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.