When the expression "red tape" was invented, they had phrases like this in mind: "Request to Inspect or Receive Copies of SF 278/OGE Form 278 Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Reports or Other Covered Records."
This is a story of what it takes to find out how much Newt Gingrich earned giving speeches last year. Gingrich isn't hiding the information, which was filed with the Office of Government Ethics recently. It's simply being held hostage by red tape.
NBC News Deputy Political Director Domenico Montanaro looked at Gingrich's amended financial disclosure, made available on Tuesday, and found on Page 2 references to "Annex A," where the candidate was supposedly to list his paid speeches. But Annex A was nowhere to be found. Montanaro e-mailed the Office of Government Ethics to ask for help.
A Franz Kafka novel ensued.
Montanaro, long since pre-registered with the Federal Election Commission to receive public financial disclosure releases, was told he had to fill out "Form 201" with the Office of Government Ethics and directed to a page on agency’s website. But the form was in .pdf format and, while it could be filled out electronically, the changes could not be saved. Instead, Montanaro found, he had to print it out. But the completed form also could not be sent via fax back to the agency. It had to be electronically scanned and emailed to a special inbox at the Office of Government Ethics.
Upon receipt of the email, the agency promised to mail -- as in, dead-tree mail -- the elusive Annex A.
To review: getting access to Gingrich's disclosure required a visit to a website, an email, downloading a .pdf, filling it out, printing it, scanning it, emailing it and then waiting for a first-class letter.
Perhaps this kabuki dance helps keep the struggling U.S. Post Office in business, but in the age of Twitter, it's an awfully convoluted process to get a piece of information. And it makes you wonder about the spirit of financial disclosure rules.
Montanaro told the agency what you all must be thinking now. Why isn't this important public information simply placed on a website for all to see?
"Pardon my frustration, but OGE really doesn’t make this easy. … It’s really not the most efficient way for either me as a journalist to report or for an office of ethics to serve the public in a timely way. As a result, neither of us is serving readers or viewers in the best way we can," he wrote to "ContactOGE," the contact address he was given to place his request. "I know it’s not your fault, nameless email address. But an innovative, red-tape loathing staffer in your office might want to think about how to streamline this process and make a name for themselves -- maybe even you, ContactOGE."
As for that important information: Montanaro is still waiting. We’ll update you when the Pony Express arrives with it.
Of course, the point of this tale isn’t to tell you that an NBC reporter was inconvenienced. You would have had the exact same experience if you tried to get the disclosure information. This is a story about the failure of transparency.
You too can own a genuine piece of U.S. government red tape. Or, you could just live it every day.
“I find it a little ironic the agency that’s set up to encourage government ethics makes this more difficult than it should be,” Montanaro told me. “They could be doing more productive things with their time than spending more than a week helping a reporter with something. They could be investigating ethics. … I think the people who work there have good intentions, but it seems so often than these government agencies set up with the right intentions wind up getting mired in red tape.”
By the way, in case you are curious, the term "red tape" has many mythical origins, but the National Archives believes it has the right answer: red ribbons were used to bind piles of government documents dating back to the Civil War. Opening the files required someone to "cut through" the red tape.
Lucky for you, it's now possible to buy your very own sliver of government red tape, encased in plastic, from the National Archives eStore. Price: $45. Apparently, red tape isn’t cheap.
(Financial disclosure: Several years ago, seeing the name of my blog, an official at Archives sent me one for free. It sits proudly in my office)