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The Best Watchdog Journalism on Campaign Finance

by Blair Hickman, ProPublica

This week, we’re exposing the world of campaign finance post-Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that opened the door to super PACs. The stories fall into three categories: donor profiles, super PACs and scandals, though as Michael Kinsley said: “The scandal in Washington isn’t what’s illegal; it’s what’s legal.”

The donors
Covert Operations, The New Yorker, August 2010
This 2011 National Magazine Awards finalist profiles the billionaire Koch brothers, who are using their money to try to promote Libertarian ideals. The resulting “ideological network” of foundations, think tanks and political movements (such as the Tea Party) has become so sprawling that in political circles it’s known as the “Kochtopus.”

Is Gingrich’s Hard Line on Palestine Paid for by Sheldon Adelson? The Daily Beast, January 2012
Sheldon Adelson is the seventh-richest man in the U.S. and the largest donor to the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future. As this 2008 New Yorker profile shows, he also opposes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and wields enormous political influence in Israel. Some wonder whether his views have affected Gingrich’s “hard-line” stance on Palestine.

The Operator, The New Republic, April 2012
Harold Simmons is the 2012 campaign’s biggest donor. So, what does he want from all his political giving?

The Attack Dog, The New Yorker, February 2012
Larry McCarthy, the media consultant who helps run the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, is Washington’s go-to guy for negative ads. He rose to prominence with the racially charged Willie Horton ad that helped George H.W. Bush get elected in 1988.

Super PACs and other fundraising groups
Firm Gives $1 Million to Pro-Romney Group, Then Dissolves, MSNBC, August 2011
Need a good example of the secret money fueling the 2012 election? This mystery company donated $1 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, then promptly dissolved. At the time, it was one of the biggest contributions of the election cycle.

The Super-PAC Steamroller: Coming to a Town Near You! Mother Jones, April 2012 
Super PACs are popping up on a state level, where elections are cheaper and disclosure requirements aren’t as tight as those for federal super PACs.

Most Independent Ads for 2012 Election Are From Groups That Don’t Disclose Donors, The Washington Post, April 2012 
You can thank anonymous donors for 90 percent of the total spent on advertising so far in the 2012 presidential election. The funds are funneled through social-welfare nonprofits, also known as 501(c)4s, that do not have to disclose their donors.

The 2012 Money Race: Compare the Candidates, The New York Times
If you want to track super PAC money, we’re going to point you to PAC Track. But when it comes to candidates’ fundraising, The New York Times’ news app is pretty sweet.

Administration Officials Double as Obama Campaign Speakers, Los Angeles Times, November 2011
Barack Obama’s Cabinet members and key aides can raise cash for his re-election but only if they tap-dance around federal laws in their speeches.

Scandal
Bundlers On the Inside, iWatch/ABC News, September 2011

Several of Obama’s top political supporters went to work within the Energy Department as it pumped stimulus money into alternative energy firms. Some supporters were also investors in companies that applied for government loans. (Part of a series on the stimulus-backed and now bankrupt Solyndra.)

Doubts Raised on Donations to Comptroller, The New York Times, October 2011
New York City Comptroller John C. Liu was considered a contender to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, thanks in part to his robust fundraising machine. But when The New York Times canvassed nearly 100 homes and workplaces of donors listed in Liu’s campaign-finance reports, it found several irregularities, including some that raised questions about whether some donors actually existed. Liu’s campaign is now under federal investigation.

House Freshmen Push Bills that Benefit Big Donors, USA Today, August 2011
Despite promises to change Washington, several House freshmen began their terms by pushing legislation that benefited some of their biggest donors.

ProPublica reporters Kim Barker and Justin Elliott helped curate this list.

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