The new federal Ethics in Government Act and 39 state financial-disclosure laws are powerful testaments that public disclosure of financial holdings by top government officials is necessary to stop conflicts of interest. Thirty-four of the 39 state laws have been adopted or strengthened in the last five years.
The substantial experience in the states shows that these laws neither drive people out of public service nor discourage new people from entering. Yet misinformation about what the laws require crops up frequently in public comment. For example, The Post erred in its recent editorial by stating that the Florida financial-disclosure law requires officials to "attach to their reports a copy of their most recent federal income-tax returns." On the contrary, the Florida law makes disclosure of income-tax returns an option. In fact, no state has a mandatory income-tax disclosure law.
The Florida disclosure provision was a result of a series of political scandals that rocked the state in the early 1970s. Florida's comptroller, treasurer, superintendent of education and three judges were involved in scandals.The state legislature repeatedly refused to take effective steps to correct the conflict-of-interest abuses.
In response to this record of official misconduct, Florida voters in the 1976 election overwhelmingly supported an initiative known as the Sunshine Amendment. Approved by 79 percent of the voters, the amendment mandates disclosure of campaign finances, sets standards for official conduct and requires public officials to file financial-disclosure statements.
The Florida amendment does not require the disclosure of income-tax returns, but gives the officeholder the choice of filing either the most recent tax return or an itemized statement detailing each separate source and amount of income that exceed $1,000.
Originally, Reubin Askew, then Florida's governor, proposed mandatory income-tax disclosure. I met with Askew and told him that Common Cause would not support a mandatory tax disclosure because we consider it an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. We recognize, as did The Post editorial, that requiring the release of complete tax returns would disclose information unrelated to official conduct. We have consistently followed the principle that disclosure should relate to official activities. In our recommendation on the Carter Executive Order and the federal law, we urged disclosure by categories of amounts of income rather than by listing exact figures.
Out of our discussions with Askew came the requirement that gives the officeholder the choice of how to file. According to the Florida Commission on Ethics, a substantial majority of officeholders have chosen to file itemized statements rather than tax returns.
Critics of disclosure have sounded the alarm that mass resignations will take place. Larry Gonzalez of the Florida Commission on Ethics reports that only seven members of local boards and one state representative have cited financial disclosure as the reason for resigning public office. According to Mel Cooper, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission, compliance for state officials, who have now filed three times under the Alabama law, is close to perfect: Only one of some 2,800 state officials has resigned rather than file. Richard Terapak, a member of the Ohio Ethics Commission, in assessing the impact of that state's financial-disclosure requirements, reports that "candidates have not been driven away by financial disclosure.... Likewise there have been no mass resignations by the other type of public official in Ohio -- the appointed rather than the elected public servant -- due to financial disclosure." The Florida, Alabama and Ohio experiences fit the general pattern in the other 36 states.
This rich state experience provides valuable lessons for administering the new federal law. Presently, misinformation, anxiety and outright fear of the new law are spreading in the federal government, particularly in the area of post-employment restrictions. The confusion about the law primarily stems from a provision that top officials may not for two years after leaving office "aid, assist, counsel, advise or assist in representing" anyone before the federal government on a matter for which the official had responsibility.
Advocates of conflict-of-interest legislation support the view that federal employees should not be prevented from pursuing career opportunities in their areas of professional competence. The goals and provisions of the new law are intended to carry out this principle.
Thoughtful and expeditious action in drawing up implementation regulations is the best way of showing that the law will be administered to stop real conflict-of-interest abuses and will not be administered to absurd extremes that will drive and keep capable people away from public service.
Public officials -- presidential appointees and civil servants -- should have timely assurances that the regulations will be workable and will enable them to pursue their careers after they leave government service. The implementation of the law must be balanced and sensible rather than punitive or extreme. That is consistent with preventing conflict-of-interest abuses and is consistent with the ethics law.