They also said I didn’t include American Crossroads, but of course the reason I didn’t include Crossroads was because I was looking at state-level races, not federal races. I only looked at independent expenditure committees who had to register in Colorado in order to spend money here.

I also got a lot of e-mails and phone calls from people on both sides of the aisle, generally from people respected as knowing what’s going on and knowing the truth. The worst response has been from Democrats, and I think that’s due to a couple of things. They don’t like the strategy getting out, and two, they don’t like the idea they could be spending more money because then they feel like they look like bullies. They do better when everyone thinks they’re the underdog.

What resources and campaign documents and websites did you use?

I spent most of my time on Secretary of State’s site. I downloaded all the stuff I could, and then did a computer data analysis on what I could do, and basically had to print out hard copies of the independent expenditure committees and go through all those. I tried to use OpenSecrets, FollowTheMoney.org and the Campaign Legal Center to more fully understand campaign finance and to make sure I understood the law.

Part of the story is about the transfer for funds from the old 527s to the new super PACs. What steps did you take to get access to the financial records of all the organizations that made it possible to connect the dots?

I looked at where an independent expenditure committee had spent money, and backtracked from there. So I would go to the Secretary of State page, and figure out what all the independent expenditure committees were in the 2010 cycle, and most of those committees either got union donations or got their money from 527s. The unions end up to be a dead end because they’re small donors, so I would take the 527 and print out and analyze who contributed to the 527, then I would look at who contributed to those contributors.

For example, say you have Accountability for Colorado, which is both a 527 and an independent expenditure committee. The independent expenditure committee got its money from the Accountability for Colorado 527, so then I look at that group and say, “Who are the donors?” Of the top 10 donors, three of them may be unions, like SEIU, and then one of them will inevitably be another 527, so then you look at those 527 donors.

Basically, what I’ve found is it all comes back in a big circle and it’ll be the same three unions, two very rich individuals [such as Tim Gill and Pat Stryker] and then some 501(c)4s that I can’t track any further because 501(c)4s don’t have to disclose their donors. Out of the top contributors in 2010, America Votes is one, Education Reform Now is one, Progressive Future is another—at least three of the ten were 501(c)4s right away. And I have no idea who’s funding them. It could be all the same people.

What obstacles did you encounter?

One of the main frustrations is that the biggest groups use different abbreviations for their donors’ names, so cleaning that up takes forever. For instance, the SEIU may be listed 12 different ways—it’s SEIU Local No. 76, then they spell out Service Employees International Union. There’s no computer function that’s going to do that for you. Trying to figure out how much money there is is so much more complicated than just saying, “Well, I’m just going to sort things in this program and see what happens now.” You have to know who the players are. It comes from continually looking through the data, looking for trends.

The other frustration was trying to figure out where they spent the money. It gets frustrating when your contributors end up being the recipients as well. You’ll do a search on the Neighborhood Project to find out their top five expenditures. Then you find out one of their top five expenditures is to Accountability for Colorado. And then one of Accountability for Colorado’s top expenditures might be back to the Neighborhood Project or to a different 527.

It’s not like they’re laundering money; it’s more like a cash-flow issue. The union gives money to a 527, and the 527 turns around later and gives money back to the union. They’re so networked. It’s like this committee only does canvassing, and “we don’t have enough money for canvassing right now, so we need you to give us money for that, but when we’re raising money next month, we’ll give it to you and you can use it for phone calls.”

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.