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Uberti: NY State disclosure forms are a poor excuse for transparency

Janet DiFiore, chairwoman of the New York State

Janet DiFiore, chairwoman of the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, presides at a meeting in Albany. (May 31, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Though state officials’ financial disclosure forms are expected to be made public for the first time this week, don’t expect a treasure trove of well-organized, easily searchable information. That would make too much sense.

State legislators’ outside income, investments and debts will be available online in accordance with the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hailed the ethics legislation as a “major step forward in restoring the people's trust in government.”

The Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan investigative journalism organization, gave New York a “D” on its Corruption Risk Report Card this year. The state government ranked 37th nationwide, receiving “F” grades for its budget and redistricting processes, ethics enforcement agencies and pension fund management.


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New York’s new public financial disclosures aim to improve the state’s showing.

Despite the mandated openness, however, reams of disclosure forms will likely be unnavigable for most voters.

The state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics already published documents from New York’s four statewide elected officials, including Cuomo. But they’re a labyrinth of unsearchable PDF scans. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s disclosures are even scribbled across the forms in messy handwriting.

The Joint Commission expects about 25,000 such disclosures this year, the first in which they’ll be made public. The total also includes disclosures of unelected state officials and legislative employees, whose forms are available to the public upon request. That’s a mountain of information few voters have the wherewithal to climb.

Sure, legislators and other state officials are following the law. But they’re not making it easy for citizens to connect the dots between financial and political interests.

New York is not alone in this sense. Even states lauded for minimal corruption risk -- New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington top the Center for Public Integrity’s list -- score poorly on public access to financial disclosure forms. Reports in those states are not standardized, they are unsearchable, illegible or inacessible.

A major step toward transparency in New York would require a searchable, online database of lawmakers’ financial disclosures. That would allow voters to cross-reference legislators’ finances with their political records. Such an improvement would catalyze the type of ethics reform promised in the 2011 law.

But at the very least, the public deserves neat handwriting.
 

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