Wick Communications

Financial disclosure can be fun

In journalism on September 23, 2010 at 10:06 am

(Last week I began sitting in on graduate-level journalism classes at the University of California, Berkeley. The draw is a series of classes detailing the use and availability of public records. I want to thank Rob Gunnison, director of school affairs for the Graduate School of Journalism, and others at the school for the opportunity. This is the first of a series of notes stemming from those classes. – Clay)

I think I was first introduced to financial disclosure forms as a reporter for the Gainesville Times about two dozen years ago. In Georgia, as in most states, the forms are required of candidates for public office and must be updated regularly by elected officials throughout their terms of office. I remember having two distinct thoughts: This is going to require begging the clerk for the form and then I’m going to have to do math.

I was right on both counts and yet missed the point entirely. Financial disclosure forms contain a wealth of information – sometimes less important than what isn’t there.

Requirements vary from state to state and there is no single repository of such information. They are very likely held by the secretary of state or the clerk for the jurisdiction in question…

So what’s in there? Expect to find the official’s income source, his business interests, any real estate he owns, gifts he has received and loans. Cumulatively, the data paints a picture of the man. Is he financially secure? Does his financial situation mimic that of his constituents? Did he accept gifts voters should know about?

And with a little imagination, you can see how such information could be used for feature stories as well as hard news.

  • If the mayor was married while in office, what kind of gifts did he receive and from whom?
  • Are there a fair number of bankruptcies and foreclosures among local officials? The Wall Street Journal wrote a story this week saying that Nathan Deal, the republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, was close to financial ruin. I’m sure the only way Deal offered that information was through required documentation.
  • What is missing? If the mayor claims virtually nothing – and you see him driving a BMW back to his mansion on the hill – you may catch him under reporting.

Here’s something I learned: In California many bureaucrats – city managers and appointed board members — are required to file the forms. That may be true where you live too.

You likely know this stuff is out there. Maybe it’s time you looked again.

Clay

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