Federal workers relieved by limits on online disclosures

Details of financial transactions by members of Congress and thousands of high-level federal workers were supposed to be posted online last month for anyone in the world to see — a key step, supporters of the move said, toward greater transparency in government.

What happened instead was President Barack Obama signed a law that once again made the financial information of public employees — useful for identifying insider trading or conflicts of interest — difficult to find.

The final score: Privacy, 1; Transparency, 0.

"It is very bad," said Dan Auble, senior researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which advocates for government transparency. "Basically, things are going to stay the way they are."

Obama's move, critics say, gutted the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, a bill he had signed only a year earlier.

Known as the STOCK Act, the law's original aim was to deter members of Congress and top staffers from trading on insider information learned on the job.

The legislation made clear that members of Congress and their staff are not exempt from prohibitions on insider trading. But more importantly to transparency advocates, it required them to report investment transactions promptly and mandated a searchable online database for their financial disclosures.

Senate Republicans, though, extended the act's reach to 28,000 managers in the executive branch of government. And with that, it wasn't long before the new STOCK Act was under fire as an invasion of privacy — and worse.

The Senior Executives Association and other groups representing federal workers sued the government last summer in federal court in Maryland, saying that terrorists or other adversaries could use the information to uncover intelligence agents or to kidnap workers traveling overseas.

Even federal employees in the United States, they said, could be targeted for blackmail over debts or for identity theft.

Besides, they noted, they already make financial disclosures that are scrutinized for conflicts of interest, and which may be reviewed by the public upon request.

"On the executive branch side, there is just no evidence that insider trading is a problem," said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

The online disclosure of financial information was postponed, and Congress ordered a study by the National Academy of Public Administration on potential security concerns.

The academy's report, released in late March, sided heavily with federal employees fighting disclosure.

It compared the publication of personal financial information in a searchable database to boiling the proverbial frog — heating the water so slowly the animal never realizes it is imperiled. The academy said the release of exploitable personal data over time could be just as subtle to federal workers.

The academy wasn't persuaded by arguments that this information is already public. It said that a searchable database of this information — coupled with other information that can be gleaned on the Internet — could result in federal employees being targeted by those with malicious intent.

And the academy noted that posting finances online could dissuade potential job candidates from applying for government employment.

Armed with these findings, lawmakers revised the STOCK Act. Now, the financial information of congressional staff members and federal workers in the executive branch won't be posted online.

Images of the disclosure forms filed by members of Congress, congressional candidates, the president, vice president and presidential appointees confirmed by the Senate will be posted online, but the information they contain will not be uploaded to a searchable database.

"The part of the partial repeal that I find the most cynical is the repeal of the searchable, sortable database," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor with Washington University in St. Louis who has written on the STOCK Act.