Obtaining ethics compliance files from universities
Last month, I came across BuzzFeed’s project aimed at documenting the business connections of President Donald Trump in an effort to understand how his financial interests might intersect with public policy. Monitoring officials’ potential conflicts of interest is a key role of reporters at the state and local level, too.
One of the primary sources BuzzFeed used to compile its data is a collection of filings from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics called Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Reports. In North Carolina, there is an Ethics Commission that compiles similar filings, which they call Statements of Economic Interest (SEIs). And more than 7,000 of them are filed every year.
I was curious to know more about the SEIs and started coming up with a list of questions that might help me better understand their purpose and how they might help me look for potential conflicts of interest:
- Who has to file an SEI? Who on a university campus?
- What has to be disclosed?
- Who manages accuracy and completion?
- How often must SEIs be filed?
- What are penalties for not disclosing or disclosing false or incorrect information?
I’m a college student, and I’m from Fayetteville, so I decided to pick Fayetteville State University as a small test case to help me better understand the potential and limitations of SEIs.
Who has to file an SEI?
A 2006 General Statute, N.C.G.S. 138A, or the State Government Ethics Act, delineates which government employees file SEIs and and how they do so.
The general rule is everyone who is elected, appointed to, or employed by the state government who earns $60,000 or more annually from the government is subject to this statute. Those individuals are called “covered persons.”
At universities though, all chancellors and vice chancellors are required to file, regardless of salary. But no other university employees are required to file. (As a side note, the voting members of the Board of Governors of The University of North Carolina system, as well as the president and voting members of each campus’s board of trustees also must file SEIs.)
Fayetteville State University’s chancellor, James Anderson, has filed his SEI for at least the last three years, which is as far back as the online public records date. (To access records not available online, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The files will either be at the Ethics Commission’s offices or archived at another location.)
Under Anderson are seven vice chancellor positions, according to the university’s website. Two positions are not vacant. The other five vice chancellors have either filed complete SEIs or a proxy form called a No Change form that states the official has no changes to report to their prior filing.
What has to be disclosed?
Here’s a brief summary of what the statute dictates. SEIs must disclose all assets and liabilities totaling $10,000 or more that are owned by the the person filing the report and/or their immediate family. The types of assets and liabilities include but are not limited to the following:
- Real estate located in North Carolina
- Personal property deals (leases or sales) with the state of North Carolina
- Any publicly or non-publicly owned companies
- Any companies owned by the reported non-publicly owned companies that value more than $10,000
- Trusts controlled by the covered person, where the covered person or his or her immediate family is a beneficiary
- Liabilities and their creditor type
- Any stock options not already disclosed
An individual covered by the law must also disclose names of sources of incomes from business or industries that exceed $5,000.
How does one practically manage the accurate completion of ethics forms?
The North Carolina State Ethics Commission doesn’t manage any of the completion or accuracy of the forms, according to Pam Cashwell, assistant director of the commission. That responsibility is with the government institution where the covered person works via the Ethics Liaison.
At universities, this person is often a staff member of the legal affairs office. (For an incomplete list of university Ethics Liaisons or where to find them, see the end of this post. And please send tips to email@example.com on who we’re missing.) Thus the Ethics Liaison ensures the appropriate university administrators submit complete SEIs and communicates with the Ethics Commission to deliver them.
The Ethics Commission’s only task in the process is ensuring the forms are complete. They are not required to audit the forms for accuracy and do not do so due to the large volume of forms filed each year. The commission rather relies on what Cashwell called community enforcement: if someone is interested in a particular SEI or a particular state employee and they notice or suspect an error, that person can bring that information to the commission’s attention.
How often must a covered person file?
Most people filing SEIs must update them by April 15 every other year. Some people, including the university officials covered by the law, must file every year.
For newly elected/appointed/employed officials, an SEI also must be filed and evaluated before they begin work. Again, an exception is made for university officials, who must file an SEI before they begin, but the filings don’t need to be evaluated before their start date.
When does the SEI become public record?
For individuals prospectively in elected positions, SEIs become public record when the covered person is sworn into office. For individuals prospectively in appointed or employed positions, SEIs become public record when the covered person is appointed or employed by the State.
What are penalties for not disclosing or disclosing false or incorrect information?
There’s a 30-day grace period after the filing deadline during which the ethics liaison and the covered person are notified by the Ethics Commission of their failure to file. After the grace period, the covered person is charged $250, then has 60 days from the date they received the notice to file, or they face a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Lying or any other “willful failure” to follow any part of the statute is grounds for removal of the covered person from their position.
Please let us know if this was helpful or if there’s related information you’re interested in seeing us add to this post for clarity or for added thoroughness.
Next week, I’ll write about the challenges that these PDF forms pose for reporters seeking to get a complete picture of the potential entanglements between public officials’ policy decisions and financial interests across the entire state.