Fat Cats? Some in House Are Poor

Posted June 21, 2004 at 6:52pm

He may be one of the least affluent Members of Congress on paper, but that seems to suit Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) just fine. That’s what Wamp said last week, when asked about the virtually blank financial disclosure forms he filed last month.

“I was a commercial real-estate broker, and while I had made a six-figure income in the private sector, other than the equity in my house and some retirement accounts, I really have not … been able to develop significant net worth,” Wamp said.

And Wamp, apparently, is not alone.

An analysis of the hundreds of recently filed financial statements turned up 10 House Members who listed very little in the way of assets.

House ethics rules require lawmakers to publicly detail their personal investments every year. While Members do not have to include their personal residences or any deposits totaling $5,000 or less in personal savings accounts, they must list and assign a dollar value to all other investments, such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, rental property or landholdings.

Other lawmakers reporting zero — or close to no — assets aside from their home include Reps. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Major Owens (D-N.Y.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.).

Moran last week described himself as the “poorest Member of Congress.” He has no reported assets, but liabilities ranging from $75,000 to $165,000 and cumulative losses in high-risk options trading totaling $330,000 over the past several years.

Arguably, though, Hastings may have a more rightful claim to that title, judging by his 2003 financial disclosure statement.

The Florida Democrat’s only listed asset was a bank account with Wright Patman Congressional Federal Credit Union worth somewhere between $1,000 and $15,000. He listed between $2.3 million and $7.8 million in liabilities, stemming from legal debts owed to half a dozen lawyers who helped him in the 1980s when he was impeached and removed as a federal district court judge.

Two Florida property listings on Hastings’ 2002 report valued at between $350,000 and $750,000 were omitted from the more recent assets schedule.

Thomas, who as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee is one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress, was one of several lawmakers listing absolutely no assets at all.

The former college professor has not listed any assets since 2000, the year he sold his stake in a parcel of property in Nevada City, Calif., that was then valued at between $15,000 and $50,000. Past filings show that in 1999 he applied for a refund of his “teacher retirement” from the state of California, then worth between $15,000 and $50,000.

Conyers listed only two holdings — two bank accounts with the Wright Patman Congressional Federal Credit Union worth between $2 and $2,000 — while Rep. Gonzalez’s single asset, also his Congressional Federal Credit Union account, was valued at between $1,001 and $15,000. Rush, Owens and Lewis listed no assets.

Gary Ruskin, the head of the Congressional Accountability Project and a longtime critic of the Congressional ethics process, said that blank financial disclosure statements listing no assets ought to raise red flags.

“It’s really a question of whether the ethics committee is doing its job of reviewing the financial disclosure forms and making sure that Members do disclose — because it’s hard to believe that all of these Members really don’t have any assets at all, not even bank accounts,” Ruskin said.

Ruskin noted that once a month, every Member receives a check that before taxes and other deductions is worth close to $13,000. Not having any of that money show up in a reportable bank account month after month strikes him as suspicious.

Wamp, at least, has an explanation. Last year, he said, he scraped together “every dime I could put my hands on” to build a new home — designed by his father, an architect — in a Chattanooga subdivision.

While the financial decision was particularly attractive in light of prevailing low interest rates, the Tennessee lawmaker said the idea of building his dream home came to him on Sept. 11, 2001.

“After we sang on the [Capitol] steps that day, with everything that had happened, I had such anxiety that I went out and ran five miles at sundown,” Wamp confessed. “While I was running, I just kind of committed to myself that I would do some of the things that I always wanted to do … That’s when the whole vision came to me.”

While hundreds of Members of Congress are millionaires, Wamp sees a bright side of belonging to the minority with more modest means.

“I think, frankly, while everyone has a tendency to look up to the Members of Congress that either have family wealth or were very successful, there are some advantages to just being a regular person from your district who just comes up here to serve,” Wamp said.

“While I never engage in class warfare and I believe in a free market economy, I also believe you don’t have to have personal wealth to be effective in Congress or make a huge difference in this country,” he added.