VIRGINIA — If you want to follow political money in Virginia—and there’s plenty of it here, as this is one of four states with no limits on campaign contributions—the Richmond-based, non-partisan nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project is the go-to source for who’s giving and who’s getting money in Virginia politics.
Now 15 years old, VPAP wasn’t built to last. In 1997, as described on the group’s website, it was “conceived as a short-term ‘project’ that would provide [Virginia’s State Board of Elections] a roadmap to electronic disclosure” and then “put itself out of business within a year or so.” Though Virginia permits unlimited campaign contributions (individual to candidate, corporation to candidate, union to candidate, state party to candidate), the state requires candidates to disclose donors who give more than $100—but, fifteen years ago, the disclosure reports sat in State Board of Election filing cabinets and the public had “no meaningful access to the information” therein. VPAP “grew out of a joint effort by Virginia newspapers” to change that.
Though Virginia began providing electronic disclosure starting in 1999, VPAP evolved into an invaluable public resource, and remains a great help to an overburdened Commonwealth press corps by mining and making searchable (by ZIP code, candidate or office holder, registered lobbyist and PAC) raw disclosure data. This year, in addition to providing campaign finance and personal finance data for state and many local candidates (as well as registered state PACs and lobbyists), VPAP is working with the Washington DC-based Center for Responsive Politics (a key federal money tracking resource, which CJR wrote about here) to offer data on fundraising in Virginia in the presidential race and other federal campaigns.
For a group dedicated to transparency in government, VPAP has what some would consider unlikely boosters: its Board of Directors is a mix of political stakeholders in the Commonwealth, including lobbyists, University administrators, a former Democratic lawmaker, a former GOP candidate for Attorney General, and a political consultant. Its advisory panel is also a hodgepodge of political players in Virginia, but also includes representatives from the Virginia Press Association (also a VPAP sponsor) and the Association of Broadcasters.
Of this unlikely mix, board member Jay Smith of the Richmond-based public affairs firm, Capital Results, said:
It is not VPAP’s goal to remove money from politics, but rather to provide transparency. It is not a “gotcha” organization, and has the support of stakeholders from all sides of the political arena.
I think everyone understands that Virginia can only have a “no limit” approach as long as there is complete transparency about campaign finances—and VPAP provides that transparency in an easy format for people to have access to and fully understand.
So, that means you have folks like Smith, who worked for Republican Senate candidate George Allen during his term as governor, and former Democratic legislator Albert Pollard serving on the VPAP board.
Transparency extends to VPAP’s operations: All donations to the group are listed on its website. Unlike, say, the Center for Responsive Politics which is heavily grant- and foundation-supported and does not accept funds from businesses, unions or trade associations, VPAP’s sponsor list includes all of the above—Comcast, AT&T, the Virginia Association of Realtors, Virginia Bankers Association, to name a few. Give a cursory scan of the donor list and one name stands out: Among the group’s largest donors is Virginia’s governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, who gave $10,000 this year. Via email on Friday, McDonnell touted the group as follows:
A hallmark of our government is the requirement for the people’s business to be conducted in full view of the citizens it serves. VPAP’s non-partisan, non-profit status allows Virginians easy access to the information needed to understand the election process, political considerations, and financing of campaigns and government. I have long been a supporter of this organization as a means to hold government and political leaders accountable to serving the people in an open, transparent way.VPAP’s current board chairman, D. Calloway Whitehead, of the Richmond-based lobbying firm Whitehead Consulting LLC, sounded a similar note via email:
The best thing about VPAP is that all stakeholders view it as an integral part of Virginia’s “sunshine system.” The Governor and the other elected officials who support VPAP recognize that we all share the belief that transparent access to information is better than anything regulations could do to foster an ethical political environment.
The project has three full-time workers and is headed by executive director David M. Poole, a former newspaper reporter who launched the database in 1997, recruited a board that year and expanded the effort into what has become the current site, a one-stop shop for political funding information in the Commonwealth.