The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There are huge holes in how the U.S. states investigate politicians’ conflicts of interest

A voter casts a ballot behind a curtain at Smelser Town Hall in Georgetown, Wis., on  Nov. 8, 2016. (Nicki Kohl/Telegraph Herald via AP)

Political ethics and disclosure questions have been in the headlines lately. Just now those include President-elect Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns and his many still-unresolved conflicts of interest; the recent House flirtation with gutting the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE); and the Office of Government Ethics’ letter of concern that Trump Cabinet nominees have not been vetted before their confirmation hearings begin.

But what about state and local officials’ conflicts of interest? We looked at what states require on their personal financial disclosure forms. Public officials and candidates for office must file these forms annually with state ethics commissions or agencies in 47 states, with the exceptions being Idaho, Michigan and Vermont.

We found that state requirements vary widely. When we reviewed the forms side-by-side and scored them on fixed criteria, we found that about 80 percent of states required little transparency, and few require enough to inform the public.

Here’s how we did our research.

The disclosure scores were calculated based on five factors. The most significant included:

  • How much specific information did the state require about public officials’ sources of income and assets?
  • How thorough were disclosure forms overall?
  • How much could members of the public see for themselves, on line?

We also examined the governor’s most recent available filing to assess how completely such forms are filled out in practice. (More on the methods here; we also posted all of the governors’ recent filings.)

Are U.S. elections ‘rigged’? Here’s how to help voters feel that they’re not

Which states require meaningful disclosure?

Florida and Louisiana stand out for requiring public officials to disclose detailed information about their income, investments, and debts, and for making this information easily available online. The Sunshine State requires detailed descriptions along with precise figures, while Louisiana uses both exact figures and monetary ranges (for example, “less than 5,000” or “$5,000-$24,999,” etc.) that provide context for the disclosures.

If voting were mandatory, the U.S. would shift to the left. Discuss.

Which states require little or no disclosure?

New Hampshire’s single-page disclosure form requires public officials merely check a series of boxes without disclosing any actual numbers.

In Wyoming’s form, officials must reveal whether income was earned through security or interest earnings or real estate, leases or royalties – but needn’t give amounts, sources, or anything else that would expose conflicts of interest.

In Arizona, public officials needn’t disclose actual figures; they need only name the source of any compensation, personal debts, and financial interest in trusts or investment funds over $1,000. In Missouri, sources of income over $1,000 for the filer and family members must be listed, but again, without actual amounts.

In these states, citizens and watchdogs will have a hard time evaluating perceived or actual conflicts.

How do states verify information?

Few state ethics commissions appear to have either the inclination or the ability to verify information, even randomly. Most states that do audit the forms only check that they have been filed on time and/or filled out completely. When ethics commissions do take actions against officials, it’s usually for not filing a disclosure.

Many scholars of public administration and political ethics have confirmed that these commissions check primarily for compliance with the process and do not investigate the substance.

Which officials have to disclose their finances?

The answer varies dramatically. In some states, including Maine, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio, only major officials and/or candidates for major offices like governor or state senator are required to disclose financial information.

Other states, including Florida and California, require tens of thousands of annual filings for officials as lowly as aides in state agencies and town officials. Even some states with much smaller populations, and therefore fewer state employees — including Massachusetts, Oregon, Oklahoma and Washington — require filings from more than 4,000 people.

How easily can the public read the disclosure filings?

Once again, there is no standard. Nearly half the states received top scores in our evaluation, making it easy to find the forms online. Those states are quite diverse, including, for example, Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia. But in some of these states, the forms themselves revealed relatively little — and so the states didn’t rank very highly in our transparency scoring.

Other states make it difficult for anyone to find the putatively public information. For instance, in Maryland, requesters must show up in person at the state ethics commission and present identification to obtain a copy of a disclosure form. And in our home state of Massachusetts, anyone who wants to see the forms – even online – must present a valid driver’s license. Both states also notify filers who have requested to look at their disclosures.

About 15,000 public servants in Maryland file annual financial statements, but only a few dozen of those files are accessed each year by the public, according to the State Ethics Commission. In 2015, just 58 requests for financial disclosure forms were made in Massachusetts.

Is there a link between corruption and how much (or how little) disclosure a state requires? 

Of course, public officials may simply leave some relevant bits of information off their disclosure forms, as accuracy is rarely checked.

In our broader research, we explored the relationship between financial transparency measures and the incidence of corruption. We measured the latter through such things as how many of a state’s officials were prosecuted for public corruption.

We found no obvious correlation between in-depth disclosure requirements and levels of corruption. But we did create a data visualization that helps members of the public explore how much financial disclosure their state requires, alongside broader transparency measures of conflict of interest and levels of public corruption. We invite readers to examine it for themselves.

John Wihbey is an assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Mike Beaudet is an investigative reporter and professor of the practice at Northeastern’s School of Journalism.

Pedro Miguel Cruz is an assistant professor of information visualization at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design.