Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Lawmakers call for online accessibility of financial forms

Two key state lawmakers said Massachusetts should post government officials’ financial disclosure forms online, following a Globe report that the forms are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain.
Last week, the Globe reported that the State Ethics Commission is now taking months to process requests to see the forms, despite a state law requiring the filings to be available during office hours upon request. Some watchdogs said they believe Massachusetts might now be the hardest place in the country to view the filings, called Statements of Financial Interest, which detail the stock holdings and other financial holdings of thousands of state and local officials.
The Ethics Commission said it does the best it can to make the forms available, but is hampered by increased demand to see the forms, limited staff, and legal restrictions that block it from posting the forms online.
Massachusetts is one of just four states that require the state to notify a government official anytime someone asks to see his or her form. By contrast, 29 other states post the forms online, and most of the rest make the forms publicly available in their offices, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
But two leaders of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which helps oversee ethics regulations, said it is time to update the 1978 Massachusetts law to allow the Ethics Commission to post the forms online, so members of the public can view them anytime they wish.
“I don’t think anyone would oppose that,’’ said Senator Brian A. Joyce, a Democrat from Milton who cochairs the committee. “We all share the goals of an open, honest, and transparent government.’’
The Legislature is currently in recess. But Joyce said he thought the committee could work with the commission next year to figure out a way to streamline the reporting process and post the forms on the Internet.
Representative Anne M. Gobi, a Spencer Democrat and vice chair of the committee, said she also feels the legislature should change the law next year to make the forms more accessible.
“I agree the forms should be made available on the web, like campaign finance reports are readily available and searchable,’’ Gobi said in an e-mail. “Good issue for upcoming legislative session and an opportunity to fine-tune the law.’’
Steven M. Walsh, Democrat of Lynn, who cochairs the Administration Committee, said he thought the task force formed to help implement recent ethics reforms would probably examine the issue this year. But Walsh said it was premature to say what solution might be best. One option would be to put the forms online, but another could be to give the Ethics Commission additional staff so it can process the forms more quickly.
“If people want the information, there shouldn’t be that backlog,’’ said Walsh, also a member of the ethics task force with Joyce by virtue of their legislative positions. “I don’t know exactly what fix will work.’’
In the meantime, one politician pointed out that officials can put the forms online themselves. Steve Grossman, a Democratic candidate for state treasurer, posted the forms he has filed on his website over the weekend. “There is no reason why key disclosure forms, subject to minor editing to protect privacy concerns, should not be instantly available online,’’ he said.
Ethics Commission spokesman David Giannotti could not be reached for comment yesterday, but he previously said that the commission was trying to find ways to process the forms more efficiently. The commission, however, has not proposed any statutory changes to allow it to post the forms online.