- Insider analyzed congressional staff financial filings from January 2020 to mid-September 2021.
- Reporters found at least 182 instances in which senior staffers were late disclosing stock trades.
- "A lot of people just ignore the law, and it goes unenforced," one ethics watchdog said.
At least 182 of Capitol Hill's most influential and highest-paid staffers have blown past deadlines to detail and disclose their personal stock trades — violating a federal conflict-of-interest law in the process, an Insider analysis of congressional financial documents reveals.
The staffers' failure to properly disclose the transactions come with a laundry list of excuses and rationalizations. They're also a violation of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, a 2012 law designed to prevent insider trading and defend against financial conflicts among elected officials and their top aides.
Insider's tally includes aides in both the House and the Senate with high-ranking jobs such as chiefs of staff, legislative directors, and communications directors. Also among them are workers known as professional staff members, who serve on congressional committees to advise lawmakers on policy.
High-ranking congressional staffers often wield significant influence over their elected bosses. Many also regularly meet with special interests and corporate lobbyists, who could conceivably represent a company or industry in which a congressional staffer personally invests. That's why a law President Barack Obama signed almost a decade ago obligated senior staff to disclose their stock trades, just as lawmakers had to.
The late-reporting problem is decidedly bipartisan. The violations split almost exactly down the middle between Democrats and Republicans.
The 182-person finding is part of Insider's exhaustive Conflicted Congress project, in which journalists reviewed nearly 9,000 financial-disclosure reports for every sitting lawmaker and their top-ranking staffers.
Watchdog groups say the sheer number of late filings is evidence of a far-too-lax attitude on Capitol Hill about ethics rules. The congressional staffers' infractions come on top of STOCK Act disclosure violations by at least 48 members of Congress.
Compounding the problem, ethics watchdogs say, is a secretive enforcement process. Both lawmakers and their staff work out any breaches of the law in private. Few are open with the public about why they failed to disclose their stock trades properly or how they worked to fix the issue.
"Your research is showing that when it is not disclosed a lot of people just ignore the law and it goes unenforced," said Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen who helped shape the STOCK Act and wants to make it stronger.
He called Insider's findings "stunning" and said all documents detailing people's trades, and any enforcement steps taken, should be made public.
Staffers have lots of excuses
Insider reached out to 48 staffers whose trades appeared to be disclosed the latest, as well as those who appeared to be the most frequent STOCK Act violators. Thirty-four of them didn't respond, weren't forthcoming about why their disclosures were late, or refused to share how they attempted to comply with the law.
Some who provided information about why they were late said they forgot or misunderstood the deadlines despite receiving ethics training that all staff are required to take, both when they get hired and then periodically over the course of their Capitol Hill careers. Others blamed a financial advisor or spouse for failing to tell them about the trade in a timely manner.
Still others described a convoluted, difficult-to-understand disclosure process that didn't always accommodate their various financial situations — including unexpected inheritances or gifts to family members — despite their best efforts to comply with the STOCK Act.
Stock trades exceeding $1,000 from senior congressional staffers, their spouses, and any dependent children are supposed to be a matter of public record. Yet many senior staffers who were late disclosing their trades were unwilling to open up about what happened or whether they faced a penalty.
Douglas Coutts, the chief of staff for Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas who is making early moves toward a 2024 presidential run, appeared to be late disclosing numerous trades in 2020, each valued between $1,001 and $15,000. He listed trades in companies including the insurance provider Chubb Limited; Google's parent company, Alphabet; and the healthcare company Abbott Labs, known for its COVID-19 testing capabilities.
Cotton sits on the Judiciary Committee, which has scrutinized large tech companies like Google over antitrust concerns.
At least one document appears to show that Coutts disclosed some trades nearly two months past a federally mandated deadline.
An attorney for Cotton's office declined to explain why Coutts' disclosures appeared to be habitually tardy, and she called the financial-disclosure requirements "onerous."
"He is all squared away," Cotton's general counsel, Meg McGaughey, said of Coutts, declining to elaborate further on the documents.
Bryan Petit, a senior professional staff member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by the conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, appeared to be about a year and nine months late disclosing a JPMorgan trade from 2019. The trade was made by his spouse and was valued at $15,001 to $50,000.
"Senator Manchin's staff is in full compliance with Senate Ethics Committee requirements," Manchin's communications director, Sam Runyon, said without elaborating.
Walter Shaub, who leads the Government Ethics Initiative at the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said he was shocked by the majority of staffers who weren't forthcoming, given their access to lawmakers and lobbyists and knowledge about pending legislation.
"We have entrusted these people with great power. They owe us great transparency," he said. "They are not even giving us minimal transparency."
"The public will have questions if these things keep happening," he added. "And there is nothing on the culture of the Hill that suggests this will stop happening.""There is at least an optics problem," said Jason Briefel, the director of policy and outreach at the Senior Executives Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional association representing career federal civil servants. "All the members and staff, these are significant numbers."
Some congressional staffers were forthcoming.
Mike Henry, the chief of staff for Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia, was 1 to 1 1/2 years late disclosing five sales on different dates in 2019 that his spouse made in Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. stock. The biotech company develops treatments for serious diseases such as cystic fibrosis, and it has faced backlash from state regulators for high prices.
Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton's 2016 vice-presidential running mate, serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which has the power to regulate the healthcare industry and oversees government healthcare programs.
Henry's highest Vertex sale was valued at $50,001 to $100,000. He told Insider the Senate Ethics Committee informed him that he'd forgotten to file a disclosure about it. He said that he paid a fine — the standard late-filing penalty is $200 — but that the committee didn't give him a receipt.
"I will certainly work harder to avoid such oversights in the future, as disclosing information like this is important to me," he said.
The office of Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat of Ohio, did not explain why his state director, John Ryan, appeared to be about 3 ½ years late disclosing a 2018 purchase worth up to $15,000 in TotalEnergies SE, a petroleum refining company. Trudy Perkins, Brown's communication director, said Ryan paid a late fee after the Senate Select Committee on Ethics notified him about the late reporting.
One example of a staffer tardy in acknowledging a particularly large number of trades is Julie Leschke, a deputy chief of staff for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Leschke and her husband, Dr. John Leschke, appeared to be more than two years late reporting at least 12 stock trades in companies that included Facebook, Amazon, and Alibaba. Taken together, the trades were worth at least $131,006 and as much as $440,000. Separate trades that appeared to be late were listed in several other documents she filed.
Johnson's office attributed the late filing to a change in reporting requirements. In 2013, Leschke became state director and deputy chief of staff under a work category known as a "political fund designee" — someone who is allowed to engage in campaign activity, including fundraising, outside of Senate hours. Under Senate ethics rules, she only had to file annual personal financial disclosures in that role.
Alexa Henning, deputy chief of staff for Johnson, said that Leschke filed her annual reports as required. Then, in 2018, a cost-of-living salary adjustment bumped Leschke into a different worker category that then required regular reporting of stock transactions, she said.
"Senate Ethics noticed this in December of 2020 and contacted her," Henning said. "She worked closely with Ethics to quickly remedy. No waiver was necessary."
Multiple other late filers didn't dispute the tardiness of their financial reporting, instead offering pandemic-related reasons for the lapses. Competing challenges mentioned include juggling work-from-home duties and full-time parenting while schools were closed; liquidating cash to bring home college-age students who would have otherwise been stranded abroad as international travel bans took hold; and caring for older relatives rather than leaving them isolated during quarantine.
Complex rules and minimal oversight
Senate staffers receive automated email notifications from ethics officials when they're late disclosing their personal stock trades. But House staff face a far more complicated process and less oversight, Insider has learned.
House staffers typically have to notice on their own that they forgot to disclose a stock trade on time. Then it's up to them to call up the House Ethics Committee to explain what happened and have a conversation with attorneys about whether they owe a fine or can apply for a waiver.
Gary Andres, the staff director for Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said he didn't know one of his stock-trade disclosures was more than a year late until Insider asked him about it.
He checked on it and said he spoke with the House Ethics Committee and "the matter has been resolved." The missing trade was valued at $500,000 to $1 million and was conducted by his spouse in Union Pacific Corp.
"My financial advisor filed this in January but due to a clerical error it was not logged in by the Ethic Committee," he said. "Once this clerical error was discovered by my financial advisor he filed it again in 2021."
Robert Marcus, the chief of staff to Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat of Illinois, filed a disclosure roughly eight months late disclosing a purchase in Insulet Corp., a medical-device company whose products include a wearable insulin dispenser to treat diabetes.
Marcus told Insider he recently called the House Ethics Committee to let it know and the panel assessed a $200 fine, which he said he would pay.
Marcus said he forgot to disclose the trade, valued between $1,001 and $15,000, on time. He said that he didn't trade large amounts of stock but that investing was fun for him and something he'd been curious about since childhood.
"It wasn't nefarious," he said of missing the deadline. "It was just a missed opportunity or a missed deadline that was off."
"I'm just embarrassed of myself for missing it because I do care about these things," he added. "I do care about ethics in this place. And I'm very upset at the way things are going around here nowadays in that department with some people, but I don't want to be one of them."
Most of the congressional staffers' late disclosures aren't nefarious — they happen because people aren't paying attention to the rules or are preoccupied with other parts of their lives, said a former, nonpartisan staffer for the Senate ethics panel.
But the person also partly blamed the lack of serious consequences for filing disclosures late.
"If there is no real consequence for doing it wrong, what is the reason to really pay attention?" said the person, who requested anonymity to protect professional relationships.
Staffers are supposed to pay a federally mandated fine starting at $200 after they've exceeded their deadline by 30 days. The only way to otherwise get right with the law after a tardy disclosure is to explain the reason behind the violation to the House or Senate ethics committees, which have the power to grant waivers that get staff out of paying a fine but still put them in compliance with the STOCK Act.
These waivers are supposed to be granted only "in extraordinary cases," according to ethics manuals.
No public ledger exists disclosing whether and when congressional staffers paid a fine or got a waiver. This makes it impossible to independently determine the extent to which congressional staffers are held accountable by Congress when they break the STOCK Act's disclosure rules.
The only way to try to verify what happened is to go straight to the source of the violation. But only five senior staffers provided Insider with copies of their waivers.
One was Maria McElwain, the communications director for Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. She disclosed 18 trades late that occurred over four months in 2019, the most recent of which appears to have happened about a year before it was disclosed.
McElwain attributed the gaffe to miscommunication with her financial advisor about federal reporting requirements.
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics waived her late fee after she fessed up, she said.
"Since this was my first mistake and I confirmed that I had developed communication safeguards to ensure that it wouldn't happen again, I was granted a penalty waiver," McElwain told Insider.
That waiver appears to have covered trades worth $32,018 to $305,000 and included investments in Home Depot, Apple, and Verizon Communications.
If staffers don't disclose their stock trades by the deadline but have a reasonable excuse, then the Senate Select Committee on Ethics would likely waive their fee, said a senior Senate staff member.
They were also likely to get excused if it was just their first time, said the senior Senate staffer, who had no record of improperly disclosing stock trades but spoke with Insider to help explain the relationship between the Senate staff and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics.
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics trains congressional staffers on how to fill out the financial documents, and some professional staff who work for committees even get ethics refresher courses focusing "on topics of relevance," including how to follow the STOCK Act, according to the senior Senate aide, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
The House and the Senate also have attorneys in each Ethics Committee at the ready in case staff have any questions or want to discuss issues in their reports, three former congressional ethics staff told Insider.
Holman said he thought all STOCK Act waivers should be made public to be able to determine whether they were being granted only in extraordinary cases.
"Sometimes waivers are justified — and that would be compliance — but we should be able to scrutinize the grounds by which waivers are being issued," he said.
Shaub also raised concerns about the circumstances under which ethics committees were choosing to grant waivers.
"In the executive branch, 'I didn't know' or 'I forgot' will not get you out of the $200 fine," said Shaub, who previously served as the director at the US Office of Government Ethics. "The standard is supposed to be 'unusual hardship.' Not caring enough about ethics to know the rules isn't 'unusual hardship.' In fact, it's anything but unusual in Congress."
Murky disclosure rules
Insider reviewed every stock trade disclosed by high-level congressional staffers from January 1, 2020, to September 13, 2021. Their trades are listed in documents known as periodic transaction reports, which, for congressional staffers, are not available to the public online and must be obtained either through a cumbersome records-request process or by using a little-known computer terminal in congressional office buildings in Washington, DC.
For the most part, Capitol Hill staff members are required to report their stock trades regularly only if they earn a congressional salary starting at $132,552 annually. That's generally the salary minimum for senior aides, but many other jobs on the Hill providing tech support or financial management for offices have similar compensation.
All of these job descriptions appeared among the 182 people Insider identified as having submitted their disclosures late. Only four of the total identified appeared to be nonpartisan staff.
The extent to which other Capitol Hill office employees with lower salaries trade stocks is unknown because they don't have to disclose it.
Senior congressional staffers have 30 days to disclose a trade, or 45 days if they learned about a trade a few days after it happened, such as when a financial advisor made it and didn't notify them right away. The first penalty is $200 regardless of how late a staffer was, the number of companies the staffer invested in, or how much the staffer invested.
Increasingly higher fines follow if they continue to be late — potentially costing tens of thousands of dollars in extreme cases, though Insider hasn't found evidence of staff or members of Congress paying such large fines.
While filers are, by law, considered late after 30 days, they still have another 30-day "grace period" before congressional officials might fine them. Insider's analysis identified disclosures that ranged from as little as one day late to others that appeared to be four years late.
A former investigative counsel at the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent body that investigates ethics concerns and complaints in the House, said cases did emerge in which it could be hard for people to figure out whether they're supposed to submit a report. The former investigative counsel, who asked not to be named to speak candidly, offered the example of a spouse leaving a company and triggering a repurchase of their stock holdings.
Some senior staff members told Insider that certain circumstances could make it harder to report their finances in a timely way.
Lisa Goeas, the chief of staff for Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, called her finances "complicated."
"My family had several transactions involving family businesses over the past few years that resulted in the trusts and underlying assets that I disclose," she said.
Goeas said she worked closely with the Senate Ethics Committee on her reports to comply with the STOCK Act, saying, "I want to get them right." But she still has filed six disclosures late in seven years, and while she said she received a waiver for the first late-filing fine, she said she paid the others and they were in the range of $200 to $400.
Goeas said that she did not direct or control the investments and that in some cases she filed her report past the deadline because the trust didn't provide her with needed information on time.
Don't hold your breath for a stronger STOCK Act
Government experts say it's far past time to make the STOCK Act stronger.
James Thurber, a professor at American University who is a congressional-studies scholar, said that for starters there should be more enforcement measures to ensure congressional staffers submit their financial disclosures on time.
"We should have transparency about that," he said. "They should abide by the rules."
Holman of Public Citizen said Congress and staff might better comply with the law if fines were higher and if people had to publicly disclose their violations "so that there is political pressure and political price for this."
The public can get immediate access to staff's financial disclosures only through accessing five computers on Capitol Hill — three on the Senate side and two on the House side — and some open-government experts want staff to post all their financial disclosures online just as members of Congress do.
Even when accessed, some periodic transaction reports may leave out details.
While reporting this story, Insider viewed documents that showed the disclosures sometimes contain private, confidential notes that are visible only to a staffer and the Ethics Committee. The notes in some cases can help to explain why a trade has been disclosed late or can even contain crucial details showing the staffer hasn't run afoul of the law.
Briefel at the Senior Executives Association urged caution against online disclosures of staffers' information given the potential it could create for doxxing and other kinds of attacks on public servants.
"This conversation probably needs to be part of a broader conversation about the balance between privacy and openness for public officials in general," he said.
Yet he and good-government advocates agree the self-policing strategy Congress established in the STOCK Act has proved inadequate. Even its champions concede the law amounts to little more than a toothless annoyance. "Congress doesn't like to punish itself," the former Senate Ethics Committee staffer told Insider.
Several bills reintroduced this congressional session have sought to make the STOCK Act stronger.
A bipartisan House bill called the Transparent Representation Upholding Service and Trust in Congress Act would require lawmakers, their spouses, and dependent children to place certain assets into a blind trust, relinquishing all control of their assets to a third party. The Ban Conflicted Trading Act, introduced in both the Senate and the House, would prohibit members of Congress and senior staff from buying individual stocks.
But the bills have languished, and no formal hearings or votes on them appear imminent.