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Bill seeks to put thousands of financial disclosure documents online

Legislators and eventually 12,000 to 14,000 state employees would have their financial disclosure statements posted on the Internet beginning next year if the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs committee approves a bill it heard testimony on Friday.

The bill would require financial disclosure statements and reports concerning conflicts of interest filed by state officials be done electronically so they could be posted online.

The bill comes weeks after Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s, was censured by his colleagues for ethics violations and as new concerns are raised over Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola’s failure to disclose income he earned as a lobbyist.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, who is chair of the Special Committee on Ethics Reform created in January and is the sponsor of the bill, said Maryland is a leader in ethics reform but lags when it comes to Internet disclosure.

“All of the financial and ethics disclosure materials that we have are public information, but that’s really more theoretical than real,” said Raskin. Currently, anyone seeking such documents has to travel to an Annapolis office during business hours to view those documents.

Beginning in 2015, the legislation would affect state employees involved in policymaking and procurement, and local constitutional officers such as sheriffs.

If the bill were to become law, Raskin said Maryland would join around 18 other states that have moved toward Internet disclosure.

Ethics Commission supports bill

Michael Lord, executive director of State Ethics Commission, testified that by mandating electronic disclosures the bill would accomplish what the commission has been attempting to do since 2005.

Lord said electronic disclosure is more efficient, less prone to error, and would eliminate dozens of file cabinets and thousands of pages of documents that have been collected over the years.

The commission submitted an amendment that would exclude members of the judiciary branch from the bill since they file separate forms and were not originally meant to be included in the legislation. Raskin said that including the judiciary in the bill should be discussed, but he believed an argument over separation of powers was perhaps too much to be considered in this session.

Raising concerns among some members of the committee was an existing law that requires the spouses of state officials to disclose the source of their income in order to avoid conflicts of interest that may arise from the close relationship between spouses. Sen. James Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s, wondered about the effect such laws could have on state employee recruitment.

“Did the committee have any concern about privacy and recruitment of state employees?” Rosapepe asked. “I know the federal government has terrible problems recruiting people to serve because of the very detailed disclosures.”

Raskin said every discussion his committee had revolved around transparency versus the right to privacy in financial affairs. However, Raskin said that the staggered implementation of the bill would allow employees to prepare and the legislature to reconsider if needed. The commission would first post only those documents pertaining to legislators in 2013 with all other pertinent officials following in 2015.

“We have not altered by one person who has to disclose this stuff or what they’ve got to disclose,” Raskin stated. “We’ve just put it under a magnifying glass with the Internet and, admittedly, that’s something that can make people disoriented.”

Raskin added that the bill was the single biggest blow the legislature could strike on behalf of transparency and ethical responsibility.

Originally published by MarylandReporter.com.

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