WASHINGTON -- Citizens groups nationwide are preparing reports that will track for the first time, on a broad scale, the individual contributions that bond brokers and other corporate employees make to state political campaigns.

Up until now, citizens groups attempting to follow the complex flow of campaign dollars have generally focused on the contributions of corporate political action committees, said Janice Fine, a research director with the Northeast Citizens Action Resource Center. But, she said, that may account for as little as 40% of the funding.

At the state, national, and local levels, Fine said, large chunks of corporate money are delivered to candidates through individual contributions from company employees and their families.

Tracking these contributions is a job that has been taken on by Fine's group and a roster of others that includes the Money and Politics Project at the Western States Center in Portland, Ore., and the Public Policy and Education Fund in Albany.

A recent report by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics provides an example.

Goldman, Sachs & Co. and its employees delivered a total of $449,650 to winning candidates for House and Senate races at the national level in 1990, the group said. Two-thirds, $279,850, was from individuals at the firm and their families, the highest in a ranking of 50 corporations.

The rest was from the firm's PAC, which is ranked 65th by the center in terms of contributions to winning candidates for Congress.

Similarly, Salomon Brothers' PAC gave $152,150 to winning candidates for House and Senate in 1990, while individuals at the firm and their families gave $242,775, for a total of $394,925, the center said.

Another important feature of the new round of surveys is that many go beyond Washington to focus on state races, a task that one campaign observer described as an "academic nightmare."

"It's hard to weave through the rabbit's warren of rule and regulations," said Richard Scammon, director of the Elections Research Center in Chevy Chase, Md. "Even if researchers only tapped cities with 10,000 people, they would find an almost infinite variety of laws."

"And then you have city ordinances for contributions to members of the city counsel," Scammon said. "You can even go down to the township [in some states]. You have to look to the 50 state laws."

A growing number of newspapers is tackling the issue in investigative reports on their state or local elections.

But few groups or papers have attempted region-wide examinations of the contributions individuals working for companies contribute to state and local races.

"The media has done different things in states, but this [upcoming set of reports] is the first systematic approach at doing it in all of these states," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which is teaching groups around the country how to track political contributions at the state and local level.

Doing so is important because many think the states will lead the way in reforming state and local campaign finance laws, Miller said. "What I see is an interest in moving reform legislation at the state and local level -- not so much in 1992, but perhaps in 1994."

Indeed, the Federal Election Commission, in a lengthy summary of campaign finance laws published earlier this year, said campaign finance reform underwent a post-Watergate renaissance in the 1970s, with most states doing a major systematic overhaul of their statutes to overcome perceptions of corruption. Then the 1980s were devoted to fine-tuning those laws.

"The 1990s appear to be getting off to a start somewhere in between the '70s and '80s," says the report. "While there have been comprehensive legislative proposals in many states, few of them have been able to pass both legislative and gubernatorial muster. Only Delaware, Kansas, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas appear to have made significant revisions that go to the heart of their systems of regulating campaign finance activities."

The report, "Campaign Finance Law '92," does not account for reforms that have been cleared by legislatures since it was issued this spring or that are on November ballots.

Miller's group published a 26-page report last year, entitled "Rumblings From Below," which concludes that the campaign finance laws of 23 states and six municipalities currently allow for some level of public financing for candidates.

"There's a lot of interest by state-based activists to begin to test new models for campaign finance reform at the state and local levels, generally through the initiative process," the report says. "They see reforms as more winnable at the state and local level as opposed to the federal level."

Meanwhile, Fine said her Northeast Citizens group is "following the money trail" in five states: Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

New York, where most major bond brokerage houses are headquartered, is being handled separately, by the Public Policy and Education Fund, which hopes to issue its results by the November elections, said Aviva Goldstein, project director.

"At this point we have only 25% of total amount of contributions by individuals tracked. We're making an effort to get a higher number" but New York is one of a number of states that do not require contributors to specify their occupations, Goldstein said.

Meanwhile, Samantha Sanchez, director of the Money and Politics Project, said her group is tracking contributions by individuals, corporations, and PACs in seven states -- Alaska, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. The report, which focuses on contributions by oil and gas, mining and timber interests rather than the securities industry, is expected shortly.

The groups use a grueling process called "fingerprinting" to match names of contributors with their jobs. They can identify roughly 30% by checking their own data bases; then they check the remaining names against professional directories.

If worse comes to worse, researchers will call up contributors and ask who they work for, Fine said. "We say we are part of a research project looking into contributions."

"It requires computers and a lot of time," said Larry Makinson, research director for the National Library on Money & Politics, who pioneered the fingerprinting process when he was a reporter for an Alaska newspaper in the mid-1980s. The library is affiliated with the Center for Responsive Politics.

Makinson is the author of "Open Secrets" a 1,300-page encyclopedia that tracks PAC and individual contributions in the 1990 U.S. congressional races. "The securities and investment community makes most of its contributions not through PACs, but through direct contributions from investment executives," the report says. "That means it is much less visible to the observers of campaign finance records."

"But the dollars that can be delivered when members of the same firm band together are impressive," the report says.

Sen. Bill Bradley was far and away the biggest recipient of financial industry money in the 1990 elections. The New Jersey Democrat, who sits on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, drew over $1.8 million in identified contribution.

More than half of that came from the securities industry, primarily through individual checks from dealers, brokers and partners in the leading Wall Street investment houses, the report says.

Meanwhile, the election commission's report says that while states have lowered the permissible amounts individuals can contribute to campaigns, others have been raising theirs. Wyoming, for instance, changed its limits from no more than $1,000 during any two-year election cycle to $1,000 per primary and per general election.

Several states are moving toward what the commission calls "aggregate" bans of different types. Maryland raised its permissible contributions from $1,000 to $4,000, but the state now prohibits individuals from making more than $10,000 in contributions during a four-year election cycle.

A set of contribution limits in California were struck down by a lower court and appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Nevada enacted contribution limits for the first time. Individuals may contribute a maximum of $2,000 to a candidate for city, county, state, or judicial office and $10,000 to a statewide office candidate in any election cycle. Corporations can contribute up to $10,000 to a candidate for city, county, state, or judicial office and $10,000 to a statewide office candidate, per election cycle.

Cash contributions are now outlawed in Oklahoma and are limited to $25 in South Carolina, and $100 in Kansas. Anonymous contributions of $100 or more may not be used in campaigns in Nevada, while Missouri lowered its threshold for an acceptable anonymous contribution from $25 to $10.

Keeping track of this changing landscape won't be easy, warned the Center for Responsive Politics's Makinson. "It requires a lot of work, computers, and a lot of time," he said. "Those are the things that newspapers are only slowly beginning to move toward. It's a fascinating story, particularly in the bond market, where it's essentially invisible."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.