Ethics office provides easier access to financial disclosure forms
By Eric Yoder,
The U.S. Office of Government Ethics on Monday made financial disclosure reports and certain other ethics-related documents more readily accessible to the public.
The new service at www. oge.gov offers access to reports filed by high-level federal officials and presidential candidates and is the result of a multi-year effort to improve transparency. The records previously had to be requested through a paper-based system. The site allows searches by name, agency and job title.
OGE holds only a portion of the ethics forms that are publicly accessible — those from candidates, political appointees who are subject to Senate confirmation and certain other positions — and relate to financial disclosures and issues such as potential conflicts of interest. The rest reside at individual agencies. Requests for access to those still have to be made through those agencies.
The new service comes at a time when Congress is finalizing legislation that could expand the number of financial disclosure reports that are publicly accessible. The bill calls for a searchable central database that would include currently confidential reports of hundreds of thousands of employees. Many of those workers 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 members of Congress, several provisions would affect those in the executive branch who file either of 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.
Certain exceptions mean the total of jobs to be included in the database would be about 350,000.
OGE, which would be primarily responsible for creating the database, 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 their security protections, it said.
The Senate version of the bill would require all reports to be available through agency Web sites until the central system is operating; 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.”