Amended Online Disclosure Bill Passes Maryland Legislature

The House of Delegates removed some provisions of a Senate bill to put public official's public officials' ethical and financial disclosure forms online, but the sponsor said the proposal that ended up passing both houses retains its core elements.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, said Wednesday that the bill is a giant step in making Maryland government more transparent, even if the new version leaves out some key parts of his original plan.

“The bull's eye core of the legislation survived,” Raskin said. “So the heart of it is there, which (means) we're putting online the principal ethical disclosure forms of all the members of the General Assembly.”

Delegate Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee, said she worried the original bill, which would have also put financial disclosure forms online, put officials at risk for identity theft.

The committee amended the bill to remove the financial disclosure requirement, only post the ethics disclosures of lawmakers and create a group to study the potential of further expanding the law.

The bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly on Monday as the Legislature wrapped up its work for the year. Officials in Gov. Martin O'Malley's office say he will likely sign it.

Raskin's initial proposal would have put both the ethical and financial disclosures of lawmakers and executive-level officials on the Internet. It would have eventually phased in hundreds of other public employees' forms as well.

Senators amended the bill to apply to county governments, but that provision was stripped by the House committee.

“Essentially all the members of the General Assembly are jumping into the pool first and the other government officials will follow,” Raskin said.

In order to view the disclosures of state-level officials, Marylanders must travel to Annapolis during typical business hours and provide identification.

Lawmakers are then notified that their disclosure forms have been reviewed.

The bill maintains that standard online. Susan Wichmann, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said the notification requirement could discourage people from examining the forms.

“I do think there is a chilling effect when you require someone to give their name in order to access this public information,” Wichmann said. “If you have matters before members of the General Assembly and you are looking at their information, you might be afraid it might affect the outcome of what you're pursuing in Annapolis.”

She said she hopes to work with the group that will study expanding the law.

“Ultimately what we would like to see is to see something along the lines of the Senate (version of the) bill where access to the financial disclosures is freely available and posted on the Internet,” Wichmann said. “While we understand that some of the sensitive information might need to be modified, we think that should be able to happen.”

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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