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As Ads with Mystery Donors Rush Into Politics, Searching Their Wake for Clues

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, October 10 2012

The Sunlight Foundation* has launched Political Ad Sleuth, a project to track and help contribute to a database detailing money spent on political ads this election year.

The initial source of the documents in the database comes from around 200 local stations' "political files" — tranches, mandated by the Federal Communications Commission, of data on all the political ads bought at each station and at what price. Those 200 stations in the 50 largest television markets in the country were required to hand over those datasets beginning earlier this year to be posted online.

Sunlight worked with Free Press, journalists, journalism students and other volunteers across the country to make those files easier to search, as Kathy Kiely and Jake Harper from Sunlight outline in a blog post.

Since the process was designed to be easy for the local stations, the documents are generally in PDF format and as a result not easily be searched for specific information.

The Political Ad Sleuth project is scraping the FCC's database of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates in the top 50 and adding initial basic information to make them searchable, the about page explains. In addition, the platform provides an interface to help journalists or other volunteers enter key additional data from the PDF files.

Users of the platform can then search ad buys by state, TV market or by the name of the group buying an ad. The platform also shows recent ad buys, highlighted in the form of a seven-day market report, and helps turn up documents that identify the principals behind committees buying ads. Users can also download a machine-readable data file to further their own research.

The blog post notes that it is not yet possible to compute total ad purchases for a committee by TV market or a wider geographical entity, or connect an ad buy to a specific ad.

The project is also encouraging journalists and volunteers to expand the database by adding files from other markets, or adding documents from stations not affiliated with the major broadcasting networks that might be exempt from the FCC order. "In Iowa, estimates through Sept. 23 had presidential ad spending at $30.1 million and counting. But not one of the stations that broadcast within state lines are required to upload to the FCC database," the blog post notes. "Four out of five of Wisconsin's markets don't have to upload their files, either, which leaves out 70 percent of the presidential ads in the state."

In its blog post, Sunlight also emphasizes the potential of the project to help reveal the individuals involved in many of the third-party groups running ads. Per the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Sunlight explains, so-called social welfare organizations can spend unlimited amounts of money without registering with the Federal Elections Commission. But those groups still have to identify an officer of their group when they buy ads on local TV stations.

Sunlight cites a recent USA Today story to indicate how the project the could be helpful. USA Today reported that Now or Never PAC purchased $1.7 million worth of ads against Tammy Duckworth, Democratic House candidate in Illinois, and noted that the group's founders "do not have to be disclosed and remain unknown" to the FEC. The Political Ad Sleuth database was able to identify the group’s treasurer as James C. Thomas III and its executive director as Jason S.M. Smith. Thomas last year served as treasurer of the Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity, "a front for the payday loan industry which was fighting a ballot initiative to limit the annual rate of a short term loan at 36 percent as opposed to the 1,950 percent currently allowed," the blog post notes. Thomas is also associated with Jeff Roe, founder of Axiom Strategies and former of chief of staff to Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo. Smith is a political strategist from Texas who worked on the Rick Perry campaign.

A similar project under way is Pro Publica's Free the Files effort, which has encouraged around 400 volunteers to submit data from the FCC files to make them more accessible and searchable, logging an estimated $207 million in ad buys across the country. There is no formal partnership between Free the Files and Political Ad Sleuth, according to an e-mail from Amanda Zamora, senior engagement editor for Pro Publica, although Pro Publica has pointed out the effort for those who are interested in making more data available by visiting stations.

"Given the number of documents and the time crunch, we chose to focus more narrowly on annotating documents in 33 swing markets available via the FCC web site," Zamora wrote. "We're posting all of those documents for any and all to use in Document Cloud, and making CSVs of the data we collect available on our market pages."

The effort also announced a partnership today with the Huffington Post in Denver, Detroit, Miami and Washington, D.C. to encourage the "freeing" of files from markets in those areas.

* Personal Democracy Media's Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.