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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

Jan 26, 2015

This Saturday, Jan. 31, is the deadline for all U.S. senators to file their mandatory campaign finance reports, making details about campaign contributions and expenditures available to the public. Due to a loophole in the law that a handful of senators have been unwilling to close, senators are permitted to file reports on paper, rather than electronically with the Federal Election Commission. Here at Sunlight, we believe all senators should be using the 'Net to upload their reports, rather than printing them out on reams and reams of paper. And that's why, today, we're embarking on a campaign to urge all senators to do just that ahead of Saturday's deadline. And we need your help to do it.

We're asking voters across the U.S. to call or tweet their senators and ask them to file their campaign finance reports electronically this Friday. Click here to take action!

Small photos of Virgnia's U.S. Senators with buttons to click so that you can call or tweet them and ask them to e-file.
Click here to send your U.S. senators a message ahead of Saturday's disclosure deadline: It's time to #USETHENET!

Your senators have all the technology they need to disclose their campaign donors online. Still, using e-filing technology is voluntary. Whether a senator clicks "upload" or "print" is entirely up to them. That's why we need to send a message before this deadline on Saturday. Our call or tweet tool makes it simple for you to find your senators and take action. So go ahead and take just the minute or two needed: Tell them to #USETHENET!

A bipartisan group of senators representing states across the country have already shown leadership and initiative by electronically filing their campaign finance reports in the past. We want to encourage them to do so again this weekend, while putting additional pressure on those senators still pushing paper to e-file, as well.

Campaign finance data is public information and even if the law doesn’t require it, there is no excuse for any sitting senator to delay disclosure of who is financing his or her campaign.

Eventually, common-sense legislation to require electronic filing by senators will become law. Until then, though, your elected officials need to know that you will not accept being kept in the dark when they have the power to shed a bright and immediate light on their campaign reports.

Jan 23, 2015

A photo of boxing promoter Don King waving an American flag that was deleted from the Twitter account of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Deleted photo via Politwoops.

On this week's roundup of notable deleted tweets archived on Politwoops, we go ringside with a senator, collect dozens of old campaign messages from a new governor and more.

Last weekend, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., checked an item off her husband's bucket list and went to the heavyweight boxing championship in Las Vegas. She shared a few tweets from the evening, including a photo of the judge, but decided to delete the photo seen to the right of legendary boxing promoter Don King while he waved an American flag.

The official Twitter account for Gov. Doug Ducey, R-Ariz., deleted a collection of 41 tweets from 11 weeks ago. The deletions are from the final days of Ducey's campaign, ranging from photos of him meeting with supporters to scenes of his team of young phone bank volunteers. His account did not respond to requests for comment.

The official House Twitter account for Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., deleted a tweet about the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, sending out another tweet with a significantly different message soon afterwards. The initial version said, "@HouseGOP recklessly panders to pro-choice marchers by swapping #antichoice abortion messaging bills." That was deleted after seven minutes and replaced with one saying, "@HouseGOP continue to attack women's access to healthcare. Its time to stop playing games w/ women's lives." His account did not respond to a question about the messaging alteration.

A deletion that made a little more sense was one from the official account of Gov. Rick Snyder, R-Mich., who backtracked on an enthusiastic response to his own message. His account tweeted, "Michigan's reinvention continues," and then he responded to himself, "Oh yeah it does!" The one man cheer squad backed down after just eight seconds and could be the result of a staffer logged into their boss' account. That remains unclear as his account did not respond to my question about the deletion.

Please let us know with a quick email if there are accounts Politwoops is missing, and have a good weekend!

Jan 23, 2015

Image Credit:

One of government's most basic functions is collecting and spending money. There's a reason budgets and spending are often the source of passionate town hall debates and a key aspect of political platforms -- people care about how government is putting their money to work. Making budgets and spending transparent by putting the information online would seem like a logical starting point for any government working to be more open, but this data can still be difficult to find in some municipalities around the country.

Here, we take a look at the current landscape of how this information is shared, highlight some of the impacts of making the information available, and share recommendations for how local governments could improve financial disclosure.

The current landscape

Current financial transparency efforts among local governments show a wide range of approaches. More than half of the country's biggest cities are sharing government spending "with checkbook-level detail," according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), but the level of detail, accessibility, and ease of reuse of financial data does not necessarily appear to be tied to a place's size. The current landscape shows that it is possible for governments of small and large municipalities alike to be more transparent with this information.

Covering the basics

While many municipalities do post information about the current budget, a budget is just a projection. The public needs to be able to examine the actual flow of money in and out of government. Places such as Harrisonburg, Va., Tucson, Az., Woodbury, Mn., and Bellingham, Wash., are just a few examples of the local governments that, unfortunately, only appear to share budget information online.

The accessibility of that information varies greatly, too. For some of the places sharing budget information, the data is locked up in PDFs with text that cannot be searched or easily extracted for further analysis. Other times, it is in a machine-readable format but there is no option to easily download the data.

Minimal proactive disclosure

Some municipalities are doing a better job of sharing more than budget information and making that data reusable. Houston, Tx., goes beyond budget data by posting monthly financial reports showing details about revenues and expenditures (along with information about debts and other financial matters). Unfortunately, this information is in a non-searchable PDF, making it hard to analyze or reuse.

Some level of proactive disclosure is certainly better than none, and there are many ways to approach it. Lee's Summit, Mo., posts budget data in searchable PDFs and provides some details about revenues and expenditures on a web page. Cincinnati, Ohio, shares its budget documents as searchable PDFs but also has a searchable expenditure database. Amherst, Mass., has these features as well for its financial data portal, and the expenditure data can be downloaded in an open format.

Next steps

The sharing of detailed, timely financial information is becoming not only increasingly possible, but it has more opportunities than ever to be engaging. Municipalities with more advanced financial transparency are showing the potential of going beyond just sharing financial data by making it user-friendly.

Denver is one place showing the possibilities for being financially transparent. Denver's Open Checkbook allows users to explore categories including expenditures, the budget, financial reports, revenue, investments, contracts, taxes, and property. Checkbook information can be searched or filtered by expense categories, program areas, and top payees, and most of the information appears to go back through 2010. Datasets can also be visualized and downloaded in open formats.

New York City has also worked on creating a financial transparency platform that allows searching and filtering through budget, revenue, spending, contract, and payroll information. The recently revamped Checkbook NYC is an open-source platform that allows users to download data and explore visualizations.

Los Angeles takes several approaches to sharing its financial data, with one portal dedicated to budget data and another dedicated to more complete financial information, including audits and reports, payroll, purchasing, revenue, the checkbook, liabilities and assets, the budget, and more. The data can be searched, sorted, and visualized in different ways.

One of Los Angeles' efforts that appears to be unique is the creation of "Data Cards" to highlight interesting expenses and explain what the money went toward. Clicking on the cards shows more information about the expense, explaining things like why the City spent nearly $130,000 on 52,000 frozen rats (the answer: to feed snakes at the zoo).

Municipalities of all sizes around the country are taking similar steps toward financial transparency by sharing budget and spending data online, making it downloadable and providing visualizations. Montgomery County, Md., has budget and spending data portals that include these features and more. Similar levels of financial transparency can be found in places including Erie, Colo., Hickory, N.C., Boston, Palo Alto, Calif., Bullhead City, Ariz., New Haven, Ct., and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

States are opening their financial data, too

Municipal governments are not alone in having work to do when it comes to financial transparency. States take a variety of approaches to sharing their financial data online, with varying degrees of success in making the information easily accessible and understandable.

A 2014 report by the U.S. PIRG examined spending transparency among all 50 states and found there is much room for improvement. Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin all ranked as state financial transparency leaders according to that report, but 10 states received a "C" grade and 12 states fell into the "D" or "F" grade range. That leaves many municipalities without a state-level example to look up to for financial transparency.

Some states have clearly taken the cue to make improvements. The U.S. PIRG report released in 2014 graded Ohio on its previous financial transparency website, which received a "D-". Ohio's Treasurer's Office has since launched a new Ohio Checkbook that addresses the shortcomings pointed out by the 2014 report and goes beyond fixing the shortcomings to offer some innovative methods of powering search and analysis of the state's financial data. Hopefully other states will follow suit.

The impacts of opening the checkbooks

Macoupin Budget
Macoupin Budget

Some financial transparency efforts appear to be quite advanced compared to the rest of the field, but just putting the information online in easily accessible, reusable formats can have big impact and bring benefits to government and the public.

There are a growing number of examples of outreach and engagement efforts by governments that share open financial data. San Francisco held an online town hall to receive feedback from the public about the annual budget. Boston allocated some of its budget for use by teenagers, who designed and voted on projects that they decided would benefit the community. These kinds of participatory budgeting exercises are increasingly being deployed in local governments around the country, and this exercise is often empowered by being transparent about the budget in some way or another. Hopefully, the rise of participatory budgeting will spark a parallel rise in online disclosure of budget and spending information.

Governments will be facing mounting demand for sharing this data online, too. The movement to open up local financial data is spreading and leading to collaboration around the world, bolstered by groups like the OpenSpending community. The organization has a map tracking open spending efforts in cities around the world and has events pushing to expand it.

The mission of bringing greater financial transparency to municipal governments has even been a political platform in some places. Bulldog Budget launched in 2013 to highlight one Philadelphia city controller candidate's vision for budget transparency. A call for better financial transparency was something the city needed, too. Despite being an open data leader in many ways, Philadelphia is looking to upgrade its budget system, which is still mostly paper-based.

For those places where the governments have not yet taken steps to open their financial data, community groups are stepping up to help move things along and show the importance of making the information open. Committee for a Better New Orleans is working to create a website for the city's financial data, for example. The work there was inspired by other community-driven efforts, including projects such as Look at Cook in Cook County, Ill., and Macoupin Budget in Macoupin County, Ill. These kinds of projects continue to gain momentum around the country. In Jersey City, N.J., the Jersey City Budget takes the city's financial data out of PDFs and makes it more easily understandable. Governments should take note from their ambitious community members putting in the time and effort to make financial transparency a reality.

Recommendations for improving disclosure

Municipal financial disclosure is advancing, but it could still clearly use some guidance for further improvements. Drawing from Sunlight's Open Data Guidelines, here are some of the key points governments should consider when opening their checkbooks:

  1. Create a comprehensive list of existing financial datasets

It's hard for the public to know what financial data to expect from government without first knowing what exists. Creating a comprehensive list of financial information can help the public better understand what data is available and can help government with the prioritization process for making that data accessible online. Realistically, it may be difficult to release all of a government's financial information at once. A prioritization process including the public should be used to help ensure high-impact data will be released as quickly as possible.

  1. Post line-item expenditure details where appropriate

Sharing line-item expenditure information helps provide the most detailed and accurate picture of a government's financial status. Aside from cases where line-item expenditure details cannot be disclosed due to privacy or security concerns, this level of detail should be public record anyway, open to inspection by being proactively posted online. Coupled with the most detailed revenue information possible, line-item expenditures make it clear where government money is coming from and where it's going.

  1. Appropriately safeguard sensitive information

Financial information should be reviewed for any potentially sensitive items that need to be redacted before being published. To appropriately safeguard sensitive information for privacy or security concerns, governments must weigh the public interest in accessing the information against the potential for harm. This balancing test is necessary to ensure that no more information is withheld than what needs to be.

  1. Share information in a timely manner in a central location

For financial information to be most useful, it should all be available in a central location online, where it will be updated in a timely manner and remain permanently. Anyone should be able to access the information without restrictions in formats that are machine-readable, and the data should be license-free so it can be easily reused.

  1. Publish information in bulk and consider APIs

The reusability of financial information posted online is increased if it is downloadable in bulk, which simply means the whole set of information can be downloaded at once rather than piece by piece. Governments should also consider creating an API for the information to encourage its reuse.

  1. Take steps to ensure data quality

Data quality is key to making sure information is accurate when it is being interpreted and reused. Ensuring data quality can also help with making information easily searchable and findable. Using metadata can help with data quality by by providing important context about how and when information was created and how it can be used. Mandating the use of unique identifiers for specific departments, programs, contracts and other line-item information can also help with accurate tracking of these entities, especially in instances where they might have similar names and could be mistaken as the same thing.

  1. Include information from quasi-governmental agencies

Where possible, governments should require the same standards of financial transparency from quasi-governmental agencies. These bodies may be funded by the public and make expenditures that directly impact the public. The information about those financial flows should be subject to the same transparency standards as government bodies.

  1. Digitize archival materials

Historical information can add important context to any dataset, and that is especially true when it comes to finances. Digitizing archival documents and posting them online can help show financial trends over time, providing a clearer picture of where things have been and where they appear to be headed.

  1. Post the financial laws, procedures and timelines online

Important context can also be provided by making government's laws, procedures, and timelines relating to financial data easily accessible online. Government should make this information available from the same central, online location where the financial data is shared.

Jan 23, 2015

Jiří Skuhrovec, head of the Centre for Applied Economics in the Czech Republic.

Petr Nečas was elected as the prime minister of the Czech Republic in 2010. Having a reputation of "Mr. Clean," he set the anti-corruption agenda as the main goal of his government. However, as a reformist leader within a party with strong ties to local godfathers, it’s not clear that his squeaky clean reputation holds up. In summer 2013, he was forced to resign due to a major corruption scandal, even though he still hasn’t been proven guilty. His case brought public attention to special interest groups behind the scenes who arguably use the government to control state-owned enterprises and public procurement.

Despite these allegations of corruption and recent debate of the issue, no hard evidence indicating policy capture in the Czech Republic has been published so far. With a new study from the Centre for Applied Economics, we aim to change that — we provide results showing serious conflicts of interest in the financing of all major Czech parties. How did we do that?

Our team gathered an extensive data set on Czech political party financing, cross-referenced donor lists with public procurement, European funds, and several other “red flags.” We originally did not aim to discover policy capture — we merely hoped to find some cases of possible conflict of interest, as the public money recipients would be “giving back” to political parties. The results, however, went beyond our expectations:

  • 29.6 percent of all Czech public procurement winners (roughly 1,200 companies) directly donate money to political parties. Statistically, these donations help firms face lower average competition and get a larger volume of contracts.
  • For 14 percent of all donations, the identity of the true donor is questionable, as these are shell companies, offshore companies or economically inactive subjects. Even non-existent companies and unborn children were listed among donors. (See table below.)
The sums of donations made between 2006 and 2013, divided into categories by their amount. The vertical line represents the limit above which parties must reliably identify the donor and include a copy of the donation contract in the annual report. Source:
  • Furthermore, there is an extreme culmination of donations just below the 50,000 CZK ($2,023 USD) limit, where the donor needs not be properly identified. (See table below)
Summary statistics of the value of donations made by red-flag donors for selected parties. In parentheses, we include their share on total donations. Source:, Business Register, Ministry of Regional Development.

Why has no one noticed?

We were first to gather such evidence, simply because the data on political donations were available only in paper form in the Czech parliamentary library. Occasionally, journalists revealed some cases of conflict of interest while studying these. We, however, took the effort to manually process all donation lists into own database, where we could combine them with other data that our NGO gathers (public procurement, offshore companies, etc.).

The previous lack of such evidence could also be a consequence of poor control mechanisms: The annual reports are only reviewed by auditors who are chosen by parties themselves and by the parliamentary committee, which performs only formal checks. Even the obvious flaws went through the control mechanisms undetected, such as donations from municipality-owned enterprises or non-existent firms and people.

Put it online?

We are far from claiming that all identified cases are truly problematic. Further investigation of individual cases is needed. It is, unfortunately, not in the capacity of a small NGO to examine all the data. According to our initial analysis, about 2,000 donations came from public procurement winners alone, possibly causing a conflict of interest for politicians deciding on public procurement outcomes. Thus we created — a site that serves as a database of donations, enabling users to filter donations using various red flags related to the donors.

While doing so, we faced a ban from Czech Office for Personal Data Protection, which claimed that our activity violates the protection of personal rights and therefore is illegal. After consulting several lawyers, we decided to publish the data anyway — so far without consequences. We believe that public interest in transparency of political party financing should outweigh the need for personal protection and that will be our argument in a potential trial.

Our findings in much greater detail confirm the criticism made by GRECO — that transparency of Czech political party financing is unsatisfactory, and that independent control mechanisms need to be put in place. This year, a new law on political party financing should be passed; it has, however, been already postponed several times. We hope that our analysis will contribute to a fact-based discussion on real issues of party financing. Solving such issues might improve political stability of our country, and help us not to repeat case of Nečas.

We further hope that our study might serve as a good practice case for foreign NGOs aiming for similar goals. The linkage between party donations and procurement (or other public money) is possibly severe in many other young democracies.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at

Jan 23, 2015

open data in Scrabble letters
Photo by Flickr user Justin Grimes

Talking about the economic benefit of open data is one good way to describe open data’s impact, and provides a "great rationale" for the release of relevant data sets. However, open data’s impact does not lie solely in the economic sphere. Government openness may produce tremendous other benefits for our societies: increasing state or institutional responsiveness, reducing levels of corruption and clientelism, building new democratic spaces for citizens, empowering local and disadvantaged voices, or enhancing service delivery and effective service utilization.

But how effective open data and government transparency actually are at producing these social benefits is not yet at all evident. At a time when "fake government openness" and "open-washing" are increasingly seen as a risk to the transparency movement’s credibility, there is burning need for more evidence on how opening up government information helps us all use resources more “effectively, equitably and sustainably to meet people’s needs.” Developing indexes and comparative studies on a wide range of topics (e.g. budgets, the freedom of the web, aid, perceived corruption, etc.) is a crucial first step, but in order to get more buy-in from our policy-makers and a critical mass of citizens, we need to look beyond those indexes and find other ways to analyze the effect of open data on societies.

Much of the existing literature seeking to measure the impact and effectiveness of transparency and open data accountability initiatives seem to face a common challenge: It is incredibly difficult to come up with definitive, evidence-based generalizations about how "x" type of initiatives produce "y" kinds of effects. The field has yet to coalesce around a theory of change, for one, and there are significant methodological challenges around comparability and unevenness of evidence.

At Sunlight, we would like to help change that. As a continuation of our work to provide examples of how opening up information makes a difference in communities across the U.S., we want to tackle some of these challenges through a new research project to explore and analyze the social impact of open data outside the U.S. Our goal is to build a strong evidence base that might empower further generalizations and to develop a few potential theories of change that capture the nuances, complexity and messiness of this broad agenda. With generous support from the Open Data for Development Research Fund of the OGP Open Data Working Group, our research aims to identify the factors that increase the likelihood that open data initiatives will achieve their stated goals in a particular context. We also seek to understand why and how these factors lead to success or failure.

As a first step, we are asking you — the community of transparency and open government advocates, civic hackers, investigative journalists and policy makers — to provide us with illustrative examples of how open data and transparency projects are having impact on our societies.

Are you working on an open data project that improves the level of political participation and citizen engagement? Do you know any tech-based transparency project that you think might lead to change in social behavior? Is your transparency initiative aimed at decreasing the perception of corruption, fraud or waste. Has it led to more investigations or better investigative journalism? Are you aware of an open data initiative that improves public service delivery or social policies? From environmental through educational and public safety to health outcomes, we're looking for examples — both on the local and national level — that look beyond the direct economic benefits of open data and illustrate how government openness produces social benefits.

We realize that the definitions we use here are a bit broad, but our goal is to encourage everyone working in this field to help us build a strong evidence base that we can further filter and analyze. So please help us and submit your case story through this link, or send it to before the end of Feb. 4! All you need to do is give a very short description of your project and how you think it's making a change in our societies. Any supporting documents (theories of change, articles, impact stories) in both your local language or in English are welcome too.

Access to government information and decision-making processes is a fundamental democratic principle. Open data and digital transparency are one important way of achieving that access. Help us make our case even stronger!

Jan 22, 2015

A cartoon of 19th century New York City politician William Tweed, pictured with a bag of money instead of a head and a giant diamond pin.
Boss Tweed as illustrated by Thomas Nast. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In reporting the arrest of New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption charges — the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York has charged him with accepting $4 million in bribes and kickbacks from a law firm whose clients had business before the state — the New York Times notes that, perhaps not surprisingly, Silver didn't disclose the alleged payments on his personal financial disclosure form. In fact, the state of New York didn't require him to disclose much of anything:

In 2013, Mr. Silver earned at least $650,000 in legal income, including work for the personal injury law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, according to his most recent financial disclosure filing.

But what he does to earn that income has long been a mystery in Albany, and Mr. Silver has refused to provide details about his work.

Whether or not the charges prove true against Silver — his lawyers denied them and say he will be fully exonerated — the fact that so little is known of how he makes his money is deeply troubling. And it's often par for the course for a great deal of states, whose requirements for personal financial disclosure, which is intended to allow a citizen to determine if a lawmaker is acting in the broad public interest or for his own narrow financial benefit, can leave citizens in the dark. State legislators are, for the most part, moonlighters. Some, when they're not drafting or voting on new state insurance laws, regulations for cable companies or agricultural policies, are working for insurance companies, telecommunications firms or agribusinesses. Voters should have easy access to information about the primary jobs of the people who write and enact the laws they must live by.

Starting in the mid-1990s, the Center for Pubic Integrity collected all the financial disclosures available for state lawmakers — three states didn't have them back then — and put them online in a database. If a lawmaker worked for a company called Smith & Sons, they'd find out if it were a law firm, a butcher shop or a used car dealer. It was painstaking tedious work, and sadly, didn't continue.

That's too bad, because with so much gridlock at the federal level, special interests are focusing more and more on the less scrutinized states. And that can lead to the kind of corruption alleged in New York, as the Center for Public Integrity found in the case of New Mexico Democratic state Senate leader Manny Aragon, a longtime opponent of prison privatization who changed his tune after signing a contract with Wackenhut Corrections Corporation:

Aragon, who reported receiving income in 1998 and 1999 from a law practice and a construction contracting firm, accepted a job as a paid lobbyist for Wackenhut in June 1998. He took the job after one of his business associates received what sources said was a lucrative contract to do the concrete work for the Wackenhut prison in Santa Rosa, one of two the company built in New Mexico.

Aragon eventually would go to jail — a federal prison — for a scheme worthy of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. He squeezed more then $4 million out of a municipal courthouse construction project. When Aragon lined his pockets with public money, his prison about-face had already raised questions about his probity. Obviously, most lawmakers are not involved in million-dollar kickback schemes, but they all have jobs or personal investments that might influence their judgments on some issues. Voters everywhere should have easy, online access to information to help them decide in whose interest their elected lawmakers act.

Jan 22, 2015

A silhouette of a cheering man sitting on top of a stack of money.
Image credit: Sunlight Foundation.

Five years after the Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United decision, unlimited outside money has muscled in to elections on almost every level, from the White House to county commissioners. Barring some unexpected congressional action, that fact won't change any time soon. So some campaign reformers are shifting their focus from dollar amounts to upholding the majority opinion's reasoning as to why politicians won't be influenced by the big spenders: federal coordination laws.

To prevent outside groups from becoming quasi-campaign committees, the court cited rules barring coordination between candidates and independent actors like super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money unlike regular campaign committees. Whether super PACS really are independent was the subject of a briefing on Capitol Hill Thursday convened by the Brennan Center for Justice and featuring Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., elections officials and speakers from campaign reform groups.

The regulatory firewalls meant to keep candidate's campaigns separate the super PACs that support them are looking pretty permeable these days. Ryan Zinke, a freshman GOP House member from Montana, served as the chair of a super PAC, Special Operations for America PAC (SOFA PAC), until three weeks before he announced he would run for office. SOFA PAC spent around $175,000 to elect Zinke, who promptly hired the PAC's treasurer as his chief of staff upon winning office.

In West Virginia, Sunlight reporting discovered that a federal super PAC that spent over $1 million on state House races in the Mountain State was being run by two members of the state Republican committee. Under federal law, party officials are not supposed to coordinate with groups that can raise unlimited sums from corporate, labor and other donors that are barred from giving money to political parties.

Beyond the game of musical chairs taking place between outside and inside groups, the 2014 campaign cycle also saw the advent of new, innovative ways of sharing campaign materials and strategy, from anonymous Twitter profiles that shared polling data, to campaigns' public dissemination of "B-roll" video footage — shots of candidates smiling, talking to voters and so on — for super PACs to use in their ads.

The Federal Election Commission, the nation's top campaigns watchdog, has not been overly aggressive pursuing potential violations of the coordination ban. According to the commission's Democratic Chair Ann Ravel, the FEC has looked in to potentially illegal coordination with outside groups a total of 29 times, but in each case the politically divided agency has failed to muster the four votes necessary to begin an investigation.

Ravel told Sunlight that the reasons for the "no-action" votes have varied from case to case. The FEC will likely face more votes in the future. Candidates face increasing pressure to maintain a super PAC arm if they want to be taken seriously, according to panelists.

Some members in Congress are taking aim at the lose restrictions on federal candidates and their so-called "buddy PACs." Congressional Democrats marked the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision by introducing a dozen bills aimed at money in politics reforms, as Paul Blumenthal of the Huffington Post reported. Among the recent flurry of legislation are two bills introduced by Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and co-written by the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21 that would clamp down on the free sharing of personnel and strategy between inside and outside groups.

A similar iteration of that bill, introduced during the last Congress, died in the House Administration Committee without gaining traction.

Jan 22, 2015

January brings a bright new year — and eight new Sunlight OpenGov Grants! These open-source projects and tools are opening up data and government information in innovative ways. Check them out below!

Cheaspeake Commons

  • A $10,000 grant to Chesapeake Commons', to create data input and processing tools to better integrate data (for use by the public) related to groundwater contamination from coal power plant waste.
  • A $17,000 grant for the Councilmatic 2.0 project, rebuilding open-source software for searching municipal legislation, plus some new plugins to extend the software.
  • A $2,033 grant to the FAA Beneficial Owner Database project, to create a database of owners of U.S.-flag aircraft using FAA data and publicly available sources.
  • To mRelief, a grant of $10,000 to build added capacity for a web tool that makes public services information and other data more useful to Chicagoans.
  • A $7,000 grant to OpenDisclosure Alabama, a project of Code for America, for a public demonstration publishing the available campaign finance datasets in the state of Alabama, as well as identifying gaps for further analysis.

  • For OpenElections Local, a grant of $10,000, to build a pipeline for gathering, analyzing and publishing election data, plus the creation of an API and user documentation.
  • A $10,000 grant to the Open WNC project of Carolina Public Press, to improve public data access in under-served communities in Appalachian North Carolina by developing institutional partnerships, creating a government data repository and training journalists and engaged members of the public.
  • To the Platform for Scalable Participatory Democracy project, a $10,000 grant to improve software infrastructure and integration for two open-source platforms for democratic organizing and citizen deliberation in local communities.

Congratulations to Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, to whom we granted $10,000 last June, for press coverage of its Contratados project on NPR’s Latino USA.

This round of grants concludes the OpenGov Grants program, which ran from January 2013 to the end of 2014. Should we reopen the OpenGov Grants program, we will announce it on our website.