Focus on Suffolk County financial disclosure form

Photo illustration of County of Suffolk Financial Disclosure Photo illustration of County of Suffolk Financial Disclosure Statement form. Photo Credit: Newsday

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The Suffolk County Legislature has voted to hire a special counsel to investigate certain actions of the Suffolk County Ethics Commission. A focus of the inquiry, officials have said, is to examine the requirements for filing the county financial disclosure form and what information may be included or excluded on it.

Yesterday, the special counsel, Joseph Conway, requested a number of documents from the commission and asked to interview current and former commission members. Conway gave the commission one week to comply with his request.

The Suffolk County financial disclosure form asks for a detailed listing of financial information pertaining to an official and the official's spouse. It is a sworn statement.

Government ethics experts contacted by Newsday and asked to review the county form to provide their views of its purpose and what it asks said its intention is to give the general public complete information about their public officials' financial connections.

"The public needs to know that elected officials are acting in the public interest and not their private interest, and that's why the disclosure form exists," said Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union of the City of New York, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

The form also seeks to determine whether conflicts of interest exist, experts said.

"It's through that lens that you need to examine the questions that are asked and the interpretations that are given," said Fordham University law professor Jim Cohen. "If you look at it through that lens of conflict of interest, then disclosure is, generally speaking, required."

Added Robert Lawry, emeritus professor of law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland: "You just want to disclose. If you disclose, then people can determine whether it's something that they don't like, or if they think [an official's] judgment has been compromised."

In analyzing the county form, the legal experts contacted by Newsday pointed to what they called its comprehensiveness.

"It's as broad as any disclosure statement possibly could be," said Bennett Gershman, a Pace University Law School professor who specializes in government ethics. "There are no limitations."

The experts said that inclusiveness is appropriate for public officials - and their families, whose information is included on the form as well.

"Because you're a public servant, the public has a right to know. You waived your right by agreeing to become a public official," said Marianne Jennings, a professor of legal and ethical studies in business at Arizona State University. "If you don't want to disclose that, you may want to find a different line of work."

 

 

A look at the form

 

Here is a look at the form, which is laid out in sections that deal with different issues, and what the form requires of those who fill it out, according to these experts. The form includes five sections, labeled A through E. The first asks for "General Information." Sections B and C request listings of business affiliations that have connections with the county. Section D deals with assets and liabilities and Section E asks for sources of income.

The form also includes six additional "schedules" that provide space for a more detailed listing of information. These include: stocks and bonds, real estate interests, interests in contracts with government instrumentalities, notes and accounts receivable, liabilities and "Any additional information for which space is inadequate."

The County Ethics Code also allows, under certain circumstances, for some information provided by the filer to the County Ethics Commission to be shielded from the public. The experts consulted speak to this issue in the last section of this story.

Here is a look at the form, which is laid out in sections that deal with different issues, and what the form requires of those who fill it out, according to these experts. The form includes five sections, labeled A through E. The first asks for "General Information." Sections B and C request listings of business affiliations that have connections with the county. Section D deals with assets and liabilities and Section E asks for sources of income.

The form also includes six additional "schedules" that provide space for a more detailed listing of information. These include: stocks and bonds, real estate interests, interests in contracts with government instrumentalities, notes and accounts receivable, liabilities and "Any additional information for which space is inadequate."

The County Ethics Code also allows, under certain circumstances, for some information provided by the filer to the County Ethics Commission to be shielded from the public. The experts consulted speak to this issue in the last section of this story.

 

General information

The form asks for the public official's name, address, title and duties, along with the official's spouse's name and his or her occupation. It then asks the filer to list any position "of any nature" - paid or not - held by the official or any member of his or her family that does business with the county, has any matter pending before the county or is licensed or regulated by any county agency or department.

It also asks for the listing of any business, occupation, trade or profession of the official or official's spouse that does business with the county, has any matter pending before the county or is licensed or regulated by any county agency or department.

"I would interpret it to mean every single business interest that you have or are engaged in personally or professionally," said Martha Perego, the director of ethics for the International City County Management Association in Washington, D.C. "You need to know completely what those family members and spouse are involved in . . . I think the intent of the law is complete and full disclosure."

 

Net worth ("Statement of assets and liabilities")

Among the assets the form asks to be listed is cash in bank accounts. This is the one section of the form that allows the filer to denote a category of value, rather than a specific amount. For example, the filer may check off a range of $50,001 to $100,000.

The form asks for specific dollar amounts - not a range of value - of all other assets, such as stocks and bonds, real estate interests, life insurance, accounts receivable, deferred compensation and other items.

"It says any direct or indirect owned by you, and that means if you obtain income from your company and its clients, you have to list that," said Robert Gottlieb, a Manhattan attorney who co-chaired a committee that reformed Suffolk's ethic code in 1988.

The form also asks the filer to list all liabilities, among them notes payable to banks, mortgages, taxes and any other indebtedness.

"It is totally inclusive of every financial asset and liability that you have," said Pace University's Gershman.

 

Sources of income

The form asks for all sources and amount of income for the official and spouse for the preceding year. That includes the following:

-- All compensated continuing employment of whatever nature, including county employment.

-- All directorships and other fiduciary positions for which compensation has or will be claimed.

-- All contractual arrangements producing or expected to produce income.

-- All honorariums, lecture fees and other miscellaneous sources of income. The official is asked to itemize each item.

"The intent of that provision was to disclose where you are getting your money to see whether or not a conflict of interest has been created," Gottlieb said, adding that a contract does not need to be written to be included on the disclosure form.

"If you have an ongoing relationship, it essentially amounts to a contract and requires disclosure," said Dadey of the Citizens Union.

The experts said the county's disclosure form was expansive in terms of asking for income sources, which provides for more transparency, they said.

"You're doing business and you're being paid for it, regardless of whether it's a handshake or a notarized document," said Judy Nadler, a senior fellow on government ethics for Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in California. "In an abundance of caution and to ensure the public's trust, absolute transparency is the best."

 

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What may be withheld

The Suffolk County Ethics Code mandates that "categories of value" - in other words, the information related to cash in bank accounts - must remain confidential if the form is made available to the public.

The code also allows other information to be redacted if the Ethics Commission finds that information is "highly personal."

To make that determination, the commission must receive a written request from the employee that describes the highly personal nature of the information the employee is seeking to withhold from the public.

The commission then considers the request to decide whether the public interest outweighs any personal embarrassment. "If the board determines that the potential personal embarrassment, not financial or economic, outweighs the public interest, then the board shall withhold the statement from public disclosure," the code states.

The scope for redaction, therefore, is relatively narrow, experts said.

"It means the request should be very clear and it should be an extraordinary situation, not something that is a matter of course," Nadler said.

The experts noted that medical issues or something related to a child's needs might qualify as being of a "personal nature."

It's the county official's responsibility to indicate why something should remain confidential, Gottlieb said.

"The burden is on [the public official] to show that public disclosure would be highly personal in nature and that redaction outweighs the public interest," he added. "It can't be personal because you don't want the public to know that amount or the source of the income."

Kelly Williams, in-house general counsel for New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute, echoed that. "I don't think the average person would think the actual dollar amount is personally embarrassing."

She added that disclosure of financial interests by public officials has become an important issue nationwide.

"The trend is toward more extensive and more meaningful financial disclosure across every level of government across the country," she said. "Public officials had just better get used to it."

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