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Federal Eye
Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 03/09/2012

Easier access to disclosure forms planned

The Office of Government Ethics is preparing to make more readily accessible the public financial disclosure reports of political appointees who are subject to Senate confirmation, launching as soon as next week a service providing online access to those records through its Web site, www.oge.gov.

Eye Opener

The new service will be the result of a multi-year effort to improve transparency of those records, which currently must be requested through a paper-based system.

OGE holds only a portion of the disclosure forms that are publicly accessible — those from the highest-level appointees and certain other positions. The rest reside at individual agencies; requests for access for those still would have to be made through those agencies.

The new service comes at a time when Congress is close to finalizing legislation that could greatly expand the number of financial disclosure reports that are publicly accessible, by calling for the creation of a searchable central database that would include reports of hundreds of thousands of employees that currently are confidential. Many of them are in senior positions but some make as little as $27,000.

The House and Senate in February passed separate versions of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or STOCK Act, and a resolution of the differences is needed before the measure can become law.

While the bill primarily is aimed at disclosure and other ethical requirements for Congress, several provisions also will affect those in the executive branch who file either of the two types of financial disclosure reports, according to OGE.

The first type, which is available publicly, applies to about 28,000 senior political appointees, career and non-career senior executives and equivalent positions, and general and flag officers in the uniformed services. Generally, disclosure reports from Senate-confirmed presidential appointees and certain other top officials within that group are accessible by request from either OGE or the employing agencies, while reports from most other public filers must be requested from the employing agencies.

Separately, about 364,000 less senior civilian employees and members of the military file confidential reports that are held at individual agencies. These mainly involve positions dealing with procurement, grants and benefits administration, regulation or auditing of non-federal entities, and other duties that have an economic impact on a non-federal entity. Agencies have discretion to require confidential filing by other employees in certain other circumstances, as well.

Both versions of the bill are written broadly enough to require both types of filers to submit their disclosures into a new electronic system that would be searchable and sortable by the public, OGE said in an analysis. For example, a search might seek the names of everyone who owns stock in a certain company, in contrast to the current system that allows requests only by the names of individuals. Certain exceptions would bring the total of jobs to be included in the database to about 350,000.

OGE, which would be primarily responsible for creating that database, meanwhile noted the technical difficulties and potential expense of creating the needed search capabilities. Also, any such system would need to be compatible with the information technology systems of all agencies and with their security protections, it said.

The Senate version of the bill further would require all reports to be available through agency Web sites until the central system is operating, while the House version would apply that requirement only to those already filing public disclosures.

In addition, those now making public disclosures would have to report certain financial transactions within a month rather than annually, and about a tenth of them further would have to start including information about mortgages on their personal residences. Under the House version, those now making public disclosures also would have to disclose within three days any negotiations they enter for future employment.

The Senior Executives Association has called such provisions “troubling and unnecessarily applicable to career federal employees.”

By  |  06:00 AM ET, 03/09/2012

 
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