Peek in politicians' pockets

SUN JOURNAL

Finances: An online service supplies detailed campaign and lobbying information for the serious or the merely curious.

April 02, 2004|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee spent about $1.4 million over the last six months of 2003.

Rep. Vito J. Fossella, a Staten Island Republican, spent more than $10,000 for a campaign trip to sunny Florida, where he picked up one donor.

And, while Baltimore's streets are pocked with potholes and its water mains are bursting, the city has paid $640,000 to Washington lobbyists since 1998.

A generation ago, it took a lot of digging in dusty government files to follow the money trail leading to Washington politicians and lobbyists. Today, it's as easy as calling up PoliticalMoneyLine on your computer screen.

The 6-year-old firm supplies detailed campaign finance and lobbying information to more than 500 subscribers who pay up to $2,500 for the service. It also puts about 40 percent of its data on the Internet free, making it a favorite of political junkies and browsers.

PoliticalMoneyLine shows that these donors contributed $50,000 to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee during the last six months of last year: the American Federation of Teachers; the National Education Association; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; and the International Game Technology Co., the world's largest maker of slot machines.

Tracking lobbyists

Patton Boggs and Van Scoyoc Associates, the lobbying firms used by Baltimore, are among nearly 34,000 companies, associations and groups in PoliticalMoneyLine's database. The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires them to file semiannual reports, and PoliticalMoneyLine taps that information and displays it online in an easy-to-use format.

Baltimore paid Patton Boggs a total of $300,000 in 1998 and 1999 before it switched to Van Scoyoc Associates, which has earned $340,000 since January 2000. Van Scoyoc has lobbied for Baltimore on issues such as preparedness funding under the Department of Homeland Security's 2004 appropriations act and funding for substance-abuse treatment and education.

"Why do cities need lobbyists?" asks Tony Raymond, a cofounder of PoliticalMoneyLine. "That's what the congressional delegation is supposed to do. The only reason they'd need them is if the congressional delegation isn't up to the job."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, says it is common for cities to hire Washington lobbyists to work with their congressional delegations. He says the lobbyists helped Baltimore to bring in $271.8 million in federal revenue in fiscal 2004.

"The cost is minimal compared [with] what we get in return," he says.

Raymond and Kent Cooper, PoliticalMoneyLine's other cofounder, say their firm is not a watchdog -- it merely collects information, processes it and makes it available to its clients and the public.

News organizations, lobbyists, trade associations, corporations and labor organizations make up the bulk of PoliticalMoneyLine's clients.

"They're all watching each other, and they don't even trust others in their own industries," Cooper says. "They like to watch committees in Congress to see who's moving money to committee members and who's regulating their industry."

In 1998, Cooper and Raymond left the Washington watchdog group, the Center for Responsive Politics, to set up PoliticalMoneyLine. Before joining CRP, Cooper served 22 years as the Federal Election Commission's public disclosure director. Raymond chalked up 18 years as an analyst and computer systems specialist at the FEC.

The Center for Responsive Politics also uses the Internet to present campaign finance data. But unlike PoliticalMoneyLine, it takes an activist role by promoting issues such as campaign reform and by focusing on the power of money in shaping political policy.

Cooper suggests that PoliticalMoneyLine's first-time users start off with a simple search: checking their ZIP codes to track the names of donors and how much they're giving.

"The average person doesn't have the faintest idea about the money in politics," Cooper says. "Checking your ZIP code brings it home real fast.

"You'll spot the local banker, the local real estate agent, the local car dealer, the local doctor. And, it'll suddenly dawn on you that these people are wealthy enough to contribute, and their money is going to federal candidates and a wide variety of groups."

A check of ZIP code 21208, which includes some affluent neighborhoods in Pikesville, shows that there were 312 contributions totaling more than $260,000 during the 2004 election cycle.

Joan L. Schultz made the largest donation -- $15,000 in soft money to the Republican National Committee. Schultz is a heavy contributor to state and national Republican candidates and committees.

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