Dirt Diggers Digest No. 82  

Editor: Philip Mattera

January 15, 2008



-- 1. Crocodyl: the critical wiki on corporations

-- 2. Executive pay comparisons made easy

-- 3. OMB federal spending database up and running

-- 4. CSR goes crazy for awards

-- 5. White House found behind move to weaken the TRI

-- 6. "The Buying of the President" once again

-- 7. "Where are they now?" documents the revolving door

-- 8. Project Sunlight promotes transparency in New York State

-- 9. WiserEarth: The mother of all movement directories

-- 10. New guide to business backgrounding

1. Crocodyl: the critical wiki on corporations


For researchers tired of the bland content of business websites such as Hoover's, a new resource is being developed that will provide critical profiles of major companies from around the world. Crocodyl is a wiki that has been launched by CorpWatch with participation by organizations such as the Center for Corporate Policy and the Corporate Research Project. Crocodyl--the name is derived from "collaborative research on corporations"--is intended to be a tool for environmental, labor, consumer protection and human rights campaigners. It also aims to foster cooperation between researchers in the developed world and those in the global South.

As a wiki, the growth of Crocodyl will depend heavily on submissions from its users. Dirt Diggers Digest readers are in an especially good position to contribute. Consider adapting research you are already doing for other purposes into a Crocodyl profile. Even if you cannot commit to a full profile, there are other ways to participate. For example, Digest editor Phil Mattera has been building a Crocodyl research inventory of books, reports and websites on specific companies. You can add other items to the list--either from your own organization or elsewhere.

Speaking of wikis, it is worth mentioning that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has launched an initial version of a wiki-inspired search engine called Wikia.


2. Executive pay comparisons made easy


Just before the Christmas holiday, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox announced a new tool that allows researchers to make instant comparisons of executive pay levels. The site aggregates the summary compensation tables included in the annual proxy statements (or sometimes 10-Ks) filed by publicly traded companies, which now have to tag that information in XBRL format so it can be automatically extracted from the documents. Users can display results for a single company, an industry group, or for all firms with a certain level of market capitalization or revenue. It is even possible to display data from the entire universe of reporting companies, though the site currently is limited to 500 large companies. The data can be downloaded to a spreadsheet.


3. OMB federal spending database up and running


In mid-December the U.S. Office of Management and Budget defied the skeptics and announced that it would meet its January 1 deadline for launching the federal spending database mandated by Congress in 2006. The USASpending.gov site adopts an implicitly anti-government posture by stating: "Have you ever wanted to find more information on government spending? Have you ever wondered where federal contracting dollars and grant awards go? Or perhaps you would just like to know, as a citizen, what the government is really doing with your money."

Like the FedSpending website introduced by OMB Watch in 2006, USASpending has two sections: Contracts and Assistance (FedSpending calls the latter Grants). It mimics FedSpending in allowing searches by contractor name, location, Congressional District, agency and type of product or service. There are also strong similarities in the assistance/grants searches.

The parallels are not coincidental. According to the Washington Post, OMB awarded OMB Watch a $600,000 contract for its software and received help from the non-profit on launching the site. For now, OMB Watch will continue to make its version of the database available.

The sites are a great boon to researchers, but Secrecy News, published by the Federation of American Scientists, recently reported that several intelligence agencies have received waivers that allow them to withhold unclassified (as well as classified, of course) information about their contracts from USASpending.


4. CSR goes crazy for awards


The field of corporate social responsibility (CSR) increasingly looks like the movie business: it is obsessed with giving itself awards. CRO Magazine, not satisfied with its annual list of the "100 best corporate citizens," has started publishing lists of the top ten such "citizens" in every major industry. Given that some of these industries barely have ten major companies, the results presented by CRO (short for corporate responsibility officer) can be dubious. For example, General Motors is among the top ten for the "auto & vehicles" sector, as is Microsoft in "technology & software."

Two of CRO's competitors have shifted from celebrating companies to lauding corporate executives and other individuals. The magazine Ethisphere issued a list of the "100 most influential people in business ethics." Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott was ranked number 4, but to its credit the magazine included corporate critics such as Danielle Brian of the Project On Government Oversight (No. 31) and Todd Paglia of ForestEthics (No.60). UK-based Ethical Corporation magazine has come out with "Ethical Leaders: Best of the Best- 15 Leaders who made a difference in 2007," which puts Scott at No.2 and includes others as varied as the environment correspondent of the Financial Times and Bill Clinton.

If corporations and their executives were as praiseworthy as these various awards suggest, we dirt diggers would find ourselves unemployed.


5. White House found behind move to weaken the TRI


A recently released report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office makes it clear that pressure from the White House Office of Management and Budget was behind the 2006 decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to weaken industry reporting requirements relating to the Toxics Release Inventory.

GAO found that EPA had not followed its own guidelines when changing the requirements, because it was forced to adhere to a timetable created by OMB for paperwork reduction. The GAO report also estimated that the TRI changes allowed more than 3,500 facilities to end detailing reporting on their toxic releases.

In late November, a group of 12 states filed suit against the EPA in federal court in the Southern District of New York (Case 07-CV-10632) in an effort to get the TRI changes overturned.


6. "The Buying of the President" once again


The Center for Public Integrity, which has documented the role of money in politics with its series of books on the "Buying of the President," is turning its sights on this year's presidential race. The Center has launched a "Buying" website that looks at the donors, the candidates and the "spoils"-what the donors expect to get in return for their "investment." Among the other features is a "document warehouse" containing the financial disclosure forms filed by the candidates, both recent and those relating to the offices held before joining the race.


7. "Where are they now?" documents the revolving door


The migration of politicians from the halls of Congress to the lobbying firms of K Street has reached the point that it was the focus of a recent Doonesbury comic strip. But it is not only the electeds who tend to make the move; their staffers also pass through the revolving door.

To help keep track of staffers-turned-lobbyists, the Sunlight Foundation has created a webpage called Where Are They Now? It is described as a "distributed research tool," which means that volunteers are asked to assemble the information by looking for matches between current lobbyist filings with the Senate Office of Public Records and a 2006 edition of the Congressional Directory. Now is a good time to undertake this project, since the one-year cooling off period (during which top staff members who left after the 2006 election were barred from lobbying former colleagues on the Hill) has come to an end.


8. Project Sunlight promotes transparency in New York State


The trend toward greater state government transparency discussed in the last issue of the Digest took another step forward recently in New York State. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo introduced a website called Project Sunlight that brings together information from a variety of existing databases and allows easier searching across those sources. For example, one can insert the name of a company, organization or individual and find hits relating to corporate and charity filings, campaign contributions, lobbying activities, state procurement contracts and Member Items (earmarked appropriations). It is also possible to start with the name of a state legislator and see what bills he or she sponsored and which groups lobbied on the measure. Cuomo says that all this is just the first phase of a much larger resource.


9. WiserEarth: The mother of all movement directories


WiserEarth is a website that attempts to catalogue organizations that are seeking to change the world by addressing issues such as "climate change, poverty, the environment, peace, water, hunger, social justice, conservation, human rights and more." WiserEarth, a project launched by Paul Hawken and his Natural Capital Institute, currently claims to cover more than 100,000 such groups. WiserEarth is set up as a wiki, so that listings can be created by anyone. The search engine allows you to find groups dealing with a particular issue or adversary. For example, searching the term "Wal-Mart" yields 44 listings, ranging from small sitefight organizations to major campaigns such as Wal-Mart Watch.


10. New guide to business backgrounding


Business Background Investigations is the title of a recently released book by Cynthia Hetherington, an investigator who recently joined the insurance company Aon after running her own agency for many years. The primary aim of the book is to assist in due diligence investigations, but it can also be useful for those doing corporate campaign or other opposition research. Most of the sources she cites will be familiar to veteran researchers, but there are helpful tips concerning specific types of research, such as asset searches, backgrounding company principals and tracking obscure regulatory violations. For freelancers, there are tips on dealing with clients, preparing reports and billing practices.