By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
Originally published March 15, 2014
Personal financial statements can offer clues to the financial interests of local officials and improve government transparency — that is, if more residents had a clue about how to find them.
The little-known and rarely accessed statements contain potentially valuable disclosures from select public officials about their own property holdings, stocks and bonds, outside business interests or employment, even gifts granted to them during their public service.
But an investigation by the Denton Record-Chronicle found that efforts to make the information public have fallen short, in part because the documents are hard to find, the rules governing them are complicated and the disclosures are hard to interpret.
Matt Haertner, a policy analyst with Public Citizen of Texas, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group, said ready access to the information, particularly online access, is key to opening the details to public review.
“We’re looking for the most transparency possible,” Haertner said.
The Record-Chronicle evaluated hundreds of pages of personal financial statements for 53 county and city officials as part of Sunshine Week, a 13-year-old national initiative by journalists and open-government advocates held in March to promote public access to government records. Sunshine Week begins today and ends Friday.
To gather the records, the Record-Chronicle made requests to three different offices. A government official’s place to file depends on the office held. Two of the three offices — the Denton city secretary and the Texas Ethics Commission — keep both personal financial statements as well as election-related documents. But many county officials must file their personal financial statements with the Denton County clerk rather than with Denton County Elections Administration.
The filing deadline depends on the office and whether it is up for election. As a result, candidates for the March 4 primary election should already have filed for this year, but candidates for the city’s May 10 election have yet to file. Those officials who aren’t up for re-election have until the end of April to update their disclosures.
The Texas Ethics Commission automatically assesses a $500 penalty for those state officeholders who miss the deadline. Other sanctions can apply, including criminal penalties, depending on whether someone files a sworn complaint or the officeholder fails to pay the automatic penalty. Complaints about local filers would go to the district attorney’s office.
The filing form itself, promulgated by the commission, can reach 16 pages, or longer, yet it allows officeholders to provide vague answers that are difficult to interpret.
For example, many elected officials, including county officials who are paid a salary, maintain outside employment and business interests. Those declarations can be sprinkled through several different parts of the form. Interests in oil and gas development, for example, could be found in several different areas of the personal financial statement, depending on whether the official holds stock in an energy company, has mineral rights in a piece of property or owns interest in a limited liability corporation exploring for oil and gas. But none of those declarations allows a voter to easily determine whether that financial stake represents a major investment or results in significant income.
State law also requires county clerks, city secretaries and the ethics commission to keep a log of who has asked to see the personal financial statements, which appears to discourage their distribution. The commission collects personal financial statements not only for appointed and elected state officials but also for district attorneys and judges. Except for publishing online those who miss the filing deadline, the commission releases copies of the statements only upon request, in part because they must keep a log of people who view statements within a year of their filing.
City Secretary Jennifer Walters keeps a log for the Denton records, which include statements from current elected city officials, council candidates, the city manager and the city attorney.
Thom Reece does the same for documents filed with the Denton County clerk, which include the county commissioners, justices of the peace and county criminal court judges who opt to file with the county rather than with the ethics commission.
Neither the county nor the city makes the personal financial statements available online, nor do they put campaign finance records online. At the state level, the Texas Ethics Commission makes campaign finance data readily available online, but it does not do the same for personal financial statements.
State law doesn’t require the disclosures for officials in cities with populations less than 100,000 or in counties with less than 125,000 people. The law also leaves it up to the county commissioners to decide whether the sheriff, constables, the district and county clerk, treasurer and tax assessor-collector must file the disclosures. Denton County commissioners have not made such a requirement, although other counties, such as Dallas County, have, according to Reece, who sends out reminders each year in order to ensure that local officials stay compliant with the law.
Requiring only some elected officials to file a personal disclosure doesn’t reflect good public policy, Haertner said.
“There is just as much potential for a conflict of interest with a sheriff or county clerk as with the others,” Haertner said.
The Record-Chronicle’s review of the records showed that many primary candidates failed to file the required statements, but those candidates who secured enough votes to make it to the May 27 runoff have complied with the law.
But few residents ever read them. According to his review of the county’s log, which has only a few handfuls of entries over the years, Reece has found that most people who come to view the statements aren’t average members of the voting public.
“It’s usually an opposing candidate,” Reece said.
That may contribute to the unpopularity of the reports, which met with considerable resistance from county officials when the laws were first considered. During Sunshine Week last year, Denton County Commissioner Hugh Coleman published his personal financial statement online and invited other county officials to do the same. No one took him up on the offer.
It’s a fine line between the public’s right to know and an elected, or appointed, official’s right to privacy, Haertner said.
“We have to take their word for it that they are being honest and that they don’t have a conflict of interest,” he said.
Public Citizen regularly stands for better transparency in government, Haertner said. Currently, his group is advocating for a new state rule that would disclose the names of donors to Texas “super” political action committees, since being able to follow the money is a big part of improving transparency.
“We’re trying to move the dark money into the light,” he said.
ABOUT SUNSHINE WEEK
This year marks the eighth year the Denton Record-Chronicle has participated in Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to promote open government and freedom of information. A national nonprofit funded in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Sunshine Week helps bring together members of the news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know each March with special coverage, seminars, resources and events. For more information, visit www.sunshineweek.org.