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Editorial: Financial disclosure needs major overhaul

Maryland’s toothless, outdated financial disclosure law needs a major overhaul, and it needs it now.

To begin with, our state is the only state that requires citizens to show up in person to view financial disclosure reports.

This means that anyone from Accident to Ocean City must go to the office of the State Ethics Commission in Annapolis to see these reports. Other states provide financial disclosure information online or send it electronically or through the mail upon request.

Sounds simple, right? Not in Maryland.

And even when you arrive at the ethics commission office, your quest for information isn’t necessarily over.

As a Daily Record reporter discovered last fall, reports of a certain vintage are stored at one of several off-site locations. So if you want one of those reports, you have to leave a written request with the ethics commission, which contacts you when the reports are available.

This process can take days or even weeks. And when the information is available, the individual must make another trip to Annapolis to see the material.

Not only that, anyone wishing to see the records must sign in, write down whose forms they want to review and pay 25 cents a page for copies.

As if that’s not bad enough, lawmakers can request to be notified by the commission whenever anyone looks at their disclosure forms.

“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?’” Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, told a legislative committee last week.

That is the very definition of “chilling effect.”

Then there is the matter of the state Judiciary, which has carved out a major loophole for itself in the state financial disclosure law. Why? Because it can.

Thirty-six years ago, state judges gave themselves the option of listing on their current disclosure form only what had changed from their previous report.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell lists his real estate holdings as 1, 2 and 3 and his corporate investments as 1, 2, 3 and 4 on his current disclosure form. Disclosure? Hardly.

In another case, the original disclosure form with details about one property owned by Court of Appeals Judge Clayton Greene Jr. was filed in 1988, when the judge was a public defender, and was stored in his personal filing cabinet.

None of this is meaningful disclosure, which is an essential element of openness and accountability in government.

But there are encouraging signs of reform as the General Assembly begins its annual session.

Sen. Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin, chairman of the Special Committee on Ethics Reform, said last week that “There’s a growing consensus on the committee that publicly available information should be available online.” He added, “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.

Mr. Raskin’s committee is also discussing whether to bring the judicial branch under the ethics commission for purposes of financial disclosure, which should end this nonsensical exclusion the judges wrote for themselves.

The committee, which is scheduled to meet again today, is due to make its final recommendations to the legislature by March 1. Then it will be up to the General Assembly to do what needs to be done.

State lawmakers should not leave Annapolis in April until they have given their constituents a meaningful financial disclosure law. Nothing less is acceptable.

One comment

  1. Your editorial makes it seem as if only legislators and judges are covered by financial disclosure requirements. That is not accurate. Please see section 15-103 of the State Government Article. Perhaps you meant to suggest that the disclosure requirements relating to legislators and judges need to be modified, but that’s not how your editorial came across to this reader.

    It does sound as if the literal accessibility to records is problematic given the fact that documents are in different locations, including in archives. But, what, really is the editorial board’s problem with a person being notified that someone has requested their financial disclosure forms? Perhaps, again, you meant to make a distinction between legislators and judges and the rest of State government filers. If so, that was not clear in your editorial.

    Finally, what is the issue that you have with charging for copies of records? My understanding is that a requestor may view records for free, but if the requestor wants a copy, they pay a reasonable fee for that copy.

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