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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Feb 10, 2016

Eva Constantaras, data journalist

In a recent data journalism workshop in Yerevan, Armenia, a young journalist discovered that after years of leading the European Union in the rate of incarceration, with a steady uptick over five years, the rate had suddenly stalled. Not only that, it had dropped. Had a bunch of prisoners been freed? Was there a drastic decrease in criminality in Armenia? Had the criminal justice system in Armenia changed policy or practice in a significant way?

Instead of being excited about this possible scoop, the journalist said that everyone knows that the government is corrupt and cyclically arrests and pardons enemies and allies. Sure, she could learn to graph the trend, but, why bother? The workshop, organized by Internews, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of news information across the world, has been thinking a lot about this issue. This is a question not only for the global data journalism community but also for the open data community in general.

Data journalists have a potentially tremendous role to play in acting out its role as a public-service watchdog by transforming the flood of publicly available data into insight that facilitates citizen engagement in the democratic process. Across the world, in the most unlikely countries, Twitter is exploding with anecdotes of successful data journalism conferences, boot camps, hackathons and fellowships propelling propaganda-ridden, ambulance-chasing yellow journalism into the world of news apps, investigations and citizen engagement.

But even in the United States, that’s not an accurate description of the journalism revolution. Despite the potential of digital and data tools, most newsrooms simply aren’t there yet. According to "The Goat Must Be Fed" authors, "Our biggest finding is that data journalism is out of whack with the hype – and we need to acknowledge that we’ve been part of the problem."

Why digital tools are missing

In donors’ excitement to embrace the open government and open data movement, they have pumped lots of money into the quickest, cheapest and flashiest path to data journalism: boot camps, hackathons and conferences. Yet these approaches boil down the barrier to data journalism into one simple problem: technology. These boot camps are designed to provide technology solutions, with the tacit assumption that the rest will follow, but they have misdiagnosed the essential root problem. It’s not the tools, at least not primarily.

The first challenge is rooted in the assumption of the role of the media itself as a public-service watchdog. Flipping through a few Kenyan newspapers, the number of headlines with direct quotes is overwhelming. The role of media in many places is not to report the truth, but rather, to quote powerful people espousing their version of the truth. Once the quotation marks are removed and replaced by data, the journalist assumes some responsibility for content verification and in a place where governments and their data are distrusted, this is not something many journalists want to stake their reputation on. Actually getting to the bottom of things and identifying a chain of responsibility can be much riskier than exposing corruption in general terms.

True data-driven investigations, like these produced by Kenyan journalism fellows at Internews in Kenya, required large teams and many months of training.

A critical barrier to data journalism in countries where it has the greatest potential for good (the most corrupt, unequal and impoverished) is simple data literacy both among the media and among citizens. Data literacy for midcareer journalists in developing countries, which is both math and tech intensive, can seem irrelevant, intimidating and unrewarding.

Thirdly, the absence of a media industry crisis, no matter how imminent, offers a paradoxical barrier to innovation. Publishers see no need to engage in a difficult, expensive, risky endeavor when their traditional business model is stable. People are still buying newspapers, listening to radio and tuning into the nightly news. Those plug-and-play tools that seem like an easy way to get newsrooms started in data are often not supported by the CMS. Web traffic is so low that editors don’t want to bother adapting.

The data journalism boot camp buzz

Data journalism boot camps and hackathons, which began as a place to generate buzz around the open data movement, have now become a cheap substitute for actual sustainable investment in data journalism capacity. Despite a flurry of Twitter traffic, guest appearances by famous Western stars of data journalism and flashy prototypes produced by invited developers, the glowing appeal of the boot camp model is starting to fade.

The popular boot camp model is crippled by a few fatal design flaws:

  • huge, 50-plus person events without a pedagogical strategy for teaching the necessary theoretical and technological skills for basic data literacy;
  • failure to recruit promising journalists with the analytical skills who are most likely to thrive in data journalism but would not prioritize attending a massive boot camp;
  • wasted resources to bring in high-profile speakers with little understanding of the local data or media environment;
  • focus on developing prototypes for news apps and recycling cutting edge product ideas from previous boot camps that are far removed from the goal of enriching the quality of traditional media reporting; and
  • lack of buy-in from editors and publishers to publish stories produced by budding data journalist and at worst, an after care system where a Western data journalist provides remote support to trainees and effectively produced a data story for him or her.

Rescuing the bootcamp

Many media development organizations are experimenting with composition, intensity and post-event support needed to ensure data journalism workshops have the desired impact: getting data-driven stories out through mass media. There is a huge potential for intensive training to overcome key barriers to data journalism, namely:

  • sustained training in data literacy basics that lays the groundwork for more balanced, purposeful and objective reporting in countries with a weak history of independent journalism;
  • identifying and supporting journalists who want to pursue public service journalism and linking them with other members of the open data community who can work together to lower the barrier to data journalism production; and
  • actively persuading publishers and editors that data journalism can be a valuable asset in the face of digital convergence.

Another model developed by for pilot testing is the Data News Lab, where participants spend six weeks working intensively in a data-driven daily newsroom environment run by a team of trainers, combining capacity building and production for home outlets. More research into the goals of capacity-building activities and the impact of different training strategies to help shift a model based on open data hype to one of journalistic content.

Making the jump from tools to change

In countries desensitized to corruption, efforts to grow data journalism need to get serious. Transforming the legacy media’s messengers of breaking news into change agents for government accountability is a major challenge. It requires not just explaining the problem, but also exploring solutions. With this in mind, overcoming apathy will require not just a couple of data driven stories, but a structured journalism approach to covering governance consistently over time.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at [email protected]

Feb 09, 2016

Today, we’re officially relaunching Politwoops here in the United States! Just in time for the New Hampshire primary, we’ll be back to tracking and posting deleted tweets from political figures so that the public can hold them accountable for the statements they make on Twitter.

Since Politwoops first launched in the U.S. in 2012, we’ve documented the impact and importance of being able to track these public statements. From the initial reactions to the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act decision to the abrupt change of messaging surrounding the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban, Politwoops offers a unique window into how political officials communicate with the public.

You’ll notice a few changes to the tool that we’re excited to share. For starters, we’ll be showing you every deleted tweet — not just the ones we think are important — made by elected officials and candidates for office. Right now that includes Senate, House and presidential candidates, as well as governors and the D.C. mayor. In the future we hope to expand that to executive branch officials and state legislators. We’re also planning to implement a filtering system to more easily weed out simple errors and typos.

Politwoops is still a work in progress. That's why we’re looking for feedback on how people use it, and how we can make it more useful. Please email us at [email protected] and share your thoughts. If we’re missing a candidate for public office, or if you think you’ve been added to Politwoops by mistake, let us know.

A big thanks to Twitter, Access Now and Open State Foundation for working with us to bring back Politwoops, as well as everyone who supported the project throughout this process. Consider it an early Valentine’s Day present to you!

Feb 09, 2016

A screenshot of the Indiana Jobs Now ad.

On Saturday night, I received an interesting tweet.

Indianapolis resident PJ Hinton had seen some TV ads run by a group he didn’t recognize, Indiana Jobs Now, and thought he would look into them. After googling the name, he found this document: a rate request in WRTV’s (the ABC station in Indianapolis) public political file from Indiana Jobs Now, a super PAC. He searched the contact information in the filing, including the listed phone number. But the phone number didn’t belong to Indiana Jobs Now — it belonged to us, the Sunlight Foundation.

This was very confusing to Hinton, as well as to us here at Sunlight once he let us know what he found. Why was a super PAC called "Indiana Jobs Now" registered in Arlington, Va.? Why was a super PAC using our phone number on an FCC filing? The phone number of a group dedicated to government transparency, including campaign finance? (Were they ... trolling us?)

I called the media firm, Crossroads Media, LLC, to find out. Crossroads is a big Republican media firm, with clients including the National Republican Congressional Committee and Carolina Rising. A representative from Crossroads told me that it seemed that someone there had been using our website to look up filings for Indiana Jobs Now and mistakenly copied & pasted our number, and that the FCC filing had been corrected. (The new filing does not list a phone number for the super PAC at all). It was unable to provide the actual phone number for the super PAC.

We should also note that other filings for ads placed for Indiana Jobs Now list the Crossroads Media phone number where they ought to list the sponsor’s (the super PAC’s) number, on the last page.

  The totality of Indiana Jobs Now's website.

Indiana Jobs Now is a relatively new super PAC. It was formed on Jan. 11, and has made $216,760 in independent expenditures so far. It has spent equal amounts supporting Trey Hollingsworth, an Indiana businessman, and opposing Greg Zoeller, the current attorney general of the state, in the Republican primary for Indiana's 9th District. The seat is being vacated by Rep. Todd Young, who’s now running for Senate. Hollingsworth, who has made large contributions to his own campaign, has made “career politicians” a theme of his campaign so far, and he supports term limits; sure enough, the ad filing indicated that the spot focused on “anti Career Politicians.”

The lesson here is this: It’s way too easy for this sort of inaccuracy to go unchecked. But it’s not always easy to figure out whose fault these mistakes are, and these ambiguities are to the advantage of super PACs. An outside group like Indiana Jobs Now — which (ironically) lists a Virginia P.O. box shared with several others PACs as its address, and whose website consists entirely of that address and an email address — probably doesn’t want the public to know too much about it or its activities. It took a concerned citizen doing some googling to happen upon this bizarre coincidence at all. PJ Hinton wanted to know more about Indiana Jobs Now, and the information available doesn’t give him or any other voter very much information about who is behind this mysterious group.

Feb 08, 2016

Map Legend: Blue marker: fundraiser benefitting Hillary Clinton. Red marker: fundraiser benefitting Jeb Bush. Only fundraisers at which the candidate appeared in person are represented. View the map in another window here.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, two candidates have lapped the field when it comes to throwing fundraisers — Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. And for two politicians with a complicated history of both distancing and embracing their family name, Clinton and Bush are now calling on kin to help them raise cash in their bid for the White House.

From when the candidates and their families started their fundraising frenzy to the most recent fundraisers available today, Sunlight's Political Party Time has been mapping the pursuit of campaign cash by Clinton and Bush — and their family network. Click on the markers for more details about the event indicated, such as cost, date and more.

We really wanted to hone in on the events each candidate attended, the fundraisers where the candidates actually broke bread with big donors. That's why the map above showcases all the fundraisers each candidate has made an appearance at so far during the 2016 election cycle; maps that detail the fundraising activities of Clinton's and Bush's families can be seen below.

Clinton supporter In-person fundraisers
Hillary Clinton 201 events
Bill Clinton 47 events
Chelsea Clinton 26 events
Bush supporter In-person fundraisers
Jeb Bush 110 events
Columba Bush 10 events
Jeb Bush Jr. 10 events
George W. Bush 6 events
George P. Bush 5 events
Laura Bush 5 events
George H.W. and Barbara Bush 1 event

Party Time's database shows Hillary benefitting from 290 total fundraisers within the 2016 cycle so far, and the former secretary of state has appeared at 201 of them (the large blue markers above). Her husband and daughter have combined to appear at 72 distinct events (denoted by the small blue dots in the map below) — Bill at 47, Chelsea at 26.

Jeb Bush was the beneficiary of 156 total fundraisers so far in this election cycle and appeared in person at 110 of them, according to our data (the large red markers). Although Jeb’s spouse isn’t a former president, his brother is, and the rest of his family has strong name recognition as well. Wife Columba (10); sons Jeb Bush, Jr., (10) and George P. Bush (5); brother George W. Bush (6); sister-in-law Laura Bush (6); as well as parents George H.W. and Barbara Bush (1) have all appeared at fundraising events for Jeb over these past few months, sometimes together. Altogether, Jeb's family has appeared at a total of 29 fundraisers (denoted by the small red dots in the map below).

Top states In-person fundraisers
New York 72 events
California 57 events
Florida 42 events
Texas 27 events
Illinois 19 events
Massachusetts 15 events
Colorado 11 events
Pennsylvania 11 events
Virginia 9 events
Maryland 7 events
Top cities In-person fundraisers
New York City 59 events
Washington, D.C. 27 events
Chicago 16 events
Los Angeles 16 events
Miami 10 events
San Francisco 9 events
Boston 8 events
Houston 8 events
Dallas/Denver/Las Vegas/London, U.K. 5 events

Where were the most frequented fundraising spots? The ATM states New York (72), California (57), Florida (42), and Texas (27) unsurprisingly lead with the most fundraisers. On top of that, the Clintons have strong ties to the Empire State and the Bush family has have strong support in the Sunshine and Lone Star States. The Clintons made international pit stops in London and Munich, while Jeb, Jr., traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

New York City (59) is the most popular fundraising city by a mile. The next most frequented city is Washington, D.C., (27) — more than most states — followed by Chicago (16) and Los Angeles (16).

And remember: We're updating Party Time constantly with the latest fundraisers we receive, so the numbers will change soon; the maps and data here are a snapshot of what we had available as of today, Feb. 8. You can view a full, up-to-date list of fundraisers throughout the 2016 campaign on Party Time for Clinton here and Bush here.(If you know of one, please send it our way!)

A heat map of fundraisers benefitting Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush for the 2016 cycle.

Clintons cashing in

While the Clintons have enjoyed the largesse of donations from previous donors ($3 billion in 41 years according to The Washington Post), the 42nd president now lends his support full time to Hillary’s presidential bid. Bill has appeared at several high-profile fundraisers with celebrities, such as a birthday party with Tony Bennett and a reception with Drew Barrymore. He's also a cash generating workhorse, occasionally doing multiple fundraisers in one day — for example, Bill is scheduled to appear at three distinct fundraisers on Feb. 17.

“After staying behind the scenes for much of the year, Bill Clinton has slowly begun taking a larger public role in the campaign,” writes Ken Thomas of the Associated Press. Calling on Bill allows the Hillary Clinton campaign to deploy two of the most popular Democratic leaders across the country to multiply fundraising efforts.

But Bill isn’t the only Clinton stepping to the plate. From SoulCycling in Tribeca to conversations in LA, Chelsea Clinton is one of the most active former first daughters in recent memory, fundraising all over America — and beyond — for her mom.

View where the Clinton family has traveled so far below, or click here to open it in another window.

Map Legend: Small blue marker: fundraiser with Bill or Chelsea Clinton. Click on each marker for more details.

Jeb's fundraising is a full on family affair

From the onset of his campaign, Jeb pondered shedding some extra baggage: the Bush family name. But while some thought the Bush name would drag him down at the start of his bid, he now relies on his family to financially hoist up his campaign.

“When you love someone or your brother or your dad, it’s not easy for me to throw them under the bus to make myself look better. I just can’t do that,” Jeb told ABC News last June.

Jeb also has friends in high places — higher office to be exact. While some of his family have recently stepped cautiously into the spotlight and others are accustomed to the attention, everyone is helping out Jeb's effort to raise campaign cash.

Columba Bush teamed up with former First Lady Laura Bush twice: once for a reception in Fort Worth, Texas, and another in Palm Beach, Florida. Columba also traveled to New Jersey where she fundraised with New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, who earlier joined Jeb, Jr., in East Hampton, NY, for another event. Jeb’s sons, George P. and Jeb, Jr., carried their weight with multiple appearances, including a tag-team reception in Houston. The busiest Bush reunion came on the weekend of Oct. 25, 2015, where former Presidents George W. and George H. W. Bush as well as former First Lady Barbara Bush attended a fundraising retreat in Houston — where donors gave upwards of six digits.

Also worth noting is that Jeb's family has brushed shoulders with donors at least once to raise money for the pro-Jeb super PAC Right to Rise USA. (They are not represented on our maps because these events technically aren't benefitting his campaign.) His sons Jeb, Jr., (6) and George P. Bush (3) lead the way, while the rest have catalogued one appearance each.

View where the Bush family has traveled so far below, or click here to open it in a new window.

Map Legend: Small red marker: fundraiser with either Jeb, Jr., George P. Bush, George W. Bush, Laura Bush, Columba Bush or Sandra Bush. Click on each marker for more details.

Feb 05, 2016

The city of Tacoma, Wash. (Photo credit: The city of Tacoma/Twitter)

In partnership with Sunlight and The Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University, the city of Tacoma, Wash., has become the second What Works City to adopt a Council Resolution on Open Data, making it the sixth policy updated or passed as a part of the program. What Works Cities (WWC) is a three-year, nationwide initiative aimed at accelerating the use of data and evidence in American cities to improve government efficiency and ultimately the lives of residents.

Earlier this week, Tacoma City Council approved Resolution 39378, reaffirming the city’s commitment to using data to make government more transparent and efficient, and to promote civic engagement. Yes, reaffirming. That's because Tacoma has been engaged in opening up its data for a while now. As IT Director Jack Kelanic noted, it's been publishing GIS data for a decade and have had open, online access to public meetings for more than two years. In 2014, Tacoma launched an open data portal, TacomaData.org, where they’ve been proactively releasing valuable data to the public. Departments have published 70 datasets, which received more than 600,000 page views last year. Codifying the city’s commitment to openness through an official open data policy was the next logical step in the openness process.

While the city’s current efforts have seen initial success, these early accomplishments have been made primarily on an ad hoc basis, with some departments opting to participate more than others. Codifying the open data process, as we know from our previous work with local governments, both establishes a framework to ensure mutual understanding of the city’s goals for open data, as well as a mandate for departmental participation in the overall open data process.

The resolution also calls for the proactive release of high-priority data. As Mayor Marilyn Strickland pointed out, the initiative won’t be a simple “data dump." Instead, the city’s open data team collaborated with WWC partners to ensure that information will be presented in a way that makes the most sense for engaging users and providing them with the information they need — both inside and outside of city hall. The effort was applauded by a stakeholder who — during the council’s public comment period — noted that by guaranteeing easy access to datasets collected by the city’s various departments, the resolution allows the public to review data related to decisions that financially and contractually impact Tacoma’s residents.

This includes decisions related to the city’s strategic goals. Through Tacoma’s work with WWC, the open data team has launched a data inventory process to identify and prioritize for release those datasets that relate to the focus areas in Tacoma 2025, the community’s strategic plan. These areas include health and safety, human and social needs, economic vibrancy and employment, education and learning, arts and cultural vitality, natural and built environment, and — last, but not least — government performance.

Sunlight commends Tacoma for including two key best practices in open data policies: the creation of an oversight authority as well as the mandate for annual review over the progress toward the city’s open data goals. The resolution lays out a structure for governance and accountability for the initiative moving forward by calling for the appointment of “city representatives” who will be responsible for planning and executing the vision for open data in Tacoma. We are hopeful that as this team strives to implement the new policy, they’ll have numerous successes to document in their mandated annual progress report.

To keep achieving the goals set out in the resolution, the city’s open data leaders should continue conducting their data inventory, taking care to include data from all departments and all community priority areas. As is the trend in other local governments with robust open data programs, such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Montgomery County, Tacoma could take its program a step further by sharing this inventory online. The San Francisco open data team currently shares not only its inventory, but also its plans for future dataset publication. Sharing a unique plan for data release will help the Tacoma boost public participation in the open data process.

For now, it’s time to celebrate a major success for both the folks in the Tacoma city government that worked hard to make open data a reality, and also community members who now have greater evidence of the city’s commitment to transparency. Mayor Strickland said it best when she expressed that — consistent with the goals laid out in the What Works Cities initiative — the city will use open data to make better decisions that will ultimately benefit the residents of Tacoma.

Feb 04, 2016

The city of Tulsa, Okla. (Photo credit: Kool Cats Photography)

The Sunlight Foundation and our partners at the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University (GovEx) continue to accelerate the municipal open data movement through our participation in the What Works Cities initiative. Sunlight has supported local governments in the development of meaningful and sustainable open data policies, and since the launch of the What Works Cities program in August, six cities committed to the use of data and evidence have adopted new open data policies, now including Tulsa, Okla., where City Manager Jim Twombly, acting on behalf of Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Jr., signed Executive Order 2015-07 “Providing for an Open Data Program to Provide Public Availability, Accessibility, and Government Transparency; and Creating an Open Data Advisory Board.”

The executive order and the accompanying Open Data Advisory Board Charter are now available on the Open Tulsa website.

Tulsa’s new open data policy framework not only advances a number of best practices from Sunlight’s open data policy guidelines, but importantly builds upon the foundation of a 2013 “Open and Accessible Data” resolution to create a previously absent structure needed to drive the implementation of a renewed open data effort.

Renewing the open data vows

While Tulsa’s existing City Council Resolution — developed during 2012-2013 with feedback from Code for Tulsa — had set a number of lofty goals, that policy was short on the kinds of actionable details that are often crucial to an open data program’s success, such as clarifying who would be responsible for identifying and sharing open data and what steps that process would entail.

By contrast, in building upon the aspirations of the city’s original resolution, the new policy push is squarely focused in on the who and the what of implementation. It formally designates the city’s previously established Open Tulsa website as the “authoritative source for Open Data provided by the City,” and wastes no time in creating an Open Data Advisory Board (ODAB), made up of data coordinators from each department as well as nonvoting community members (including members of Code for Tulsa). This official oversight body is also tasked with formally creating the city’s open data program and developing a concrete implementation plan.

Chart(er)ing a new path forward

Perhaps what makes this renewal of Tulsa’s open data vows most significant though, is the previously mentioned Open Data Advisory Board Charter called for in the executive order and signed by City Manager Twombly and CIO Michael Dellinger. The charter serves to integrate the city’s open data objectives (and a community perspective) into the very structure of the city’s IT governance. Although an ad hoc working group had met previously to advocate for open data, the now chartered ODAB finally fulfills the (perhaps half-hearted) promise of Tulsa’s 2013 resolution to “establish a committee of city employees and local volunteers to aid in the achievement of [open data] goals.”

As Code for Tulsa co-captain and Open Data Advisory Board member Carlos Moreno puts it in a recent blog post on Tulsa’s progress: “This new Advisory Board will serve to educate and collaborate with even more departments within City Hall, as well as work to re-design the Open Data Portal — a repository of all the public datasets published by the City.” Moreno is also enthused by the prospect of community leaders like himself being more involved in multiple aspects of the open data process, saying in an email, "It's been exciting to have a seat at the table inside of city hall, working hard not just on civic tech projects, but also the governance and policy around open data."

The charter not only defines the ODAB’s implementation-focused mission and responsibilities, but also spells out the concrete deliverables to be produced (a citywide open data plan, a data classification policy, a citywide open data policy and technical standards manual, and an annual open data report) and in some instances even sets timelines for completion (we weren’t joking about that new focus on action steps!). Finally, because the ODAB is an officially chartered component of the city of Tulsa’s IT governance, it will have an advisory say on a matter many open data programs overlook: allocation of resources.

Image showing the ODAB’s role in Tulsa’s IT Governance structure (Graphic credit: Tulsa’s Open Data Advisory Board Charter)

The question of who is the best oversight authority to manage the implementation of an open data policy is an issue many cities are still figuring out. For our part here at Sunlight, we hope open data programs across the country can learn from the Tulsa’s ODAB charter and integrated IT governance example to create effective management structures that not only achieve results, but incorporate public perspectives in the process.

More work to be done

While Tulsa’s new open data policy isn’t perfect (see: the entire section devoted to “Reservations”), it represents a significant step forward for a mid-sized city looking to expand its current practice in transparency, accountability and community engagement through the proactive release of public information online.

As Tulsa’s Penny Marcias told Sunlight’s readers last October, Tulsa faces real challenges but is committed to making progress. Its current data portal contains just 35 datasets and receives little traffic or public input, and even with the recent executive order and ODAB charter, there are certainly important policy questions left unaddressed (e.g. the need to spell out an explicit process for review of sensitive information). Though some of these important aspects are yet to be determined, we eagerly anticipate the production of the more detailed open data implementation plan and associated forthcoming documents and hope to see these aspects addressed there.

To be sure, Tulsa has much work ahead. But with Tulsa’s new policy framework, the city has successfully focused on implementation and put in place a strategy for getting there with a new kind of energy.

Feb 03, 2016

(Photo credit: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons)

Inmate and arrest data will likely remain available in a variety of formats online. Unfortunately, those identified in the data may face long-term impact even after they have “paid their debt” to society.

A report by the Legal Action Center maps out in detail all of the ways that individuals identified in arrestee and inmate databases may face longstanding discrimination. Many states not only allow employers to deny opportunities to people with arrest or conviction records, but also ban some or all people with drug felony convictions from being eligible for federally funded public assistance and food stamps. Similarly, public housing authorities may deny eligibility for federally assisted housing based on an arrest that never led to a conviction. Basic rights aren’t exempt, either: All but two states restrict the right to vote in some way for people with criminal convictions. A complete record of the collateral consequences of conviction can be accessed state by state through an interactive tool developed by the American Bar Association.

So the question becomes: What recourse do individuals with arrest or conviction records have in addressing these impediments to a normal life? What is the background for why juveniles are often spared from facing the same barriers, and should similar considerations apply to adults?

Expungement

One step that can be taken is to eliminate the record at the source. Also known as criminal record expungement, the option exists because those with criminal records may have trouble reintegrating into society unless they are legally able to deny that they have ever been charged with a crime or possess a criminal record. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s rundown of the expungement process, 40 states allow for the expungement or sealing of arrests that don’t lead to convictions, and only 16 allow it for conviction records. In many cases, an expungement allows individuals to deny either the arrest or the conviction on a job or school application.

Barriers exist that make expungements the exception rather than the rule, though. Some crimes are not eligible for the process, and as noted before, convictions can be a dealbreaker. Such is the case in Texas, where convictions without a pardon from the governor or a successful appeal are ineligible for expunction (expungement). In Utah, only certain offenses are ineligible, including violent and first-degree felonies, automobile homicide, felony driving under the influence and registered sex offenses.

Usually, expungement cannot be granted until a post-release waiting period has expired. Typical waiting periods can range from 3-10 years. An arrest-free record throughout that waiting period may be a legal indicator to state authorities that an individual has the undergone the rehabilitation necessary to merit an expungement. If a victim or prosecutor files a statement in response to an expungement petition, a hearing may be required. Otherwise, if a petition to expunge is granted, state agencies will be required to seal the criminal record, which will remain inaccessible to the public unless a court orders the release of information about the individual.

Laws against discrimination

Despite the fact that employers are fully within their right to seek the criminal history records of potential workers, a decision not to hire based on criminal history must be related to the responsibilities of the job in question. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 1987 and 1990 policy statements outlined the possibility for unfair discrimination in hiring decisions based on an applicant’s criminal record. In 2012, it updated and consolidated those statements in its Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibits disparate impact discrimination, meaning that if those decisions disproportionately exclude people of a particular race or national origin, the employer has to show that the exclusions are "job related and consistent with business necessity."

Almost every state includes some unique statutes establishing rules for employers that use criminal history as a determining factor in employment decisions. The legal ramifications range from overtly employer friendly to fairly protective of prospective employees. An example of the latter can be found in Florida, where applicants may not be disqualified from practicing or pursuing any occupation or profession that requires a license, permit or certificate because of a prior conviction, unless that conviction was for a felony or first-degree misdemeanor and was directly related to the specific line of work. Texas, on the other hand, generally does not allow employers to obtain a criminal record older than seven years for a job expected to pay less than $75,000. (As we pointed out in the previous section, Texas’ larger decision to allow bulk downloads of inmate data effectively guarantees that private background investigations could archive and store information older than seven years.) For a complete list of state laws regarding arrest and conviction record law in regards to employments, check out the Criminal Records page at Workplace Fairness.

In a growing movement titled “Ban the Box,” 19 states and more than 100 cities and counties have taken steps to remove barriers to employment for qualified individuals with criminal records who are applying to state jobs. The movement is an effort to eliminate questions about criminal history from hiring applications. The goal? To give individuals with criminal records a chance to prove their qualifications in the initial stages of hiring without the prejudice associated with criminal history. Seven states, the District of Columbia, and 12 cities and counties also extend their governmental fair-chance hiring requirements to local private employers. Read more about the movement in the National Employment Law Project’s Fair Chance Hiring State and Local Guide.

Juvenile records

Most states treat juvenile criminal records very differently from adult records, allowing much greater opportunities for expungement. In some states, a juvenile’s age or a crime’s severity may tip the scales in the direction of disclosure, but for the most part juvenile records are not available to the public. In the case of certain offenses, expungement is mandatory, as exemplified by Delaware’s family court system. Juvenile records have generally been sealed to give them a chance at rehabilitation and help them avoid social stigmatization at a young age.

Microdata for juveniles still has relevance at the policy level even when it isn’t made public. Since research combining elements of different datasets can be particularly insightful, data on juveniles is often combined longitudinally and shared between agencies internally. A report that analyzes the rates of juvenile detention through the lens of access to social services, for instance, can reveal how many offenders in the system have a history of mental health problems by pooling data from the state health authority with information from its youth authority counterpart.

These statistics could potentially go a long way in determining the best response to mentally ill patients entering the criminal justice system; however, to link disparate datasets, there inevitably has to be a compromise in privacy. Since individual-level data must be made available for researchers to cross-reference, there are strict regulations on access to such sensitive datasets from a hierarchy of oversight authorities. For more on this subject, check out some of our previous research on the subject of microdata privacy.

Conclusion

Understanding the scope of criminal history microdata is vital to determining where the line between privacy and a public right to information should be drawn. The fact that many states treat pre- and post-conviction records differently — both in how they are released to the public and whether they can be altered after the fact — makes it clear that policymakers have considered their discrepancies and reacted as they saw fit accordingly. The permanence of the Internet is a factor that they will have to continue to balance as part of the equation moving forward.

It’s conceivable that what society considers a healthy equilibrium will change. Movements like Ban the Box are proof that swift reform is a very real possibility in the space — even when that means tackling the status quo one jurisdiction at a time. In the meantime, government agencies will be persuaded to let resource constraints guide policies surrounding the release of data to the public. Somewhere between the interplay of civic advocacy efforts and government, the laboratories of democracy will churn out disparate results. Perhaps then it will be time to prioritize unity on the matter.

Feb 03, 2016

(Photo credit: Tracy O/Flickr; altered by Sunlight)

On Jan. 31, super PACs filed campaign finance disclosures for the first time since June 2015, giving us the first insight into who’s funding these big outside groups in months. We learned that super PACs raised over $500 million in 2015, and that some big donors, like George Soros and Hank Greenberg, are stepping up to pour money into these groups.

But it seems not everyone who donated to these super PACs wants the public to know that they did. One of the favored vehicles for these secretive donations is corporations — especially limited liability companies (LLCs). We combed through the major candidate super PACs and pulled out large donations from corporations whose owners are difficult or impossible to trace, from the most recent filings that cover the last six months of 2015. Many of them are registered in Delaware, which is one of the “easiest places in the world” to set up shell companies that hide the owner’s true identity, according to Global Witness.

All of these are from conservative super PACs. We thoroughly looked at pro-Hillary Clinton super PACs (Ready PAC, Priorities USA, American Bridge 21st Century and Correct the Record) too, and the lone super PAC lending its support to Bernie Sanders, but there weren’t any similar donations from untraceable corporations.

Conservative Solutions

The super PAC supporting Marco Rubio had several untraceable LLC donors. The biggest was a $500,000 donation from IGX, LLC, with an address in Delaware. There are three IGX LLCs registered in Delaware, but only one at the address listed on the FEC filing, registered in May 2015. The only information on the LLC filing is of the company that registered them, Corporation Service Company. And that’s where the paper trail ends. The AP reported today that the owner of IGX is Andrew Duncan, a Republican donor. Duncan told the AP that he “had used IGX to mask the donation because he was worried about reprisals,” which is refreshingly honest.

Other hard-to-trace LLCs that donated to Conservative Solutions:

  • $90,000 from a company called TMCV #2, LLC. TMCV is coded by OpenCorporates as a real estate lessor, and it’s registered to an address in Idaho Falls, which seems to be shared by a lawyer named Lane Archibald. He gave $2,000 to Romney in 2012.
  • $85,000 from a company called NG Montana, LLC, which, despite the name, is registered in Idaho Falls too — to the same address as TMCV #2. They’re registered to the same PO box in Idaho Falls as the Frank VanderSloot Foundation. Frank VanderSloot is a top Rubio donor, and gave $150,000 to the PAC in 2015. The AP confirmed that Vandersloot is behind these donations, with Vandersloot telling them that "this was teaspoons" compared to the "bucketloads" they will donate.

The donations from LLCs to Conservative Solutions PAC are particularly interesting, because donors had another option for obscuring their giving if they wanted to. There’s a 501(c)(4) supporting Rubio, also named Conservative Solutions, that is notorious for spending huge amounts to promote Rubio (even though these organizations are supposed to promote “social welfare” and not just focus on politics). That organization doesn’t have to disclose its donors. So why didn’t they just donate to that group? Maybe they donated to them too — we’ll never know, unless they tell us.

Stand ForTruth

One of at least eight super PACs supporting Ted Cruz, Stand ForTruth (yes, it’s one word) received several donations from untraceable LLCs.

  • $100,000 came from ABC Land Development, Inc., with an address listed in Texas. Entity search records show an ABC Land Development located in Nevada, but not in Texas. The Texas address listed on the FEC filing appears to be the location of a barbecue joint.
  • A $75,000 donation came from PA Management Partners, LLC, in California; its registration documents show the registered agent is Incorp Services, a company that incorporates companies. The address listed on the FEC is also the address of another company registered around the same time to a person named Gary Lubin.
  • $75,000 from Chateau Marina, LP, registered in 1996, also to Incorp Services.
  • Several $50,000 donations come from various LLCs at the same address in Skokie, Ill.: LL Baltimore, LLC; LL Fort Wayne, LLC; LL Peoria, LLC; LL West Allis, LLC; and PF Fort Myers, LLC. None of them exist in the Illinois entity search, but all of them exist in Delaware’s corporation search, except PF Fort Myers, which also isn’t in OpenCorporates and doesn’t appear as a phrase anywhere on the Internet. The address listed on the FEC is the address of Platinum Healthcare, LLC; the Manta page for that business says it’s owned by Benjamin Klein, who has donated to Republicans in the past.
  • $25,000 from MBB Operating, LP. The FEC filing lists an address in Dallas, but the  company does not exist in Texas’ entity search or in OpenCorporates.

Right to Rise

The super PAC supporting Jeb Bush is notorious for making payments to LLCs: It’s paid LKJ, LLC, which is connected to Bush’s finance director, hundreds of thousands of dollars. This filing didn’t reveal any fully untraceable LLC donors, but the PAC did receive a total of $147,500 from various LLCs registered at the same PO Box in Florida with similar names: Century at Giralda Avenue, LLC; Century Tower, LLC; Century Homebuilders group LLC; Century Laguna, LLC; and Private Lending Group, LLC. These are all registered to Sergio Pino, CEO of the Century Homebuilders Group and a big supporter of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC as well as Republican candidates, including Bush and Rubio. These LLCs aren’t shady in themselves — they’re clearly legitimately functioning businesses — but it is interesting that this big GOP donor seems to have spread the donations through several LLCs.

CARLY for America

This one is very strange. A company called TGGR Corporation, LLC, donated $25,000 to the pro-Carly Fiorina super PAC. The FEC filing lists an address in Grandville, Mich., but the Michigan business entity search has no record of a TGGR Corporation, LLC. There’s also a TGGR Corporation, LLC, registered in Delaware — and its registered agent is Harvard Business Services, a company that acts as registered agents for businesses — but no record in Michigan. Weirder still, it seems like the address they list on the FEC filings is just a mail forwarding service. Either way, we have no way of finding out who they are. TGGR Corporation also donated $10,000 to Rubio’s super PAC in June, and $2,000 to Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Another $25,000 donor to CARLY has a suspiciously similar setup. Krystal Corporation, Inc., lists its address in Los Angeles, but the corporation name also seem to be registered in Delaware — with Harvard Business Services again — and doesn’t appear in the California business entity search. The LA address is just a mailbox service, just like TGGR in Michigan. Both LLCs, TGGR and Krystal, have donated to Growing A Sustainable Future, a Florida PAC whose aim is to “support and discuss candidates promoting responsible growth in Florida while respecting and maintaining a sustainable agricultural industry.” That group raised nearly $1 million in 2015. And Krystal, like TGGR, donated to Brownback. Point being: It’s likely these are run by the same person, and whoever they are, they really don’t want their donations being traced.

America Leads

There weren’t any LLC donations to this pro-Chris Christie super PAC that were difficult to trace, but there was $100,000 from Ferreria Construction. Christie’s brother is invested in that company, and it has received millions in contracts from the state.

New Day for America

The pro-John Kasich super PAC didn’t receive any donations from untraceable LLCs, but it did receive several from various trusts. We’ve written about how charitable trusts are a “highly opaque” way to give money, allowing the organizers to avoid scrutiny (also, taxes). This filing revealed a $250,000 donation from the Wendt Family Trust, linked to big GOP donor Greg Wendt; $100,000 from the Christopher D. Orthwein Trust; and $100,000 from the Richard Hurt Trust.

Pursuing America’s Greatness

Huckabee dropped out of the race on Feb. 1, but it's worth noting that his supportive super PAC received two donations from odd LLCs. Children of Israel, LLC, registered in Cupertino, Calif., donated $150,000. Its registered agent is named Shaofen Gao, and the company was registered in June 2015. Another LLC, Meuchadim of Miami, LLC, gave $20,000. The company’s president, Leon Falic, owns the Duty Free Americas stores and has donated to West Bank settlements.

These donations show just how easy it is for dark money to flow into organizations that are supposed to disclose their donors. If you can trace the owners any of these organizations, please let us know!