Hastert’s Inadequate Disclosure


Let’s assume, for a moment, that the line that House Speaker Dennis Hastert has taken, on display here for example, that his land deals in Kendall County are entirely unconnected with the Prairie Parkway (a point we certainly don’t concede), and see whether it’s a sufficient defense.

Our story about Hastert revealed that he was conducting land transactions through a trust which he did not reveal on his annual financial disclosure form. We pointed out that the information he provided about his land investments was insufficient to locate the property. (The House Ethics manual states, “Disclosure of real property should include a description sufficient to permit its identification (e.g., street address or plat and map location).” We suggested that this inadequate disclosure prevented his constituents from knowing that he was selling land to real estate developers. And finally, we noted that Hastert has justified the Prairie Parkway to constituents by casting it as a solution to the problems created by growth.

Aren’t his constituents entitled, as a matter of law, to know that he’s also profiting from that growth? That, even if the value of his land was completely unaffected by the planned Prairie Parkway, nevertheless his own, personal financial interest in growth might have some influence upon his public policy positions?

The House Ethics manual (and remember, we didn’t write it, they did) says:

…public disclosure of assets, financial interests, and investments has been required as the preferred method of regulating possible conflicts of interest of Members of the House and certain congressional staff. Public disclosure is intended to provide the information necessary to allow Members’ constituencies to judge their official conduct in light of possible financial conflicts with private holdings. Review of a Member’s financial conduct occurs in the context of the political process. As stated by the House Commission on Administrative Review of the 95th Congress in recommending broader financial disclosure in lieu of other restrictions on investment income:

In the case of investment income, then, the Commission’s belief is that potential conflicts of interest are best deterred through disclosure and the discipline of the electoral process. Other approaches are flawed both in terms of their reasonableness and practicality, and threaten to impair, rather than to protect, the relationship between the representative and the represented.

The House has required public financial disclosure by rule since 1968, and by statute since 1978. The Commission on Administrative Review noted: “The objectives of financial disclosure are to inform the public about the financial interests of government officials in order to increase public confidence in the integrity of government and to deter potential conflicts of interest.” (emphasis added)

My perspective is that of an outsider, but my perusal of press clippings from Kane and Kendall counties for the last few years shows that growth–or sprawl, depending on one’s perspective–and its attendant problems are a big, contentious issue there. There are various ways of dealing with that issue; Hastert favors spending hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and local tax money to provide the infrastructure necessary to promote growth. Doesn’t a constituent have the right to know that Hastert has a personal financial interest in such growth?

Here’s Hastert in March 2002:

Whether we like it or not, the unavoidable reality is that our region is growing and continued growth is inevitable. But that truth does not have to change the quality of life we currently enjoy. Through proper transportation planning today, we can address tomorrow’s growth-related problems before they occur. If we decide instead to wait until growth is realized, it will be too late to prevent the traffic gridlock and related problems that have plagued communities to the east.

There’s an old saying in journalism: Consider the source. Would you be more skeptical of such a statement if it was uttered by someone in the real estate business seeking to profit from such growth-related problems, as opposed to, say, someone with no personal financial interest who had studied the issue closely and was giving his own considered opinion?

I have no doubt that Hastert’s conflict is more immediate and tangible than the one I have outlined above, but even under this more minimal standard, the rules are the rules and Hastert does not seem to have followed them.