This week, Pennsylvania legislators and government employees must submit their ethics filings for last year.
These forms list their investments and gifts they received while in office. However, developments over the last year have made those financial disclosure a lesser force for public accountability.
The Corbett administration has taken a stance that may severely limit how much information its personnel has to share.
“In terms of the press,” says Penn State journalism professor Russ Eshleman, financial disclosures are, “sort of a good watchdog role to report just what legislators are getting for their service.”
Two filings of this useful information are due by May 1.
The Pennsylvania State Ethics Act requires lawmakers and employees to list the companies that pay them, who they owe money to (such as a mortgage) and any gifts they received from constituents.
A second filing, based on a Code of Conduct created under former Gov. Dick Thornburgh includes more detailed information such as stock holdings.
The point of all this is to give the public a window into which legislators and state personnel have financial interests that might impinge on their work.
But here comes the twist: A new state Right to Know law, passed in 2009.
Gov. Tom Corbett’s office took a look at that in 2012 prompted by a lawsuit with a public union. Staff concluded the Right to Know Law meant that government employees didn’t have to publicly share the stock and salary information anymore.
A Commonwealth Court judge affirmed this interpretation in a ruling last December, but it’s worth taking a look at the policy the executive branch established many months earlier.
In February 2012, an attorney with the Governor’s Office of General Counsel, Andrea Bowman sent an email [embedded below] with the following language:
“Personal financial information would generally be redacted from these forms in response to a [Right to Know Law] request absent the exercise of agency discretion — which discretion would generally never be exercised without the consent of the party whose information is sought.”
Follow that? The financial information will be released only if the lawmaker or official says it’s OK. If the public employee doesn’t care to let the public in on the data, then it stays secret.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that the email covered both types of ethics filings that are due this week.
Redacting financial may very well be appropriate from the Code of Conduct filings. They’re established by executive order, not by law. On the other hand, the head of the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission, Rob Caruso, said the Ethics Act makes the basic financial information public.
“That would be contrary to the provisions of the law if individuals or if agencies on their own were redacting those types of information,” he said.
Some, but not all, ethics forms are available on the Ethics Commission’s website.
Bowman now works for a city agency in Philadelphia. She said she thought the email might have been “over-broad” but was well-intentioned and principally concerned the code of conduct statements of financial interest.
The current spokesman for the Office of the General Counsel, Nils Frederiksen said he couldn’t speak to whether the email’s instructions would be followed today, declining to call it a policy. He says a request for an ethics form hasn’t come up.
As for the detailed Code of Conduct disclosure forms, Frederiksen says asking permission to disclose the forms is the best the office can do under the Right to Know Law.
“The goal is to be able to move forward in as open a way as possible, and we believe these consent forms do just that,” he said.
Eshleman, the journalism professor, considers that a shame. Back when he covered Harrisburg for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he used code of conduct filing to write a story that had a big impact on the 1990 governor’s race.
He said it was pretty easy to review the forms upon demand a couple floors above the State House newsroom.
He was looking at the filings from James Pickard, a conservative Republican. The York businessman had worked as the state’s Commerce Secretary before deciding to run for governor.
Eshleman discovered that a few years earlier, Pickard had bought 1,000 shares in a computer company right before it got a $350,000 state grant to locate a plant in Pennsylvania. As commerce secretary, Pickard ran the meeting where the grant was proposed.
“When doing that story like that, it’s like putting together a puzzle,” Eshleman remarked.
“The importance of these forms is of course is that’s what was the thing that showed me Pickard owned stock in the company.”
If he hadn’t had access to the code of conduct forms, Eshleman says, he doesn’t know whether the public would have learned this pertinent information about a man who wanted to become governor.