At the beginning of 21 century even the most established democracies need to combat grand political corruption. As recently reported by the New York Times, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, 84, was indicted for failing to report on financial disclosure forms he filed from 1999 to 2006, more than $250,000 in gifts he received from an oil-services company in his home state. The senator was charged with seven counts of making false statements on his financial disclosure. Stevens “willfully engaged in a scheme to conceal" gifts he got from the oil-services firm, Veco, including furniture, vehicles and a barbecue grill, according to the indictment. The political scandal surrounding Senator Stevens confirms the importance of a financial disclosure mechanism.
The purpose of financial disclosure is to monitor the assets of a public official or politician who performs activities closely connected to the public interest. It is a measure whereby public officials are required to periodically declare their personal income and wealth for scrutiny by a state authority and public in general. Within the scope of such a requirement, assets (such as money, stock shares, etc.) which exceed a certain value, must be declared. Additionally, the individual may be required to illustrate how assets were acquired (through salaries, loans, gifts, etc.). Many countries adopt disclosure mechanisms because they help reduce opportunities for corruption.
In many transition countries asset disclosure forms are especially important to verify if candidates have paid for an expensive political campaign from their own resources or if they try to hide undesirable contributions. Of the many initiatives undertaken by IFES to regulate political finance, one of the most critical was the requirement that all aspiring candidates disclose their assets and liabilities in order to be eligible to run in Liberia’s 2005 Presidential and Legislative Elections. Remembering the experience of the 1997 elections won by Charles Taylor, Liberians advocated for the system that would encourage financial transparency and enable voters to make informed choices at the ballot. As a result of well drafted regulations and strict implementation, 762 candidates who contested the elections for president, vice-president and seats in the legislature, all disclosed their assets and liabilities to the National Elections Commission (NEC), as required by the Liberian Constitution. IFES worked with the NEC to develop a manual for treasurers of campaign committees to assist them in completing campaign finance forms, beginning with the asset disclosure forms candidates were required to submit during nomination.
With the aim of implementing full transparency and accountability in the electoral process, the National Elections Commission adopted the financial disclosure form for all candidates standing for elected office. The NEC made disclosures public on its website (http://www.necliberia.org/links/Candidates_Pres.shtml). As a result, information on all 94 winning candidates—as well as on unsuccessful candidates, some of whom have since been appointed senior officials in government— was available for scrutiny by their opponents, anti-corruption NGO and mass media.
As the experiences of Liberia, Kosovo and other transition countries illustrate, transparency in the electoral process is a multi-step process which includes not only the disclosure of campaign expenditures, but also disclosure of assets, to verify a candidate’s ability to fund a campaign from the beginning of the process. As one Liberian civic activist and campaign finance monitor noted, “Now we can see who goes into government with one small house and comes out with five mansions.”