According to Cook County Clerk David Orr, 98 percent of public officials in Chicago and Cook Countywho were required to submit Statements of Economic Interests (SEI) online submitted a statement. This is the second year in which government officials and public employees have filed their statements online and this data has been searchable through the clerk's public portal.
Nearly 200 public officials listed gifts from honoraria to baseball tickets in a summary released today of 2011 Statement of Economic Interests filings for Cook County.
"Voters and reporters alike can now browse every gift and every filing, whether they were given by a medical school, a church or a politician," said Orr. "You can satisfy your curiosity 24 hours a day and download any statement, plus charts listing gifts, late filers, multi-filers, filers by town or board."
The SEI search tools are available at cookcountyclerk.com, by clicking on the "ETHICS FILINGS" tab, then "STATEMENTS OF ECONOMIC INTEREST" and finally the PUBLIC PORTAL'S "ENTER" button.
"My office launched the SEI Online portal in 2011 so the media and public could easily access the statements of officials who oversee how our tax dollars are being spent," Orr said.
According to Orr, the portal allows browsers to see fiscal interests of elected officials on governing bodies from the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Schools to park, fire and pension boards. The 2011 list of filers contains over 22,000 officials from Chicago, Cook County and suburbanCook County, including:
SEI statements include eight questions asking filers to disclose potential conflicts in categories such as business ownerships, professional organization directorships, professional services rendered, capital and real estate gains, licensing and permit conflicts, income, gifts and honoraria.
Orr noted that the new online SEI tool has the potential to be a great advance for transparency around the state, not just in Cook County. "I'm proud that we have given our software to a number of other Illinois counties who recognize the advantages of our system."
However, like any tool, the SEI portal only works if it is used. "My office can post information, but it's up to the public and the press to scrutinize it," said Orr. The last section of this release includes a chart with the answer distribution and text of each question.
Some key highlights from this year's summary include:
The last item on the SEI questionnaire asks public officials to list gifts they have received in excess of $500 dollars individually or in combination.
All filers are notified via email or mail about the filing deadline, which was May 1, 2012 for activity during the 2011 calendar year.
Nearly 1,100 filers filed late, which meant they had to pay a $15 late filing fee. The list of late filers is available at cookcountyclerk.com.
Individuals who fail to file are sent a notice by certified mail. Their names are then turned over to State's Attorney's office, unless they work for Cook County, in which case their names are turned over to the Cook County Inspector General's office.
Each local Unit of Government (UOG), whether a park board or a school district, determines who must file Statement of Economic Interests. Because different units have different decision-making structures and sizes, the number of filers is not uniform from place to place. For example, not every unit requires people in the same job classification to file.
This year, we compared the number of filers from units of government with census data on their size and median income. While there are many factors that might determine the number of filers (data on the size of each local government does not currently exist) the numbers suggest that different municipalities interpret who is required to file differently.
(See corresponding charts of suburban municipalities with the fewest filers, most filers and acomprehensive list of filers by suburban municipalities including population and median income.)
Because there is not currently an office within the state government to help provide direction as to who does and does not need to file, UOGs have great latitude in interpreting the law. Likewise, individual filers are also left to interpret the questions within the statement for themselves.
Of the 22,000 respondents, 87 percent gave an answer of not applicable, or N/A to each of the eightSEI questions. Since most filers respond "not applicable" to the overwhelming majority of questions, language may be unclear or too narrow to capture all potential conflicts. (See corresponding chart for a break down of substantive answers given and question language.)
The Clerk's office has supported changing the wording of the questions to plain language rather than legal terminology. Lieutenant Governor Sheila Simon has also proposed substantive changes to theSEI questions. While the online search function was a critical step, the questions should be revised to be clearer and to elicit a more detailed response.
Another step that needs to be taken is to remove the loophole that allows individuals not to file for the previous year if they are no longer working at the time the statements are due. The law should be amended so that if you serve in a position which falls under the SEI umbrella or requirements, even for a short time, you must file a statement.