OpenSecrets Best in 2015: Accountability Journalism

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Lists are easy, as any writer left behind on a skeletal holiday staff will tell you. The “Best of [year]” list in particular isn’t art, it’s #content— but done with care, it can be a revealing reminder of the highlights of the previous year.

To that end, here’s OpenSecrets Blog’s list of our best journalism of 2015. It features great examples of both explanatory and accountability reporting.

Explanatory journalism illuminates an intricate issue through clear presentations and a mastery of the subject matter; it, well, explains. Accountability journalism holds governments and institutions responsible under the law and to the people they serve. Below, we can say, are examples of both, featuring our best reporting on dark money, influence and major political donors.

And so, in no particular order, here are the top reports from OpenSecrets Blogthis year in both categories.

Explanatory journalism
We continued to unravel the fallout from a foreign-government-funded congressional junket to Azerbaijan in 2013…

What started as coverage of the House Ethics Committee’s decision to absolve 10 members of Congress of any wrongdoing after they traveled to Azerbaijan in May 2013 on the country’s dime became a larger story about the Ethics Committee itself.

Rep. Charlie Dent, the committee’s chair, had taken contributions from individuals in the network of non-profits that sponsored the trips in the first place. Then his committee moved to keep secret what should have been, from the moment the investigation concluded, public documents. When those documents finally saw the light of day — thanks to the Office of Congressional Ethics — we learned that OCE had called into question the funding sources for as many as 109 trips to Turkey, which lawmakers had received for free.

…and we showed how special interests can use privately sponsored congressional travel to influence lawmakers.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, received nine free trips to 10 countries around the world since 2008 — all told, travel worth about $60,000 — from a secretive non-profit called the Fellowship Foundation. The Fellowship’s president in most of those years? An executive at Mountaire Corp., a poultry company and a large super PAC donor in the 2014 cycle. He personally signed off as the organizer on many of Aderholt’s trip reports.

richest-rise_1000 (1)We thoroughly examined the top .01 percent of political donors by contribution totals in 2014…

In this extensive and data-intensive review done in conjunction with the Sunlight Foundation, we looked at the top 31,976 donors in the 2014 elections — equal to roughly one percent of one percent of thetotal population of the United States. We found, among other things, that they accounted for an astounding $1.18 billion in disclosed political contributions at the federal level, and revealed the companies with the most contributions from megadonors to political committees (Goldman Sachs), the megadonors’ favorite candidates (Sen. Marco Rubio on the Republican side, Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III for the Democrats), and the geography of their contributions.

…And showed how major donors are almost always old, white and male.

Using carefully gender-coded data and thorough research on race, CRP researchers found big league campaign finance to be nearly exclusively a rich, old, white man’s game.

We chronicled the rise of the dark money-fueled Judicial Confirmation Network and its involvement in state judicial and AG races.

JCN has spent millions to sway judicial and attorneys general races, helping nurture a bench of talent in the states and advance pro-business, limited-government legal agendas aligned with its donors’ leanings. It has also emerged as a pipeline for secret money to other, better-known dark money groups like the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the American Future Fund which themselves have invested big bucks in similar contests.

We were the first to show how a limit-loosening provision slipped into 2014’s omnibus spending bill was being used to much greater effect by one party over the other.

As with 2015’s enormous government spending measure, 2014’s contained campaign finance provisions slipped in with little notice. A few months into the year, we showed that lifting limits on how much could be given to parties was resulting in much more funding for the GOP, and not so much for Dems.

Accountability journalism
We uncovered that a social welfare group in North Carolina, contrary to IRS rules, spent 97 percent of its money to help elect one candidate.

Dallas Woodhouse at the Tillis campaign's victory party, wearing a "Thom Tillis" hat talking to WNCN

Carolina Rising, a 501(c)(4) group that isn’t supposed to spend most of its money on political activity orfor the benefit of a single individual, laid out nearly $5 million in 2014 to help get now-Sen. Thom Tillis (R) of North Carolina elected.

The unusually brazen efforts by the dark money organization culminated in a TV interview by the group’s executive director, Dallas Woodhouse, during Tillis’ victory party. Looking a bit woozy, Woodhouse responds to a reporter’s query about his group spending a lot of money to elect Tillis: “$4.7 million. We did it.”

We revealed how Mike Huckabee makes money off the Mike Huckabee super PAC.

Pursuing America’s Greatness, the super PAC backing Huckabee with money from poultry company CEO Ronnie Cameron, paid $30,000 to a company that appears to have acted as the candidate’s private travel agency. Oh, and Huckabee and the super PAC’s treasurer jointly own the company. Super PAC’s technically aren’t allowed to coordinate with the candidates they support.

We took on a ring of scam PACs preying on small donors with direct mail fundraising.

Scam PACs have a high burn-rate, meaning they spend lots of the money they bring in. But they spend very little of it to help candidates — they pay companies connected to their directors and treasurers to churn out more fundraising materials.

What does this mean for people all around the country? Breathless junk mail, and lots of it, all asking for money to help save the United States from various political menaces. For one woman in California, the image was striking and ultimately tragic.

A congressman from California gave $10,200 to charity from his campaign after we revealed his donors were charged in a bribery scandal.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), at March Air Reserve Base. (Flickr/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs)

Last year, Rep. Ken Calvert received $10,200 from two women charged this fall in connection to a bribery scheme involving the former president of the United Nations General Assembly and a notorious Chinese billionaire who played a key role in a 1996 political money laundering case. The donors gave to Calvert’s campaign and his leadership PAC, though the checks for some more of their attempted donations apparently bounced. Calvert wasn’t named in the complaint.

After our story ran, Calvert’s campaign gave the money to charity.

The Republican Jewish Coalition asked its treasurer to resign after we outed him as an alleged loan scammer.

We found court documents showing federal agents were seeking emails from a Washington lawyer accused of fraud who allegedly bilked more than $1.5 million from a school and several other companies. Turns out, the lawyer served as treasurer of a conservative dark money group connected to international casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the Republican Jewish Coalition.

While he was allegedly running his scam, Mark Lezell made contributions to Sen. Pat Toomey in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race in 2010. In that race, the RJC ran ads against Toomey’s opponent, Democrat Joe Sestak.

Happy holidays, and we look forward to writing many, many more illuminating money-in-politics stories in 2016!