- To promptly access staffers’ financial records, you have to trek to the US Capitol.
- We found many staffers violating the STOCK Act. Several refused to explain why.
- The lack of transparency isn’t a bug, it’s a feature, legal experts say.
In August, three Insider political reporters endeavored to obtain public records about the personal finances of top congressional staffers.
These records aren’t supposed to be some state secret. They’re mandated by a law called the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act. In theory, any American should have reasonable access to them.
But they don’t.
This is a story about how Congress makes it nearly impossible to obtain and understand information designed to defend against conflicts of interest — and how over the last five months we went and did it anyway.
KIMBERLY LEONARD: Theoretically, you can call to obtain copies of congressional staffers’ personal financial disclosures. For Senate records, they’re $0.20 per page. But when we tried, our calls either went to voicemail or we were asked to fill out forms to retrieve these records — a process that could take weeks. To obtain these records without an indeterminate wait or great expense, or without playing phone tag with the Office of Public Records, you have to physically go to Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. This information is only readily accessible via computers located in windowless rooms in the House Cannon Building basement and the Senate Hart Building.
CAMILA DECHALUS: Some may wonder, why does that matter? Why did we spend countless hours looking at these records? Well, senior congressional staffers regularly have access to sensitive information that lawmakers are getting in closed-door meetings that is not available to the public.
WARREN ROJAS: They could also be taking advantage of these privileges and making certain well-timed stock investments, which could go against current regulations.
KIMBERLY: By law, congressional staffers whose salaries exceed a certain annual threshold — more than $132,552 in 2021 and $131,239 in 2020 — are required to disclose what stocks they bought and sold.
CAMILA: Back in August, we at Insider realized that the only way to find out whether senior congressional staffers were violating the law through late filings or potential conflicts of interests would be to manually check every single financial disclosure and reported stock trade. That meant spending endless hours on Capitol Hill scrolling through ever-changing financial records.
KIMBERLY: We spent countless hours on Capitol Hill, and we went back multiple times ahead of publishing our project, but in the end we did look at every filing from the start of 2020 to the end of August 2021.
CAMILA: That meant sifting through approximately 8,300 filings — more than 4,400 from high-ranking House staffers, and nearly 3,900 from high-ranking Senate staffers — click by mind-numbing click.
WARREN: What we learned wasn’t just that roughly 200 people had filed their disclosures late. The process taught us the extent to which elected officials and their staff were willing to go to obscure information they’re required to make publicly available. After talking to experts, we learned it was that way by design.
KIMBERLY: It took me half a day to figure out where in the sprawling US Capitol campus — there are numerous office buildings beyond the Capitol — the financial disclosures were located. I finally found the House records in the Cannon Office Building basement. (The Senate records are located elsewhere — more on that in a moment.)
Before I could begin searching the records, I had to type my name, address, and organization into the only computer that was working at the time.
I realized there wasn’t an easy way to search these records. You can’t just type in “Nancy Pelosi” or “Kevin McCarthy” and see the financial disclosures their senior staff submitted. The House documents don’t even say which member of Congress each person works for. If you look at a document, it will show only the state abbreviation and the district, or list the abbreviation for the committee. Try memorizing that for 435 people.
The other option for looking through the database is to select a year, such as 2021, to see all the filings reported so far. But there’s no way to limit the search to a more narrow time frame. So good luck checking the records every week hoping to spot new filings. You can’t. You must go through them all and pick up where you left off alphabetically.
It became immediately clear that getting a full picture of congressional staffers’ financial interests would be a task as tall as the Capitol dome. So I teamed up with Insider DC Bureau colleagues Camila DeChalus and Warren Rojas to get it done.
CAMILA: At first I thought it wasn’t going to be that difficult accessing information on what kind of stocks congressional staffers in the Senate were trading. Wow, I was wrong.
The first time I set out to access records on Senate staffers, I went to the Senate public-records office located in the Hart Senate Office Building on the second floor. In front of the office’s glass doors stands a tall American flag on the left side. Immediately when you enter the room you see on the right side three computers set up side by side. When I arrived I was greeted by a “be back in 15” sign on the door. The person running the office eventually came back, but these short breaks became routine. When the office-minder went on a break, I had to go on a break, too — they wouldn’t allow me to stay there alone. One hour’s worth of work to find information often turned into two or three hours’ worth of work because of the constant delays.
Only one Senate staffer was allowed to work in the office to limit in-person contact due to the pandemic. That made accessing these records more difficult.
WARREN: For a while there, the “out for a quick errand” sign on the Hart Building’s second floor became the bane of our existence.
I quickly learned that swinging by the Senate resource center within an hour on either side of noon was a fool’s errand because of the unpredictability of the staff’s lengthy lunch breaks. But popping by earlier proved equally frustrating.
On more than one occasion I found myself waiting for the lone office staffer theoretically on duty that day to return from tending to their personal to-do list. Often they’d meander back double-fisting steaming java from Senate-staffer haven Cups & Company. One aide strolled in with freshly reclaimed dry cleaning over their shoulder.
The worst time suck was the day I showed up at 9:30 a.m. stupidly believing I’d knock out the pending research in a few minutes. The errand sign was already up, falsely promising me access within 10 minutes. When the bagel-toting staffer finally showed up 35 minutes later, I rushed to the first available terminal in the hopes of extracting what I needed before the first round of votes that morning.
The first computer failed to boot up properly. The staffer tinkered with it for a little bit before sliding over to the next terminal. That one wouldn’t even turn on. He made a call. He nodded knowingly before hanging up. And then the staffer asked if I could come back later. I said something about returning within the hour.
“Could you make it after 2 p.m.?” the staffer countered.
KIMBERLY: It was clear from our visits that most people did not even know that they could access these records and that they rarely did so. The logbook on the Senate side hadn’t been signed in months, so our day-after-day presence at these computers was definitely out of the ordinary.
Over on the House side, Congress’ lower chamber had its own problems. For weeks there was only one functioning computer terminal — literally the only one in the entire United States of America — available for viewing congressional staffers’ financial information. Camila, Warren, and I had to take turns using it.
Someone from congressional IT finally got a second computer working. But the system remained super complicated.
If someone trades stocks frequently, they generate reams of documents to comb through, and each must be separately downloaded. Some individual disclosures went on for 10 pages or more, so I had to scroll back and forth to see whether staffers had disclosed their trades late and which of their filings were the most tardy. I also had to compare the different amendments they filed to see whether some of the disclosures were actually late or whether an amendment was filed to fix a typo.
Some of the filings were handwritten and incredibly difficult to read. (This turned out to be true for some members of Congress as well.) Printing the filings for closer inspection might have helped somewhat, but the House charges $0.10 per printed page, while the Senate charges $0.20 a page.
‘They want to make it hard’ to find these records
KIMBERLY: The public’s right to access data about top congressional staffers’ personal finances was supposed to be significantly stronger. Under the original STOCK Act that Congress passed in 2012, senior congressional staffers’ financial disclosures were slated to be posted online, just like they are for members of Congress.
Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist for the nonprofit watchdog Public Citizen, told me the law had also mandated that the disclosures be “searchable, sortable, and downloadable.”
Obviously, that’s not the system we have today. Not even close.
So how did it all get so off track? One year after the STOCK Act became law, Congress quietly and quickly passed another bill that amended it. President Barack Obama signed it into law. This amendment gutted language that would have made it easy to search congressional staffers’ financial records. That’s how they all ended up in specific databases that could be accessed only on the Hill.
Even the data on members of Congress — while posted publicly online and accessible to anyone with an internet connection — is clunky. For example, there’s no way to see how many members of Congress invest their money in a particular company, except to look at every member’s individual filings. (But you can soon do that using a database Insider has created!)
CAMILA: When we finally analyzed the congressional-staffer financial data we needed, we determined that dozens of staffers were weeks, months, or even years late in filing their mandatory disclosures. I followed up with the Legislative Resource Center about whether it keeps records for people who violate the STOCK Act’s deadlines and whether they paid statute-required late fees. But a clerk of the office said he could not comment on it because the information was “confidential.”
WARREN: Neither House nor Senate Ethics Committee staffers would speak on the record about their internal processes. They provided no official guidance on whom congressional staff with filing-related questions should ask to speak to at the committee — though the names of the lawyers and financial professionals who vet everything for each chamber are posted online. And they offered no explanation about whether documentation exists that would verify claims of having hashed things out with ethics officials one way or the other.
The Senate Ethics team redirected every question to a dedicated phone line that evidently handles all incoming calls, while House Ethics stuck with the check-our-website mantra.
CAMILA: I spoke with James Thurber, an American University professor and congressional-studies expert, and he said the lack of transparency about congressional staffers’ financial records is “intentional.”
He told me that “they want to make it hard” to find these records.
KIMBERLY: I called up Walter Shaub, the former director of the executive-branch-focused US Office of Government Ethics who now leads the government-ethics initiative at the Project on Government Oversight. I told him what it was like for us to dig up the congressional data.
“This is absolutely shocking, which is not to say that it’s surprising,” he said. “But it’s shocking in that it’s truly appalling behavior by Congress trying to flout the spirit of its own laws.”
When people want financial documents from the executive branch, all they have to do is send an email asking for it, he told me.
He also noted that my colleagues and I were all in DC when we researched congressional staffers’ financial information. But that’s not true for everyone who wants to access such a wide array of information. A political researcher from Fairbanks, Alaska, for instance, would need to take at least two flights, pay for a hotel, and trek to Capitol Hill. It would be especially difficult on days when the congressional document repositories have limited hours, such as during recess — or when someone like Camila, Warren, or me is monopolizing the limited computer terminals.
Jason Briefel, the director of policy and outreach at the Senior Executives Association, the director of policy and outreach at the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional association representing career federal civil servants, told me that his organization supported amending the law in 2013 for personal safety and security reasons, particularly for those who work on national security issues or have to travel abroad for work.
“We don’t want privacy to be a cloak, but being able to track someone down at their house where you know what their assets are and how much they are worth — that is a lot to put out there,” he said.
Yet he also said he thought the law clearly could be improved. While he doesn’t think the information from senior staff should be posted online like it is for members of Congress, he said lawmakers should consider how to make it easier for journalists to access and sort through the records. He called the enforcement of the law “inadequate.”
The system, as designed, doesn’t allow reporters or the general public to independently verify whether congressional staffers and members of Congress are paying fines associated with violating the STOCK Act’s filing requirements. We are mostly left to rely only on the word and honor of congressional staffers and lawmakers who may have violated the STOCK Act.
CAMILA: Because we couldn’t confirm with other congressional committees and offices on which lawmakers and staffers violated the law and therefore had to pay the fines, we contacted congressional staffers and lawmakers themselves independently to confirm if they paid a $200 late fee.
KIMBERLY: While several people were transparent about what had happened and even provided us documentation, many others refused to explain why they had violated the STOCK Act, saying only that “the matter was resolved.” Some forwarded our inquiries to press representatives who gave similar canned answers.
Shaub lamented that “Congress has a terrible history of not even trying to live up to ethical requirements it sets for both itself and the executive branch.”
“The problem is that the executive branch has Congress watching over it, and Congress has nobody watching over it,” Shaub said. “So the old saying ‘It’s good to be king’ rings true in this case.”