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Follow the money 

Candidates in Arkansas are required to file financial reports, but it’s not easy to comb through those reports for information. Copies may be viewed on the web, through the secretary of state’s website. But the process is slow and cumbersome.

Enter the Institute on Money in State Politics. Founded in 1999 and supported by several charities — including the Ford, Pew and Carnegie foundations — it now provides a searchable data base for state political finances in all 50 states. The data goes back to the 2000 election cycle, typed into computers by contract labor.

The system allows you to search for all donations by a particular contributor and to search for contributions from business sectors — agriculture, energy, etc.

Arkansas should require electronic filing of campaign finance data or give the secretary of state’s office the tools to convert paper filings to similarly searchable digital data. Don’t hold your breath. Such a system can be incriminating.

Last week was a good example. I used the database — it’s on the web at www.followthemoney.org — to show how the Lord’s Ranch, a major Arkansas Medicaid contractor, had poured at least $100,000 below radar into political races in Arkansas, heavily concentrated on the legislative committees that oversee Medicaid. This search wasn’t a breeze. Arkansas allows corporate contributions. A person with multiple corporate identities can give in the name of each entity. Some sleuthing and tips were required to know the various names under which the Lord’s Ranch gave money.

The data base is the equivalent of the Baseball Encyclopedia for political junkies. Take this year’s race for governor. The Republicans are trying to tar Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Beebe as a tool of Entergy. He has an old friendship with an Entergy lobbyist who once served in the Senate, after all, and his former Searcy law firm had a small retainer fee arrangement with Entergy that predated Beebe’s joining the firm. But a few keystrokes turned up this interesting information: As of this week, 10 Entergy employees had given Beebe about $3,200. Five Entergy employees or its PAC had given Republican nominee Hutchinson a little over $4,000, including $2,000 from the company PAC and $1,500 from Hugh McDonald, Entergy’s CEO. So who’s the bigger tool?

Interested in other corporate influences? How about the powerful Stephens empire? I counted eight Stephens contributors to Hutchinson totaling $6,350 and nine to Beebe, totaling $3,355.But the Republican tilt is more pronounced thanks to contributions of $32,000 to the Arkansas Republican Party. Stephens Inc. founder Witt Stephens’ historic preference for Democratic candidates doesn’t seem to have carried over strongly into the next generation. His son, Witt Jr., gave Beebe only $250.

Among others, Acxiom chief Charles Morgan is a Beebe contributor, as is Dillard’s CEO William Dillard. But Dillard’s company also dropped $5,000 into the Arkansas GOP treasury.

Tyson Foods and Alltel have hedged their bets, but tilt Republican. John Tyson and Tyson Foods both have given $4,000 to Hutchinson and $1,000 to Beebe, with Tyson Foods kicking in another $10,000 to the Republican Party. At Alltel, retired CEO Joe Ford and current CEO Scott Ford have favored Hutchinson over Beebe $2,000 to $1,000 each. Scott Ford also sent $10,000 to the Arkansas Republican Party.

This is just an interim report. The beauty of it is that followthemoney.org updates regularly.




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