PUBLIC DISCLOSURE of the finances of high government officials is an important step toward eliminating conflicts of interest and re-establishing confidence in the integrity of government. But like most good things, disclosure can be pushed too far. Witness Florida, where officials are required to file annual net-worth statements that identify each asset and liability worth more than $1,000. They must also disclose the source and amount of any income greater than $1,000 a year, and they must attach to their reports a copy of their most recent federal income-tax returns.
Now that the Supreme Court has refused to review a lower court's decision upholding the Florida system, the same sort of requirements -- which we believe go beyond the bounds of legitimate inquiry -- could be enacted anywhere.
Although we have some doubts about other aspects of the Florida requirements, which were imposed through an amendment to the Florida constitution in 1976, it is the inclusion of the income-tax return that seems to us to put this disclosure system outside the realm of reasonableness. There is material on income-tax returns that is purely personal in nature and has no relevance to the purpose for which disclosure is required. A public official's medical expenses, charitable deductions and dependents, for example, have no relationship to whether he is taking bribes or is subject to improper influence. Neither do such things as expenditures on child care, alimony and the interest on charge accounts and credit cards. These may be titillating bits of information, but they have nothing to do with the conduct of public business.
The purpose of disclosure requirements is to reveal any actual or potential conflicts of interest. These conflicts are almost always related to income, assets and liabilities and rarely related to expenditures. One of the exceptions is political contributions and those, beyond a minimal amount, do not appear on income-tax returns.
By forcing officials and candidates for office to make public purely private details of their finances, requirements like those in Florida will discourage some people from seeking office and will discredit disclosure statutes in the long run. Those statutes ought to compel officials to reveal financial details that are related to real or potential conflicts of interest and nothing else. Requirements that go beyond this may not invade an individual's constitutional right to privacy, as the lower courts held when the Florida system was challenged, but they do impinge unnecessarily on the right of citizens, even public officials, to shield at least a part of their personal lives from public view.