It’s campaign season! Time to start searching for hidden spending in FCC files (UPDATED)

The records are cumbersome but can be a valuable tool, especially in smaller markets

This post has been updated to reflect an amended FEC filing.

MIAMI, FL — Last month The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a South Carolina-based super PAC had entered the political slugfest that is Georgia’s 2014 Senate race.

The story, by Dan Malloy, reported that Citizens for a Working America, was spending $500,000 on a media blitz of attack ads targeting one of the candidates, US Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican. Malloy got the information about the super PAC’s ad purchase from a report Citizens for a Working America filed with the Federal Elections Commission.

For about a week and a half, FEC records showed that the super PAC was planning to spend only that half a million dollars. But at the same time, records filed by three Atlanta television stations and collected online by the Federal Communications Commission showed the organization had committed to spend substantially more in that market alone. Late Friday afternoon, the discrepancy was resolved when the super PAC amended its FEC filing to report that it is planning to spend $1.3 million on the race.

The case is an example of how the FCC records, which have been available online in some markets since 2012, are a potential treasure trove of near real-time political spending data—though they are difficult to dig into. They can only be searched by television station, and the reports the stations file are only kept as PDFs, so the numbers within them can’t be easily crunched. And for the moment, the FCC database only includes records from the top four stations in the top 50 markets; beginning in July, all broadcast stations will be required to upload their records to the FCC’s site.

In an effort the make the data easier to search, the Sunlight Foundation has launched Political Ad Sleuth. The database can be filtered by organization, state, television market and date. It’s incomplete, but it’s a valuable starting point for reporters looking to show how much is being spent—and by whom—on the campaigns they cover.

“We’ve been able to identify the people behind some of these mystery-meat groups,” said Kathy Kiely, Sunlight’s managing editor. “I can’t press a button and tell you how much was spent but we’ve gotten lots of good journalism out of it and we’d love to have more eyeballs on it because there are more stories to be done.”

To be clear, even if discrepancies between what is filed with the FEC and what was filed with the FCC don’t get resolved, that doesn’t necessarily mean any law was broken. The filing requirements at the two agencies are different, with the FEC requiring disclosure of ads mentioning a candidate only during the 30 days prior to a primary or 60 days prior to a general election. In the Georgia Senate race, the cut-off date for the primary was April 20.

“That’s why we created Political Ad Sleuth,” Kiely said. “So you could see all the political money spent outside those windows.”

Citizens for a Working America may have actually exceeded its FEC filing requirements when it first disclosed the plan to buy $500,000 worth of television ads on April 17, because some of the ads that show up in the FCC filings aired before the April 20 cutoff. No one from the super PAC returned my call last week, before the amended FEC report was filed.

In this case, the lag between when the spending was recorded in the two sets of records isn’t momentous in terms of news value. But Rich Robinson, of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said he has found instances in that state in which groups exploited those reporting requirements to spend gobs of money and report very little of it. He recalled a case from the 2012 presidential campaign, in which by scouring broadcasters’ records he found a single group had spent $12 million on issue ads in the state—only $4 million of which it had to report to the FEC.

Robinson said he’s found similar discrepancies on campaigns for state offices—when he can get that information. The law doesn’t say whether broadcasters have to keep records on outside organizations spending on state campaigns. Some are filing them with the FCC. Others aren’t.

“If the broadcasters decide, ‘Oh, we don’t have to report state candidate spending,’ I can’t even say how big the black box is,” he said. “On the state campaigns, we just have this horrible blind spot.”

In addition to being cumbersome, the data isn’t always complete for federal races either, observers say. Last week the Sunlight Foundation and the Campaign Legal Center filed complaints with the FCC against 11 television stations—in Michigan, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado, North Carolina, and Minnesota—claiming the stations aren’t filing all of the required information.

According to Sunlight, one of its reporters, Jacob Fenton, discovered “widespread violations of the minimal reporting requirements” as he was building Political Ad Sleuth. The main problem was stations filing reports that didn’t include the name of the politician mentioned in the ad or didn’t include the names of the people behind the organization that placed the ad. Kiely explained in a blog post why it’s important for the FCC files to be complete.

Because “Americans for Better Apple Pie” might be your local slag heap operator. “Citizens for a Conservative GOP” might be Democrats trying to sabotage the primary contender that they think has the best chance of beating their candidate in the general. These are not far-fetched scenarios. Take a look at this ad, which doesn’t anywhere mention toxic materials, but which paint an indubitably positive picture of the chairman of the House committee that’s now working on a rewrite of the government law on toxic waste. Unless you are looking carefully at your TV screen at just the right time, you’d miss the fact that these ads are brought to you by the American Chemistry Council—an organization that is lobbying on the bill in question. Without the online TV ad files, you’d never know that the American Chemistry Council spent some $250,000 airing the ad.

But unless TV stations insist that advertisers comply with federal law, you won’t know anything at all.

Unfortunately, I don’t have suggestions for how to mine the FCC data on a national level, or even on a local level in big, expensive races. For now, the data is just too dirty, and too poorly presented to be used easily. That’s the problem the coders and developers at Sunlight are working to crack.

But it’s always worth checking. And for small markets, this could be a treasure trove once all stations have to upload their reports. That’s where it would be easy for a smaller news outlet to cull through the FCC filings and find out what’s going on in their media market.

For example, WMGT, the local NBC affiliate in Macon, Georgia, is not required to file any information yet. But they will be required to file beginning in July. What might those records yield? I hope the Macon Telegraph will check.

There’s a lot of money flooding into the Georgia Senate race, and surely not all of it is being spent in Atlanta. 

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , , ,