Shedding light on Obama’s transparency

 Though the White House has pledged more open government, a new list of visitors indicates to some watchdog groups that the campaign promise has yet to be fulfilled.

By Ben Sellers
sellersjcb@vcu.edu

Who gave to President Obama? Click on the image for an interactive chart of the most commonly recurring names based on the Federal Election Commission’s contribution receipts.

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While the Obama administration’s recently released records of White House visitors for the period spanning Jan. 20 through Aug. 31 may raise a few red flags, one thing that the president’s detractors can’t accuse him of, based on the information, is political patronage.

Due to bad data, comparing the vistor list to the Federal Election Commission’s list of campaign contributors would not necessarily indicate whether a named individual on the visitor list had contributed campaign funds. On the other hand, a lack of identifying information means an array of false positive matches might appear.

The White House visitor database includes records for about 800 unique visitors from Obama’s first eight months in office. Several apparent misspellings, however, make the exact number of visitors more difficult to determine without further verification. By contrast, according to the FEC’s database of campaign contributions, Obama had roughly 760,000 unique campaign contributors with donations cross-matched for city, state and occupation.

WHO’S VISITING?
Topping the list of White House visitors, with 62 visits during the time span, was Lee Sachs, an advisor to Treasury secretary Tim Geithner. Although Sachs isn’t listed as having made any contributions, a $4,600 contribution by a Lee Sacks of Chicago might well belong to him.

The person with the second-most White House visits was Richard Davis, with 57 visits over the eight-month span. But with at least 27 possible campaign donors by that name, there is no indication whether this Richard Davis is the media consultant in Alexandria who gave $1,000 during the campaign; the chief financial officer for Universal Health Services who gave $500; the musician from Chicago who gave $710; or Rick Davis, the self-employed consultant in Springfield, Ill., who gave $215.

Because the White House and FEC lists contain similar names, matching them may also produce misleading results even when only one name appears. For example, it’s not likely that there was any pay-to-play involved in Gary Bauer’s two White House visits. Even though the FEC lists Gary Bauer of Alameda, Calif. as having given $714 to the Obama campaign in nine separate donations, more than likely the Gary Bauer who visited the White House was not the service technician for Heidelberg USA but rather the one-time presidential candidate who now heads the anti-abortion group American Values. Or perhaps it was a third Gary Bauer entirely.

Likewise, the White House cautions on its Web site that some of the names included on its list of visitors may not be who people think they are: “This unprecedented level of transparency can sometimes be confusing rather than providing clear information…. Given this large amount of data, the records we are publishing today include a few ‘false positives’–names that make you think of a well-known person, but are actually someone else.  In September, requests were submitted for the names of some famous or controversial figures (for example Michael Jordan, William Ayers, Michael Moore, Jeremiah Wright, Robert Kelly (‘R. Kelly’), and [New Black Panther Party head] Malik Shabazz).  The well-known individuals with those names never actually came to the White House.”

A BROKEN PROMISE
The lack of identifying information about the visitors is one of a number of issues that transparency advocates have taken with the release. Although the White House touts the disclosure as “transparency like you’ve never seen before,” journalists such as MSNBC.com’s Bill Dedman have been unsuccessful thus far in compelling the Obama administration to release additional information under the Freedom of Information Act. In particular, Dedman objects to the fact that the visitor logs include only a partial list of names. Others were excluded for security reasons or because they were Obama family friends, according to the White House.

“What the Obama administration is doing is forcing the public and press to play a guessing game. If you send in a name of a possible visitor from that period, the White House may confirm that such a person visited. Or it may not,” wrote Dedman in an e-mail posted on the list-serve of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit, recently filed suit against the Secret Service, which oversees the data via its Workers Appointments and Visitors Entry System records, to force the agency to comply with a recent FOIA request. The group especially would like more information about whom White House visitors are meeting with and what the purposes of the visits are. Such details are included in the Secret Service’s WAVES records but were deliberately omitted from the public records, said Judicial Watch Director of Research Chris Farrell.

“The Obama administration, they’ve talked a good game, but they really need to comply with the law… their words and their actions are completely inconsistent,” said Farrell.

Suing the White House is not a new measure for Judicial Watch, which previously filed suit against the George W. Bush administration for the release of records surrounding the visits of scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “The Bush administration was sort of Nixonian in their—some would call it paranoia, others would call it a high, high degree of being less transparent,” said Farrell.

But in spite of Obama’s promises for transparency, “when push comes to shove, when you talk about performance and compliance, they’re worse than the Bush administration,” he added. “It’s sort of ironic.”

AN OPEN BOOK
Another government watchdog organization was more optimistic that the administration’s promises of transparency ultimately will be fulfilled. Dave Levinthal, communications director for the politically neutral Center for Responsive Politics, which operates government fund-tracking site OpenSecrets.org, said the overtures toward transparency were a good start, even if they have yet to be fully realized.

“A lot of folks would like to see the list be more frequent, perhaps more detailed … it’s one thing to say you’re going to be more transparent. When you actually have to be transparent, that’s another thing.”

Levinthal said that the administration has followed through, to an extent, on a similar campaign promise of reducing the influence of lobbyists.

“I don’t know if the final word has been written … there’s a lot of time left for the administration to either prove or disprove its assertion that it’s going to be a much more transparent administration than those previous,” he said.

As to whether campaign contributors might figure prominently on the list of White House visitors, Levinthal said he wouldn’t be surprised to find a correlation, just as one might find a link in other areas like diplomatic appointments.

“Campaign contributions—they oftentimes will indicate a relationship. … You’re unlikely to give $2000 to someone you don’t support. … If person knows you’ve given money, you’re gonna be more inclined to make sure that person is welcomed,” he said.
____________________________________________________________________

About the data

Information for this project was gathered primarily from two data sources: the visitor logs available at WhiteHouse.gov, and the complete list of presidential campaign contributors available via the deep Web at FEC.gov.

In order to find the number of recurring visits to the White House, a Microsoft Access query was used to count any matches on first and last names. This information was then included in an Excel spreadsheet to create the chart of the top 10 visitors.

For the bubble chart of Obama’s biggest givers, Microsoft Access was again used to query the list of campaign donors. The list was limited to Obama campaign donors only and grouped by total contributions according to the donor name. Note that this list should not be construed to suggest that any individual donor gave a specific amount, as names could reflect multiple donors.

Though there were more than 600,000 unique names on the donor’s list, limiting it to names that summed more than $20,000 gave a list of roughly 175 names. The Obama Victory Fund, which by and large contributed the most in four donations totaling $21.5 million, was excluded from the list.

Though one initial goal of the research was to match the White House and FEC lists to see what names appeared on both, it was ultimately concluded that such a comparison would be fruitless, if not misleading, given the available data.

–Ben Sellers

~ by bensellers on December 9, 2009.

4 Responses to “Shedding light on Obama’s transparency”

  1. i might not have considered this was trendy many years back then again it’s surprising how age evolves the means by which you comprehend many different creative ideas, thanks regarding the post it is nice to go through something clever occasionally in lieu of the normal rubbish mascarading as blogs on the web, cheers

  2. Thank you so much for the kinds words! The article was written for a graduate-level class in computer-assisted reporting. Obviously, the fact that the two data sets didn’t really match the way I’d hoped was disappointing, but I was very proud of the excellent insights I received on the story from my sources.

  3. Substantially, your article is actually a deserving topic to Obama and his tasks. Although I do not concur with some minor points in general I´m fully on your way. I´m looking forward to see his coming opinion about health questions. Saying thanks for your Good work and writing is an important thing nowadays. Keep on..

    • Very kind of you to say so. Really, I think this was two separate stories, but due to the parameters of the assignment, I had to do my best to fit them into one. I had considered revising the piece for possible journal publication, focusing more on the White House visitors data and those transparency issues without going into the FEC data. However the resources I cited, notably Judicial Watch, are so diligent in their efforts that the story felt a little stale when all was said and done. I would, however, be interested in following up at some point.

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