Virginia Ethics Council’s Searchable Database a Dud

So much for improved conflict-of-interest transparency. The Virginia ethics council's searchable database shoots blanks.
So much for improved conflict-of-interest transparency. The Virginia ethics council’s searchable database shoots blanks.

You can imagine my excitement to read this morning in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council has finally put lawmakers’ statements-of-economic-interest filings online. That information could prove invaluable to journalists and bloggers reporting on the inner workings of the General Assembly.

The statements detail what gifts lawmakers receive, what companies they own stock in, and who employs them and members of their immediate family. For years that information has been held in state offices, available only to those who physically inspected the records in downtown Richmond. Accessing the data online is a breakthrough in transparency. I, for one, looked forward to double-checking legislation for conflicts of interest without the tedious necessity of leaving the Bacon’s Rebellion Global Command Center.

Making a beeline for the Virginia ethics council website this morning, I entered the name of a particularly conflict-afflicted legislator, and eagerly awaited the results. Here’s a screen capture of what appeared on my screen:

Thanks for nothing.

If it’s any consolation, the searchable website for registered lobbyists does work. You can find the names, for instance, of all 16 of Dominion’s registered lobbyists, and all 16 of the Virginia Education Association’s. Of course, you can get the same data over at the Virginia Public Access Project website. Indeed, the VPAP website is better — it allows you to search the lobbyist records by issues lobbied, and it reports on the newest lobbyists registered. It even displays lobbyist photos!

Hopefully, the Virginia ethics council will get its website working soon. But it would serve the public interest even better by turning its data over to VPAP, Virginia’s one-stop-shopping for data on elections, campaign contributions, legislation, candidates and legislators, and lobbyists. Adding lawmakers’ statements of financial interest to the government-transparency portal would be awesome.

Update: OK, here’s what’s going on. The search feature provides a drop-down menu with two options: “June 2016” and “2017.” The June 2016 option is the default option. I used that default option when conducting my search. However, when I switched the option to “2017,” I was able to reach the most current filing. Not a complete dud, but confusing to say the least.

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9 responses to “Virginia Ethics Council’s Searchable Database a Dud”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    been there.. done that… this morning also

    what a bunch of slimeballs…

    this just demonstrates the utter contempt that elected officials hold
    on this issue..

  2. jalbertbowden Avatar

    A quick search worked for me…I’m wondering if the reason you saw that is because that person is currently being investigated for conflict of interests?
    Tommy Norment pinged back an answer, so clearly they are not hiding all of the power players, although I would not put that past them.

    EDIT: I had not clicked through to the underlying data. Wow, what a joke. At this point I think its dishonest to call it a database.

    Either way, this is not the first time the state has published what they call data, only to have to jump through administrative hoops to actually get at the real data. Off the top of my head, most recently VDH began publishing data using the proprietary software Tableau; it makes charts and graphs easy and they look pretty/shiny. However that data is useless without a Tableau account, that of course costs money to acquire. VDH proactively publishes a statement/contact email under the datasets about acquiring the data, however it still took them around 2-3 weeks to get back to me on the data behind the lead in our water graph.
    Two steps forward, three light years back: the Virginia way!

    1. When I plugged in a legislator’s name, the search pinged back the name and provided a link to the conflict of interest statement. When I clicked on that link, I got zilch.

      When you plugged in Norment’s name, were you able to click through to see his actual filing?

      1. jalbertbowden Avatar

        sorry for the delay, i could not. my first response here was off, apologies. there are plans in the works at the moment to scrape the db and stand up a usable site. hopefully more to share later.

  3. jalbertbowden Avatar

    Second Reply:
    Apparently they only have the last years worth of filings online.
    Running a search for 2017 while leaving everything else blank, returns 10k+ results.
    Naturally, they only offer the option to few a maximum of 100 at one time…
    Have already emailed/heard back/responded from Ethics Council regarding this…hopefully will have a bulk download of 2017 from them shortly. Still waiting to hear back about acquiring/accessing data for years prior to 2017.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    CLEARLY- the folks involved had no intention of providing a user-friendly, easy to use function –

    I’m not taking excuses..

    either this thing works – easily – as advertised – or we know what
    legislators actually intended.

    this is on them… either fix it – or keep the slimeball label.

    this is why people condemn government these days.. it’s one bad faith
    behavior after another…

    1. My philosophy is this: “Never attribute to bad faith what can plausibly be attributed to incompetence or confusion.” I think this little SNAFU falls into the latter category.

      But you’re right, the Council needs to fix this right away. There’s just no excuse for it.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    If they want to come out and say they got ahead of themselves and should never have “touted” it to a reporter for RTD.. that would be fine.

    but when we already have skullduggery running rampant in the GA anyhow… we can’t even find out who voted in sub-committees.. this just has that stink smeared on it too…

    this is really Lame in the first place. Have you seen the actual “disclosures” .. it’s a joke… all they have to do is answer “yes” if they have more than 5K in property? Really?

    1. Agreed, this is lame! But it looks like the problem lies not only in data disclosure but also in what data was collected. “More than 5K in property”? What legislator doesn’t? Even a single used auto would trigger that threshold these days; therefore it tells us NOTHING about the individual or his/her conflicts of interest.

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