Methodology

The reporting process, and the reporters, behind "Our Private Legislatures"

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 Updated:

"Our Private Legislatures" is a two-part project aimed at providing the public with detailed information on the private financial interests of the more than 7,400 lawmakers who control our state legislatures. The Center's State Projects began laying the groundwork for this project with the initial publication of its first-ever ranking of personal financial disclosure laws, "Hidden Agendas," in 1999.

The first part of "Our Private Legislatures" is a searchable database detailing state lawmakers' outside jobs, investments, directorships and closely held business interests in all 50 states. The site allows anyone in any part of the country to search by name, zip code, outside tie or industry to determine what interests their lawmakers hold and the potential conflicts those special interests present.

The second component of the project is an analysis of personal financial disclosure laws in all 50 states. The Center methodically evaluated financial disclosure laws nationwide and ranked the states using a survey based on filing requirements, content, access and enforcement. 

Constructing the database

Collecting state lawmakers' financial disclosure forms 
In the summer of 2002, Center researchers began collecting financial disclosure statements filed by almost 7,000 state lawmakers in the 47 states that require disclosure; Idaho, Michigan and Vermont do not. This process lasted almost one year, due to the various filing deadlines for forms covering the 2001 calendar year.

Creating a database structure and entering data 
From there, researchers created a database structure that would contain information from 47 disparate forms, and then started more than six months of data entry. Since disclosure form requirements vary widely from state to state, researchers did not enter every detail reported on lawmaker filings. The following types of interests are required to be reported by the most states and were included in the database:

  • Employment income: includes any outside income received by the legislator, aside from compensation earned as a legislator. Retirement income is also included under this heading.
  • Personal business interest: includes closely held businesses and rental properties. This interest type does not include personal residences or time shares in vacation homes.
  • Stock investment: consists of stocks only. This interest type does not include mutual funds, annuities, trusts, pensions, retirement funds or deferred compensation.
  • Directorship: includes any officer, director or partner position held with for-profit and non-profit organizations. Compensated and uncompensated positions are both included in this interest type.

Information for lawmakers who filed update forms or "no change" forms in 2002—in Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah and Washington—was entered using reports they filed in previous years. Lawmakers who provided information on the form that did not fall into one of the four above interest types, such as an interest in a trust, were recorded as filing a form that contained no data within Center criteria. Lawmakers who did not supply any information on the form at all (in other words, they submitted a blank form or answered no to all questions) were recorded as reporting no information on the form.

Making the financial disclosure forms readily available 
After receiving the forms from the state agencies, Center researchers shipped financial disclosure forms to a scanning company, and formatted them for Web access. Forms made electronically available by the states were also downloaded and formatted for Web access.

Analyzing the ties

Committee ties 
Using a modified set of industry codes developed by the Center for Responsive Politics for campaign finance research, researchers coded 99.86% of the more than 31,000 outside interests held by state lawmakers nationwide. These interests were then compared to a set of committee membership lists—with corresponding codes developed by the Center for Public Integrity—to determine the percentage of legislators in each state who sat on a committee that regulated one of their professional or business interests.

For this analysis, Center researchers used 2001 legislative committee positions to compare to the outside interests lawmakers reported holding in 2001. The analysis does not include every legislative committee in the country. Center researchers sifted through thousands of committees and selected 1,188 of them that were directly relatable to a specific industry, including: agriculture, banking and financial institutions, corrections and public safety, education, energy and environment, health and human services, insurance, judicial, transportation, labor and union, gambling, local and county government, military and veterans affairs, public employee retirement, and real estate and economic development.

Lobby ties 
Center researchers evaluated lobbying lists recorded by state oversight agencies in 2001 alongside outside interests covering the same year. By matching up databases, the Center was able to determine the percentage of legislators in each state who reported a financial tie to a business or organization registered to lobby their state's government. A handful of states did not have a 2001 list of lobbyist employers available for our analysis in 2004, so Center researchers used the earliest list available in Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana and Ohio.

Government ties 
Center researchers uncovered the percentage of legislators and their spouses who received employment income from any governmental entity—federal, state or local—aside from the state legislature.

Disclosure survey

Center researchers developed this comprehensive state-by-state analysis of personal financial disclosure laws by fine-tuning its first-ever ranking, "Hidden Agendas," published in 1999. Here is how our researchers did it.

The first step was to develop a series of questions that addressed four key areas of disclosure for state legislators' personal financial disclosure statements:

  • Filing – how often are lawmakers required to file complete reports?
  • Extent – what information and level of detail are lawmakers required to report on the forms?
  • Access – how much access do the state agencies provide to the information?
  • Enforcement – what type of audit authority does the state have?

Most questions had a yes or no answer (some had a third option), with each answer assigned a weighted numerical value. The answers with the highest values reward full disclosure, public access and accountability. The maximum number of points a state could receive was 100.

Center researchers determined answers to each of the 43 questions by studying active statutes current as of May 2004, codes of ethics, disclosure forms and Web sites. Most questions required the researchers to find the information in the state statute and then interview public officials in charge of ethics agencies for confirmation. Each answer underwent a thorough fact-checking process and a number of consistency checks to ensure uniformity across the states.

Because only a few states scored an 80 or above, scores of 70 and higher are considered relatively satisfactory. Scores of 60 to 69 are considered marginal. Scores below 60 are considered failing.

FILING (total 4 points maximum):

1. Requires financial disclosure filing?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States requiring lawmakers to file personal financial-disclosure statements received a point. Ultimately only the three non-disclosure states—Idaho, Michigan and Vermont—received zero points for this question.

2. Requires complete financial disclosure filing (no update filing allowed)?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

Update filings are short (usually one page) forms that lawmakers are allowed to file in years when their personal financial interests have not changed or changed very little. For the purposes of this survey, update forms do not qualify as complete filings. For example, Tennessee—which requires an initial complete filing, followed yearly by an "update" form on which lawmakers disclose only the changes that have occurred—would not receive a point.

3. Requires financial disclosure filing annually?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States that require annual disclosure for elected state legislators receive a point. For example, North Dakota, which requires a filing during election years only (lawmakers serve four-year terms) would not receive a point.

4. Requires financial disclosure filing for candidates?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

In addition to personal financial disclosure requirements for elected lawmakers, most states require personal financial disclosure filing for candidates seeking office. States received a point for requiring complete financial disclosure for candidates, regardless of when they are required to file again if elected to office.

EXTENT (total 83 points maximum):

EMPLOYMENT (total 29 points maximum):

5. Employment information required?

No – 0 
Yes – 5

States requiring legislators to report employment information received full points for this question.

6. Employment information not narrowly defined?

No – 0 
Yes – 5

In some states, lawmakers are required to report sources of income over a certain threshold or income received from a state agency only—or another requirement that is so narrow many things could be left off the form.

States received full points for this question if the trigger for reporting employment income was $5000 or less. States did not receive points for this question if the trigger for reporting employment income was higher than $5000 or if large categories of potential employers were excluded. In Louisiana, for example, lawmakers are only required to report income from governmental agencies and gambling-related interests; while in California, legislators are not required to report any income from governmental agencies.

7. Employer/business name required?

No – 0 
Yes – 5

States requiring legislators to report the name of their employer on the filing received full points for this question.

8. Employment job title required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States received full points for requiring legislators to report their job title.

9. Employer description required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States requiring legislators to report a job description received full points for this question. The description could be very specific or a general category assignment. In either case, a state received full points.

10. Value range/income amount required?

No – 0 
Yes – 5

A state received full points for this question if lawmakers are required to disclose their income amount from each employment interest. In some states an exact amount is required, but in others a value range and letter key is provided (i.e., A=less than $1,000; B=$1,000 to $9,999; C=$10,000 or more). In either case, a state received full points.

11. Spouse employment information required and clear?

No – 0 
If required and not clear – 2.5 
Yes – 5

A state received 5 points for this question if a spouse's employment information is required AND clearly labeled on the form. States that require lawmakers to report their spouse's information but do not explicitly require a lawmaker to designate which interests are held by the lawmaker and which are held by the spouse received 2.5 points for this question.

In addition, a state received partial points for this question when any of the disclosure requirements required of the filer for this section are NOT required of the spouse. For example, in Maine, only a description of spouse's employer is required, whereas both a description AND the name are required of the filer's employer. Maine was assigned half points for this question. Any discrepancies between filer and spouse reporting requirements are reflected in this question.

OFFICER/DIRECTOR (total 18 points maximum):

12. Officer/director information required?

No – 0 
Yes – 4

States requiring legislators to report positions held as officers or directors received full points for this question.

13. Officer/director information not narrowly defined?

No – 0 
Yes – 4

In some states, lawmakers are required to report compensated officer/director positions or positions with for-profit entities only—or another requirement that is so narrow many things could be left off the form.

States received full points for this question if all compensated and uncompensated positions were required to be reported, including positions in for-profit and nonprofit entities. For example, in Virginia only paid positions are reported and in Mississippi only for-profit positions are reported. States with such narrowly defined requirements did not receive points for this question.

14. Officer/director entity name required?

No – 0 
Yes – 4

States received full points for this question if the name of the entity where they serve as an officer or director is required to be disclosed.

15. Officer/director entity description required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States received full points for requiring legislators to provide a description of the entity where they serve as an officer or director. The description could be very specific or a general category assignment. In either case, a state received full points.

16. Spouse officer/director information required and clear?

No – 0 
If required and not clear – 2 
Yes – 4

A state received 4 points for this question if a spouse's employment information is required AND clearly labeled on the form. States that require lawmakers to report their spouse's information but do not explicitly require a lawmaker to designate which interests are held by the lawmaker and which are held by the spouse received 2 points for this question.

In addition, a state might have been allocated partial points for this question in the event that any of the disclosure requirements required of the filer for this section (Q14-Q15) are NOT required of the spouse. Any discrepancies between filer and spouse reporting requirements are reflected in this question.

INVESTMENTS (total 17 points maximum):

17. Investment information required?

No – 0 
Yes – 3

States requiring legislators to disclose any investment information received full points for this question. Investment information includes stock holdings, closely held businesses and other ownership interests. States that require legislators to report any of these investment interests received full points.

18. Investment information not narrowly defined?

No – 0 
Yes – 3

In some states, lawmakers are required to report investment information over a certain threshold only—or another requirement that is so narrow many things could be left off the form.

States received full points for this question if the trigger for reporting investment holdings was a value/income amount of $5000 or less, or 1% ownership or less. Many states have two thresholds (for example, Washington requires reporting of investment holdings valued at more than $1500 or with ownership of at least 10%). For states such as this, the question is scored using the lower value (Washington receives full points because the value trigger of $1500 is less than $5000). But states where neither criterion is low enough, such as Kentucky which requires only investments valued more than $10,000 or with ownership of 5%, did not receive points for this question.

19. Investment entity name required?

No – 0 
Yes – 3

States requiring legislators to report the name of the investment interest received full points for this question.

20. Investment entity description required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States received full points for this question if filers were required to include an investment entity description. The description might be very specific or a general category assignment. In either case, a state received full points.

Some states allow lawmakers to report stock interests (e.g., stocks, mutual funds) and closely-held personal business interests (e.g., sole proprietors, partnerships) under two different reporting requirements. Half-points were awarded for this question in states that require an investment entity description for closely-held personal business interests only and not for general stock interests.

21. Investment value range/holding amount required?

No – 0 
Yes – 3

A state received full points for this question if lawmakers are required to disclose their income amount from each investment interest. In some states an exact amount is required, but in others a value range and letter key is provided (i.e., A=less than $1,000; B=$1,000 to $9,999; C=$10,000 or more). In either case, a state received full points.

22. Spouse investment information required and clear?

No – 0 
If required and not clear – 1.5 
Yes – 3

A state received 3 points for this question if a spouse's investment information is required AND clearly labeled on the form. States that require lawmakers to report their spouse's information but do not explicitly require a lawmaker to designate which interests are held by the lawmaker and which are held by the spouse received 1.5 points for this question.

In addition, a state might have been allocated partial points for this question in the event that any of the disclosure requirements required of the filer for this section (Q19-Q21) are NOT required of the spouse. Any discrepancies between filer and spouse reporting requirements are reflected in this question.

CLIENTS (total 8 points maximum):

23. Client information required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States received full points for requiring client information of any type. Some states allowed lawmakers to identify clients by checking a box on the form that corresponded to a specific industry; others were required to disclose the exact names of their clients. Both requirements satisfied this question and received full points.

While some states do require information about a filer doing business with a government agency, this did not satisfy the question. This question pertains to private clients associated with filer's outside interests. We did note when information about contracts/leases with the state was required to be reported, but no points were awarded.

24. Client name required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States requiring legislators to report the individual names of their clients received full points for this question.

25. Client value range/income amount required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

A state received full points for this question if lawmakers are required to disclose the income amount for each client. In some states an exact amount is required, but in others a value range and letter key is provided (i.e., A=less than $1,000; B=$1,000 to $9,999; C=$10,000 or more). In either case, a state received full points.

26. Spouse client information required and clear?

No – 0 
If required and not clear – 1 
Yes – 2

A state received two points if a spouse's client information is required AND clearly labeled on the form. States that require lawmakers to report their spouse's information but do not explicitly require a lawmaker to designate which interests are held by the lawmaker and which are held by the spouse received only 1 point for this question.

In addition, a state might have been allocated partial points for this question in the event that any of the disclosure requirements required of the filer for this section (Q24-25) are NOT required of the spouse. Any discrepancies between filer and spouse reporting requirements are reflected in this question.

REAL PROPERTY (total 8 points maximum):

27. Real-property information required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States requiring legislators to report real property information received full points for this question. In states where real estate interests were not explicitly required to be reported in the language of the statutes, interviews were conducted to determine the final answer for this question. For example, legislators in North Dakota are required to disclose secondary sources of income, including rental income. North Dakota received full points for this question.

28. Real-property information not narrowly defined?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

In some states, filers are required to report only real property producing income—or another requirement that is so narrow many things could be left off the form.

States received full points for this question if the trigger for reporting real property was a value of $10,000 or less and there were no other limiting circumstances. States did not receive points for this question if the trigger for reporting real property involved the production of income. For example, in Kansas only land used for income with a value more than $5000 is required to be reported, while in Pennsylvania only real property interests with which the state or a political subdivision is involved are required to be reported. States with narrowly defined requirements such as these did not receive points for this question. Several states limit real property reporting to holdings within that state; this was not a factor in determining points for this question.

29. Real-property value range/amount required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

A state received full points for this question if lawmakers are required to disclose the value amount of each real property interest. In some states an exact amount is required, but in others a value range and letter key is provided (i.e., A=less than $1,000; B=$1,000 to $9,999; C=$10,000 or more). In either case, a state received full points.

0. Spouse real-property information required and clear?

No – 0 
If required and not clear – 1 
Yes – 2

A state received two points if a spouse's real-property information is required AND clearly labeled on the form. States that require lawmakers to report their spouse's information but do not explicitly require a lawmaker to designate which interests are held by the lawmaker and which are held by the spouse received only 1 point for this question.

In addition, a state might have been allocated partial points for this question in the event that any of the disclosure requirements required of the filer for this section (Q29) are NOT required of the spouse. Any discrepancies between filer and spouse reporting requirements are reflected in this question.

FAMILY (total 3 points maximum):

31. Spouse name required?

No – 0 
Yes – 2

States requiring legislators to report their spouse's name on the form received full points for this question.

32. Dependent name required?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States requiring legislators to report their dependents' names on the form received full points for this question.

PUBLIC ACCESS (total 8 points maximum):

33. Financial disclosure filings in central office?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States that house all the personal financial disclosure statements for state lawmakers in one central location received a point for this question. States that require representatives and senators to file separately with their respective ethics commissions/clerks received zero points. North Dakota, for example, did not receive a point for this question because lawmakers' disclosure statements are kept in 53 different county offices spread across the state; to access them, a constituent must determine a legislator's county of residence and then contact that county's auditor.

34. Lawmakers not forwarded reviewer information?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States that require citizens and journalists to sign release forms which are then forwarded to the lawmakers received zero points for this question. If a state requires a reviewer identification form to be filled out, but does not forward that request to legislators, it received full points for this question.

35. In-person appearance not required to obtain filings?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States that require a person to physically come in to their office to obtain copies of filings received zero points for this question. Maryland is the only state with this requirement.

36. Copy fees less than 50 cents per page?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

When citizens request copies of paper disclosure reports, state agencies charge a copying fee. This fee ranges from 5 cents to one dollar per page. States that use a floating scale to determine fees (e.g., $.50 for the first 10 pages and $.10 for each additional page) were assigned the score appropriate for the first price. States that had different prices for in-state versus out-of-state residents received the score appropriate for the in-state price.

37. Blank disclosure form available on Web?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States readily providing blank copies of disclosure reports on their Web sites received full points for this question. States that did not have their forms readily available on their Web sites received half-points for this question. For example, Iowa provides a copy of the actual form within their Code of Ethics, which is available for viewing on their Web site. However, because the form is not readily accessible without specific direction from the agency, Iowa only received half points. States that only provided faxed copies upon request received zero points.

38. Disclosure filings available electronically or on the Web in any format?

No – 0 
Yes – 3

State that make legislators' disclosure reports electronically available for viewing in any format—either on a disk or on their Web site—received full points for this question. Since many states are in transition from paper filing to electronic filing availability, points were awarded to agencies that provide electronic-availability at the present time.

ENFORCEMENT (total 5 points maximum):

States handle the enforcement of financial disclosure in very different ways. Sometimes the state agency in charge of collecting forms also performs the audit. In other states, there is an entirely separate audit authority (such as the state attorney general).

39. Late-filing penalties on the books?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

If a state has a penalty on the books for late filings, it receives a point. For the purposes of this survey, late-filings penalties are assessed to legislators who miss the deadline for filing a traditional report.

40. Misfiling penalties on the books?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States that assess a penalty for lawmakers who file incomplete (e.g., missing pages, signatures) or intentionally incorrect forms received a point for this question.

41. State has auditing authority?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States received a point for this question if at least one state agency has the authority in the statute to conduct an official audit of the disclosure filings. Authority could rest with any state agency—the secretary of state, an ethics board, the attorney general or any other governmental body—in order to receive a point.

This question captures the issue of whether or not any state entity—either on its own initiative OR in response to a complaint—has the authority to audit these documents. For the purposes of this survey, an audit is defined by whether the state has the power to subpoena or compel a lawmaker to produce additional documents (such as bank statements), hold hearings, or any other activities that allow the state agency to determine whether the disclosure reports are complete and accurate. States that are limited to conducting an informal review process did not receive full points.

42. State routinely reviews filings for accuracy and completeness, either through formal audit process or informal review process?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States received a point for this question if the oversight agency routinely reviews the filings to ensure they are properly completed. This question captures the issue of whether or not the state has the authority to review the filings on their own initiative, and not just in response to a complaint. For the purposes of this review, it does not matter if the review is a formal audit or something informal.

Researchers scored this question on the basis of an expert interview (and sometimes a statute provided confirmation). States where experts answered "No" to the question or said they did a "cursory" review, where they checked if filings came in, but did nothing further, did not receive points for this question.

43. State published list of delinquent filers on Web or in printed document?

No – 0 
Yes – 1

States received a point for this question if the state makes public a list of lawmakers who failed to file reports by the required deadline, or filed incomplete or inaccurate reports.

To receive a point, the state must post or publish a separate list where the public can see it, such as in a newsletter, local newspaper or Web site. States that flag delinquent filers in their searchable database but do not provide a definitive list received zero points for this question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Project

"Our Private Legislatures" is an examination of the nation's 50 state legislatures—at a time when they wield unprecedented power, the lawmakers who run them have significant private financial interests in the laws they impose on millions of Americans. The project is funded by the Joyce Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

The Investigative Team

Director of State Projects: Leah Rush 
Writer: David Dagan 
Lead Researcher: Susan Schaab 
Editor: Teo Furtado 
Database Editors: Daniel Lathrop, Aron Pilhofer 
Web Developer: Han Nguyen 
Researchers: Neil Gordon, Morgan Jindrich, Jennifer Puckett, Gifty Boateng, Margaret Clark, Krystal Cobb, Julia DiLaura, Natasha Grant, Sara Hunt, Lindsey Holden, Julia Miller-Lemon, Sapna Patel, Joshua Starr, Brooke Williams, Katherine Wilson-Milne 
Research Editors: Alexander Cohen, Peter Newbatt Smith 
Graphic Designer: Jonathan Werve

The Center for Public Integrity

Executive Director: Charles Lewis 
Managing Editor: Bill Allison 
Director of Communications and Outreach: Ann Pincus 
Director of Development: Barbara Schecter 
Director of Finance and Administration: Cathy Sweeney 
IT Manager: Javed Khan

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