Public-Sector Payola

New York offers online access to data about city contractors and lobbyists. How far does this really go toward ending corruption in campaign finance?

by / August 31, 2005
Whenever a breath of scandal touches government, officials promise to expel corruption. Yet fresh accusations continue to make headlines. One need only look at Chicago, reeling from allegations of political misdeeds -- including charges that bribe money that was given to gain work in a city program called Hired Truck found its way to campaign funds of several officials, including Mayor Richard Daley.

In New York City this spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration released an online database it claims will help end the practice of "pay to play" -- making political contributions in return for city contracts.

With Vendor Search, a new tool on the city's Web site, anyone can search details about any vendor doing business with the city. As of June, system developers in the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) were adding a second tool with information about lobbyists and their clients.

Making Disclosures
The administration said it developed Vendor Search to help the city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB) comply with the Charter Amendment, a law passed by public referendum in 1998. It requires political candidates who get matching funds from the city to disclose which of their contributors do business with the city.

"One of Mayor Bloomberg's biggest themes is open government and transparency in government," said Lawrence Knafo, first deputy commissioner of DoITT. Vendor Search, he added, is the first step in opening city-run information systems to the public.

Vendor Search draws its data from a city-owned system called VENDEX, used to manage information on all vendors that conduct $100,000 or more in business with the city. In the past, anyone who wanted this information could access VENDEX from a public terminal located in the Mayor's Office of Contract Services. But one would have to nearly be an expert on city government to know this office even existed, said Jonathan Werbell, spokesman for Bloomberg.

"This is the first time anybody has been able to get this information on the Web," Werbell said.

DoITT developed Vendor Search in about eight weeks using an XML software package from Software AG. The department previously used the software to create a site for the Department of Buildings that provides information to the public on building violations and penalties. The software works similarly for Vendor Search, Knafo said.

"It goes right into the VENDEX database, uses Java to format the information and displays it on the Web," Knafo said.

The new lobbyist search tool is "just a flat file that we have FTP'd to us, and then we format it using Java again and display it on the Web," Knafo said.

Since DoITT developed the tools using its own staff, hardware and software, the costs were minimal, he said.

Need to Close Gap
Although the city developed Vendor Search to shed light on the link between city contracts and campaign contributions, it has not yet closed the gap between the new tools and the searchable database of campaign contributions on the CFB's Web site. To compare information on contracts and contributors, one must visit two different sites and perform separate searches.

Knafo concedes this is not the ideal situation.

"As we open up more systems, we may change the way you search so you'll be able to search across all systems," he said. Most likely, the next search utility the city adds to its Web site will provide information on real-estate developers who have applied for land use permits.

Why has New York taken seven years just to begin complying with the Charter Amendment? The city and the CFB both said that, until now, no one tried to give the CFB the tools it needed to enforce the law. Recently, however, Bloomberg started focusing on something other people weren't. "That's why we've gotten the tools up so quickly," Knafo said.

"Since the charter was announced, we have been asking for this to be created almost every year," said Tanya Domi, the CFB's press secretary, noting that the CFB also held several hearings on the issue. "This is the first administration that has demonstrated any interest in complying with the charter directive."

It's still not clear whether Vendor Search will actually give new teeth to the city's campaign finance laws. Soon after the Mayor's Office announced Vendor Search, the CFB applauded the effort, but said Vendor Search doesn't provide the data it needs to regulate campaign contributions.

"The new VENDEX system -- until it is 'cleaned up' -- will yield both materially over-inclusive and materially under-inclusive results for those looking at overlaps between the information VENDEX contains and the information in the board's database of campaign contributors," the CFB said in a published statement. "As a result, use of this system at this stage would create a high risk of error and potential embarrassment."

The CFB also indicated that Vendor Search isn't compatible with its own searchable database, although the administration has promised to link the two.

Accuracy Questions
"We're really happy it's been created, but the city's database is not ready to meet the board's requirements of accurate, timely and usable data necessary to establish verifiable disclosure for the 2005 elections," Domi said. For example, the VENDEX database includes some vendors that have merely applied to do business with the city but have never won a contract, she said.

"Also, the database hasn't necessarily been updated. We don't know how accurate it is," she said, and the same data points aren't collected consistently for every record.

The CFB is eager to see the search tool include companies that apply for land use permits, as well as other businesses and individuals that might seek to influence politicians, Domi said.

"We need to come to some kind of understanding of what 'doing business' means," she said. "For example, to get a 'hack license' medallion for a taxicab, it's $300,000. Is that 'doing business' with the city?"

Despite the lingering questions, because it opens a window to government activity, Vendor Search is one of many tools that can help combat corruption in city politics, Knafo maintains, noting that citizens can look at the information and ask intelligent questions.

"I don't think one piece of technology in and of itself would be responsible for reducing corruption. That said, transparency in government does help honesty in government," said John Horrigan, director of research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit, nonadvocacy group that investigates the Internet's impact on society. "The question is, if these databases exist, will people use them?'

Though Pew hasn't looked into whether citizens use the Internet to uncover government corruption, it has asked survey respondents if they use the Internet to get information about government. The research shows that many do, and that Internet users are more likely to contact government than non-Internet users.

"Given these online tools to get more information about government, people put them to use," Horrigan said.

It's not clear yet whether people will use such tools to function as citizen oversight boards.

"Maybe, maybe not," Horrigan said. "But people will go to these Web sites the New York City government has put up. So in terms of a strategy for improving the transparency of government, this is definitely a smart move."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs