Cover Ups Are Worse Than Vanishing Data: The Facts About the FEC’s Data Downloads

Yves here. The revelation at Alternet by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen (and discussed at NC) that information about certain large donations in the 2007-8 election cycle had disappeared from the FEC website, and the removals could not possibly be corrections, appears to have led to a miraculous restoration of said information this morning. While that’s welcome, it also appears to have been accompanied by a sleazy campaign to discredit the researchers. Not smart, since they have dated downloads to prove that their charges were accurate.

By Thomas Ferguson and Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen. Cross posted from Alternet

Yesterday, as an effort in the Senate to mandate disclosure of campaign contributions to non-profit groups fell a few votes short, we published our account of how FEC files relating to similar contributions made during the 2008 election had gone missing from the big data downloads that the FEC makes available to researchers. These are important, because private, for profit groups and public interest groups use as them as the basis for the data presentations that scholars, journalists, and the public usually rely on.

We approached the FEC press office some days ago. We inquired about the history of their rulings on 501(c) 4 groups, which is the Washington term of art for ostensibly charitable groups involved in campaigns. The spokesperson told us she could say nothing and advised us to call a public interest group. We didn’t know then what various sources have since claimed to us – that the press office can’t talk on the record to the press, only the (sharply divided) commissioners can. In any case, we went back to work on our own and published.

We have been interested to see how our analysis has been received. In mid-morning, certain reporters began tweeting that it was easy to find contributions that we specifically discussed on the FEC website. We checked one particularly famous name that we had also looked up only a few days before and found that he was indeed back.

We’re glad to see that the FEC is restoring its files, but our claims were exact and true. We think the agency should simply admit this; cover ups are always worse than the original foolishness. As our article describes, the FEC’s big data downloads define the history of contributions; they are what people rely on when they calculate totals and other numbers, as well sort through patterns for individuals, groups, and contributors.

These downloads are public and dated, so anyone can verify what’s in them. The 2008 contribution by Harold Simmons that we mentioned is in the January download. It is not in the July 8 download. The same is true for other contributions we discussed to Let Freedom Ring by John Templesman, Jr., and Foster Friess. More broadly, the entire set of “C9” files covering 501(c)4 that we discussed is gone from the July download, with the trivial exception we mentioned. Needless to say, we checked the FEC’s database many times ourselves and we indicated that the original record of contributions by Simmons (and others) could still be found, if you knew exactly where to look.

Enough is enough. Though it is supposed to be the official repository of campaign finance information, the FEC does not keep older downloads on its website. Thus we will soon be posting both the January 15 and July 8 downloads we used on a website we set up at If you have the technical capability – these files are too big for Excel and they will be in the text file format in which we downloaded them – you can just go see for yourself.

One last comment. We do not take kindly to suggestions that anyone could find these files all along or that nothing material changed in the crucial bulk downloads. Our review of the FEC’s data turned up a fair number of other missing files, as we briefly mentioned in connection with our independent expenditures. We rather doubt that efforts to claim these are all there will sound very convincing. We look forward to more public exchanges.

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  1. Capo Regime

    Diogenes and his lamp would be wandering around Washington for months before he found an honest person–likely a clerk at a convenience store or a cab driver. Certainly not somebody in government or media. Just when you think it can;t get worse…

    1. Up the Ante

      .. a conspiracy requiring hundreds of people to remain silent, each pursuing personal gain, at most, or self-preservation, at least ..

  2. Hugh

    A press office that can’t talk to the press? Would that make it an unpress office? Sounds like the perfect place to get paid and catch up on your reading.

    The information reappeared because the FEC got caught, this time, and any excuses for its disappearance due to technical reasons weren’t going to withstand scrutiny for more than about 10 seconds.

    It makes me wonder how much else in government gets scrubbed. I remember back during the healthcare debate the White House put out a fact sheet on where cost reductions were going to occur. Several months later a point came up in a discussion and I tried to use the link I had kept for the sheet, but the link had died. That surprised me even though I had found the Obama White House site, despite all the initial hoopla to the contrary, harder to do research in than the Bush White House site. I eventually found the page using the Wayback Machine, but there was really no reason for the White House to scrub the fact sheet or possibly change its URL, except to hide information from anyone wanting to know the White House’s position at a particular moment in time versus say a later one.

    I think that is one of the trickier aspects of the web. Information that shows up on the web doesn’t necessarily stay on the web. Links can be changed or killed, and in a lot of cases unless you know the information was there you will never know once it has been removed.

    And it isn’t just government that does this. I remember reading a story at the NYT, back when I still visited its site, about Iraq I think. I used a quote from the article and linked to it. Later someone asked me about it and when I went to the link, there indeed was an article there about Iraq on the same subject but the writer was different and, needless to say, the section I quoted was gone. So much for the paper of record I thought. I later learned that at the NYT such a substitution was considered standard practice on the basis that a story like I had originally seen was only an “initial” effort. The thing was though that the NYT made such changes without any admission that a substitution had occurred.

    1. LucyLulu

      I posted a link 3-4 days ago to an article on the PFG debacle with a comment that just a short while earlier that day the article had included additional information. At time of posting, not only was the info missing but there was no mention of revision or correction to explain the change. The missing info was that twice in the last few years, NFA had received, and never pursued, tips that they needed to investigate the banking figures that PFG was providing.

      Sometimes, as new information comes in, stories will become more clear and facts will get sorted out as being credible or not. However, as I recall, in past times, professional media publications would publish updated accounts with changes to story noted….. even if buried on page 5. Journalistic professionalism seems to have been one of the casualties of the times we live in.

    2. Up the Ante

      Your experience with the Wayback Machine sounds like Wikipedia adventures, armies of faceless vigilent ‘editors’ performing their ‘call of duty’.

    3. Nathanael

      If you find something which you think is important and which *might* be scrubbed later, I recommend using to archive it.

      It’s designed specifically for academic work so it doesn’t have the “random selection” element of the Wayback Machine; it archives exactly what you tell it to.

      If you didn’t think to archive a page at the time, though, you’ll have to use the Wayback Machine.

  3. Paul Walker

    Amazing, and not so.

    What a fine example of those so practiced in the art of deception getting caught in webs of forgetting that there are always spectators to revisionism and smoothing with camera phone pictures and video at the ready. And in this instance a human brain to back it all up.

  4. LucyLulu

    Why should we need this data. The Senate failed to pass legislation yesterday requiring disclosure of political donations over $10,000. The anonymity of those who are running our country will be protected.

    Speaking of those who run our government, this year’s biggest bankroller, Sheldon Adelman, is in serious hot water. He’s facing charges under Foreign Corrupt Practices Act over payoffs to Macao officials, and they have hard evidence leading right to him. Will an elite member of the elite really get jail time?

  5. OMF

    Enough is enough.

    Really? Why? What are you going to do about it? Well?

    The real answer to why these kinds of things are happening so often nowadays is that there are no consequences for doing things wrong, or unethically, or by the book. By contrast, doing things by the book, ethically, playing it straight and being honest is _punished_.

    The person at the FEC who took down this data was probably either a) in fear of their job if they did not, or b) infear of their promotion if they did not. Whatever the case, they were certainly _not_ c) in fear of any reprecussions if they were ever caught doing so.

    Our outrage at acts such as these has no teeth. Until we have fangs that can pierce the political and financial skins of the new ascendancy, our outrage will be just that and nothing more.

    1. Capo Regime

      If it was an IT person (and in government running the web counts as IT) you can bet it was a contractor for the FEC–bet on it. Contractor who needs to keep the gig going and will not protest too much. Contractors are handy that way.

  6. mmcgee

    The digital age is the age of revision. Years pass, memories fade and your google search for a historical event doesn’t match your remembrance. Which do you believe? Does it even matter when whatever context you are attempting to support can’t be supported?

    The implications of a future formed from an ever shifting historical story is frightening.

    The digital age and internet freedom has become the age of easy censorship. A generation from now and it will not even be recognized as a problem. Just the way it has always been.

    1. Nathanael

      Not really. It was actually easier to alter historical records back in the time of Henry VII of England (look him up — absolute monster).

      Nowadays there’s the Wayback Machine and WebCite and signed archive zipfiles… now, the only good way to suppress information is through obscurity.

  7. Jim

    I wounder if the names from the lists reflected that the middle US money people were supporting both candidates?

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    their motive, and that is also happening with this piece of writing which I am reading at this time.

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