Metro

State putting up roadblocks for financial disclosure reports

Citizens seeking Mass. officials’ financial reports stymied by delays, costs

At least 29 states post financial disclosure reports for lawmakers and other public officials on the Web, making it easy to see their investments and potential sources of conflicts with a few clicks. Most other states make the filings readily available for free to those who show up in person.

But not Massachusetts, which has set up a virtual gantlet to see the filings, even though the whole point of collecting the financial information is to inform the public.

In this state, residents must first show a photo ID and fill out a written request. And they are warned that a copy of the request will then be forwarded to the public officials to let them know who peeked at their filings.

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Additionally, statements of financial interest aren’t always available to view the same day or for free as the law intended. And if you ask to see a lot of the reports, be prepared for an especially long wait and a hefty bill.

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When the Globe asked to view this year’s reports for all 3,800 officials who file them, the State Ethics Commission said it would take “a number of months” to make the documents available. And it would only do so if the Globe submitted a cashier’s check payable to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for $14,175. In advance.

And the Globe didn’t even ask for copies.

“Oh my God. That is crazy,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, a senior vice president with Common Cause, a Washington-based group that supports open government, who said she couldn’t think of any other state that puts so many hurdles in the path of those seeking to view public officials’ financial disclosures. “That kind of process makes a mockery of the claim that these records are available to the public.”

The $14,000 bill is just the latest illustration of how Massachusetts has one of the weakest public records retrieval systems in the country, according to open government groups. Agencies routinely refuse to release documents that are public in most of the rest of the country, take months to process requests, or demand big sums to see routine documents.

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But the hurdles to obtaining financial disclosure forms are particularly glaring because of the basic and critical purpose of the reports — to let citizens know the sources of income, investments, and other financial ties of government officials. The reports are intended to show whether lawmakers or other high-ranking government officials might have hidden financial interests when they sponsor legislation, award a contract, or carry out their other duties.

“I can’t do my job very well if the public doesn’t have confidence in what I am doing,” said state Representative Carolyn C. Dykema, a Holliston Democrat who has sponsored legislation to put the reports on the Internet . “I think it’s an important check on the system.”

State ethics officials, however, said they aren’t allowed to put the disclosure reports online because the law, enacted in 1978, permits them to provide them only to people who show a photo ID and submit a written request, which must then be forwarded to the government officials who filed the reports. Critics say those requirements could deter some people from ever asking for the reports for fear of retaliation from the officials who made the filings.

“It’s subtle intimidation,” said Andrew Goodrich, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Jobs, a probusiness group that gathered and posted the filings for all 200 state legislators in 2013 on its own website to try to shine a light on how Beacon Hill operates.

The rules also create a significant amount of extra work. To get the legislative filings, Goodrich was required by the Ethics Commission to fill out a stack of 200 identical forms — one for each lawmaker — and wait a couple weeks for the commission to compile them.

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“We are so backward compared to other states,” said Goodrich, who argues that all the filings should be posted online. “It should be free, public information.”

Some other requestors have had to wait even longer to see the reports. In 2010, the Massachusetts Republican Party complained that it had to wait two months, making it more difficult for them to prepare for upcoming elections.

And last week, the State Ethics Commission warned it would take months to respond to the Globe’s request even if the newspaper agreed to pony up more than $14,000 to see all the latest year’s filings. The commission took six weeks just to come up with a cost estimate.

Indeed, the commission can be slow to fulfill even more modest requests. Ethics Commission spokesman David Giannotti declined to say Friday how much it would cost or how long it would take to view 50 or 100 reports. Another staffer said only that it would not be possible to see the filings the same day.

In part because of obstacles to getting the forms, the vast majority are never viewed at all. The Ethics Commission’s annual reports indicate less than one-fifth of the financial disclosures are ever requested by the public in the latest year available. In 2009, no more than 3 percent of the filings were requested.

Open government advocates say that Massachusetts’ own rich history of political corruption demonstrates the need for holding public officials accountable.

The previous three speakers of the House of of Representatives were all convicted of felonies. The most recent, Salvatore DiMasi, was found guilty of corruption charges after helping steer a tech contract to a firm in exchange for kickbacks.

A former state senator, Dianne Wilkerson, was sent to prison for bribery after being caught on film stuffing $100 bills into her bra.

And Brian A. Joyce agreed last week to temporarily step down as assistant majority leader in the Senate until the Ethics Commission can investigate questions about his efforts on behalf of his law firm’s clients.

The law says the filings are supposed to be “available for public inspection and copying during regular office hours” and doesn’t mention any fees for just viewing the documents.

Ethics staffers say they are also required to review the filings and black out any confidential information, which can create significant delays and expense.

Deirdre Roney, the ethics commission’s general counsel, estimated it would take between 5 and 15 minutes to review and redact each filing for home addresses and other private information. And because the commission has a small staff, she estimated it would take months for employees to find the time to do the redactions for all 3,800 Statements of Financial Interests (SFIs) that the Globe requested.

“As you may imagine, this is a time-consuming process,” Roney said. “We regret these delays and agree they are inconsistent with the statutory goal of making [the] information [to the extent not protected] available to the public in a timely way.”

Roney said the commission also realizes that charging more than $14,000 for a single year’s forms is a “significant” amount and it is looking into buying a new computer system that will make preparing the forms significantly faster and cheaper in the future.

“We do not take any issue with the current state of the law, but rather with the current state of our electronic resources,” Roney said in a written statement.

But both Common Cause Massachusetts and a Boston lawyer said the Ethics Commission should not charge citizens just to look at the reports.

“I found nothing in the ethics law or regulations that allows the commission to recoup fees for redaction,” said Robert A. Bertsche, a media lawyer with Boston law firm Prince Lobel Tye LLP.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, added: “The kind of money they are asking . . . is shocking and outrageous. The whole point of the forms is for the forms to be available to the public.”

In addition, the Ethics Commission may be violating state law by blacking out too much information.

The state ethics statute says the forms must be provided to the public, except for home addresses, which the commission has the discretion to delete. But several years ago, commission staffers began routinely redacting other data, including the names of spouses and other family members, the names of trusts, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and addresses of property owned by the filers.

The commission’s attorney insisted the agency is required to redact the additional information by a separate statute — the public records law — but both Common Cause and the media lawyer dispute that.

Ironically, Massachusetts was seen as a leader when it first passed the ethics law nearly four decades ago. But while most other states have since adopted more extensive disclosure requirements, that portion of the Massachusetts law has remained unchanged.

Wilmot, of Common Cause, said the state may have missed a key opportunity to revamp the rules when it updated other portions of the ethics law six years ago. “It fell through the cracks,” she said.

But Dykema said she is optimistic her bill to put the reports on the Web may finally win approval this legislative session because there seems to be greater interest this year in providing access to the government records. “I think it will be on the short list to talk about,” she said.

Related:

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Ruling allows police to withhold officers’ drunken driving records

Healey vows greater access to state records

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.