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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

Mar 27, 2015

The logos of Meerkat and Periscope appear over the Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Just one week after delving into Meerkat, politicians are checking out Periscope, the latest app to live-stream video.

Periscope, even though it only launched yesterday, is already being used as a verb and showing up in Politwoops, Sunlight's archive of deleted tweets from politicians. The first deletion came from the account of Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, that said, "LIVE on #Periscope: Test broadcast" with a link to the video. Kasich's account later shared a tweet with the broadcast of a press conference.

The race is on for which app will be the preferred streaming service for politics, but each has slightly different features relevant to Politwoops. Meerkat launched first and became a standout at the SXSW conference, establishing a user base head start. Last week, Politico's Dylan Byers declared that Meerkat "officially became the social media tool of the 2016 presidential election," and former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote a post titled, "How Meerkat is Going to Change the 2016 Election for Every Campaign, Reporter and Voter." Pfeiffer hedges a bit, saying, "2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it)." Periscope is something quite like Meerkat, but is owned by Twitter, who actively handicaps competitors using their user's established connections. Other differences of Periscope include the ability to comment on a stream without tweeting the comment as well as saving videos for followers to re-watch later by default.

When Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., deleted a tweet through Meerkat last week, the link showed the stream was over and two people watched it. The Meerkat link also displayed a screenshot from the broadcast of a television tuned to an interview with New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters. If you open the link in the deletion from Kasich using Periscope, you see similar statistics about the number of viewers and time of the broadcast, but you can also play the entire broadcast again. This feature makes deletions from Periscope archived by Politwoops much richer. There will be tame and honest mistakes, but archived video from a deleted broadcast offers a new medium for messaging that politicians would rather hide.

As always, please send me an email if you find accounts that Politwoops is missing, and have a great weekend!

Mar 27, 2015

From fixing pot holes to contacting your lawmakers and more, there are a lot of things you can do with open data. (Photos under creative commons licenses.)

Open data can be incredibly abstract and esoteric if you are looking at a bunch of numbers or spreadsheets devoid of context. And even if you can appreciate a theoretical government dataset being available publically, there’s still the perennial question: “What’s this got to do with me?” To answer that question, here are 10 concrete things you can do right now to engage with or benefit from open data.

1. Report that pothole!

It’s been a rough winter for most of us, and the roads are in pretty terrible shape. Instead of waiting for your local transportation authorities to identify and fix the problem, residents can proactively report potholes and other non-emergency issues (think broken street lights, faulty parking meters or graffitied public buildings) directly to your city or county. A number of jurisdictions employ tools like SeeClickFix or PublicStuff to make this process easier by filing issues online or with a mobile app. Once filed, you can even track the progress, make public comments and create alerts to be notified when the issue is fixed. The data from these reports are also incredibly useful and have been used to visualize complaints, analyze trends and best practices and compare performance against other cities. Improving your community has never been easier or more rewarding.

2. Look up your school district.

Do you have school-age children, or are you a homeowner interested in seeing how your property tax is spent, or do you possess some unexpressed need to boast about your public school district? The School District Demographics System has a map viewer that allows you to browse school district data to your heart’s content. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources aggregated for the National Center for Education Statistics, you can peruse data on three themes: "Race and Ethnicity," "Population" and "Housing and Social Characteristics" of your school district. In particular, you can filter by gender and see a breakdown in the age of enrollees as well as explore the number of teachers, librarians/media specialists and total revenue data of school districts.

3. Contact your representative.

Almost all of us (sorry, D.C.) have two senators and a member of the House who is supposed to be representing our interests. In addition to being lawmakers, the offices of the members of Congress also provide vital constituent services. So whether you want to contact your rep about a specific bill or to request assistance with a specific federal department or agency, you can give your congressional office a call, or an email, or a tweet. Sunlight’s OpenCongress tool makes it easy to find your rep and and their contact info. And if you are really intent on calling them, you can do so for free using Call on Congress.

4. Check your voter registration.

If the previous suggestion offends you deeply due to your dislike for your representative, channel that open data prowess to checking your voter registration or get registered to vote them out of office. CanIVote.org is a handy site put together by the National Association of Secretaries of States that does just that and more by connecting you to your relevant state resources. Think you already know all there is to know about your elections and voter registration? Then sign up to be a poll worker so you can tell others.

5. See if the government owes you money.

It sounds like a scam — and there are many scams built upon the concept of unclaimed money from the government — but USA.gov has a whole (official!) resource page to help you look for unclaimed money. Unclaimed funds occur when the government owes you money due to myriad reasons — such as owed pensions, tax returns, bank failures, mortgage refunds, etc. — and the money is not collected. States can also owe residents money, and according to the NYS Comptroller’s office:

Banks, insurance companies, corporations and the courts are among the many organizations required by law to report dormant accounts to the State Comptroller. These organizations must attempt to notify you by mail and publish the information in newspapers. Despite these efforts, many funds remain unclaimed and are turned over to the Office of the State Comptroller.

The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators aggregates all the various state unclaimed property websites here.

Mar 26, 2015

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., talks about how he has advocated for transparency while in Congress during "The Price We Pay for Money's Influence on Politics."
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., one of the biggest proponents of Senate e-filing. (Photo credit: Sunlight Foundation)

Today, the U.S. Senate can take a step towards changing a costly and opaque practice while joining their colleagues in the House and the White House in the 21st Century.

Regular readers of our blog are probably familiar with the sad state of Senate campaign finance disclosures. For those that might be new, here’s a tweet-length primer:

Senate candidates don’t have to file campaign finance docs electronically, delaying disclosure of their donors and costing taxpayers close to $500,000 a year to have their paper filings digitized.

Some senators choose to embrace 21st Century transparency, saving taxpayer money and government time by filing electronically. Even more have recognized that this is a common sense and necessary reform by cosponsoring S.366 a bill introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., that would require Senate candidates to join their compatriots running for the House and the White House — who have been filing electronically for years.

By all accounts it should be law, but it needs your help.

The Senate is in the middle of its annual budget “vote-a-rama,” and Tester has submitted an amendment (S.Amdt.570, if you’re following along at home) that would ease the way for future passage of S. 366 and finally give senators a chance to express their support of e-filing.

Call or tweet at your senators and urge them to vote in favor of S.Amdt.570 when it comes before them later today -- while you're at it, urge them to co-sponsor S.366 (find your member here). The vote could come as late as 4:00 am ET and it’s never too late to reach out.

The bill won’t force senators to start e-filing, but it will give them a rare opportunity to voice their support for the practice.

Currently, senators file reports with the Secretary of the Senate, who delivers paper copies to the FEC. That agency must then manually input the data from thousands of pages of paper into databases before the information can be made public in a searchable, usable manner. It’s a costly, archaic system that should have been phased out years ago.

Unfortunately, despite growing support and no good arguments against it, reform has been slow to come to the Senate thanks to some powerful opponents.

Today’s action is the rare amendment that could have a profound effect on how the business of running for Senate is done. It won’t change the rules immediately, but if passed it will show e-filing’s opponents that the time has come for them to stop wasting money and keeping the public in the dark.

Mar 26, 2015

Ted Cruz. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Shortly after midnight last Monday, Texas Republican Ted Cruz tweeted four magic words: “I’m running for President.” Under our campaign laws, this subjects the senator to restrictions and obligations expected of all candidates running for federal office.

Specifically, Cruz cannot ask for contributions of more than $2,700 from individuals for his presidential primary run, nor may he solicit contributions of more than $5,000 for outside spending groups, like super PACs. He’s barred from controlling a 527 organization, those shadowy political organizations that don't report their activities to federal or state campaign regulatory agencies. He can’t ask foreigners for money, nor can he raise money from corporations or labor unions. He’ll have to file regular reports with the Federal Election Commission, detailing whom he's taking money from and what he's spending it on, whether it's salary for campaign aides, polling, fundraising expenses, travel or other expenditures.

Yes, he'll be able to court bundlers — those well-connected donors who can reach out to their networks and package tens of thousands of dollars or more. And yes, he most likely will discover that some longtime ally or aide has left his side to form an entirely independent super PAC to help Cruz, hopefully with three or four but no less than one very deep-pocketed donor who can write seven-figure checks. But let's take a moment nevertheless to salute him, the first major presidential candidate from either party to start playing by the presidential rules.

Top portion of the document that Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz filed with the Federal Election Commission after announcing his candidacy.
The FEC document that officially declares Ted Cruz as a presidential candidate

By contrast, all but declared candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush can, and do, raise money in huge chunks. Because Bush has not uttered, tweeted or otherwise expressed the magic words, he's able to ask donors for contributions of $25,000, $100,000 or more for his Right to Rise super PAC (Sunlight's Party Time shows quite a few examples). Part of Bush's strategy for winning the nomination is a campaign of shock and awe fundraising; should he declare his candidacy, he'd have to leave the six- and seven-figure solicitations to others.

A trio of super PACs — Priorities USA Action, American Bridge and Ready for Hillary — are promoting Hillary Clinton. One of them, Ready for Hillary, successfully fended off a complaint to the FEC last month over its purchase of the mailing list compiled by Clinton's last presidential campaign. The FEC concluded that the sale by Clinton's 2008 campaign, which comprised names of her donors and supporters, to a super PAC promoting her 2016 campaign did not require Clinton to register as a federal candidate.

That decision has allowed Clinton — and the two floors' worth of close associates she brought with her from the State Department — to continue her work with the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation undisturbed, an organization that takes funds, sometimes in multi-million dollar chunks, from foreign governments, foreign corporations and foreign individuals, among others.

Neither Bush nor Clinton are private citizens, but not even holding office is an impediment to stealthy fundraising. Sitting governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, R, can lead their own 527 committees, named for the section of the tax code under which they're organized. Our American Revival, Walker's 527, can raise funds in any amount from individuals, corporations and labor unions (though, given Walker's policies, he probably won't be expecting much support from that quarter). The organization's registration with the Internal Revenue Service says that its purpose is to "lead a revival of shared values" by "limiting the size and scope of the federal government." But, as the Washington Examiner more accurately reported, Our American Revival lets Walker "raise money and promote his potential candidacy in advance of an official announcement."

The 527 is actually a step forward for Walker — it will have to disclose its donors, albeit to the Internal Revenue Service. During the 2012 effort to recall him, Walker raised money for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a dark money group that supported him, as Michael Isikoff recently reported for Yahoo! Politics. Walker's aides prepped the governor by telling him to stress to donors that Wisconsin Club for Growth could keep their identities secret.

By being the first major candidate to publicly acknowledge his presidential ambitions, Ted Cruz also became the first to be bound by the nation's campaign finance laws. When will his rivals follow him?

Mar 26, 2015

Rep. Buck McKeon at lectern in front of an American flag wearing blue tie
Rep. McKeon delivering remarks on the USS California, the Republican chaired the Armed Services Committee from 2011 to 2014. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Former California GOP congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon opted to forego a run for a 12th term in the House last November, but in his new career he'll still be working closely with some of the friends he made on the campaign trail.

A lobbying disclosure form made public on Thursday shows that the former Armed Services Committee chair's nascent lobby shop inked a new client in February. The firm will represent Aerojet Rocketdyne, a major defense contractor and campaign contributor to McKeon, in addition to the Association of Catastrophe Adjusters and the Cormac Group. The disclosure document was collected by Sunlight's lobbying registration tracker.

Robert Cochran, McKeon's former chief of staff, had lobbied for the rocket engine manufacturer when he worked for Porter Gordon Silver, and will continue to do so in his new post at the McKeon group.

Campaign finance data compiled by OpenSecrets.org shows that employees of GenCorp, Aerojet's parent company, contributed $31,000 to the California Republican's campaign efforts from 2006 to 2014.

Gencorp is just one of a bevy of defense contractors that supported McKeon, a staunch guardian of military readiness and spending over the years. Individuals employed by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman alone accounted for more than $360,000 in donations, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.org.

In his new life, McKeon wasted no time in repositioning himself as a consultant to the same industry he oversaw — and advocated for — in Congress.

Although federal law bars McKeon from lobbying his former colleagues until 2016, he's not prohibited from offering certain "strategic analysis, advocacy and comprehensive government relations." That language comes from a press release about the new firm, which was first reported by the Center for Public Integrity.

A large rocket propulsion system in testing
An Aerojet Rocketdyne engine undergoing testing. The company builds engines for space exploration and missile defense. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The former congressman has plenty of company in the burgeoning political intelligence industry. A recent Sunlight Foundation analysis of recently retired House members and staffers found 42 out of the 104 former civil servants we researched had already moved to higher paying jobs in the government relations world, leveraging their insider experience for their new clients' political portfolios.

As for which specific issues McKeon Group will be tackling for Aerojet Rocketdyne, that remains to be seen. Calls to the company and to McKeon's firm were not immediately returned.

Publicly disclosed reports show the defense contractor maintains a steady lobbying presence and has devoted more than $9.8 million to federal lobbying since 1998.

The corporation has targeted legislation covering a wide range of topics over that time period, from military appropriations bills to the Safe Drinking Water for Healthy Communities Act of 2007, which would have required the Environmental Protection Agency to draw stricter regulations governing the amount of perchlorate, a chemical used in rocket propellant, allowable in drinking water. The bill failed to clear the House.

In September 2011, the EPA ordered Aerojet to conduct a $60 million clean-up of rocket fuel-polluted groundwater in a Superfund site around the company's plant in Rancho Cordova, Calif., where it has operated since the 1950s.

In a phone call with Sunlight after this piece was published, Cochran told Sunlight "This [Aerojet Rocketdyne] is my client from my previous employer...I brought that client with me... As far as Mr. McKeon, I will be consulting with him and he will be providing strategic advice. He personally will not be doing any lobbying."

Mar 25, 2015

Photo of wall mural in Detroit
(Photo credit: angai369/Instagram)

While there are many great things about the Motor City, Detroit has also unfortunately become synonymous with corruption due to actions by former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, sentenced just months ago to 28 years for racketeering, fraud and extortion. Still recovering from the effects of a lack of transparency and and a lagging economy, Detroit’s new open data policy and portal show that things are definitely looking up: The government now promises to help its communities through providing open and accessible city data.

At the start of 2015, Mayor Mike Duggan signed Executive Order 2015-2 to establish the City of Detroit Open Data Initiative. Explaining that the release of city data “will foster and create a more transparent, open, collaborative, participatory and accountable relationship between the city government and the people it serves,” the executive order mandated that all city departments take all data that’s not restricted by state or federal law and make it available to residents on the site. The goal was to increase accessibility and the availability of certain data collected or maintained by the city.

The executive order did a great job of pushing for collaboration between the city and its residents. In addition to promoting transparency, it also promises to foster “a creative culture and innovation-driven economy,” something Detroit looks poised to continue to grow. The executive order also establishes a task force and advisory commission that will evaluate and determine best methods for design, implementation and monitoring. This task force and advisory commission pairs agencies and other stakeholders in an engagement process that produces a report on what the best methods are for pushing Detroit forward with the creation of this portal.

As a concrete marker of its progress, Detroit successfully launched its first open data portal. While finances have been challenging for the city, Detroit was the first city to receive a technology grant from the recently created Socrata Foundation. The foundation, created by the eponymous cloud software company, aims to “support deserving, society-improving organizations that lack the resources to fulfill their data-driven mission.” The technology grant covers the launch and service of Detroit’s portal for the next three years.

The portal will include data from the following nine agencies:

  • Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department
  • Detroit Police Department
  • Detroit Land Bank Authority
  • Planning and Development Department
  • Recreation Department
  • Public Works
  • Assessor
  • Detroit Department of Transportation
  • City Clerk (Elections)

The city also plans to have all city financial transactions accessible on line in the coming months.

We have seen the benefits of open data efforts in cities like Philadelphia, where information released by agencies such as these was used to help better inform constituents about things like polling place location. This happened as well in Washington, D.C., where datasets were used to illuminate where children’s resources and well-being vary across the district.

Detroit has made major progress and great strides with its open data portal. We look forward to seeing more quality datasets being published to help better inform the residents of Detroit — and ultimately help the city achieve its admirable goals of transparency, openness, collaboration and innovation.

Mar 24, 2015

Sunlight's map of state and local open data policies keeps growing! Be a part of our team and help lead the way.

When the Sunlight Foundation was founded in 2006, the clear focus of our work was to bring more transparency and accountability to our Congress, but over the past several years our purview has broadened considerably. Our work at the federal level has expanded beyond Congress to include the executive branch, as evident from our recent win to force the Obama administration to release Enterprise Data Inventories. Our growing book of international work has put us at the forefront of the worldwide open government movement. Our Open States tool is the go-to resource for information about state legislatures. And, as more and more communities adopt open data policies and create open data portals, the demand for our expertise from local governments has grown by leaps and bounds.

We will soon announce our involvement in a multiyear, national effort to bring more open data practice and policy to mid-size American cities. To that end, we are looking for a new member of the Sunlight staff team to join us in our Washington, D.C. headquarters. We're looking for an Open Data Project Lead — someone with at least five years of experience in local government with deep knowledge in using open data at the municipal level. The job description is here and we hope that everyone in Sunlight's network will help us get the word out for this critical new hire.

We're excited to take this project on, and will have more details to announce in April. It's a big, audacious project, and we're glad to be a part of it.

Mar 24, 2015

Mitch McConnell speaking at CPAC in 2011.
McConnell speaking at CPAC, 2011; Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is known around Washington as a tenacious fundraiser. He comes by the reputation honestly.

Just days after the start of the 114th Congress, the Republican from Kentucky pulled down more than $80,000 for one of his campaign committees at a bash celebrating his rise to the perch of Majority Leader. Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor turned high-dollar Washington lobbyist, threw the fundraiser at his firm's headquarters. Politico Influence reports that Barbour, an old McConnell ally, even emceed the event, which featured 13 GOP senators and a slew of lobbyists and representatives of corporate PACs. (You can see the full list of attendees on Politico or Political Party Time.)

We know how much campaign cash the party raked in thanks to a recent financial report from the Bluegrass Committee, McConnell's leadership PAC. On Feb. 11, Bluegrass reported 44 contributions totaling $83,000 — apparently from the Jan. 5 fundraiser.

BGR group, the lobbying firm that bears Barbour's name, was the largest benefactor of the day. Employees of that organization, which represented 85 clients on Capitol Hill and before federal agencies according to OpenSecrets.org's most recent tally, accounted for $21,439 pumped into the Bluegrass PAC in February, including $5,000 for catering the event.

Representatives from some of BGR's well-heeled clients also dished out some New Year's gifts to the ascendant Majority Leader.

In an example of one of the counterintuitive alliances forged in Washington, the political action committee representing the AFL-CIO's building trades union gave $5,000 to Bluegrass Committee. The left-leaning union's national arm was a sharp critic of McConnell during his re-election contest last November, calling the Kentucky senator one of a "host of extreme candidates who support policies that limit rights, make it even harder to afford a middle-class life and pad the pockets of their corporate buddies" in a September press release.

Representatives from UPS, a major federal contractor, were also on hand for some face time with the bevy of senators, chipping in $5,000 through its PAC.

Although political committees publicly disclose their fundraising, being able to connect surges in contributions with a high-dollar fundraiser is a rarity because of varying accounting methods and the lack of transparency in political fundraising. (As a side note, if you catch wind of any fundraisers, you can upload them anonymously to Political Party Time here and they will be added to our database.)

The full list of PACs contributing to the Bluegrass Committee, according to its most recent FEC report, also includes:

Unlike regular campaign donations, the cash raised by McConnell's leadership PAC has fewer restrictions on its use. Generally, leadership committees are used to help out fellow incumbents, spreading out donations pulled in by the party's leadership.

So, what did all that PAC and lobbyist cash pay for?

In February, Bluegrass spent just under $75,000, shelling out $40,000 for "strategic consulting" and giving a $10,000 contribution to the campaign account of Sen. Richard, Burr, R-N.C., who will be up for re-election in 2016.