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Published on October 28th, 2010 | by admin

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Accessing financial disclosures not easy

By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Today, MarylandReporter.com is publishing online the 2009 financial disclosure records for the 13 statewide candidates who appear on the General Election ballot – not an easy task to pull off.

Every candidate for office and every elected official must file an annual financial disclosure, which details sources of income, property, stock and corporate holdings. Disclosures also list debts, corporate and financial interests of immediate family members, and gifts received.

These forms can either be filled out online or on paper with the State Ethics Commission in Annapolis.

To see these public records, a person must go the office, fill out a form and submit a driver’s license for identification, which is copied. Even if the disclosures forms have been filed electronically, they cannot be viewed on a computer, and must be printed out.

To take away a copy costs 20 cents a page — in this case $55.40 for 277 pages, which then had to be scanned to make them available online here. The State Ethics Commission office denied requests for MarylandReporter.com to scan the documents with a portable device or to make electronic copies.

The candidates and officials may also check a box if they “would like to be notified if someone looks at my form.” All but three of the filers — Green Party gubernatorial hopeful Maria Allwine, her running mate Kenneth Eidel, and Libertarian lieutenant governor candidate Douglas McNeil — checked that box, and so the office informed them that Megan Poinski of MarylandReporter.com had asked to see their forms.

Most states require that candidates and elected officials file some sort of financial disclosure record. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity – a national nonprofit investigative journalism organization – graded the 50 states on how detailed and accessible their records were.

Maryland earned a D and came out near the middle of the pack, partially because of the challenges in accessing its records.

Report author Caitlin Ginley said that it is one thing to have public officials fill out financial disclosure forms, but quite another to ensure that people can have easy access to them.

“If they’re held in an office somewhere, they’re not out there for the public to see,” Ginley said.

Maryland is the only state in the nation requiring a personal visit to the office, which Ginley described as “interesting and frustrating.”

About half the states allow public access to financial disclosure documents online. Others will fax or mail the forms on request.

James Browning, the Mid-Atlantic director of the nonprofit advocacy group Common Cause said that Maryland advanced several years ago when it allowed the forms to be filled out online. Now, he said, it’s time for the state to take the next step and actually post the forms online, too.

“I think there is some reluctance among elected officials in doing that, but having the forms online will be a bright light on Annapolis that has not been seen before,” Browning said.

Browning said these kinds of laws are one of Common Cause’s top priorities for the 2011 General Assembly.

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