Congress has been delaying implementation of the STOCK Act, largely out of fear over what could happen if disclosures go online. A new report from the National Academy of Public Administration says those fears are well-founded. But its reasoning is flawed, and its recommendations -- which amount to security through obscurity -- are badly wrong-headed. If there are problems with the disclosures mandated by STOCK, let's fix them. Ignoring them and hoping that obscurity will prevent bad things from happening is not only short-sighted, it's dangerous.
If ever there were an example of knee-jerk legislating, the STOCK Act may be it. A thoughtful and comprehensive bill, introduced by Rep. Slaughter, languished for years until some bad publicity made Members of Congress decide to “take action.” But in their haste to demonstrate they were responsive to the public’s outcry over allegations of congressional insider trading, Congress passed a watered down version of the bill. Furthermore, since passing the STOCK Act, Congress has twice acted to delay implementation of the bill, citing the risk of unintended consequences of the transparency measures they enacted.
The hurry up and wait method of legislating leaves one to wonder what will be disclosed when the sausage making is complete.
- This week, a comprehensive overhaul of the Georgia’s open government laws unanimously passed the Senate. House Bill 397 will now go back to the House so members can agree on changes made by the Senate. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, one of the bill's backers, maintains that it “makes great strides towards increasing transparency in Georgia.” Hollie G. Manheimer, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, points out, “We are optimistic that HB 397 will pass in its current form, and that the attorney general will begin as soon as possible to address an increased number of open government violations. Stronger open government laws mean greater transparency for Georgia citizens.” For the whole story, see Kathleen Baydala Joyner’s post on ATLAW.
- California recently received a D-minus for government transparency. According to John Diaz, this low grade is mostly due to the state lacking a “checkbook” website that displays financial information online. Diaz maintains, “California, home of so much brilliance and innovation, should be ashamed that Texas and Kentucky lead the nation in using the tools of technology to make their government spending more transparent to their citizens. Even worse is that 35 other states scored higher than California in a recent analysis by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Perhaps most humiliating of all is that the technology that could have put California in the top tier in 2012 is not expected to be up and running until … 2017.” For his entire take, see his post on SF Gate.
- In Kentucky, a bill increasing secrecy at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services died in a Senate committee only to be revived minutes later in the House of Representatives. Critics of the measure worry the bill will “sharply curtail public access to details of child-abuse deaths and serious injuries, were outraged, saying the bill gives the cabinet more power to withhold information.” David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association opposes the bill. Calling it a “secrecy bill.” Media attorney Jon Fleischaker testified the Senate committee about concerns over the lack of transparency the bill has for cabinet oversight, even though supporters were pushing it as a transparency bill. For the entire story, see Mike Farell’s post on the Kentucky Open Government Blog.
- According to a report by the State Integrity Investigation, Virginia has been ranked the fourth worst state regarding open government and anti-corruption laws and practices. The state earned a failing score of 55 and performed better than only Wyoming, South Dakota and Georgia. In his blog, Virginia Senator Chap Petersen called the report “an example of the lamest, most superficial analysis.” For more information, see Nicole Trifone’s post on Fairfax City Patch.
- The Arizona Public Interest Research Group awarded Arizona an A-minus on how it helps taxpayers find information online pertaining to government spending. The high grade was mostly because of OpenBooks.az.gov, a state website that offers a searchable database of state expenditures. The launch of site raised Arizona’s grade from an F in 2010 to A-minus in 2011. Representative Kimberly Yee, the sponsor of legislation aimed at increasing government transparency, maintains,“People need to see where money is being spent so they can hold elected officials accountable. “ For more information, see Devin McIntyre ‘s post on the Tucson Sentinel.
- In honor of Sunshine Week, Kentucky’s Adair County Community Voice utilized citizens to perform a local records audit. According to the Kentucky Open Government Blog, “The weekly newspaper engaged eight ‘average citizens’ to seek specific records from eight public agencies and published the generally good findings in last week's paper, with an explanation of the audit and the issues, and an editorial by Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton giving her motives.” For the most part, the audit revealed that most institutions readily complied with the information requests. However, they found the least cooperation when they asked law-enforcement agencies for salary information. For the entire story, check out Al Cross’ post.
- This week, Tennessee lawmakers quietly sealed public records pertaining to education. The Senate State and Local Government Committee and the House State and Local Government Subcommittee passed bills to make the results of teacher evaluations confidential. According to KnoxNews, lawmakers used a questionable exception to exempt the teacher evaluations from the Public Records Act. "So much for transparency in government," laments Kent Flanagan, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. For the whole story, check out Jack McElory’s post on KnoxNews.
- In slightly related news, even though Tennessee’s state government ranks among the ten most transparent in the country, it earned a grade of C+ for its laws promoting transparency and punishing corruption. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, Tennessee sends a “mixed ethics message.” Elizabeth Bewley points out, “The report’s authors said Tennessee’s 2006 ethics reform bill has helped, but the Tennessee Ethics Commission created by the bill hasn’t lived up to expectations.” For her entire take, check out her post on the Tennesseean.
Are Members of Congress using inside information gathered as part of their jobs to make financial investments (and get rich...er?) That question is at the heart of yesterday's 60 Minutes report. Reporter Steve Kroft accused current House Speaker John Boehner and former speakers Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert, among others, of engaging in a legal form of insider trading. (We first broke the Hastert story in 2006.) What the story didn't explore was how transparency aided Hoover Institution research fellow Peter Schweizer in drawing these connections, and how better transparency would deter problems from arising.
Schweizer's analysis drew upon congressional financial disclosure reports, one of many ethics-related documents that the House and Senate make available to the public. While all these documents should be available online, in real-time, and in machine-readable formats, most are not.* Usually, members of the public must physically travel to the House or Senate and print out ethics documents, one page at a time -- you will not be provided an electronic copy, no matter how much you ask, even though the documents are already digitized. In fact, we compiled the first public list of all the "publicly-available" documents from the House and Senate, with information about how to obtain the reports and what they contain. We also called for the GAO to finally live up to its statutory obligation to review whether the personal financial disclosure forms should be updated.
Looking at the financial disclosure reports, only the House publishes them online; the Senate archaically requires you to go to the Senate in person to ask for this information. If you want to analyze the Senate's financial disclosure reports, you have to re-key the data into a computer by hand; there's no database to facilitate analysis. This is equally true if you want to see which Member or senior staffer has been promised a plum job by an outside company, foreign travel expense reports, legal defense fund contributions, and more. If you're not in Washington, you'd better be willing to book a plane ride to DC; otherwise, you're out of luck.
We won't know how much effort it took to make the connection between congressional activity and investing, which formed the basis of the 60 Minutes report and Schweizer's well-timed book "Throw Them All Out," but it likely was considerable. Without better data, it is hard to tell who actually benefited from trading on inside information. We also don't know the extent to which investors mine data from capitol hill about industry activities to help make investment decisions, and we can't know that until legislation like the STOCK Act (which we wrote about here) becomes law.
But what we do know is that the House and Senate can do much more to be transparent. They need to make it easier for the public to see who is trying to influence them, how they behave while in office, and the work that they're doing. That's why we are advocating for lobbying reform, ethics reform, and a lot more Sunlight on the process.
Update 1: These documents are not available online from the House or Senate, but some third parties, such as the Center for Responsive Politics and Legistorm, have digitized many of the documents. However, it's not always possible to access the data in bulk, and it is possible that the third parties introduced errors in the digitization process.
Update 2: I should also mention that Sunlight gave a grant to CRP for digitization of the personal financial disclosure forms, travel disclosures, and other documents in 2007.
- New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has made good on his campaign promise to increase his own transparency by launching a new website called CitizenConnect. This website provide citizens with details about his schedule and allows them to conduct online town halls with him. Jimmy Veilkind has been critical of Cuomo's transparency record in the past and sees this as a step in the right direction. Cuomo hopes the site will provide “an open forum for New Yorkers to interact and participate in their government.” Find out more on Veilkind's take on the new website at Capitol Confidential.
- According to a study done by The Sunshine Review, a nonprofit that uses a transparency checklist to evaluate state and local government websites, the state of Florida has a B grade for online transparency. Despite several Florida county websites receiving A+ grades for online transparency, the overall grade average was weighed down by the low marks given to the state website MyFlorida.com. The site earned a B due to its tough-to-navigate search function, not providing information on state-paid lobbying and agency lobbying contracts, and not providing "comprehensive information" for making public records requests. Find out more about Katie Sanders' take on Florida's ranking at the Miami Herald Naked Politics Blog.
- Cook County, Illinois just launched an online open county data catalog. For its template, Cook County used the Model Local Open Government Directive, which was designed to fill a need for open government policies expressed at CityCamp Colorado. Bryan Gryth, Vice-President and Director of Colorado Smart Communities maintains, “Today is a good day for open government and the citizens of Cook County because they have a more transparent county government and that transparency will hopefully lead to a more informed citizenry that can hold their government accountable.” Check out Sebsatian James' take on the campaign on the Cook County Blog.
- San Francisco's oldest municipal Sunshine Ordinance was established and extended thanks to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. They are now reporting that enforcement of this ordinance was left to an ethics commission that simply would not discipline recalcitrant officials, thus leaving the task force powerless to give citizens the openness they have a right to. She maintains that this oversight allows government departments to lie about embarrassing public records with little impunity. See why Terry Francke describes the Sunshine Ordinance as a "cloud of inaction" at CalAware Today.
Whether it is a top-down issue or the other way round, we can not help but notice a disconnect between what Florida's Governor -- Rick Scott preaches and what he practices. Earlier this year, one of his top aides avoided using emails, because they create a paper trail. And the mixed messages ranging from designing Florida Has a Right to Know , to imposing fees on public records that were previously free, are not helping.
- A private company that provided e-mail services for Governor Rick Scott’s transitional administration “accidentally” deleted all emails from the Florida governor-elect's office soon after he took office. Peter Schorsch is wondering whether this was a genuine accident considering the governor’s disregard for open government laws. See how he equates it to the ‘dog ate my homework’ situation on SaintPetersblog.
- The city of Laurel in Maryland has amended their background check law on all candidates vying for city council office. After consulting with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the city’s mayor Craig Moe, said the original law was meant to increase transparency to the election process but now feels that conducting a background check could be considered discriminatory. Gordon Basichis notes one plausible aspect of the amendment law; which is the immediate removal from office, of anyone convicted of a crime while in office. Read on at Corra Daily Planet.
- Campaign finance laws in Fulton County, Georgia could soon see some change. A resolution created to stop any corporation, officer, agent or individual making campaign contributions or gifts from seeking county contracts, is under consideration by the county’s Board of Commissioners. Already proposed in Indiana, and found problematic in Colorado, the new resolution seeks to regulate conduct of campaign financing and contributions. Stefan Passantio is screaming “fire” about this “pay-to-play” ordinance so head on over to the Pay to Play Law blog to see why.
- Citizens in New Mexico will now be able to access complaints against police officers under a new ruling by the state’s Supreme Court. Alicia Feichtmeir, an attorney in litigation and dispute resolution shares that information contained in the citizens’ complaints belong to the citizen in question regardless of whether or not the allegations made a true or false. See how she compares this ruling to the Washington’s Public Record’s Act on Local Open Government Blog.
- John Knutsen a Puyallup, Washington Councilmember was awarded a key award by the Washington Coalition for Open Government for opting out of informal discussions that happen outside of the scheduled council meetings. The informal meetings, also known as rolling meetings are used by some councilmembers in groups of two to three to discuss official issues, without the burden of notifying the public. For more on how open government supporters are praising the Councilmember’s action as a transparency effort, see Puyallup NOW.
The House Ethics Committee is responsible for investigating and making recommendations on the enforcement of House ethics rules. In an nod towards transparency, its reports and statements are published online -- but they are virtually unusable. The Committee publishes documents in an unsearchable PDF format, spreads them out over of 24 pages, and gives them impenetrable titles like "Statement of the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member." Search engines (like Google) cannot see the documents, and only the most patient will click on each link to see what's inside.
We've taken all 120+ documents, made them searchable, and published them online in a database. Now every document from December 1998 until July 2011 can be searched -- at once. It's easy to find the 20 documents that refer to Rep. Rangel, or the 15 documents that refer to (former) Rep. DeLay, or anything else that you're looking for. The web tool DocumentCloud has made this all possible.
The search isn't perfect, of course. We had to use optical character recognition technology to transform the PDF into a searchable format, so there's a number of transcription errors. It would be better if the committee posted the documents in a searchable format, or even better, in an open format. The committee should also publish an index that links to all relevant documents for each matter, and include a description for each document of what it contains. Until then, our House Ethics Committee search tool will be an invaluable tool for anyone monitoring the House Ethics process.
We'd be remiss if we didn't give the House Ethics Committee kudos for at least publishing these documents online. One look at the Senate Ethics Committee website makes clear that things could be much worse.
In an interview with Newsweek, former U.S. President, Bill Clinton suggested lowering corporate tax rates as one of the ways of creating more jobs and solving the country's current debt problem. He added that this should be done together with a reduction of loopholes that cause unfair disparities among corporations. Here at Sunlight, Ryan recently used Influence Explorer, to connect the dots between tax breaks and money in politics. The former president's suggestion may have good intentions but left and unchecked, tax breaks to corporations which end up donating huge sums of money to political candidates, can determine the type of government we get.
- Details on the value of tax breaks in Oregon will now soon be available for the public to see. The state’s governor, John Kitzhaber has signed into law, House Bill 2825, which will require all information on tax breaks given to business -- including their names, addresses and the reasons why they are receiving the breaks -- to be posted on this website. According to Mark Robyn, the breaks have been likened by policy wonks, to government spending even though they receive less oversight. Nonetheless, taxpayer watchdog and consumer advocacy groups are welcoming the transparency news on Tax Policy blog.
- Politics of disclosure is at play in Minnesota. A conflict on what should and should not be disclosed is brewing between the Governor’s office and the legislature. Open government award recipient Rich Neumeister, who is certain there is secrecy in both state and local government, is making some suggestions: make data public; including all communication between the governor and the legislature. A legislature expert himself, Neumeister is well aware that the legislature may not be under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, but it is still answerable to the public and should therefore be transparent. Details on Open Secrets.
- A bill sponsored by Michael T. Morley is causing a stir in Utah. HB 220 - also commonly known as “We are a Republic” - is according to Curt Bentley, the latest form of contempt for the ordinary voter. Citing the previous disregard of public records laws with the introduction of HB 477, Bentley critics Utah’s caucus system as one that does not prevent indifference towards voters but instead renders them powerless to influence election results. Read more as he writes about the thin line between republicanism and guardianship and what democracy has to do with both, on Utah Political Summary
- Stacey Kalberman, Georgia’s Ethics Commission executive secretary, revealed earlier that she was being forced to resign in order to stop an ethics investigation of Gov. Nathan Deal. Now, journalism award winner, Jay Bookman, shares the details of the Commission’s meeting that led up to the former executive’s announcement of her resignation. Bookman adds that the pleasantries between the Ethics Commission and Kalberman only created more suspicion from the members of the press who feel that the Commission is not being transparent about the governor’s investigation. Jay Bookman has more.
- Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire will now continue to withhold records from a public records request under the rubric of the executive privilege. In a superior court ruling, over a lawsuit filed by the Freedom Foundation against the governor, a judge ruled that the executive privilege, that exempts the governor from disclosing public records, does apply. Dennis Box blogs that a follow up ruling to decide if the executive privilege is indeed part of 300-plus recognized statutory exemptions in the Public Records Act, has been scheduled. More on News Notes.
When lawmakers introduce legislation that is supposed to increase transparency, naturally we expect that they will lead in the everything transparent movement - including the proverbial practicing of what they preach. Unfortunately, we are starting to see cases of selective transparency where public officials are willing to be "open" about their activities only when it suits them. What is worth noting are the adverse effects to not being fully accountable. Considering that financial benefits of being transparent are hardly discussed, perhaps bearing in mind the costs in lawsuits for agencies (including states) that violate sunshine laws - can be an incentive for lawmakers to observe the rules they set up.
- The New Mexico state Senate passed a rule that will prohibit the public from recording any of the public meetings conducted in the state capitol. Tracy Dingmann feels this is a violation of the First Amendment. Showing how transparency goes both ways, Dingmann asserts that just as Senate staffers are allowed to record public meetings, so should the public. Now she is reminding Gov. Susana Martinez to stick to her promise of “bringing the people to the process”. Read all about it on Clearly New Mexico.
- A new bill sponsored by state Sen. Joyce Foster is putting ethics in the Colorado legislature under review. The HB 1220 bill is intended to accelerate funding of state transportation projects but ethics monitors are concerned that its major supporter, the Colorado Contractors Association, also hires the Senator’s son David Foster as their lobbyist. Political investigative writer Chuck Plunkett sees a possible conflict of interest and sets the conversation going on Look Out Colorado.
- Health care providers, lobbyists, and residents of Minnesota have joined hands to bring more accountability to Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). Paul Demko blogs that key among the proposals introduced is Rep. Larry Hosch’s bill that will boost transparency and financial stability in HMOs. See how HMO officials are claiming to welcome changes that increase accountability in their activities on Capitol Report .
- Texas Governor David Dewhurst has created a new open government committee to review transparency-related issues in state government, public information and open records. The committee will also help improve accountability in the legislative process, but journalist Mike Ward has his doubts. He notes that while the governor’s move is a step in the right direction, there has been history of the Senate holding meetings behind closed doors and this does not look like it will end soon. Read more on Postcards.
- The New Hampshire House is carrying out executive sessions immediately after general sessions without giving the public a right to know what is going on. Referencing the “Hughes” case -- where the legislature does not have to obey the Right-to-Know law -- Lucy Weber writes that the Speaker of the House is not observing the same Sunshine law he introduced in the first place. Weber calls on residents of the Granite State to not sit back and take it. See details on Blue Hampshire Blog.