Black redacted bars with the words For the Record underlined

For the Record: How to background political candidates through public records

June’s #FOIAFriday’s session demonstrated how overlooked documents can be used to research candidates.

Written by
Edited by Michael Morisy

As November inches closer, June’s #FOIAFriday session explored what type of public records can be used to investigate political candidates who are running in the 2024 election cycle.

Friday’s session covered how to request these overlooked documents, including military personnel records, voter lists and Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Military records, while sometimes difficult to obtain, can verify the claims a candidate has made about their military service. These requests for military personnel documents are processed through the National Personnel Records Center. In our session, we took a look at a successful records request by New York Times reporter Kevin Draper for the military personnel record of Duke basketball coach Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski.

Similarly, business records can verify claims a candidate has made about their finances or entrepreneurship. Did your candidate take out a PPP loan? Do you know if their loan was forgiven? Data on the Paycheck Protection Program can show how a candidate used their PPP loan.

Here’s the best part: PPP data is not just public, it’s openly available and easily accessible on the Small Business Administration’s website, and in ProPublica’s Tracking PPP database.

Many reporters have already used PPP loan data in their stories, including Florida politics reporter Jacob Ogles, who uncovered how Republican candidate Jake Hoffman had his companies approved for over $450,000 in loans through the program — while also purchasing an Aston Martin and flying off to Europe.

With the help of the nonprofit Sunlight Search, reporters at The Nevada Independent collected and analyzed public data that revealed how political candidates in Nevada’s federal races received more than $10.1 million in federal government loans from 2007 to 2021.

Watch the #FOIAFriday session to better understand how to use public records to investigate political candidates for the 2024 election to learn more about what public records you can access in your investigation.

Interested in learning even more? MuckRock hosted a hands-on session at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in June and made our slides and tipsheet publicly available.

The Update

  • New democracy fellowship for newsrooms: Solutions Journalism Network has launched the Building Democracy Fellowship focused on newsrooms doing pro-democracy solutions reporting. Selected newsrooms will receive a $10,000 stipend, training from leading experts and mentorship and support from SJN staff and their peers. Applications are open until July 31.

  • Tracking Attorney General opinions and decisions has become a lot easier: The Kentucky Open Government Coalition has updated their Sunshine Library to include a Status Check feature that will verify whether an opinion or decision of the Kentucky Attorney General had been modified, withdrawn or overruled.

  • Public records settlement costs California school district thousands: Business Insider reporter Matt Drange settled his public records lawsuit with the El Monte Union High School District in California. The settlement agreement cost the school district $125,000 and according to Drange on X, the school district “must now search more thoroughly for records that, in many cases, I requested [years] ago.”

FOIA Finds

  • New investigation released on the legitimacy of the 2023 Nigerian election: A MuckRock Gateway grantee, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, has published the first part of its investigative series into the legitimacy of the 2023 Nigerian election. The newsroom used DocumentCloud to digitize and analyze vital election result papers.

  • Dangerous building data in Seattle: A Seattle newsroom obtained a list of 40 derelict structures that are currently deemed as “dangerous” by both the Seattle Fire Department and the Seattle City Attorney, reports Ryan Simms for KOMO News. The newsroom obtained the list through a public records request, and the data revealed that “only three of the 40 structures are currently in the mode of being torn down.”

  • Inside Amazon’s “Project Moose” in Nashville: New records from Tennessee reveal how state officials offered up incentives for Nashville’s bid for Amazon’s HQ2, reports Adam Sichko in the Nashville Business Journal. In Tennessee, state law allows “sensitive” economic development records to be kept private for up to five years.