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Maryland Senate committee to call for annual online financial disclosure

ANNAPOLIS — The financial disclosure forms filed every year by Maryland lawmakers would be available to the public online under a proposal being crafted by a state Senate special committee.

Maryland is the only state in the country that requires citizens who wish to view disclosure documents to access them in person. Other states provide the financial disclosure information online or will send it electronically or through the mail.

“There’s a growing consensus on the committee that publicly available information should be available online,” Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, chairman of the Special Committee on Ethics Reform, said Friday. “We shouldn’t be the only state in the country where you have to go into a room, sign your name and swear a blood oath” to access these documents.

Raskin, D-Montgomery, said the committee would work on the online disclosure proposal in advance of its Jan. 27 meeting.

Lawmakers also discussed the separate financial disclosure requirements for judges.

Judicial records are kept separately from those overseen by the State Ethics Commission. And, as The Daily Record reported in December, judges are allowed to report “No Change” in their financial holdings, leaving the public without a clear picture of jurists’ investments and property holdings.

Moving judges under the umbrella of the ethics commission could give the public a more complete picture of potential conflicts by providing a deeper history of the members of the bench, some committee members said.

“In some cases, you have judges who were former elected officials,” said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City.

But it is the ethics rules for state lawmakers that will get the most attention from the special committee.

Those rules have come under scrutiny following the high-profile trial of state Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s.

Currie was acquitted in November of conspiracy, bribery, extortion and other federal charges in connection with previously undisclosed work for Shoppers Food Warehouse, which paid him more than $245,000 from 2003 to 2008.

The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics is expected to review Currie’s conduct.

Transparency advocates hope making financial disclosure documents more accessible will lead to more watchful eyes on public officials. Senators on Friday said they hoped it would also clear the cloud of suspicion over lawmakers.

“I want to take away this perception when somebody gets in trouble, we’re all lumped in,” said Sen. James N. Robey, D-Howard.

Financial disclosure forms can only be accessed at the ethics commission’s Annapolis offices. Those who wish to review the records must sign in, write down which lawmakers’ forms they want to review and pay 25 cents per page for copies.

Lawmakers can request to be notified by the commission if their forms are accessed.

“I’ve had people tell me they’ve walked out of the office and had the [General Assembly] member call them and say ‘Why were you looking at my form?’” said Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which advocates for transparent and accountable government. “That process is chilling.”

She noted that the ethics commission, which is prohibited by law from posting financial disclosure forms online, already publishes lists of lobbyists, their clients and how much they bill on its website.

Making legislators’ forms available online would allow for interested parties to view them anonymously and without cost, said Raskin.

“Information that is freely available should be available for free,” said Raskin. “The Internet makes that possible.”

Michael W. Lord, executive director of the ethics commission, said the computer system upgrades needed to make the forms available online could cost in the neighborhood of $60,000.

The committee is due to make its full set of ethics recommendations by March 1.