Disclosure laws leave much undisclosed

State ethics laws provide only limited transparency into the financial dealings of Connecticut’s part-time legislators. To whom do they owe money? Disclosure is voluntary. How much stock do they own? Impossible to say.

By contrast, Congress and a dozen states require lawmakers to disclose within ranges the amount of outside income they receive and the value of their stock holdings and other assets.

As a result, it is a matter of public record that U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, and her husband, Stanley Greenberg, have a net worth between $5.8 million and $28.2 million, primarily the value of Greenberg’s polling firm.

Or that U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, has a negative net worth, due to student loans owed by him and his wife, Cathy Holahan, a legal-aid lawyer.

State legislators are required to disclose annually the source of income in excess of $1,000, though not amounts. They must identify securities worth more than $5,000, though not numbers of shares. And they must list real estate, state contracts and business affiliations.

The requirements put Connecticut ahead of most states, and leaders in both parties say that is enough.

“Because we are a citizen legislature, we kind of don’t pry as much,” said House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden.

“The public-policy purpose, I think, of disclosure is to figure out where they are conflicts of interest, not to figure out what people are worth,” said House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill, D-Mansfield. “I don’t see a public policy purpose to that.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said more disclosure could discourage candidates.

“There is a tipping point,” Cafero said. “I think we have an adequate amount of disclosure.”

But open-government advocates say the legislature should broaden the disclosures and tighten the standards for conflict of interest.

“I think that there is a great deal of skepticism about elected officials and whether they use their public office for private gain,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, national vice president of Common Cause. “To the extent that you have as much openness and transparency as possible, it protects both the elected official and the public and help ensure public confidence in the leaders.”

Tightening the standards for conflict of interest is equally important, she said.

“For more than a decade, Common Cause has tried to get a law passed that would say a legislator cannot act on something that specifically and narrowly benefits their own employer. And we can’t even get it out of committee,” she said.

Under current rules, legislators rarely must abstain. They can vote on bills that affect their own employers, so long as they are not affected more than others in the same industry or profession.

Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, said a major gap in the disclosure laws is that legislators who are lawyers or consultants are not required to disclose clients.

“Where I am most interested is in direct client relationships,” Swan said.

Legislators also should be barred from hiding their financial interests in partnerships or companies using the state’s limited-liability laws, which allow partnership information to stay private, Swan said.

With such data off limits, checking the accuracy of legislator’s financial disclosure statements can be difficult, he said.

The statements are filed annually with the Office of State Ethics, which does not routinely examine them for completeness or accuracy. If it did, the office would have found legislators who failed to identify stock holdings – or any income, even their state salaries.

Under securities, Rep. Chris Perone, D-Norwalk, wrote “various” in his filing. Sen. Sam S.F. Caligiuri, R-Waterbury, listed “various mutual funds.” Others listed brokerage accounts, but no specific holdings.

In 2009, the office did conduct a random audit of 5 percent of the 2,700 statements filed in the spring. In additional to the state’s 187 legislators, other state elected officials and selected state employees also must file.

“We just did that for the first time in 2009,” said Meredith Trimble, a spokeswoman for the ethics office. “Next year, we may go up to 10 percent.”

The audit checked for completeness and obvious errors. Auditors did not have the ability to check the statements against tax returns or other records.

About 30 percent of the forms were incomplete and 15 percent failed to adequately disclose the source of income.

Connecticut got a “C” in 2009 for its financial-disclosure rules from the Center for Public Integrity, which ranked the state 12th.  When it comes to disclosure, “As” and “Bs” are rare.

Three states have no disclosure requirements. The center gave failing grades to 20 states.

The best score went to Louisiana, which went from one of the worst to first as a result of new disclosure requirements sought by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The center raised Connecticut’s ranking to 12th from 15th as a result of its new electronic filing system, which allows legislators to file online. The reports, however, are not available to the public on the state web site.

Common Cause would like to see every state post the data online, Hobert Flynn said.

“We need to be moving forward toward making this available and accessible in a digital democracy,” she said. “That’s where we need to go.”