Ignorance is bliss

Two supposed champions of open government are pushing hard to keep campaign finance records off the Internet. What don't they want you to know?

In 1997, a trio of consumer groups with an agenda to embarrass legislators set out to prove what everyone around the Capitol had long suspected: The business interests that lobby state legislators are also the chief contributors to their campaigns.

The groups deployed teams of college students to sift through stack upon stack of paper reports detailing the tens of thousands of campaign donations made to the 150 members of the Texas House of Representatives during the previous two years. Armed with hard numbers to back them up, the groups reached a stinging conclusion: The Legislature was indebted to those who routinely ask for special favors.

Of the $14.6 million in contributions, $9 million came from political action committees and businesses, such as the hired-gun law firms that lobby the Legislature on behalf of big business clients ranging from chemical companies to HMOs. To make matters bleaker, the $9 million did not even include all of the donations from individual business executives or the lobbyists themselves.

The consumer groups issued their findings in a report with a snippy, snappy, yet suitable title: "Mortgaged House."

If legislators were chagrined by the report, they hid their shame well. They could not, however, mask their outrage. During a special House committee hearing on campaign finance reform that occurred the week "Mortgaged House" was released in January 1998, legislators picked apart the report line by line, questioning its methodology, its assumptions, and, mostly, its conclusion. They were especially piqued at how personal it got. The report detailed not only what percentage of each House member's total came from PACs and businesses, but also what percentage came from outside the legislator's home district.

They found that bit of information particularly misleading. Rep. Steve Wolens of Dallas pointed out that if he had contributed to his own campaign, the check would have had an address from his downtown Dallas law office, and therefore the contribution would have been counted as originating from outside his district. Other legislators on the panel knew Wolens had a good point, and they gleefully piled on as an official of one of the three consumer groups sat helpless before them in the witness chair.

By obsessing on the parts of "Mortgaged House" in which the authors were guilty of overreaching, legislators effectively disregarded the report's sound hypothesis: The Texas Legislature has strayed from its purpose of representing average citizens.

It seems the only message that got through to many House members is that having their campaign contributions analyzed too closely poses a huge menace.

Now some of those same folks who produced the report are asking legislators to make it easy for any Texan to do a similar analysis of campaign contributions. Legislators will debate bills this session that would require all state officeholders and candidates, including legislators, and PACs to submit their contribution reports by computer diskette, modem, or other means of electronic transfer. Current law requires only that the reports be filed on paper with the Texas Ethics Commission, which warehouses them in its Austin offices. That makes the reports difficult and often expensive to obtain. It also makes it nearly impossible to analyze contributions in a way that exposes patterns and trends.

If a mandatory electronic filing bill passes, however, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection would be able to access all contribution reports at the click of a mouse and almost as soon as the commission receives them. Anyone, of course, includes government watchdog groups and the media, which, in effect, would get a jump start in routinely running the type of computer-aided analyses that resulted in the "Mortgaged House" report.

The menace would multiply. It's no wonder some legislators now are the ones guilty of overreaching in dreaming up excuses for why the bill should die.

The legislator most determined to kill the bill is Rep. Debra Danburg, a Houston Democrat serving her 19th year in the House. Danburg has made a career of marketing herself as someone who goes to Austin to fight for the causes of common folks against great odds, a legislator who consistently votes to protect the abused and the neglected against the will of the influential elite and who favors removing the shrouds of government so the public can know what's really going on at their Capitol.

In 1996, she won an award for being a real trouper in backing the advocates of campaign finance reform. But today, as chairwoman of the House Elections Committee, Danburg vows to use her influence to submarine the mandatory electronic filing bill that those same advocates consider the cornerstone of any meaningful reform.

Danburg's transformation from ally to turncoat is all the more puzzling because she is sponsoring bills this session that would require candidates to disclose more information on their campaign finance reports, such as the occupation and employer of particularly generous donors. At least one consumer advocate is scratching his abundantly bald head.

"She is one of the people we generally rely on the most to do the right things in the House," says Tom Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a consumer group founded by Ralph Nader and one of the groups behind "Mortgaged House." (The other two were Texans for Public Justice and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.) Smith is so familiar to legislators that even those who consider him a burr on their backside address him by his nickname, "Smitty."

"Debra should be one of our champions on electronic filing," Smith says. "But I guess out of misinformation or out of concern that the data will be misused, she has decided to drag her feet."

He says the same about Wolens, the Oak Cliff Democrat who co-chaired last year's campaign finance reform panel with Danburg. Wolens, too, opposes the concept of mandatory electronic filing and says Texans couldn't care less about whether a politician's contributions are available to them instantaneously on the Internet. The only people who give a rip, he says, are newspaper reporters and Smitty.

Danburg, 47, says she thinks Smith wants the bill passed so he and his government-watchdog comrades--her former comrades--can more easily carry out their agenda "to make it look like we are all bought and paid for by outside interests." She says the "Mortgaged House" report didn't faze her, because "the people in my district are smart enough to see through that bullshit."

Supporters of mandatory electronic filing think Texans ought to see through hers.

Danburg maintains she hasn't one iota of concern that she and her colleagues could be sullied if their contribution reports became easily accessible on the Internet. She says her opposition to the bill is based solely on the principle that the state should not dictate to candidates how to spend their campaign money. She believes it is unfair to require candidates, especially those who run campaigns on shoestring budgets, to purchase computers and maintain computer programs to satisfy a state law.

What she doesn't mention is that the bill exempts those who run low-budget campaigns or are willing to sign affidavits saying they're not equipped with a computer.

Those exceptions do little to mollify Danburg, a lawyer, who finds the affidavit insulting. She says it's like asking candidates to declare, "We're too incompetent to represent you. We're idiots."

Absurd reasoning being the biggest insult of all, supporters of mandatory electronic filing think Danburg, Wolens, and other legislators who oppose the idea are playing the public for idiots.

"Danburg's stated reasons for opposing electronic filing don't pass the laugh test," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice. "Her opposition more likely stems from a desire to protect her own self-interest or that of her colleagues who don't want voters to track where their money comes from."

Danburg represents some of Houston's more liberal and eclectic neighborhoods, including Montrose, The Heights, and Memorial Park. Her seven-page vita advertises that she belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood and that she lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment. Two of the seven pages are devoted to awards she's received in areas such as animal rights, environmental protection, gay rights, and human rights.

Yet her campaign treasury has been fattened by PACs and individuals who would make her constituents see red.

Although Danburg faced a Republican challenger in 1998, that party didn't target her for defeat. Her race, as a result, was a slam dunk. Danburg nevertheless raked in about $208,000 in campaign contributions in 1997 and 1998, according to an analysis of her contribution reports by Texans for Public Justice.

About $100,000, or 47 percent of her total, came from PACs or businesses such as law firms. And that $100,000 doesn't reflect contributions from individuals with ties to the businesses, trade associations, and law firms that routinely lobby the Legislature.

"Danburg's fundraising practices are like those of many legislators: A large chunk of her money comes from Austin," McDonald says. "Businesses and PACs chip in more than real folks, and small donors account for very little of the money."

Among Danburg's donors is the PAC for Service Corporation International, the Houston-based funeral-services giant currently involved in a fight with the state's Funeral Services Commission over its alleged illegal embalming practices.

Some of her individual contributors appear to run counter to Danburg's stated philosophy of protecting the environment. Bill Messer, a lobbyist whose major clients include the American Plastics Council, the Texas Chemical Council, and the Association of Chemical Industry of Texas, gave her $1,000. She also received $1,000 from Charles Hurwitz of Houston, the CEO of Maxxam, a subsidiary of which owns the last privately held redwood forest in Northern California. Logging has increased since Hurwitz bought the land in 1985, sparking rallies, sit-ins, and other spirited protests from environmentalists who want the forest set aside as a public preserve. Last September, a 24-year-old Earth First! activist from Austin who was trying to block logging on Hurwitz's property was killed when a falling tree hit him in the head.

In order to analyze Danburg's most recent contributions, Texans for Public Justice had to get her reports from the ethics commission, which is on the 10th floor of a building connected to the Capitol by an underground tunnel. Visitors can review campaign finance reports during regular office hours. The agency charges a reasonable 10 cents a page for copies.

For people not in the Austin area, however, obtaining reports is often costly and inconvenient. They have three options: trekking to Austin to review the documents in person; having the commission fax the report at $2 a page (Danburg's 1998 reports, which also list her campaign expenditures, would cost $384 by fax); or having the commission send copies by mail at 10 cents a page plus postage. Copying, however, is not always a thrifty proposition. Gov. George W. Bush tried to be cute by filing a 12,797-page contribution and expenditure report in January 1998, putting only two contributions on each page in an effort to deter people from copying it.

Moreover, neither faxing nor having copies mailed ensures quick receipt. A lag of several weeks can be expected during times when the agency receives the most requests for reports. Crunch time occurs around the due dates for all reports and the days leading up to an election.

Basically, the delay is longest when the information is at its freshest and most relevant. And the cost is highest when the report is at its thickest and most revealing.

Reports filed electronically, on the other hand, could be posted on the Internet moments after they're received and be available at zero cost to the person wanting to view them.

Danburg says she's worried about the poor. Not the poor who'd have to shell out several hundred bucks to find out who's financing political campaigns, but rather the poor who seek to become legislators. Mandatory electronic filing sets up an additional barrier, she says, for "homegrown, grassroots, and salt-of-the-earth" people to run for public office.

There are other barriers against the poor running for the Legislature. The biggest is that the job pays a mere $7,200 a year and requires takers to spend at least five months every two years in Austin, away from their "real" jobs. Poor people can't afford to run for the Legislature because, well, they might win. Danburg's concern, virtuous as it sounds, is for people who hardly exist.

"I have no problem saying statewide candidates ought to file electronically," says Danburg, who is willing to vote for a mandatory electronic filing bill as long as it does not apply to her and other legislators. Statewide candidates, she figures, should have no problem complying with electronic filing requirements since their big-budget campaigns already are high-tech.

"But it's almost impossible for the poor guy to comply," she continues. "I'm absolutely not trying to hide information. But I'm not going to put systems in place that benefit the rich elite."

Danburg's lofty argument, however, is based on a fictitious premise. Poor candidates, assuming there are any, likely would not have to comply with the requirements. An electronic filing bill already proposed by Sen. Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth exempts candidates who expect to raise or spend less than $5,000 in their races. Some supporters of the bill are willing to increase that limit in exchange for passing something.

Suzy Woodford, director of Common Cause Texas, heaves a heavy sigh before reeling off the list of exceptions, a rhetorical exercise she has practiced several times. She runs through them fleetly and in a tone that exaggerates her exasperation.

"I'm basically just really sick of hearing all the excuses," says Woodford, who, as an advocate for government ethics, often resorts to histrionics to make her point.

Woodford has heard plenty of excuses from Danburg, whom Common Cause honored in 1996 with its Star of Texas Public Service Award. The year before, Danburg had co-sponsored a law that laid out stringent campaign finance rules for Texas judges and judicial candidates. According to the banquet invitation, Danburg was honored "for being a true champion of campaign finance and election reform." Woodford chortles now after reading those words.

Danburg, who points to an array of campaign finance reform bills she is sponsoring this session as proof that she remains a champion of the cause, has other ideas for getting contribution information on the Internet. She says she has no problem with the ethics commission electronically scanning the paper reports and posting those on its Web site. That would make the reports easier to obtain, but it still would be difficult to analyze overall trends and patterns.

Anyone wanting to run a sophisticated computer-aided analysis of the data would have to undertake the time-consuming task of re-entering every contribution into a database. "Scanning is a way of disguising the data, because it can't easily be sorted and searched," Smith of Public Citizen says.

Danburg also says she has no problem with the commission manually entering the data from the paper reports, contribution by contribution. That could result in a comprehensive database that is easy to search, but the data entry would be expensive and take time. Reports would not be available immediately after they were filed.

"That's fine, Debra," says Woodford, speaking as if Danburg is within earshot. "You sponsor the bill to appropriate all the necessary funds that the ethics commission would need to punch in George W. Bush's five bajillion-page report. We'll have to have a much larger facility and staff over there if they are going to make this information available in a timely way."

As if Woodford weren't irritated enough, another recipient of Common Cause's annual public-service award also is opposed to mandatory electronic filing. The organization recognized Steve Wolens in 1997 "for his uncommonly dedicated sponsorship of open government legislation and his determination to shine the light on what elected and appointed officials are doing in your name."

Wolens has been one of the Legislature's strongest advocates for bringing the government's business out into the open. Already this session, he has accepted praise for his bill that closes a loophole in the state's open-meetings law allowing public bodies to hear briefings from their staffs in private. But when it comes to shining a brighter light on public officials' campaign business, Wolens withdraws.

Parroting the same rationale as Danburg, Wolens says he is concerned that mandatory electronic filing raises the price of the ticket for anyone wanting to run for the Legislature.

"It's not as if there's a great need to have it done electronically," says Wolens, 48, a House member since 1981. "We're still making disclosure. You just go to the ethics commission and get a copy."

A visit to the ethics commission to review Wolens' report yields some interesting information. He accepted about 300 contributions last year, adding about $160,000 to his campaign kitty. Not bad, considering he ran unopposed in 1998. Among his most generous contributors was a Southwestern Bell employee PAC, with separate donations of $3,000 on April 3 and $2,500 on November 21. Wolens is chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, which handles bills related to telecommunications.

Wolens' wife is Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller, a former columnist for the Dallas Observer. But he shows little sympathy for the media when he suggests reporters have selfish interests in trying to make a big deal about electronic filing.

"Government can't help every newspaper reporter write their story," Wolens says. "I have not had one constituent write me a letter about electronic filing."

Some of his legislative colleagues nevertheless are jumping on board. Rep. Jerry Madden, a Republican from Richardson, once opposed the idea but now is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat from Alpine, to make it happen. It will be folded into an overall campaign finance reform bill, he says.

"If we're going to say disclosure is the most important thing, then let's disclose, and let's get that information into the hands of voters rapidly," says Madden, who sits on Danburg's elections committee. "The more information, the better, because then voters can make a more informed decision."

A Texas voter has to look to Florida to understand the benefits of having all campaign finance information immediately available on the Internet.

On the Florida Department of State's whiz-bang, rapid-fire Web site (election.dos.state.fl.us/campfin/cfindb.ht), visitors can run a sophisticated search of contribution information simply by plugging in the name of any state elected official, candidate, political committee, or contributor.

Type the name George Bush into a search field, hit enter, and in seconds the Web site responds that President George Bush and Gov. George W. Bush each gave Jeb Bush $500 last year toward his successful run for governor of Florida. It also will show that the former president gave $1,000 to the Florida Republican party and donated an autograph valued at $50 to Florida state Rep. Mike Fasano.

Plug Fasano's name into the search field, and the screen rolls an easy-to-read list detailing every contribution the Republican legislator received in 1998. It reports the name and address of each contributor, how much was given, the form of the contribution (check, loan, cash, or in-kind) and, in some cases, the donor's occupation.

Fourteen states, including California, New York, and Louisiana, require some sort of mandatory electronic filing of campaign finance reports, according to the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles think tank that specializes in campaign finance issues. Florida's Web site is considered the model.

Sophisticated though it may be, it exists in spite of--not because of--legislators there. Former Florida Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, an elected official who therefore was directly accountable to voters, made the executive decision to put the system in place beginning with the 1996 election cycle. Ethel Baxter, elections director for Florida's state department, says the software was developed in-house, which kept costs to a minimum.

Because Florida allows anyone to opt out of filing electronically simply by signing a form, Baxter must rely on the good graces of officeholders and candidates. Only 30 percent feel so obliged.

"I hate to admit that, but that's the way it is," Baxter says. What really distresses her is that when the paper reports come in, many of them have been prepared on a computer, just not with the state's easy-to-use, inexpensive Windows-based software.

In order for Florida to maintain a complete database of campaign contributions and expenditures, it hires state prisoners to enter the data manually from the reports filed on paper. By using inmate labor, the state can usually post all contributions on its Web site three or four days after receiving the reports--a remarkably quick turnaround, Baxter says.

"This system works only because we make it work," she says.
The Oklahoma Legislature also resisted bringing campaign finance into the computer age. Lawmakers effectively overturned a 1-year-old ethics commission rule that required statewide candidates and large PACs to file their reports electronically. Legislators complained about bugs in the state's software. Marilyn Hughes, commission executive director, says most of the problems were worked out before the Legislature voted to thwart the policy.

"We're going to try to solve all the problems they had with it, come out with a better version, and hit it again," she says.

Like Florida, the Federal Election Commission asks--but does not require--federal officeholders and candidates to file their contribution reports electronically. Of the 1,320 federal candidates who were up for election last November, only 44 voluntarily complied, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based nonpartisan and nonprofit research organization that tracks money in federal politics. Of the 44, only one was from Texas: first-term U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Antonio.

The Texas Ethics Commission also asks politicians and political committees to voluntarily file their campaign finance reports electronically on software the agency provides for free. About 12 to 17 percent comply at any given time, according to commission clerks. A handful of others, including Gov. Bush and Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, file reports electronically using different software.

The commission posts all electronic filings on its Web site (www.ethics.state.tx.us), making them available to be downloaded. For someone with only basic knowledge of computer software, however, actually reading the files may pose a problem. The ethics commission software is DOS-based and therefore not easily transferable to Windows-based programs.

House Speaker Pete Laney is among 31 of the 181 legislators who submitted their most recent reports electronically. Madden also is among them, but neither Danburg nor Wolens is.

Danburg uses the ethics commission's antiquated software as another excuse against mandatory electronic filing. She says she once paid a computer consultant $15,000 to try to make her campaign software compatible with what the ethics commission provides--a claim that befuddles commission staff.

"What you have are computer experts who are the only people who can do this," Danburg says. "How much do they charge an hour? A bunch."

When informed that the commission is aching to upgrade its software to a user-friendly Windows-based system, she asks, "Why haven't they already done it?"

Easy enough to answer. She and her colleagues in the Legislature haven't appropriated the money to do it.

Legislators have been generous with the buck, however, in turning the Legislature itself into a high-tech institution. All 181 legislators have Dell or IBM laptop computers, paid for by the state, on the tops of their antique wooden desks inside the Senate and House chambers. Legislators are also provided at least one desktop computer to use in their Capitol offices.

Although some legislators are quick to assert their computer ignorance when it comes to filing campaign finance reports, many routinely traverse the Internet--including an award-winning Web site called Texas Legislature Online (www.capitol.state.tx.us)--from their desks. The site, also financed by taxpayers, is a motherlode of information. One of its many features is a database containing the full text of every bill filed in the Legislature dating back to 1995. It also offers live and archived broadcasts (some with video) of many floor sessions and committee hearings.

All of it gives the impression that the Legislature is very hard at work and working very hard.

In addition, every legislator has his or her own home page, some with links to self-serving news releases. Other home pages have audio greetings.

"I hope you'll find this information interesting and helpful," Wolens says on his.

A sentiment, apparently, that applies only when the information makes legislators look good.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...