Aiming to Shed Light on Lawmakers
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
A new nonprofit group called the Sunlight Foundation plans to spend big money this year to connect voters to a wide range of information about candidates for Congress via the Internet.
The District-based group, which opens its doors today, is underwritten by securities lawyer Michael R. Klein, whose clients have included the patriarch of Washington's famously feuding Haft family, the founder of Dart Drug Stores. Its executive director, Ellen S. Miller, is a longtime advocate for disclosure of campaign finances.
The organization takes its name from a quotation by former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." By shedding light, or public attention, on candidates' big donors and lobbying contacts, the foundation said in its promotional material that it hopes to "uncover" congressional "boondoggles" and give citizens "the power to root out corruption in Congress."
Several Web sites already provide detailed data about lawmakers and lobbyists, including the for-profit PoliticalMoneyLine.com and the nonprofit Opensecrets.org. The second of these is run by the Center for Responsive Politics, which Miller headed for 12 years ending in 1996. The Sunlight Foundation has given grants to nonprofit groups, including the center, to expand the information they carry and create new sources of data as well, for example, on lawmakers' personal financial disclosures. It also hopes to use its Web site to make it easy to navigate and connect to the other sites.
In addition, an affiliate of the foundation intends to lobby Congress to disclose more about how lawmakers and lobbyists interact.
Some Republicans and others worry that part of the information that the group highlights might be tilted in a way that does more damage to the GOP than Democrats, especially during this election year. "It seems convenient that the latest 'nonpartisan' organization has failed to shine a light on the fact that its roots appear to be anything but," Republican National Committee's Tracey Schmitt said in an e-mail.
Other people are simply glad to see that extra political information will be available online. "Any increase in disclosure of money in politics is a benefit to the public," said Kent Cooper, co-founder of PoliticalMoneyLine. "Many small organizations cannot afford computer programmers and database specialists; we need more groups that can provide those kinds of services to the average voter."
Klein, 64, made a fortune by starting a firm called CoStar Group Inc. in the 1980s that for the first time gave wide dissemination to information about commercial real estate. These days he is president of the PEN/Faulkner Award's board of directors and an owner of an art gallery and a high-end D.C. restaurant, Le Paradou. He identifies himself "primarily a Democrat" and has funded the Sunlight Foundation with $3.5 million to start.
Miller, 60, is a longtime activist. In addition to directing the Center for Responsive Politics, she led a group dedicated to instituting public financing of elections at the state level. She was also publisher of the liberal TomPaine.com and deputy director of Campaign for America's Future, a group backed by labor unions among others that oppose President Bush's Social Security and Medicare drug plans.
The Sunlight Foundation has given grants to OMB Watch to develop a database of government grants and contracts, to the Center for Responsive Politics to improve its campaign finance and lobbying listings, and to the Center for Media and Democracy to oversee a joint project they call Congresspedia. Congresspedia will work much like the well-known Wikipedia and will allow citizens to update biographies of lawmakers.
Congresspedia entries for members of Congress will include sections called "Meet the Cash Constituents" (donors) and "Controversy," along with such basic information as office address and bios.
"Sunlight must be relentless in its pursuit of corruption regardless of party," Klein said. "This is the only way we can bring about the accountability that citizens expect of their government and its leaders."