Commentary: No good deed goes unpunished

The Center responds to its poorly informed critics

Columnists and editorial writers stirring the teapot-sized tempest about foundations that have supported (nefariously, they seem to claim) campaign finance research have also been maligning the Center for Public Integrity—no doubt for our "Orwellian name," as one of them put it—as well. Though the Center seems to be a peripheral target of their ire, and while the best response to much of the nonsense would be no response, there is enough wildly inaccurate information floating around that we decided to set the record straight.

For example, John Fund, writing for the Wall Street Journal‘s Webzine, wrote,

Reporters are used to attempts to hoodwink officials into thinking an issue is genuinely popular, and they frequently expose them. But when “good government” groups like the Center for Public Integrity engage in the same tactics, journalists usually ignore it.

He doesn’t cite a single instance in which the Center has attempted to “hoodwink” government officials (or anyone else, for that matter) into thinking campaign finance is a genuinely popular issue, because he can’t. We simply don’t operate that way. We don’t do public relations campaigns. We don’t lobby Congress. We don’t petition the Federal Election Commission. We don’t pretend we have legions of individuals contributing money to support our work. Our paid membership amounts to around six thousand people; we’d certainly be happy to have more.

We do put out factual information about a number of issues that interest us, one of which is campaign finance. And at least some of the public is interested in reading what we report. The Buying of the President 2004 was a New York Times bestselling book, and our 1996 report “Fat Cat Hotel,” showing that the Clinton White House was renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to campaign contributors, became a topic in the press, on Sunday morning talk shows, even in the monologues of late night comedians. The Center’s founder and former executive director, Charles Lewis, also got to appear twice on the Comedy Central program The Daily Show. But that’s the closest we’ve come to any sort of popularity; and how any of that could hoodwink anyone is a bit of a mystery.

And as for Mr. Fund, back in the days when campaign finance issues were of concern to him, he sought us out to lend authority to his writings on John Huang and quoted us in an October 29, 1996, column on the subject. Is it Mr. Fund’s view that when he wrote about various DNC campaign finance violations, he was trying to hoodwink federal officials into thinking that people cared about the issue?

Then there is the New York Post, which editorialized, in connection with the same brouhaha, that we are “the inaptly named Center for Public Integrity.” They do not, however, say why the name is inapt.

The Post also published a March 17, 2005, commentary by Ryan Sager, who called the Center for Public Integrity a “supposedly independent pro [campaign finance] reform group.” The Center, of course, has never advocated any position on campaign finance reform, or on any other issue, for that matter. We have also never written, published, or broadcast anything at the direction of a third party. We jealously guard our independence and our nonpartisanship.

Over the years, the Post has seen fit to use Center reports on then-Texas Governor George W. Bush lodging his political supporters and some big donors in the Texas gubernatorial mansion; that a donor to Rudy Giuliani’s campaigns had ties to the Russian mob; that Wesley Clark was still an active lobbyist when he announced his presidential campaign; and that a lobbying firm that employed John Kerry’s brother was the presidential hopeful’s top lifetime campaign contributor.

Either these sorts of things are worthy of public attention or not. But if they are not, then why did the Post see fit to write about so many of them? And were we aptly named when they used us to comment on Theresa Heinz’s tax returns during the 2004 campaign? If so, at what point did we become inaptly named? The Post doesn’t say; but we expect it may have something to do with what amounts to a clever advertising campaign that plays fast and loose with the truth.

Don’t believe everything you pay for

Fund, Sager, the Post and a few bloggers have all been citing, as part of their criticism of the Center, a flawed and inaccurate report prepared by a for-profit competitor of some of the non-profit groups that track campaign finance issues. PoliticalMoneyLine, run by a couple of former FEC employees, makes its money by charging for data that groups like the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Campaign Finance Institute, and others give away for free.

We privately objected to PoliticalMoneyLine’s report, particularly their characterization of the Center as a group that advocates campaign finance reforms or lobbies. We’ve never spent a dime on lobbying in the 15 year history of the Center, and never will. We wrote to Kent Cooper, the company’s director, explaining that we received grants to improve disclosure of campaign finance data (as we do with 527 groups, state parties and so on), not to lobby.

Further, we noted that even if one wants to call what the Center does lobbying for campaign finance reform, the PoliticalMoneyLine study falsely claimed we have received more than $20 million for research on the issue. Included in that $20 million were grants that paid for such diverse projects as tracking prosecutorial misconduct, exploring the clandestine trade in exotic animals, and developing a way to quantify the effectiveness of anti-corruption mechanisms (things like a free press, independent judiciary and so on) in countries around the world.

Despite several emails and letters from us and from our attorney, PoliticalMoneyLine refused to correct their shoddy work. Which only goes to show that old saws can be wrong, and that what you pay for is sometimes worth a lot less than what groups like ours put out for free.

Bear in mind also that while the Center for Public Integrity lists our sources of funding on our website, PoliticalMoneyLine won’t say who its subscribers are, or where it got the money to do its study of non-profits. They don’t release their federal income tax returns. They wouldn’t take us up on our offer to swing by their offices and inspect their business records to see if they’ve entered into any special agreements with political parties, corporations, labor unions or other vested interests.

They don’t have to do any of the disclosure, in other words, that a 501(c)3, like the Center for Public Integrity, must do. Not that we’re complaining—we went above and beyond what the law required when Kent Cooper came to take a look at our income tax returns, which we post on our website, and other material, which we’re not required to disclose, but did anyway.

The attack spreads

Ryan Sager picked up the PoliticalMoneyLine report and its findings in a column in TechCentralStation. TCS was founded by a lobbying firm, DCI Group, and that many of DCI Group’s clients, including AT&T, General Motors, Intel, PHARMA, and Qualcomm fund TechCentralStation. They disclose this on their website.

Sager seems like a diligent reporter and he’s certainly done some digging. His main objection to the Center, for all that, seems to be that we’re “sanctimonious.” However, it’s a little hard to take his charges of sanctimony seriously when he writes that campaign finance reform has been nothing more than “an immense scam perpetrated on the American people.”

Is Mr. Sager really not aware of the Charles Keating scandal, when a corrupt and criminal Savings and Loan operator gave hundreds of thousands in campaign contributions to five Senators in exchange for their intervention with banking regulators? Does he think it is a matter of indifference to the Republic that Bernard Schwartz, the CEO of the Loral Corporation, wrote six figure checks to the Democratic National Committee, and the Clinton administration later undermined an investigation into that company’s alleged transfer of sensitive rocketry technology to China? Is he perfectly content that a respected Senator like Bob Dole would support something he called “The Gallo Wine Amendment,” which saved the Gallo family (big contributors to his campaigns) quite a bit in inheritance taxes?

Now, what would Mr. Sager prefer? That groups like the Center not track these sorts of things? That we pay no attention to money in politics? That we leave it to the government to make this information available?

At the outset, I called all this a tempest in a teapot, and indeed it is. There are real ethics problems in Washington — witness, to cite just one example, the tales of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Indian tribes, and members of Congress so ably documented recently in The Washington Post — and there are phony ones. Mr. Sager, Mr. Fund and others are having a wonderful time working themselves up into high moral dudgeon over a bunch of groups that put out information that their papers frequently rely on in their reporting. As the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

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