In New Jersey, looking up the outside financial interests of a state legislator takes less than a minute. A few states away in Maryland, the process can take hours.
The difference? New Jersey offers online access to the financial disclosure statements filed by its lawmakers. Maryland requires anyone who wants to view legislators' forms to travel to Annapolis and obtain copies in person (see number 15 on the ethics commission's frequently asked questions regarding financial disclosure).
Beginning today, financial disclosure statements filed across the country in 2006 in most states will be available online at the Center for Public Integrity's Web site.
Click on a state below to access the only warehouse of its kind. Or, select a state at www.publicintegrity.org/iys and, under the "Documents & Databases" section, click "Legislator Personal Financial Disclosures." The Center has collected these documents since 2000 — more than six thousand filings each year — and posted them online. These documents can shed light on what personal interests might influence lawmakers' votes and legislation.
Forty-seven states require legislators to file some type of financial disclosure statement, listing private employment, investments and board positions, among other details. The Center is posting reports for all but four states — Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Delaware.
Montana and North Carolina have filing deadlines at the end of 2006, while North Dakota requires curious citizens to go county-by-county to obtain legislator filings. Delaware's legislative filings are en route. Center researchers continue to gather forms from these states and will post them on a rolling basis.
The remaining three states without filings on the Center's Web site — Idaho, Michigan and Vermont — do not require their legislators to disclose outside financial interests.
Four states — Delaware, New Jersey, Utah and Wisconsin — have modernized their disclosure systems in recent years and provide online or electronic access to their disclosure forms. In total, 20 states now make some or all of the forms available on the Internet or electronically on disk or by email.
The Wisconsin Ethics Board, the most recent agency to go electronic with disclosures, feeds information reported on filings directly into a Web-searchable index called "Eye on Financial Relationships." The data are organized by the business and real estate interests public officials list. The index also tracks which filers have submitted their statements.
Roth Judd, director of the ethics board, stressed the importance of not just collecting information but disseminating it.
"I hope that one of the outcomes through its use is that it will demonstrate to citizens that officials do not have financial interests that will conflict with their public responsibilities. But if there are such conflicts, they should readily be available. I think it's an added inducement to officials to avoid financial interests that might conflict with their duties," he said.
To find all financial interests linked to an official, rather than finding them through the names of companies or investments associated with the official, a citizen must still order copies of disclosures from the agency. This is because of a Wisconsin law requiring the agency to notify filers when copies of their filings are requested.
(Full disclosure: The Center for Public Integrity has received grants from the Joyce Foundation, which helped fund the Wisconsin Ethics Board's Eye on Financial Relationships Index.)