Can I FOIA bank records of banks that were bailed out with Federal money
April 25, 2014 6:31 PM   Subscribe

I am working on a project where I am trying to find contributions made between businesses and political parties. Besides the obvious places (Sunlight Foundation, etc.) I want to know if, for the time banks received federal money, would those records be FOIAble? I have a pretty good idea which federal agencies to contact. But would it work?
posted by CollectiveMind to Law & Government (10 answers total)
FOIA requests have to be made to the federal government agency whose records/data they are requesting. Since banks are not federal agencies, I doubt that what you are suggesting would be allowed. It also specifically exempts financial records of people:

4. A trade secret or privileged or confidential commercial or financial information obtained from a person;

And financial institutions overseen by the SEC:

8. Contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports about financial institutions that the SEC regulates or supervises;

So even if you could legally make some kind of argument that banks were temporarily federal agencies when they took bailout money, they're exempted.
posted by axiom at 7:08 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Records of political contributions are kept by either the Federal Elections Commission or individual Political Action Committees. The Federal Elections Commission already makes these records publicly available, and Political Action Committees would not be covered under FOIA.
posted by backwards compatible at 7:09 PM on April 25, 2014

I don't understand what records that you want. Do you want records of contributions that businesses made to campaigns, or records of which banks received federal money? Regarding the former, business are not permitted by law to make direct contributions to campaigns, so that's going to be a zero-entry dataset. The bailouts happened prior to Citizens United, so independent expenditures by corporations weren't yet legal, either. On the other hand, if you just want to know which banks received federal bailout money, see Pro Publica's list.
posted by waldo at 7:39 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Waldo, I want the record of transactions between businesses and politicians/political parties that would be in the records of those banks. But it seems that is not possible.
posted by CollectiveMind at 8:10 PM on April 25, 2014

What kind of transactions? Like deposits into the politician's bank accounts and withdrawals from those accounts? Do you suspect a politician got a favorable loan from a bank? That somebody benefited from an M&A deal? Are you trying to find out if a bank (or its executives) donated money to a politician?

"Transaction" is a very broad and vague term, and "politician" is a huge category of people. If you are just going on a vague fishing expedition, it is going to be hard to find much at all. I still don't understand what you mean.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:57 PM on April 25, 2014

The records you want are not maintained by an entity which is subject to FOIA requests.

Even if they were, the documents you seek would almost certainly be except from such requests.
posted by valkyryn at 11:47 PM on April 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

"transactions between businesses and politicians/political parties"

This would not be there even if you could have unfettered access to financial records. Legitimate political contributions flowed (pre-CU) from individuals to political committees or to PACs, and from PACs to political committees. Money then freely flows from one political committee to another. None of this would be on the books of the businesses. The money is paid by individuals who believe that the contributions advance their interests and those of their businesses.

On occasion, I have heard, some businesses pay bribes. Bribes are not going to be identified as such in any of the business's books.
posted by yclipse at 6:16 AM on April 26, 2014

It's not quite clear what you're looking for, but I suspect that FOIA won't be the answer. It sounds that the FEC is keeping the best records of the type you're looking for.

Check out to see some of the kinds of data the agency keeps, and if you decide that there's something of interest, you can download the data yourself and extract what you want.

Keep in mind that these data are extremely complex... it takes a large amount of time, effort, and knowledge to piece together exactly what's going on, so beware of drawing firm conclusions unless you really understand the dataset and the regulations. Even a very simple-seeming question can be very hard to answer. (e.g. "How much is a company giving to campaigns?" seems easy, but... are you counting just direct contributions to candidates? How about to the company's PAC? What about to other partisan organizations? How are you accounting for the hundreds of company employees who are "voluntarily" making nearly-identical contributions to the same small handful of candidates?)

So... there's stuff out there, but be careful about how you interpret what you find.
posted by cgs06 at 6:31 AM on April 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Federal banking law prohibits national banks from making political contributions. If one type of charter can't, I'd think none can.

So unless the bank screwed up and made noncompliant payments and actually recorded them on their books as political contribution, there wouldn't be any records. And any bank that did that would probably be caught by their regulator or auditor. In any case, a FOIA request wouldn't get you a bank's accounting records.

If you want to look for contributions from the banking industry, you'd want to find out the names of the PACs for bankers associations in the state you are interested in, because that is how bankers could get money to politicians. Another place to look as the political contributions of the American Bankers Association or its PAC. Then follow the money.
posted by ADave at 9:53 PM on April 26, 2014

You may be confusing what happens with FDIC-insured banks that failed with banks that received "bailout" money.

When an FDIC-insured bank fails, the FDIC is normally appointed as the bank's receiver and, as part of the receivership, "inherits" the failed bank's records. The FDIC spends a lot of resources unwinding those records and managing them (in litigation and otherwise). But as others have pointed out, FOIA Exemption 4 (and perhaps Exemption 6) would render most of the records that you're seeking un-FOIA-able.

For the most part, I think that "banks that received federal money" would not have been placed into an FDIC receivership. It's certainly possible that as a condition of receiving bailout money they may have made certain representations to various regulatory agencies about the state of their books, and those disclosures may be FOIA-able (but also, potentially subject to Exemption 4). But the granular individual account transaction information you mention would not normally be part of those disclosures, or so I'd think.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 11:50 AM on April 27, 2014

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