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Following the Money in Politics

Craft: Lessons From The Field

Following the Money in Politics

Just Start Digging: Don't Stop 'Til You Hit Paydirt

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In 2007, I tagged along with my husband, Barry Bergman, to the Berkeley home of Arlene Blum, sofa cushion in hand. Barry was working on a story for UC Berkeley’s NewsCenter about Blum, a chemist who’d just joined the university as a visiting scholar. She wanted to use her portable X-ray fluorescence gun to test our sofa’s foam for flame retardants, added to certain consumer products to meet California’s flammability standard.

Blum got the XRF gun after she discovered that chlorinated tris—the same flame retardant chemical her research helped ban in 1977—had resurfaced in furniture foam. She aimed the gun at our cushion and waited for a reading. Sure enough, our couch was California-compliant—and loaded with flame retardants.

In animal studies, flame retardants can cause thyroid dysfunction, neurodevelopmental and reproductive system defects, immune suppression, and cancer. Potential human effects are mostly unknown, though studies have linked flame retardant exposure to altered thyroid hormones in men, reduced fertility in women, lower IQs in children, and early puberty in girls. This has caused enough concern to propel researchers funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program to investigate short-term and long-term effects of flame retardants.

Disturbed as I was, I didn’t pursue the flame retardant issue until I noticed that stories about unsuccessful efforts to regulate the chemicals in California quoted activists, including Blum, who said the bills failed because the chemical industry spent millions to defeat them.

The $4.6 billion flame retardant industry—projected to reach $6 billion by 2018—had a strong incentive to protect its products. Yet I never saw a reporter document its multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign. So I started digging.

What the money trail revealed

I discovered infusions of chemical industry cash that coincided with the defeat of five bills to regulate flame retardants. Over the five years the California Legislature considered, and rejected, bills to revise the flammability standard and reduce toxic exposures, the chemical industry, its lobbyists, and PR representatives spent $23.2 million to influence California officials and donate to campaigns.

The top four recipients of industry campaign donations—totaling at least $593,000 over three election cycles— failed to vote for regulation of flame retardants in any form. At least $22.5 million underwrote lobbying activities by industry trade groups and public relations firms. (My story on this lobbying campaign ran in Environmental Health News.)

From flame retardants to phthalates to bisphenol-A, more and more mass-produced chemicals worth billions of dollars are coming under increased scrutiny for potential health risks. They’re all good candidates for a follow-the-money story.

Where to start

Tracking the flow of money around multiple bills and election cycles is bound to generate a daunting amount of material. Keep your investigation focused. I started with one question—how much money did chemical industry interests spend as California legislators considered bills to regulate flame retardants?—and tried to stay on point. 

Be conservative. Casting too wide a net can raise doubts about your conclusions. Several large petroleum companies, including Chevron, produce flame retardants, but the chemicals represent a fraction of their portfolio, so it’s difficult to link their campaign donations to flame retardant bills. That’s not to say that a Chevron representative talking to a California legislator at an industry-funded reception on clean air couldn’t talk about flame retardants, or indirectly communicate displeasure with the bills by disparaging attempts to regulate toxics one chemical at a time.

My editor, Marla Cone, and I decided to include only top flame retardant manufacturers and entities that listed flame retardant issues on disclosure forms in calculating the figures. But we wanted to acknowledge that even more money may have been spent on the issue, so we said, “the amount does not include $742,000 in campaign donations from Chevron, Dow, Exxon, and Occidental—which all produce flame retardants—because the companies lobbied California legislators on many other issues related to oil and chemicals.”

I didn’t suggest a quid pro quo, but showed that money buys access to those setting and implementing policy—in the form of private dinners, banquets, receptions, seminars, and other informal events—and revealed a pattern of giving leading up to key votes.

And of course, the same techniques can be used to trace lobbying money in other contentious campaigns—including lobbying by tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, industry front groups—which you can then compare to lobbying money spent by consumer, education, or environmental groups.

Where to find the money

For California, provides the history of bills, including the text of legislation, when bills were introduced, dates of votes, legislators’ vote ledgers, and a bill’s fate.

As required by California’s Political Reform Act, the state maintains an online database, Cal-Access, of campaign donations and lobbying expenditures for each election cycle. Search for contributions by “Who’s Giving” and “Who’s Receiving,” and then download spreadsheets with several fields, including contributor (or recipient), amount contributed, and date of contribution. Delete the fields you don’t need in order to keep the data as manageable as possible.

You can search lobbying activity in Cal-Access by lobbyist employer or lobbyist to find out who corporations or their trade groups hire, how much they pay per quarter, and what bills and agencies they lobbied.

A particularly useful resource, the “report of lobbyist employer” (Form 635), lists beneficiaries of “activity expenses” and describes the activity. This is where you can find out, for example, that the California Manufacturing and Technology Association spent $5,398 on a wine tasting reception to entertain legislators in Sacramento and $1,080 to take two legislators to dinner in Hawaii.

Retrieving information from online databases, especially Cal-Access, can be painfully slow under peak usage. Plus, Cal-Access produces only so much data at a time. So if legislators have held office for three election cycles, their contribution records will likely overwhelm the system and you’ll receive the dreaded reproach, “Your search returned more than the maximum allowed. Please refine your search.” In most cases, I had to limit my search to two years.

Don’t expect clean data. No doubt you’ll find discrepancies in donation amounts, spellings, and formatting that vary with the search interface. For example, you can search for donations by recipient and contributor or by those who spent $5,000 or more to influence legislators and administrators. All the interfaces pull from the same database, but they’re formatted differently (with columns in different positions or legislators listed with first name instead of last name), making it harder to compile and analyze spreadsheets and easy to miss duplications.

If you get stuck, don’t be afraid to ask for help. The staff at California’s Political Reform Division can help you navigate its unwieldy, often confusing databases. Call   (916) 653-6224 and ask for a database expert.

Other resources

Project Vote Smart provides voting record and campaign finance data on government officials from the local to the federal level for every state.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics has produced a 50-state assessment of lobbying expenditure data, including if, when, and how data is available for each state.

The Center for Responsive Politics’ is easier to use than the Cal-Access site, and helpfully provides legislators’ names from a pull-down menu. But since lobbyists and legislators are required to file disclosure forms with the official state database, I used as a research tool and Cal-Access for my final figures.

Change afoot

Thanks to more and more stories reporting the dangers of flame retardants and the dirty tricks of industry to protect their products, the toxic chemicals’ days on the market could be numbered.

In 2012, the Chicago Tribune ran a devastating investigative series (“Playing with Fire”) that exposed a pattern of chemical industry deception about the effectiveness and safety of flame retardants, including a star witness whose testimony against regulation before the California legislature included a fabricated story about a baby who died because an untreated pillow supposedly burst into flames.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin responded to the story with outrage and called on federal agencies to phase out flame retardants that pose health risks.

On June 18, 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown called on the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair, Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation to change its flammability standard in a way that increases fire safety without using toxic flame retardants. The Sacramento Bee reported in January 2013 that the agency may issue a new standard as early as February.

The ability to track the flow of money in politics is a powerful tool. When you follow the money on issues with serious public health implications, you’re not just holding the powerful accountable — you’re doing a public service. I don’t know about you, but that’s why I got into journalism.  

Image by Chez Eskay via Flickr

-- Liza Gross is a freelance journalist, contributor to Environmental Health News, and senior editor at the journal PLOS Biology. She was copy chief at Parenting magazine and specialized in toxics and environmental health at Sierra magazine. She has also worked as a staff writer for San Francisco’s Exploratorium, which focuses on science, art, and human perception.


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