office didn’t require a reporter to sign a restrictive agreement under that law.
“Our feeling is that everything we collect and we report is public record. That’s what our job is to do,” Ortiz said.
Nonetheless, the going price for voter registration records on file at the Secretary of State’s office remains several thousand dollars – a fee based on how many lines of data are requested. A request of the Santa Fe County Clerk last year for Santa Fe County voter records ran up against the same fee, based on how many lines of data were requested. The county clerks staff sited the Sect. Of State’s policy as justification for the steep price tag for county data.
A 2005 change in the law (NMSA 14-3-18) that restricts access to state data now prohibits counties – but not state agencies — from charging more than the actual cost of copying data, and requires them to provide public portions of county databases on request. The high cost of obtaining voter registration records falls on the shoulders of campaigns who use the data to reach prospective voters.
Although King cited reasons lawmakers might be generally disinclined to fund useful online reporting systems, the Watchdog uncovered no evidence that lobbyists, the Secretary of State office, lawmakers nor candidates had intentionally gamed the reporting system, other than perhaps the long-standing database censorship law which legislators have repeatedly refused to overturn. Statewide transparency and media groups have repeatedly lobbied for changes in that law.
There are benign reasons the system designed to foster transparency has become so opaque. Some lobbyists have used paper forms for years and some long-time lobbyists are not exactly Internet savvy. The requirement that lobbyists report expenditures is more red tape that can increase the cost to small groups who can’t otherwise afford to have someone in the Roundhouse who knows the players and the procedures. Spelling out the full name of each recipient might seem a waste of time to a lobbyist, unless procedures explicitly required those details.
The investigation did find abbreviations submitted for names where the law requires recipients to be identified. The investigation found no indication that reporting forms suggested recipients names should be spelled out. The investigation found widespread ambiguity about how lobbyists, their employers or both should report the employers’ contributions delivered by a lobbyist.
Under the hood – hodgepodge
Looking under the hood, the Watchdog investigation revealed a system struggling to keep up with emerging technology and growing voter expectations of transparency. The investigation exposed a system that appeared to lack the nurturing feedback from users who press administrators for functionality and for access to the full scope of data that is submitted into the system.
The first Republican to hold the office in 80 years, Dianna Duran and her staff stepped into an office with little benefit of transitional exchanges with her predecessor. We could go to the state’s Sunshine Portal to see whether she kept any staff that might know how things work, but the Sunshine Portal – maintained by another agency not under her control – does not yet provide archival payroll records as required by law.
We do know Duran faced pointed questions when she initiated effort to clean up voter registration files soon after she took office. Her efforts upbraided some factions that said questioning voter qualifications tended to disenfranchise voters.
After her office weathered criticism to examine the state of voter registration files, the non-partisan Pew Center on the States released a report that called for exactly the kind of cross-referencing Duran’s staff had undertaken. Why? Uncertainty about what is in state voter records fuels partisan debate and undermines trust in the system, the report concludes.
“These problems waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections,” said David Becker, Pew director of election initiatives told the New York Times.
So it is with lobbyists’ campaign finance disclosures. When activists, reporters or other lawmakers can’t readily determine who recently took cash from lobbyists while legislation is pending, they sometimes cherry pick data, citing only interesting bits that seem to support their contention.
It’s easy to say, as this story does, that a lobbyist who represents a uranium enrichment company contributed to a legislator who took a stand against the role of corporate money in politics. They did. But was it the company’s money the lobbyist contributed? We don’t know. Until Rep. Stewart’s April campaign finance reports are filed, it can be anybody’s guess. The Watchdog left a telephone message to ask her but didn’t receive a call back.
Are lobbyists who represent school districts, universities or local governments funneling tax-payer money into legislators campaign funds? Maybe not, but we know some lobbyists who represent such clients also give sizable sums to legislators.
Without consistent identification of whose money was given, we can’t know. Even if most lobbyists donate only their own money, the commingling of lobbyists’ donations and those given on behalf of employers clouds any effort to systematically determine who gave what to whom.
Beyond the blame game
There’s enough blame to go around for why the lobbyist-expenditure reporting system is so confused as to be worthless to a nationwide research group that has experience analyzing that kind of data. The best place for blame may be in the past. Reform can stop the blame-game now– at least when it comes to transparency of lobbyists expenditures — and promote productive public discourse. Looking ahead, state officials, lawmakers, media professionals and active constituents face a challenge that can be overcome by improved technology and better education of users.
Forms can require lobbyists who contribute to campaigns to use the full name of recipients. Forms can require lobbyists to identify when contributions are made on behalf of a company. Educational and, if necessary, enforcement efforts can require contributors to put the name of the actual donor on contributions.
Routine inspection of the system by journalists and active constituents, in the context of answering real questions about ongoing political issues, can help state officials iron out glitches. Easy access to raw data can let users go around state gate-keepers to assure the data presented online reflects all data available. Full access to data can also let the public develop independently operated transparency sites. That can mean job opportunity in the private sectors and it can also nudge government agencies into better data-management practices.
Although King’s group found a nationwide effort to build a state-level lobbyists ethics reports to be impractical, she says their database of candidates ethics filings has been useful beyond the actual data it provides users.
“By our organization putting together databases of this info it’s made states more on the ball about providing the same information,” King said.
So far, whatever movement followthemoney.org has prompted in various state offices toward better access to state data hasn’t dampened interest in an independently run interface where that data is presented. That’s a lesson New Mexicans in both the public and the private sectors may do well to study.