Chapter 268B, Section 3(d) of Massachusetts General Laws provides that the State Ethics Commission must “make statements and reports filed with the commission available for public inspection and copying”, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into the filings being available to the public in any meaningful way.
By withholding Statements of Financial Interest (SFIs) from online publication, the Commission has failed to keep up with the modernization of filing methods. Even in person, forms are not always viewable. When asking to view many forms at once, requestors face waits that can reach “a number of months”, according to the Ethics Commission’s response to a Boston Globe request for all 3,800 SFIs filed in 2014.
Yes, this is a large request, but meaningful transparency is a holistic process. The Commission’s own general counsel has said that waits such as this are “inconsistent with the statutory goal of making information available to the public in a timely way”.
On top of long waits are massive costs. The Globe’s request for every 2014 SFI was estimated to cost $14,175. Of the cost and response time for SFI requests, Karen Hobert Flynn, senior vice president of a group supporting open government, said, “That kind of process makes a mockery of the claim that these records are available to the public”.
Statements of Financial Interest are required by law to be “available for public inspection and copying… at a charge not to exceed the actual administrative and material costs required in reproducing said statements”. Whereas the Commission interprets this as allowing them to charge the requestor for time spent redacting personal information found on the form, Boston media lawyer Robert Bertsche says that he finds “nothing in the ethics law or regulations that allows the commission to recoup fees for redaction”. Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, has noted that the costs are out of keeping with the forms’ supposed availability to the public.
Bertsche also argues that the Commission is breaking the law by redacting too much information. Common Cause Massachusetts agrees with him. According to law, “the commission shall be authorized … to exempt from public disclosure those portions of a statement… which contain the home address of the filer”. Nowadays, more than just home addresses are redacted – the Globe reports that ”names of spouses and other family members, the names of trusts, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and addresses of property owned” have also been redacted.
If you think this uncalled-for redaction is unimportant, consider that the Commission estimates a time of between 5 and 15 minutes per form for redaction. At this rate, and assuming a wage of $15/hr, the Globe’s request would cost them $9,500 solely in wages for time spent redacting.
To remedy both cost and delay issues, the Ethics Commission should follow in the footsteps of the 29+ states that have made SFI filings available to the public online. The current practice of requiring a requestor to show photo ID before seeing a filed SFI should not be misinterpreted as prohibiting online access – Massachusetts law only mandates that requestors provide “identification acceptable to the commission”. An online identification form could suffice. While many public officials do disclose their finances electronically, such online filing should be universal.
Further, to improve transparency and reduce costs, redaction should once again be limited to a filer’s home address, as prescribed by law.
The purpose of the financial disclosure law is clear: to keep the public informed of the financial affairs of its leaders such that it may better hold them accountable. It is the State Ethics Commission’s duty to implement this law via SFIs, but empirical problems of access are proof that it is failing to do so. The Commission should adopt the recommendations listed above to achieve meaningful transparency in Massachusetts.
Stay tuned for more on this.