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GOP Lawmakers Alter Intelligence Reform Bill to Cloak Financial Ties

Watchdog groups say the provision would make it harder to detect conflicts of interest.

November 16, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Citing national security concerns, some Republican members of Congress are trying to limit the personal financial information that top federal officials must disclose.

Tucked within the House's 497-page version of the "9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act" is a provision to repeal the requirement that senior-level officials report their personal financial assets valued at more than $2.5 million. It also would end the practice of disclosing the dates of stock transactions.

The proposal to limit financial disclosures initially covered only top-level intelligence officials. It was recently expanded to include all executive branch officials, according to a draft version of the bill.

"Something like this shouldn't be done secretly," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. "It should be done thoughtfully and after some hearings."

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of legislation to overhaul the nation's intelligence community, based on the recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. A conference committee is currently meeting to come up with a final draft of the legislation.

The new disclosure provision was included during the conference committee negotiations. "They're burying it in a large bill that is very controversial on other issues, so no one is going to pay any attention to this," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group.

The new disclosure policies would make it harder to detect when officials have personal financial stakes in matters before them, watchdog groups say. The current rules require officials to list the value of their assets in categories, beginning at "none or less than $1,000" and ending at "more than $50 million."

Claybrook said that after her group complained about the special financial disclosure rules for intelligence and national security officials, congressional negotiators "amazingly went even further to limit reporting for all government agency officials."

In praising passage of the House version of the bill last month, Rep. Thomas M. Davis (R-Va.) said that streamlining the financial disclosure rules for top members of the intelligence community would improve the presidential appointments process and help attract candidates who might not otherwise apply.

"Financial disclosure requirements are supposed to protect against conflict-of-interest concerns. But they have become proxy statements for a nominee's net worth, with more detail than necessary," said Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

Last week, three nonprofit watchdog groups -- Public Citizen, the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 -- urged the conference committee to get rid of the "ill-considered provisions." Keeping disclosure rules in place is critical, the groups said.

The current law "serves as an important check on potential conflicts of interest without imposing unreasonable reporting burdens on officials," the groups said, noting that the disclosure of stock sales, with dates, "provides the greatest single safeguard against insider trading by government officials. The timing of such transfers can serve as a red flag for potential fraud, and disclosure of these transactions is therefore a first-line defense against corruption."

Waxman also wrote to the Republican leadership, urging that they reject any efforts to use the legislation to undermine financial disclosure rules or expand the limits on disclosure to Congress. He said Democratic members had sought unsuccessfully to strike the provision from the House proposal.

Financial disclosure forms have been used to shed light on the private assets of public officials. In 2002, the Center for Public Integrity revealed that 22 of the top 100 Bush administration officials had "significant" holdings in companies that had lobbied their departments, agencies or offices.

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