Improving government transparency is an issue Rep. Ro Khanna touts, but try to find information about the California Democrat’s financial holdings and you will have a hard time reading it.
Federal law requires members of Congress to publicly file annual financial disclosure statements and periodically report certain stock transactions in excess of $1,000. Such mandates provide the public with a view of lawmakers’ financial interests and possible conflicts of interest; however, members are not required to file in a uniform manner. That has left some reports opaque and partially illegible.
There is a stark contrast in clarity between financial disclosure reports filed in a standardized, electronic format and those that are not. In August, Khanna filed a 210-page financial disclosure statement for 2019.
Khanna’s campaign website devotes an entire page to improving government efficiency, transparency and responsiveness. One section focuses on disclosure of interest group spending:
“To give Americans more oversight and to push back against the increasing influence of special interests, Congress should mandate that campaign finance information be made public on a user-friendly online platform,” the site says. “Implementing a government-run platform that standardizes and streamlines campaign finance data will further the public’s interest in electoral transparency and accountability.”
Many members utilize a form from the House clerk to file their financial disclosure report.
Julia Albertson, a spokesperson for Khanna, said he is committed to transparency, the filing is in compliance and other members file in a similar manner.
“As he has done in previous years, Rep. Khanna takes the extra step of submitting his financial disclosure for a pre-screening with the House Committee on Ethics to ensure everything is in order well before the formal deadline,” Albertson said in an email. “That paper document is then scanned so it can be easily searched online for the public. As a practical matter, other media outlets have analyzed Rep. Khanna’s wife’s assets based on past filed reports without any issues reading them.”
Here is a zoomed-in image of page 72 of Khanna’s disclosure statement.
Opaque financial disclosures are not uncommon and are present in the filings of both Democrats and Republicans in the House. Reps. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky.; Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H.; Dina Titus, D-Nev.; Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.; Fred Upton, R-Mich.; Francis Rooney, R-Fla.; and Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, are among those who have submitted nebulous reports.
Travis Hall, a spokesperson for Gianforte, said the lawmaker promotes transparency.
“As he has done since he was elected to Congress, Congressman Gianforte will continue to have no control over his investments, promote full transparency, and file required reports in compliance with House rules,” Hall said in an email.
Kevin Gerson, a spokesperson for Titus, said that “she has met the Ethics Committee’s requirements to provide a financial disclosure each year since she first became a candidate for Congress in 2008 when electronic filing was not available. As her former students from over three decades of teaching can attest, Congresswoman Titus prefers putting pen to paper over typing at a keyboard. She is grateful that the Ethics Committee allows her to do so and makes all of her financial disclosures available online for anyone to easily read.”
Guthrie fills out his financial disclosure personally to ensure it is transparent and easy to understand, said Lauren Gaydos, a spokesperson for Guthrie.
“Congressman Guthrie personally fills out his financial disclosure every year and takes care to include every detail so that it is transparent and easy to understand. He also submits his disclosure every year to Ethics Committee lawyers for review prior to filing to ensure that he has included everything and that everything is filled out correctly,” Gaydos said in an email.
Chris Berardi, a spokesperson for Rooney, said the original document was compressed, making it harder to read.
“The size and font is all standard,” Berardi said in an email. “When it was scanned in, it looks like the printer compressed the file, likely due to the size of the document. We give three hard copy originals to the Clerk’s office (technically we hand in to Legislative Resource Center) and they upload the files electronically. Looking at the 2018 filing, it’s the same thing. Heavy compressing of the original making it difficult to read the electronic version.”
Representatives for Kuster and Loebsack did not respond to a request for comment.
Filings of that type are not constrained to elected officials. Matthew Mowers, a Republican candidate running against Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas in New Hampshire, has a similar-looking disclosure statement.
“Matt Mowers’ disclosure was filed in accordance with both the spirit and the letter of the law,” said John Corbett, a spokesperson for Mowers.
In the House, annual financial disclosure reports can be filed by either using the online filing system or by hand on preprinted forms.
“I think members aren’t required to electronically file their financial disclosures because it’s the members that make the rules and they don’t want to do it,” said Donald K. Sherman, deputy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a previous counsel for the House Ethics Committee.
“In addition to raising potential concerns about transparency, if the documents are indecipherable, as an initial matter, it makes it harder for the [Ethics Committee] staff to review and resolve the documents, which slows up the process and slows up the public posting all together,” Sherman said.
Members of Congress should have to submit their financial disclosure reports in an online format that’s easy to read, according to Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
“First of all, everyone should be required to file electronically, but second of all, it really is up to the Ethics Committee then to exert some influence there and reject any forms that are not legible,” Holman said.
Additionally, Holman said an unclear filing “gives the public the impression that the member of Congress is trying to conceal their personal financial assets and potential conflicts of interest. So this casts a poor light on the integrity of those members of Congress.”
The Senate is different in this respect. Unlike the House, all senators must file using the electronic filing system set up for the chamber. However, they can still submit financial statements that are difficult to comprehend.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., submitted their financial statements in a way that differs from some of their colleagues.
“Senator Blumenthal files his annual disclosure by paper, as do a number of his colleagues. I don’t have any problem reading the text of the 2019 annual report available on the Senate Ethics Committee’s website, especially since you’re able to zoom in on the PDF,” said Maria McElwain, a spokesperson for Blumenthal.
Inhofe files in a manner that forces one looking at the report to decipher codes and refer to other pages for basic information, like an amount of income. “Sen. Inhofe files his financial disclosures that way in order to provide consistency from year to year, making them easier to compare. That’s reflective of his commitment to being fully transparent,” said Leacy Burke, a spokesperson for Inhofe.
Other senators, such as Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, file online using the Senate’s standard form.
Public disclosures that are hard to read ultimately deprive constituents of the full disclosure that the law mandates, according to Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics.
“The effect is to prevent the constituents from having the disclosure they are promised in these reports,” Krumholz said.
It is not likely that the offices tasked with processing the filings push back against members of Congress, she said.
“Of course the disclosure offices don’t want to take on their bosses. I’ve literally had people in those positions say they don’t want to rock the boat,” Krumholz said.
There is legislation that would implement changes. On Sept. 23, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., announced a bill that, among other actions, would update the disclosure websites to be more searchable, downloadable and easily accessible.
Currently, the financial disclosure websites for both chambers are tough to navigate. They do not allow searching by stock symbol, for instance.
“What you have now is a version of transparency, but real transparency is filing the stuff in structured data in ways that you can automatically check it and you can automatically make use of it,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress.
Financial disclosures of congressional staffers are even more difficult to obtain and examine. They are held in the Legislative Resource Center in the House and the Office of Public Records in the Senate. During non-pandemic times, if someone wishes to obtain or view such information, they need to physically go to the office, sign in and pay a fee to print out the documents. Legal expense fund records, which allow donations to a lawmaker when legal fees arise in connection with their office, are also only accessible in this way.
“They have a bunch of records that they don’t make available online,” Schuman said.
Because of the pandemic, the Capitol and congressional office buildings are closed to the public. Official visitors can be escorted by credentialed staff.
Members of the public who want to access the Office of Public Records in the Senate must call and request an appointment on Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Additionally, individuals can also make a written request to view reports through email, and arrangements can be made to mail those documents.
After reaching out to the Legislative Resource Center to better understand how a member of the public accesses documents that are only available at the center, a representative of the office said they did not want to be quoted or named but said members of the public can access such documents through their elected representative in Congress, adding that somebody from the office could escort them to the Legislative Resource Center. The Legislative Resource Center is open, according to the representative.
That doesn’t sit well with advocates of good government like Schuman. “It’s all digitized. Just put the damn stuff online,” he said.