LittleSis: A Tool for Activists and Researchers

Want to learn more about who-knows-who at the heights of business and government? For those interested in knowing where a certain politician is getting his or her funding, finding out what individuals sit on which corporate boards, or learning more about the networks that connect the most powerful people in the world, the website LittleSis is a helpful tool. The site is a self-proclaimed, “‘involuntary Facebook’ of powerful people and organizations,” aiming to bring “transparency to networks of influence, tracking the key relationships between politicians, corporate executives, lobbyists, financiers, and their affiliated organizations.”

LittleSis, the name a play on “Big Brother,” was developed by the Public Accountability Initiative(PAI), founded in 2008 by Kevin Conner and Matthew Skomarovsky. According to its website, PAI is a “nonprofit, non-partisan research and educational organization focused on corporate and government accountability,” whose mission is “to facilitate and produce investigative research that empowers citizens to hold their leaders accountable.” To further its mission, PAI set up LittleSis so that citizens can better understand the relationships and financial actions of powerful people and their networks. LittleSis is a free database of who knows who in the top positions of business and government.LittleSis supports the work of journalists, watchdogs and grassroots activists by documenting where individuals in positions of power work, who they know, and who they donate to. This information is already publicly available, but the goal of LittleSis is to bring it all together in one place so that it can be a useful tool for revealing the social networks that have the greatest influence over U.S. public policy. In addition to being a searchable database, LittleSis also has a blog, called Eyes on the Ties, that helps readers keep up with the shifting networks in the database.

To explore how LittleSis can be used, I decided to see what I could find out about James Skinner, the CEO of the McDonald’s Corporation.  Here’s what I learned:

James A. Skinner, who has been CEO of McDonald’s since 2004, is also on the Board of Directors of two other corporations, Illinois Toolworks and the Walgreens drug store chain. He has contributed money to the Illinois Republican Party, John McCain, the Republican National Committee, Mitt Romney, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and McDonalds Corporation Political Action Committee, among others. Skinner is also on the Board of Catalyst, a leading nonprofit membership organization that defines its mission as expanding opportunities for women and business.

Skinner sits on boards of other organizations with 229 other people, including:

  • Judith Dimon, the wife of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon;
  • William F. Aldinger  III, who is President, Chief Executive Officer and Director of Capmark Financial Group Inc., a commercial real estate finance company, and also serves on the boards of AT&T Inc., KKR Financial Corp. and The Charles Schwab Corporation;
  • William M. Goodyear, Past Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Bank of America,
  • Barbara Paul Robinson, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP;
  • Enrique Hernandez Jr, President & CEO of Inter-Con Security Systems and a director at Wells Fargo.

Following a link to McDonald’s Corporation, we learn that McDonald’s has hired Michael Tiner as a lobbyist, paying him $390,000 between 1999 and 2008. Tiner has also served as lobbyist for the agribusiness company Amgen. We learn that James Simons, a former mathematician whose quantitative hedge fund returned 73 percent net of fees – as high as 5 percent of assets and 40 percent of profits – in 2007, owns 8,165,300 shares of McDonalds. These random factbits illustrate the world in which McDonald’s operates and show its multiple connections to the financial sector, responsible for many of the nation’s current economic woes.

James A. Skinner

Anyone can contribute to the LittleSis database by signing up on the website. Users can add to the database, fill in gaps, and correct errors. In addition to the online community of researchers, LittleSis gets its information from government filings, news articles and other sources. Because the database is so participant-driven, there is no guarantee that all of the information will be completely accurate all of the time.

“LittleSis is an experiment – an ambitious one – in the world of crowd-sourcing of transparency and accountability efforts,” says Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, one of the original funders of LittleSis. “It empowers us all to be our own best watchdogs and collectively develop an unprecedented, authoritative database of information on the powers that be.”


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