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2014 Feature, Small Newsroom finalist

How Washington Starves Its Election Watchdog

 

About the Project

Born in the Watergate scandal’s ashes, Congress created the Federal Election Commission as a bulwark against political corruption and champion of transparency and disclosure.

But the six-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, “How Washington Starves Its Election Watchdog,” showed the agency is so fractured by partisan politicking and bereft with staffing and funding woes that it is “rotting from the inside out.”

Through the Freedom of Information Act, reporter Dave Levinthal obtained thousands of FEC financial and personnel records, as well as hundreds of emails. It conducted more than 50 interviews with current and former agency officials and associates.

Such efforts helped the Levinthal probe the depths of the agency’s decline in an unprecedented fashion. Using a narrative style, it explain in layman’s terms how moneyed political organizations, parties and committees are effectively being allowed to run amok.

The analysis broke news that Chinese hackers had infiltrated the FEC’s computer systems on the first day of October’s government shutdown, when no agency employee had been deemed “essential” enough even to repel threats from foreign entities. It further revealed how the White House and Congress have been complicit in the agency’s downfall.

Official action came swiftly.

Leaders of two different House committees — one Republican and one Democrat — have called for congressional investigations into the security and staffing meltdowns. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said the Center’s revelations “should raise concerns for all federal elected officials.” Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., said Congress must determine whether the FEC has “resources and personnel needed to do the job at hand.”

After previously declining comment on its security meltdowns, the newly elected FEC chairman and vice chairman — one a Republican, one a Democrat — stood together and vowed to address the problems immediately. Among their promises: hiring Internet technology security experts, diverting funds to network protection and lobbying Congress for more staffing and funding. (To date, they’ve made good on each one.)

Also that day in December, the six-member commission departed from its typically fractious ways to unanimously recommend to Congress and the White House seven changes to federal election laws and policies.

The recommendations include new powers to fine election law breakers and passage of a law mandating senators file their campaign finance disclosures electronically, instead of on paper, as they still do. And the typically do-nothing Congress of 2013, which routinely ignored the FEC’s requests, passed legislation Dec. 20 granting the FEC expanded enforcement powers.

President Barack Obama is on record saying that he’s “committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

So when the White House repeatedly refused to comment on how it intended to address breakdowns at the FEC, the Center for Public Integrity took the president to task in a follow-up article. The Center will continue to press the White House until it provides the answers we seek.

The investigation also served to shine a white hot spotlight on a small government agency that’s often overlooked by the public but essential to free and fair elections. The article was enhanced by several interactive and static graphics that clearly charted the agency’s institutional decline. A commissioned feature illustration by Buffalo News editorial cartoonist Adam Zyglis provided readers with a striking image of a government agency starved by its overseers.

Dozens of news outlets wrote about the Center’s report, which was also published on The Atlantic’s website. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera America and C-SPAN each aired segments about the Center’s report.

The Washington Post deemed it “the most important political story you haven’t heard about.” Esquire declared that it “conclusively demonstrates how the Federal Election Commission has been rendered the primary buffoon in an ongoing farce.”