Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Friday, October 20, 2017

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.
by Ariana Tobin and Derek Kravitz

Last Friday night, the White House began making staffers’ financial disclosures “available,” which give a glimpse of officials’ often extraordinary personal wealth. But it didn’t post the documents publicly. Instead, the White House required a separate request for each disclosure. It also didn’t release the names of staffers who have submitted the forms, forcing reporters and others to guess and play a game of Transparency Battleship.

To combat the pointless opacity, ProPublica teamed up with the Associated Press and The New York Times to request disclosures for all the applicable staff that we know of — 171 people overall. We’ve received 88 filings to date, and posted all of them. (Check out our public Google Drive folder of disclosures. The Center for Public Integrity has also made them searchable.)

The White House still hasn’t released most staffers’ financial disclosures – at least 80 are sitting around unreleased.

The White House did not respond to ProPublica’s requests for comment.

While we’re waiting, let’s talk about what we do have and what we have found. Many ofyou gave up parts of your weekend sleuthing, and wrote to us with your findings.

We’ve gotten quite a few promising tips already, and we’re continuing to follow up on those. We wish we could buy you all a round in thanks for your help. But in lieu of pints, we thought we’d share the answers we have on some of the answerable questions you’ve raised.

How did the disclosure process work during the Obama administration?

The Obama administration first released reports on April 3, 2009 — also on a Friday, also in the tenth week of the president’s term. At the time, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics posted a list of staffers who had finished filling out financial disclosures and signed ethics agreements available for request.

That said, they did not post all of the documents online for anyone to see, citing the Ethics in Government Act of 1978but we did. It involved a lot more scanning, but also less guessing.

Why didn’t the Trump White House just post them online?

The onerous process can be blamed, in part, on the same Ethics in Government Act and the subsequent Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge, or STOCK, Act of 2012. (The STOCK Act limited the release of some financial disclosure statements to only the president, vice president and senior federal employees, among other changes in online posting of documents.) The White House still could have released the names, but didn’t.

What are the differences between the Trump White House disclosures and those from the Obama administration?

To quote Press Secretary Sean Spicer:

“The president has brought a lot of people into this administration, into this White House, in particular, who have been very blessed and very successful by this country and have given up a lot to come into the government by setting aside a lot of assets …”

In other words: Many of people are very wealthy — wealthier than those who served in past administrations. Their portfolios are large, complex and contain lots of potential for conflicts of interest.

Where are President Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s financial disclosures?

They both also file financial disclosure forms, but at a later date.

Because President Trump filed two financial disclosures as a presidential candidate, he is not required to submit another one until May 2018. The same is true for Vice President Pence, who filed a federal financial disclosure in August. (Pence also released 10 years’ worth of tax returns in September. Trump, of course, has not.)

The fact that a president doesn’t have to file disclosures immediately hasn’t usually mattered much — because other presidential candidates have released their tax returns.

How do we know that disclosures are accurate and comprehensive? How were they vetted and by whom?

The Office of Government Ethics reviews these forms after they’re filed for compliance. If something is intentionally omitted or knowingly false, federal employees can face fines and jail time.

What, exactly, should we be looking for in the documents? What would be helpful to your reporting at ProPublica?

Mostly, we’re looking for tips. The best way to send them is through our form.

They could be anything. Perhaps you know something about one of the companies listed. Is there a nonprofit with a track record we should look into? If you’re a tax attorney, maybe you see something that would set off your radar. Or maybe, as quite a few readers have, you do a little math and say, “Hey, why would a millionaire have an outstanding student loan?” At this point, we think it’s important for the documents to be public so that people with all kinds of expertise can assess them.