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Judge Frank Magill was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1986. The Chief Justice appointed him a member of the Committee on Financial Disclosure (formerly Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Ethics) in 1987, and Chair of the Committee in 1993.
Q: What are the responsibilities of the Committee on Financial Disclosure?
A: The Committee on Financial Disclosure has supervisory responsibility for the Judiciary's implementation of the financial disclosure provisions of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989. The committee has three basic functions: it reviews the financial disclosure reports filed by judges and other judicial branch officers and employees; approves and modifies the reporting forms and instructions; and responds to inquires regarding financial disclosure matters from judges, employees, and the public.
Q: Is May 15 the only time judges and employees are required to file a report?
A: No. Most judges or employees will file three types of reports during their time with the Judiciary. Nomination or initial reports are required from all judges when they are first nominated for or assume the bench. Judicial employees file an initial report when they are appointed to a position the pay for which is 120 percent of the basic pay of a GS- 15 for those who are compensated at $81,529.20 or above for calendar year 1995. Thereafter, annual reports are due on May 15 of each year until the filer retires or leaves the Judiciary. At that time, a final report is due which covers any unreported time period since the last annual report. This year, 2,667 annual reports covering calendar year 1994 will be filed and approximately 300 other reports will be received throughout the year.
Q: Do the members of the committee actually review financial disclosure reports?
A: Yes. Each of the judges on the committee is assigned an area of responsibility and personally reviews all reports for that area. After the reports have been received and an initial review is performed by the staff of the Administrative Office's Financial Disclosure Office, the reports are forwarded each Friday to committee members for review. The reviewing judge, either certifies the report as complete or directs that a letter be forwarded to the filer over my signature requesting more information in order to complete the report. Currently, each judge reviews over 150 reports.
In the other branches of government designated staff attorneys or ethics officials perform the final reviews and certification of the reports. The committee believes that it is extremely important that judge's reports are reviewed by judges who fully understand the financial disclosure requirements of the Ethics Reform Act, are familiar with the guidance contained in the Codes of Conduct, and understand significant differences inherent in judicial duties and responsibilities as opposed to those filers in the other branches of government.
Q: Have there been many changes during your tenure as chair of the committee?
A: We believe that our service to the filers in processing their reports has improved significantly over the last few years due to a number of changes in how the staff and the committee process reports. John Howell, the committee counsel in the Article III Judges Division of the AO, and his staff have instituted a number of management reforms that have significantly reduced the time required to process the reports and allows us at any given time to know where each report is in the review process. Also, the committee has spent considerable time and effort improving the filing instructions and clarifying reporting requirements for filers. As a result, for example, all financial disclosure reports received prior to July 1 have been screened and forwarded to the reviewing judge for final review.
More significantly, the committee reviewed, closed, and certified over 95 percent of the reports for calendar year 1993, that required no further information within 60 days or less. Our goal is to continue to meet the requirement of the Ethics Reform Act to complete all such reviews within 60 days. When you realize that the judges on the committee must first handle their cases and then dedicate the time to review and certify the reports, you must certainly appreciate that hard working, dedicated judges have been consistently appointed to the committee over the years.
Q: From the letters sent out to filers over the years, it seems that many of the requests for information are about the failure to fill in blanks or use the right value codes to describe the value of an asset or its income. Is there too much "nitpicking" in the process?
A: The committee looks at the process as a two-fold obligation. First, we try not to ask for more information than is required by the statute. However, we have the obligation to ensure the Judiciary fully complies with financial disclosure requirements of the statute. The statute is surprisingly detailed in what it asks for. Currently, the committee is working to further clarify the filing requirements with respect to IRAs and brokerage accounts. This work has resulted in a number of letters of inquiry this year about the assets contained in such accounts. The key to effective implementation of the statute is to ensure a complete listing of assets when the filer is in a position to manage or direct the management of the asset, as opposed to a mutual fund where the filer simply buys shares in the fund, but is unable to influence day-to-day management activities or asset selection. Secondly, the reports are constantly scrutinized by the public and have been the basis for a number of articles about the Judiciary. The committee feels an inherent responsibility to ensure that the reports released to the public are an accurate reflection of an individual judge's activities and financial holdings.
Q: You mention the release of reports to the public. Can anyone look at the reports and does this not raise security concerns for judges and their families?
A: The statute is very broad with respect to release of reports. Basically, reports are available to just about anyone, including prisoners and disgruntled litigants, provided they comply with the committee procedures for requesting the forms. The committee is particularly aware of the security concerns with respect to the release of reports. They are the same concerns that face filers in all three branches of government. As an example, the report form does not require home addresses, and any such addresses as well as financial account numbers are redacted prior to release of the reports to the public. The committee also provides notification to individual judges and employees when their reports have been released.
Q: What happens if someone files late or refuses to file?
A: If a report is received over 30 days after its due date, a late filing fee of $200 is assessed by the committee. The filer can request a waiver of the fee for good cause, but the reason must directly impact on the filer's ability to comply.
If a filer does not file, the statute ultimately provides for the referral of the filer to the Attorney General for prosecution. Fortunately, only one such referral has been made in recent years.
The staff of the Financial Disclosure Office is instructed to make sure that filers are notified before the 30-day grace period expires in order to avoid the assessment of large numbers of late fees. For example, on June 1, the committee counsel sent letters to a number of filers whose annual report had not been received. All but four of the filers were able to file their reports prior to expiration of the 30-day grace period or requested and were granted an extension to complete their reports. The staff works very hard to manage the report process to ensure that problems are avoided.
Q: Can any significant changes be expected in the filing process for next year?
A: We envision no major changes. A number of steps have already been
taken to improve the filing process. Reports are processed faster. Thus,
requests for additional information now arrive in June and July when the
memory and information is fresh. The filing instructions have been
recently revised to add samples, checklists, and commentary to help
clarify the filing requirements. Committee members are making
presentations during the circuit judicial conferences inviting feedback
and criticisms of the filing process. Several good suggestions have been
made that we are evaluating. The committee is attempting to reduce the
number of letters requesting information and replacing our inquiries
with advisory letters to assist in the next year's filings. The software
program continues to improve and certainly eases the burden of copying
last year's information each time a report is due.
from The Third Branch 8/95
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