Texas politicians, candidates and other state officials must file personal financial disclosure forms that list their income, assets and liabilities. The Legislature years ago required this transparency to discourage conflicts of interest and, according to the law, "strengthen the faith and confidence of the people of this state in state government."
Yet getting these documents — and making sense of them — isn’t too easy for "the people".
Texans who want to read them must file official requests with the Texas Ethics Commission, the state agency responsible for administering and enforcing sections of the election code and other statutory provisions generally governing politics and ethics. In some cases, the law requires requesters to fill out forms listing their full names, addresses and professional affiliations.
Even in this age of instant information, the disclosure forms also get filed on paper. That makes it impossible to search or sort the information contained in voluminous filings submitted by more than 3,000 elected and appointed state officers, members of the boards of river authorities, executive heads of state agencies and state political party chairs.
The Legislature and, by extension, the commission, have for years required political candidates and lobbyists to file their activity and financial reports in database format, allowing it to be posted online and searched by the public. Electronic formats also allow journalists and other watchdogs to cross-reference the records with other official documents — for example, by comparing a list of lobbyists with a list of campaign contributors.
But the personal financial documents remain on paper and offline, unlike those in some other states.
"There’s no reason that these shouldn’t be online," said state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who filed a bill last session that would have required online posting. It never received a committee hearing, he believes, because of members’ general resistance to new and tougher ethics regulations. He would prefer the records to be posted online in a searchable format but doesn’t seem hopeful that the Legislature has the appetite to change the law.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed a similar bill in 2009. It received a hearing, but not enough votes to keep it moving in the legislative process. Ellis may file it again next session, he said: "It makes sense to make this information available to everyday citizens, and I continue to believe that in order for Texans to build a higher level of trust between government and its citizens, candidates should be as transparent as possible."
Some elected officials agree, but see distinctions in the types of officials subject to the law. State Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, says he supports requiring elected officials to file the financial documents in a digital, searchable form. But he says there might be an argument for different standards for the hundreds of appointed officials, such as university regents, who also submit their information.
"Elected officials are fair game, I think, from a full disclosure standpoint. Unelected officials should, arguably, have a different standard. It's a matter of shades," Hartnett said. He thinks appointees' finances should be available to the public, as they are now, but perhaps not published on the internet. "It's more a question of accessibility than privacy."
To make these records more accessible, the Tribune requested all 3,070 that were filed this spring and summer that disclose activity during the 2009 calendar year (most officials weren’t required to file until April and many requested 60-day extensions). The Tribune then created an application that allows anyone — without the burden of an official request — to search for officials and view, print, download and embed their disclosure forms. The records themselves, however, still aren’t searchable.
Here, for example, is the form filed by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White:
Source: Texas Ethics Commission. View all the documents in our application.
As it stands now, the commission isn’t mandated by law to require the electronic filing, which presumably would cost the agency some additional money to collect, process and host the data. It also is bound by a provision that requires a requester’s name and "whom the person represents," according to the law, on record for one year. (The Texas Public Information Act, the state’s open-records law, doesn’t have such a provision).
Other states, such as California and Iowa, post the financial disclosures online. (Here’s the most recent form filed by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, known there as a Statement of Economic Interests).
Still, Texas’ system is a model for other states in terms of the information the state collects, if not the format in which it collects it. The forms require officials to list occupational income, spouses and dependant children, retainers, stock and bonds, mutual funds, real property, debts and several other categories.
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington, D.C., in 2006 ranked Texas third-best in comparison with other states for the quality of its disclosure. Only Hawaii and Washington were ranked higher under the center’s methodology, which considered the fields of information required and the penalties for noncompliance.
The study, however, also found flaws in Texas’ system that make it difficult to gauge truly an official's net worth. The center noted, for example, that officeholders aren’t required to list the value (or even in a range) of any real property they own, or their income from private-sector employment, or a description of their employers.
As an example, state Rep. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, lists his employer as "MVG Services, Inc." and states that the nature of his employment is "consulting." It doesn't require disclosure of what kind of consulting his company performs.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Empower Texans, an Austin-based nonprofit advocacy group focused on limited government, said he isn’t surprised that the records are difficult to access but that he understands the potential desire by elected officials to keep them that way. He says it’s important, though, that officials’ business interests are disclosed so that Texans can "trust but verify" their government.
"From a personal perspective, none of us would be overly excited about having our family finances and personal business spilled out on the internet and available for anyone to go poke and prod through," he said. "But these folks have significant power to do good or do hard for very specific businesses. That’s a lot of power that they’ve entrusted with, and that should demand a level of transparency that is not common."