If you grew weary of the American presidential campaign of 2016, you’re in for a bumpy ride in 2020. From now until November, it will be hard to read any newspaper or watch a news program without hearing about the battle between Candidate X and Candidate Y.
What does this mean for investigators?
Unlike public funding provided for campaigns in many other countries, big money drives U.S. campaigns. In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission that independent political donations by corporations, non-profits, and unions are protected under the First Amendment. According to the Center for Responsive Politics—a non-partisan, independent non-profit whose mission is tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy—this ruling has opened a flood-gate of political contributions nationwide. The 2018 midterm election cycle was the most expensive on record: $5.7 billion. 2020 is bound to be just as pricey. Candidates and factions will be digging up dirt on their opponents.
As an investigator, you may be hired to determine who is in the pocket of whom. Luckily, information on political donations is regulated under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974 (FECA). A political donation record includes the donor’s financial position (if contributing large amounts of money), date, occupation, residential address, and the candidate or Political Action Committee (PAC) that received the contribution. Two websites are invaluable in pursuing campaign contributions: The Center for Responsive Politics (CPR) and the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
The Center for Responsive Politics
OpenSecrets.org is an arm of the Center for Responsive Politics. This comprehensive database tracks donations by individuals, PACs, corporations, non-profits, unions, and industries. If you’ve ever donated to a political candidate, you’re sure to find your name listed. If you are interested in a particular donor, click the Menu Tab on the homepage, then the Donor Lookup tab. You will be taken to a new page, where you can enter the name of the person you are investigating. A compilation of donations will appear. You can download the list as a CSV file.
Interested in a particular Congressional candidate? You can enter the person’s name on CRP’s Congressional Races page. You will be directed to a new page, which shows the race she/he is in and how much all candidates have based received on the most recent Federal Election Commission filings. Click on the person of interest. The candidate’s information page will include data on contributions from industries, PACs, individuals, etc.
The Federal Election Commission
The Federal Election Commission’s website also contains a searchable database. You can select Campaign Finance Data on the homepage for a dropdown menu with individual contributions. Advanced searches provide additional identifiers like state, occupation, or time period. If an individual or organization has contributed, you will see the name, address used, amount donated, when they donated, and to whom they donated.
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Matt and Trevor are investigative analysts at Hetherington Group, where they use their open source research skills to extract data from social media accounts, conduct risk assessments, and monitor subjects for clients in pharma, tech, retail, and entertainment. Both are contributing writers to Hg’s Data2Know, Industry Undercover, and OSINT Slack channels. On their lunch breaks, they can be found outside playing frisbee with their four-legged colleagues.