A Calming Edit at LegiStorm
Personal signatures and home addresses have been removed from Member and House staff financial-disclosure forms posted on the Web site LegiStorm — with the House picking up the tab to make the changes.
LegiStorm on Friday wrapped up its effort to redact addresses and signatures from the disclosures, which are posted as PDF files on the Web site, said founder Jock Friedly.
The project cost about $3,100 to complete and was paid for by the House, which requested the changes, Friedly said.
Signatures and home addresses for Senate staffers remain on the Web site, however, because complaints about the information from the Senate side have been minimal, Friedly said.
Friedly added that he is hoping that the effort on the House side will calm complaints from top-level staffers who worried that the online publication of such personal information could lead to identify theft and even give information to potential stalkers.
“We certainly did everything that the House chiefs of staff wanted — that was reasonable,” he said. “I think there are a large number of people who don’t like the idea of financial disclosures in general, and that seems to have been the overarching concern.”
House Clerk Lorraine Miller and her staff contacted LegiStorm several weeks ago to see if the information could be redacted. In a statement, she confirmed that the redaction process is now complete.
“The fundamental requirement of disclosure of potential financial conflicts of interest is of paramount importance to open government,” she said. “In this current environment, however, the risk of identity theft, abuse of personal information and personal/family safety must also be considered.”
LegiStorm’s decision to take down the addresses and signatures comes after weeks of negotiations between Web site officials and the House over what should be posted on the Internet.
Disclosures are reviewed by House officials and have always been public record. Several Web sites have posted copies of Members’ forms for years, but until LegiStorm began posting staffer disclosures several weeks ago, those forms typically could only be accessed on Capitol Hill.
Friedly argues that the public has a right to see the forms, since the staffers required to file them are among the most powerful in Congress. Federal law dictates that people who make more than $111,000 a year file, and in offices where no staffer makes that much, one person is designated the “principal assistant” and must file.
But staffers complained that putting the forms on the Internet made their personal information too readily available to the public.
LegiStorm reviewed the forms in March and took down particularly sensitive data such as bank account information and Social Security numbers. But Friedly refused to take down addresses and signatures, removal of which he estimated would cost the Web site thousands of dollars. (LegiStorm makes about $10 a day.)
After the House agreed to pay for the changes, LegiStorm brought in a group of temporary workers to help make the changes as quickly as possible, Friedly said.
“Just to be clear, we did this only for the House because the House specifically requested it,” Friedly said. “We still don’t think there is anything extraordinary about what was on the Web site. It was no different than what the white pages have.”
Oddly enough, mostly House staffers contacted LegiStorm to complain about the disclosures, Friedly said.
“We had one complaint that I can remember from a Senate staffer,” Friedly said. “There may have been another one or two. There certainly wasn’t the level of outrage in the Senate as in the House.”
Friedly expects to continue to post disclosures in the future, he said. The House is expected to make changes to the forms to ensure private information is not made public.
“In the future, if we add any historical data we will remove [sensitive data] just as a matter of course,” Friedly said. “But going forward, I presume they will have taken care of the problem.”
A former investigative reporter, Friedly launched LegiStorm in 2006, posting salary information from all Congressional staffers. Since then, the site has drawn criticism from staffers who say it invades their privacy, but praise from journalists, researchers, lobbyists and others who say the data is public information that must be open to scrutiny.