Dirt Diggers Digest No. 70  

Editor: Philip Mattera

July 10, 2006



-- 1. Government openness with an ulterior motive

-- 2. Pretexting under fire in response to identity theft

-- 3. EDGAR is now searchable

-- 4. Commercial users make up lion’s share of FOIA requests

-- 5. Corporate Affiliations à la carte

-- 6. SearchSystems goes completely commercial

-- 7. The Most Dangerous Employers

-- 8. Wisconsin indexes financial relationships of public officials

-- 9. California has new database of hazardous waste sites

-- 10. Google introduces government search portal

-- 11. Congoo offers (limited) access to premium content

-- 12. Opposition Research Handbook

1. Government openness with an ulterior motive


While the Bush Administration remains obsessed with government secrecy, there is an unusual bipartisan move in Congress to increase transparency, at least as it applies to federal spending. As highlighted in a July 3 article in the New York Times, conservative Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is pressing for the creation of a public, online database that would provide easy access to information on most federal contracts and grants. His bill, S.2590, is co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. While both men profess a concern about openness, they want it for different reasons. Obama presumably wants the public to know more about the positive results of federal spending, whereas Coburn, in the words of the Times article, is “placing a philosophical bet that the more the public learns about federal spending, the less it will want.”

A similar bet is being placed by House Republicans, but they want somewhat less information made available. The House has passed a bill, HR 5060, that would establish a public database on federal grants but do nothing about expanding access to information on federal contracts. Rep. Thomas Davis III of Virginia, the sponsor of the bill, has put forth the bizarre argument that contracts are less susceptible to abuse than grants, so increased transparency need not apply to them.

The debate usually ignores the fact that information on both contracts and grants is currently available— the contract information through the Federal Procurement Data System and the grants information through the Federal Assistance Award Data System. Both systems are clumsy, so easier access will be welcomed by researchers, whatever the motivations of the legislators who make it happen.


2. Pretexting under fire in response to identity theft


The public furor over identity theft has generated a backlash that includes moves to ban information-gathering techniques that are used not only by criminals but also in some instances by researchers and investigators. The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee recently held a hearing on data brokers at which various lawmakers vowed to pass legislation to restrict pretexting—a method of obtaining someone’s personal information from a business by pretending to be that person or someone with authorization to access the data.

Legislative efforts can also be seen at the state level. Last week, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law a measure that makes it illegal to pose as another person to obtain personal information such as home address, date of birth, telephone number and place of employment. The bill was prompted by a Chicago Sun-Times story last January on the sale of telephone records on the internet.

The Illinois legislation exempts licensed private investigators from the prohibition, but no such waiver for shamuses can be found in a bill making its way through the California legislature. State Sen. Debra Bowen, the sponsor of SB 1666, has resisted efforts to amend the measure so that it applies only to cases in which there is fraudulent intent. The bill was passed by the Senate in April and is now before the Assembly. Bowen is running for secretary of state.


3. EDGAR is now searchable


The Securities and Exchange Commission announced recently that full-text searching is now possible on its EDGAR database of corporate filings. The feature, which applies to documents filed during the past two years, eliminates a shortcoming that could be rectified only by using commercial services such as Tenkwizard, though in its current beta form, the official EDGAR search engine is not as versatile. The SEC is inviting feedback from users that will be considered in making refinements to the search engine.


4. Commercial users make up lion’s share of FOIA requests


A new report by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government marking the 40th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act finds that the lion’s share of FOIA requests are coming from commercial sources. The study of requests to 20 departments and agencies during a single month last year found that some 61 percent were from commercial sources, while only six percent came from journalists and three percent from non-profits. The “commercial” category includes labor unions, though they accounted for only about 1 percent of total requests.

Excluded from the analysis were requests to the three agencies that handle the most FOIA requests— the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration—because more than 90 percent of their requests are also filed under the Privacy Act and come from individuals seeking personal records.

The San Antonio Express-News reported recently that the Defense Department has given a $1 million grant to the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University to study ways to limit the scope of FOIA to prevent terrorists from getting sensitive information about the country’s infrastructure.


5. Corporate Affiliations à la carte


The electronic version of the Directory of Corporate Affiliations—a key source of information on business family trees—has long been available only to subscribers of premium database services such Lexis-Nexis and Dialog. Now the service can be accessed on a pay-as-you-go basis with a credit card via the web. The site claims to cover 200,000 firms, including information on executives, directors, brand names and competitors. The full-display costs can be hefty, but searching is free—and you can click on the resulting hits to get basic contact information on each firm at no charge.


6. SearchSystems goes completely commercial


SearchSystems, the best collection of links to state and local public-records websites, used to be a free service. Then it altered its site so that those who did not pay a monthly fee had to endure an annoying delay between clicking on a link and getting connected. Now, SearchSystems provides no access at all without payment of a subscription fee of $4.95 a month or $48.50 a year. If you prefer not to pay for access to public-records sites, you can always use the second best source, the one sponsored by BRB Publications, which is still free and unimpeded.


7. The Most Dangerous Employers


The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health has published a report on what it calls the Dirty Dozen: the country’s most dangerous employers. It describes cases of “companies whose reckless disregard for their employees’ safety and health has had tragic consequences.” At the top of the list is British Petroleum, whose refinery in Texas City, Texas was the site of a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers. Among the other companies on the list are Cintas, DuPont, Honda Motor, International Coal Group, Wal-Mart and W.R. Grace.


8. Wisconsin indexes financial relationships of public officials


The State of Wisconsin Ethics Board recently announced the release of a new online index called “Eye on Financial Relationships.” The site, which according to the Board “leads the nation,” indexes not only the officials who have filed financial disclosure forms but also the parties with whom they reported having financial relationships. You can display either the complete list of parties associated with a specific official or a list of officials associated with a particular party. Unfortunately, the disclosure statements themselves are not available online.


9. California has new database of hazardous waste sites


Your editor has just learned that earlier this year the California Department of Toxic Substances Control created a new online database of hazardous waste sites in the state. Called EnviroStor, it includes information on federal superfund sites, state response sites, voluntary cleanup sites and school cleanup sites. Searching can be done by city, zip code or county as well as other variables such as contaminant and type of former use. The site descriptions include histories, maps and community-involvement documents but not the names of potentially responsible parties.


10. Google introduces government search portal


The latest in the never-ending stream of new Google features is a search portal covering federal, state and local government websites. Google U.S. Government Search employs the usual Google “needle in a haystack” approach and thus it does not directly compete with the federal government’s FirstGov site, which has more of a directory structure. Neither site is particularly good for public-records searches.


11. Congoo offers (limited) access to premium content


Congoo is a new search engine that provides free access to so-called premium business information that is normally available only via subscription services. Among the sources are the Financial Times, Institutional Investor, Morningstar and PR Newswire.

The catch is that you have to download Congoo’s NetPass toolbar and install it on your browser. Also, there is a limit to how much content you can retrieve from each source. The participating publishers apparently believe that giving users a taste of their paid content will inspire more people to subscribe. In case you don’t respond, those publishers can send you marketing material using the registration information you gave to Congoo.


12. Opposition Research Handbook


Larry Zilliox, a new subscriber to the Dirt Diggers Digest, recently published the third edition of his Opposition Research Handbook: A Guide to Political Investigations. The volume has a step-by-step guide to profiling political candidates and the companies and other organizations with which they are associated. It covers a wide range of online and offline sources. Information on ordering the volume in either PDF or hard-copy form can be found on the website of Zilliox’s company, Investigative Research Specialists.