“Bidness As Usual: Transparency in a Part-Time Texas Legislature”
With a conflict disclosure system rife with holes, virtually toothless ethics laws left to the interpretation of the lawmakers they are supposed to regulate, and a Legislature unwilling to make itself more transparent, Texans knew exceedingly little about who or what influenced the people elected to represent them. And they had no way to differentiate between lawmakers motivated by the interests of their constituents and those in it for their own enrichment.
Enter the Texas Tribune’s Bidness As Usual Project — an extensive reporting and interactive data venture that spanned Texas’ 2013 legislative session.
In addition to more than 60 stories and data visualizations on conflicts of interest and lapses in accountability, the project included the Ethics Explorer, a responsive, interactive tool designed to educate citizens on the degree to which legislators’ personal interests conflict with the public interest when passing bills and setting policy. It was the result of nine months of research into more than 200 elected officials, and provides details on their employment history and financial records, stock holdings, property listings, campaign finance data, ethics investigations and questionable votes.
Elements of the project, from stories to data apps to multimedia packages, ran in Texas Monthlymagazine, in newspapers and on news websites across the state, and on airwaves in more than a dozen Texas TV and radio markets. The Tribune hosted an ethics symposium, including prosecutors and a former lawmaker convicted of ethics violations, to bring the project one step closer to the public. A Bidness as Usual e-book was published on Amazon in June.
Under this scrutiny and pressure, lawmakers filed and debated dozens of bills aimed at tightening up ethical loopholes, and passed a measure calling for a two-year review of the state’s reporting requirements and disclosure laws. One ethics bill that included elements directly responding to the Tribune’s project made it past both chambers, only to be vetoed by the governor under pressure from special interest groups — i.e. “Bidness as Usual.”
The Tribune’s project has shed enormous light and attention on longstanding legislative practices — and on officials who have used the cover of their office to engage in questionable behavior. The Ethics Explorer is a living news app; since the project landed, it has been updated to include all the members of Texas’ congressional delegation and all statewide elected officials.
LINK to series online.
Click here for an interview with Texas Tribune Assistant Managing Editor Ayan Mittra about the concept behind this ambitious, intuitive and highly useful deployment of online data retrieval.
Submitted by Emily Ramshaw.