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Toward Bigger and Bolder Collaborative Disclosure

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, April 20 2009

PACER_docsCJR's Clint Hendler profiles what ProPublica has been up to regarding amassing and posting the White House ethics and financial disclosure forms that the executive would rather dribble out upon request. From the White House's perspective the trouble is a little something called the law. The post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act, writes Hendler requires that anyone getting a copy of a completed disclosure record certify that they aren't going to use it for commercial purposes. The 1978 law also requires that the Office of Government Ethics keep tabs on who have gotten their hands on the documents. Those requirements tie OGE's hands -- at least in the opinion of OGE. But it isn't exactly clear whether OGE is completely in the clear handing out documents to ProPublic's interns, knowing that they're going to end up freely available on a publicly accessible website -- aware that the intention is second-use by people who haven't pledged to uphold the covenants first requesters did.

You see a certain operating principle at work here that could be seen as both (a) very powerful and (b) not used nearly enough. Many of of us have jobs that involve collecting documents and extracting some utility from them. But we tend to toss them in a corner when they cease to be of use to us. ProPublica and the New York Times have a grant in the works to compile and share FOIA-requested and other useful documents once reporters are done with them, and Carl Malamud's PACER recycling project has a similar thing going with court records.