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Why Were Millions in Heavy-Hitter Donations in 2007-8 Scrubbed from the Federal Elections Commission Database?

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A political revelation, while not as momentous as the Libor scandal, does not reflect well on the Federal Election Commission, a post Watergate creation meant to provide transparency in political donations, or to put it more pointedly, to see who is trying to buy influence where. The short story is that a significant type of donor has disappeared from the FEC database for the 2007-8 election cycle, and the question is whether this was a huge fat-fingered error or an effort to remove information from the public view. The latter would be expressly contrary to the mandate of the FEC.

Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen present the details of this sordid mini-affair at Alternet. The background on the info that went poof:

The most important of these files concern what is now called “dark money” – funds donated to ostensible charities or public interest groups rather parties, candidates, or conventional political action committees (PACs). These non-profit groups – which Washington insiders often refer to generically as “501(c)s,” after the section of the federal tax code regulating them – use the money to pay for allegedly educational “independent” ads that run outside conventional campaign channels. Such funding has now developed into a gigantic channel for evading disclosure of the donors’ identities and is acutely controversial.

In 2008, however, a substantial number of contributions to such 501(c)s made it into the FEC database.

The authors are confident this data is indeed gone because they downloaded all of the FEC database last year. They then did external validation on some of the missing items to verify that these weren’t corrections. Some of the striking removals:

Harold Simmons’ contribution to the American Issues Project in 2008 is a sterling instance of what we are talking about. The Texas tycoon, with major interests in minerals and waste disposal that critics charge have been furthered by his long history of political donations, was already famous for the millions he poured into the notorious “Swift Boat” campaign that shredded John Kerry’s 2004 bid for the presidency. In 2008, he came back with what – until the September financial collapse – looked like another potential game changer. With almost $2.9 million dollars of his money, the American Issues Project financed a television ad linking Barack Obama to William Ayres, who decades before had been a member of the Weather Underground. The ad created a sensation, with many critics questioning both its verisimilitude and its legality.

Right through January of 2012, the FEC’s database contained not only the record of the organization’s expenditures, but also Simmons’ contribution. Now only the former is there. We have identified many similar cases, including almost three million dollars that John Templeton, Jr. donated to Let Freedom Ring and another hundred thousand dollar contribution by Foster Friess to the same organization.

Ferguson, Jorgenson and Chen plan to republish the removed data. But they stress that this scrubbing appears to have been done in a sneaky manner; the convention is to show that you are no longer publishing certain data items. They’d like an explanation:

… data vanishing like ghosts is intolerable in a government agency charged with enforcing the law…

No more than in the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Commerce Department can we tolerate arbitrary data changes at the FEC. It has been perfectly obvious for a long time that the FEC needs to be run like a normal independent regulatory agency instead of operating directly under Congress’ thumb in a way no other agency is forced to. We need to know who authorized these deletions and whether any more have occurred. This requires a formal inquest and, in the future, serious safeguards, such as outside review committees with members capable of detecting them if democracy is not to be mocked and the law flouted. Even banana republics don’t stoop to this.

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13 comments

  1. ambrit

    Friends;
    The last line says, “Even banana republics dont stoop to this.” Well, of course they don’t, only empires find the need to ‘justify’ their extortions. Real banana republics concentrate on internicene warfare, where empires eventually end up, thus completing the circle: Banana Republic, Revolutionary Republic, Republic, Empire, back to Banana Republic. We’re, um, late stage Empire. I wonder if we could just skip the next stage and go straight to…

  2. Capo Regime

    Yeesh. What next. If only it were only wall street and the banks. The rot is absolutely everywhere. Why people trust other government data such as BLS or BEA defies my comprehension…….

    What we should do is try to find a bank or government agency which is actually doing good honest work. Maybe even an honest politician…..Now that would be news in the U.S.A!

  3. Jeff N

    “Now, Winston had to create a fresh copy of the Times, bearing the earlier date, but with the facts ‘updated’. All copies of the earlier edition would be destroyed and anyone who went looking for records would find the Party’s claims fully substantiated by the documents.”

  4. briansays

    even Cladius came to conclude that the time for a republican form of government and its restoration had passed

    at some future date a future president might well utter similar words

    i can even think of families that might provide him or her

    Claudius: Senators, it is true that I am hard of hearing, but you will find it is not for want of listening. As for speaking, again, it’s true I have an impediment. But isn’t what a man says more important than how long he takes to say it? It’s true again I have little experience of government. But, then, have you more? I at least have lived with the imperial family who has ruled this empire ever since you so spinelessly handed it over to us. I’ve observed it working more closely than any of you. Is your experience better than that? As for being half-witted: well, what can I say, except that I have survived to middle age with half my wits, while thousands have died with all of theirs intact. Evidently, quality of wits is more important than quantity. Senators, I shall do nothing unconstitutional. I shall appear at the next session of the senate, where you may confirm me in my position or not as you wish. But if it pleases you not to, explain your reasons to them [points to the Praetorians], not to me.

    1. Capo Regime

      Probably closer to the time of Diocletian. Money debased, city dwellers left city to not pay the high taxes (suburbium) and many romans went an lived with the barbarians. Christianity was undermining the beliefs in empire and the whole thing was in chaos and remained that way. Why people believe orderly transitions are the norm is mind boggling. Societies can slog around for decades if not centuries in a miasma of poverty, corruption and misery. Why are we so special? The Romans were not any stupider than us. They were interestingly also quite corporate and multicultural.

    2. rotter

      I love history too, and im not trying to be disrespectful, but that speech came from Robert Graves’ novel “I CLAUDIUS”, which was adapted for a fantastic miniseries by the BBC. There is really no historical basis for attributing any moral or nostalgic wish to “restore the Republic” to Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius, or any other of the handful of Roman Emperors the entertainment industry is familliar with.Espcially any of the Claudian dynasty, who were largely responsible for the rise of the Empire anyway.
      Graves did gather a lot of his material from Suetonius’s “Lives of the 12 Ceasars” ,and Suetonius does seem rather fond of Claudius, but not for any Democratic sentiment.

  5. Norman

    Late Empire, well, not sure about the banana republic, for this time around, “big Nuke” happens to be in the picture. It only takes one, especially here in the U.S.A., to plung the world into chaos, where uncertainity will reign. I suppose it would be fitting, considering that the U.S. used the bomb to end a war. What goes around, comes around. This all reminds me of that movie “The Termanator”, as it does seem most of the science fiction of the past, is coming true today. Hmmm!

  6. Hugh

    It would be useful to have on the record the FEC’s response to this charge along with their rationale for removing such information from their files.

    Other questions I would like to have the answer to:

    are there paper forms that contain this information?

    wouldn’t this information have to be removed from the individual electronic versions of each submission one by one? And even if you could do a block delete, why were there no backups or an archival copy?

    I mean in terms of data management this comes across as my dog ate my homework, when in fact you do not own a dog.

    1. Walter Wit Man

      Okay, the witness was a Occupy guy, the victim may have not been.

      Of course the SF Chronicle has a different story but they are close to the most unreliable “news”paper in the country.

      The Chronicle/Police story is this man ran a long way (1/2 mile?) after stabbing a temporary co-worker, then he “lunged” at the cop with a boxcutter, and the heroic cop “stopped” the suspect with two shots to the chest, then handcuffed him.

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