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Financial disclosure: How the search became the story

When I set out to review the judges’ financial disclosure forms, I never expected that the process of getting the documents would be the story.

My assignment was to review the disclosures filed by the seven judges on the state’s highest court.

But, after more than four months of traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Annapolis and more than $200 of company money spent on mileage and photocopies  — a carefully selected assortment, given the cost of 25 to 50 cents a page — it became clear that document procurement was the main issue.

My initial trip to Annapolis for this story, on June 28, involved my first stakeout as a reporter, which was not as glamorous as it might sound. I had called Roxanne McKagan, director of administrative services for the courts, twice before, but hadn’t gotten a response.

So that day, I showed up in her office to ask for the documents.

But McKagan was in meetings all morning. I ended up outside on a park bench, reading a book, swatting away flies and trying to stay cool in the heat until she returned around 1 o’clock.

McKagan helped me to the files the office had on hand, which went back to 2007. In a basement conference room I thumbed through the documents to see what I could find on the judges’ finances. Many had little information, noting “no change” most of the way through.

It took a significant amount of persistence on my part and a lot of detective work on the part of the AOC to get all of Judge Clayton Greene’s information.

Eventually, I called on Angelita Plemmer, director of the court’s communications team, to explain why, with the exception of 1989, the judge had never listed values for some of his property in all his years as a judge. (I also contacted Greene directly. He, like all the judges contacted for this story, referred me to Plemmer.)

It turned out that the last time Greene had written up a full disclosure was on the last form he filed as a public defender, with the State Ethics Commission rather than the Maryland Judiciary.

All told, I started traveling to Annapolis at the end of June and continued through the beginning of November. Yes, I was working on other stories at the same time, but much of the time I was waiting for the people in the Administrative Office of the Courts to get back to me, while they were waiting for the documents I’d requested from storage to be delivered to them.

The people I worked with all did their best to make documents available to me, but sometimes the wait for the documents stretched on for weeks.

In the end, I was able to see every document I asked for.

Advocacy group Common Cause Maryland thinks the current setup asks too much of citizens and has been pushing for changes to the ethics filings, including a move online.

Requiring in-person review “places a burden on anyone who wants to know,” said Susan Wichmann, director of the organization. “The reporter gets paid to do it, but the average citizen would have to give up a great deal of their work time, because you have to go during work hours.”

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