I-Team Report: Opening their books - WNEM TV 5

I-Team Report: Opening their books

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It’s tax season, and people everywhere are counting their earnings and tallying receipts.

Our return tells us how much we made, what we spent, and how much we paid in taxes.

But for President Donald Trump, those answers are still being questioned.

Questions about his taxes dogged him throughout the campaign, and haven’t died since taking office.

The President has repeatedly said he will not release his tax returns.

And he has every right to keep his taxes private, the President of the United States is not required by law to make them public.

It was a practice that began in 1973 when then-President Richard Nixon voluntarily released his tax returns amid the Watergate Scandal.

Every President since that time has followed suit, that is until President Trump, who broke the 40-year tradition.

However, the President, as well as all members of Congress, are required to submit a financial disclosure form.

Tax attorney Allen Scioli said there is a lot we can learn from the financial disclosure.

In fact, he said they can be more detailed than a tax return.

“Like specific types of stock, holdings, and positions. Specifically, percentages you’re involved in, corporations or entities. Whereas a tax return will show some of those, but not detail. Like, I’m President of X company, rather than I’m just a shareholder of X company,” Scioli, President of Scioli & Associates explained.

And those disclosure forms are easy to find.

Anyone can go online and see the finances for members of Congress.

The TV5 I-Team printed off those for the representatives in our viewing area and had Scioli walk us through what we can learn from them.

“This individual investing. They’re involved in the 521 Savings Plan, so obviously, they have some kids, they’re planning for the future. And a lot of stock options, 403B plans, so this individual is very heavily invested,” Scioli said.

While financial disclosures tell us where our Congressional members' money comes from, many of our Lansing lawmakers' finances remain a mystery.

That’s because Michigan is one of only two states that does not require state lawmakers to release their financial information.      

In 2015, Michigan received a grade of “F” from The Center for Public Integrity, which conducted an investigation into the integrity of all 50 states.

The lack of transparency in our state’s lawmakers’ finances was a part of that.

“Yeah, so right now in Michigan if you’re running for State Legislature, you don’t have to file any information about your financial investments, who pays you to do work on the side, anything like that,” explained Craig Mauger, Executive Director of the watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

He said it all boils down to potential conflicts of interest.

“These are lawmakers that are studying legislation that impacts all of these businesses, organizations, fields that these lawmakers could be working on,” Mauger said.

Mauger used this example. A lawmaker pushing for a bill to allow ride-sharing companies to have more access to a certain area.

At the same time, that lawmaker drives for Uber on the side, and personally benefits financially from this bill.

Currently, there is no way for the public to know.

Mauger said a disclosure would reveal that information, so voters can make an informed choice.

“The examples for things like this are endless, and right now there could be many more that no one else hears about, and likely there are,” Mauger said.

But those same lawmakers aren’t prohibited from releasing their financial information, so we asked them.

The I-Team sent emails and made calls to tepresentatives from across the TV5 viewing area, but we didn’t get any back.

Many lawmakers ignored our requests, one denied it citing privacy for their spouse. The rest acknowledged interest in the idea, but didn’t send anything by the deadline.

Mauger said many lawmakers feel it’s unnecessary, or simply too complicated for the average voter to understand. And some feel it is an invasion of privacy.

Bills to require the financial disclosures for state lawmakers have been introduced by both parties in the past, but have fallen flat.

But with a growing hunger for more information on our politicians, Mauger believes legislation could move forward in the future.

“For people to understand this is kind of a first step to educate the public that hey, you may think we have an understanding of what outside interests these lawmakers have, but we really don’t have that," Mauger said.

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