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Federal executives balk at new financial disclosure rules

Lawmakers of both parties congratulated themselves on the overwhelming bipartisan passage of a law that bars members of Congress from insider trading.

But with key provisions of the STOCK Act due to take effect this summer, another group that falls under its requirements is raising objections.

Beginning Aug. 31, agencies will be required to make the personal financial details of top-level government managers, along with information about spouses and dependent children, available to the public online.

Ultimately, the records are to be compiled in a single online database, fully searchable and downloadable.

Advocates for greater government transparency have hailed those steps as important safeguards against insider training and conflicts of interest within the Senior Executive Service, unelected officials with access to potentially valuable information about the workings and plans of the executive branch.

But the Senior Executives Association warns that the public disclosure of personal finances could leave its members vulnerable to identity theft, make their children "prime kidnapping targets" and blow the covers of intelligence operatives.

"They are very real problems," said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Washington-based advocacy group, "entirely apart from the issue of how would you feel about accepting the job and then learning later that the price of accepting that job was your nosy neighbor, your disgruntled employee could look and see exactly what your personal finances were."

Bonosaro said members have spoken of "falling back" out of the Senior Executive Service, or abandoning plans to join it, to avoid having to disclose assets publicly.

The FAA Managers Association and the Assembly of Scientists, which represents researchers at the National Institutes of Health, have also expressed concerns.

John Wonderlich, policy director for the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation, says the objections range from "scaremongering" to "valid concerns."

"It's important to have this kind of information about senior executives, senior career employees, because of the kind of power they have within the executive branch," he said. "There are individual regulators that easily have as much or more power than an individual member of Congress does."

But Wonderlich said he shares the concern that the disclosure requirements could expose covert intelligence operatives.

Such operatives are exempt from disclosure. But the absence of a public report on, say, an agent posing as an embassy official could identify him or her as a spy.

The problem, he said, is that lawmakers failed to carefully consider "all of the topics that they needed to deal with."

"Congress was dealing with it more like how you deal with a spider that falls on your arm," he said, "which is to try to get it off you as quickly as possible."

Approved by bipartisan majorities in Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in April, the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act declares that lawmakers and their staffs, the president, vice president and thousands of executive branch workers are not exempt from laws against insider training.

The rare bipartisan effort amounted to a bit of self-policing intended to burnish the image of an unpopular Congress. It requires the individuals it covers to file reports of transactions exceeding $1,000 and directs their agencies to post the details online.

Senior executive branch employees already file personal financial disclosure forms to be reviewed by lawyers or ethics officials within their agencies for possible conflicts. These reports have been available to the public from the agencies on request.

Bonosaro says the new rules will introduce a new level of exposure. The Senior Executives Association said the online database would be a "gold mine" for foreign countries seeking information about U.S. government operations.

Wonderlich said personal financial disclosures are "absolutely essential to the idea of citizen trust in government and avoiding conflicts of interest and empowering oversight so that we avoid situations like the kind the STOCK Act responded to."

The legislation follows periodic questions about trades by lawmakers of both parties. Bonosaro figures that senior executives were included in the provision because "misery loves company."

"There was never an issue with regard to career executives," she said.

Lawmakers say they are watching for unintended consequences.

"While I continue to be supportive of the transparency goals of the STOCK Act, if the public disclosure provisions have a negative impact on hiring and retention or may jeopardize the safety of our personnel and their families, a study would be warranted," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. "This is the age of identity theft and cyberterrorism, so it is important to have controls on private information, particularly of our federal workers serving overseas."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger described financial disclosure as "a key tool for building public confidence in elected officials."

"Lawmakers should be held to a higher level of scrutiny," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "However, I represent many federal employees, especially at Fort Meade, [the National Security Agency] and Aberdeen [Proving Ground], and know how hard it is to recruit and retain qualified government workers. Some have raised legitimate concerns, such as the requirement to disclose family members' personal information on the Internet."

The Senior Executives Association released a position paper outlining its objections in June. Bonosaro says the group continues to meet with members of Congress and representatives of the executive branch.

She acknowledged the difficulty of getting lawmakers to revisit legislation they passed only months ago, particularly during an election year. But she believes the disclosure requirements could be delayed to allow more study of their potential impact.

"We've got a lot to do," she said. "We obviously need to follow up with an awful lot of members."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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