“Broken and in Dire Need of Repair”; Watchdog Urges Reform of Financial Conflict Reporting System

“Broken and in Dire Need of Repair”; Watchdog Urges Reform of Financial Conflict Reporting System

  • March 29, 2022

PPT kicks off Financial Transparency Project with letter to DOJ and OGE highlighting the need to improve disclosure process

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust urged the federal government to improve transparency regarding potential conflicts of interest among high-level appointees in the debut event of its Financial Disclosure Project. In a letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office of Government Ethics (OGE) that kicks off its Financial Transparency Project, the watchdog described a system that is “broken and in dire need of repair,” while providing a list of recommendations to shine light into the black box of financial disclosures at the federal level.

Despite a requirement for all appointees to complete and submit a financial disclosure (Form 278 in most cases) identifying sources of income, holdings, and other relationships that could reveal potential conflicts of interest, the federal government has created a byzantine web of red tape for the American public to obtain this information for all but the most senior officials. While Form 278s for appointees requiring Senate confirmation are available via OGE through completion of a request form, those for other appointees can be accessed only via the official’s agency and only after jumping through a series of hoops. For example, according to the Department of Education, 126 political appointees currently serve in the department. Yet the Form 278s for just nine of them are available via OGE. The new Financial Transparency Project page on the PPT website illustrates the transparency gap in this area.

Submitting a request for those not accessible through OGE requires obtaining the name of the official and filing a form that can vary from agency to agency. Meanwhile, very few agencies maintain a list of appointees that is available for public view. The murkiness surrounding this information stands in contrast to the momentum toward transparency as reflected in Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies. The memo declares, “Transparency in government operations is a priority of this Administration and this Department,” urging agencies toward proactive disclosures. The same principles should apply to the potential financial conflicts of those making decisions impacting virtually every aspect of our lives.

“The potential of conflicts of interest influencing decisions that affect all of our lives is one of the most serious concerns in the ethics arena,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “But the government has erected barriers to uncovering where these conflicts might exist that are immensely difficult for even the most sophisticated organizations to overcome, to say nothing of a member of the general public. Protect the Public’s Trust will continue to dig deeper while also calling on the bureaucracy to remove unnecessary barriers.”