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Editorial: Cancel plan to post personal financial forms

Mar. 31, 2013 - 10:14AM   |  
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Congress should shelve plans to make the personal financial information of thousands of senior government officials publicly available online.

A new independent review of the plan, released last week, confirms the fears of many that doing so could harm federal missions and put affected employees at risk.

The review, ordered by Congress and conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration, further finds that the benefits of posting feds’ financial disclosure forms online — in terms of preventing or spotting conflicts of interest or insider trading — would be negligible.

The Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge Act, passed last year, requires that the financial disclosure forms filled out by as many as 28,000 senior federal officials be posted online in a searchable database. That will be done this month unless Congress acts to prevent it.

Certainly, strong safeguards over senior officials whose jobs include authority and influence over contracts and transactions through which they or associates could profit also are appropriate. But increased transparency must not come at the cost of degraded missions and increased personal risk to employees.

Leaders from across government expressed concern to the NAPA panel that posting this information online will put affected executives at risk. Criminal syndicates and foreign adversaries could use that information, they argued, to target, harass, embarrass, expose, neutralize or recruit affected officials.

Furthermore, highly specialized agencies like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and NASA expressed concerns that the online posting of financial information would turn many prospective, highly skilled job candidates away and even prompt current employees to leave.

Numerous agencies told the panel of instances in which executives were considering downgrades to their positions, or retirement, to avoid the online posting of their financial information.

It must be remembered that the STOCK Act was drafted and passed in response to public outrage over congressional lawmakers who appeared to be personally profiting from stock trades based on inside information. But before passing the law, Congress decided — with no deliberation or hearings — to include 28,000 senior federal officials within the scope of the bill.

Elected lawmakers should be subject to the increased transparency called for by this law — after all, it is voters who must decide whether their lawmaker is scrupulous enough to re-elect.

Likewise, senior federal officials should also be subject to transparency, but not to the degree that they are personally put into harm’s way or their agencies’ missions are compromised. Federal employees’ financial forms are already available to journalists and others case by case.

Congress should order a top-to-bottom review of federal ethics programs to ensure they are effective and up to date. Such a review should examine whether financial disclosure forms are asking the right questions, seeking the right information, and being reviewed to curtail and catch improper activity by federal officials.

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