LegiStorm Chief Defends Disclosure-Form Move

Jock Friedly, founder of the Web site LegiStorm, says he's providing a public service by posting the financial disclosure statements of House and Senate employees who make more than $110,000 a year. Friedly explains why he's making the records available online.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

If you wanted to know about the salary and personal finances of a member of Congress or a senior congressional staffer, until recently you could go to a room on Capitol Hill and look up the financial disclosure forms; you can still do that. But now, a group that monitors Congress, called LegiStorm, has digitized that information and made it available on the Web.

The Washington Post reports today that this has angered many House staffers, and it certainly raises questions about how much personal information about people should be available worldwide because they work for the government — home addresses, a list of their financial assets, and roughly how much each asset is worth, replications of their signature.

Well, joining us from LegiStorm is Jock Friedly, the president and founder of LegiStorm.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOCK FRIEDLY (President; Founder, LegiStorm): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Critics argued you've created an identity theft kit here for people if they want to learn about congressional staffers or members. What's the rational for releasing so much information?

Mr. FRIEDLY: Well, I think the concerns about this Web site are vastly overblown. You know, we're releasing this information because it is available publicly to anybody who wants it. And now, we've simply put it on the Internet. These are forms that they — the staffers and the members of Congress — have filed themselves, that the Congress mandated by law, and so, we're just simply making that information available.

SIEGEL: But I'm thinking, if I were a staff committee member for a congressman, and where my 401(k) was - and what I owned in the way of property was all made public, saying that it was always easy to find in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building is a lot different from saying now, anybody with the modem in Belarus can read this about me.

Mr. FRIEDLY: I agree that there is obviously a quantitative and qualitative difference in the, you know, ability that we are providing for people to access the information. But the reason that Congress decided that this information should be disclosed is because that sunshine is a good thing to keep our democracy clean.

SIEGEL: Social Security numbers are not shown in these forms.

Mr. FRIEDLY: No. They are not shown in these forms. There are some staffers, though, who in the interest of abundant disclosure, some staffers included information that they'd simply didn't need to include. For example, statements from their Smith Barney account. And in a small handful cases, we did remove…

SIEGEL: You did remove.

Mr. FRIEDLY: We did remove any sensitive information.

SIEGEL: Well, if you could remove sensitive information in a small number of cases, why not, say, remove the thousands of signatures that are replicated here which are, you know, pretty easily copied as you were saying.

Mr. FRIEDLY: Yeah. We have 3,800 records in our database. You know, we estimate to touch each one, edit all these things out, it would cost a good bit of money — $10,000 is our conservative estimate. And frankly, we don't think that there is a very significant risk of this being abused. It's not like…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FRIEDLY: …we are providing other information that a scammer would need. For example, investment account numbers or other things that a signature might be useful for.

SIEGEL: I did look at a number of people's statements and found absolutely nothing…

Mr. FRIEDLY: Right.

SIEGEL: …remarkable in them at all. And indeed, in many cases, the fact that somebody has this certificate of deposit somewhere here, an IRA there, who knows what…

Mr. FRIEDLY: Yeah.

SIEGEL: …what that means?

Mr. FRIEDLY: I think, in the vast majority of cases, the staffers have absolutely nothing to hide. They joined in battle on public service for a good cause. They believed in what they're doing. But there are a handful of cases that raised some very serious questions. There are now three chiefs of staff who've been accused of various law-breaking and ethics violations on the basis of information that was in their disclosure.

What's interesting about it is even reporters who have visited that room in the House and the Senate on a regular basis, they find it infinitely more helpful to use our Web site to search through this information. So, they never discovered it before. Now, that they have access all in one place, they have found these problems.

SIEGEL: Jock Friedly, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. FRIEDLY: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Jock Friedly is the president and founder of LegiStorm.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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