The government’s central ethics office has told Congress it agrees with a recommendation to indefinitely suspend a requirement that financial disclosure reports of some 28,000 federal employees be posted online.
In a letter to congressional leaders, Office of Government Ethics Director Walter M. Shaub, Jr. said the recommendation is “consistent with OGE’s extensive experience with both financial disclosures and conflicts of interest laws.”
At issue is a provision in the STOCK (Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge) Act passed a year ago that among other things requires that publicly available financial disclosure forms be posted online. Forms filed by relatively senior career employees currently must be requested individually from employing agencies. The forms of members of Congress and top political appointees are now available online.
Congress last year delayed three times the requirement for public posting of career employees’ forms out of concerns about identity theft and other crimes against them, as well as security risks to the government. In one of those delays, it ordered the National Academy of Public Administration to study those issues.
In recommending the indefinite delay, NAPA concluded in a late-March report that online posting “will provide easy access to ‘high quality’ personal information on ‘high value’ targets.”
“As the NAPA report concludes, the goals at the heart of the STOCK Act can be achieved without requiring online posting of all public financial disclosure reports in the executive branch,” the OGE letter says. It notes that the reports are available on request and says they are subject to intensive, multi-level review” within agencies. When ethics officials spot problems, they work with employees to sell potentially conflicting assets or explore other options including excusing themselves from certain decisions, it says.
“NAPA’s proposal is better than a possible alternative of allowing the online posting requirement to go into effect but amending the STOCK Act to authorize federal agencies to redact discrete items,” which could be difficult and costly, it adds.
The latest delay in the posting requirement expires April 15. If Congress does not delay it again before that deadline — no such bills are currently on the legislative schedule for this week — plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the policy could seek a court order. Initially the postings would be made on individual agency sites; longer-term, the law envisions OGE creating a central, searchable database.
Several non-controversial provisions of the Stock Act involving what must be disclosed already have taken effect.