Dirt Diggers Digest No. 74

Editor: Philip Mattera

January 18, 2007



-- 1. Keeping track of who’s moving through the revolving door

-- 2. EPA proceeds on TRI “reforms” but puts further library closures on hold

-- 3. The SEC’s “holiday present for corporate America” on pay reporting

-- 4. The wiki way to leak government and corporate documents

-- 5. Legal developments about disclosure and research

-- 6. Finding the forms of disclosure

-- 7. SBA criticized for deleting key company data from contractor website

-- 8. Pennsylvania joins rest of states in requiring lobbying disclosure

-- 9. Florida plans Office of Open Government

-- 10. Quick hits: FCC ownership data, Canada’s richest, public records blog, chemicals

1. Keeping track of who’s moving through the revolving door


Thanks to the results of the November election, some Republican members of Congress find themselves in the ranks of lobbyists, while the Democrats now in power on Capitol Hill have included reform of the revolving door as part of their ethics agenda. Documenting the swinging of that door is now much easier, thanks to a new resource created by the Center for Responsive Politics. CRP’s Revolving Door Database profiles more than 6,400 individuals who have worked in both the federal government and the private sector. Those individuals have been affiliated with about 1,200 Congressional offices and more than 350 executive branch agencies and judicial courts. The largest numbers of affiliations are with the White House, the House of Representatives and the Federal Communications Commission.

Searches for individuals can be done by name or agency. A keyword box is supposed to permit searches for private sector employers, but it does not seem to work well. There are also lists of the federal agencies, Congressional committees, members of Congress, lobbying firms and other organizations with the most affiliations found in the database.


2. EPA proceeds on TRI “reforms” but puts further library closures on hold


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been involved in two controversies over information collection and distribution in recent months. For the past two years, EPA has been seeking to ease corporate reporting requirements under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program. While the agency claimed its intention was simply to eliminate some redundant and seldom-used data elements, there was a broad outcry of opposition to the proposed changes. A December 2006 OMB Watch report summarizing the public comments showed that 99.97 percent of the 122,420 submissions strongly opposed the modifications, while only 34 (mostly from industry) supported them. Nonetheless, a week before Christmas, EPA announced it was implementing changes that differed little from its initial proposal.

Meanwhile, EPA has responded to growing resistance to its program of closing its libraries around the country. As reported in Digest No. 73, Congressional Democrats have been increasingly vocal in their opposition to the program, which has already led to five closings. EPA has now agreed not to close any of the remaining 21 libraries for the time being. As noted by OMB Watch, the Congressional Research Service recently produced a report acknowledging it is unclear that EPA will be able to live up to its claim that all the material in the closed libraries will be available online.


3. The SEC’s “holiday present for corporate America” on pay reporting


In case you missed it, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced in late December that it was reversing a decision it had made last summer and would adopt a rule allowing many companies to report significantly lower total compensation for top executives. The move was not received well by shareholder advocates. Ann Yerger of the Council of Institutional Investors told the New York Times that the move “was a holiday present to corporate America.” The change allows companies to report the value of options over a period of years rather than including the full value in the total compensation table for the year in which the options are granted.


4. The wiki way to leak government and corporate documents


Collaborative research efforts known as wikis are all the rage. There is even one being developed for insiders who want to leak government documents without revealing their identity. Wikileaks describes itself as “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interests are oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the west who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their own governments and corporations.” The site has not been officially launched yet, but it has already been publicized by Secrecy News and the Washington Post.


5. Legal developments about disclosure and research


A federal judge in Brooklyn, NY has been hearing arguments in opposition to his previous ruling concerning the dissemination of leaked Eli Lilly internal documents about the controversial antipsychotic drug Zyprexa. The New York Times published a series of articles suggesting that the company had engaged in a decade-long effort to play down the health risks of the drug. The Times had been given the documents by an Alaska lawyer who was pursuing a case on behalf of mentally ill patients and who had managed to subpoena them from a consulting witness in federal multi-district litigation (Eastern District of New York Case MDL-1596) against the company. The Alaska lawyer apparently also shared the documents with other parties. Federal District Judge Jack Weinstein, who is in charge of the multi-district litigation, did not take action against the Times, but he ruled earlier this month that a website called Zyprexa Kills could not post the documents. The wiki site is being supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in fighting the gag order.

The California Supreme Court is weighing whether researchers can engage in trickery during the gathering of information. In December the court heard oral arguments in a case (Taus v. Loftus et al., S133805) involving academic researchers who allegedly tricked the former foster mother of a research subject into revealing secrets about her. The defendants, who used the information to buttress their writings about false memories, were sued for defamation and invasion of privacy . The case has raised concerns among scientists and journalists that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs might chill research and newsgathering efforts. A ruling is expected in the next few months.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that municipalities violated the state’s open records law by providing a PDF of property assessment records rather than access to the actual database in which the information is contained. The ruling in the case of WIREdata Inc. v. Village of Sussex, which will be of interest to researchers seeking raw government data for analysis, stated that “a potent open records law must remain open to technological advances so that its statutory terms remain true to the law’s intent.”


6. Finding the forms of disclosure


Digest subscriber Rick Rehberg suggests that we look at a federal government webpage called Forms.gov. Some of what is on the site is mundane stuff like IRS tax forms. But it is also a way to track down lesser known types of disclosure required by regulatory agencies. You can search either by agency or by industry/keyword. A search of forms required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, for instance, turns up 14 hits, including Form 6, an annual report (with financial and operational data) that has to be filed by oil pipeline companies. A search of the keyword “railroad” resulted in 152 hits.


7. SBA criticized for deleting key company data from contractor website


According to a December 16 article in the Miami Herald, the Small Business Administration has gotten itself in hot water with small business advocates for its decision to delete data on company size from a public website. The site in question is the Central Contractor Registry, where companies that want to do business with the federal government post profiles of themselves. The SBA recently eliminated the size data in the profiles, citing privacy concerns. Critics, however, charge that the agency is trying to make it more difficult for watchdog groups to determine whether contracts earmarked for small companies are actually going to larger firms.


8. Pennsylvania joins rest of states in requiring lobbying disclosure


Alone among the 50 states, Pennsylvania has for some time (due to a court ruling) failed to collect and make public data on the activities of state lobbyists and their clients. Thanks to a law passed by the legislature in 2006, lobbyist registration requirements went back into effect on January 1. Within a few months the registration filings will be available on the Secretary of State's website on the same page as campaign finance disclosure. Information about registration requirements is already there.


9. Florida plans Office of Open Government


On his first full day in office, Florida’s new governor, Republican Charlie Crist, signed an executive order creating an Office of Open Government. The agency will be responsible for assuring “full and expeditious compliance with Florida’s open government and public records laws.” Florida, which already has some of the best disclosure rules, has in theory been the “sunshine state” in more ways than one. But those rules are not always diligently observed by state and local officials. Crist’s order could be a boon to journalists and researchers.


10. Quick hits: FCC ownership data, Canada’s richest, public records blog, chemicals


The Federal Communications Commission announced recently it was posting copies of all its studies (whether drafts or final) on media ownership, minority ownership and localism on its website.

Canadian Business magazine has published an updated list of The Rich 100, a list and short profile of the wealthiest people in Canada.

BRB Publications, which produces the best free collection of web links to public records sites, has launched a blog that covers new developments in public records practices.

Digest reader Dale Wiehoff suggests that researchers working on the chemical industry check out a site called Chemical House.