Why do some of the disclosures have obscured areas that read "Redacted by LegiStorm for privacy"?
Answer: While these documents are public information, we have redacted some information from personal financial disclosures to protect privacy. Typically, this information includes the home address, home phone and signature of staffers. In a small handful of cases, staffers and members inadvertently disclosed sensitive information, including Social Security numbers, financial account numbers and the names of minor children, on their disclosures.
Who must file personal financial disclosures?
Answer: All members of Congress must file, as well as certain key staffers. Officers and employees earning at least 120 percent of the federal GS-15 base level salary, or a little more than $111,000 in 2007, must file. So do principal assistants on members' personal staffs, as designated by the members. At least one employee on each member's personal staff must file, even if no one earns 120 percent of the GS-15 base salary. Senate rules specify that any staffer designated to accept political campaign funds must also file.
How can I determine the net worth of a member of Congress or staffer?
Answer: Personal financial disclosures are imperfect gauges of a filer's net worth.
The House 2003 instruction booklet on personal financial disclosures states: "Financial Disclosure Statements are not intended as net worth statements, nor are they well suited to that purpose."
For example, filers are not required to list their principal residences and only need to list assets in very broad ranges. Financial disclosures also can list assets that a filer manages for a dependent child but are not owned by the filer. The value of assets in certain trusts also do not need to be disclosed.
With many caveats, financial disclosures can provide a rough estimate of a person's net worth.
Are there prohibitions on how I use personal financial disclosure data?
Answer: Yes. Regarding personal financial disclosures, the Ethics in Government Act states:
"It shall be unlawful for any person to obtain or use a report--
(A) for any unlawful purpose;
(B) for any commercial purpose, other than by news and communications media for dissemination to the general public;
(C) for determining or establishing the credit rating of any individual; or
(D) for use, directly or indirectly, in the solicitation of money for any political, charitable, or other purpose."
5 U.S.C Appendix 6, Sec. 105 (c) (1)
A rich senator has not listed his home on his financial disclosure. Is that improper?
Answer: No, a personal financial disclosure filer is not required to list a principal residence on his or her assets list. While some do, listing primary residences is entirely optional on both the assets and debts pages. In fact, other forms of assets are excluded, such as valuable items owned, like antiques and artwork.
Why are all personal financial disclosures not redacted?
Answer: We will always redact Social Security and financial account numbers where we find them. We will also remove the names of minor children if requested. We consider this information to be potentially sensitive.
On the other hand, the home address and signature were redacted for all House employees but not Senate employees because the House paid for these items to be removed after we first had posted our database.
We consider staffers to have a privacy interest. But given the high cost of redaction, we think the public disclosure outweighs the privacy interest for the following reasons:
- the public release of these documents by the Congress,
- the voluntary nature of providing a home address (as opposed to a work address, as many did),
- the widespread online availability of the home addresses of the vast majority of these staffers (via whitepages.com, home sales databases, and many other sources),
- the lack of utility of a signature without sensitive financial information (like bank numbers, mothers' maiden names, passwords etc.).
we believe the voluntary redaction to be an arbitrary cost intended to stymie all public disclosure.
However, if the cost obstacle is removed, we think the privacy interest slightly outweighs the public interest in disclosure (as one of the public benefits of the disclosure of home addresses, these addresses can be quite useful in determining whether all potential financial conflicts of interest have been accurately stated).
Therefore, we will gladly post redacted Senate records if the Senate pays for these costs as the House did.