You Don't Want to Know
State Ethics Commission Rule On Financial-Disclosure Forms Casts Shadow Over Access to Public Information
Jennifer Allgair cautiously approached a reporter one afternoon last December in the lobby of the Maryland State Ethics Commission to see what all the fuss was about. The reporter had come down to Annapolis to request financial-disclosure forms for all 24 Baltimore City legislators in the General Assembly.
He didn't like what he was hearing.
Allgair, the general counsel to the commission, thumbed to Title 15 section 606 of the state government code, and the offending law was right there in black and white: Citizens must disclose their home address before the commission will release the financial-disclosure forms government officials are required to file.
What's more, officials who specify so on their disclosure forms receive notification of any such requests. Sort of a heads up that so-and-so asked for your disclosure form--and here's where they live.
"We don't make the regulations, we just enforce them," Allgair said sheepishly. "We've had people question that particular requirement, but most people just follow it in the end."
Like Sun reporter Greg Garland, of Anne Arundel County, who in January wanted to know more about state Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick's bottom line; or his colleague Andrew Green, of Baltimore County, who last July got curious about Gov. Martin O'Malley's financial picture; or The Examiner's Len Lazarick, of Howard County, who that same month probed the portfolios of O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, state Comptroller Peter Franchot, and state Attorney General Douglas Gansler.
Anyone can walk in and request the Ethics Commission's logbook of forms curious citizens must fill out before they can view information that, by law, state officials must provide. That makes the home addresses of ordinary people more accessible than the business and financial interests of state officials who vote on matters of public concern.
Arguably, the goal of financial disclosure by elected officials is to ensure that government decisions are made free of personal conflicts of interest. Turns out that, in Maryland at least, it's not so simple.
Former state senator and current Ethics Commission board member Julian "Jack" Lapides responds to inquiries about the state's disclosure laws with a hearty laugh. "I'll bet you a quarter I know what you're calling about," he says. Lapides, known as "the conscience of the Senate," recalls that back in 1973, then-Gov. Marvin Mandel was in a pickle over an undisclosed land deal in the Caribbean. To save face, Mandel agreed to sign a new financial-disclosure law.
The result was a state ethics law that originally required officials to file financial-disclosure forms with the Secretary of State. At the time, however, Maryland lawmakers were cranky about disclosing anything to anyone. News clips from that era and legislative files show that some public officials who did not want to disclose their personal wealth resigned. A handwritten note in a committee file from then-Del. Benjamin Cardin sums up the institutional resistance to the very idea of disclosure: "You can't legislate honesty."
Lapides calls the home-address notification requirement "an absurd addition to the bill."
"There was talk about stalkers having access to [legislators'] property addresses," he says. "But that was a red herring. People just felt that, `Dammit, if I have to disclose my information, then reporters or whoever have to disclose theirs.' I think that's a lousy argument. I'd like to see someone defend it now."
City Paper contacted some prominent legal minds to see if anyone could justify the information-disclosure rule and found no takers. "This stuff didn't come easily to Maryland," recalls Robert Zarnoch, former lawyer to the General Assembly whom Gov. O'Malley recently appointed to the Court of Special Appeals. "The notification requirement may have been made onerous on purpose. See if the forms the public signs to get the information are available. I would hope the Ethics Commission doesn't give them out. No one's paid much attention to this issue. Put a light on it--maybe it will change by legislative fiat."
William Somerville, legal ethics adviser to the General Assembly, who drafted the legislative summary of the 1979 amendments to the law, blandly asserts that disclosure of stock portfolios, for instance, could lead to use of such information for illegal or improper purposes. He recalls concern in Annapolis that would-be burglars could access lawmakers' vacation-home addresses and freely pillage while the Assembly was in session. Yet even he folds when asked why, for instance, if notification of officials is necessary, isn't a valid business address for the person requesting the information enough? "I'm sure there is a less intrusive way to regulate the matter," he acknowledges. "I can see your point."
The Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research organization that ranks the openness of all states' disclosure laws, found in 2006 that 42 states do not require officials to be notified when citizens request their financial-disclosure forms. Only Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Wisconsin require automatic notification.
Maryland gets half credit, because lawmakers must specify on their disclosure forms that they wish to be notified when someone requests a copy of their form. In the most recent filings, due after the 2007 legislative session, all but five of Baltimore City's 24 legislators requested notification.
The Center for Public Integrity ranks Maryland's disclosure laws 21th in the nation overall, with a "D" rating, on a scale of A through F. Virginia is ranked 28th and gets a failing grade. Pennsylvania is ranked 33rd. Yet even Pennsylvania, which also gets an F, does not require lawmakers to be notified when their disclosure forms are requested.
Open-government advocates contend Maryland's home-address notification requirement creates a disincentive for the public to ask about lawmakers' business ties that might affect legislative decisions. (City Paper reported in its News Hole blog last week that state Sen. Joan Carter Conway introduced a bill on Feb. 7 that would regulate tax-service providers--a proposal that could slow big tax chains that compete with Conway, whose Civic Interest Group Professional Tax Services Inc. operates out of a storefront at 2331 E. Monument St., according to her financial-disclosure form.)
In 1999, Maryland Common Cause, a nonprofit government watchdog organization, called the notification law a "notable failure." In testimony opposing the requirement, then-executive director Kathleen Skullney stated, "public access to public records should be free from any requirement that intimidates or deters examination." She added, "The reporting of the name and home address of a person who examine[s] public records is a significant deterrent to such examination."
"There's a chilling effect here for citizens interested in records they are entitled to see," Maryland Common Cause executive director Ryan O'Donnell says. "But more importantly, it points to a culture of secrecy that really has no place in government. We shouldn't have this law in Maryland."
Yet no one has seriously challenged the law in the past decade. Some groups are focused on more pressing concerns. "The bigger question is why can't the state just have all the disclosure forms online for universal access?" Center for Public Integrity spokesman Steve Carpinelli asks. Notification laws "create an extra hurdle for researchers, journalists and regular citizens." (The center obtained Maryland's disclosure forms in 2006 and posted them online; go to www.citypaper.com/disclosure to view the Baltimore City delegates' 2007 forms.)
Others are simply disgusted and seemingly at a loss over what to do. "I think [Maryland's notification law] is stupid," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Is it the worst thing a state has ever done? No. Is it totally lame? Yes."
Lapides, past chair of the Ethics Commission, is hard pressed to argue. "There was all sorts of paranoia at the time," he says of the 1973 notification law. "Lawmakers were boxed in a corner, and it was a negative reaction, an unfriendly gesture. It was not passed with candor.
"If you want to run for office, there should be total disclosure. If you don't want total disclosure, then don't run for office."
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