Wednesday, March 19, 2008

LegiStorm: I 'd Say Jeff Ain't Loveng It.

I received an email a couple of days ago from Jock Friedly the founder of the company LegiStorm which posts online, amongst other things, the financial disclosure forms of congressmen, senators, and their staff. All of this information has been public since the 1970s, but you had to go to the Capitol to access it, which meant that most citizens had to rely on journalists to inform them about it. Now anyone can do it from the comfort of their own home. That seems to have some people rather upset.

During the 109th Congress, shortly after the company launched, legislation was introduced to put LegiStorm out of business. It failed to pass. But some people on Capitol Hill are still rather upset about this venture. Jock's email to me included an email exchange he had recently had with Jeff Loveng, the chief of staff of Rep. Bill Shuster (R, PA-9), one district over from us here in the Centre Region. Here's the exchange in full with the email addresses redacted.

It begins with Jeff Loveng filling out a feedback form on LegiStorm's Web site.

You left us the following feedback :

Since you have put financial disclosure's on your web site I (and my wife and children) are being harassed by telemarketers with specific information about the stock holdings we have and the financial institutions where we have them. Calls like, " Hi I am calling about your investments with Northern Trust Bank..."
Apparently the little box that you have to check to log into your site does not dissuade evil doers. What do you intend to do to protect me and my family? Just because I am a public servant does not mean I should be subject to this type of harassment. Please tell me how you will protect me. I am eagerly awaiting your reply.
Sincerely, Jeff Loveng
There's something odd about this. This guys says he's being harassed by telemarketers, but this can easily be dealt with by placing his number on the Nation Do Not Call Registry or an individual company's do not call list. Why then is he complaining to LegiStorm?

Here's Jock's response.
From: LegiStorm
Sent: Monday, March 10, 2008 10:07 PM
To: Loveng, Jeff
Subject: Your LegiStorm feedback


Thank you for writing with your concerns. We already take measures to protect staffers from unauthorized use of disclosures by putting a legal warning on the site and requiring use only by registered users.

However, we do not believe the telemarketers phoned you because of information obtained on our site. With financial records of millions of Americans available to customers of Lexis-Nexis and other specialized databases for this purpose, it strains credibility to believe that someone spent hours culling through our site looking for the holdings of a small handful of individuals, especially when using the information from our site would involve breaking the law.

If you continue to believe companies may be misusing this information, we would advise you refer these telemarketers to the Justice Department so that any illegal behavior can be stopped. Please let me know if I can be of any more assistance.

Jock Friedly
President and Founder
All that did was make Jeff a little hot under the collar. Here's the message he fired back. The emphasis is in the original.

From: Loveng, Jeff
Sent: Friday, March 14, 2008 11:06 AM
To: LegiStorm;
Subject: RE: Your LegiStorm feedback

Mr. Friedly –

Thank you for responding to my inquiry regarding the placement of Financial Disclosure Forms (FD) on your web site. I would like to point out a couple of errors in your response.

You mentioned that you already take measures to protect staffers from unauthorized use of disclosures by putting a legal warning on the site and requiring use only by registered users. Your site does do these two things, however these are protections in name only, they have no effect. As you may know, the 1978 Ethics in Government Act and subsequent amendments do not contain any penalty provisions for misuse of the data – the law simply states in the Appendix that it is unlawful. I don’t know of any criminal case where an individual has been charged for an unlawful event cited in an Appendix of an Act. Additionally, if hypothetically an individual was charged, the Act has no penalty provisions, thereby rendering it useless.

You also noted that you do not believe telemarketers phoned me because of information obtained on your site… that financial records of millions of Americans are available to customers of Lexis-Nexis and other specialized databases for this purpose and that it “strains credibility” to believe that someone spent hours culling through your site looking for the holdings of a small handful of individuals. Your answer here is not only insulting and accusatory, but again incorrect. As you may know, proper compliance with the FD form requires the inclusion of all financial data including the names of financial institutions, specific names of holdings and their value range, property, mortgage information and the creditors and debt levels associated with the owned assets, as well as other information. Your statement that this type of data is widely available also “strains credibility”. This type and level of financial data detail is not available anywhere else through any purchasable data source - period. For a person to acquire this type of information without access to FD's would require a breach of banker/client privacy that only a grand jury or judge could grant.

You also mentioned that you doubted people would spend the time to look through the data. Apparently (and confirmed by a Google search reveling your plethora of self promotion you flood the internet with that shows your limited professional experience) you have never been in a job that was sales/commission based while in a downward trending economy like most brokers are today. Brokers will go to great lengths to find leads on potential new clients. Not to mention it is very easy and quick to go through the reports. Once potential abusers of the data know it is a potential good source of new clients and since it has been widely reported on the news and on-line that Legistorm is making this data available – it does not take a rocket scientist (or even a physicist) to figure it out.

You also mentioned that if I continue to believe companies may be misusing this information, you would advise me to refer these telemarketers to the Justice Department so that any illegal behavior can be stopped. Given my response above in reference to no penalty section in the 1978 Act…how exactly is the Justice Department supposed to stop this illegal behavior? With a time out or a wag of the finger?

I realize that the FD’s have been publicly available under section 105 of the Act for 30 years, but I think any logical person would agree that the 1978 Act did not foresee the internet and all its mass media potential. When FD's were contained to the basement of the Cannon Building it was a different world where staff could find out the identity of anyone who looked at their records. However, now once the FD file goes through your Legistorm web laundering process the old check and balance system is lost, striping staff of what little privacy they had and of any ability to keep the highly personal data out of the hands of the unscrupulous. But given that you think it is no big deal, I challenge you to put your own Financial Disclosure on your web site in an up front positioning where anyone visiting the site can see it.

Your biography indicates that you have led all of your adult life on the “peeping Tom” end of the microscope of public servant scrutiny and thereby you do not have a semblance of a clue to know what it feels like to have your personal financial information strewn about the internet. But I would hope that since you are a person that has a family you might possibly understand the feeling of protection that a man will have for his wife and children. To see the personal financial information on public display of the people closest to you leaves you with only a feeling of nausea.

I recognize that my ability to protect the privacy of my family is significantly limited as long as I continue to perform my duties as a public servant. But I do think that the actions by yourself and Legistorm violate both the spirit and intent of the 1978 Act.

Sadly, I feel that I will have to sit idly by and wait for harm to be done to either myself or my family before I will have any legal recourse against Legistorm and specifically you Mr. Friedly - a situation that I deeply hope and pray will never occur.

I hope you savor this time in your life where you feel you have other people at your mercy while you conduct your witch hunt. Because the recent events of the man you appear to admire, Governor Eliot Spitzer show – you may some day find yourself as the Emperor with no clothes.


Jeff Loveng

Chief of Staff

Congressman Bill Shuster
I would have to say that Jeff is really upset. His original complaint was that he was being harassed by telemarketers. Now he suggesting that some unspecified harm may happen to him and his family as result of LegiStorm posting his financial disclosure form online. A harm so great that LegiStorm may be held legally liable for it. Now that's just weird. This guys unhinged for some reason and it can't because a few family dinners were interrupted by phone calls from telemarketers.

Here's Jock's response to this over the top email.

From: Jock Friedly
Sent: Monday, March 17, 2008 4:16 PM
To: 'Jeff.Loveng
Subject: Re: Your LegiStorm feedback


You seem to have a lot of time on your hands. Therefore, I would suggest that rather than engage in name-calling, you could take it up with your boss and his colleagues and set about changing the law in the manner you suggest. After all, you guys write the laws. We don’t.


That's the end of the exchange. I'm going to guess that Jock's failure to lose his cool has further enraged Jeff.

So what's going on? Why is Jeff so upset? I took a look at his financial disclosure form to see if I could find anything on it which he might not want made public. (I won't post it here. You can go to LegiStorm to see it. All it requires is a free registration. ) Nothing in the details jumped out at me. What did jump out is that Jeff's form ran to fourteen pages. The other forms that I looked at for staff in his office and the office of my representative John Peterson (R, PA-5) ran three or four pages. Jeff's loaded and the people he works with aren't which may be causing a bit of friction at work for Jeff.

The fact is though that Shuster's voting record should have his less well of staff more upset than Jeff's investment portfolio. He voted in December of 2005 to keep reduced rates on capital gains and dividends. That certainly helped out Jeff. Are others on Shuster's staff pissed that their boss helped out Jeff at their expense? Probably not, but they should be. On the other hand, Shuster isn't too concerned for people that don't have much investment income, such as his other staff members. In May of 2007, he voted no on restricting employer interference in union organizing and in Januaryof that year voted no on increasing minimum wage to $7.25. That should have his less well off staff up in arms, but probably doesn't.

How valuable is LegiStorm? Consider this. In January of last year, a TPMMuckraker reader used LegiStorm to uncover 41 members of Vice President Dick Cheney's staff that he'd hidden in his Senate office. This is information which Cheney had refused to release and at that time no one had even determined the names of the people on his White House staff.

Congress may try to use the flimsy excuse of the misuse of the information posted on the LegiStorm Web site or the possible jealous generated amongst staff by the information to dull this valuable tool. We shouldn't allow that to happen.

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