Dirt Diggers Digest No. 71  

Editor: Philip Mattera

September 7, 2006



-- 1. Federal spending database may be back on track

-- 2. SEC beefs up compensation disclosure rules

-- 3. Delaware’s FOI system opened to non-residents

-- 4. Uncovering agricultural subsidies in Europe

-- 5. NOZA lets you be nosey about charitable contributions

-- 6. Greenpeace grades electronics companies

-- 7. A compilation of corporate codes

-- 8. ProQuest introduces Historical Annual Reports

-- 9. Google provides old news

-- 10. Library holdings at your fingertips

-- 11. Learning when to say “happy birthday”

-- 12. State legislator disclosures

1. Federal spending database may be back on track


There were reports today that the proposed comprehensive database on federal spending discussed in the last issue of the Dirt Diggers Digest may move forward, now that a key member of the Senate has removed his hold on the bill, S.2590. Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska had been acting behind the scenes to thwart the measure—introduced by Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.)—until his role was revealed by a grassroots campaign. The bill would create a free, online database covering all grants, loans and contracts over $25,000 given to companies, other organizations and state and local government entities.


2. SEC beefs up compensation disclosure rules


The Securities and Exchange Commission recently announced the adoption of new disclosure requirements covering executive and director compensation (including options) as well as related-person transactions, director independence and other corporate governance matters. Noting that it had received more than 20,000 comments in the proceeding, SEC Chairman Christopher Cox said “it is now official that no issue in the 72 years of the Commission’s history has generated such interest.” The new rules—outlined in a 436-page document—go into effect in December.

Companies are now required to describe their compensation practices more clearly. Next year, proxy statements will for the first time tally up the various pay components given to top executives in each of the past three years. Summary tables will also include items such as the dollar value of stock awards and options as well as the lump-sum cost of retirement benefits. The threshold for related-person transactions will be increased from $60,000 to $120,000—meaning that less information may be available. The SEC also said it would revisit the idea of a provision—dubbed the “Katie Couric” clause— that would require disclosure of the compensation of several highly paid employees who are not executive officers.


3. Delaware’s FOI system opened to non-residents


A recent ruling by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court in rejecting Delaware’s policy of limiting access to public records to state residents. Finding that the state’s practice was discriminatory and unconstitutional, the appeals court wrote: “No state is an island–at least in the figurative sense–and some events which take place in an individual state may be relevant to and have an impact upon policies of not only the national government but also of the states. Accordingly, political advocacy regarding matters of national interest or interests common between the states plays an important role in furthering a ‘vital national economy’ and ‘vindicat[ing] individual and societal rights.’” The case was brought by public-interest activist Matthew Lee, executive director of the Inner City Press/Community on the Move. Delaware’s Attorney General said the ruling would not be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


4. Uncovering agricultural subsidies in Europe


Your editor is just now catching up with Farmsubsidy.org, an online database about agricultural subsidies in Europe that was launched in April by an international network of journalists and activists. Supported by the European Social Fund, the Hewlett Foundation and the Open Society Foundation, the site has full or partial data from about a dozen countries and is seeking information from other EU nations about payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (several have refused to disclose the data).

Government payments to agribusiness (and other sectors) are also the focus of a service called Subsidy Watch that has been launched by the Global Subsidies Initiative of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The project seeks to document the ways that subsidies distort global trade and accelerate environmental degradation.


5. NOZA lets you be nosey about charitable contributions


NOZA is a new database that provides access to information about charitable contributions made by individuals and corporations. The service claims to contain some 13 million records from about 12,000 sources, but it is a bit vague about the nature of those sources, saying simply that they are “publicly available internet locations.” The site’s search engine is limited, allowing searches only by donor name (with limiting by the location of the recipient organization and the year of the contribution). The results show the amount of the contribution within ranges and some general information about the nature of the non-profit and the purpose of the donation. Partial results are displayed free of charge, while fuller records require the pre-purchase of credits that cost 3 cents to 10 cents each.


6. Greenpeace grades electronics companies


Greenpeace recently introduced its Guide to Greener Electronics, an evaluation of major hardware producers in terms of their use of harmful chemicals and their commitment to recycling of e- waste. Of the 14 PC and mobile-phone companies included, the best scores (7 of 10) went to Dell and Nokia. At the rear of the pack was Chinese-owned Lenovo with a score of 1.3.


7. A compilation of corporate codes


The extent to which codes of conduct are spreading in the business world can be seen in a 648-page volume called International Documents on Corporate Responsibility, which was edited by Stephen Tully of the London School of Economics. The compilation covers regional, national and international instruments dealing with labor, the environment, corruption and other issues. In his preface, Tully suggests that the proliferation of such standards may have given rise to a problem of “code fatigue.”


8. ProQuest introduces Historical Annual Reports


ProQuest Information and Learning, the company that has been digitizing the full archives of major newspapers, has branched out to historical corporate documents. Recently, ProQuest announced the launch of a database containing scanned images of the annual reports of more than 800 major companies extending as far back as the mid-19th Century. It includes, for example, 93 years of coverage for Ford Motor and 112 years for General Electric. Like other ProQuest products, Historical Annual Reports is marketed mainly to libraries. Already, some universities have added the service to their database collection.


9. Google provides old news


Seeking to extend the reach of its handy news feature, Google has introduced a News Archive Search that claims to provide access to articles dating back as much as 200 years. To provide this service, Google has partnered with leading news organizations such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as well as content aggregators such as Lexis-Nexis, Factiva, Thomson Gale and HighBeam Research. Searches done on the site provide links to some free full text but mostly to pay-per-view material provided by those commercial content providers. Results can be restricted according to date, source, language or price, which generally seems to range from $2.95 to $6.95 per article.


10. Library holdings at your fingertips


WorldCat is a venerable service that provides access to the combined catalogues of some 9,000 libraries and archives around the world. The problem is that it has been available only at libraries themselves or to those with access to academic database collections. Recently, WorldCat’s sponsor, the Online Computer Library Center, put a version of the service on the free web for all to use. The site allows you to search for books and other material, and then to find the nearest library that has the item by entering a postal code, state/province or country.


11. Learning when to say “happy birthday”


The Birth Database says it is designed to help people find the birthday of “a friend, relative or co-worker,” but it could be useful in more ambitious research projects. The site, which claims to have 120 million entries from “official government records,” asks you to enter the first and last names of a person and the estimated age. It gives back a list of possibilities showing the names with middle initials as well as the city, state and zip code of each person’s residence. When your editor tried a friend’s name, the database found the correct birth date but the location was ten years old.


12. State legislator disclosures


In the previous issue of the Dirt Diggers Digest there was an item about the State of Wisconsin Ethics Board’s launch of a new online index called Eye on Financial Relationships. Your editor pointed out that the website does not include actual financial disclosure forms. Digest subscriber Don Wiener took me to task for not mentioning that such forms are collected by the Center for Public Integrity and made available on the portion of its website called Our Private Legislatures.