By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Working from a cramped loft apartment a mile from the Capitol, a small Internet company has sparked a privacy rights battle with hundreds of angry top House staffers upset that the Web site has begun posting details about their personal finances.
In an unusual conflict over constitutional rights, the aides argue that the recent disclosures leave them highly vulnerable to identity theft. But the Web site, LegiStorm, contends that it has a First Amendment right to publish already public information about some of the Capitol's most powerful players -- the high-level staffers -- and is creating a new check against potential corruption.
"Congressional staffers are among the most powerful people in Washington, and in the past they have received very little scrutiny. It's about time there was a little more scrutiny given to what they're doing," said Jock Friedly, president and founder of LegiStorm, which has six employees.
For several years, LegiStorm has published salary and expenditure reports that are released regularly by the House and Senate. The reports, released quarterly by the House and semiannually by the Senate, provide detailed information on how much each lawmaker spends, along with the names, titles and salaries of every employee.
In late February, however, LegiStorm expanded the data it provides by putting the staffers' personal financial disclosure forms online. Those documents, which must be filed by senior aides, contain explicit detail on aides' finances -- including bank accounts and investment portfolios -- as well as some home addresses and signatures.
The posts have enraged top House staffers whose personal finances are now on display for any Internet sleuth to access with a few clicks of a computer mouse. The move has not, however, generated many complaints from Senate aides.
"Who knew it was going to get posted on the Web? It's shocking," said one House Democratic chief of staff, who requested anonymity to discuss her personal finances. "Now that anybody can look it up on the Web, I don't know if I like it anymore."
Her forms for 2006, which were filed last spring, included her home address and 32 pages of detailed statements about bank accounts under the name of her husband and daughter. That prompted her to raise concerns about identity theft at a chiefs of staff meeting in March.
At other similar meetings over the last month, some aides have suggested that the House general counsel should sue LegiStorm, which they accused of trying to profit from the dissemination of their records. Friedly said he is not selling the information on his Web site, which is available free but is supported by advertising.
He also noted that a number of media sites, including washingtonpost.com and Congressional Quarterly, publish similar data for members of Congress.
"Presumably," he predicted, "cooler heads will prevail."
Under federal law, staffers who earn more than $110,000 a year must file financial disclosure forms. In addition to staffers' financial holdings, the documents show any outside income, gifts received and official positions held with outside groups.
Before LegiStorm existed, anyone searching for salary and financial disclosure information had to trek down to the basement of the Cannon House Office Building to rummage through the records. Those searching for financial disclosure forms, either for a lawmaker or a staffer, had to enter their name into a computer database, leaving a record of whose documents they were examining.
The clerk of the House, Lorraine C. Miller, wrote to the more than 2,000 staff members who file disclosure reports, warning them to check whether they reveal any sensitive material, such as bank account or Social Security numbers. That prompted Friedly to uncover more than 20 instances in which such private information was revealed on his Web site, for which he has apologized. The information since has been redacted from the site.
However, Friedly refuses to remove staff home addresses or signatures unless the House pays the roughly $10,000 cost of altering thousands of the forms.
Friedly noted that since his site began publishing the financial information of top aides, the Capitol Hill newspapers Roll Call and the Hill have published articles about questionable transactions by a trio of top staffers, and that the newspapers used LegiStorm to confirm information about the aides.
The financial data is from top aides who are "actually writing the law of the land," he said.
Lawyers from the offices of the House Clerk, House General Counsel and ethics committee are trying to craft new forms that will help resolve the issue. "The office of the Clerk is working to ensure that disclosure requirements are met while at the same time protecting confidential or personal information," said Adam Holmes, spokesman for the clerk.