Sunshine Review

From SourceWatch
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Sunshine Review is "a non-profit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency," according to the organization website. Upon its launch in July 2008, it was a project of the Sam Adams Alliance, but "in 2010 separated from SAM and launched its own organization dedicated to educating the public about affirmative disclosure and other open government initiatives." The organization works with the National Taxpayers Union (which is funded by Philip Morris) "to develop information on state spending" and the Madison-based Lucy Burns Institute, which "runs the WikiFOIA project" as well as BallotPedia.[1][2]

The organization defines "government transparency" or "open government" as "the political doctrine which holds that the business of government and state administration should be opened at all levels to effective public scrutiny and oversight. In its broadest construction it opposes reason of state and national security considerations, which have tended to legitimize extensive state secrecy."[3] The Sunshine Review gives states a "Transparency Report Card" grading them at the level of state, county, city, and school district. The organization has evaluated over 6,000 government websites.[4]

The organization propounds the belief "that the responsibility of providing information falls on the government, who should participate in affirmative disclosure"-- defined as "the revelation of information that may be damaging to the one revealing it. When used in the terms of open government, it is the practice of the government publishing government data, rather than for an individual's public records request."[5]

When considered in relation to the Financial Stress Test model as applied to municipal, county and state governments, one may wonder, as Rick Ungar does in an op-ed for Forbes April 20, 2011, if, "by making information more transparent by placing complicated financial data online that is already provided to the Department of Revenue..., the residents of local communities will somehow gain a better understanding as to how good or bad things are in their home town."[6] (His comments are in relation to a Greater Milwaukee Committee proposal for the "development of a fiscal stress test for Wisconsin municipalities".)[7]

Non-members who attempt to edit the Sunshine Review wiki pages receive a warning message that reads "Warning: You are not logged in. Your IP address will be recorded in this page's edit history" but are apparently not prevented from making changes.

Support for the American Legislative Exchange Council

The Sunshine Review is private sector member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Michael Barnhart, the president of the organization, represents the Sunshine Review on ALEC's Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force.

About ALEC
ALEC is a corporate bill mill. It is not just a lobby or a front group; it is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, corporations hand state legislators their wishlists to benefit their bottom line. Corporations fund almost all of ALEC's operations. They pay for a seat on ALEC task forces where corporate lobbyists and special interest reps vote with elected officials to approve “model” bills. Learn more at the Center for Media and Democracy's, and check out breaking news on our site.

At the ALEC 2010 meeting in San Diego, Barnhart discussed proposed model legislation: "The Transparency and Government Accountability Act."[8] It was adopted by the Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force in August 2010, and approved by the ALEC Board of Directors in September 2010.[9] Similar versions of this bill have been introduced in states such as Virginia, New Mexico, Iowa, and Utah. The bill requires the development of a detailed website listing all revenue and expenditures of the state down to the level of each check. It also includes voting record information, open records information, information on lobbying and state contracts, and ethics information. While the idea seems unobjectionable, the detailed budgeting information has been criticized as a duplicative effort to showcase and make hay of perceived "wasteful spending."[10]

The Sunshine Review has worked closely with the National Taxpayers Union,[11] another ALEC member dedicated to eliminating taxes and shrinking the size of government. NTU President Duane Parde is former Executive Director of ALEC.[12] The group has been involved in pushing this type of transparency legislation in states across the country, even before it was adopted by ALEC.[13]


The website for the Sunshine Review reads: "Sunshine Review is funded largely by grants and a number of private donations. Our organization believes there is a difference between government transparency and personal privacy and for this reason we do not disclose our donors."[14]

In 2010, the Sunshine Review received over $560,000 from the conservative Sam Adams Alliance (SAM), according to SAM's IRS tax filings.[15]Of its $3.9 million budget,[16] SAM also provides funding to groups such as the Tea Party Patriots Foundation, the First Freedom Foundation, and the Citizens in Charge Foundation. SAM gets funding from the State Policy Network (SPN) which is partially funded by The Claude R. Lambe Foundation, a project of Charles Koch who co-owns Koch Industries with his brother David.

The Lucy Burns Institute (LBI) works in collaboration with the Sunshine Review on the WikiFOIA project, which provides information on how to use Freedom of information laws at the state and local level, and the Sunshine Review's logo is listed prominently on the homepage of LBI.[17] According to LBI's 990 forms, the institute has given the Sunshine Review $231,458 from 2008-2010. According to the group's most recently available 990 form, the President of LBI, Leslie Graves is a chair of Sunshine Review.[18] LBI also receives funding from SAM, as of their most recent IRS filing.[19] Graves is married to the CEO of SAM, Eric O'Keefe.

LBI says it is dedicated to "openness in politics on both sides of the aisle"[20] and "empowering ordinary citizens with ways to both learn about local government, and share the information they learn with others."[21] Even though the organization is a major proponent of transparency in government operations and budgeting, it provides limited information about how the organization itself is funded.

Sunshine Review and the Kochs

The Sunshine Review is listed as a partner organization of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation for its associate program.[22] Charles and his brother David Koch lead Koch Industries, one of the richest privately held corporations in the world, and they are two of the two twenty wealthiest people in the world.

Changes Effected

In January of 2009, St. Charles Parish, LA unveiled a new website containing more information, "partly in response to a review of the parish's old Web site by the Sunshine Review," including adding "the parish's budget, audit and other financial information to the site," at a cost of $47,000.[23]

In December of 2008, DuPage County, IL promised to add information about county contracts to its newly redesigned website in response to a mostly-positive rating (eight categories out of ten already meeting standards) from the Sunshine Review.[24]

Tulsa County, OK, Owasso City, OK, Anderson County, SC and Cook County, IL have also made changes to their websites in response to Sunshine Review ratings.[25][26][27][28]

Other Governmental Websites Reviewed


In April 2011, a press release penned by Claire Milbrandt, an Account Manager at J Connors and Co public relations firm in Milwaukee (whose office is in the same building as an Americans for Prosperity office, according to a Google Maps search) and former consultant at Americans for Prosperity,[29] revealed that "Wisconsin school districts earned an overall "D" transparency grade for information available on their websites according to an analysis conducted by Sunshine Review, a pro-transparency group.

"Of the 442 school districts rated by the group, 173 earned failing grades.... Organizations across Wisconsin like Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) have been pushing transparency for years without much success from Madison.... Madison’s school district, one of the largest in the state, garnered only a C- due to only partially meeting many of the requirements.

"The President of Sunshine Review, Michael Barnhart, believes if schools begin to proactively disclose the other checklist components it will have a positive impact on the state’s education system. 'It is crucial for parents and taxpayers to have access to complete information about how school districts operate,' said Barnhart."[30]

Public Discourse

Sunshine Review sponsors a weekly chat on Twitter via @FOIAchat that has hosted journalists like Pulitzer winner Ryan Gabrielson.[31][32]


  • Michael Barnhart, Executive Director (also on the board of the Sam Adams Alliance)
  • Kristin McMurray, Managing Editor, formerly of the Sam Adams Alliance[33]
  • Diana Lopez, Senior Editor/FOIA Specialist
  • Joshua Meyer, WikiFOIA Editor (WikiFOIA is a project of the Lucy Burns Institute, which links to Sunshine Review from its homepage)

Although an organization dedicated to transparency, Sunshine Review lists no Board members nor any information about its funding on its website.

Contact Details

No physical address is listed on the organization website, but the organization is based in Arlington, Virginia.[34]
Tel: (773) 234-9812

Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles

External Resources


  1. Sunshine Review About, Organization website, accessed April 22, 2011
  2. Lucy Burns Institute Home organization website, accessed April 22, 2011
  3. Sunshine Review Open government, editable wiki page, accessed April 21, 2011
  4. Sunshine Review, Core, organizational website, accessed November 2012.
  5. Sunshine Review Affirmative disclosure, editable wiki page, accessed April 21, 2011
  6. Rick Ungar What Is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Not Telling Us About Financial Stress Test Legislation?, The Policy Page, Forbes Blog, April 20, 2011
  7. Julia Taylor A statement on the MY Milwaukee County initiative from GMC President Julia Taylor, Press release, April 20, 2011, accessed April 21, 2011
  8. Common Cause, Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force Documents, ALEC documents obtained by Common Cause, July 2010.
  9. Center for Media and Democracy, The Transparency and Government Accountability Act, ALEC Exposed, accessed November 2012.
  10. Center for Media and Democracy, "The Lucy Burns Institute (Publishers of Ballotpedia, Judgepedia and WikiFOIA) and Her Right-Wing Bedfellows," November 26, 2012.
  11. Sunshine Review, About, organizational website, accessed November 2012.
  12. Center for Media and Democracy, National Taxpayers Union, Sourcewatch, accessed November 2012.
  13. National Taxpayers Union, "An Open Letter to Iowa Legislators: Taxpayers Support Taxpayer Transparency Act/Taxation Disclosure Act (SF 102)," March 2009.
  14. Sunshine Review, Press Room, organizational website, accessed November 2012.
  15. IRS, Sam Adams Alliance IRS 990 forms, Guide Star, accessed November 2012.
  16. IRS, Sam Adams Alliance IRS Filing, Guide Star, accessed November 2012.
  17. Sunshine Review, About, organizational website, accessed November 2012.
  18. IRS, Sunshine Review IRS 990 forms, Guide Star, accessed November 2012.
  19. IRS, Sam Adams Alliance IRS 990 form, Guide Star, accessed November 2012.
  20. Lucy Burns Institute, Home, organizational website, accessed November 2012.
  21. Lucy Burns Institute, FAQ, organizational website, accessed November 2012.
  22. Charles Koch Institute, Partner Organization, organizational website, accessed November 2012.
  23. Matt Scallan St. Charles redesigns Web site, The Times-Picayune, January 22, 2009
  24. Dan Petrella County Web site earns top marks for transparency, Lombard Spectator, December 8, 2008
  25. World's Editorial Writers County kudos: 'Perfect' score allows more sunlight, Tulsa World, October 24, 2009
  26. Rhett Morgan Owasso gets high mark for openness: The rating comes after key lawsuit details are revealed, Tulsa World, January 9, 2010
  27. Mike Ellis Openness is Anderson’s message at convention, Independent Mail, July 29, 2009
  28. The Civic Federation Cook County’s New Online Check Register Gives Public Access to County Spending Records, Blog, February 24, 2010
  29. LinkedIn Claire Milbrandt, internet profile, accessed May 5, 2011
  30. Sunshine Review Wisconsin school districts websites fail transparency test, Press Release, April 7, 2011
  31. International Journalists' Network From Tip to Story: Chat with Pulitzer winner Ryan Gabrielson, Blog, March 25, 2011
  32. Sunshine Review Calendar of topics, organization website, accessed April 22, 2011
  33. Kristin McMurray About Me, personal website, accessed April 22, 2011
  34. Sunshine Review, About, organizational website, accessed July 2012