Today marks a milestone for thousands of Senior Executive Service members, general military officers and other top government officials: The onset of new reporting requirements for most stock purchases and other securities transactions worth more than $1,000.
Up to now, such transactions had to be reported only once a year on the public financial disclosure statement known as Office of Government Ethics Form 278. Now, senior officials must file “transaction reports” within 30 to 45 days, under the recently passed STOCK Act.
The new mandate applies to almost all 28,000 Form 278 filers, according to the ethics office, which issued some lengthy guidance last month. You can read it here, but suffice to say there are some big exceptions to the new requirement. It does not, for example, apply to mutual funds, Thrift Savings Plan assets, real estate or accounts held by the employee’s spouse. Folks deployed in combat zones can get an extension.
One idea behind the STOCK Act is to use public disclosure to keep government officials from using insider knowledge for stock trading purposes. As originally envisioned, the main target was Congress. But along the way, someone on Capitol Hill– FedLine is still wondering who—decided that senior military officers and top civilian employees should be covered as well.
The stepped-up emphasis on disclosure doesn’t stop there. By the end of next month, agencies are also supposed to post all Form 278s on the Internet. The Senior Executives Association, which represents career SESers, is already on record as opposing that requirement as an unwarranted intrusion on feds’ privacy; this week, the Assembly of Scientists, which represents some National Institutes of Health staff, released a letter warning that the new provisions could keep NIH from hiring and retaining “the best and the brightest scientists.”
“Many senior employees, faced with diminished privacy rights, are discussing leaving the government for the private sector,” Dr. Florence Haseltine, the assembly’s president, wrote in a letter to Congress. “Colleagues at universities are concerned and less likely to accept positions at national laboratories, thereby putting U.S. institutions at a disadvantage in recruiting and retaining the nation’s most prominent and creative scientists.”
Such concerns notwithstanding, the odds of lawmakers’ repealing or delaying the new requirements appear slim. Employee groups are meanwhile mulling a lawsuit on Privacy Act grounds.
As a key deadline draws nearer, the Senior Executives Association continues to press its case against Internet posting of top career federal officials’ financial disclosure reports. That recently enacted requirement is set to kick in by the end of August for some 28,000 Senior Executive Service members, political appointees, and military general and flag officers. In a six-page paper released today, SEA urges a delay in implementation “for careful consideration” of the potential impact, followed by action to exclude career feds if the case against the new mandate “is as one-sided as we believe.”
Among the association’s arguments: Online access will increase the risk of identity theft, give criminal gangs access to federal officials’ personal financial information and make it harder to attract talent to the Senior Executive Service. While the organization has raised most of these points before, the paper represents its most detailed critique to date. Already, the new rules are leading many senior executives to consider retirement or reverting to a GS-15 level, according to the paper.
“The audience is obviously both Congress and the administration and frankly just to get more people thinking about this,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro said in a phone interview. The association is also exploring the possibility of a lawsuit on Privacy Act grounds, she said.
The online disclosure requirement is part of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, signed in April mainly to ensure that lawmakers don’t use inside information to fatten their portfolios. Along the way, however, someone in the House (just who isn’t clear) decided it would be a good idea to make it easier for the public to see the annual disclosure reports filed by Executive Branch officials. Although those reports–officially known as Office of Government Ethics Form 278s–are already public, they have generally been available only on paper via a written request. As a rule, agencies haven’t made it easy to access them. Even finding out who has to file can be a chore.
But as SEA notes, the new requirement was added without so much as a congressional hearing. While Office of Government Ethics officials had hoped to issue implementing guidance to agencies by the end of April, that task has apparently turned out to be harder than expected. Almost two months later, OGE isn’t saying when that advice might come. Eventually, the ethics office is supposed to build a central website to house the reports. Until then, agencies are supposed to post them on their own sites.
Incidentally, another STOCK Act deadline is just two weeks away: As of July 3, federal officials covered by the Form 278 filing requirements must divulge stock purchases and other transactions worth more than $1,000 within 45 days. Until now, they have only had to report those transactions once a year.