Mis-disclosure

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:04pm

The indictment of senior Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has drawn national attention to the issue of improper income reporting on Congressional financial disclosure forms, but — as Roll Call has been reporting — there’s a lot of it going on.

In a review of more than a thousand forms filed by Members dating back as long as 15 years, Roll Call has uncovered dozens of definite cases of misreporting of income, and hundreds of questionable cases.

Not one of them suggests criminal wrongdoing, as allegedly occurred in Stevens’ case, but action is called for by the House and Senate ethics committees to fix the disclosure reporting and reviewing process.

As Roll Call reported on Thursday, for instance, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) has dutifully reported sales of stock, land and other holdings every year since 1994, but has never reported capital gains for any transaction — resulting in underreporting of income certainly in the tens of thousands of dollars and possibly more.

The list of Members failing to correctly file disclosures of income includes Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Reps. David Dreier (R-Calif.), John Dingell (D-Mich.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas). It’s a bipartisan and bicameral problem.

In another case, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) clearly understated the value of his Capitol Hill town house by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year since 2003.

In every case, Roll Call contacted the Member’s office for an explanation and, in most cases, got a similar — entirely believable — response: The mistake was inadvertent, caused by confusing directions on the disclosure forms. In almost every case, staffers said, the Member had no idea any mistake had been made because the forms had been cleared by the ethics committees. Many offices said that amended filings were in progress.

Of course, all this is of an entirely different order of magnitude from the Stevens case, where the former chairman of the Appropriations Committee is accused of knowingly misfiling to conceal home repairs and other gifts provided by an Alaska oil services company. Stevens has pleaded not guilty and has vigorously denied “knowing” falsification of his disclosure forms.

The courts will handle that case, but the ethics committees need to start helping Members make sure that their disclosure forms are understandable. And, when there are mistakes, the committees should contact Members seeking clarification.

The offices of House ethics Chairwoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) declined any comment on the problem, but staffers familiar with the ethics process said that committee aides and detailees from the Government Accountability Office do review all disclosure forms filed by Members and staff each May, but with “varying degrees of care.”

Clearly. If the ethics committee does not know how to clear up the process, perhaps it could enlist the GAO to review its management procedures. That hasn’t been done since 1994.