The thoughtful, enthusiastic responses to our request for citizens to investigate members of Congress by reading their personal financial disclosures have been coming in fast (and thanks to all who linked to the original post). I’m about to head out the door (literally) for a week out of the office, but before I do I wanted to thank everyone who’s written me, and if I haven’t written you back yet, I will next week when I return.
In the meantime, though, you might want to read the rest of this post for advice on how to get started, what to look for, and what to do.
Financial disclosure forms are online here, for the House, and here, for the Senate; you can also look at the Center for Responsive Politics site for a member’s forms from for prior years–find your member’s profile page, and look for the link on the left side of the page that says “personal finances.”
Now, what do you do when you’ve found the forms?
At the Sunlight Foundation, our sense is that one shouldn’t need the skills of an investigative reporter to understand or unravel a member’s financial disclosure form. Indeed, that sort of defeats the whole purpose of disclosure, which is to provide “a means of monitoring and deterring conflicts” between a member’s personal business interests and the broad public interest. If disclosure is to work, it requires the attention and scrutiny of voters: “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,” the House Ethics manual states, for example.
If you can’t tell from an entry on a financial disclosure form what the nature of a private holding is, how can you judge whether your member has a conflict? If a member lists “ABC Holding Company,” valued between $1,000,001 and $5 million, and you can’t figure out what it does or what it owns–oil wells? day care centers?–you can’t. If a member lists a 50 percent ownership in a property or partnership, you need to know who owns the other 50 percent to determine whether that person (or people) have business before the federal government.
So make a note of any and all such entries that make you scratch your head, then contact your member, and ask for additional information about the items that you can’t figure out. I recommend calling first and asking if you can send your questions in an email and to whom specifically you should address it. Make sure your requests are clear and simple–“On his 2005 financial disclosure form, Rep. Smith lists a one-third interest in the Excelsior Partnership LLC; can you provide me with additional information about the partnership, including the names of the other partners, the nature of the partnership’s business, and a list of the partnership’s assets?”
If you email me the email you sent to your member, I’ll post it here.
While you’re waiting for a response, you can do some digging of your own. There are a wealth of publicly available records online, and an even greater number in various county, city and state offices. If the member’s interest is in your district, you have much better access to those records than the entire Washington press corps.
Feel free to email me with any research questions, but be patient if I don’t respond immediately–I’ll be back in the office after July 4th and ready to hit the ground running.
Again, thanks to all who have written in–if our system of government depends upon having an active and informed citizenry, your emails persuade me that it’s in exceptionally good hands.