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What You Can Do with

Sunlight Labs announced the release of in April. The site makes searching, obtaining and downloading government data so much easier than it has ever been.

Sunlight Labs announced the release of in April. I spent some time playing around with the site and have to say that it completely changes the ways in which researchers tracking campaign finance issues will get their data. The site makes searching, obtaining and downloading data so much easier than it has ever been.

Labs Director Clay Johnson has been tweeting examples of what kind of data you can find through the database. (Follow the links.) Here's another example:

In early April, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 25 miners and trapped four others. In 2009, the mine received hundreds of violations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), many of them very serious. The mine is owned by Massey Energy, which itself is owned by the politically powerful Don Blankenship. Blankenship is facing harsh criticism for his apparent indifference to MSHA violations. This has led many to look at his political influence in West Virginia, particularly in how he has tried to influence lawmakers and judicial races. With the help of, we can easily look up the contributions made by Blankenship, the employees of Massey Energy and the Massey Energy political action committee.

What we see here are the 364 contributions made by individuals listing Massey Energy as their place of employment from 2003-2010. The majority of these contributions come from Blankenship or the company's political action committee. The vast majority of these contributions were made in state-level races in West Virginia--legislative, gubernatorial and judicial races. You can even see the Win-Loss ratio that Massey Energy has on the candidates that received contributions from them.

I'm not going to pretend to know very much about West Virginia politics, but I can say that anyone writing a story about Blankenship's influence in West Virginia could quickly obtain the necessary contribution data through in seconds to begin or enrich their research. Just a cursory look over this allows a user to quickly see the contributions Blankenship made to his independent political committee, And For The Sake Of Kids.

And For The Sake Of Kids ran a campaign, funded with nearly $2.5 million in Blankenship's money, to unseat a West Virginia state Supreme Court of Appeals judge, who Blankenship feared would rule against Massey Energy in a number of appeals that were on the docket for the court. Blankenship's campaign worked and he installed a sympathetic ear onto the court. That sympathetic ear went on to rule in favor of Blankenship's appeal. The money worked. (The Supreme Court of the United States would later rule that the sympathetic ear--Judge Brent Benjamin--would have to recuse himself from certain cases due to the existence of "actual bias" due to the spending by Blankenship on his election.)

Another example that little bit of research uncovered was the revelation that Massey Energy actually owns a seat in the state legislature. State legislator Troy Andes (WV-14) works for Massey Energy in their Public/Community Relations department. Massey Energy employees spent $8,700 to help elect and re-elect Andes in 2006 and 2008.

I'm sure someone with more knowledge of West Virginia politics could actually dig further into this data. Or any other data you'd like to. Now that exists there are a whole host of new, incredibly fast queries to be done on campaign finance data from the state to federal level.

Paul Blumenthal is the Senior Writer at the Sunlight Foundation. A regular blogger for the site, Paul touches on a wide variety of transparency-related subjects including congressional corruption, the bank bailout, lobbying disclosures and the news of the day.
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