Christopher O\'Donnell, Noah Pransky, Connie Humburg
Everyone knows U.S. campaign finance laws allow more types of spending than they prohibit. But we were stunned to learn they’re so lax that candidates can keep spending money decades after their political careers ended — or even after they died.Our reporting started with a single case: a Tampa Bay Congressman whose campaign spending spiked after his death. We set out to see if any other former Florida Congress members were abusing campaign finance loopholes after they left office.We quickly found a surprising number of cases in Florida, and expanded our analysis to the rest of the nation.We built an app to scrape the FEC’s online database for more than a million campaign finance records for thousands of former candidates. We found more than 100 campaigns spending funds long after the politicians’ careers were over — not on campaigning, but to finance lifestyles, advance new careers and pay family members.That included disgraced Congress members who had been run out of office after scandals, and families and political allies of deceased Congressmen, who had taken control of leftover campaign funds after the member had passed away.All the experts we interviewed agreed some of the campaigns identified were egregiously exploiting campaign finance loopholes and breaking federal election laws on personal use. Following our reports, one watchdog group asked the Federal Elections Commission to rule such spending is a violation of law, while several sitting Congress members have pledged to file new bills that would curb the abuses.
What makes this project innovative?
The idea that politicians abuse campaign finance loopholes is as old as politics itself. But by focusing only on cases where the elected officials were out of office for years, we were able to strip away the thin excuses politicians usually hide behind to justify such spending: that everything is “campaign-related.”The reporting, however, was labor-intensive: scraping the data from the FEC’s site, reviewing the enormous number of records, then shoe-leather reporting to track down and contact hundreds of former politicians for more information.In today’s era of shrinking local news budgets, this effort would not have been possible without the unique partnership between the Tampa Bay Times, WTSP-TV, and TEGNA television stations across America. While the Times and WTSP focused on national stories about the analysis, TEGNA reporters across the country crafted their own reports about local Congress members’ spending. There were ultimately at least 16 unique local stories, and dozens of stations ran the reports in some form.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
Our story prompted an immediate reaction from both lawmakers and watchdogs. The Campaign Legal Center cited the investigation in a petition for the FEC to review and revise its rules on what lawmakers can do with leftover campaign funds. Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are researching bills they plan to file to curb the abuses.The story got huge digital traction: on the web, it recorded more than 50,000 pageviews and registered an average visit time of more than four minutes per visitor - an astonishingly-high number. On Facebook, the story netted hundreds of thousands of video views and interactions. An “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit became the No. 1 item on the site for hours, surpassing Julian Assange and the Pentagon Papers as the top-rated journalism AMA the website has ever seen. The story was also featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, CBS, and numerous digital publications in the nation’s capital.
Source and methodology
To identify zombie campaigns, Times/WTSP reporters used the Federal Election Commission’s API to download more than 1 million disbursement records, ranging from the earliest records in the FEC’s database up to the third quarter of 2017.That was no small task. Federal Election Campaign records are difficult to analyze, and the FEC sets a strict cap on how many records an individual can download in a day — meaning we had to run scrapers for months to obtain a large enough chunk of the data to perform meaningful analysis.Reporters ranked each campaign by the number of expenditures it made after the campaign’s final election cycle.Then they reviewed more than 350 campaigns’ spending — categorizing by hand more than 10,000 rows of data. The entire database is available online at tampabay.com/zombiedatabase.In the interest of fairness, the reporters ignored years of data for most candidates, to give campaigns ample time to pay off debts, get out of leases and end other contracts. They also removed records that did not have a date, and did not tag tax payments, refunds, negative amounts or disgorgements. They categorized payments according to the campaign’s listed disbursement description.Some data from the FEC API was incomplete, missing fields like dates, amounts, recipient names or descriptions for the disbursements. Whenever possible, reporters corrected inaccurate data based on the original paper filings.