Staffer Financial Disclosures to Go Online

Posted February 25, 2008 at 6:34pm

The Web site that puts the salaries of Congressional aides online is set to launch a feature today that exposes even more information about staffers’ money matters: PDF downloads of their financial disclosure forms.

It’s the latest in a series of moves by the Web site, LegiStorm.com, to bring additional transparency to Capitol Hill, said founder Jock Friedly, who launched the site in 2006. Staffers who are required to file disclosures typically are among the most senior officials who work in Congress, and their financial ties need to be made available for public scrutiny, he argued.

“These are people that control an enormous amount of power,” said Friedly, a former investigative reporter. “This is just a way that people can keep tabs and make sure everything is up to snuff; and in most cases, presumably it is. … In a select few cases, there are going to be some serious problems.”

Not all Congressional staffers are required to file financial disclosure forms. Staffers who must file are those who make 120 percent of the federal GS-15 base level salary, or just over $111,000 in 2007, Friedly said.

If nobody in a Congressional office makes that much, then one person is designated as the “principal assistant” and must file. In Senate offices, anyone who handles campaign finances must file.

LegiStorm’s goal isn’t to target specific Members, committees or staffers, but rather to put the information in a format that is easy for journalists, bloggers, public interest groups and others to use, Friedly said.

While Member financial disclosures are relatively easy to find online, getting ahold of staff disclosures is much harder, Friedly noted, since it usually requires a trip to Capitol Hill.

“Currently, there’s no way to get this information if you’re a blogger out in California,” Friedly said. “It’s really making things possible that weren’t possible before.”

But the financial disclosure data must be used cautiously, said Beverly Bell, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, which helps Congressional offices institute top management practices.

Information on government forms can be confusing and often incomplete, and so an average visitor to the LegiStorm site might not be able to put the data into context, Bell cautioned.

Friedly admitted that the forms can be confusing, and pointed to a number of disclaimers included on the Web site designed to inform visitors of what is included in the reports. For example, staffers can exclude the value of their principal residence on the forms, which might make up a big part of their financial assets, Friedly said.

“You have to be very cautious in interpreting this as a document of pure net worth,” Friedly said. “It’s not that. … The reality is, at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to accurately interpret the data.”

There certainly will be a lot of data to peruse, as LegiStorm will allow visitors to search through the thousands of financial disclosures by name, office or state.

Aside from the PDFs, the Web site also will include an icon with about one quarter of the reports linking to a note pointing out interesting tidbits, Friedly said. Typical notes include information such as where a staffer’s spouse works, gifts received from Members, notable prior employment and any organizations where the staffer also might work, such as the League of Conservation Voters, for example.

Friedly said he expects some negative staffer reaction, with some arguing that the data is personal and should remain private. Similar arguments emerged when LegiStorm first put staff salaries online, Friedly recalled.

But in the age of the Internet, full disclosure and transparency can only come when things are published online for the entire world to access, argued Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates using the Internet for transparency.

Miller argued that senior staffers have “a huge influence over Members of Congress” and should expect to have their lives scrutinized a bit more than the average American.

“They are senior-level officials of government,” Miller said. “They knew this requirement when they took this job. … It’s nothing that wasn’t available before. This just makes it more available.”

The House and Senate ethics committees are in charge of reviewing the financial disclosures, and it is clear that they do pay attention to the reports, Friedly said — up to a point.

When LegiStorm staffers were digging through the financial disclosures to put them online, they found a few suspect elements — including forms from about a dozen staffers who reported assets of $50 million, which usually meant that somebody checked the wrong box, Friedly said. It is rare to find a staffer who actually has tens of millions of dollars, he added.

“It’s things like that that suggest that the ethics committee could do a much better job of doing these things,” he said.