Financial disclosures could be filed online under Denham bill

Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, has introduced a bill that would allow elected officials and state employees to file their financial disclosure forms online.

While Denham has called SB1204 a “good government” measure, the bill has raised privacy concerns. Each year, elected officials and many state and county employees — including Capitol staffers — must fill out a Form 700. This lists all of the person’s financial holdings, as well as gifts they may have received throughout the year.

For state employees, these forms reside with the Fair Political Practices Commission. Counties and local governments store the forms for their own employees. These forms are available to the public, but they must visit or write to the FPPC or local agency to get them.

Last year, Sen. Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, carried a similar measure. Despite having 34 co-authors —including eight Democrats — Ackerman dropped SB497 without getting a hearing or a committee analysis. The bill, however, contained stronger language than the Denham measure: SB497 would have allowed a local filing officer to require electronic filing, while SB1204 “would authorize a state or local filing officer to allow the electronic filing of statements of economic interest.”

While neither bill specifically required that these forms be searchable online, many people have noted that electronic filings would make it far easier to put these forms on the FPPC Web site.

“I do believe there are some staffers who will be uncomfortable with this bill,” Denham said.

Both bills originated with the Orange County Board of Supervisors and their lobbying firm, Platinum Advisors. Bruce Matthias, the director of legislative affairs for the supervisors, said they requested the bill because of the cost and waste of keeping track of so many pieces of paper. After Disneyland, county government is the second-largest employer within the County of Orange, Matthias said. Online filings would save money and storage space while helping the county “go green.” Because the disclosures are called for in the Political Reform Act of 1974, it takes a bill from the Legislature to change the requirements; the Act further requires a two-thirds vote to enact any changes.

“So many other aspects of government are online now that we felt it was time to do this as well,” Matthias said. But, he conceded, “the devil is in the details.”

According to several people who asked not to be named, there are numerous details of concern. For one thing, these forms often contain home addresses, names of family members and other information that people would like to keep private. There have been numerous bills in recent years to protect this type of information for police officers, elected officials and others.

Another concern is what might show up on those forms. Aside from a few well-off legislators and staffers, most people who file a Form 700 don’t have stocks or other financial holdings that are likely to come into conflict with their work.

One thing that often does appear on forms filed by staff are occasional gifts and other perks from companies with business with the state. A small sampling of Form 700s from Capitol staffers indicates that most list at least one meal, event ticket or other item received in the past year. Few mention more than $200 to $300 worth.

Denham’s bill comes at what may be a sensitive time. For one thing, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, was hit by a series of Los Angeles Times stories that detailed his use of some campaign committee funds for French wine and other purchases. While the spending was legal, the stories were widely seen as hurting Núñez politically. They were featured heavily in ads and mailers opposing the Proposition 93 term limits change that he championed, which could have extended his career as leader.

Another factor is the pace of technology upgrades — and the state’s ability to keep up with them. The Political Reform Act charged three state agencies to track campaign and personal finances of elected officials and staff: The FPPC looks at stores many financial forms and handles enforcement, the secretary of state tracks campaign finances and makes them available online via Cal-Access, and the Franchise Tax Board conducts audits.

More recently, the Online Disclosure Act of 1997 authorized the secretary of state to create the Cal-Access Web site for campaign disclosures. Secretary of State Debra Bowen campaigned in 2006 by saying she would modernize and upgrade Cal-Access, with a long-term goal of “going paperless.” There have been some upgrades, according to Bowen’s communications director, Nicole Winger, mainly around getting late and $5,000-plus contributions online more quickly. Other upgrades — such as greater standardization and more disclosures around independent expenditures and behested payments — have had to wait, Winger said, due to a lack of funds available during an ongoing state budget crisis.

“It will take a lot of money,” Winger said. “Cal-Access is an arcane system of programs that have been patched together over many years.”

While the secretary of state and the FPPC track different types of disclosures, the agencies have tried to “stay on the same page” about technological upgrades. This has caused some to bring up the apparent differences between the tech-savvy Bowen and FPPC head Ross Johnson. Johnson was known as one of the great luddites in the Legislature, where he served for 26 years. To this day he is known for his aversion to computers and e-mail.

Roman Porter, communications director at the FPPC, said the commission has been doing its own upgrades since Johnson took over a year ago. They’ve put in an anonymous tip line, greatly reduced the backlog of cases, and even created an online complaint form which people fill out under the penalty of perjury. But when the two agencies held a hearing on upgrades in September, Johnson said he felt it was not yet time to go paperless; Winger said Bowen agrees.

“Chairman Johnson’s position with regard to eliminating paper filing of the documents is that the Cal-Access system has not met the statutory threshold for eliminating paper filings,” Porter said.

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