Vigilant Alerts: The Case of the Congressman

Alerts are a powerful tool on Vigilant that provide ongoing monitoring of a person or entity to ensure that you don’t miss new public records becoming available at a time when they may matter most.

To illustrate the potential power of Alerts, consider this recent example:

A few months after the 2018 midterm elections, news broke that a newly-elected member of congress had recently been party to a divorce case which included allegations of adultery. The court filing had become publicly available back in August, but the story wasn’t published until January 15th.

BOISE – New Idaho congressman Russ Fulcher and his wife, Kara, divorced in September after she cited his “acts of adultery.”

At the time, Fulcher was running for Idaho’s 1st District congressional seat, after winning a hard-fought, seven-way GOP primary in May with 43.1 percent of the vote. But the divorce, filed in Ada County, escaped public attention during the campaign.

The candidate in question wasn’t running in the most competitive race in the country, but Vigilant’s Alerts could have provided an immediate flag on the court records in question.

On August 8th, 2018, the first filing in the divorce record became available on the Idaho State Judicial Website after being filed in Ada County:

That same day, a Vigilant Alert set up for Russell Fulcher and checking Idaho Courts would have found the record:

And, with Alert emails set up, immediately after Vigilant found the record, an Alert would have been sent directly to a subscriber’s inbox:

Another similar example involved then-congressman and then-nominee for Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. In October 2016, a church in DC filed a complaint against Zinke and his wife in DC Superior Court alleging unpaid rent on a property the church owned. The church accused Zinke and his wife of “wrongfully abandoning” the property and of owing more than $66,000 in rent and other fees. Although the Zinkes argued the property had been “unlivable” and filed a countersuit against the church, the two parties reached an undisclosed settlement almost a year later in August 2017.

Again, Vigilant Alerts could have provided much earlier detection of this case.

On October 21st, 2016, the original Complaint for Breach of Contract was filed with the DC Superior Court and became available on the public docket:

The same day, a Vigilant Alert set to check DC Courts for Ryan Zinke would have found the record:

And immediately after, Vigilant would have sent an Alert with the record directly to a subscriber’s inbox.

For interested parties, these records – which took months to discover without Vigilant  – could have been delivered right to an email inbox within 24 hours of becoming public record. Maybe the records from these specific examples wouldn’t have changed the outcome of a particular election, but having these types of insights earlier can potentially make a big difference.  

Alerts can be set to cover thousands of data sources available on Vigilant, and can be customized with user settings. You can learn more about Vigilant’s alerts here.

275 Million Campaign Finance Records… and counting

Our team has been hard at work the last several months building out the campaign finance coverage available on Vigilant. Starting at the federal level with the FEC and working our way down through states, counties, and cities, we’ve now brought together over 275 million individual records to create the largest pool of campaign finance data ever made accessible in one place.

It hasn’t been easy. The information comes from several hundred unique sources of data, spanning a patchwork of different jurisdictions, data formats, reporting mechanisms, requirements, and reporting timelines. In many places, our team had to overcome big challenges like finding ways to extract information from messy handwritten forms, and unearthing records buried deep in outdated government websites. Sorting through – and clearly organizing – misfiled records, duplicated records, and records amended three or four times were all important parts of our process as we expanded our coverage.

Now, instead of a manual process that would take hours, Vigilant can complete a search on this collection of hundreds of millions of records in seconds, providing the most comprehensive campaign finance results available. And because all of Vigilant’s searches are either live queries or pull from databases we update several times a day, you can trust that the search is always as up-to-date as possible, even as the number of political donations being made every day continues to grow.

In the months ahead, we are going to continue building out our Campaign Finance coverage even more, bringing more counties, cities and other jurisdictions into our platform. The 2016 and 2018 election seasons both broke records for political giving and 2020 will likely do so again. We’ll be right there alongside all the new records, helping our customers access and make sense of the information needed to make better informed decisions.

Vigilant V2

Today, we’re excited to launch Vigilant V2 – the second generation of the Vigilant platform.

Vigilant integrates live search and monitoring of hundreds and hundreds of public records databases – giving our users access to the information they need for research, diligence and intelligence in seconds.

With V2 we’ve made major upgrades and reimagined much of the underlying infrastructure – hugely improving the speed of search (now 5 – 10x faster) and the robustness of the platform, and making significant interface improvements to help make Vigilant easier and more powerful to use.

We’ve been working on this for awhile, and we’re really excited to have it kick into action today.

We’d love to have you check it out – you can sign up for a free trial and demo here if you’re interested.

Sources to Search: Data Breach Notices Databases

A series of new reports on hacking of credit card data at Trump hotels highlights a newly public records data source that can be increasingly high-value: data breach notices.

As companies have increasingly been targeted by hackers – and have become increasingly aware of the risks around exposing public data – states have imposed new laws requiring that companies disclose these data breaches to their affected (or potentially affected) customers. This typically takes the form of a fairly standardized data breach letter, disclosing some details of the breach and who is affected.

These can be a really interesting source of news and intelligence around the companies that file them and regarding the incidents themselves, but normally they’re only posted on the companies websites (often obscurely) or only sent to the recipients.

However, the state of California (along with a handful of other states) actually retains a database of major breaches. State law “requires a business or state agency to notify any California resident whose unencrypted personal information, as defined, was acquired, or reasonably believed to have been acquired, by an unauthorized person.” And in turn, that any notice sent to more than 500 California residents be sent to the California State Attorney General. Those notices are posted on an online database of major data breaches here.

These notices variously provide some details of what happened in the breach and – on occasion – how many folks are affected and what data was affected. For example, in the case of the filing for Trump Hotels the notice details how the breach happened (though not the overall number of people affected):

 

The Sabre SynXis Central Reservations system (CRS) facilitates the booking of hotel reservations made by consumers through hotels, online travel agencies, and similar booking services. Following an investigation, Sabre notified us on June 5, 2017 that an unauthorized party gained access to account credentials that permitted access to payment card data and certain reservation information for some of our hotel reservations processed through Sabre’s CRS. The investigation found that the unauthorized party first obtained access to Trump Hotels-related payment card and other reservation information on August 10, 2016. The last access to this information was on March 9, 2017.

While other states maintain similar data resources, California’s is the most comprehensive and appears to be the most frequently updated. Washington state also posts notices as they’re received, as does the state of Oregon the state of Vermont, the state of Wisconsin, the state of Maine, and Montana.

The state of Massachusetts also posts some information on data breach notices, but they appear to update their records quarterly. The same appears to be true in Maryland. New Hampshire has a small number of records available as well.

The State of Indiana appears to release their reports on an annual basis.

At the federal level, HHS reports this information for breaches of unsecured protected health information affecting 500 individuals or more.

The Identity Theft Resource Center also aggregates a lot of this information on their website on a weekly basis.

While sometimes these filings become the center of news stories, they often don’t at the time, and can be a useful point to look back to for context.

 

The Watch periodically highlights data sources that can be valuable, but are often overlooked. Databases like California’s Data Breach Notices are integrated into the Vigilant research platform and be accessed and monitored for new records through the platform. Contact us if you’re interested in a trial.

Sources to Search: The OpenSecrets FARA Full-text Search

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (or as it’s commonly known, FARA) requires that those representing foreign governments and foreign interests file detailed reports with the Department of Justice outlining what exactly they are doing on behalf of their clients.

FARA registrations have been the source of lots of important stories in recent months – ranging from Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s run-ins with the law and his failures to register, to registrations by USTR Robert Lighthizer on behalf of Chinese and Brazilian state-owned industries that slowed down his confirmation.

But while the registrations can be a goldmine of useful intelligence about the influence industry in Washington, the searching functionality of the database is severely limited – mostly to the actual registrants themselves.

So, if you were researching the activities of a lobbyist (or an unregistered one) and they were a principal registered on the documents, they’d be easy to find. But if their activities were deeper in the filings as part of the firm’s broader work, it’d be a lot harder to sort out – you may have to go through all of the firm’s filings to find it.

Now, thanks to the Center for Responsive Politics (the folks behind OpenSecrets), there’s a full-text searchable archive of FARA registrations. The archive uses DocumentCloud, a nifty utility maintained by Investigative Reporters and Editors that OCR’s the documents, converting them into searchable text. And their advanced search capability allows for some other searches (i.e. date limits) that otherwise aren’t possible.

The search really shines in identifying activities that firms reported by their employees (on behalf of the contract) that aren’t listed as registrants. It’s also a great tool for digging into the lobbying activities themselves, with registrants often reporting all of their contacts with various lawmakers and their staffs. That’s a goldmine for linking lobbying contacts to votes and more, and for anyone seeking to dig into and better understand the lobbying industry itself.

 

The Watch periodically highlights data sources that can be valuable, but are often overlooked. Sign up and subscribe to get our posts with helpful tips in your email.

Vigilant Joining Matter.VC

Our CEO Mike wrote a post over on Medium, sharing some big news on Vigilant – we’re joining Matter:

Vigilant’s search platform sits on top of an API — letting us integrate data from Vigilant into any platform, work flow or even website. We started off building a way to search for records, but what we built ended up being ideal for monitoring for new information as well. And if we can integrate any data source into Vigilant, and then integrate that data feed into any platform or website, we can really connect our users with the information they need, when and where they need it — connecting any data source to any user.

That’s it’s own form of news — an opportunity to vastly expand the sort of records that are “reported” on and known. And we’re very excited to be joining Matter this summer to partner with them in helping bring this to life — to take Vigilant from a powerful search tool, to a platform that’s truly delivering the information our users need, when and where they need it. It’s a massive opportunity to expand the coverage that exists and is possible today.

We’re with the Washington Post — democracy dies in darkness. The result of today’s silo-ed data landscape is that records remain fragmented, facts remain hidden, and critical and valuable stories go untold. We believe the truth should never be a victim of logistics, and so we’re building a platform that makes real, meaningful public records access and transparency a reality.

You can read the whole post here.

Campaigns & Elections Features Vigilant’s Disruptive Research Solutions

Campaigns & Elections magazine recently profiled our work building powerful research tools:

AN OPPO VETERAN AIMS TO DISRUPT RESEARCH

Advocacy groups have been gearing up faster than usual for the 2018 cycle. As they prepare surrogates for public appearances, they have a new research tool to conduct reputation risk management.

Opposition research is a sector of the campaign industry that’s been left largely undisrupted by technology. While search engines and the posting of public documents online has eased researchers’ workloads, their processes are fundamentally unchanged, according to Phillips.

“This is largely an industry that’s dependent on technology, but not a space that people have been building tools for,” he said.

You can read the whole article here.

Research Tips You Can Use: Using Google Site Search for Deeper Social Searching

In a previous post last week, we dug a bit into Google’s site search feature – which lets you use Google’s search interface (and other functionality – like filetype: searches) to do a deep search of a site that might not have much search-ability on its own, and to find much deeper information within the site.

Here, we’re going to look at a few ways to use the same site: command to dig into social media.

Continue reading

Our CEO on Vetting: “It’s basic risk management.”

Our CEO Mike Phillips has an op-ed in The Hill this morning, talking about vetting:

The vetting process is a basic diligence function, ensuring that those who serve in positions of power are free of conflicts of interest or other compromising embarrassments and entanglements. Across nearly every industry, similar checks are performed — of executives and business partners, of borrowers and grantees, and even of political candidates themselves. It’s basic risk management.

As the Trump administration is learning, it’s a whole lot easier to know about these issues up front, before you’re answering questions about them at a hearing or from a reporter.

You can read the whole thing here.