Lately I’ve been trying to think about how to make online access to personal financial disclosure reports palatable to the lawmakers who file them. As Ellen pointed out after the Senate debate on lobbying and ethics reforms Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca.) voiced complaints that online posting of the documents could lead to identity theft or other crimes. So I went back and took a look at the Ethics in Government Act, which governs personal financial disclosure, to try and figure out to change the law in a way that could actually pass. While considering these changes I realized that doing this would require a balancing act between getting citizens access to the information without too many hoops while making lawmakers feel comfortable. So, I figure I’ll put it to you people of the Internet to help figure this one out.
The problem that I’ve discovered is a specific section in the law that requires that those who obtain these documents disclose information about themselves. The question is how does an online congressional website providing these documents to the public meet the requirements of the law without infringing on a citizen’s right to know. Here’s the meat of the problem:
Sec. 105 (b)(2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), a report may not be made available under this section to any person except upon a written application by such person stating –
(A) that person’s name, occupation and address;
(B) the name and address of any other person or organization on whose behalf the inspection or copy is requested; and
(C) that such person is aware of the prohibitions on the obtaining or use of the report.
Sec. 105 (c)(1) It shall be unlawful for any person to obtain or use a report –
(A) for any unlawful purpose;
(B) for any commercial purpose, other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public;
(C) for determining or establishing the credit rating of any individual; or
(D) for use, directly or indirectly, in the solicitation of money for any political, charitable, or other purpose.
The law then goes on to explain the penalties for violating this statute, which include fines up to but not exceeding $10,000. This seems to throw a wrench into online posting of this information. Are online citizens going to want to give their name, address, and occupation to access a government database of this information? You tell me, although I can guess the answer.
These documents are already available online not through the government but on Open Secrets. They’ve addressed this issue by posting a disclaimer highlighting the illegal uses of these documents and the potential for penalties. It looks like this:
One possible solution to the problem may be to prominently display this kind of disclaimer on the front page of the potential online database. This seems like the least intrusive method. Of course the most intrusive method would require that the visitor would have to give their name, occupation, and address to obtain a copy of a Member’s financial disclosure form. Other options include a disclaimer message that requires a viewer to read the disclaimer and check a box stating that they have read and accept the conditions for use of the financial disclosure documents.
Please let me know your opinions and ideas for other ways around this problem in the comments.