Saturday, September 20th, 2014
Mostly True
Hinckley
"Thirty percent of [Sheldon Whitehouse' campaign] money is coming from special interests."

Barry Hinckley on Tuesday, August 7th, 2012 in a news conference

U.S. Senate candidate Barry Hinckley says incumbent Sheldon Whitehouse gets 30 percent of his reelection money from special interests

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, has been making headlines in the last month pushing for Senate passage of the DISCLOSE Act, which would -- with some exceptions -- require special-interest groups to reveal the identities of their large donors.

His Republican opponent, Barry Hinckley, has criticized Whitehouse, saying it's hypocritical to rail against the influence of special-interest groups such as political action committees (PACs) while taking their money.

During a news conference in front of Whitehouse's Providence office, Hinckley wondered aloud "how someone can take $2 million from the special interests when he's crying out against special-interest money in politics?"

"I agree [that] special-interest money is polluting politics," Hinckley said. "Thirty percent of his money is coming from special interests. I've taken 1 percent."

We wondered if the 30-percent figure was accurate.

Hinckley’s campaign told The Journal that the percentage came from OpenSecrets.org, the website of the nonprofit nonpartisan Center for Responsible Politics, which tracks political donations.

We checked the website.

It lists Whitehouse as getting 29 percent of the $4.3 million he has raised for the current campaign from political action committees. That's where Hinckley got his figure.

But Hinckley said 30 percent is special-interest money, a category that includes more than just donations from PACs.

Top officials from a variety of businesses, professionals (such as lawyers), labor unions and other groups also give money as individuals, hoping to foster their agendas.

The Hinckley campaign knows this. It released a YouTube video in conjunction with the news conference, citing examples of "Special Interest Money Given to Sheldon Whitehouse." The amounts in that ad total $4 million, not $2 million.

But defining special-interest money isn't easy.

Under federal law, anyone who gives more than $200 in a federal race is asked to reveal his or her occupation and employer. OpenSecrets puts those donations in various donor categories, listed by "industry."

According to the website, during Whitehouse's two Senate runs, he has collected more than $1.5 million from the "lawyers and law firms" industry; 91 percent of that money came from individuals. It's impossible to know which individual donors were pushing an agenda and which donors simply thought that Whitehouse, a fellow attorney, was a great guy to give money to.

Robert Biersack, senior fellow with the Center for Responsive Politics, argued that virtually all campaign donations might be considered special-interest money.

Only a tiny fraction of the public contributes to political campaigns and, he said, even with a small donor, "they're looking for some policy outcome" by supporting one particular candidate over another. "It may not be on an economic question. It may be on a social issue. And the opportunity to get the ear of a member of the Senate is a pretty helpful thing whatever interest you may be pursuing."

Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, had a slightly less-strict assessment, saying that leeway should be given to smaller donors.

"Most, if not all, campaign money comes from special interests," including large donations from people who say they are retired, she said. "I think anything over $250 is more orchestrated and typically more professional," she said.

So how much special-interest money has Whitehouse been getting?

If you want to think of all PAC and large donations ($200 or more according to the way the feds classify them) as being special-interest money, 84 percent of the $4.3 million Whitehouse has raised for his campaign committee has come from special interests.

(For Hinckley, it's 78 percent of the $1 million he has raised.)

Alternatively, OpenSecrets categorizes all donations of $200 or more -- from PACs and individuals -- by "industry" and lists the top 20.

Overall, as of June 30, 2012, Whitehouse had raised $4.3 million for his campaign committee. His top 20 "industries" gave him $3.1 million, or 72 percent. If all of that is special-interest money, that's much more than 30 percent. (The vast majority of the money -- 89 percent -- came from individuals.)

That percentage could be higher because the list doesn't include smaller industry-related donations and some donations couldn't be placed into an "industry" category by OpenSecrets.

The percentage could be lower if some of the donors don't have a special-interest agenda. But there's no way to determine that.

Our ruling

Republican Senate candidate Barry Hinckley said, "30 percent of [Sheldon Whitehouse's campaign] money is coming from special interests."

If Hinckley was referring exclusively to political action committees, we would rate his statement True.

But "special-interest group" is a broader -- if ill-defined -- category that includes lots of individual donors. By one rough estimate the amount could be 84 percent. By an even rougher estimate it could be 72 percent.

Hinckley's 30 percent figure is way off the mark, which makes him ineligible for a True reading on the Truth-O-Meter.

But our judges felt that, in this case, the data back up his point that Whitehouse is getting a significant amount of money from special interests.

We will note, for the record, that while Hinckley is saying he has only gotten 1 percent of his money from special interests, the fact that 78 percent of his funds come from larger donors (not much different from Whitehouse's 84 percent) argues otherwise. A list of his donors by industry, we suspect, would also show a significant special-interest pattern, based on how Hinckley's campaign is defining special-interest money. However, OpenSecrets has not complied that list for Hinckley's donors because it doesn't have the resources to do every challenger, according to the organization.

Because his statement has a significant element of truth but needs clarification or additional information, we rate it Mostly True.

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