Follow the money: It’s not easy to know who’s giving to candidates

I’ll admit that there is something odd about getting excited about a DVD I received in the mail labeled “PAC contributions.”

I was trying to identify the 10 Pennsylvanians who contributed the most money to state and national political committees since 2011. Investigative News Network had compiled a list of major contributors, and I had begun combing through state and federal databases, donation-by-donation, to flesh out the details.

But there was a large gap in the records. Unlike most states, Pennsylvania allows individuals to contribute unlimited amounts of money directly to candidates and political action committees. That kind of unrestricted money could easily change the top 10 ranking, and our preliminary data did not include it.

I thought I had hit the jackpot when the DVD arrived in September from the Pennsylvania Department of State. It contained tens of thousands of records of donations, large and small, to state political action committees.

But there was a problem. The most recent donations they identified  were in mid-May.

There ought to be plenty of time before election day to figure out where candidates for public office got their money. After all, candidates and political action committees must file reports just 12 days before the election. And in September, just six weeks before the election, they must disclose donations from mid-May to mid-September.

Who contributes to a candidate can say a lot about which interests the candidate will serve, if elected. Is she supported primarily by labor unions? Does he get a lot of donations from small-government advocates? Do the contributors have vested interests in pending legislation? Is their political-social philosophy compatible with or anathema to yours?

In Pennsylvania, up-to-date campaign reports that could inform your judgment are not readily available.

That’s because the state does not require political action committees to file electronically; and about 65 percent of the committees still submit paper or other records that must be converted to electronic form. The database is typically updated in seven to 10 days, according to Matthew Keeler, Deputy Press Secretary for the Department of State.

But two years ago, final campaign finance reports were not available until the April after the general election, recalled Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

Donations from the contributors I researched ended in August. Did our top 10 donors stop contributing money? Did the recipients of their largesse forget to file their reports? Or has the state failed to keep up with the paper files?

I don’t know.

“You shouldn’t have to deal with paper files,” Kauffman said.

The problem runs deeper than electronic filing. The state’s quirky, online campaign contribution database makes it difficult to filter, sort and analyze contributions. There are no links to the source records nor any way to download bulk data.

A curious citizen can find a lot of information on the state’s website, if she is willing to spend many hours slogging through the screens.

“It’s not even close to being user-friendly,” Kauffman said.
 
House Bill 2203 would require candidates for state-level offices – from state representative to governor – to file campaign reports electronically.

“On deadline day,” Kauffman said, “you’d have a complete data set.”

That would be a good starting point.

The bill was tabled on Oct. 15.
 

Reach Bill Heltzel at 412-315-0265 or bheltzel@publicsource.org.