AP State News Reports: Questionable spending of leftover campaign cash

Sept. 5, 2012
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In this memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for State News, Financial News and Global Training Kristin Gazlay describes how a computer-savvy reporter in Washington state mined a large database and came up with page 1 examples of how legislators were using political contributions in ways that stretched the boundaries of campaign finance law:

Using a state database and his computer-assisted reporting skills, Olympia statehouse reporter Mike Baker was able to come to a startling conclusion: Washington state legislators had been spending thousands of dollars in campaign cash on things like iPads, alcohol, auto repairs, clothes, baseball tickets and even Harvard tuition.

Baker always is looking for databases to mine and, after producing stories about the questionable use of campaign funds by the Democratic candidate for governor, he decided to look at the use of such funds by other candidates and officeholders. He recently had returned from AP advanced computer-assisted reporting training in New Orleans and was eager to work with a really large database. He got a really large one indeed, and he took it for a test drive.

Baker obtained the state Public Disclosure Commission’s entire database for campaign finance, then used his CAR skills to assemble as much other usable information as he could. In addition, he looked over some records the old-fashioned way – by hand. He chipped away at the project over many weeks and doggedly kept after state officials for access to the right data. 

It was a time-consuming and technical task – and what he found rocked the capital. Baker determined that since 2007, Republican Rep. Mike Armstrong had spent $7,000 in campaign cash to buy clothing. Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag had used campaign funds to buy more than $1,000 in Mariners tickets, and Joe McDermott, a Democrat on the King County Council, used $5,600 to pay for his tuition at Harvard. All contended the expenses were legitimate business expenses, but all acknowledged that they knew it didn’t pass muster to ask the state to pay for such items and thus had used funds from their campaign coffers instead.

One of the hardest parts of Baker’s reporting was getting the officials whose use of funds were most egregious to explain why they had used the money in a way that pushes the boundaries of campaign finance law. That took several weeks alone. 

Baker’s piece ran on front pages across the state, and it also got results. The Coalition for Open Government in Washington state said it wanted to see more specific rules on the use of campaign funds, and two former lawmakers have begun working with the Legislature on a way to close the campaign accounts. His stories prompted at least four editorials about the practices by state members as well. And Baker went even further, helping reporters at member papers mine the database so they could produce deep dives on their local state representatives.

For ambitious, well-executed journalism that held officials accountable – and for bringing AP’s members along for the ride – Baker wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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