Roll Call’s #50Richest Project, Explained (Video)

Posted September 9, 2014 at 4:01am
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Nephron apparently is less interested in the 50 Richest Members of Congress than I am. (Christina Bellantoni/CQ Roll Call)

There was a moment recently when I worried I had gone a little crazy. It was somewhere between realizing I’d skipped a page of Rep. Peter Welch’s assets and posting a photo of my cat Nephron laying on Sen. Tim Kaine’s financial disclosure forms on Instagram with the hashtag #catsof50Richest.

Why, you might ask, would the woman who runs Roll Call be doing this kind of data entry? Right about then I was asking myself the same question.

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I’ve always been a believer in exposing as much publicly available information about taxpayer-funded operations as possible. I’ll never forget when Brian Bothun, my editor at my first daily newspaper job in California, asked me to collect the addresses for each member of the Los Gatos Town Council so we could print their home values on the front page.

I wasn’t sure it was the best idea, but Brian reminded me the information was public and any citizen could go look it up at any time. Our job, he said, was to push things like this into the sunlight.

He was right. And I feel the same way about Roll Call’s 50 Richest Members of Congress list.

This project is 24 years in the running. It’s a bear.

Like many things Congress does, the financial disclosure process is antiquated and cumbersome. Forms are submitted to the House clerk or Senate Ethics Committee. These days, mercifully, they are posted online. You used to have to go sorting through them at the Legislative Resource Center. If a citizen shows up today at the office to ask for printouts or a digital file, that isn’t free. And they are about as opaque as you can get.

The way the rules work, members only need to give ranges for their assets. To be as accurate as possible, we use the minimum value of each and subtract any liabilities to come up with a minimum net worth for the ranking system.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., could be worth $800 billion. But you’d never know it. (Watch a video on how we calculate net worth here.)

That brings me to the data entry. We’ve got a lot of projects in the works. You may have noticed Roll Call on the Road, which has seen our staff cross the country to follow members of Congress home and write about both their campaigns and their lives. That’s not an inexpensive endeavor, and to fund it, I used most of what we had budgeted for freelance assistance this year.

Over the two decades we’ve done this project, it has had many owners. Roll Call alumni Paul Singer and Jennifer Yachnin are stellar examples of tending to the labor of love. It was always a team effort, but we have frequently drawn on outside help in times of abundance. Other times, we’ve made the interns do the lion’s share of the difficult work. Not this year.

I gave everyone plenty of warning, but the staff wasn’t thrilled about tackling a dozen, two dozen (or more) financial disclosure forms. And that’s just step one. I wanted to prove to everyone that we were in this together, so I assigned myself a pack of lawmakers. I thought I took easy ones, and I grabbed a few members I have particular interest in, but it still ended up being many hours of grunt work.

I’ll be honest, there were several moments I regretted taking this on, and I considered dumping some of my 19 assignments onto someone else. But I’m really glad I didn’t.

How else would I have learned that Rep. Morgan Griffith holds between $15,001 and $50,000 worth of ownership in the Stonegate Swim Club? The Virginia Republican, whom I profiled when he arrived in 2011, is an avid swimmer.

I think it’s useful that I know Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has no liabilities, or that Sen. Rand Paul’s mortgage interest rate is 3.37 percent.

Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat and the first member of Congress I ever interviewed, at age 21 when working for a business newspaper in my hometown of San Jose, has between $1,001 and $15,000 worth of Tesla stock in a family trust.

And Kaine, it turns out, was gifted a reproduction of an 1866 cast of Abraham Lincoln’s hand, made by sculptor Leonard W. Volk. That’s valued at $195 and was given to the Virginia Democrat by Robert Pietrzak.

Still, I know I tested the newsroom’s limits. I certainly tested my own. As we produced this behind-the-scenes video from our newsroom explaining the project, I told my team to be honest when describing it in one word.

I took the staff out for drinks at Capitol Lounge last week, and we feasted on treats brought in by the generous folks in our newsroom to celebrate the kickoff, but there’s no real way to thank everyone for what was indeed an exhaustive effort.

Unlike a traditional news story, there isn’t one clear byline or contributing writer tagline to indicate just who is responsible for such an enormous project. From the data entry and fact-checking to making the database look pretty, and from the first-ever videos explaining the project to the individual profiles indicating what’s changed in each member’s portfolio, there were many cooks in the kitchen. Without these people, 50 Richest wouldn’t be possible:

Jay Hunter, Adriel Bettelheim, Bridget Bowman, J.M. Rieger, Meredith Dake, Cyra Master, Kaitlin Kovach, Justice Gilpin-Green, Cameron Easley, Rebecca Gale, Alexis Levinson, Chris Hale, Emily Cahn, Abby Livingston, Shira T. Center, Kyle Trygstad, David Eldridge, David Hawkings, Hannah Hess, Matt Fuller, Emma Dumain, Warren Rojas, Humberto Sanchez, Niels Lesniewski, Steven T. Dennis, Jason Dick, Robert “Bo” Huttinger, Chris Williams, Bill Clark, Tom Williams, Melanie Zanona, George Cahlink‎, Avi Niman, John Tranfaglia‎, Paul M. Krawzak, David Meyers‎, David Ellis, Tom Whitmire and Shana Westlake.

Those names above are from both the Roll Call and CQ newsrooms, and I also want to give shout outs to the work done by our terrific summer staffers Cady Zuvich, through the Washington Press Club Foundation’s internship program, and Colin Diersing, a Director’s Intern with Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

It’s important to note that we don’t just type in the information from the forms and then hit publish. The data entry is just the beginning. Our devoted copy desk and many generous volunteers from CQ dove in to help fact-check the list.

Eventually, we’ll go live with the entire database once we make sure those numbers get another layer of scrutiny.

That means every single member, senator and delegate will be ranked on wealth for, by every account I can find, the first time.

I think Brian would be proud.

Related stories:

The 50 Richest Members of Congress

Video Profiles of 10 Richest