Dirt Diggers Digest No. 72 

Editor: Philip Mattera

October 20, 2006



-- 1. OMB Watch beats Congress to the punch with federal spending database

-- 2. Open Secrets provides easy access to federal financial disclosure filings

-- 3. Documenting those who legislate “under the influence”

-- 4. Congress as a “family business”

-- 5. SEC announces plans for new interactive disclosure system

-- 6. Resources on the widening stock options scandal

-- 7. UK bill on corporate responsibility and disclosure being hotly debated in Parliament

-- 8. Website exposes money behind TABOR and property rights measures

-- 9. American Rights at Work tracks the anti-union network

-- 10. Both sides are dissatisfied with court ruling on union’s use of motor vehicle records

1. OMB Watch beats Congress to the punch with federal spending database


As noted in previous issues of the Digest, Congress has for months been debating a proposal to create a readily accessible, web-based database of federal spending. Recently, a logjam was eliminated, and the bill (S.2590), which covers contracts as well as other outlays, was enacted with an effective date of January 1, 2008.

Yet Congress was beaten to the punch by OMB Watch, a non-profit that monitors the activities of the Office of Management and Budget and overall issues of federal spending, regulation and openness. Earlier this month, it introduced FedSpending.org, a free searchable database of federal grants and contracts going back to fiscal year 2000. On the contract side, using information from the Federal Procurement Data System, it provides details of individual awards as well as annual summaries of the activities of particular contractors, with the results grouped by parent company. A useful feature is a summary of how much each contractor received under different forms of bidding (“full and open competition,” single-bid contracts, non-competitive contracts etc.). The database can also be searched by product or service, size of the award and other variables, and the results can be retrieved in a form suitable for spreadsheets.

The grants portion of the database covers various types of financial assistance—grants, loans, insurance, direct payments—to individuals, businesses and other organizations. It is searchable by name of recipient as well as a variety of geographical variables, including Congressional district. The information is derived from the Federal Assistance Award Data System.


2. Open Secrets provides easy access to federal financial disclosure filings


For nearly three decades, members of Congress and senior executive branch officials have been required to file annual personal financial disclosure forms, but these documents have not been readily available. Access to these documents, which give valuable clues to possible conflicts of interest, has now been made much easier by the the Center for Responsive Politics, creator of the widely used Open Secrets database of federal campaign contributions. CRP has collected the 2005 disclosures of all members of Congress and key members of the executive branch, including the President, Vice President, cabinet members and West Wing denizens such as Josh Bolten and Karl Rove. The Personal Financial Disclosures page has PDFs of the original disclosure forms (which include details on assets, liabilities, gifts, etc.) and rankings by net worth—led by Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, who is worth between $269 million and $284 million. The database is also searchable by entity name or keyword.

CRP also recently added to its site a Travel Database documenting privately funded travel by members of Congress since July 2005. Here, too, there are data on individuals as well as an overall ranking. The “winner” in the latter was Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, with 51 trips costing more than $91,000.


3. Documenting those who legislate “under the influence”


Public Citizen has just introduced a comprehensive web-based resource that provides ready access to data on the extent to which members of Congress have been financed by special interests. Called both Under the Influence and Clean Up Washington, the site shows how much each representative and senator has received from lobbyists, political action committees and out-of-state donors. The 535 legislators are ranked according to these and other criteria. There is also a national summary of the findings.


4. Congress as a “family business”


Sunlight Labs, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, has been engaged in an effort to document the extent to which members of Congress have spouses who have been paid to work on their election campaigns. The project, which involves getting volunteers to look for information on particular websites, is an experiment in collaborative research. The Sunlight Foundation is the co-sponsor of the Congresspedia, which was featured in Digest No. 69.


5. SEC announces plans for new interactive disclosure system


Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox recently announced plans for the replacement of the EDGAR database of public filings with a new and more versatile system. The Commission awarded three contracts worth a total of $54 million “to transform the agency’s 1980s-vintage public company disclosure system from a form-based electronic filing cabinet to a dynamic real-time search tool with interactive capabilities.”

At the heart of the new system will be data tagging using extensible business reporting language, or XBRL. This will allow easier searching for particular pieces of information in a company’s filing as well as comparisons between firms. The main contract was awarded to a subsidiary of information-technology outsourcing firm Keane Inc.


6. Resources on the widening stock options scandal


The corporate scandal over illicit backdating of executive stock options shows no signs of abating. The firms involved are not only small high-tech companies but also giants such as United Health Group, whose chief executive William McGuire was forced to resign a few days ago. The Corporate Library, a website on governance issues, has just issued a report that looks at 120 firms implicated in the scandal and found evidence linking backdating to interlocking board memberships. (The study costs $1,100 but a short summary is available online.)

Earlier this month, a report by researchers at the University of Michigan concluded that investors have suffered significant losses at firms that have been accused of engaging in backdating. Two of the authors, M.P. Narayanan and H. Nejat Seyhun, have set up a webpage summarizing their ongoing research on backdating issues.

A good backgrounder on options by Randall Dodd of the Financial Policy Forum is available at the Forum’s website.


7. UK bill on corporate responsibility and disclosure being hotly debated in Parliament


This week the UK House of Commons has been having an intense debate on issues of corporate responsibility and disclosure raised by proposed legislation called the Companies Bill. Representing the most wide-ranging reform in British corporate law in 150 years, the bill would require firms to disclose more about their social and environmental impacts and to take greater responsibility for those impacts. Business groups are “squealing,” as an article in The Guardian put it, about a last-minute amendment that would require firms to disclose information about their supply chain, including some details on on key supplier relationships.

The bill has been promoted by groups such as the Corporate Responsibility (CORE) Coalition--which represents more than 100 non-profits, labor unions and others--and the Trade Justice Movement.


8. Website exposes money behind TABOR and property rights measures


The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center has launched a website that assembles information on the conservative forces pushing so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) ballot measures that seek to restrict state government spending and that this year are pushing “regulatory takings” provisions that empower developers. The site focuses on New York real estate investor Howie Rich, who is bankrolling many of the efforts through a group called Americans for Limited Government. The site seeks to entangle the web of local tax-exempt groups that are using Rich’s money to promote measures such as Proposition 90 in California. The site appears to have inspired press coverage such as a front-page story on Rich and his network in the October 5 San Francisco Chronicle.


9. American Rights at Work tracks the anti-union network


Prompted by the emergence of a new generation of groups that work against collective bargaining, American Rights at Work has created a webpage that monitors the activities of what it calls the Anti-Union Network. The page currently has profiles of veteran unionbusters such as the National Right to Work Foundation and Committee as well as recent initiatives such as the Center for Union Facts, which for the past eight months has been attacking organized labor in a series of newspaper and broadcast ads. In addition to public propagandists, the site has information on anti-union consultants that work directly with employers to thwart organizing drives.


10. Both sides are dissatisfied with court ruling on union’s use of motor vehicle records


Neither side is satisfied with a federal judge’s ruling in a case involving the right of a labor union to use motor vehicle records to track down workers in an organizing drive. In late summer, Judge Stewart Daizell of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that UNITE HERE had violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act when it used database services such as Westlaw to obtain the home addresses of workers from license plate numbers observed on cars parked outside facilities of Cintas Corp. Those workers were then contacted at home to collect information about working conditions at Cintas and to try to enlist them in the organizing campaign.

A group of nine persons contacted as a result of the information gathering, both employees and non-employees, brought the case (Pichler et al. v. UNITE HERE, E.D. Pa. No. 04-cv-2841), which is now going to the court of appeals. The plaintiffs are unhappy that the judge awarded statutory damages ($2,500 each) but no punitive damages. The union has insisted that its decades-old practice of license-plate retrieval is permissible under federal law. On October 17, Judge Daizell issued an order that barred UNITE HERE from further use of the data obtained on the named plaintiffs but rejected a request for a broader injunction against the union’s use of motor vehicle records.