Super PACs Sleuth Project
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The Super PACs Sleuth group is exposing the operatives behind the outside groups that spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the midterm elections.
In January 2010, the Supreme Court changed the landscape of money and politics in the Citizens United Supreme Court case. The Super PACs sleuth group is shining a light on what that new landscape actually looks like.
Corporations and unions can now spend unlimited amounts of money right up until Election Day, so long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has yet to adopt final rules that will allow it to track this flood of money.
We’ve compiled a list of what we call Super PACs -- those organizations that declared their intention to take unlimited donations from any source to fund political activities -- and we’re using Little Sis as a platform to help record who’s behind them.
Once you've looked through the instructions please click back to the project page on LilSis.
One of the first steps in tracking Super PACs is digging into the very sparse disclosures they offer to the Federal Election Commission. Here's a sample for a group called Restore America's Future PAC. On the first page of the document, we see the group's declaration that it intends to take unlimited contributions. They also list an address -- 1250 Eye St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005. If you google around, you'll find that a law firm -- Clark Hill -- lists that address (it's at the bottom of the page) as their D.C. office. That's definitely worth noting.
The declaration (we're still on page one of the form) is signed by the PAC's treasurer, Charles R. Spies. Google him, and you find he's a member of Clark Hill, and the leader of its political law practice. He was also the CFO and counsel for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign and worked for the Republican Governors Association as well--definitely worth noting that as well.
Some of the forms list multiple officers, and different addresses for each officer. Check out those names and addresses as well. Many PAC treasurers are essentially accountants--though they generally stick with only liberal or conservative groups, they're not strategists, just experts in complying with FEC disclosure requirements. Super PACs also list chairmen, executive directors, presidents and others--often these officials are the most interesting.
Use LittleSis.org to create records for the individuals, law firms and other businesses associated with Super PACs. Background these folks and organizations using search engines, but be careful--especially with common names like John Smith.
By doing this research, you'll help us create a web of associations around each Super PAC, and that's the first step in understanding who's behind these organizations, and in knowing what to watch for from them in the months ahead.
1. Open the assignment spreadsheet and claim a PAC you'd like to investigate.
2. Find the Super PAC's address and phone number on its FEC filing and add it to LittleSis. (Look on the organization's page under the name, click "Edit", then select the "Contact" tab, add to addresses)
3. Search to see if the PAC has a website. If so, add it to the LittleSis profile as well. (Organization page > edit > scroll to bottom)
4. Find the PAC’s treasurer, officers, or staff. If they’re not already on LittleSis, create their profile. (See how here.)
5. For each officer, create their relationship to the PAC on LittleSis. (See how here.)
6. Dig for more information. Where do they work now? Where have they worked in the past? Use IRS filings, news reports, whatever you can find on the Internet. Add new information to LittleSis pages, being sure to cite sources with URL.
7. When done, make a note under “Status” on the assignment spreadsheet. Then pick another PAC and repeat!
- Sunlight Reporting Group: Index of super PAC intent letters, with handy links to more FEC documents.
- Open Secrets: Revolving Door. Collects employment history of many political operatives.
- FactCheck.org: Players Guide. Has some reporting on lots of PACs, super and otherwise.
- IRS: Political Organization disclosure search. Will not have info on Super PACs, but will have expenditures of related 527 groups.
- LinkedIn: Many political operatives have profiles on the professional social network, and some even leave lots of information publicly visible. It also may be worth searching Facebook.
- Internet Archive: The Wayback Machine keeps old versions of a web sites. Useful for finding old campaign sites, forgotten personal pages, and the like. You need the URL to look it up.
- Domain Tools: WHOIS search tool will in many cases provide the name and contact info of who registered a .com or .org address.
- LexisNexis: For finding past news coverage or legal material, LexisNexis databases are excellent. Though far too expensive for individuals, some people may get access through their university libraries or companies that subscribe.
You can access all the data in LittleSis -- on organizations, people, and their relationships -- through the LittleSis API. To target SuperPACs, see list resources in the docs and use our list, id=114. You must register your own key. If you're looking for a large data dump, please do not use the API and instead contact the LittleSis team for a file download.
While Super PACs are not required to disclose their donors, they should report the money they spend influencing elections to the FEC. You can download bulk FEC data on independent expenditures and electioneering communications. These number are used to compile the "outside spending" column on the Reporting Group's list of Super PACs. See also the FEC's explanation the data.