Citizen Investigations
Chapter 8
Investigating Politicians

Researching Politicians

There are many ways to dig into a politician’s finances and political record.

Official resources are a good place to start. Despite their frequent limitations, you might find:

  • income and asset disclosures;
  • campaign funding disclosures;
  • court records;
  • public records about actions in office.

This resource will focus on using official records and assume you’ll also be using the internet. Media searches are obviously one key method for learning about speeches and interviews, as well as for articles in which the official expressed opinions. But not everything is online.

Offline, try talking with people. Hint: Opponents and critics may be the best sources of critical information (but also the most suspicious).

Asset Disclosures to Look For

Elected officials in about 160 countries must disclose some information about their income and financial assets.

What’s revealed is often incomplete, but sharp-eyed readers have found plenty of stories in such materials. Hint: Comparing claims with reality can be fertile territory.

GIJN compiled some of the best investigative journalism in which asset disclosures have played a part and pulled together some of the tools necessary to look for hidden assets. See GIJN’s Resource on Asset Disclosure. 

Unfortunately there isn’t a spreadsheet describing where to look in each country, so “local” research will be required.

However, in a handful of countries, journalists and others have created databases to enhance official asset disclosure records and make them easier to use.

Millionaires Among the Nominees is a story by the Bosnian Center for Investigative Reporting based on investigating the property holdings of 121 local politicians. Its reporters compiled information about the candidates’ property from land records and asset declarations, combining them into a CIN database of politicians’ assets.”

A clever tool developed in Australia, DisclosureBot, sends out tweets when politicians amend their disclosure forms.

To learn about national disclosure systems and what’s available, look out for citizen groups that advocate for election reform or transparency. Such open government advocates may be the most reliable sources about who’s covered by disclosure rules, what’s available, and where to find it.

Sadly, many laws allow for ambiguity and under-reporting. So once official disclosure forms are located, it’s often clear that these documents are best viewed as rudimentary starting points. 

Still, checking the veracity of what is disclosed may turn up inaccuracies and discrepancies. Look for not only what has been disclosed, but what hasn’t. 

Other Places to Look

There are other sources that will help with fact-checking politicians’ financial claims.

Searches of legal databases may turn up relevant asset information. Check for divorce proceedings, wills, and land disputes. (See more below.)

Property ownership records may be useful, too. (See separate guide on this and related records.)

Social media accounts of family members have proved helpful at times.

Looking into a politician’s lifestyle more informally is another classic way to go about it. One Asian politician’s excessive spending was exposed when observers noted the parade of many different expensive watches on his wrist. Wrist photos were collected by a journalist and published.

Campaign Finance Disclosures

Campaign contribution records can reveal not only how much money was donated, but who gave it. Learning about a politician’s supporters can be revealing.

In some countries, laws mandate the disclosure of campaign contributions for those seeking office.

The Political Finance Database by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance can provide the national context. But it doesn’t provide links to national disclosure sites. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe describes campaign finance regimes in election observation and assessment reports done by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

For the United States, the disclosures reside on the website of the Federal Elections Commission, which has database.  Also useful are opensecrets.org (from the Center for Responsive Politics) and FollowtheMoney.org. Mostly behind a paywall is politicalmoneyline.com.

Knowing the names of donors may raise more questions, such as who they are and why they donated.

So the trail keeps winding. One path is to compare campaign contributions with disclosures by lobbyists. In some countries, lobbyists must register and make some disclosures about their clients and expenditures.

Public Records About Official Actions

Elected officials, and even unelected officials, gradually leave tracks. 

These can be found in such dull places such as:

  • official publications of record, such as gazettes;
  • records of legislative proceedings;
  • voting tallies;
  • minutes of meetings;
  • documents held by agencies;
  • agency publications.

The specifics of these resources will vary nation to nation. They won’t necessarily be online or up-to-date. Nevertheless, they are substantive and official. 

Hint: Try asking librarians for help; they know a lot.

In some countries, official records are being downloaded and analyzed. For example, see OpenAustralia.

Filing a FOI request to an agency in which the person worked might turn up something. (See the resource on researching governments.)

Court Records and More

Check for court records to learn about:

  • litigation the persons might have been involved in;
  • bankruptcy;
  • tax liens;
  • divorce records;
  • criminal charges.

From there, think of other places to look.

One veteran “political opposition” researcher in the US, former journalist Alan Huffman, said in an interview:

“Really anything that is public record, we’re going to look at. If we go to the courthouse, I always stop and just look at the building directory and look at every single office in that building. I think, is there anything that they keep that might be illuminating? The permit office, for example, if the guy’s a big developer or landlord. We just kind of go through the whole list every single time.”

So, this list could include:

  • real estate holdings;
  • military records;
  • vehicle ownership;
  • aircraft and watercraft ownership;
  • businesses owned or operated;
  • professional licenses;
  • education verification.

And more. Use your imagination!

International Databases

Information about politicians is mostly found in their home countries. There are only a few free international databases of much use.

EveryPolitician is a downloadable database on the world’s elected representatives compiled by the UK nongovernmental organization mySociety. It lists more than 76,800 politicians from 233 countries, providing only very basic information about the representatives, but sometimes this includes social media addresses and contact information.

To understand national policies on government campaign finance, look to the Political Finance Database by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. It describes the political finance policies in more than 180 countries based on answers to 43 fundamental questions. The Swedish-based group uses four broad categories: a) bans and limits on private income, b) public funding, c) regulations, and d) spending and reporting, oversight, and sanctions. The database doesn’t link to national online resources where they exist.

The Investigative Dashboard Database sponsored by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has millions of relevant items from data sources around the world, including many about corporations. 

Commercial services exist to serve financial institutions and other businesses that need to conduct “due diligence” research on so-called politically exposed persons (PEPs). These subscription services include Dow Jones Risk & Compliance.