These days, it's fashionable to rant about "the media"—a somewhat ironic concept, given that it's also the age of "citizen journalism" and crowdsourcing. If in fact the media is flawed, then each of us is flawed by association.
To Michael Corwin—a licensed investigator and the executive director of Independent Source PAC, a group dedicated to unearthing dirt about (usually Republican) politicians and interest groups—one of mainstream media's chief shortcomings is its reluctance to conduct methodical, investigative background checks on candidates for office.
Corwin, for his part, has investigated candidates in 170 races, uncovering information ranging from the mundane to the horrific.
"Nothing really shocks me anymore," he says. "I happen to believe that the public has a right to know as much as they can about a person who's going to be in public office—greatest of all because they're getting paid our money and they're going to do our business."
Citizen journalists, saddle up: You can do the same. After Corwin explained his methodology, SFR tried some of his tactics on a test candidate: New Mexico Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, who's currently running for US Senate. Below is a step-by-step template for researching any candidate you like.
Thirsty for more? Visit Corwin's website, The Everyday Detective Information System.
"Here's why all of this works: Leopards don't change their spots. Every single candidate that screwed up says they're a changed man—and they very seldom do [change]," Corwin says. "It's all, from a cynic's point of view, very relevant."
1. Basic information
WHY: In order to find out more about a given candidate, it’s helpful to know certain facts about him or her: birth date or birth year, friends, family members, etc.
NUGGET: John Sanchez’ name is a common one in New Mexico, but search engines provided his birth date, family members’ names, address and home phone number—information that may be useful in narrowing down other records.
2. Court records
WHY: Corwin emphasizes the importance of actually thumbing through a case file to get an impression of a candidate’s behavior before and during the lawsuit.
HOW: Look up cases through New Mexico’s online system by visiting nmcourts.gov, then visit the relevant court to see the actual case. In Santa Fe, cases in magistrate and municipal court are not available online. If a candidate is a business owner, Corwin notes, be sure to check the company records, too.
"Somebody who says, 'I'm a businessman, and government should run more like a business'—if they're being sued for fraud and misrepresentation, you get a better idea of how they run a business," Corwin notes.
NUGGET: Sanchez’ company, Right-Way Roofing Corp., has a 15-year history of suing defendants to collect sums ranging from $1,000-$40,000. According to online records, a 2010 lawsuit against Right-Way for “debt and money due” is currently in arbitration.
3. Business records and licensure
WHY: Other types of records can yield additional information about a company’s history and practices, Corwin says.
HOW: A good starting point is the state Public Regulation Commission, which lets you search by company name or “director”—usually the president or CEO. Additional information about contractors is available through the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department website (rld.state.nm.us). Finally, visit the appropriate county clerk’s office to look for tax liens against the company.
NUGGET: An RLD spokeswoman confirmed that one complaint has been filed against Right-Way, but would not provide further details without a written request. (See a copy of that request—a basic Inspection of Public Records Act template—HERE.)
4. Campaign finance records
WHY: Campaign contributions lend insight into who’s supporting—and perhaps influencing—a
HOW: Campaign contribution data for statewide races are available on the New Mexico Secretary of State’s website (sos.state.nm.us), but campaign information for national races goes through the Federal Election Commission (fec.gov). The Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org) provides tools for making sense of those data by connecting lobbyists and industries to candidates and contributors.
NUGGET: According to opensecrets.org, 64 percent of the $311,987 Sanchez has raised for the Senate race consists of his own loans to his campaign. Heather Wilson, by contrast, has raised more than $750,000—none of it through self-financing.
5. News articles
WHY: Particularly with seasoned politicians, a public trail of past interviews and skirmishes is inevitable. “Articles will tell you a lot,” Corwin says. “If they’ve been in office, it’ll tell you about their running history; also, have they interceded on behalf of a contributor [or] their constituents?”
HOW: Paid search engines such as LexisNexis yield the best results, but they’re also expensive. A good alternative is an advanced Google search with site-specific terms to restrict the results to local news sources.
NUGGET: During Sanchez’ campaign for state representative, he disclosed that Right-Way Roofing had mistakenly employed 10 undocumented immigrants in the late 1990s.
6. Other government records
WHY: Does a candidate have a lucrative business contract with the state? As recently reported of top Gov. Susana Martinez administration staffers Scott Darnell and Keith Gardner, was a family member later hired by the same administration? Police reports, meeting minutes and other records can also prove useful, Corwin says.
NUGGET: As lieutenant governor, Sanchez earns $85,010 per year. In 2002, as a state representative, he voted with the New Mexico Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) 71 percent of the time, according to Project Vote Smart.
7. Social media
WHY: The age of social media is a boon to reporters, but less so to politicians, who often seem prone to missteps (Anthony Weiner, Sarah Palin, etc.). A quick survey of a candidate’s posts will help build a detailed picture of his or her life and views.
NUGGET: On May 27, Sanchez wrote on his campaign Facebook page: “We must rein in government spending. It is immoral to spend money we don’t have.”