Today's post is about how to investigate ties between corporations and politics, with a focus on lobbyist reports. Thankfully, a lot of activity between corporations and politics is publicly documented but it remains hidden because so few people know where to look. This article will explain how you can investigate these links by walking through a case study of one congressman in particular.
Hidden in the Deep Web
An investigation like this uses information that is hidden in a variety of "deep web" databases. This type of information is hidden from Google and other search engines (think of the "open web" or "surface web" as anything that you can find in a Google search). So you have to actually go to the database's website in order to find the information in it.
It is kind of like information being buried underground so no one sees it. Think of the regular Internet as the surface, you google a congressperson and see press stories about their new proposed legislation. But when you dig up the buried information (like their personal business that is registered in a deep web database) and bring it to the surface you can see it in context. In this case, that means you can see that the congressperson is proposing legislation that would benefit their personal business. In 2015 Congressman Roger Williams offered an amendment that would directly benefit his personal business. Williams is not the subject of this article, but you can read more about that case by clicking here.
Opportunities for Research
There is a large gap between what people consider a conflict of interest and what is legally considered a conflict for politicians. The gap between these two definitions is a great place to investigate links between corporations and politicians.
For members of Congress, the House Ethics Committee sets an official standard to determine if a Congressperson has a conflict of interest. "But the burden of proof to show that a member improperly wielded [their] influence for personal benefit is steep," according to an article by the government-focused news agency Roll Call.
In the aforementioned case of Congressman Williams, the Ethics Committee actually deemed that his actions did not meet the standards for a conflict of interest.
This article uses a case study of one Congressman John Carter of Texas (hereafter referred to as “the congressman”) in 2018 to showcase research methods that can be used in any political-corporate investigations. (This focuses on data from 2018 because some of the relevant data, see here, is not yet available for 2020.)
So if you decided to investigate this congressman, where to begin?
After starting off with your standard Google searches on the congressman, the next step is to look at who is funding his campaigns.
When a politician receives any political donation of at least $200, it is listed in the Federal Election Commission (FEC) database at https://www.fec.gov/data/.
Political donations can also be searched by using other sites that search the FEC database. In particular, I recommend Accountability Project and the Donor Lookup tool at OpenSecrets.org, which are more user-friendly. Depending on whether the donor is a person or a company/organization, this tool will identify the donor's name, address, occupation, amount of money contributed, and the recipient. This is an amazing tool for tracking down leads. But in the case of the congressman, there was nothing unusual about his donors.
Public disclosures often offer a wealth of information. Politicians have to disclose their finances which are recorded in various public databases. You are probably thinking "if the politician publicly disclosed this information, how could it have any secrets?"
As a side note, here is one example of a scandal stemming from a "secret" public disclosure:
"At the height of the Reno City Council's campaign to oust strip clubs from downtown, Reno City Attorney Karl Hall worked to sell an office building less than a block away from the Wild Orchid Gentleman's Club, but didn't disclose the possible conflict of interest, according to an investigation by the Reno Gazette Journal." (see the full article here)
Politicians often disclose conflicts of interest in these databases for years without anyone noticing. The reason is twofold. First, it is not obvious from the disclosure itself that there is a conflict of interest, you have to do a good deal of legwork. So politicians often, and rightly, assume it is unlikely that anyone would look in the first place. Second, if the conflict of interest DOES come to light, the politician is legally safe because they followed the legal requirements for disclosure.
How to Find Disclosure Reports
Now back to our investigation. The House of Representatives has a disclosure database here, (the search function will not appear unless you first click on "search" on the left side).
Side Note: the Senate has a separate disclosure database, here.
The House disclosure database is actually quite user-friendly, see the basic search function below.
These reports identify the congressperson's financial assets, income, liabilities, major transactions, and a few others.
I search for the congressman for the year 2018 and get one result. Looking at the list of his assets we see he has some cash in his checking account, a pension, a savings account, and then a large amount of money in Exxon Mobil stock.
According to this record, the congressman had between $1 and $5 million dollars invested in Exxon Mobil. Compared to the rest of his assets, this stock is well over half of his money. This may or may not be relevant
Open Secrets provides more in-depth research on this topic, see here, and listed that the portion of the congressman's wealth invested in Exxon Mobil was actually larger. Specifically, Open Secrets lists that the congressman's top asset was Exxon Mobil $3,175,000, and the next largest asset was Great Western Bank CD $175,000. For some context on his overall wealth, Open Secrets estimated the congressman's total wealth at $3,375,000, of which, $3,175,000 was in Exxon Mobil stock.
This information is relevant because it strongly suggests that the congressman had a major interest in the financial success of Exxon Mobil. If the company's stock tanked, so would the congressman's personal finances.
Specific Contributor's Donations
This could still be nothing, so lets pull on this thread and see what else we can find. Lets see if Exxon Mobil contributes political donations to the congressman. If we return to the FEC database and look through the congressman's donors, we do find Exxon Mobil listed there. But is this important?
To find the answer lets check two things. We look at the congressman's other donations to his campaign and the amount provided. The actual amount donated by Exxon Mobil is not significant compared to the congressman's other donors. According to OpenSecrets, the company only ranked number 44 on the list of the congressman’s top donors that year.
Plus, a quick search for Exxon Mobil in the database shows that is donates to most members of Congress and in similar amounts that were donated to our congressman. This confirms that there is nothing unusual about the company's donations to the congressman.
Lets turn away from the congressman for a bit and focus on Exxon Mobil's lobbying efforts.
When a company lobbies over any legislation it is arguably acknowledging that it believes the legislation can benefit or hurt the company. And of course, legislation that helps/hurts a company like Exxon Mobil will similarly affect its stock and the congressman's personal finances.
There are databases where companies document their efforts to lobby the government.
Box number 13 shows that over $3 million was spent on lobbying. Keep in mind this is only one document, though admittedly this amount is higher than most of Exxon Mobil's lobbying price tags.
The prices listed on lobbying forms are not very precise. To understand why, this this explanation provided in a guide by Propublica:
"It can be tricky to figure out how much an organization spent on a particular lobbying engagement. The law only requires lobbyists to report the amount they were paid for federal lobbying each quarter rounded to the nearest $10,000—and if it's less than $3,000 in a given quarter (or less than $13,000 for organizations with in-house lobbyists), they don't have to disclose it at all. Plus, some organizations include spending that doesn’t belong in the report—for instance, money spent lobbying state governments or other legal work."
Now let's return to the example lobbying record. Scroll down and we see that the company lobbied the House for legislation like "H.R. 195 Making further continuing appropriations for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2018, and other purposes; provisions related to appropriations and energy."
Assuming you have no idea what H.R. 195 is, what can at least find out who has some say over it by finding the committee dealing with it. To research legislation we go to https://www.congress.gov/, which has a search bar on the front page where you can search H.R. 195.
We can see who is on the Appropriations Committee by going to https://www.house.gov/committees and choosing "appropriations" then "about" and then "membership" (https://appropriations.house.gov/about/membership). And who do we find but our congressman himself is on this committee.
So the congressman is invested in Exxon Mobil and he sits on a committee that works with the legislation that Exxon Mobil cares about.
At first glance this looks like a conflict of interest, but lets pull the thread a bit more. Maybe the congressman stood aside for that legislation. Lets check with the Reno Gazette Journal's database for congressional votes (https://data.rgj.com/roll-call/). We see here our congressman did vote.
Focused Research into Lobbying
Let's look a bit further into other legislation lobbied by Exxon Mobil. Propublica has a great tool for researching lobbying records. See here for an example of documented legislation lobbied by Exxon Mobil. We search on Exxon Mobil and get the following results:
These results show (going from left to right) what issues were being lobbied, who was hiring the lobbyists, who were the hired lobbyists, how many people were hired, and how long they were working for the company. We see from the first result at the top (look at the "Lobbyists" column in particular) that most of Exxon Mobil's lobbying is done "in house." That is why the record that we previously discussed showed such a big price tag, it was referring to the amount paid for its own in-house lobbyists. You can see from the other records that most of the contracts are for smaller numbers of lobbyists and therefore smaller price tags.
For our record at the top, in order to find out more information we look at the "Issues" section and click on "Details." This gives a very detailed listing of what was being lobbyied, when, who the lobbyists were, and other information. For our purposes here, lets focus on finding what Exxon Mobil lobbied that related to our congressman.
We scroll down and see that the legislation being lobbied is separated into different fiscal quarters and subject matter. For a sample, let's look at the most last quarter of 2018 (recall we are focusing on 2018 data) and see what legislation Exxon Mobil lobbied that was in the House. See at the bottom where it says "Type of Issue" and next to it "Budge/Appropriations".
We focus on the legislation that starts with "H.R.", not "S.", because the congressman is of course in the House of Representatives, not the Senate.
Members of the House may choose to abstain from votes if they feel it directly affects them personally. So we can check if the congressman decided to abstain based on his personal finances. After all, Exxon Mobil certainly believed the legislation in question could help or hurt the company, or else it wouldn't be paying to lobby it.
Now that we have identified several pieces of legislation that where Exxon Mobil is sufficiently interested or affected by them, we can check if the congressman abstained.
The record mentions the following five pieces of legislation lobbied in the last quarter of 2018:
We return to the RGZ database (click on the legislation's number in the list to see individual roll calls of the votes) and see that the congressman did not abstain from voting in any of them.
While this article generally avoids Googling, at this point we do a quick check just to get a feel for the environment and Exxon Mobil's lobbying efforts in 2018.
A 2018 article from the American Council for Capital Formation reported that Exxon Mobil had been active lobbying in the House for legislation focused on the Security and Exchange Commission that would have a direct benefit to the company. The legislation, H.R. 4015, had passed in the House at that time.
We can use a database maintained by the Reno Gazette Journal (RGZ) to check which members of the House voted for this legislation, and we see here that our congressman did in fact vote in support of it.
There is a concept in politics and lobbying known as “Revolving Door,” which is often defined as “a movement of personnel between roles as legislators and regulators, on one hand, and members of the industries affected by the legislation and regulation, on the other hand.”
You can research if any of the lobbyists working on a specific contract have a revolving door history with the people that are being lobbied. So for our example, we can look at the contracts for the aforementioned legislation where Exxon Mobil is lobbying the Appropriations Committee where our congressman sits.
How to do this
First, to find the relevant contract, we repeat the process above where we found the specific record for Exxon Mobil's in-house lobbying of the Committee. We go to the Propublica lobbying tool, search for our company and get results, we chose to look at the details of the company's in-house lobbying record (but you can choose any) and we get this detailed page here. Once again we scroll down to the 2018 fourth quarter records.
Second, notice in the top right where it says "Original Filing" and there is an xml file link next to it. This is the record for the contract, click here so we can dive in and see which lobbyists worked on which issues.
Third, you will see one or more sections titled "Lobbying Activity" and we see under number 16 what issues were lobbied and under number 17 we see what parts of the government (such as the House of Representatives or a specific Department) were lobbied over those issues. Finally, we see under number 18 the names of the registered lobbyists that worked on these matters.
So we see in the section below for example, that a lobbyist named Dan Easley was one of the lobbyists that lobbied. Next we can look into whether any of the lobbyists listed below have a relevant Revolving Door history where they worked for the parts of the government that they lobbied.
Fourth step, go to the Open Secrets page for data on Federal Lobbying. Search the name of your company in question and you reach its Lobby Profile, select the year in question in the drop down menu on the right and click the tab for Lobbyists. You will see a list of results showing all of the lobbyists employed by the company during that year. If you want, you can choose to filter and only show lobbyists that were former members of Congress, or filter to lobbyists with "Revolving Door Profiles."
For our purposes we will only search for the lobbyists named in the contract. If their name has two circular arrows to the right of it, as you can see above, that means they have a "Revolving Door Profile".
In the image below, we see an Exxon Mobil Lobbying record on the right listing several lobbyists that are lobbied Congress and other government entities over various scientific issues ("scientific issues" is obviously not very specific but I am trying to keep this as brief as possible) and one lobbyist listed is Daniel Easley. On the left you see the affiliated data in Open Secrets under Exxon Mobil's lobbyists. Because Easley is in the record on the right, we know we can find him in the Open Secrets page.
When we see Easley listed in Open Secrets we also observed that he has a "Revolving Door Profile" from the circular arrows to the right of his name. We click on the arrows and open up his "Revolving Door Profile". The profile shows Easley's employment history which reveals that he previously worked on the House Science Committee. This is part of why he has "Revolving Door" status. As a former employee of the House Science Committee who is now lobbying scientific issues and legislation, he could be lobbying his former coworkers.
In our example, in the record focused on the Appropriations Committee, we did NOT find any revolving door lobbyists working on these issues. It is possible the other records for Exxon Mobil's lobbying of the Committee do include revolving door lobbyists, but we will focus on the one record because we do not want to start cherry-picking data.
Backgrounding further with more data
Ok now lets put things into context and ask "but is this typical?". We are going to look at two pools of data to get our context. First, we can look at Exxon Mobil's donations on the aggregate and see if we find any patterns. You can obtain this data from Open Secrets and use Python to display. The goal here is to find try to use Exxon Mobil's donations as a reflection of the company's areas of interest. In other words, if they spend more on one topic, maybe they care more about it.
If you are familiar with using Python, there is a separate post of mine that explains how to display data about political donations. That post is a walkthrough using Exxon Mobil as an example and it produces the graph above. The data in the graph, obtained from Open Secrets, shows how much money the company donated to members of each committee. The graph shows that Exxon Mobil spent the most money on contributing to members of the Appropriations Committee.
Before when I looked at the data on political donations I thought it looked like the company just gave money to everyone, but now we see a pattern that suggests the company possibly focuses more resources toward the Appropriations Committee.
Now we want to find if it is common for members of the Appropriations Committee, or just Congress in general, to be so invested in Exxon Mobil.
To find an answer, we return again to Open Secrets, which provides a list of members of congress ranked by how much they are invested in Exxon Mobil.
Our congressman is at the top of the list.
Our congressman, is overwhelming invested a company, more so than anyone else in Congress. He sits on a committee, and our company seems to donate most to people in that committee. But most importantly, he sits on a committee that works with legislation that our company is lobbying and paying a good deal of money on it.
This chart is an attempt to explain the situation.
First: The congressman is on a committee that involved in certain legislation.
Second: The company is lobbying that legislation because, in theory, it believes it can benefit from it.
Third: The company’s success it tied to its stock which is tied to the congressman’s personal finances.
Now we, arguably, see a connection between the congressman’s position and his personal finances.
Moving Forward with New Investigations
These research methods can be applied to research any politician or company.
Go ahead and try them elsewhere. Good luck!