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Education NewsTracker

Financial Disclosure Info Lacking on State Board of Education Members

Two state Board of Education members never filled out conflict-of-interest forms during their tenure, a review by the state comptroller’s office found, despite a board policy that requires disclosure to help guard against ethics lapses and ensure transparency.

In a review of disclosures submitted from 2006 through August 2009, auditors found that two members had not completed forms at all. One served for nine years without ever filling out a disclosure form.

The ethics forms are aimed at revealing whether board members or their families have financial stakes in companies licensed by the board or department.

The findings were detailed in a wide-ranging state audit of the state Board and Department of Education by the comptroller’s office. The audit criticized inspections of pre-K and other child care providers, poor handling of students’ identifying information that allowed some of it to be made public, and the process for verifying information submitted by local school districts.

In reviewing the board’s ethics forms, auditors found one form that was rendered useless because the signature was illegible, and there was no line on the form to print the filer’s name.

Auditors recommended the board require members and staff to complete the ethics forms on an annual basis and keep the forms on file for at least three years. In its response, the board agreed.

Other highlights:

  • In late 2008, a state contractor, Public Consulting Group, posted student data including dates of birth and Social Security numbers to a website that could be accessed via a Google search; in some cases, parents’ information was also made public. The data was removed about three months later, after a Metro Nashville Public Schools employee stumbled on the information. The audit says Public Consulting Group provided identity theft and credit monitoring services to the students and their parents, communicated the issue to the national credit bureaus, and implemented new policies to keep the problem from recurring. When news of the security breach broke in April 2009, a principal for the company expressed regret, telling WSMV Channel 4, “We take full responsibility for this incident, and we formally express our sincere apology to the students and parents of Metro Nashville Public Schools.”
  • Department staff were also faulted for poor control of personal information. Student names and Social Security numbers were included in two PowerPoint presentations available on the department website for about two years. Though one was removed immediately after auditors raised the issue, the second presentation was still available six months later. According to the audit, the department paid for credit monitoring services for the affected students and their families.
  • The department’s process for inspecting child care programs was weak, and recordkeeping was inconsistent, the audit found. Auditors became concerned after spot-checking files for three facilities kept at the central office in Nashville and finding that some inspection reports were missing in all three. They moved on to district offices, where they reviewed files for 110 programs and found inconsistencies in the forms and in the way they were filled out. Also puzzling were 10 annual inspection forms that were dated as completed on a weekend. According to the audit:

“The auditors questioned whether the inspections were as thorough as intended by the legislature. We also questioned certain activities in one field office. We referred our concerns to the appropriate staff at the Department of Education and submitted our work to the State Attorney General’s Office for further review.”

In its response, the department said it had developed new training and switched to an electronic system of inspections.

  • Auditors said the department should create a centralized system for verifying compliance information submitted by local school districts.
  • The board did not submit notices of vacancies to the Secretary of State for any of the seven board vacancies that occurred from 2006 to 2009, hindering the state from announcing open appointments, auditors found.
  • Auditors said the department should develop a formal plan to address teacher shortages. Even though the department responded to the criticism by producing a plan, staff later said that little had been done with it because of lack of funding. The plan apparently became obsolete before it could be used or implemented.
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Featured News Transparency and Elections

Haslam Sticks to Disclosure Stance

Saying he’s been consistent about his thoughts on financial disclosure issues for more than a year, Gov. Bill Haslam defended his recent decision to eliminate previously established requirements that top government officials reveal their private income, including stockholdings and business investments.

And a sizable majority of Tennesseans are apparently “comfortable with (his) position” on the matter, otherwise they wouldn’t have voted for him, the freshly sworn in 49th governor of Tennessee told reporters in his first official press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday.

“I’m not certain what (divulging investment income) adds to the process,” Haslam said. “Again, I said that all here during the campaign: I think it’s really important where. But how much? I’m just not certain what difference that makes.”

The new guidelines for powerful executive-branch employees are now on par with financial disclosure requirements in place for members of Tennessee’s part-time citizen legislature.

Haslam deflected any suggestion that eliminating former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s standard for revealing levels of, and returns on, financial investments in any way undermines the new administration’s stated  “commitment to transparency and openness in state government.”

Haslam asserted that his policy of requiring officials to reveal generally what they own — if not exactly how much they own — is consistent with “the highest ethical standard” of potential conflict-of-interest disclosure.

“I don’t think that next step of telling exactly what the amount is makes a difference,” said Haslam.

A recent administration press release announcing the new disclosure guidelines stated that “(t)he rule should be, the more you can be in the open, the better.” Another transparency-related executive order issued over the weekend declared it “the unwavering policy of the Executive Branch to facilitate the right of Tennesseans to know and have access to information with which they may hold state government accountable.”

Gov. Haslam’s Executive Order No. 1 requires that he and the 29 other ranking administration officials, as well as their deputies and assistant commissioners, disclose only where their money comes from, not how much. The order nixed Bredesen’s policy on disclosing not only the source of income, but the level.

The new governor also told Capitol Hill reporters Wednesday that he’s seeking to create an administrative culture that is not in any way perceived as arrogant, but rather is efficient, knowledgeable, frugal and respectful.

Haslam spent a lot of time during the campaign season fighting off critics for refusing to disclose his holdings in Pilot Oil Corp., a multi-billion dollar truck stop chain owned by the Haslam family.

On Wednesday House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said he’s somewhat disturbed that the governor would weaken transparency rules instead of strengthen them.

“I think he would set a good trend for his administration if he’d go back and rethink his position on that,” said Turner. “I actually think right now that what we do (disclose) is pretty low-ball, to be honest with you. I think we should probably disclose more, myself.”

However, Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell told TNReport she isn’t bothered by the new governor’s disclosure policy.

“Disclosing the sources is the most important part of ensuring there are no conflicts of interest,” Harwell said though her spokeswoman. “I have every confidence that the administration is committed to maintaining the integrity of these offices and positions.”

Here’s a sampling of the press conference Q&A between Haslam and reporters Wednesday:

Reporter: There’s been quite a bit said about this executive order regarding the income disclosures. Why did you decide to change the standards for you and your administration?

Haslam: It’s consistent with what I said all through the campaign of the position I’ve taken there is no difference… It’s important that everybody understand where your sources of income and where your investments are. I didn’t think the amount mattered. I was real clear about that during the campaign. Obviously a whole lot of discussion. In the end I think the people of Tennessee were comfortable with my position.

Reporter: But it’s not the highest ethical standard – clearly there’s a higher ethical standard that you’re not achieving.

Haslam: I disagree. I mean, I think it is the highest ethical standard. We’re telling everybody exactly what we own. I’m not, you know, I don’t think that next step of telling exactly what the amount is makes a difference. Everybody needs to know what you own and your sources of income. That’s very important, so I actually think it is the highest ethical standard.

Reporter: Why not say how much?

Haslam: Well I’m not certain what it, what it adds to the process.  Again, I said that all during the campaign. I think it’s really important where. But how much? I’m just not certain what difference that makes.

Reporter: What if you had someone who said they had a very small amount of income verses someone who had a large amount of income. Wouldn’t that shed some light on their potential conflicts of interests?

Haslam: Well, again, if they report that they have that – it’s a company that they regulate, for instance – then that’s out there right now. People can assume they might own 100,000 shares of it or 1,000 shares. The conflict, the potential conflict in the situation still exists. I don’t think it matters. And you, you all if you’re doing your job know, Ok – here’s commissioner so-and-so, he has – he or she has this investment that that’s out there pretty clear.

Reporter: For at least the past 32 years governors have released that sort of information – tax returns and such. Were they wrong to do that?

Haslam: Well, I mean, everybody gets to make their own decision.  Again, this is no different than what I’ve been saying for over the, for actually the last 16 months.  And everybody in the state of Tennessee… every one of you wrote an article about it and covered it. I don’t think there was anything new, and we’re gonna work to be consistent, and again I think the people of Tennesse felt very, very comfortable with that when the vote came.

Reporter: During the campaign you constantly compared yourself to what other candidates had given, but in this case you are releasing less than what other governors have given.

Haslam: That’s not – that’s not true.  And we’re doing the exact same thing – same thing that’s required in the General Assembly, the exact same thing that historically most governors, a lot of governors, have done in other places. And again, I go back to this: I was real clear, there was no secret about any of this and how I felt about that when I ran, and ultimately, again, I think the people of Tennessee felt very comfortable with it.

Reporter: Did you indicate that you would rescind Mr. Bredesen’s first order during your campaign?

Haslam: I don’t know if that ever came up, but I was real clear. I mean, I don’t think there was any lack of clarity about what I said I was going to release or not release during the campaign, so there was zero percent confusion about that.

Reporter: Were you worried about the perception of that? You talk about the one chance to start fresh, and this is the first thing you do.

Haslam: Sure. And we could have waited and said and done that three weeks from now, but, you know, it’s something that, again, I was very clear about during the campaign. Why not go ahead and do it. I’m not worried about the perception because I think the reality is this: if there’s a chance, if there’s an interest and if there’s a conflict, everybody is going to know what that is. Everybody understands that investment. I honestly don’t think this is, I do think this is the highest ethical standard, and it’s no different than what I’ve been saying all along.

Reporter: In the press release you put out, it didn’t mention the fact that you were making major changes in terms of people no longer having to disclose their federal income tax return. Was the press release in any way misleading?

Haslam: Well, I don’t think – I’ll let you all be the judge, I honestly don’t think that . Again, we were being very clear about a decision we had made, and again, it was consistent with what we’d said. I mean, if this is something I’d never talked about during the campaign, it would be one thing, but literally, I think the issue, you know, we started talking about it a year before election day.

Reporter: Does this help you get some cabinet members, who otherwise might be uncomfortable disclosing all their assets?

Haslam: No, I don’t think we had one person who said I’ll only come if this – I can honestly say that didn’t happen.  Again, it’s just being consistent with what I’ve said for over a year.

Reid Akins contributed to this report.