President Barack Obama ran a technology savvy presidential campaign that promised a more ethical and transparent government.
The Office of Government Ethics, a small and little-known executive branch agency that’s responsible for collecting and disclosing executive branch financial disclosure forms and ethics agreements, would be a logical place to start bringing those ideals to life.
Since the Obama administration came to Washington, the OGE, for the first time ever, has posted on its Web site a regularly updated list of administration officials who have completed their financial disclosure forms. These forms catalog assets, past employment, board services, property, and debts that could potentially pose conflicts of interest.
But as far as posting the documents themselves, well, that’s another mater.
In fact, says agency general counsel Don Fox, OGE is forbidden by law from making the completed documents available for download on the site. That’s because the Ethics In Government Act, which created the office as a component of the Office of Personnel Management (it’s since become independent), not only requires that documents only be released upon receipt of a written request that certifies the information won’t be used for commercial purposes, but also that the Office keep a record of all people to whom it releases the documents. He says a download-on-demand system would violate both requirements.
“The Act was written in 1978. The Web might have existed in the mind of a few scientists, but probably for nobody else,” says Fox.
So ProPublica, the not yet year-old privately-supported non-profit investigative reporting shop, has taken it upon itself to plug the gap by requesting, collecting, and posting the documents for all to see.
It’s a somewhat laborious process. The OGE makes a standard request form available for download as a PDF. After filling it out, and attesting that there are no plans to make commercial use of the documents, the requester must mail or fax the form back to OGE. Each form can be used to request the financial disclosure forms and related documents of only six officials at a single time. The OGE will make paper copies of the documents, which can be mailed or picked up in person at the agency’s Washington office at 1201 New York Avenue.
“If the goal is for your average citizen to peruse the ethics agreement of their government officials, it’s not the easiest process,” says Olga Pierce, the ProPublica intern who wrangled the documents. “It’s four or five steps and I’m not sure everyone will get there.”
Officially, the OGE charges three cents a page for photocopying, but the fee is waived if the total is less than $10.00 worth of documents. In practice, few pay anything.
But not ProPublica. According to Pierce, their bill for the first round of about 700 pages of documents totaled something like $21.76. Then they had to prepare the paper documents for the Web. (“Our poor scanner,” quips Pierce.)
ProPublica has asked its readers to point any interesting nuggets hidden in the documents. That hasn’t produced too much of interest so far—just one post noting that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar co-signed his daughter’s college loans. But they say that finding immediate stories wasn’t the point.
“In the past, we could have used them for a story and then set them aside,” says ProPublica’s Amanda Michel, the former director of The Huffington Post’s OffTheBus project who now manages ProPublica’s distributed reporting efforts. “We put out these documents, first and foremost, as a part of our mission, to make these documents available for the press and the public.”
“You know that these documents will be helpful to someone, but we don’t know who would need it or when,” says Pierce. “At ProPublica, we’ve got sort of a weird hybrid between doing our own reporting and trying to be a reporting resource for other people.”
So far, ProPublica has made 179 SF-278 forms available, as a first step toward their plan to make requests and post the documents of all Obama appointees.
The SF-278 form is the standard executive branch financial disclosure document, which, once filled out, forms the basis for a consultation between the appointee, the OGE, and agency based ethics officers—one that will result in individualized ethics agreements.
These ethics agreements, or ethics letters, spell out each appointee’s specific obligations to avoid conflicts of interest, and the steps that each will take to do so.
“It’s really difficult to think of an example of a Senate confirmed official who would not need some kind of ethics agreement,” says Fox.
But so far, ProPublica has had little luck getting hold of the ethics letters, netting only a handful from its requests to OGE.