Campaign Finance: Transparency Only Skin Deep
By Jason White, Assistant Staff Writer
The recently completed gubernatorial campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia were among the most expensive in U.S. history, with spending reaching into the tens of millions of dollars. But despite state campaign finance laws that require public disclosure of campaign donations, identifying the sources of those millions is often easier said than done.
For example: Care to know how much money various industry groups gave to New Jersey's new Democratic governor Jim McGreevey or his Republican rival Bret Schundler during the 2001 campaign? If so, you better have a week or more to spare for research and number crunching.
Ed Bender, research director of The National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks campaign finance information in the states, says it would take close to a full work week even for a group with expertise like his to chart the contributions of economic interests.
A visit to New Jersey's campaign finance Web site shows why. In a word, it's Kafkaesque, replete with confusing instructions and virtual roads that lead everywhere but where you want to go.
In order to view campaign reports, users must first download and install a special computer program, FileNET Panagon Viewer, and its companions, Microsoft HTML Layout Control and Microsoft Forms 2.0 Controls.
With a high-speed Internet connection, this is a half-hour process. But with a modem, it could take hours. Once the programs are installed, the computer must be restarted and the Web site accessed once again.
A basic search for McGreevey's finance information yielded 21 reports encompassing almost 1,100 pages of information and tens of thousands of data points, a mass of information that necessitates mind-numbing data entry and sorting before analysis can even begin.
"It is surprising that a state the size of New Jersey, with all its resources, has yet to have some form of mandatory electronic filing," says Aron Pilhofer, former New Jersey reporter and current director of the Campaign Finance Information Center, an organization dedicated to helping journalists follow the campaign money trail at the national, state and local levels.
Pilhofer says electronic filing would make New Jersey's campaign finance data more easily searchable and sortable, lending some true transparency to the process.
According to the National Institute's Bender, New Jersey is the rule rather than the exception in making campaign finance information difficult to understand. Experts say California and Florida are among a very few states that make their campaign finance information readily accessible and easy to grasp.
"In most states it's not easy at all," Bender says. "There's politics involved. Often times when they (state agencies that gather and distribute campaign finance information) do good disclosure, the lawmakers will cut their budgets."
Things are only slightly better in Virginia, the other state to elect a governor last year. Searches on the state's campaign finance Web site do not require the downloading of extra computer programs, as they do in New Jersey. But through nearly two days (1/15 through mid-day 1/16) of repeated visits, the search button on the site was not functional.
Even after it was fixed, the search function was of little practical value for your average interested citizen. A basic search for information on Mark Warner, the state's recently installed governor, yielded a crush of information similar to New Jersey's data dump on McGreevey.
Enter David Poole. In 1997, Poole, started the Virginia Public Access Project, an organization that compiles Virginia's campaign finance information into a user-friendly database. It can be searched by candidate, occupation and locality, and is available to anyone with a PC and a modem.
VPAP is sponsored by the Virginia Press Association, a bevy of trade associations, various advocacy groups and individual donors.
A former reporter for the Roanoke Times (Va.), Poole believes the timely and clear dissemination of campaign finance data is the only check on the influence of money in Virginia politics.
"I wanted it to be a database that the newspapers can use, but I also wanted to make it a public resource," says Poole. "In Virginia, the only regulation of money in politics is disclosure. The problem with it was that there was no true disclosure -- it was in file cabinets and there was no way to reach into it to make sense of it, so that's what we try to do."
In the time it takes to download the appropriate software for New Jersey's Web site, one can use VPAP to follow the money trail in Virginia's recently completed gubernatorial campaign.
For example, a few clicks on VPAP show that the top donor for Warner's campaign was Warner himself, at more than $4.7 million. Number two was Virginians for Warner, at $809,715. Then followed a trio of Democratic organizations -- the Democratic Governors Association, the Democratic National Committee and Virginia Democrats.
Mark Earley, Warner's opponent, received his largest donation -- $3.35 million -- from the National State Elections Committee of the Republican Party.
"Earley had to depend a lot on Republican National Committee dollars," says Bob Holsworth, Director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and longtime watcher of Virginia politics. "He was not able to tap the traditional sources of Republican money in Virginia -- the business, civic elite. Earley, who comes out of the socially conservative wing of the Republican Party, didn't make himself very well known to business interests."
By way of contrast, Warner, a Democrat and former business executive, was quite successful in tapping Virginia's business community for hefty donations. He harvested $2.86 million from the technology/communications sector and $2.47 million from the finance/insurance industry, according to data on VPAP.
"The high tech industry gave a lot to Warner, but my feeling is that had more to do with personal contact with Warner than having pressing needs before state government," says Holsworth.
It remains to be seen whether Holsworth's "feeling" is correct. But thanks to Poole and his organization, VPAP, Virginians can quickly and easily track the money that may lie behind Warner's policy decisions.
New Jersey residents, on the other hand, have their work cut out for them if they want to see who holds McGreevey's purse strings.