- Members of Congress are required by law to disclose their stock trades.
- But some lawmakers’ disclosures are almost impossible to read.
- Government watchdogs accuse some lawmakers of engaging in ‘transparency theatre’.
The good news: Rep. Ro Khanna this week did better than many of his congressional colleagues when he complied with federal conflicts-of-interest law by submitting timely documents detailing more than 800 recent stock trades made on behalf of his wife, Ritu Khanna, and their dependent children.
The bad news: Most of the California Democrat’s disclosures are all but unreadable, more closely resembling black blotches of ink than actual words and numbers.
Khanna’s disclosures, such as they are, underscore how some members of Congress continue to struggle with the most foundational aspect — transparency — of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act of 2012.
Their blurry, garbled, or otherwise haphazard disclosures come as Congress is actively debating whether to ban lawmakers and their families from trading individual stocks altogether, prompted in part by Insider’s “Conflicted Congress” project, which revealed numerous STOCK Act violations and conflicts of interest among federal lawmakers.
Other lawmakers joining Khanna in submitting less-than-transparent financial disclosures include Rep. Doris Matsui, a fellow Democrat from California, who filed a 2020 annual financial disclosure that pushes the boundaries of legibility.
The most recent annual financial disclosure of Rep. Michael Guest, a Republican from Mississippi, requires extreme magnification to begin deciphering its abbreviation-riddled line items.
Rep. Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, discloses his personal finances using pen and paper, often scratching out mistakes and leaving handwritten notes — his penmanship is distinctive — in the margins.
And for reading disclosures from Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Oregon, it may help to have a cryptographer on hand.
“Publishing information in difficult to use formats defeats transparency and accountability, which is a main enforcement mechanism by which the law works,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director for the nonpartisan Demand Progress Education Fund, which advocates for government transparency. “Publishing financial documents without the data is secrecy through obscurity and a form of transparency theater that fails to serve the public interest.”
For Khanna, the congressman has “filed every month on time the same way in his five years in Congress and is always in full compliance,” spokesperson Marie Baldassarre said. “He is committed to transparency and looking into options to make it easier to read the scan of his disclosure forms in the future. The originals he files are always very legible.”
Baldassarre declined to comment on whether the Clerk of the US House of Representatives, an office in Congress that processes and publishes congressional financial disclosures, is at fault for Khanna’s blocky, blurry financial documents.
Clerk of the US House of Representatives Cheryl Johnson did not respond to messages left with her office.
It is the “expectation” of the Committee on House Administration, which oversees the Clerk of the US House of Representatives, “that disclosure documents are displayed in a way that is accessible and beneficial to the public,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
The Committee on House Ethics, not the Clerk of the US House of Representatives, alone has the power to reject an inadequate financial disclosure made by a lawmaker or congressional staffer — a move that would be highly unusual for the committee, which has taken a decidedly permissive approach to enforcing the STOCK Act.
Members of Congress are allowed to disclose their stock trades one of two ways: digitally, using a congressionally approved online filing system, or on paper, using a pre-printed form, as Khanna does.
In formal guidance to lawmakers last year, the House Committee on Ethics said it “strongly encourages” filers to utilize the online system because it “can significantly increase the accuracy” of personal financial filings.
Electronic filings made through the House’s online system are also easier for the public and press to analyze. Handwritten or scanned paper financial disclosure documents are generally not machine readible, and therefore, they require people to manually interpret and input members of Congress’ financial data into a homespun database.
Last year, Insider did exactly this, compiling, analyzing and fact-checking hundreds of US House and Senate financial disclosures to create a searchable, sortable, and near-complete accounting of members of Congress’ personal finances. The process took hundreds of hours.
Baldassarre previously noted that Khanna himself doesn’t trade stocks — only his wife does — and that the congressman “supports a ban on stock trading that applies also to spouses.”
In the meantime, keen eyesight, digital enhancements, or an old-school magnifying glass may be required to determine what Khanna’s wife is buying and selling.
On April 22, for example, it appears that Khanna’s dependent children had between $50,000 and $100,000 each in Pfizer, Walt Disney, Meta Platforms, and Bank of America stock purchased on their behalf, among numerous other stocks.
Ritu Khanna also reported purchasing up to $15,000 worth of stock in Yandex, a Russian internet company, a few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.