Disclosure forms go digital, but are they any more transparent?
Like much of the rest of the ethics “reform” passed this year by state lawmakers, the new requirement to post financial disclosures online sounds like a major blow for transparency.
Residents for the first time are a mouse click away (http://public.ethics.state.fl.us/search.cfm) from getting financial disclosure forms for 16,307 public officials who must file with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Another 21,972 local officials must file online with their county supervisors of elections.
It’s a treasure trove of easily accessible financial information filed by folks like Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and the 160 members of the House and Senate that can only help provide more insight into the backgrounds of state leaders.
But don’t confuse the deadline for the disclosure forms -- Monday -- with the date they go online. Officials only need to “forward” their form by July 1. Upon receipt, it may take another five business days for the staff at the Commission on Ethics to scan in the forms, which are all notarized, and remove any information that is exempt from Florida’s public records laws, like Social Security numbers and bank routing numbers.
This week, staff was struggling to sift through all the mail that flooded the agency.
“It’s an all hands on deck situation,” said Kerrie Stillman, a spokeswoman for the Commission on Ethics.
As of 5 p.m. Friday, 24 out of 160 disclosure forms for lawmakers had made their way online. Another 35 had filed disclosure forms but the Commission had yet to get up on line. In all, nearly half of the Senate and a third of the House had filed. The forms for Scott and Putnam hadn’t been received yet. Bondi’s was recorded as arriving, but it still wasn’t online. Atwater’s form, disclosing a $1.7 million net worth, was available.
Once online, disclosures won’t completely enlighten the public. That’s partly because of the same bill, SB 2, that required forms be posted electronically. Another provision of the new law allows public officials to create blind trusts to hold their assets. So if there is anything that could prove embarrassing if ever disclosed publicly, it could be tucked into a trust that would obscure it. By handing off the responsibility of investing assets to a trustee, the thinking goes, the elected official would be “blind” to what they owned and would therefore avoid any possible conflicts of interest. Critics say, however, that the blind trust provision only puts the public in the dark as to any potential conflicts of interest.
That same bill also gave public officials a longer grace period, 30 days, to amend their disclosure forms, and 60 days if they are out of office.
The chief reason why financial disclosures won’t be anymore transparent is that SB 2 dramatically change current reporting procedures.
For instance, despite all the hustle and bustle by employees at the Commission on Ethics to get the forms online and exempt confidential information, one thing they’re not doing is checking to make sure the forms are correctly filled out.
“We don’t check for accuracy,” Stillman said.
Even if forms are wildly off-base, it won’t be corrected unless a resident files a complaint with the Commission on Ethics, which then must determine if the complaint has merit.
Rarely does the Commission on Ethics fine a lawmaker for filing an incomplete or inaccurate form. Earlier this month, the Commission determined that five current and former state lawmakers filed incomplete disclosures last year, but because candidates filed amended forms, no action was taken against them.
Current rules give lawmakers wide latitude in reporting their net worth. While lawmakers must report their total net worths, they must only list assets and liabilities that are more than $1,000. “Simply subtracting the liabilities reported...from the assets reported...will not result in an accurate net worth figure in most cases,” the Commission on Ethics informs officials.
Meanwhile, there doesn't appear to be any hard and fast rules for reporting a part of assets called "household goods and personal effects." This is a broad category that is meant to disclose the value of unspecified things that are not meant to be investments, like jewelry, stamp collections, art, household equipment, clothing, furnishings, guns, vehicles. This line item can be as much as $650,000 for Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, to $22,000 for Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach. Why the disparity? Who knows, as lawmakers aren't required to further specify this category.
So feel to peruse the financial disclosures once they’re up. Just don’t expect it to add up or make complete sense.