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Today in #OpenGov 10/30/2014

A newspaper with the headline Open GovNational News

  • Despite predictions that the 2014 midterm elections will be the most expensive ever, it is nearly impossible to truly tell who or what is doing all that spending and who is benefiting. (NPR)
  • All of this money is making some people ask whether the massive spending is having a direct effect on polarization in our politics and in Congress. (Roll Call)
  • Tech donors are making themselves heard this election year having spent more than $20 million on donations directly to Democrats or Republicans. Chances are those numbers are a lot higher if you include independent expenditures. (National Journal)

International

  • Montenegro voted in favor of a new lobbying law that establishes limits on lobbying and sanctions for violations. (Montenegro)
  • The Dutch government is undertaking a data inventory that they plan to release in the spring of next year. (Open State EU)

State and Local News

  • The National Priorities Project launched State Smart, its portal to explore state level budget information. (Executive Government)
  • It can be hard to measure the cost and effectiveness of open data programs because there is significant variation across geography and levels of government. (Brookings)
  • ICYMI: A deep dive into expanding, and undisclosed, efforts by special interests to influence state Attorneys General. (New York Times)

Later This Week

  • OGIS at Five. Newseum Institute and OpenTheGovernment.org. Fri. 10/31. Newseum, Knight Conference Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC.

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.  [...]


Joint fundraisers ballooning after McCutcheon decision

Red and blue silhouettes of donors sitting on piles of money. The header text reads "SPENDING LIMIT AFTER MCCUTCHEON: $3.5+ Million

Seven months after the Supreme Court struck down a provision of campaign finance law that limited the total amount that individuals could contribute to campaigns, parties and political action committees, big donors have a host of new options to more conveniently spread their political influence around.

There are 213 new joint fundraising committees this year, a type of committee that allows contributors to write a single big check to be split among multiple candidates.

Before the McCutcheon decision, the maximum number of recipients that could be included in a joint fundraiser stood at seven. Its beneficiaries can include campaigns, parties and leadership PACs.

Since April 2, when the case was decided, 11 new PACs were formed with more than seven beneficiaries, a Sunlight analysis found. Two of these new “super joints” include more than 20 recipient committees.

Plenty of generous donors are exercising their new freedoms, writing six-figure checks to PACs like the Democratic Grassroots Victory Project — a 26-recipient super joint — to which 12 donors combined to give $1.1 million in September.

Those donors include longtime Democratic campaign benefactor Donald Sussman as well as Ian Simmons, a Massachusetts investor whose $150,000 was the largest hard-money check since the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and reported by the Washington Post.

Recipients of the big donors’ largesse still get money in limited amounts. For example, the maximum amount a donor can give to a candidate — even when using a super joint committee — is $2,600 per election. PACs can get $5,000, state party committees $10,000 and national party committees $32,400. But with the new super joints, a big contribution can benefit a candidate in multiple ways. A group like the GOP’s Targeted State Victory funnels money into 13 state party committees and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Those committees, in turn, can use their donations to run independent expenditures or get out the vote operations to benefit a candidate.

It’s a recurring set-up in the new breed of super joints in our list and the multiple recipients ensure more resources for candidates and more pull for donors that can foot the bill.

The fact that so many party committees are beneficiaries of the new joint fundraising committees suggests that party officials — who often organize these vehicles — will gain greater clout, as former Sunlight Senior Fellow Lee Drutman prognosticated at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision.

The ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission marked another significant shift in the campaign finance landscape that began with the Citizens United decision in 2010. McCutcheon opened another avenue for big donors to extend their influence.

The Sunlight Foundation was one of several organizations that follow transparency and money in politics issues to criticize the court’s decision to lift biennial limits on campaign contributions.

[...]


Interview with Janet Echelman

Janet Echelman builds living, breathing sculpture environments that respond to the forces of nature — wind, water and light — and become inviting focal points for civic life. She is recipient of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her TED talk, “Taking Imagination Seriously,” has been translated into 34 languages and is […] [...]


Welcome to Docket Wrench, SEC and CFTC!

Green and yellow logo of Docket Wrench

Sunlight is pleased to announce that we have now integrated regulatory data from both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) into our Docket Wrench tool.

Thanks to a generous grant supported by Transparency International, and in partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, you can now view both regulatory proposals and comments received by these major federal agencies that oversee the nation’s financial markets. These two agencies do not participate in Regulations.gov, the central regulatory hub for the federal government that fuels Docket Wrench, so it took additional work to bring them into the fold.

Now the public can use our clustering analysis to show when executive branch agencies are being targeted by organized letter-writing campaigns. This is particularly crucial with the CFTC, which does not provide such analysis itself. The SEC has a system where the agency does its own analysis of these clusters, available online in its regulatory section as “type a,” “type b,” etc.

Here is a primer on how to dig in. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

How do I see an agency profile?

Search for “Securities and Exchange Commission” or “Commodity Futures Trade Commission” on Docket Wrench and in the search returns click on the bottom link under “Agencies.” You’ll find yourself here, where you’ll be able to see a timeline graphic showing regulatory actions over time. (Yes, the SEC did work before the 1990s, but that’s when our data begin.) Underneath the timeline graphic, you will find a section called “most recent dockets” and “most popular dockets.” (Remember that the comment-counts for “most popular” dockets could be considerably off for the SEC, since the agency counts clusters of letters with similar or identical language as one comment. Thus, the petition to require corporations to disclose political expenditures displays with 2,777 comments, although the total number of comments received is actually 1.2 million.)

To the right is a list of top “recognized” commenters. This is a somewhat rough analysis of the organizations submitting the most comments to the agency. It is is rough for two reasons:

  1. Because of the way agency data are displayed, it is sometimes difficult to extract the organizational affiliate of a particular commenter; and
  2. We list here only commenters who also have a political profile on our Influence Explorer tool. In other words, entities that make campaign contributions, report spending on federal lobbying, etc.

Despite these caveats, we see organizations that weigh in the most tend to be trade associations representing the financial community, such as the Investment Company Institute, the Managed Funds Association and the Financial Planning Association. Click on any of those organizations’ names to see profiles of their regulatory commenting activity.

How do I see activity for a particular regulation?

Let’s say you are interested in the CFTC’s proposal on position limits, which attracted over 14,000 comments, more than any other proposal by the agency. First you need to search for and find the regulatory docket in question. This can be a bit tricky, as sometimes regulations are labeled by technical language that you may not know. However, in this case, a simple search for “position limits” on Docket Wrench returns the correct link at the top of the page.

Once on this page, you will be able to see a timeline for regulatory proposals at the top center of the page. Below are the iterations of the proposal itself, which you can click on to see the actual language. To the right, on the top, is the total comment count; if you click right below, where it says “view & search comments,” you will be taken to a link with all 14,000-plus comments arranged over several pages. On the bottom-right are the top “comment submitters,” with the same caveats as above — this is a rough look at the organizations that commented the most on this proposal. The link in the middle-right of the page, which says “comment similarity,” is where you can find the tool to help you find clusters of similar comments.

How do I see the comment clusters for a given regulation?

If you follow the instructions above, selecting a particular regulation and clicking on the middle-right link, where it says “explore the similarity of comments in this docket,” you will come to a page that shows comment clusters for that regulation. Here is the comment similarity page for the position limits rule. You will see a series of bubbles. At the top is a summary bubble. You will see how many comments are similar to each other and by how much. In this case, 73 percent of the comments have at least 50 percent similarity to one or more comments. This means that you are quite likely to find significant number of letters that are the results of letter-writing campaigns.

To explore further, scroll down. You will see more bubbles. Each bubble represents a group of comments with similar language. The higher the percentage of similarity, the more chance you will find a group of letters that originated in a single model letter or alert circulated by an organization. As you move your mouse over the bubbles, sample language will pop up for the letters contained in this cluster. In this case, even at the least restrictive level — the 50 percent level — all the letters appear to have similar language to each other.

For example, you can see the following text in all of the bubbles: “Time is of the essence, and I urge you to act quickly. Our pocketbooks and the broader economy depend on it.” When we encountered this back in 2011, our reporter found that the language was traceable to an alert posted by an organization called “Stop Oil Speculation Now,” which could be linked to the airline and petroleum marketing industries. Indeed, if you attempt to visit the website now, you are redirected to a group called “Airlines for America.”

We hope you enjoy the new features of Docket Wrench, and we’re excited to see what you uncover!

[...]


Deepak Chopra’s “Higher Health”

In New Orleans, GreenBuild participants filled an auditorium to hear world-famous author and alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra speak. He shared his road map for “higher health” and discussed practical ways to experience higher consciousness, transformation, and healing. Chopra serves on the advisory board of Delos, a real estate development and research company that has […] [...]


Sunlight’s review of federal open data catalogs (Hint: It’s not so great)

Photo credit: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

We at Sunlight are conducting a broad audit of agencies’ sometimes-faithful attempts to comply with President Obama’s open data executive order from 2013. Our findings so far are good, bad and perplexing.

It’s no secret that finding machine-readable government data can be difficult. At Sunlight, when necessary, we pursue lawsuits and legislation just to get to good data. However, there are some things we just can’t do. While auditing the Department of the Interior’s data catalog, we were left scratching our heads. Too often with federal agencies the data is missing, but with Interior, sometimes we know exactly where it is – there’s just no way for us to touch it. For instance, how are we supposed to get hold of file://LISA-PCC$UsersLisaDocumentsWorking Folderbackup_master1_2PADUS1_2_23Feb2011.gdb?

Some background

The executive order requires federal agencies to publish more and more of their information online, and an important component to this is ensuring that the information is published in a way that is useful to the public. This means, for instance, creating indexes about what data is available, prioritizing important data, and releasing it in machine-readable formats.

One of the most basic requirements is that the index of data actually directs a viewer to the data – for instance, through a hyperlink. In instances like the above, someone – presumably Lisa – has only told the world where to find the “PADUS1_2_23Feb2011.gdb” database on her own computer. It is of no use to the rest of the Internet. Is it somewhere else online? Is it useful data? What does the geodatabase map do? There’s no way to know.

OMB’s dashboard

Fortunately, we’re not the only ones looking for these lapses. So, too, is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the agency charged with helping agencies’ data policies stumble into the 21st Century. OMB isn’t perfect – and has achieved some inglorious feats, such as releasing only one Open Government Plan. They aren’t required to produce these plans, but are charged with making sure other agencies do (those agencies that must comply are supposed to be on their third).

But for the task of reviewing agencies’ compliance with the executive order, it’s doing an admirable job so far. Such a good job, in fact, that we’re hoping it will change OMB’s complicated reputation within the open data advocacy sphere.

OMB’s attempt at analyzing compliance is strong, and much of their analysis is public. This post isn’t about every way in which it could be improved; though, to highlight an example, the published information about agencies’ Enterprise Data Inventories is limited to a red/yellow/green system, meaning many details (like the size of the inventories and the reasons why an agency has decided not to release certain data) are inaccessible.

As Sunlight began our own audit, we took note of how shallow OMB’s analysis currently is. Its analysis tracks some hard numbers and some qualitative issues, things like percentage of datasets with valid metadata and “Public Engagement.” But it stops short of checking whether the data was linked to, whether the link was a valid URL, whether that URL actually worked and whether the dataset it linked to was machine-readable.

Sunlight’s audit

So we embarked on our own audit to show that it was possible and important to take these extra steps. We looked to agencies’ public data listings – the public, sterilized versions of Enterprise Data Inventories, effectively catalogs of downloadable datasets.

Project Open Data — a repository of tools, schemas and best practices — spells out the requirements for compliance with the executive order. The public data listings were supposed to be available by Nov. 30, 2013, with a machine-readable file at “www.[agency].gov/data.json.” We started by taking a look at a selection of agencies’ data.json files to see what was available and what data formats the agencies were publishing.

The process

We wanted to confirm:

  1. whether the data.json catalogs for federal agencies exist where they are supposed to (we looked at 38 agencies, not all of which are legally bound to follow the executive order);
  2. whether those catalogs are valid JSON; and
  3. whether the various URLs listed therein point to downloadable datasets.

According to the schema, agencies have the option of listing a single or multiple URLs for a single dataset, as well as a URL for a webService if the dataset has an API. We collected all of the URLs that might point to a downloadable dataset or API and performed a HTTP HEAD request, which asks for information about a resource at a URL without actually downloading the content.

Department of Labor data is "TBD" or "Available upon request"
Department of Labor data is “TBD” or “Available upon request”

Step 3 is where we found the most interesting results. Valid web URLs – a pretty low standard to which one might hold any data catalog – proved to be a challenge for the federal government. Sometimes instead of an accessURL there is a short message in place of a URL or an identifier for a non-web resource. While examining the public data catalogs we found multiple entries that point to files on people’s PCs or internal servers. Enter: Lisa.

Anecdotal results

Having both a machine-readable catalog and URLs pointing to downloadable data can facilitate the process of harvesting and processing data from government agencies. Invalid URLs, such as the one pointing to Lisa’s PC or ones that aren’t URLs but messages such as “TBD” or “[Available upon request],” aren’t useful.

Even after we corrected URLs that were missing an http or https, we still found instances of completely invalid URLs. We saw typos, invalid domain names and other oddities.The departments of the Interior and Labor had many issues, but a number of issues cropped up elsewhere.

The Securities and Exchange Commission identifies 47 public datasets in their data catalog but does not provide URLs for any of them. One dataset is identified as “Mutual Fund Interactive Data,” while the others are various forms or “rules.”

Some agencies didn’t have a data.json catalog file at the required URL. Try http://www.fcc.gov/data.json for example – it redirects you to fcc.gov/data – a fine solution for human readers, but something that both disobeys the implementation guidance and breaks scripts. Some had a catalog file at the proper location but it wasn’t valid JSON or didn’t conform to the Project Open Data schema.

Our most compelling results so far, with more comprehensive analysis, are the subject of a subsequent post going up tomorrow and will be the focus of a series of follow-up, in-depth explorations.

SEC's null URL "Mutual Fund Interactive Data"
What’s interactive about this data? No one will ever know.

Sunlight reaches out to OMB

With the results we found, Sunlight reached out to OMB. We wanted to do so before its own compliance check (which is an ongoing process) was updated; while it’s nice to throw spitballs at people for underperformance after the race is over, it’s much more productive to let them know where their blind spots are before they cross the finish line. The response we received bolstered our hope, as noted above, for OMB.

We’ve since been working with the Project Open Data team and various other federal employees that are working to evaluate and develop agencies’ data metrics. After showing them our initial findings, we’re happy to say that they have started to expand the capabilities of their dashboard. Right now, that means adding their own checks on URLs in the public data listings and checking for content type. Meanwhile, we’ll be doing deep dives into compliance agency-by-agency, seeing what else needs to be built into that analysis — and what other gems lie waiting to be found, announced and fixed. First up are the departments of Defense and Interior – check back in tomorrow to get a look.

[...]


Jackson Ward in Flux

Richmond, Virginia, is home to one of the most important historically African American communities: Jackson Ward. Just like similar communities in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Chicago, Jackson Ward is close to a resurgent downtown. As a result, the forces of change are bearing down on the ward, with an influx of newcomers. As Mary Lauderdale, […] [...]


Today in #OpenGov 10/29/2014

A newspaper with the headline Open GovNational News

  • The FBI is floating a set of reforms intended to expand protections for whistleblowers at the agency. The proposal includes a number of positive reforms, but isn’t perfect. (POGO)
  • Despite turnover in some key technology positions at the White House, the Obama Administration is still committed to moving forward with an open source software policy. Hopefully that momentum will extend to other open data and open government efforts. (Federal Computer Week)
  • Candidates for the Senate raised so much more money than usual last quarter that the FEC is facing (even longer) delays (than usual) as they try to convert the huge paper filings into digital data to post online. (Roll Call)

International

  • Whistleblowers have a tough time coming forward in Italy, where they often face retribution. A new platform, Anti-Corruption Alert (ALAC) aims to give public and private sector whistleblowers a secure place to share their information. (Tech President)
  • Corruption has not been a major part of the rhetoric, or hard commitments, connected to the Open Government Partnership, but that may be starting to change. (Transparency International)

State and Local News

  • Top aids to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are reportedly using their personal emails while conducting public business. The revelations sparked anger from good government groups. (NY Daily News)
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota is preparing to enter into a contract with opengov.com that will make the city’s budget information publicly available on the platform. (Southwest Journal)
  • A medical marijuana ballot question in Florida is coming down to a money war between billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is against the measure, and a Florida personal injury attorney, who is backing the pro-side. (Washington Post)

Events Today

Later This Week

  • OGIS at Five. Newseum Institute and OpenTheGovernment.org. Fri. 10/31. Newseum, Knight Conference Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC.

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.  [...]


Corporate donors still prefer the shadows

Business groups still prefer to make their political giving in private, a Sunlight examination of donations to super PACs recorded through Oct. 15 suggests.

Prior to 2010, corporations and unions couldn’t give directly to political action committees, though their employees and members were free to donate their own money to sponsored PACs. Individual donations to these PACs, however, were capped at $5,000 a year. After a series of court decisions known collectively as “Citizens United,” however, businesses were free to spend as much as they wanted from their corporate treasury on federal politics, so long as it went to super PACs that didn’t coordinate with the party or candidate.

Determining how much corporations are taking advantage of that isn’t easy: There’s no box to check on Federal Election Commission forms that signifies corporation, so Sunlight analyzed all donations of $10,000 or more to super PACs and classified them as coming from corporations, unions, trusts, political or nonprofit groups, Native American groups or otherwise.

Business giving amounted to about $26 million of the roughly $594 million raised by super PACs between Jan. 1, 2013 and Oct. 15. Unions far outspent corporations during the same time period, giving some $55 million. Political groups and nonprofits’ donations amounted to $27.5 million. Contributions from trusts amounted to just under $12 million, and Native American groups accounted for another $1 million.

red and white chevrons on white background underneath Chevron company name
Chevron gave one of the largest reported corporate contributions to a super PAC. (Logo by Chevron/Wikimedia Commons)

Many of the biggest corporate checks came from groups closely affiliated with big individual donors. A million dollar check from HFNWA, LLC to the Senate Majority PAC appears to be linked to long-time donor Franklin Haney. But others seem more closely tied to corporate interests. The biggest public donation from a publicly traded company this cycle appears to be $1 million from oil giant Chevron to the Congressional Leadership Fund.

But giving to super PACs, which disclose their donors, is just one avenue open to organizations interested in influencing elections. Another result of Citizens United and subsequent court decisions was that nonprofits, corporations and unions can now spend their own money on political ads “expressly advocating” for or against federal candidates without reporting their own donors. To date these dark money groups have disclosed spending more than $124 million on independent expenditures in the current campaign cycle, including $31 million from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Important caveat: Dark money groups only report a fraction of their election spending. Ads that do not clearly advocate for or against a candidate and run more than 60 days before the general election — sometimes called “sham issue ads” — are not reported at all.

The analysis included only itemized contributions to super PACs reported as coming from organizations and individuals; contributions from other PACs — including regular corporate or union PACs themselves subject to contribution caps — were not included. A raw file of all line items from non-individuals to both super PACs and hybrid super PACs is available for download here.

[...]


Dark money still a Republican game

Graphic credit: the Sunlight Foundation

Massive checks from billionaires like Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and James Simons have fueled a Democratic outside spending machine that has helped to keep vulnerable candidates in contention across the country. Third-party spending on behalf of Democrats has kept pace with conservative dollars by and large, but Republicans still dominate at least one facet of the outside money equation: A Sunlight analysis of dark money — from politically active groups that don’t disclose their donors — finds that the practice still has a decidedly Republican bent.

Longstanding organizations like the National Rifle Association and newcomers like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition have opened their coffers to intervene in elections; sometimes in contests across the country, sometimes in a single race. Overall, Republican-leaning dark money groups have spent $94.6 million, while Democratic-leaning groups have spent $28.4 million. Some $1.9 million in expenditures could not be classified.

The most prolific of the spenders, by our tally, is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A trade association and perennial heavyweight on K Street and the campaign trail, almost all of the Chamber’s $31 million in reported spending has supported Republicans or opposed Democrats.

Just behind the Chamber is Crossroads GPS, which has poured in $23 million to softening vulnerable Democratic candidates, $8.6 million of which has been poured into the nail-biter Colorado Senate race. Crossroads GPS is part of the network of organizations that Republican insiders Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, currently the Republican nominee for Senate in Virginia, founded in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.

While Crossroads GPS has an affiliated super PAC that discloses its donors (American Crossroads), the nonprofit arm has fought to keep its donor list quiet. It won an important victory in December of last year when FEC commissioners deadlocked on a decision to investigate the group’s political activity.

As the Center for Public Integrity and others have noted, Democrats are not bystanders in the dark money game. The League of Conservation Voters reported some $9.5 million in independent expenditures this year — good for the highest total of any liberal group — while the union-backed Patriot Majority USA has spent around $8.5 million.

Regardless of which side of the aisle it comes from, the stream of anonymous money is generally flowing toward a handful of tight Senate elections — particularly Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina.

Nonprofit dark money operations generally are 501(c)4 social welfare organizations or 501(c)6 trade associations. Internal Revenue Service rules bar social welfare organizations from being organized primarily to influence electoral politics, though they may still legally spend millions of dollars directly advocating for or against federal candidates in the form of independent expenditures.

When they spend money advocating for or against a federal candidate, these organizations must file a disclosure with the FEC, with some summary information including the type of expenditure (often TV ads), how much was spent and which candidate is targeted. Unfortunately, we know these reports cover only a fraction of the total sum these groups are pumping in to elections.

As Sunlight has reported in the past, politically active nonprofits frequently run “issue advertisements” that skirt the FEC’s definition of express advocacy and go unreported to the FEC.

This covert spending comes to light in the days immediately preceding an election, however, which is partly why we see the large jump in September, as non-filers switch over to directly advocating for candidates — since they will have to report their spending regardless.

The Sunlight Foundation advocates for the DISCLOSE Act which would provide greater transparency of the donors behind nonprofits’ political money.

[...]