Want to find out how much money Coca-Cola pays lobbyists Sullivan & LeShane? The Office of State Ethics’s web site had always been the place to turn, despite its spotty search capability, confusing pull down menus and often untimely information.That cranky system gave up the ghost yesterday. So in a state plagued by ethical controversy, the public now has no online access to crucial public information about lobbyists and public officials. And at the moment, newly installed ethics chief Benjamin Bycel doesn’t know when a new system will be in place.
The system went haywire last week, Bycel said, with lobbyists unable to file reports and officials from the Department of Information Technology telling him that it would take a personal intervention from Bill Gates to solve all the problems. The Office has been using the same software since 1998, Bycel said. With a deadline approaching for lobbyists to file their financial disclosures, the ethics chief said he had to weigh the public’s right to know against the “chaos” of a mass of people trying to file reports on a system that can’t handle it. He decided to pull the plug yesterday.For now, lobbyists will be asked to file hard copy reports by snail mail, and they will not be penalized financially. Of course, that means these reports will not be searchable unless they are manually entered into a database. And here’s the scary part, from a public information point of view: because Bycel said he wants to ensure his office selects and purchases the the right system, the process could take up to a year. Ethics and DOIT staff are trying to figure out how to make information publicly available in the meantime. “The ultimate goal is a system as accessible and user friendly as possible. How we get there, I don’t know,” he said.