Finding New Money

May 28 2012

My colleague Raymond Hernandez has a story about an unusual aspect of New York Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel’s fundraising: after years of raising millions to help elect other candidates, the 40-year veteran is now taking money from some of his House colleagues for the first time ever.

Ray did 95% of the reporting work here, including getting lawmakers to talk about their financial support for a legendary politician. Vermont’s Peter Welch: “Charlie never asked me directly,” Mr. Welch said. “I don’t remember if I heard from another colleague that Charlie needed help. But I was not going to make Charlie come to me.”

My part was pretty simple: On May 18, I spotted a contribution to Rangel’s campaign that seemed unusual to me. Why would it be unusual for Steny Hoyer’s leadership PAC to give to Rangel? First, Rangel is the kind of guy who had never needed much help raising money. He was a high-ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee and had his own leadership PAC to raise money to distribute to others. That Hoyer’s PAC would give him $5,000 – the maximum contribution – made me look a little deeper.

Thanks to the Federal Election Commission’s bulk FTP data, it’s relatively easy to research the history of giving between a committee and a candidate. I looked back to 1979 and found no evidence of Hoyer’s PAC ever giving to Rangel prior to this year. Then I wondered: if the minority leader is doing this, who else is giving Rangel money?

There are three different ways to find out using FEC data. The first is to look at those FTP files, which are updated every week. The second is to look at electronic filings as they come in, which I also do (and that’s how I spotted the initial contribution). The third is to watch for electronic filings of large ($1,000+) contributions during the 20 days before a primary or general election. These must be filed with the FEC within 48 hours of the contribution.

The FTP data is very easy to use, but it is only updated once a week. The electronic filings can be more timely, and they can help give you a picture (a potentially incomplete one) of a candidate’s fundraising by looking at reports from committees who give money. Many of those committees file monthly reports, and they will report giving money before Rangel’s campaign reports receiving it. That was key here: Rangel’s last campaign filing was in April, and his next is due in July.

We load the expenditures from each electronic filing into a database table, and while it’s not as clean as the FTP data, this expenditures table was the key to finding the other donations referenced in the story. (An aside: you’ll note that we didn’t report a grand total for contributions from Rangel’s colleagues. That’s because there’s no way of knowing for certain until all of them have filed reports. The fact that more than a dozen had done so for the first time ever made it news enough; the actual amount isn’t terribly important to me.)

I needed to check each of the new Rangel donations against the history of committee contributions, but the FTP data makes that pretty simple. Having both the electronic data and the FTP data in the same database makes this kind of story much easier to do. Since the FTP committee contributions to candidates data is in The Times’ Campaign Finance API and Fech handles electronic filings, this isn’t just something we can do, either. Now anyone covering a House race can see interesting and newsworthy transactions and act on them immediately. Little by little, we can get closer to telling the story of elections as they happen, not just after they end.