May 6, 2002

The California Oracle scandal may not be unique

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
If you follow much tech news, you've probably heard that the state of California improperly spent $95 million on a contract with Oracle. Then it was discovered that Oracle had contributed to Gov. Grey Davis' campaign fund, and heads started to roll. Microsoft is another company that both sells heavily to governments and contributes heavily to political campaign funds, besides spending many millions on lobbying. Could all this money be part of the reason Microsoft products are so entrenched in government?
A quick look at this page on the site shows the top software industry contributors to federal incumbents for the 2002 election
cycle so far. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft is number one, at $1,554,559, which is almost twice as much as number two Propel's $608,286, and many times more than number three Oracle's $217,934.

That's just the contributions.

This page shows federal lobbying expenditures for "computer equipment and services" companies during 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available. Note that Microsoft spent the most -- $6,360,000 -- but don't forget to look at others in the seven-figure club. It almost reads like a roster of IT companies that do big business with the federal government. EDS, a company that relies heavily on government contracts, popped $5,564,933. IBM spent $4,680,000. Oracle gave lobbyists $2,180,000, Intel spent $2,080,000, Texas Instruments coughed up $2,200,000, America Online's number was $1,820,000, a group called "Computer Coalition for Responsible Exports" came in with $1,340,000, Sun Microsytems put up $1,140,000, and eLottery Inc. felt it had to bet $1,150,000 on lobbying.

All told, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, the group that runs, computer companies spend well over $50 million annually on talking the federal government into doing what they want -- including, they hope, buying products and services from the companies that lay out those big bucks.

The computer business is not at the top of the lobbying money list; that honor goes to the pharmaceutical and health products industry, which is in the $100 million range. But the computer industry's $50 million is not a small sum, especially when added to a year 2000 total of $40,020,654 in federal campaign contributions from the industry. Add $50 million and $40 million together, and if you believe money buys political influence, than you're seeing a mighty amount of it being bought by big hardware and software companies and the trade groups they fund.

If campaign contributions in California helped Oracle get a $95 million state contract that turned out to be such an obvious ripoff that Oracle has offered a refund now that the contract terms have been exposed, how many other pieces of software flimflam are hidden from public view in local, state, and federal agencies? And who is going to investigate them? In another twist to the California/Oracle story, State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who is in charge of the investigation, has apparently received $50,000 in campaign contributions from Oracle.

On the federal level, current Department of Justice boss John Ashcroft received a $9,500 direct contribution from Microsoft the last time he ran for public office (in 2000), not to mention well over $1 million from various lobbyists, law firms, trade groups, and PACs, some of which are sponsored in part by Microsoft and allied computer hardware and software companies. Ashcroft is far from the only national officeholder who has gotten major amounts of money from Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and other large computer industry players. This giving pervades our government, along with lobbying megabucks that often exceed the amount of direct campaign contributions.

How government purchasing decisions are made

Of course, the U.S. system of government "of the people, for the people, and by the people" means that despite the many financial temptations our public officials face, they look out for the public's interest at all times. Even a *wink wink* promise of a low work/high pay job after they leave public office (which is the sort of thing that doesn't show up in campaign financing or lobbying expenditure records) wouldn't sway our elected and appointed government people, would it?

I would not dare to intimate that a major reason the Department of Justice seems uninterested in punishing Microsoft as hard as it would want to punish you or me if we were convicted of breaking federal laws is the amount of financial power Microsoft has in Washington. Such an accusation against our fine public servants would be rude.

It would also be unkind of me to suggest that government software contracts might -- once in a while -- go to companies that have the largest amount of financial clout instead of to those who offer the best value per dollar.

Then reality intrudes, right now in the form of the Oracle-California scandal.

I'm sure there are many places in government where expensive, proprietary software solutions are best, and Open Source or Free Software simply won't do the job. But I wonder how many government office desktops really need to have Windows on them, especially those that only run one or two custom applications. And I also wonder, because so many of those applications are written specifically for the job they are meant to do instead of being bought off the shelf, if we taxpayers wouldn't be better served if most of those applications were Open Source, modified as necessary for use by many different agencies instead of purchased over and over again as pieces of proprietary software.

When I look through lists of major campaign donors and lobbyists, I see no Open Source or Free Software groups or companies except Sun and IBM, and neither of them is primarily a Free Software or Open Source vendor. I doubt that their lobbyists spend any measurable amount of time boosting Open Source or Free Software, although I would love to be proved wrong on this.

Without casting any more aspersions than necessary on the honesty of our fine federal, state, and local government workers and elected officeholders, I do wonder how many deals like Oracle's $95 million California debacle are waiting to be exposed if anyone decides to go looking for them. How many government software bid specs are written around Windows or specific Windows capabilities? How many computer hardware and software bid specs are written so that only a few companies (or even just one company) can possibly compete for those contracts?

Turning over the rocks

A GeekPAC is a fine idea, but it is up against some very heavy players, plus it faces the sad fact that most Americans don't spend a lot of time worrying about what computer hardware and software the government buys. It's an "eyes glaze over" issue if there ever was one, right up there with sugar cane import regulations. It takes a powerful scandal, like the Oracle/California thing, to get most people to pay attention to government computing. But when you get one of those, suddenly it's, "Wow, my tax money is getting ripped off by corporate greedheads who give big campaign contributions to the state's top officeholders," and it's a bread and butter issue.

So let me ask you this question: Do you work in or with a government agency you feel is purchasing computer hardware or software improperly? If so, are you aware that many journalists might be interested in that story? Are you aware that your identity can almost certainly be protected if you do a little whistle-blowing?

Journalism in the United States tends to be a business with more followers than leaders in it -- just like most other businesses. The Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News of San Jose and other California papers have milked story after story from the Oracle situation. Some of these stories are going to win local investigative journalism awards, and a few of them might even grab national prizes. Don't you think reporters at newspapers and TV stations in other places might like to glom on to a nice, juicy computer purchasing scandal or two of their own, now that they've seen that it's an issue that can capture the public's imagination?

If you run into a situation where intense lobbying pressure or large campaign contributions may have helped a proprietary software vendor or overpriced hardware vendor win a government contract, an email to is certainly in order. We can and will chase that kind of story. But don't forget the adage, "All politics is local," and its obvious corollary, "All political news is local." In other words, now that local news outlets have seen the California example, they are likely to be more receptive to news of government computer purchasing scandals than they were in the past, and in many cases they are more credible media for reporting such things than we are, because and editors are known Free Software and Open Source users and advocates, which means we are biased (and knowledgeable) in ways that a local newspaper or TV general assignment reporter is not.


"Mediabombing" is a slang term for planting a story through the use of calls, faxes, and letters (and nowadays, emails) to assignment editors or news editors. These people, not "letters to the editor," should get your story tips. Or, if one of your local newspapers or TV stations has a tech reporter whose work you respect, you might want to contact that person directly instead of going to the editors. Reporters get kudos for breaking "hot" stories, and almost all of the good ones either answer their own phones or return phone messages quickly.

The main trick when contacting mainstream reporters and editors about computer stories is to frame your information in terms they and their readers can grasp rapidly and easily. You can talk to a NewsForge editor about Apache and IIS server vulnerabilities, and we'll understand what you're saying, but we're weird. Most people in the news business understand money and political connections better than they understand technical ins and outs, so that is the level on which you must approach them. (Start talking about buffer overflows and the "eyes glaze over" factor kicks in immediately.) You're better off sticking to something like, "So and so got $X in campaign donations from [company] and now [city/county/state/federal agency] has signed a $Y contract with them even though they could have used [Linux/Open Source/Free Software] to do the same job for only $Z. What's going on here?"

In today's political climate, just the link between a contribution and a contract might be enough to get a smart journalist going, and if you want to help that journalist research Linux and Open Source, feel free to give them our email address; we will happily supply them with background information.

You are the Open Source PR department

All of the big proprietary software companies have in-house PR divisions and outside PR firms who work with their lobbying and campaign contribution people. Because there is hardly any organized Linux or Open Source lobbying effort at this point, we must be cleverer than "the opposition." We must use the media to our advantage as much as we can, and you will be surprised to find just how easy it is to contact reporters and editors, especially by phone, and just how closely the smart ones will listen to you if you approach them correctly. Not every phone call to a newspaper or TV station will lead to a story, but enough calls, faxes, and emails, over and over, from enough people, will eventually get some attention for The Cause.

The great thing about calling editors and reporters and asking them to investigate potential political corruption is that it takes no organized effort. It is something you, as an individual, can do all by yourself. If you have an "insider" tip, that's great. If not, you can do a little online research, both at and at Web sites run by local voters' education groups, and find out which politicians are getting how much money from what companies and industry associations. Now "follow the money" to see if any of those companies have recently gotten lucrative government contracts. Find a match? You may have lit on a potential story. (And maybe not; a lot of this stuff is hard to track down, which is why it is so frequently gotten away with.)

Not only does mediabombing not require any group effort, but it is likely to be more effective if it is done by many individuals, each acting alone, each coming up with his or her own unique bit of insight instead of using a single group's research or (worse) sending form letters or signing petitions. Don't forget: Richard Nixon's presidency was not brought down by petitions, demonstrations or other organized efforts, but by a pair of young reporters who started their investigation with information from a single individual.

There is no published proof right now that Microsoft or any other proprietary software company, besides Oracle, manipulated government officials, at any level, in order to get them to buy overpriced products. Perhaps this is because the California/Oracle scandal is a unique event, but it's also possible similar scandals have not been exposed elsewhere because investigative journalists haven't looked closely at how government IT purchasing decisions are made.

I think it's time to start doing a lot of digging. Now the trick -- and this is where you come in -- is to point mainstream media outlets in the direction of some of the potential scandals, and to give them enough information that they know where to start looking for enough proof that they can expose any wrongdoing they find -- assuming there is any to be found.

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