Tool 1: Specific research tips
The first step in research is to find out what sources of information are available. The Internet has vastly increased the amount of information accessible to the average person, and libraries also use the power of computer networks for research. For each area of concern, there are many sources you can use.
Laws and regulations
If you think a law is being broken, it's obviously necessary to know exactly what that law is and what its provisions are. There are several possible places to find state and federal laws.
- Law libraries. Law libraries are generally located in or near county courthouses and in law schools. While many public libraries may have complete copies of the state law code, law librarians are generally more knowledgeable, and can more easily and quickly help you find what you're looking for.
- Sympathetic lawyers and politicians. You may be able to find an attorney willing to research a particular law or legal question for you because he's interested in the issue. By the same token, a simple call to a politician's office may obtain the same result. Your elected representative may ask an aide to help you find the appropriate material as a form of constituent service.
In either of these cases, you should have a well-defined idea of what you're looking for. You can't expect someone to go through all the state environmental laws, for instance: you have to be able to explain what type of law you think is being violated.
- The Internet. There are several websites with listings of or links to state and federal statutes. There are sites with links to all state law codes. One of the best is the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School. It contains all state statutes, searchable by topic, as well as federal laws. Another site for federal laws is the US General Services Administration, searchable in a number of different ways.
Information about the past and current activities of government and corporations
Some of the most prominent websites that track government and corporate documents and activity are the Government Accountability Project, which tries to protect whistleblowers and make sure they're heard, the Congressional Accountability Project, concerned with Congressional ethics reform, the Corporate Accountability Project, keeping watch on multinational corporations, with links to Corporate Watch, a massive data base on corporate activity worldwide, and its sister organization, Corporate Watch USA. The latter three of these websites contain links to corporate filings, where you can find corporate annual reports and other documents.
In addition to these and similar websites, there are also newspaper archives, accessible through newspaper offices and - often - on the web. The New York Times, for instance, offers archived articles (at a small cost) going back five or more years. Newsweek also offers a fee-based archive. Many public and academic libraries subscribe to newspaper and magazine archive services, and you may be able to take advantage of that as a library card holder. State university libraries, particularly, many of which offer library membership to any state resident, have a broad range of research services.
You may need information ranging from the chemical structure of a particular substance to the details of a five-year-old episode of community history. All the sources referred to above - libraries, the Internet, experts, newspaper archives - are useful for general as well as specific information. Your best sources depend on the information you're seeking. If you're looking for the results of scientific studies or the outcome of a high-profile lawsuit, printed sources may be your best bet. (Once again, libraries are good places to start.) If you're looking for evidence of current wrongdoing, it's probably not going to be in print.
Your most important source may be people. You may want to consult an expert to explain, as we've discussed, the ins and outs of a state law or the ecological implications of the use of a weedkiller. If you're looking for community history, you'll certainly want to talk to those who took part in it - probably to people with a variety of perspectives on what happened.
People as information sources have a huge advantage over libraries, printed material, and the Internet: they can answer questions. You can find out exactly what you want to know, although it's important to remember that you're getting the point of view of the person you're talking to. But even given that restriction, you still have an advantage. With many Internet sites, especially, it's difficult to judge the quality and accuracy of the information you're getting. With people, it's often easier to sort out whose information is most nearly accurate.
Another advantage of people as information sources is that they may come to you. A whistleblower, a witness, a friend of a friend who knows something or someone - any of them might come to you, once they hear you're looking for information.
Tool 2: Some sources to use if you have opponents
These sources can provide information about corporations, organizations, groups or individuals.
Contains information about the place of business, date of incorporation, nature of the business, and names of directors and officers, as well as some financial information. These are public records, and can be found in the records of the state of incorporation. For more information, see the links to corporate sites in Tool #1.
Uniform Commercial Code (UCC)
The Uniform Commerical Code records whether a company has borrowed against assets other than real estate. This is a great source for learning about creditor relationships. The UCC is federal legislation that is reflected in state laws, and the filings reside with state Secretaries of State. From the same source, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, there are links to the specific state laws that reflect various sections of the UCC. You can also find information on the websites of, or by contacting the offices of, the Secretaries of State of individual states. The Texas Secretary of State's website includes a reasonably coherent explanation of where and what companies must file.
Real Estate Records
Real estate records list ownership information, property tax records, and zoning and building information. These records are maintained at the city or county level. From these records, you can find out if your opponent is being undertaxed, or has committed zoning or licensing violations.
Registration records, which are public documents available in every community through the Town or City Clerk's office, may show a person's address, telephone number, employer, age, citizenship status, party enrollment, and elections in which the person voted. A local town census may also provide similar information.
Court records cover criminal and civil cases filed by or against individuals, groups, companies, or government organizations. You may be particularly interested in cases involving bankruptcies, complaints about a business by consumers, claims by one business against another, and government prosecutions of an individual or organization for illegal acts or practices. In addition to information about the specific case, you may glean other information from these documents, available through the appropriate court (state or federal district court, county court, probate court, appeals court, etc. Most of these are available on the Internet, and can easily be found through a web search.)
For example, does a certain person own land? What is it worth? Is it mortgaged, and to whom? (These are probate court issues, and may often be found in the Register of Deeds.) Has the person been sued, sued someone else, been arrested, or been the target of legal judgments?
If your opponent is a bank or other type of financial institution, it should be easy to gather information. Various government bodies keep track of these institutions, monitoring their assets and keeping track of whom they lend money to. Here are four U.S. agencies that may have information you can use:
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
This office collects information on nationally chartered banks, foreign banks with U.S. branches, and bank-holding companies. In order to obtain information from them, send a written request to:
Comptroller of the Currency
490 L'Enfant Plaza East, SW
Washington, D.C. 20219
The Federal Reserve System
This regulates state banks in the federal reserve system, bank-holding companies, and international subsidiaries of U.S. banks.
Federal Reserve System
20th and C Streets, NW
Washington, D.C. 20551
The Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation
The Community Reinvestment Act requires that banks maintain records on bank lending to low-income and minority borrowers. Check with your local financial institutions.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
The FDIC monitors banks that are not members of the Federal Reserve System. Among other data, they gather information on the bank's condition and income.
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
Data Request Section
550 17th Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20429