Full Disclosure? Forms Plagued By Lack of Information, Absence of Oversight

Full Disclosure? Forms Plagued By Lack of Information, Absence of Oversight

Fairfax County goes so far as to redact disclosure documents.

Fairfax County officials redacted information from documents designed to disclose information to the public.

Fairfax County officials redacted information from documents designed to disclose information to the public.

Elected Confidential

* Fairfax County Board of Supervisors: John Foust lists the largest number of securities at $1.7 million; Jeff McKay lists the lowest number of securities at $70,000. Three members list no securities: John Cook, Michael Frey and Peggy Gross.

* Fairfax County School Board: Jane Strauss lists the largest number of securities at $2.1 million; Pat Hynes lists the lowest number of securities at $10,000; Two members list no securities: Ryan McElveen and Elizabeth Schultz.

* Arlington County Board: Libby Garvey lists the largest number of securities at $500,000; Jay Fisette lists the lowest number of securities at $80,000. One member, Mary Hynes, list no securities.

* Arlington County School Board: Abigail Raphael lists the largest number of securities at $1.2 million; Noah Simon lists the lowest number of securities at $400,000. Three members list no securities: Sally Baird, James Lander and Emma Violand-Sanchez.

* Alexandria City Council: Paul Smedberg lists the largest amount of securities at $590,000; Allison Silberberg lists the lowest number of securities at $20,000; One member, John Chapman, listed no securities.

* Alexandria School Board: Marc Williams lists the largest amount of securities at $1.3 million; Kelly Carmichael Booz lists the lowest amount of securities at $10,000; five members list no securities: Bill Campbell, Ronnie Campbell, Pat Hennig, Justin Keating and Christopher Lewis.

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell is in hot water for taking gifts without disclosing them, and legislators are talking about increasing disclosure requirements for family members. But here in Northern Virginia, personal financial disclosure forms are often incomplete and inconsistent. Some elected officials choose to disclose a great deal of information while others disclose very little. Fairfax County officials have decided to redact information that's supposed to be part of the public record. And nobody is reviewing the forms to make sure they are accurate.

"During campaigns, the State Board of Elections reviews our campaign finance forms but the same thing does not happen when we file our annual forms of financial interest," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova. "You would think that someone was taking a look, but that's not happening. And it probably should be happening."

A look at the personal financial disclosure forms across Northern Virginia reveals a hodgepodge of disclosure, some meticulous and others lacking. One of the biggest disparities is in the disclosure of gifts. Bulova's form includes three pages of gift disclosures, everything from symphony tickets to Chamber of Commerce dinners. Some elected officials are meticulous in documenting events they have attended and noting the value while others simply leave the form blank.

"There's a lot of things we end up reporting that aren't gifts at all — things like when you are obliged to go to some dinner," said Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman. "So technically, that's a gift. But would these people be going to these events if they didn't have to? On the other hand, a Rolex watch is a gift."

THE FORMS are supposed to include information about everything from real estate and business interests to gifts and liabilities. That includes employers of elected officials and their family members. But a request for the public disclosure forms from the Fairfax County School Board was returned with a stack of redacted documents. The employer of one member was concealed, and several telephone numbers and addresses were blacked out of others. The names of immediate family members — required information to be disclosed to the public — was redacted from of all the documents.

"Personal information is exempt from disclosure obligations," wrote Brandynn Reaves, public information specialist with Fairfax County Public Schools, in an email response to questions about the redactions.

Unless the Fairfax County commonwealth's attorney is willing to prosecute the school system for failing to disclosed required information, that information will not be available to the public. And because the law merely requires the School Board clerk to receive the documents without scrutinizing them, any mistakes or missing information will not be identified or fixed. That leaves the pubic in the dark about information that could explain conflicts of interest among their elected leaders.

"Virginia's disclosure laws are basically a big joke," said Kyle Kondik, analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It doesn't seem like there's any penalty at all for bad reporting."

THE ONGOING political scandal involving a Virginia businessman showering the governor and attorney general with gifts — many of which were initially unreported — has brought a spotlight to the issue of ethics reform that is expected to dominate the upcoming session of the General Assembly. Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45) is preparing legislation that would move the repository function from the local clerk to the State Board of Election in an effort to create one publicly available statewide database. That would allow elected officials to file their documents electronically, a change that would remove some of the inconsistency in terms of how individuals choose to fill out the documents.

"I think there are going to be folks uncomfortable with this level of disclosure and this level of accessibility to their data," said Krupicka. "We've made the migration to use technology with campaign finance, and I think we need to make the migration to use technology with our ethics and conflicts disclosure forms."

Last month, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling outlined a series of ethics reform measures he would like to see the next General Assembly take up. One of his recommendations would expand the gift disclosure requirements to spouses and dependent family members. Another one of his recommendations would lower the threshold of reporting sources of income from $10,000 to $1,000. A third recommendation would require elected officials disclose all memberships on boards or other committees of public or private companies that are held by themselves, their spouses or their dependent family members.

“Over the past few months, a series of unfortunate events have revealed to us several deficiencies in Virginia’s current ethics laws," Bolling said in a written statement outlining his proposal. "As a result, the confidence of the people of Virginia in their state government has been eroded. In order to begin the process of restoring this confidence, we need to take immediate action to strengthen Virginia’s ethics laws and the proposals I am releasing today are designed to do just that.”

DESPITE THEIR FLAWS, the forms reveal the broad financial outlines of elected officials in Northern Virginia and some of their economic interests. In Arlington County, for example, the forms show that none of the members of the Arlington County Board have full-time jobs. Two of the members listed the employment of spouses. And although County Board member Jay Fisette once disclosed information about his partner, he has since decided that he will no longer provide that information until Virginia ends the constitutional prohibition against gay marriage.

"The symbolism of it was just not worth it," said Fisette. "It was so hard because he makes a lot more money than I do and he had a lot of things to report. It was too much work, so I don't do that anymore."

Alexandria City Councilman Paul Smedberg, on the other hand, includes economic disclosure information for his partner. In an interview, he said he is probably not required to do so but he feels that it's best to err on the side of disclosing too much rather than not enough.

"It is a little unclear as to what you should put there," said Smedberg. "But I've always made the habit of including Mike on there."