Pennsylvania has long required state and local elected and appointed officials, employees, nominees, and candidates to annually file financial disclosure statements with the state Ethics Commission, documenting income, certain investments and debts, and gifts and hospitality received. But citizens, good government groups, and media looking to review the statements have rarely found access to be easy or convenient.
Senator Lisa Baker is offering a legislative remedy, requiring that the statements be filed electronically and posted online in a searchable format. “These financial disclosure statements are important documents for the public interest, constituting a significant guard against conflicts on the part of public decisionmakers and those who seek to fill such positions. With so much information about government being made readily accessible to voters and taxpayers through technology in recent years, there really is no justification for treating ethics statements differently. This step applies the spirit of the Open Records Law to this substantial body of information,” she said.
The Ethics Commission has for years gone beyond the limited requirements in state law and posted the filings online. Senate Bill 899 makes posting a matter of state law and provides that filings be sorted by name, office, year, and amendment. It adds a requirement for amended filings to be attached to the original, so a viewer can readily see what has changed. There is an e-mail notification option for individuals who want to be alerted to new filings.
“This will help give citizens more confidence in public officials. When people have to make an extraordinary effort to hunt down public information, it builds suspicion that someone has something to hide,” she stated.
“The posting requirement should help ensure the accuracy of the statements, because with more people reviewing them mistakes or omissions are more likely to be uncovered. Whether an error is accidental or intentional, there is public benefit from quick correction,” Baker pointed out.
The bill also includes language requiring state and county political party officers to file financial interest statements. Given the active role that many party leaders play in advising office seekers and officeholders, the public deserves to see what their financial interests are.
“This simple and straightforward bill represents an overdue way to make government more open, accessible, and accountable,” she concluded.
Contact: Jennifer Wilson