"The modern world caught up with state lawmakers..."
By JAY ROOT
AUSTIN, Texas — For years the Texas Legislature has resisted calls to publish politicians' personal financial information on the Internet. But the modern world caught up with state lawmakers when a fledgling watchdog group posted the disclosures online.
Texas Watchdog, a nonpartisan organization that uses public records to pull back the curtain on state government, obtained scanned copies of the financial disclosures for the major state officeholders and published them on their Web site Wednesday.
Before the forms were only available on paper at the state Ethics Commission in Austin.
"If the public can't easily get at these records, they don't do voters and taxpayers much good," said Trent Seibert, editor of Texas Watchdog. "Through this site, Texas residents will be able to keep a close eye on public officials and sound the alarm if they spot a conflict of interest."
The ethics commission, which collects the data, was all but barred from publishing the information on its Web site.
The law required that state lawmakers have access to the name and address of any person that requests their financial information, so it was impossible to put the disclosures online and make them available anonymously, said Tim Sorrells, the ethics commission's deputy general counsel.
Critics have said the requirement allowed lawmakers to intimidate people seeking their disclosure reports, which contain information such as business investments, sources of income and business relationships they have before state agencies or with registered lobbyists.
But Sorrells said nothing bars Texas Watchdog from requesting the files and then posting them online.
It published an interactive map giving the public access to the most recent forms, allowing Texans to click on their part of the state and get a glimpse of the personal holdings of their government representatives.
But Texans still might find it difficult to identify potential conflicts of interest or get an accurate picture of lawmakers' wealth.
The Associated Press has reported recently on the obscure personal finances of several top lawmakers. Among them are House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who acknowledges a business relationship with a registered lobbyist but won't say who. The law doesn't require it.
The presiding officer of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, also has major business holdings — including cattle ranches, private bank investments, a luxury condo and various stock investments — that are not individually on his forms. Dewhurst denies any wrongdoing.
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© 2008 The Associated Press: www.ap.org
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