The public is invited to examine the first online archive of top state officials’ 2011 financial disclosure forms, now posted on WisconsinWatch.org, the website for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The 2011 statements filed by Wisconsin state lawmakers and state constitutional officers were obtained from the state Government Accountability Board.
The archive, searchable by party affiliation and district number, is accessible at this link. Available are statements from state legislators, as well as five constitutional officers: governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.
In the past, media outlets and others have obtained these statements and made them available online. For instance, in August 2010 the Wisconsin State Journal posted the economic interest statements of all 338 individuals running for state office that year.
In all, about 2,500 state and local officials are required to file statements disclosing their investments, loans, business partners and income sources. The statements allow the media and public to check for possible conflicts of interest and items of interest, as when they were used in 2008 to help discover that Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, owned stock in companies that ran strip clubs and pornographic websites. (He later unloaded these investments.)
In May, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee amended the state budget bill to make it harder for members of the public to obtain these records. The change would have prevented the GAB from sending these records to requesters by email or regular mail; to obtain the reports, requesters would have to come to the agency’s offices in downtown Madison.
In addition, the language raised concerns about whether the GAB would be able to continue to make indexes of these statements available on its website.
Those indexes, based on information in the 2010 reports (the 2011 reports have not yet been processed), allow for searches by keyword. For instance, a search for the word “popcorn” yields the names of 11 companies. Ten of these are listed in the statement filed by state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, the Joint Finance Committee co-chair. The remaining popcorn company is tied to an employee of the Government Accountability Board.
Vos initially defended the changes, saying he believed competitors to his gourmet popcorn business were using this information to gain an advantage. He later agreed to remove the restriction on sending statements if the threshold for reporting income from businesses were raised from $1,000 to $10,000 a year. His 2011 filing lists more than 100 companies with which he did at least $1,000 in business in 2010.
The bill as passed does change this threshold but it still includes the rule that statements must be obtained in person from the GAB’s Madison office. Vos has said this was an oversight and that he would ask Gov. Scott Walker to veto this provision. Walker’s office says the matter is under review, with the governor expressing his support for a high level of transparency in this area.
“The public deserves to know what we’re spending money on,” Walker told Madison’s WKOW-TV. “And it deserves to know what elected officials are doing in terms of their finances.”
Wisconsin has been requiring public officials to submit statements of economic interest since 1974. Lawmakers initially sought to keep these statements confidential but their efforts were vetoed by Gov. Pat Lucey. But lawmakers were able to add a requirement that requesters identify themselves and that public officials be notified whenever their statements were requested.
The public posting of this information removes whatever chilling effect this notification rule might have.
About the Center: The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism was launched in January 2009 to examine government integrity and issues affecting the quality of life of Wisconsin residents. It currently has three full-time employees as well as a pool of volunteer journalists and media lawyers and paid student reporting interns.
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