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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

Finding That Federal Data Online   

By Amy Jeter
Amy Jeter is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

David Burnham is a fountain of federal enforcement information. He easily rattles off statistical trivia: "Did you know that almost 30 percent of tax prosecutions occur in the two weeks before April 15?" he asks. "Did you know that more than half of the FBI's convictions involve drugs, bank robberies and fraud against banks?"

If you didn't know, now you can find this information and more yourself.

Statistics from thousands of pages of previously unpublished federal enforcement agency documents are available online, part of a Web-based service provided by TRAC, a research organization headed by Burnham and statistician Susan Long, both professors at Syracuse University.

The service, called TRACFED, is a Web site that allows users to access and analyze online TRAC databases. The site, trac.syr.edu, gives information on federal prosecutions and tax audits from the FBI, Internal Revenue Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and more than 20 other federal agencies. One of the unique features is the ability to access cases referred to federal prosecutors but not prosecuted--information not otherwise easily obtained.

Launche0d in March, TRACFED's search and analysis capabilities were expanded in June. Only news organizations can register to use the database.

"Our purpose is to provide the public with authoritative information about federal enforcement," says Burnham, a veteran investigative reporter known for his work at the New York Times. "Susan and I..felt the public, particularly the press, did not have the information they needed to hold federal agencies accountable."

Funded partially by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, TRACFED offers two options for journalists to feed the database their own criteria. TRAC EXPRESS provides general information immediately, while TRAC ANALYZER takes longer to generate more specific data.

A reporter can look up the number of drug-related cases prosecuted by all of the federal agencies in his or her area and run a comparison with the rest of the nation. Results come back as tables, which range in cost from $2.50 to $20. There is no membership fee.

So far, more than 90 news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, NBC News, the Dallas Morning News and the Associated Press, have signed up, according to Burnham. "Our role is to get newspaper people thinking for themselves," he says. "I want them to take the data and call up the head of the local FBI agency and say, 'Hey, how come?' "

Burnham and Long founded the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse in 1989 with that purpose in mind. The organization began publishing on the Web three years ago.

Operating out of Syracuse University, TRAC files hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests each year and follows up on requests that have been stalled or denied. After acquiring documents, Long and her fellow statisticians render them understandable, sometimes by writing separate programs to decipher particularly cryptic codes.

TRAC will question the originating agency on its methods for compiling data, says Long, if TRAC's double-checking methods yield discrepancies. These validity checks are then published. Additionally, TRAC informs its users of quirks that might lead to misinterpretation, says Brooke Masters, a Washington Post reporter and self-proclaimed "TRAC junkie."

But despite these precautionary efforts, some federal agents have denounced the accuracy of TRAC data published in newspaper stories. Federal prosecutors in Kentucky and Minnesota protested TRAC statistics in 1996 and 1997 that ranked their offices among the nation's worst in the percentage of cases prosecuted out of those referred to them.

With TRAC's reputation at stake, Burnham and Long asked to review local agency documentation to compare it with their published figures. Their request was denied. When they then sued the Justice Department for the documents, they were told the tapes containing that information had been shredded (Kentucky) and lost (Minnesota). That suit is pending.

TRAC's history with the FBI has been just as eventful.

Tron Brekke, deputy assistant director of the FBI, argued on the August 5, 1997, broadcast of "Nightline" that TRAC data could be misleading because TRAC defined some terms differently than the Justice Department.

The Post's Masters says some of TRAC's information could be misinterpreted if a user does not read the data carefully and "look at all the information on the site."

Generally, though, reporters give TRACFED positive reviews. David Cay Johnston, a business reporter at the New York Times, used TRACFED for a half dozen stories related to tax issues. "TRAC includes an incredible amount of very useful detail," he says. "It is information that is generally not available otherwise."

If Long and Burnham have their way, reporters will have more data to explore by the year's end. They plan to add demographics, income statistics and federal staffing information, and to include graphs and maps.

"We can always expand more--become bigger and better," Long says. "Yes, we've got a lot, but there's always more data one can add."