How do journalists uncover the influence of campaign donors on candidates and elected officials? “Follow the money.” That phrase comes from the 1976 movie “All the President’s Men,” the fictionalized version of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post and prompted President Richard Nixon’s resignation. The film inspired the careers of a generation of investigative journalists.
But following the money isn’t easy. Influence-seekers may donate money on the federal, state and local levels, all of which have different reporting requirements. There are political action committees, or PACs, and political party committees—not the same thing. And since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. FEC, which held that corporations and labor unions have a First Amendment right to pay as much as they want for independent political spending, the amount of difficult-to-trace “dark money” flowing into political contests has exploded.
One of the best tools for tracking political spending is FollowTheMoney.org, the website for the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Through the site, journalists can research key political donors to a campaign and find out who industry groups want to win an election. At the Excellence in Journalism conference in Orlando, Denise Roth Barber of FollowTheMoney demonstrated a great tool on the site that shows how donors seek to influence politicians’ votes on particular bills. You can follow a proposed law through the legislative session, find out which officials sit on the related committee, and then learn who’s donating to them.
James McNair of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (@KentuckyCIR) used this database to report on a Kentucky nursing-home owner who, along with his wife, other family members and executives of his company, gave tens of thousands of dollars to Republican state senators who were considering a bill that would make it harder to sue nursing homes for substandard care. You can read that story here. It’s the kind of behavior that people with money and influence would rather keep secret—but there are a growing number of ways for journalists to bring it into the light.