State political watchdog agency seeks to expand searchable online conflict of interest database

by Tracy Seipel, San Jose Mercury News

Seeking to improve transparency and revolutionize the way residents interact with their government, the state’s political watchdog agency on Thursday will discuss a new application software that it says can help the public better gauge where potential conflicts of interest may exist with their elected officials.

At its monthly board meeting in Sacramento, officials at the Fair Political Practices Commission will propose expanding a pilot program it introduced on its website last fall that allows voters to more easily search statements of economic interest filed by state judges to include similar statements filed by all California public officials.

"One of my biggest projects is to try to bring the FPPC into the 21st century with our website by providing as much information as possible to the public in an easily accessible way," said FPPC Chairwoman Ann Ravel, a former Santa Clara County counsel. "It all ties in with my emphasis on disclosure."

A Statement of Economic Interest, or Form 700, must be filed annually by elected state officers, state legislators, judges and court commissioners, among others, by March 1, while city and county officials and certain government employees must file with their local agencies by April 1. All of the statements are ultimately sent to the FPPC.

The mandated forms include information about the sources of an official’s income, investments, business positions, real estate holdings and gifts. Reporting an economic interest isn’t a conflict in itself, but conflicts may arise when an official governmental decision made by that official impacts their economic interests.

The issue of Form 700 recently has come into sharper focus during an investigation by the FPPC and District Attorney’s office into Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa Jr.’s purported campaign reporting and county credit card improprieties. A form 700 he filed for the 2011 calendar year included a questionable consulting fee from a troubled university. The FPPC, which is investigating lapses in Shirakawa’s campaign filings, is also looking into the veracity of the consulting fee.

While the paper Form 700s are maintained at city and county clerks’ offices and with the FPPC, Ravel has worked to ensure they’re available online. Now, she’s trying to make the data easier for the public to search for pertinent information.

"If you wanted to see if a particular developer gave gifts to elected officials all over the state, it’s very difficult to pull that information up now," said Ravel. "That’s the kind of thing we want to be able to provide."

Last year, the FPPC leveraged a unique public-private partnership with the nonprofit Code for America, and Captricity, a Berkeley-based firm that extracts data from paper documents and transcribes it into digital spreadsheets. The collaboration led to an app that allows the Form 700 information to be searchable, and the pilot project linked to the Form 700s of state judges.

"It’s one-stop shopping for all this information on our website," said Gary Winuk, chief of the FPPC’s enforcement division. "The idea is to hold people accountable."

Kim Alexander, founder and president of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, which seeks to improve the voting process to better serve the state’s voters, called the FPPC’s latest effort "phenomenal."

"Unfortunately, lawmakers are not chomping at the bit to make it easier for the public to view their personal finances," said Alexander. "This gives the public a chance to research and review interesting patterns they would not otherwise find."