Transparency Tipsheet & Commentary: How to be a transparency watchdog
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Published: 11-Mar-2013

Fed up with red tape and closed-off records? Sick of government secrecy?

Get ready for Sunshine Week, an annual drive towards transparency and open government, which raises awareness of ways citizens and media can access public information. As one of many journalism and non-profit organizations participating in Sunshine Week, Watchdog Wire is here to help you dig deeper into waste, fraud, and abuse in your local and state government. We want to hear your stories about transparency, accountability, and whatever you may uncover along the way.

During Sunshine Week, as always, you can email info@watchdogwire.com if you have any questions about the transparency resources at your fingertips, or ways that you can investigate government.

Here are some of the best ways you can promote government accountability through open records, and some other fun ways to shine a light on government waste.

Tip #1: Figure out FOIA

FOIA–that’s short for Freedom of Information Act – requests are at the heart and soul of investigative journalism and government accountability. The Federal law requires that when it comes to public records, the government has to do the work for you – that is, they need to locate any record you request and pass it along to you, free of charge. The tricky part for you is making your request specific enough for the government to properly answer it. This means addressing your request to the proper department, and asking for exactly what you need–so that the government can’t give you only part of what you requested and redact the rest.

Fortunately, there’s the FOIA Letter Generation, which helps you create request letters in a format that works well for most government agencies. You can use the generator to request a politician’s public schedule, city council meeting notes, public salaries and pensions, arrest and courtroom records, roll call votes for bills in the legislature, you name it–if it’s in the public record, you have the right to know.

Tip #2: Money-tracking tools are your friends

Open Secrets and Follow The Money are two of the best tools a citizen journalist has at his or her disposal. These databases track every dollar that a politician raises from donors and PACs, and sort the information into easy-to-read tables. Open Secrets allows citizens to see not only who a politician has gotten money from, but from what industries–for example, did a Senator who is sponsoring a new prescription drugs bill take millions from Big Pharma? Are the legislators pushing energy taxes funded by the green lobby? Did your local congressman bring home some pork for a local business – right after the CEO threw a fundraiser for him?

Each of these small discoveries you can make on a site like Open Secrets makes for a great story, and combined, these stories hold politicians accountable when their finances get murky. For example, the sad saga of Sen.Bob Menendez and his Dominican dalliances was fueled by donor information readily available on the Internet.

Tip #3: Check the visitor logs and daily schedules

President Obama delivered on one campaign promise by making the White House calendar part of the public record. This means that citizens now have access to the log of every meeting Obama has held, and every guest he has received at the White House. And this has made for some interesting stories about who has the President’s ear – and who doesn’t.

Most states and many localities have similar open records laws for their executives’ schedules, which means you can make a public record request to see who your governor is meeting for brunch and what trips he or she is taking at the state’s expense. Check the list of visitors to the governor’s office against the names of major donors from Follow the Money – it’s legal for politicians to give their close friends and supporters private audiences and tours, but it’s ethically murky if these people are weighing in too heavily on how taxpayer money is spent.

Your mayor or county executive should also be meeting regularly with citizens and community groups to keep a close read on the public’s pulse. If these events don’t show up on their calendar – and meetings with special interest groups or numerous trips out of town do – it’s a good sign that this politician has fallen out of touch. And that’s a great starting point for a story.

Tip #4: Figure out if the stimulus actually helped anyone in your area

You’ve probably seen the large green signs on the side of a highway in your area: “This project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” Usually, there are a few stray orange traffic cones littered around these signs. If you’re lucky, there might be a ditch or two, or perhaps a new stretch of pavement on the road.

But what did the Recovery Act – or the stimulus, as most people call it – actually do for you and your community? Start at Recovery.gov, the federal government’s website for documenting how stimulus money was spent. Launched as part of the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative, Recovery.gov allows you to search for projects by congressional district, and includes the cost of each project. (Note that most congressional districts changed in January as a result of the census. You can look up yours here.)

Once you’ve found projects in your area, take a road trip to see how much progress has been made on the project, and how well the money has been spent. Be sure to bring your camera to document visible progress on the project. You may want to do some additional digging to see what companies and unions were involved in the project and how they were selected to receive stimulus money. If Recovery.gov says money went to a project that doesn’t seem to exist, that’s a great story, and it would be an even better one if you can track down where the money really went!

Tip #5: Learn how ObamaCare will affect your state

President Obama’s health law passed through Congress so hastily and clouded in secrecy that lawmakers didn’t have a chance to read the bill, much less citizens. So it’s no surprise that parts of the law are well, a surprise, including the long list of regulations on what constitutes “acceptable” insurance that was released only last month.

If you remember the “Louisiana Purchase”, you know that all states are not treated equally under Obamacare, and it’s worth checking out how your state will be affected. Start by looking at your state legislature’s website: is there a bill pending to set up an Obamacare exchange, or to expand Medicaid, as the bill authorizes states to do? You can also research the number of uninsured people in your state, and compare that to the number of uninsured the day before Obama signed the bill into law.

Tip #6: Watch the pensions

Many communities are buckling under the weight of contracts with public employees and their unions, but the salaries aren’t the problem. It’s the pensions, a concept that is quickly becoming outdated in the private sector which continues to pay state employees at a significant rate (often 80% of their final salary or more) from their retirement to their death, and sometimes beyond. These pensions are promises made in another era, and it is very difficult for states to avoid paying them, even when budgets are stretched to the limit and modern investing is making pensions obsolete.

And to make matters worse, many state workers are collecting a pension from one job, while pulling a full-time salary from another! This practice is called “double-dipping,” and generally happens when a longtime state employee “retires” from a job in his or her 50′s to take an even better-paying state job. This practice is rampant in New Jersey, where many members of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration double- and even triple-dip, but it goes on in other states as well.

To track pension abuse, you’ll need to keep your ear to the ground for rumblings that a local elected official or state worker is gaming the system. Then, use FOIA to request records of their salary and benefits to see how much of your money they’re taking in each year.

Tip #7: Give a shout-out to transparency heroes

Is there someone in your community who has made a difference in opening up government or holding elected officials accountable? Maybe a blogger, or a grassroots leader, or someone who writes letters to the editor of the local newspaper. We’re looking for local transparency heroes at Watchdog Wire, and we’d love to hear about yours. So if you know someone who’s filed a FOIA request, or asked some tough questions at a town hall, or has done some sleuth work and uncovered some fraud, we want to hear about them–and maybe even feature them as our Citizen of the Month. You can also nominate them for the Franklin Center’s Breitbart Awards, given to the citizen activist who embodies the spirit and mission of Andrew Breitbart.

Tip #8: Join Watchdogwire’s tweet-up with Open Secrets on Wednesday, March 13 at Noon ET (11 a.m. Oklahoma Time) 

We are hosting a tweet-up during Sunshine Week focused on #openrecords, #FOIA, and #transparency. Our special guest will be Sheila Krumholz (@OpenSecretsDC), the Executive Director of OpenSecrets.org. We hope you will join the conversation using the hash tag #WDWTU (Watchdog Wire Tweet Up).

If you have ideas for stories, suggestions on other ways to promote transparency, or just some questions on how all of this works, shoot us an email (info@watchdogwire.com). We’d love to hear your plans on how to shine a light on government abuse.

Note: Kevin Palmer is a staff writer at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. This compilation first appeared on the website Watchdogwire.com, the citizen watchdog arm of the Franklin Center. 

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