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Groups Object to Disclosure Rules

As Congress on Thursday clarified language in a new financial disclosure law to make it apply to spousal assets, a group of high-level federal workers and four organizations representing government employees sued to block the implementation of the law, arguing it violates their right to privacy.

The lawsuit against the U.S. government and the Office of Government Ethics in U.S. District Court in Maryland alleges that the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act’s inclusion of certain government employees violates their right to “informational privacy” by publishing details about their mortgages, bank accounts, stock holdings and other data online.

Though the first iteration of the legislation applied only to Members of Congress and their staffers, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) introduced an amendment that extended the disclosure requirements to executive branch employees after arguing he had “yet to hear a compelling argument against equity between the branches,” according to statements he made during debate on the law.

The plaintiffs are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

“Certain Executive Branch employees, including members of the Senior Executive Service and senior military officers, were added by a subsequent amendment, without any congressional hearing, and despite the fact that these Executive Branch employees were already subject to strict financial disclosure provisions and extensive conflict of interest rules,” according to the complaint filed by the group.

“These employees were included in the STOCK Act’s Internet disclosure on what amounts to a ‘misery loves company’ theory from the amendment’s sponsor,” it continued.

The complaint cites a litany of unintended consequences from making the requirement apply to government employees. It emphasized potential risks to national security by excerpting a July 19 letter sent to Congressional leaders by a group of experts, including former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

The group argued that posting senior government employees’ financial data would be a “jackpot” of information that enemies of the United States could exploit.
“It is precisely the information that foreign intelligence services and other adversaries spend billions of dollars every year to uncover as they look for information that can be used to harass, intimidate and blackmail those in the government with access to classified information,” the letter said.

“We should not hand on a silver platter to foreign intelligence services information that could be used to compromise or harass career public servants,” according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs asked the court to block the posting of government employees’ financial data online. That was originally slated to occur Aug. 31 but was pushed to Sept. 30 when Congress tweaked the legislation Thursday.

“There is a difference in [privacy] law between public, elected officials and other government employees,” Pillsbury litigator Jack McKay said in an interview.

Plaintiffs suing to block implementation of the law include an employee at the Eunice Kennedy National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a NASA engineer, a field operations coordinator for immigration services, an intake director in the civil rights office at the State Department, an administrative law judge at the Justice Department and a unnamed woman employed by the foreign service, along with the Senior Executives Association, the American Foreign Service Association, the Assembly of Scientists and the National Association of Immigration Judges.

The lawsuit estimates that 28,000 executive branch employees, both civilians and military personnel, will be affected by the increased disclosure requirements.

Correction: Aug. 6, 2012

An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the lawsuit had been filed against the U.S. government and the Office of Congressional Ethics. It was filed against the U.S. government and the Office of Government Ethics.