ACLU Files Suit on Behalf of Federal Workers to Protect Financial Information

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of several thousand high-level federal employees in an effort to keep their personal financial information from being disclosed under a new law set to take effect on Sept. 30.

Known as the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, the law was initially designed to keep members of Congress and their staff from profiting on insider information they may have access to in the course of their official duties. But according to many federal employees, they are the ones who are being punished for the misdeeds of a handful of Congressmen and their employees.

Attorneys for the ACLU called the Internet disclosure provision an "unprecedented invasion of privacy," saying it would place just under 30,000 federal employees at risk for identity theft or perhaps even make them a target of foreign governments.

"This publication will not be made by some hacker or leaker, but by the federal agencies that employ these individuals," read part of the ACLU complaint.

The bill started out as an effort to hold members of Congress to the same insider trading rules (making investments in financial instruments with knowledge not yet available to the public) as the general public – an idea that consumer groups had advocated for years.

However, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) added language via an amendment that would make the law apply to senior members of the executive branch as well. The bill was passed by both chambers and signed into law by President Obama in April.

If implemented on the bill's effective start date, it would require employees to post sensitive and personal financial data online. Such information would include salaries, real estate transactions, stock holdings and trades, savings and life insurance contracts and pension plan amounts, according to the law firm representing several of the plaintiffs.

"This is like putting your tax returns on the Internet for everyone to see," Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital, told The Wall Street Journal. "Think about what that would mean to you. It's a privacy disaster, and it's compounded by the risk to employees' safety and to our national security."

Specifically, the CIA is concerned that some foreign service officers' identity could be revealed if they are required to disclose personal information. In other words, if a senior foreign service officer's information was not posted, it could tip-off foreign governments that a certain individual may in fact be a spy.

"The absence of a senior foreign officer's report from the public data base will confirm such suspicions," the Senior Executive Association says.

Attorneys say the purpose of the suit is not to relieve members of Congress from the reporting requirements, but to eliminate the requirement that it apply to other senior level employees outside of the legislative branch.

An aide to Shelby said their office had met with some of the groups opposing the requirement and that they are gathering additional information before taking any action to amend the bill.