Stop pushing paper
More than 4,500 state and local officials file statements of financial interest each year with the State Ethics Commission. The ethics forms are supposed to be readily available to the public, but are instead largely hidden behind byzantine processes and bureaucratic hurdles that have no place in a 21st century information age.
When the Legislature first enacted the statute requiring elected and appointed officials to file the statements, there was no Internet access for the regular public, the $1 charge for each form was intended to offset copying costs, and the requirement to notify filers of who was seeking their forms was a misdirected effort to thwart the “wrong” people from gaining personal information about public officials.
In today’s wired world, the paper pushing of ethics forms no longer makes sense. It would save everyone a lot of time and money if the forms were posted online where anyone could review them. Conflict of interest disclosures, which officials file when they want to disclose a possible ethical conflict in their actions, should also be posted online rather than filed willy-nilly around the state.
Most states already do this and most state agencies in Massachusetts have already embraced the advantages of the Internet. The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance, for example, began posting all political contributions online years ago and even makes it easy for visitors to its website to download the data to spreadsheets and analyze it in a variety of ways.
The forms themselves don’t disclose as much information as I’d like, but they provide a useful service. They reveal sources of outside income, real estate and financial holdings, government positions held by immediate family members, debts forgiven, and any gifts, honoraria, or reimbursements received.
The forms came in handy in February when CommonWealth published a report on patronage at the Probation Department. Probation Commissioner John O’Brien reported on his financial statement that his daughter worked at a probation agency as a secretary. Reps. Thomas Petrolati and Michael Costello, Sen. Steven Baddour, and Franklin County Sheriff Frederick Macdonald all reported that their wives worked as probation officials.
Often the forms are useful in determining the outside business interests of officials, which can be helpful when trying to evaluate their objectivity on a specific issue. One weakness of the forms is that little detail is provided. Many lawmakers, for example, report earning large sums of money as private attorneys, but the officials rarely disclose who their clients are.
CommonWealth last year tried to make it easier for the public to gain access to ethics forms. We purchased nearly 400 forms belonging to legislators and top officials in the judicial and executive branches and posted them on our website. That allowed anyone to review them without having to go the offices of the Ethics Commission, fill out a form, and pay a $1 fee for each statement.
Many of our readers appreciated the convenience, but we’d like to see all the forms readily available. In September, we began contacting other media outlets in the state to see if they would be willing to split the cost of purchasing all of the ethics forms and making them available online. The more outlets that signed up, the cheaper the cost would be.One editor emailed me after receiving my letter proposing the joint effort among media outlets, asking what my ultimate goal was. I replied that we were performing a public service and also hoping to shame the Legislature into addressing the issue and posting the forms online.
“The Legislature, as you know, is not easily shamed,” he emailed back.