Dirt Diggers Digest No. 77

Editor: Philip Mattera

May 22, 2007



-- 1. Good Jobs First creates database of Wal-Mart subsidies

-- 2. Feature: Finding criminal records

-- 3. New MAPLight search engine illuminates special interest ties to Congressional bills

-- 4. Chronicling the glamour and glitz of business

-- 5. Upheaval in the business information industry

-- 6. An "Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure"

-- 7. Google eyes state government databases

-- 8. Easier access to 990s

-- 9. Conference on "Taming the Giant Corporation"

1. Good Jobs First creates database of Wal-Mart subsidies


Good Jobs First, where Digest editor Phil Mattera is the research director, is getting ready to launch a website that provides an up-to-date, searchable database of economic development subsidies that Wal-Mart has received from state and local governments throughout the United States. Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch includes data on approximately 300 deals worth some $1.2 billion that Good Jobs First has tracked down, initially for its 2004 report Shopping for Subsidies and through additional research conducted as part of the creation of the new website. The database is searchable by geographic location and type, and it includes state tallies as well as lists of the largest deals by type and nationwide.

Along with development subsidies, the site compiles the disclosures that have occurred in some two dozen states showing the number of Wal-Mart workers who have turned to taxpayer-funded healthcare programs such as Medicaid because they are not receiving adequate benefits on the job. In the future, the site will be expanded to encompass other data that Good Jobs First is collecting on the ways in which Wal-Mart puts a strain on taxpayers.

Note: Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch is still in the final phases of construction and may not be accessible until about May 30.


2. Feature: Finding criminal records


Corporate researchers are often called upon to check whether individuals or companies have had problems with the law that resulted in criminal convictions. Performing a criminal background check in the United States is not a simple as it sounds. Comprehensive national databases exist--such as the National Crime Information Center--but access is limited to law enforcement agencies.

Assembling information on a party's criminal record requires looking separately at federal and state sources. The federal part is relatively straightforward. If you get a subscription to the PACER service provided by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, you can search the dockets of individual federal district courts or do a combined search of nearly all those courts through PACER's U.S. Party Case Index. You can get limited information without a PACER account by using Justia.

There have been recent reports that plea agreements and related documents may be removed from PACER because of concern they can be used by the controversial website Who's A Rat, which compiles names of informants.

State courts are another matter entirely. There is no publicly available database that combines dockets from all state courts, and many of those courts are not online at all. You may need to go to the relevant county or city courthouse to check the docket. To find out which jurisdictions are online, you can either track down the court's website or use subscription link compilations such as Legal Dockets Online, which also has links to federal and state inmate databases.

There are commercial databases that make it possible to do statewide searches of the dockets that are online. The range from versatile and expensive services such as Courtlink to pay-as-you-go sites such as Search Systems, which charges more modest fees.


3. New MAPLight search engine illuminates special interest ties to Congressional bills


MAPLight.org has launched a new search engine that makes it easy to document the links between specific pieces of legislation in the U.S. Congress and the flow of special-interest money. The site combines all campaign contributions to Representatives and Senators with their votes on every bill, using voting records from the Library of Congress and campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org). MAPLight says that the database can provide quick answers to questions such as: How closely does a vote in Congress correlate with special-interest contributions? Which organizations and industries support and oppose key federal bills? How much money was spent by special interests on each side of a bill, and did legislators receive funds in the final days preceding a vote?


4. Chronicling the glamour and glitz of business


Condé Nast Portfolio is a glossy new business magazine that recently put out an ad-filled premier issue weighing in at more than 300 pages. It appears that the publication will focus on chronicling the glamour and glitz of the business world rather than investigating its transgressions. In her letter to readers, editor in chief Joanne Lipman starts off saying "business is about power. And guts. And passion. Business coverage should be too." Speaking to the New York Times, Condé Nast Chairman S.I. Newhouse indicated that one of his major aims is "to bring luxury and fashion advertisers" to the field of business publishing.

Apart from the print publication, there is a Portfolio website that includes a database of Hoover's-style company profiles and executives that supposedly number more than 500,000. Among the other features is a prison survival guide for CEOs.


5. Upheaval in the business information industry


Two of the biggest names in business information have recently been making news rather than simply reporting it. The future direction of the Wall Street Journal is in question as the Bancroft family, which controls Dow Jones, decides how to respond to a lucrative buyout offer for the company from Rupert Murdoch, who has a reputation for putting his imprint on the media properties he acquires. That wouldn't mean much for the Journal's neanderthal editorial page, but it could threaten the paper's outstanding investigative reporting, which often puts big business in a very unfavorable light. It is also unclear what Murdoch would do to the Factiva news archive, which is valuable to researchers but adds little to the Dow Jones bottom line.

Both Factiva and the more profitable Dow Jones newswires also face a challenge stemming from the recent announcement that business data giant Thomson Corporation plans to take over Reuters Group. To help finance the $17 billion acquisition, Thomson recently announced it was selling off assets such as Thomson Gale, producer of services such as the Business & Company Resource Center, a useful database available on many public library websites.


6. An "Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure"


You've got to hand it to the Pentagon. It approaches everything systematically--even its own misconduct. Recently (May 14) the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story about the way in which Stephen Epstein, Director of the DoD's Standards of Conduct Office, produces an ongoing compilation of the many ways Pentagon officials go bad. Called the Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure, the web-based work provides colorful summaries of transgressions but generally leaves out names and other identifying details. Of course, many of the ethical lapses involve dealings with the private sector, including bribery, conflicts of interest and financial disclosure violations. Here's an excerpt:

"The Facts: An employee of the Maritime Administration (MARAD), a division of the Department of Transportation, oversaw contracts for ship repairs. He also saw a contractor providing him with nice gifts to reward his work--including a large-screen TV and a VCR. What could be wrong with that? Plenty, according to the U.S. Attorney, who delivered to this gracious gift-getter a four-month prison sentence, to be followed by one year of probation, and an order for restitution in the amount of $7,460. The other gifts the employee could have refused; these he was compelled to take."


7. Google eyes state government databases


As part of its never-ending quest to expand its scope of coverage, Google announced recently that it was partnering with four states to make some of their public records available through the search engine. The arrangements with the states--Arizona, California, Utah and Virginia--will cover information that is already accessible via official websites but is not captured by the spider programs used by Google and other search engines to track online information. For example, Arizona will make available to Google data such as its list of registered contractors and its database of real estate agents.

Greater accessibility is a good thing, but one wonders why the states have to achieve this by partnering with a for-profit information company. In announcing her deal, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano stood before a Google banner. What's next--pop-up ads in secretary of state corporate filings?


8. Easier access to 990s


For those put off by the registration and subscription hurdles erected by Guidestar, the good news is that the Foundation Center has created a website that provides easy access to tens of thousands of the Form 990s filed by non-profits and 990-PFs filed by private foundations. The site generally makes available the forms for the most recent five years.


9. Conference on "Taming the Giant Corporation"


Ralph Nader and the Center for Study of Responsive Law have organized an event called Taming the Giant Corporation: A National Conference on Corporate Accountability. It will be held June 8-10 in Washington, DC.

The conference website says the event's "central, pioneering task is to facilitate discussion, debate and strategic thinking about how to subordinate corporate power to the will and interests of the people. How do we replace the excessive corporate privileges and immunities entrenched in law and the economy?" This is the same question that was raised at a similar conference that Nader convened in 1971 and that remains just as urgent today. The upcoming event will address enduring issues such as corporate personhood and new themes such as the need to expand the commons.

Another forthcoming conference will take on related issues from a corporate perspective. The magazine with the oxymoronic name Ethical Corporation will hold an Anti-Corruption Summit in Amsterdam in October. An announcement of the event says: "Every day there seems to be a new piece of news on one of the many corruption scandals currently taking place in Europe. In Germany, France and the UK there have been at least 15 new cases reported in the last year alone. And, with the ever risks involved including long term damage to reputations, steep fines, and even prison sentences it's no wonder companies across Europe are starting to focus on anti-corruption."

The summit will help companies achieve that focus at a price of £1695 a person. Confirmed speakers include top executives from such paragons of corporate virtue as Wal-Mart, Lockheed Martin, Tyco International and Shell.