By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun
6:35 PM EST, February 28, 2013
Dr. Joshua Zimmerberg says he's careful not to publicly disclose any personal information that could be of use to identity thieves.
But soon, he might not have any choice but to have his finances published on the Internet for the world to see.
Zimmerberg, a researcher and manager at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, is one of 28,000 federal employees in the executive branch who come under last year's Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act.
Known as the STOCK Act, the law establishes an online database that will make publicly available major financial transactions by lawmakers, their senior aides and certain other federal employees. The goal is to guard against officials benefiting financially from inside information they might gain in the course of their government jobs — an aim lauded by advocates for transparency.
Information on civil servants such as Zimmerberg could be available online by mid-April.
But some federal workers are fighting back, saying the law invades their privacy and will leave them vulnerable to identity thieves, blackmailers and kidnappers.
"This is not what the Constitution intended for citizens to have to put up with — even if they work for the government," said Zimmerberg, 59, who says he suffered identity theft years ago.
The Montgomery County man joined a lawsuit last summer with groups representing federal workers seeking to block the online publishing of their finances.
For years, legislation that sought to prevent lawmakers and certain federal employees from personally profiting from insider information acquired on the job languished in Congress. Then in November 2011, the news magazine show "60 Minutes" alleged that some members of Congress had done just that.
The public outcry was swift, and President Barack Obama challenged Congress in his State of the Union address last year to pass a bill to specifically ban insider trading by members of Congress. (The Securities and Exchange Commission maintains that lawmakers were never above laws banning insider trading, but acknowledges that it has never taken any direct action against a member of Congress.)
Lawmakers drew up legislation that covered themselves and their top staff, but Senate Republicans amended it to add certain managers in the executive branch. The president signed the bill into law last April.
Among the provisions, covered employees must promptly report the purchase or sale of securities that exceed $1,000. These financial disclosures will eventually be posted online in a searchable database.
Executive branch managers have been required for years to make annual financial disclosures, which are reviewed by ethics officers. Members of the public may view these documents, provided they make a formal request and include their name, address and occupation. Employees can find out who is seeking financial information about them.
But these federal employees balked at sharing their finances with anyone with Internet access, and it wasn't long before Congress heard from diplomats, law enforcement agents and national security officials about the danger of this information getting into the wrong hands. And in August, the Senior Executives Association, which advocates for career federal executives, sued Uncle Sam.
Carol Bonosaro, president of the association, said the law has many harmful unintended consequences.
For example, the exemption of intelligence agents could make them easier to unmask. Such agents work at embassies overseas. Anyone who wanted to identify agents, she said, would need only to search online for embassy employees who don't post financial disclosures.
Or terrorists could review the financial reports of federal employees who travel abroad in search of kidnapping targets.
Even officials at home could run into problems if their financial information is accessed by a disgruntled underling or nosy neighbor, Bonosaro said.
"It's ripe for all kinds of mischief," she said.
Zimmerberg said Congress crossed the privacy line when it included researchers in the STOCK Act.
"We are not public figures," he said. We "don't control the public purse."
And it's not just his information that will be exposed, Zimmerberg said. Under the law, he said, his wife's securities transactions and the investment holdings of his children's custodial accounts would also be open to public scrutiny.
The new rules, he said, would diminish the government's ability to attract employees. Already, he said, the law has led peers at universities to turn down opportunities to work for the federal government.
In September, a federal District Court judge in Greenbelt sided with Zimmerberg and the other plaintiffs and temporarily delayed the online publication of their information.
Congress also ordered a study — due March 28 — on the potential security risks of online disclosures. And lawmakers extended the deadline for posting the financial information of executive branch managers and top congressional staffers until April 15.
But the disclosures are now online for members of Congress, the president and vice president and congressional candidates.
Dan Auble, senior researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, said House members posted their financial disclosures online before the STOCK Act, but senators and congressional candidates did not.
His group used to have to trudge down to Capitol Hill to collect paper disclosure statements on senators, scan them into a computer and then post them online. Now images of those paper documents are available online.
Later this year, financial disclosures will be available in a searchable database that can be downloaded, he said.
Financial dealings must be reported within 30 to 45 days — depending on when lawmakers and others covered by the law receive notices of their transactions. In the past, Auble said, such information might not have been disclosed for 18 months.
"This is a huge improvement over how things worked prior to the STOCK Act," he said.
The STOCK Act
Applies to lawmakers, senior congressional staff, president, vice president and 28,000 executive branch managers. These last are challenging their inclusion in court.
Requires covered federal workers to report the sale and purchase of securities that exceed $1,000.
Financial transactions must be reported within 30 to 45 days, depending on when employees are notified of transactions.
Information must eventually be posted online in a searchable and downloadable database viewable by the public.
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