True Transparency Needed for SFI’s

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Pioneer has long called for the Statements of Financial Interests (SFIs) that elected officials and political candidates are required to file to be available online.  The State Ethics Commission must have been listening to us and other transparency enthusiasts that called on the Commonwealth to catch up to the times. While the forms can now be accessed online, there is still much to do to improve public access to these most important documents.

Transparency is the most fundamental tool a democracy has to ensure that its stewards have the public interest at heart, rather than their own self-interest.  We have seen far too many breaches of ethics in recent years on Beacon Hill and one way to prevent them is to make SFI’s more meaningful and accessible so the public can do its part to ensure a healthy democracy.

SFIs are a cornerstone of political ethics: All state and county officials, as well as political candidates are required annually to disclose their private business associations and other financial interests. The reasoning behind mandating the disclosures is straightforward anti-cronyism. For example, if a candidate owns a sanitation company and is seeking an office that involves awarding sanitation contracts, voters should be aware of it. There’s no good reason to keep that information secret… unless you happen to be the office seeker who owns a sanitation company.

Sadly, Massachusetts’ has an abysmal track record of inadequate financial disclosures and the state’s punitive attitude toward those who seek access to the disclosures is nothing less than shameful.

Most states post this information on their websites and give the public unfettered access. Massachusetts, unlike good-government luminaries like Louisiana and New Jersey, does not, and requires individuals to submit scanned drivers’ license to get access to the SFI database.  Additionally, each time a form is accessed, the filer of the SFI gets notice of who is accessing his or her disclosures.

Pioneer has pointed out that the forms are woefully outdated and will soon be releasing a policy brief on SFI transparency.  While the State Ethics Commission has taken a step in the right direction in making SFI’s available online, there is still a long way to go. For substantive changes to occur, the Legislature must weigh in, and that could mean a very long wait.