Editorials

Personal financial information of Washington politicians should be shared online. It’s not as scary as they think

Washington state Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon (right) gives an April 15 floor speech warning that disclosing public officials’ personal information is potentially dangerous. He told the story of the wife of an elected official being abducted in Mexico, which turned out to be false.
Washington state Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon (right) gives an April 15 floor speech warning that disclosing public officials’ personal information is potentially dangerous. He told the story of the wife of an elected official being abducted in Mexico, which turned out to be false.

Keep this in mind before 2019 candidate filing week arrives in mid-May: Sacrifices are required of anyone who runs for election or is privileged to hold government office. Near the top of the list is sacrificing some privacy. That includes giving the public a glimpse of one’s personal finances.

Such transparency helps voters check politicians for basic fiscal competence and potential conflicts of interest. President Trump shows contempt for this expectation by refusing to give up his tax returns.

What about state and local officials in Washington? They have to file a financial affairs statement, called an F-1, summarizing their income, debts, real estate and other investments. It’s due within two weeks of launching a campaign and once a year on a date that’s easy to remember: April 15, Tax Day.

But if you think elected leaders are eager to take extra steps to let the public see this information, you’ve got another thing coming.

The Legislature this year is poised to block the state Public Disclosure Commission from posting the F-1s of all public officials online, as the PDC does with other campaign-finance documents. Currently, F-1s are available only when someone knows enough to submit a public records request.

Senators voted overwhelmingly last week to stop the additional layer of disclosure, and that’s unfortunate.

What’s worse is that they did it after being spoonfed a scary story — the kidnapping of a Washington woman while visiting family in Mexico. Her abductors allegedly tracked her down using public information about her husband, an elected official.

It was a juicy anecdote, the stuff of a made-for-TV movie. The only problem was its inaccuracy. Crosscut reporter Melissa Santos exposed the truth in an article last week: The incident happened to the relative of a friend of an elected official and was unrelated to any politician’s public disclosure form.

That Washington senators were so quick to swallow a tall tale and oppose more robust financial disclosure conveys a lax commitment to open government. But after the debacle of last year’s session, when legislators tried to exempt themselves from the state Public Records Act, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

They can begin to reverse this perception if they lift their proposed ban on online F-1 posting before the 2019 Legislature wraps up this weekend.

At the center of the recent snafu is Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach; he shared the abduction story in an April 15 speech on the Senate floor to warn colleagues why F-1 forms shouldn’t be posted on the internet. Moments later, Sheldon won easy passage of his amendment to House Bill 1195, a broad PDC plan to update campaign finance and public disclosure reporting and enforcement.

“I’m not trying to say that we as elected officials should try to hide any information. We have to turn it in, and that’s fine,” Sheldon said. ‘But why make it readily available to individuals who are using it for very nefarious purposes?”

The answer is twofold. First, prove that somebody is really using F-1s for “very nefarious” purposes. Second, information should be readily available so more constituents can check your record and make sure you’re not susceptible to nefarious influences.

Again, this is one of the sacrifices people expect of those privileged to hold government office.

Sheldon told us Wednesday he regrets getting the story mixed up, but he stands by his amendment.

We think that’s out of step with public accountability and modern technology. The internet didn’t exist in 1972 when Washington voters approved the Public Records Act, one of the strongest in the nation. But the PRA was meant to be an organic, adaptive document, in service of the people’s right to know “so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

House and Senate negotiators are now trying to settle on a final version of HB 1195. They would be wise to reject false-alarm stories and Sheldon’s amendment. It would send a welcome signal that they’re serious about transparency in the digital age.

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