Posted in Behind the News

How data journalism tools unlocked mystery of campaign donations

, by Lauren Easton

When Arizona law enforcement reporter Jacques Billeaud wanted to find out where donations to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s campaign were coming from, he wasn’t going to let an unsearchable PDF format get in his way.

Billeaud worked with data journalist Angeliki Kastanis to find a way to analyze the origins of the campaign contributions, resulting in an enterprise piece that was used by virtually every AP member news organization in Arizona.

In a staff memo, Vice President for U.S. News Brian Carovillano explained how they used technology “to shine a light” on the money pouring in for the man often referred to as America’s toughest sheriff:

For years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has made a name for himself as the tough-talking lawman from metro Phoenix who was unafraid of criticizing federal immigration enforcement, earning accolades not only from fellow conservatives but millions of dollars in donations from around the country ... When Arpaio’s campaign announced that it had collected $9.9 million this cycle in June, Billeaud saw it as an opportunity to pierce the veil of some 6,000 PDFs using optical character recognition software. Data journalist Angeliki Kastanis scanned the PDFs and produced spreadsheets that could be analyzed. They found that the bulk of the donations above $50 – the ones the campaign was required to disclose – were from out of state. After Arizona, they came from California, Texas, Florida and Washington. Seventeen percent of those came from Arizona. Many of the out-of-state donors said they supported Arpaio’s focus on illegal immigration. They also found that most of the $5.7 million spent by the sheriff so far went toward fundraising. Three-quarters of the money had gone to the political consulting firm run by his campaign manager.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., speaks during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Thursday, July 21, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Through searches of campaign records from other states, Billeaud also added critical context: The $9.9 million in donations rivaled spending by winning and losing candidates in congressional or gubernatorial races in Arizona and far exceeded the amount raised in sheriff’s races in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Billeaud's story moved as Arizona taxpayers are on the hook for Arpaio's mounting legal bills for federal contempt of court proceedings stemming from his overly aggressive immigration enforcement policies. The story was used by virtually every member in Arizona, and the editor at the Prescott Courier used the findings to write a column, even using all of the comments from those who contributed to Arpaio. For thinking creatively to shine a light on the origins of Arpaio’s campaign contributions, Billeaud and Kastanis win this week's Best of States prize.