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Buying influence: How to track lobbyists

By Liz Essley Whyte

When New York Times reporter Eric Lipton got a tip that powerful political associations were asking lobbyists for $125,000 contributions in exchange for phone calls with states’ attorneys general, he knew he had to find out more. So he got on a plane to California to attend a conference, uninvited. He didn’t talk to anyone. Instead, he observed lobbyists schmooze “the people’s lawyers,” the states’ top attorneys supposedly dedicated to defending individual consumers. What he saw became the attention-grabbing anecdotes in a series of stories that won a Pulitzer Prize and an IRE award.

Lipton detailed how he found that story and backed it up with opens records requests at an IRE Conference panel on how to track lobbyists. The session, led by Wall Street Journal reporter James Grimaldi, also featured New Mexico in Depth reporter Sandra Fish.

“People often get frustrated and angry about why a bill can’t get passed, or something can’t be repealed, and I think looking at the lobbying industry offers the public some insight into that,” said Grimaldi, who won a Pulitzer in 2006 for reports on lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Grimaldi outlined his recent stories on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and donors to her family’s foundation. He first scraped the foundation website for the names of donors, ran those names through Open Secrets (published by the Center for Responsive Politics) to find times the donors lobbied the State Department, then read Clinton’s book, “Hard Choices,” for evidence of the help Clinton gave donors while she was secretary of state.

Here are a few of the panel’s top tips for following lobbyists:

  • Use OpenSecrets, the Federal Election Commission website and CQ Moneyline, as Grimaldi does.
  • Look in all the “buckets” where politicians can receive benefits — campaign contributions (to everything from individual campaigns to leadership PACs to party committees), gifts, the promise of jobs for themselves or family members, and contributions to charities or foundations with ties to the politician.
  • Finding the “quid” and “quo” in the “quid pro quo” equation is easy. The “pro” is hard, Grimaldi said. Search for where trade associations or lobbying firms brag about their successes, such as newsletters or trade association websites, or examine emails between lobbyists and officials, as Lipton did. If you’re lucky, sometimes lobbyists’ disclosure forms will include information on specific bills they worked on.
  • At the state level, lobbying regulations differ. Fish recommended starting with the National Conference of State Legislatures to learn the rules in your state and compare it with other states. State laws will determine how often lobbyists report, whether they report gifts or political contributions and whether they report specific bills or politicians they worked with.
  • Use lobbyists as sources. They may be able to tell you which lawmakers are constantly asking them for money, or how their lobbying opponents got a bill killed.
  • For state lobbying stories, here are a few starting points from Fish: How much are industries spending to lobby lawmakers? Is anyone really enforcing ethics laws? Are public entities paying to lobby the legislature? Are lawmakers cashing out at the end of their terms by entering the revolving door and becoming lobbyists?
  • If your state publishes the legislature’s social calendar, examine it to see what lobbyist-funded dinners and breakfasts lawmakers are attending. Then go to those events to see influence at work.
  • Examine advertising using Ad Sleuth (a Sunlight Foundation project) or searching On the federal level, look at ads in publications like Politico to find current, big-spending lobbying campaigns. Look at who’s funding advocacy groups and think tanks. These types of non-registered lobbying are becoming more and more common and are ripe for coverage, Lipton said. “There’s this whole infrastructure that’s creating an aura of public opinion,” Lipton said. “And a lot of that is manipulative and deceptive.”
  • Understand what you’re investigating. Are you illustrating how a bill got passed or defeated? Or is something illegal or unethical happening? “Lobbying is not inherently evil,” Grimaldi said, noting that it’s an activity protected by the First Amendment. But readers are interested in learning who wields real power in politics, and sometimes lobbying stories can reveal crimes, as with the Abramoff stories. Reporters should especially be on the lookout for when lawmakers said they believed one thing but voted differently.


Liz Essley Whyte is the American University fellow at the Center for Public Integrity, where she covers money in state politics. She previously worked at Philanthropy magazine and the Washington Examiner, where her award-winning coverage of a regional airports authority spurred the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to reform the agency. Follow her on Twitter: @l_e_whyte.

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