COLORADO — As the campaign finance landscape shifts, and more cash from more sources flows into politics at every level, it becomes more important than ever that reporters follow the money. That’s just what Denver Post reporter Karen Crummy did in a story published last week.

Crummy’s article, the result of five weeks of work, documented how Colorado Democrats and their allies have taken advantage of the changing legal landscape to build a money and organizing infrastructure that helped the party to a strong performance in 2010 state legislative races, even amidst a nationwide Republican rout. Using data obtained from the Colorado Secretary of State, the article showed that most of the money that went to Democrat-friendly “super PACs” came from a small group of unions, wealthy individuals, and nonprofit advocacy groups, and that it was spent on media ads, canvassing, phone calls, and direct mailings targeting GOP opponents.

The article wasn’t—and couldn’t be—a comprehensive look at outside political spending in the state. The close analysis of the Democratic machine was possible because the party’s infrastructure channels funds through super PACs, or “independent expenditure committees,” that are allowed to make specific appeals for or against specific candidates but, under state law, must disclose both their donors and their disbursements. Other outside groups, active on behalf of both parties, refrain from direct appeals but can keep their finances opaque. The distinction probably makes the partisan gap the Post documented through this channel—the lede notes that Colorado’s Democratic super PACs outspent their Republican counterparts by “nearly 150 times” in the last election cycle—bigger than a different view would suggest.

Still, Crummy’s findings help make transparent the massive spending and organizing effort Democrats have undertaken in Colorado since 2004, when four wealthy activists formed what would become the Colorado Democratic Alliance. And her digging provides an example of the kind of detailed reporting other local reporters might emulate.

On Thursday, she spoke with CJR over the phone about her research. An edited transcript appears below.

What gave you the idea to do this story?

We all know that super PACs are the story of the year in politics. I had some time at the beginning of the year, and I just felt like looking at politics again to see if there was anything out there. I’d been looking at FollowTheMoney.org and found that what the site had done with some 527s was very interesting. So I started downloading different databases from the Colorado Secretary of State’s website, and put them into Access. I was also curious since we had this new law in 2010 requiring independent expenditure committees to disclose their expenditures.

How difficult was it to get the numbers?

It was a nightmare. You have to print out every single (independent expenditure) committee filing, and go through it by hand. You might have a committee that spent $800,000, and a lot of the money is in $200 increments spread over 20 races, and you have to add those with your little hand held calculator. There are 24 races in total across the state, so I had to add up for each committee what they spent on each race and then add all that up on both sides. It was a really time-consuming and tedious job.

We’re downloading the data onto our website, and one reason we’re doing that is because of the issues some people have had accessing the Secretary of State’s website—we think it’s a public service. We have the 2010 contributions up there, but hopefully in the next two months we’ll have up the 2010 expenditures, then the 2008 contributions and expenditures, and hopefully we’re going to be able to keep this going for the year.

What advice would you give other reporters undertaking a piece similar to yours on super PACs in their states?

Be organized and methodical. It’s hard to keep track of all the money, especially when it’s disbursed in a series of relatively small sums and spread over 20 or more races. Make your own spreadsheets—which I know can be mind-numbing—but it’s the only way to see not only patterns, but the whole picture. Plus, it makes double, triple and quadruple checking your work easier.

What kind of response have you gotten?

I’ve been eviscerated on [the left-leaning state political site] ColoradoPols.com, yesterday and Monday. I’m used to it. I used to be a political writer, but now I’m on the investigative team. ColoradoPols says my numbers are wrong—that my story doesn’t give the whole picture of campaign finances. Which is not what was I was trying to write anyway.

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.”

How unique is the Colorado law that requires super PACs to disclose disbursements?

According to FollowTheMoney, nine states, including Colorado, meet that standard. Twelve states don’t require anything, and 32 states either don’t require disclosure of electioneering communications or don’t have a definition as strong as the federal definition.

If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of 10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

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.