On the heels of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issuing a memo in March on Freedom of Information Act transparency, a government watchdog group is demanding the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Office of Government Ethics (OGE) publicize all financial and ethics conflicts of interest for senior appointees and federal officials.
Protect the Public’s Trust wrote to Garland and OGE Director Emory Rounds on Tuesday, citing how access to documents related to conflicts of interest are often “cloaked behind walls of government forms.” The watchdog takes issue with the fact that only financial disclosure reports for Senate-confirmed presidential appointees and incumbents are made public, according to OGE’s website.
“For any investigator versed in this arena, it’s clear that the system for members of the American public to discover the information contained in financial disclosure forms is broken and in dire need of repair,” the watchdog wrote. “The relevant forms cannot be obtained via the FOIA process. Even among the highest-ranking officials whose forms are posted on the OGE website it is fraught with repeated extensions granted to officials with complicated personal finances and potential conflicts of interest requiring divestiture.”
For instance, the group cites that while there are 126 listed appointees for the Department of Education, only nine reports are currently available for public viewing. The letter comes weeks after Garland’s March 15 memo providing Freedom of Information Act guidelines for federal agencies and departments.
The attorney general urged chief officers for records in agencies to undertake thorough assessments of processes and “carefully review backlogs of requests.” Such backlog has been noticeable in recent years. The Department of Defense left 22,412 requests pending at the end of 2020, and the DOJ’s average processing time for “simple requests” surged from 30.22 days in 2018 to 39.30 days in 2019.
Tom Jones, co-founder of the watchdog group American Accountability Foundation, told The Daily Wire that he thinks Protect the Public Trust is “right on target” about its calls for easier public access to financial disclosures. He thinks disclosures for senior government leaders ought to be swiftly available.
“As a former financial disclosure filer myself, my filings are online and easily accessible by the public, and the same should be the case for presidential appointees,” said Jones. “I would go a step further and maintain that financial disclosure for senior civil servants should be easily accessible. Given the influence of senior leaders in the federal government over the lives of every day Americans it is not too much to expect that we know that they’re not acting to enrich themselves. ”
Protect the Public’s Trust is calling on agencies to provide all financial disclosure forms within 30 days of completion to OGE, followed by OGE willingly granting access to law-abiding requestors. The group says that form 278’s — which are the name for the financial disclosure reports – should not be concealed so as to burden Americans seeking transparency about government employees. The watchdog is also urging the government to post a list of agency appointees, in addition to those who are Senate-confirmed.
The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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