‘Indefinite suspension’ urged for online financial disclosure rules for feds

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 28, 2013

The National Academy of Public Administration wants Congress to move quickly and decisively, something that doesn’t appear to be within its job description.

Congress should “indefinitely suspend” requirements for the online posting of personal financial information of high-ranking federal employees, says a report NAPA released Thursday.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

That requirement, however, takes effect April 15, giving Congress little time to act, particularly because legislators are on spring break this week and next.

Congress directed the academy to examine the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (Stock) Act after vigorous complaints from employees who said the posting requirements in the law passed last year could put them in danger and hamper national security.

The law originally was designed to prevent insider trading by members of Congress and their staffs by disclosing their financial dealings. But other upper-level federal employees were added without the benefit of hearings on the ramifications that online disclosure provisions could have on them.

Those staffers already disclose financial information. The key difference is making that information available on a “searchable, sortable, downloadable public database,” the academy said.

The NAPA report concerns certain high-ranking federal employees, senior executives for example, but not others, such as elected officials. The financial information of the president, vice president, members of Congress, federal judges and others already are posted online by outside groups or have been made available under other laws, according to the report.

A spokesman for Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who pushed to include high-ranking civil servants in the law, said the senator “supports parity in application of the Stock Act. Those similarly situated should abide by the same transparency requirements, regardless of the branch of government in which they serve.”

But David S.C. Chu, a member of the NAPA panel that produced the report, said, “We may have already gone too far.”

A major concern to the academy is that “an open, online, searchable and exploitable database of personal financial information about senior federal employees will provide easy access to ‘high quality’ personal information on ‘high value’ targets.”

Senior Executives Association President Carol Bonosaro said, “NAPA has reached the only possible conclusions regarding the consequences of the Stock Act’s provision requiring posting financial reports on the Internet. What is baffling, however, is the academy’s failure to reach the logical recommendation — that of repealing the requirement. This leaves it to Congress to take the only action which makes sense, and the association urges that it do so.”

Joshua Zimmerberg, a government scientist, agreed.

“It looks like they can’t find any good in this,” he said.

An indefinite suspension of the requirement would have the same effect as repeal, but “the evidence was not strong enough to warrant a recommendation for a complete repeal,” said Joseph Thompson, the report’s project director.

If Congress does not act in time, the SEA will seek an injunction against the online posting requirement, said Jack McKay, the association’s lawyer. He welcomed Wednesday’s decision by a federal judge that rejected a key part of the government’s attempt to have the association’s case against the law dismissed. Zimmerberg, an officer in the Assembly of Scientists, joined the SEA legal effort along with his organization and others.

With alliteration breaking up the dry legalese of judicial-speak, the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr. in Maryland said the employees’ “delicate financial data dangles on the brink of diffuse dissemination.”

He previously had delayed implementation of the law, as had Congress.

In case the employees do return to court, the NAPA report “will give us some ammunition,” said McKay, an attorney with the firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “That’s the new piece of evidence we will cite.”

The report indicates how the new world of Internet technology has significantly increased access to information for everyone, including those who could use it for no good.

The availability of personal, searchable information “has radically changed the privacy landscape, with potential negative consequences for both the institutions of government and the individual public servants (and their families) who serve them,” according to the report.

Cybersecurity, national security and law enforcement experts told NAPA “that making this information available in this fashion fundamentally transforms the ability (and the likelihood) of others — individuals, organizations, nation-states — to exploit that information for criminal, intelligence, and other purposes,” the academy said.

To Assembly of Scientists President Florence Haseltine, the posting requirement is personal and “simply mean. It’s also unwise,” she added. “It’s not just treating people with any due respect.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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