By Ed Otte
“Follow the money” is a popular saying from the 1976 movie “All The President’s Men.” It was also the message at a May 1 program about transparency and open government at the Denver Press Club.
Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation and Sandra Fish with the Journalism & Women Symposium explained how to research election campaign finances. “Tools for Journalists: Following the Colorado Money” was cosponsored by JAWS and the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“The primary races will be really important,” Fish said. “A lot of money will be coming in for those and a lot of money will be spent on ballot initiatives. With the resources available on the Sunlight website and the (Colorado) Secretary of State website, you’ll find useful information for many stories.”
Watzman’s PowerPoint demonstration showed the various categories and links available on the Sunlight site at http://www.SunlightFoundation.com.
“The Realtime Federal Campaign Finance tracker gives you up-to-the-minute filings,” she said. “Political Ad Sleuth shows you who’s buying airtime for political ads. Old-fashioned reporting can find some of the funding sources for the groups that buy ads, the ‘grassroots’ funding sources.
“Scout is another really, really useful tool. It searches for key phrases in legislation and will send you email and text alerts on specific issues.”
Fish said following campaign donation activity is important because “Amendment 27 changed the playing field, shifting power from candidates and parties. It sharply regulates how much money you can give to campaigns. Now, 527s and IE (Independent Expenditure) Committees are powerful here.”
Amendment 27 was passed by 66 percent of Colorado voters in 2002. It was designed to curb the influence of special interest groups by limiting the amounts and types of political contributions.
The Tracer link on the Colorado Secretary of State’s website (www.sos.state.co.us) “will help you with stories about cash,” Fish said. “Who’s buying TV ads. Who gives the most? It can sort to see who’s given the most in an election cycle. For example, you can see who spent money, and how much, in the 2010 GOP governor races.”
Watzman encouraged journalists to look at additional training opportunities, including free webinars and other online tools, on the Sunlight Academy link on the Foundation’s website. She also explained that the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization’s name comes from a 1913 quote by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
“That’s why,” she said, “we believe in making government accountable and transparent.”