January 29, 2016

Public officials, personal business: conflict disclosures go online

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Screen shot from an Oregon instructional video for lobbyists and their clients/employers.

Screen shot from an Oregon instructional video for lobbyists and their clients/employers.

It’s rare that I get excited about an eight-minute instructional video. But the one on the Oregon Government Ethics Commission website is a bit of a reporter’s dream. Well, for Oregon reporters anyway.

That’s because it walks government officials through the new, online filing system for making public disclosures in compliance with state ethics laws. In Oregon, we call these filings Statements of Economic Interest. Elsewhere they’re often called asset disclosure records, designed to spotlight potential conflicts of interest between public officials and public business. Putting this info online is a coup for transparency nuts, one eight years in the making. For a while there, it seemed it would never happen.

SEI statements were brought about by the Oregon Ethics Reform Act of 2007. Since then, every government official in Oregon files one – not just the top brass. That means every locally elected official, district attorney, court officer, and political candidate in Oregon, as well as key staff in the Oregon Legislature and university system, and dozens of state officers, file. In their SEIs, public officials make disclosures about their income sources, debts, and ties to businesses, lobbyists, real estate and events like conferences. And not just for themselves, but for members of their households as well. Every member of a few dozen state boards and commissions files also.[1]

By itself, the process is a good thing. Though there’s been debate lately about whether Oregon SEIs really capture enough information, on its face the process aligns with what many states deem best practice. But Oregon has long been behind other states in the way that it collects and discloses SEI info.

Last year, when Oregon tanked the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Index, scoring a failing grade with 59 points and placing 42nd overall in the country, the state’s handling of SEIs dinged scores across all three branches of government. It’s not because the info wasn’t there. It’s because Oregon was collecting them in paper files stored at the ethics commission. In prime technological format, they are PDFs. The Index, by contrast, expects these sorts of records to be available in the kind of open-data format recommended as best practice by the Sunlight Foundation.[2]

The standards aren’t high. In fact, Oregon’s campaign finance records, stored on ORESTAR, already meet them, as do other state systems. Here are some examples from Alaska and Florida, the Sunshine State. This is what good governance experts expect in 2015. Digital and pliable, so that anyone looking to spot trends or patterns in government conflicts has something to work with. Until now, laying hands on these records can be labor intensive. And while the commission, in its defense, has always been good about getting copies and PDFs of SEIs out quickly to requesters, and often at no cost for just a few, requests for SEIs for multiple officials cost money. And it’s silly to have humans actually compiling and releasing this stuff for lack of a better method.

By contrast, what the new online filing system now offers is this: All the SEI info will be available online, searchable by “name, year, category (city, state, etc), specific jurisdiction (city of Portland) and specific office (mayor),” per Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission. Having this information stored digitally puts it at requesters’ fingertips fast and free. And it makes it infinitely more malleable for anyone who wants to put some muscle into looking close.

There are some other nice features tethered to the digital rebirth of our state’s SEI forms.

For example, one person per jurisdiction now has to organize SEI filings of government officials. That’s a good idea because respondents to the State Integrity Index said SEIs were often incomplete. Bersin adds there will be accuracy audits on the SEIs moving forward.

This is all delightfully good news. It may not make the forms themselves better. But it’s a move that recognizes that access to these types of disclosures is considered essential to the function of good government. Oregon lawmakers recognized as much when the legislature authorized ethics reform in 2007. They set early goals for the ethics commission to offer SEI disclosures online. But the work, funded through the general fund, was delayed indefinitely when the Great Recession squeezed it out of the fund.

It’s good to see it back, along with the political will to keep Oregon on the upside of the ethics bell curve.

[1] The full list is housed in ORS 244.050. It’s too long to list, but here’s a link.

[2] Full disclosure: I was the author of that report in Oregon. As I mentioned in my last column, Oregon has always performed poorly on transparency in this analysis. But while fallout related to the collapse of the Kitzhaber administration made the state’s most recent performance much more catastrophic, it should also be known that the handling of SEI info dragged down scores in several categories.

2 thoughts on “Public officials, personal business: conflict disclosures go online

  1. Some time ago, Someone sent me an older article your publication had written focused on abuses of LWCF properties around the country. We are currently engaged in such an issue over a state park in southwestern N.H.. It seems there are many abuses of such properties through out the country, and yet, the fund is still available, with applications being submitted, all the while no one is over seeing the management of existing holdings. It seems if we can come together as a group, we might actually get some traction.
    Please check out our web site, Pisgahdefenders.org.
    I look forward to hearing from you,
    Kathy Thatcher

  2. In 2008, the League of Oregon Cities fought tooth and nail to get SEI forms discontinued. They encouraged local councils and commissions to resign in protest of the forms. Many did (good riddance). The LOC even claimed the sky would fall if they were put online…that people would do nothing but persecute the elected and officials. We went and testified that SEI forms were the last tool citizens had to have any kind of accountability to officials. The state kept them and they kept local officials requirement to file. Sky is still up there.
    Now, LOC claims the same thing about public docs and elected reps still buy their line. Too bad, so sad, they tell citizens. They are our dirty little secrets and we will keep them.
    The local elected have the ability to free up docs, but won’t. Redacted is a great resource to keep this topic in the spotlight. The law won’t change until the conventional wisdom does.