Accessing financial disclosures of public employees — not so simple 

  • The Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston.  ELISE AMENDOLA/AP PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/30/2019 11:35:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When it comes to accessing financial disclosure forms of public employees, the state’s process has been described as one of “the least transparent and least constituent-friendly financial disclosure regimes in the nation.”

That’s according to the conservative Pioneer Institute, which in March released a report calling on the state to make statements of financial interest, or SFIs, more accessible.

To gain access to the documents, a resident must upload a copy of their photo ID online or provide that ID in person at the State Ethics Commission in Boston. 

In addition, when somebody accesses a public employee’s SFI, that employee is notified of the person’s name who pulled their SFI. 

While reporting on this story, one public official — Mary Olberding, Hampshire County’s register of deeds — quickly called the Gazette after her SFI was accessed to ask if she could answer any questions.

Critics of that system say that it has a chilling effect on SFI requests and opens up requesters to possible intimidation. 

“Massachusetts is now the only state ... that requires identification and notifies the filer that someone — giving their name — has asked for their report,” Mary Connaughton, the director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute, told the Gazette. “To me, that’s intimidation. It keeps people from wanting to get the information because people want to remain anonymous when getting this information.”

A task force was convened in 2017 to study the state’s conflict of interest and financial disclosure laws, and one of the recommendations before the task force was to make financial disclosures more accessible online. But that would require an act of the state Legislature, which to date has not happened.

Another recommendation was to make the SFIs more specific. The forms require that filers list stock investments valued at $1,000 or more, and the state provides SFI filers with several options to choose from when disclosing the value of real estate they own, the highest of which is “$100,001 or more.” 

In testimony before an ethics task force in 2017, the progressive advocacy group Common Cause recommended adding additional values above $100,000 so reporting is more precise.

“If you’re in Massachusetts, there’s a darn good chance that your real estate is going to be well in excess of that amount nowadays,” Connaughton said. “It’s not really helpful information.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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