Watchdog toolkit

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's Bill Lueders shares his secrets to getting public information, to help you keep an eye on power

Foggy on how to access public information in Wisconsin? Bill Lueders can help. Sturgeon Bay, November 2013. Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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The Center’s resource page on Wisconsin open government, including how to file requests for information.

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Campaign finance and lobbying
The Wisconsin legislature
Investigating organizations

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has launched this project to help residents track the actions of people in power. We tip our hats to our colleagues at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting for originating a version of “Be Your Own Watchdog” in early 2013.

Campaign finance and lobbying

How can I dig into state campaign finance data?

The key public repository for this information is a database maintained by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. The site allows searches for registrants, reports, receipts and expenditures, among other categories. Different categories work better for different quests. Here are some specific things you can do.

Tally contributions to a given candidate: On the left-hand side of the page, click “View Receipts,” which logs all contributions from all sources and to all recipients. To search for contributions to an individual candidate, change the Filing Period Name to “All Filing Periods” by clicking the arrow, then enter a date range and candidate’s name in the field called “Receiving Registrant.”

Important note: The system tracks campaign committees, not candidates, so when you enter a candidate name in the “Receiving Registrant” field you may have to select from several committees. Generally the top committee is the most current.

Searches can be narrowed by contribution type (individual, self) and by whether they come from out-of-state. If you don’t enter a date range, the system will cull all records going back to mid-2008, when it was created.

Most searches will yield a significant amount of data, so it will make sense to download as a CSV or XLS file, at the bottom of the return page. Then the data can be more readily sorted and analyzed. Here are some examples:

  • Find how much a given donor has contributed:Use the View Receipts page but fill in the fields for contributor name. If no receiving registrant is selected, the search will yield records for all recipients.Note: Searches of this sort can be done much more simply by using the Campaign Finance Database maintained by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. This system even goes back further in time but is a bit less complete, as it only tracks donors who give $100 or more.
  • See how the money is being spent: Navigate to the “View Expenses” page, change the Filing Period Name to “All Filing Periods,” then enter a registrant name and a date range if desired.

Nifty feature: Searches can also be done by Expense Purpose by clicking the drop-down menu in this field. It’s possible to quickly find, for instance, that $5,258,399 was spent on “Media – Radio” in all state races between Jan. 1, 2011 and Dec. 31, 2012. Now you know.

How can I find who is lobbying whom over what?

The state Government Accountability Board maintains a database called Eye on Lobbying. The key information categories are arranged in the top bar as “Who Is Lobbying?,” “What Are They Lobbying About?” and “Principal Lobbying Efforts.” The system defaults to the current legislative session but searches can be done back to the 2003-04 session.

As with campaign finance records, the lobbying database is so robust that it helps to give examples of specific searches:

  • Track lobbying efforts by a particular group:Select “Who Is Lobbying?” on the top bar and then “Lobbying Principals” in the menu that comes up on the left. Enter the group name or partial name in the search field and search. For instance, entering the word “National” will yield about a dozen registered lobby groups with this word in their name. Select the group you want and the site will take you to a page for the group from which you can find its registered lobbyists, lobbying interests and lobbying efforts.Note: The field “Lobbying Interests” will indicate all legislation or topic areas on which the group has expressed an interest, and whether the group has taken a position for or against. The field “Lobbying Efforts” will list how many hours the group has reported spending on this topic area, broken down by six-month reporting period.Nifty feature: From the “Lobbying Efforts” field you can select a given six-month “Lobbying Activity Period” and from there select a “Totals and Certification” report that will list time and expenditures for each individual lobbyist.
  • Track the activity of a given lobbyist: Select “Who Is Lobbying?” and select the search function for “Licensed Lobbyists.” For each lobbyist you can find a Profile that includes contact information and a list of represented principals, or clients. Click on a given principal and you can see all of its licensed lobbyists, as well as its lobbying interests and efforts.
  • Track activity on a given bill or interest area: Select “What Are They Lobbying About?” and then search by bill, topic or keyword. Searches of bills will yield information about who has registered an interest, whether they have taken a position, and how much time they’ve spent. Searches for topics will lead to lists of lobbying groups; searches for keywords will lead to bills.
  • Get big-picture information on lobbying activity: Select “Principal Lobbying Efforts” to obtain a complete listing of lobbying activity for each legislative session, arranged by hours and dollars.

How do I find similar information on campaign finance and lobbying in other states?

Check out the list of links to disclosure offices in all 50 states maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

How do I track campaign donations and spending for federal candidates, like U.S. senators and congresspeople?

The most direct and comprehensive source of federal campaign finance data is the Federal Election Commission. One simple way to locate data is by searching the summary reports for candidates, parties or political action committees in various election cycles. There’s a page to search out contributions from individuals. There’s also a handy portal for electronically filed reports, from which you can obtain individual filings from candidates, parties and committees. Plus you can search for FEC data by state.

The Center for Responsive Politics tracks federal campaign contributions by categories including candidate and race. Go to Politicians & Elections and pick a category: Presidential, Congress, etc. Elsewhere on the site you can do donor searches by individual name, state, or employer. The group also classifies contributions by company and business interest.

How can I correlate contributions to votes?
A national nonprofit group called MapLight allows users to search by bills, legislators, interest groups, contributions, companies, or topics, and see how contributions made correlate to votes cast. The groups runs a national website for federal politicians and issues and two state websites, including one for Wisconsin.

State legislation and spending

How can I find a particular bill?

The Wisconsin state Legislature runs a robust website for past and current legislation. But there are challenges to its use.

  • If you know the bill number: Enter it into search boxes at lower left side of page.
  • If you only know keywords or subject: Go to the menu option “Legislation” in the left hand column and pick “Current session.” That will take you to a webpage that allows general searches. You can type in a bill number or a subject or keywords and find files.
  • If you just want to poke around: Go to “Legislation,” then “Current session,” then click categories like “Assembly bills,” “Senate bills” and “Senate Joint Resolutions” to get to lists of all legislation in a given session. This allows for much deeper searches than the list that appears on the right of the “Current session” page, which just lists recently introduced legislation.

To see what has happened: For any given bill, the most useful place to go is the bill text and history, which contains links to the text, amendments, fiscal estimates, committee referrals, and Government Accountability Board records on lobbying registrants and activity. For some bills there is a link under the acronym ROCP, for “Records of Committee Proceedings,” which will show who registered and testified at any public meeting, and any committee votes.

To understand what is being proposed: The bill text will include an more-or-less plain English analysis of what it will do by the Legislative Reference Bureau. This is not updated if the bill is amended in the course of the process. For that, you must check the individual amendments or the file of the law as enacted.

To keep tabs on pending legislation: The Legislature allows users to sign up for notifications about activity on particular bills, and by subject, lawmaker or committee. Just go the Legislature’s bill notification page and create an account. You can go back and manage notifications at any time, adding or erasing bills or categories to track. The site will send an email notifying you of any activity — new or withdrawn cosponsors, committee hearings and any votes.

What else can I learn about past and pending legislation?

The Legislature’s web page has a hard-to-find portal for locating written testimony submitted in support or opposition to a given bill. (Want proof it’s hard to find? Here’s the roadmap: Go to “Legislative Service Agencies” in upper left menu, click “Legislative Council Staff,” then pick “Standing Committees,” then in the dropdown menu that appears “Bill Hearing Testimony and Materials.” Or you can just click on the word “portal” above.) Click the bill or resolution option for Assembly or Senate, enter the bill number and voila!

To find drafting documents, which show how a bill’s language was altered and, at times, which players were involved in this process (sometimes including outside special interest groups), go to “All Session-Related Documents” off the main search page. These files are not always kept up-to-date during the current session.

The archives, which allow searches for each two-year session contain much more, especially by following the link to “Other session-related data.” You can search for legislation by “Subject Index,” find passed bills in the “Acts Index,” and, of course, dig into the “Drafting files.”

To find drafting files for past sessions, go to “Drafting files” in the field for Archives.

Finally, in recent years many legislative hearings and all floor sessions have been recorded by WisconsinEye. The best way to find past videos is to use the “Advanced search” function on the left-hand side. Searches can be done by date, committee and bill number.

How can I track state agency spending?

In early 2014, the administration of Gov. Scott Walker unveiled a long-promised new website, OpenBook Wisconsin, which tracks spending by state agencies, including the University of Wisconsin. The site is still not fully operational, and there are limits as to what information is available. But it is a good resource for tracking expenditures, especially if you know the vendor and year they are made. Searches can be done using just one field at a time — agency, category or vendor. You can increase results by using the search function “contains” for the key word, instead of the default “starts with.”

Investigating organizations

How can I check up on a nonprofit group?

Federal law requires annual 990 Form tax filings from registered nonprofit groups. Check GuideStar (requires registration but no fee) or the Foundation Center’s 990 Finder. These filings list annual revenue and expenditures  (Part 1, Summary, with revenue tallied in Part VIII and expenditures in Part IX) but often not individual income sources. Other highlights: officer salaries (Part VII, Section A), investments and assets (Schedule D) and grants to others (Schedule I).

Groups with nonprofit status are also required to make these forms available from their office on request. See Guidestar’s explanation of relevant IRS rules here.

The New Jersey Center for Nonprofits also has a good overview. For information on state groups incorporated as nonprofits, see state Department of Financial Institutions database (next).

What information is available on corporations, including nonprofits, that are operating in my state?

The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions maintains a database listing available records from state corporations, including nonprofits. You can use it to find the names and addresses of the corporation’s registered agent, and to order annual reports, at $10 a pop. Other records, like articles of incorporation, can also be ordered.

DFI also regulates charitable organizations and fundraising organizations. Some financial information is available online.

What can I learn about individual labor unions?

The U.S. Department of Labor requires labor unions to file detailed disclosure of their finances and organization, including assets, liabilities, membership and employee compensation. See the Department’s Union Search form to access. Search tip: Enter the name of the state where the union is based and hit “Submit” at bottom of the form, then view alphabetical list to find a given union and archived reports.

What can I learn about an employer’s record on workplace safety?

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Labor, maintains a database of inspections and enforcement actions. Go to the Labor Department’s Data Enforcement Page and check the box for “OSHA Inspections.” Then you can search by state or zip code and other delimiters. Note: If you check a delimiter like Year of Penalty Amount, you have to specify the desired range in the right-hand column before you can search.

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