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Feds' personal financial data may be posted online

Mar. 4, 2012 - 01:33PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

The financial disclosure forms for at least 28,000 senior federal civilians and military officers would be posted on the Internet under a bill now moving through Congress.

The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act , already passed by the House, would require that financial disclosure forms be posted on a government website. Those who fill out called Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Form 278 include the president and vice president, presidential appointees, Senior Executive Service members, and general and flag officers. The forms, which are filed annually, are typically available only in paper form in response to a request.

Filers must list income sources, assets and liabilities within fixed dollar ranges; they also have to report stock purchases and other transactions worth more than $1,000 made in the preceding calendar year.

A Senate-passed version includes two overlapping disclosure requirements. One, sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., would limit Internet posting to about 3,500 Form 278 filers, including presidential appointees requiring Senate confirmation, non-career SES employees and civilian commissioned officers in the Executive Office of the President. It also appears to cover general and flag officers.

But the other, sponsored by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., would go much further, mandating the posting of financial disclosure reports of some 350,000 civilians and military officers, the ethics office concluded. Most of those affected by this amendment file a different form OGE Form 450 which is confidential and includes much of the same information as the Form 278, except that it excludes reporting of any sale or purchase of an asset worth $1,000 or more.

The Shelby language appears unlikely to survive intact. Shelby intended only for public filers to be covered, a spokesman for the senator said in an email, and "will continue to work with the House to address OGE's concerns."

Under both the House and Senate measures, public filers would have to report stock purchases and other transactions more frequently. The Senate bill would require reporting within 30 days of the transaction; the House bill, generally within 45 days.

A debate over scope

The STOCK Act originated early this year amid an uproar over allegations that members of Congress are not prohibited from using insider information for investment purposes. In adding new disclosure requirements for executive branch employees, lawmakers argued that they were simply keeping the playing field level.

"Without transparency, the American people will be left in the dark," Shelby said during last month's floor debate on his amendment. "It is fair, it is honest, and the executive branch should not be excluded for any reason I can think of."

But Carol Bonosaro, the head of the Senior Executives Association, which represents career Senior Executive Service members, says this is a matter of privacy.

"Once executives become aware of it, they're deeply concerned," she said in an interview.

Putting the forms on the Internet would appear to be "a gross violation of the spirit of the Privacy Act," Bonosaro and SEA General Counsel William Bransford said in a recent letter to Senate leaders. (Bransford is a columnist for Federal Times.)

Supervisors could be subject to "unwarranted personal scrutiny by their subordinates, causing tension and problems in the workplace," they wrote, while foreign interests, including terrorists, could get access to information on federal employees serving abroad, Bonosaro and Bransford said.

Although the House measure would cover far more people, either version would mean "a brave new world," Elliot Berke, co-chairman of the law firm McGuireWoods' political law group in Washington, said in an email. "It could amount to a significant change in terms of disclosure, both in terms of the burdens it will place on executive branch officials and the public's access to such material."

But transparency advocates say tougher public disclosure requirements are needed.

"The amount of power that people receive within the executive branch should come with a commensurate amount of accountability," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation.

Ron Brade, an SES employee with NASA, can see both sides.

"On a personal level, there's just concern about your own data being out there," said Brade, who heads the human capital management office at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. At the same time, Brade said he understands why taxpayers would want to know whether there are "any things out there influencing my decisions" that may not be in taxpayers' best interest.

‘Solution in search of a problem'

But while a Food and Drug Administration chemist pleaded guilty last October to using his knowledge of the government drug approval process to buy and sell stocks, critics of the legislation say there's no evidence of widespread abuse in the executive branch.

Efforts to broaden public access to the disclosure information "appear to be a solution in search of a problem," Bonosaro and Bransford wrote in their letter.

Although some version of the STOCK Act is expected to win final passage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not said whether he will agree to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate measures. Another option would be to ask the Senate to pass the House bill.

Politically, however, "it's going to be very difficult to walk back the areas that are going to be covered," Berke said, adding that he expects the House language to prevail.

Whatever version of the STOCK Act is signed into law, OGE officials warn that the cost of creating and running the "electronic financial disclosure system" would exceed its entire annual budget of about $14 million, according to an analysis of the House and Senate versions of the bill posted on the agency's website last week.

No agency has a disclosure system with the "costly searchable, sortable" functions required by the legislation, the analysis says. In addition, "no common system is now in use across the executive branch, in part because systems need to be compatible with their respective agencies' [information technology] architecture and security parameters."

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