A new government watchdog is putting the financial forms of state legislators and other officials on an interactive map.

Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit online news organization, is uploading to the Internet information about where and how the money flows in the state’s capitol.

One of the organization’s latest works is a comprehensive report on the freshman members of the 81st Legislature. Posted online now for the public’s view are the personal financial disclosure forms the 19 representatives and two senators were required to file with the Texas Ethics Commission.

The freshman members’ forms join those of 181 other lawmakers who were in office on October 2008 and whose forms were published prior to the November election.

Deputy editor Jennifer Peebles discussed Watchdog’s work with the Daily Light in a recent telephone interview from the organization’s Houston offices.

On publishing the financial reports, Peebles said Watchdog was told a law exists that prevents the Ethics Commission from posting those online itself.

“That law says that whenever someone wants to see a disclosure form, the Ethics Commission has to take down the personal ID of that person (requestor) – and that has to be kept on file,” she said. “The law prevents them from making the reports available online because the Legislature created this process that they have to take identification from everyone.

“Of course, with the Internet, you don’t know who is seeing the reports. It could be a million people named ‘anonymous’ or it could be nobody,” she said. “So (the Ethics Commission) says the law prevents them from making the forms public online.”

It’s unclear how long the law has been on the books – and it could be that it simply predates the Internet age and has never been updated.

There’s also the possibility the law was put in place as an intimidation factor.

“(The process to see the forms) would probably scare off 98 percent of the people who would want to see them,” Peebles said. “It’s very daunting for an average person to go into a governmental office and have their ID taken and know that somehow or other it will get out to the person they’re looking up.”

As it stands, the forms can be reviewed in person at the Ethics Commission in Austin – or an Open Records request can be filed and a copy requested via mail for a fee, which can vary in amount depending on a number of factors, such as the number of documents sought.

Watchdog has a goal of placing even more of the reports online on behalf of the public. Besides the Legislature, they’ve posted the governor, lieutenant governor and several other state officials’ forms. It’s looking to acquire those of the State Board of Education members and university presidents next.

“We’re trying to get the forms of everybody the state has a form on,” Peebles said. “We’re doing it in chunks due to the time and effort involved, as well as the money.”

At this time, she’s not aware of any push on the part of the Ethics Commission or the Legislature to change the law and put the forms online themselves. 

“I wish I could say yes but we really haven’t heard anybody wants to make them public or that anyone in the Legislature wants to make them public,” she said. “I wish I could sit here and tell you that we’ve done some good and changed things, but we haven’t. Maybe someday.”

Watchdog has been online since August, with Peebles joining the staff in September. The organization is operating under a grant from the Chicago-based Sam Adams Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on transparency in government. 

“This focus fits perfectly into the mission of Texas Watchdog, which seeks transparency at all levels of government and wishes to arm citizen-journalists with journalistic tools to keep City Hall honest,” Watchdog’s Web site reads.

Peebles and her co-workers – Trent Seibert, Lee Ann O’Neal and Matt Pulle – have extensive backgrounds in print journalism, particularly in the area of government reporting.

Of their move to an Internet-based news organization, Peebles said, “We wanted to try to do something different and in a different atmosphere from where we were sort of encumbered by the trials and tribulations of a for-profit entity and where there was never enough staff and time.

“We always wanted to do good nuts and bolts watchdog reporting and that’s what we’re getting to do for awhile,” she said, “and we’re hoping we’ll be around for a while longer.”

Watchdog’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, with Peebles reporting a good response to its publications of the ethics forms. As an example, when Joe Straus emerged as a dark horse candidate for speaker of the House, Watchdog’s Web site saw numerous hits from people going online to research his filings, which were published along with the other speaker candidates’ in a special report.

“I think there’s a need for people to see these forms and I think we’re providing a public service,” Peebles said.

As an example, the forms can help the public determine whether there’s a conflict of interest or not when looking at donations made to a lawmaker and how he or she is voting.

“These forms let people decide for themselves if there’s a conflict,” Peebles said, describing Watchdog as “very interested” in looking into any potential conflicts.

“People keep telling us – in a broad sense – there’s a fair amount of that going on here (in Texas),” she said. “We don’t know if it’s true or not but we aim to find out. … We’re looking for suggestions. We want to hear from people.”

Other reports done by Watchdog include (all available via its Web site):

• Top state worker pay last year: $530,595

• Big Oil, groceries and country music give big bucks to rebuild governor’s mansion

• Interactive map profiles candidates for Texas House speaker

• Chisum: Legislators aren’t state employees; will ask Ethics Commission about disclosure

Watchdog is funded through the end of the year with the Adams’ grant; its staff members already are researching additional grants and other revenue sources so they can continue their work involving open government.

On the Net:

www.texaswatchdog.org

E-mail JoAnn at joann@wninews.com