Stock Act under review by Congress and court
By Joe Davidson,
Joshua Zimmerberg doesn’t think his personal financial information should be posted for the world to see just because he’s a federal employee.
And he’s not alone.
As chief of a cellular and molecular biophysics lab at the National Institutes of Health, he is one of 28,000 high-level civil servants and political appointees who could be hit by a new law requiring their personal financial data to be posted online.
Zimmerberg is among those suing the government in an attempt to stop implementation of the Stock Act, a.k.a. Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which originally was meant to prohibit insider trading by members of Congress and their staffs.
But legislators, who too often can’t get basic stuff done on time, rushed through the provision legislation on the controversial section affecting federal employees, which was added during the amendment process. An alarming amendment became bad law.
Fortunately, the legislative and judicial systems are trying to make things right. U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr., in Maryland’s southern division, has delayed implementation of the law until Oct. 31. And Congress has postponed the online posting requirement until the end of this month. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are considering various alternatives to address the situation. But they don’t have much time. Members of Congress have this week to act, before going home to campaign.
“This is frustrating,” said Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.). “We don’t have a sterling record of acting even in an urgent situation. And this is an urgent situation.”
Moran said he has drafted, though not yet introduced, a bill that would delay implementation of the Internet disclosure provision for a year, during which its potential impact would be studied.
Republicans, however, think Democrats want to delay implementation to avoid having Obama administration officials’ details available before Election Day. Another plan would allow exemption for some employees, but not all.
“We are discussing best options for moving forward but don’t have anything to discuss publicly at this time,” said Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Jonathan Graffeo, a spokesman for Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who pushed the controversial provision, said the senator wants executive and legislative branch employees to be treated the same, which the measure does.
Depending on what the legislators do, Zimmerberg and the other plaintiffs could seek another injunction, according to their lawyer, Jack McKay, with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, and William Bransford, general counsel of the Senior Executive Association (SEA), the lead plaintiff. Other plaintiffs include several individuals and the American Foreign Service Association, the Assembly of Scientists and the National Association of Immigration Judges.
Williams’s opinion drew heavily on a June 19 letter to Congress from an ad hoc group of former national security officials who said that “posting this detailed financial information on the Internet will jeopardize the safety of executive branch officials.”
While all this legislative and judicial wrangling is going on, workers remain upset.
“I feel that this is just wrong,” Zimmerberg, speaking for himself and not his agency, said in a telephone interview. “There’s a limit to what is in the balance between an invasion of privacy for a federal worker and a way to stop corruption.”
Zimmerberg has reason to be angry. Years ago he was the victim of identity fraud, a problem that has been hard to shake.
“It’s like something that wouldn’t go away,” he said.
The law would require individual and family financial information to be available for everyone to see. While Uncle Sam has a legitimate interest in making sure his staffers don’t have conflicts of interest, current procedures allow for that. The financial information is already available for public view but only upon request.
The Internet posting requirement is a big difference.
Since the bill passed, “we’ve heard from a number of senior executives who were considering leaving the service, and we are aware of a number who actually did so” to avoid the online posting, SEA President Carol Bonosaro said Tuesday at a conference sponsored by the association’s Professional Development League.
SEA identified 11 unintended consequences of the law, “most of which we think would have a serious impact on government operations,” Bonosaro said. Those consequences include:
●“Federal executives will become prime targets for identity thieves.”
●“Federal employees posted overseas . . . may have their finances scrutinized by foreign interests, including terrorists.”
●“The online posting requirement could easily jeopardize the cover of U.S. intelligence personnel posted at U.S. embassies.”
●“Implementation of the Stock Act is also likely to make it significantly harder to attract capable political appointees to the current administration, as well as future administrations.”
For reasons such as these and those cited in the letter from the former national security officials, the judge said the “plaintiffs have shown that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm” because of the posting provision.
If the government publishes that information online, Williams added, it’s like “a bell that one cannot unring.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.