An Enriching Experience?

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A page one story by Jeffrey Birnbaum in Monday’s Washington Post recounts the growing ethical cloud surrounding West Virginia Democratic congressman Alan Mollohan, now under investigation by federal authorities looking into federal money he funneled to agencies – and some business partners – in his congressional district.

To boost jobs in his district, Mollohan established a network of nonprofit organizations and helped deliver federal funds to them, often through earmarked appropriations. At the same time, he invested as a partner in real estate deals with the head of one of those agencies and with the owner of a company that’s received “substantial federal aid.” Those investments have proved lucrative indeed.

 “From 2000 to 2004,” Birnbaum reports, “his assets grew from no more than $565,000 to at least $6.3 million.”

How did Birnbaum know that? He didn’t need an inside source at the IRS to slip him Mollohan’s tax filings; he could piece together a good part of that information by checking the congressman’s personal financial disclosure report, a document that must be filed annually by thousands of high-level government employees, including every member of Congress.

Those reports, due annually on May 15 – that’s right, they’re due today – are public information and images of past reports can be found in a remote corner of the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website.

You can also find links to the reports directly from the campaign contribution profile of any member – here’s Mollohan’s – by clicking on the “Personal Finances” tab from the menu on the left.

Once you’ve navigated to the right spot, what you’ll find are photo images of the hand-written reports filed by members. Don’t count on a complete rundown of their finances or copies of their tax returns. Investments, real estate holdings and other assets are reported in ranges, not precise dollar amounts – that’s why news stories like Birnbaum’s usually hedge their language with words like “no more than” and “at least.”

In Mollohan’s case, the figures cited in those reports may be more incomplete than they’re supposed to be. According to Birnbaum’s story, “Mollohan plans to divulge that he misstated on House financial disclosure forms the amount of loans and income from some of his real estate holdings.”

While the information in the disclosure reports may be incomplete, imprecise, and sometimes barely legible – they’re generally filed in the member’s own handwriting, after all – there’s nothing like them if you’re trying to see whether a particular congressional career has been an enriching one.

One final note: Those personal financial disclosure reports are one of the many reasons that the OpenSecrets website won yet another Webby Award last week as the best political website on the Internet. The Webbys are considered the Oscars of the Internet, and this is the third time in the award’s 10-year history that OpenSecrets has taken home the honors in the political category. Congratulations to the tireless researchers at CRP who bring information like this out of the filing cabinets and into the public domain.