ANNAPOLIS- Some legislators are protesting plans to put their financial records on the Internet, citing concerns that web surfers’ findings may invade lawmakers’ privacy.
The postings may be required as part of overall ethics reforms under debate in the General Assembly this year.
The ethics overhaul was prompted by two incidents last year in which Baltimore legislators left the assembly because of questionable ethical actions. Sen. Larry Young, D-Baltimore, was expelled after the Senate decided he used his office to benefit his private business, and Delegate Gerald Curran, D-Baltimore, resigned after he was questioned about private business dealings.
William G. Somerville, counsel to the Joint Ethics Committee and ethics adviser to the General Assembly, faced a barrage of criticism from House Appropriations Committee members last week over the proposed posting of lawmakers’ individual financial disclosures on the General Assembly’s Internet site.
“I find there’s a lot of objection to this,” said Delegate Nancy R. Stocksdale, R-Carroll. “I don’t think God and the world need know about my finances, my husband’s finances, childrens’, whoever…”
Somerville said Maryland’s goal of having a “citizen legislature,” rather than a professional one, is furthered by giving the public access to this information.
“Having them (financial reports) in a file drawer in Towson or Annapolis where people don’t know about them is not sufficiently `public,'” he said. “It’s all public information, but let’s just say, it will be made more public by being on the Internet.”
Under current law, candidates have to file financial disclosures annually with the Maryland State Ethics Commission in Towson. Other financial disclosures, of possible conflicts of interest, are required to be filed in Annapolis. Problems occurred in reconciling the two.
Plus, the public was inconvenienced by having to travel to view the records.
Finance reports of legislators’ spouses, children, or relatives will probably not be posted, said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause, a campaign and politics watchdog group.
“What you might simply see is (a legislator’s) husband works for X,Y and Z corporation, but not how much he makes,” she said. “When you start to get that type of information online, people get concerned about it.”
What will have to be disclosed is: whether a legislator received gifts from someone doing business with the state, regulated by the state, or registered as a lobbyist; whether the legislator or a member of his family owed debts, other than retail credit accounts, to someone doing business with the state; whether a member of the legislator’s immediate family was employed by the state; whether the legislator or his family received a salary or owned a business that paid him income.
Under current law, legislators must also disclose their stock holdings, worth more than $10,000 or comprising more than 10 percent of the total stock issue, in any company subject to regulation by the state.
The bill would not require information such as personal assets, wealth, debts, or real estate holdings to be posted.
Advocates of the legislation acknowledge the legislators’ privacy concerns are valid.
“I don’t blame them (legislators) for worrying about what goes on the Internet – it can be very scary,” Skullney said. “They must take into consideration the legitimate privacy concerns of the members.”
Significant personal information on legislators is already available on the Internet to even those with minimal surfing skills.
Anyone can find a spouse name, address, phone number, and home address of a person and a map of their neighborhood on sites like www.yahoo.com and www.InfoSpace.com. Street-by-street directions and e-mail addresses can also be obtained.
For a fee, more thorough background searches for information on driver’s licenses, court records, corporate affiliation and property ownership – can be done by Internet companies such as U.S. Search, available at the InfoSpace site.
A simple Internet search on House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, D- Allegany, reveals his home address, 316 Prince George St., Cumberland, and his home phone number, 301-722-7874. A call turns up his wife’s name. The search also reveals the full names and addresses of his neighbors and shows that the Bamboo Garden Restaurant and Maryland Motel are nearby. The distance to his house from State Circle is 159 miles, Prince George Street being .2 miles off of Grand Avenue.
Still legislators are hesitant.
“If you put this information on the Internet, any wacko could look at it,” said Martha S. Klima, R-Baltimore County. “We need to protect the security of the members of this body.”