Ethics Committee Clears Stark Over Maryland Tax Break

Posted January 28, 2010 at 1:44pm

Updated: 7:03 p.m.The House ethics committee on Thursday characterized as “inadequate— an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation that prompted a review of allegations involving Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) and his Maryland home, at the same time dismissing the case.The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, commonly known as the ethics panel, issued a 123-page report detailing Stark’s application for a Maryland tax break intended for the state’s residents and declaring that his actions — including indicating on a form he was registered to vote in Maryland, which was later corrected — did not violate any House rules, federal regulations or state laws.“The Committee … concludes that OCE conducted an inadequate review, the results of which was to subject Representative Stark to unfounded criminal allegations,— the report states.According to the committee’s report, Stark did not receive any tax credits on his home in the 2009-10 tax year as a result of his application.But the OCE defended its efforts late Thursday night. “The OCE review focused on what steps Representative Stark took or did not take to secure the credit not whether he was successful in securing the credit,— OCE spokesman Jon Steinman said.Questions about Stark’s property tax status in Maryland were first raised in a report in March 2009, which indicated the lawmaker had received about $3,800 in homestead tax credits between 2007 and 2008 on his Anne Arundel County, Md., home.The OCE, which was tasked with reviewing potential violations and recommending investigations to the ethics committee, forwarded a review of Stark and his property tax status to the House in November 2009.“There is substantial reason to believe that Representative Fortney Pete Stark may have violated House rules by misrepresenting information on the Maryland Application for Homestead Tax Credit Eligibility,— the OCE report states, citing Stark’s application submitted “sometime between December 2008 and March 2009.—“By doing so, he qualified for the Maryland Homestead Tax Credit. As a result, Representative Stark received state and county homestead tax credits and the increases in his home assessments were capped at no more than 10 percent per year,— the report adds.But in its review of the OCE probe, the ethics committee reported that it found Stark had not received the tax credit as a result of that application, nor any financial benefit.“The Standards Committee’s independent investigation conclusively established that Representative Stark received no tax benefits as a result of his electronically-filed application for the Credit in February 2009,— the report states.“The May 5 document that OCE relied upon for this assertion is for bill year 2009, not calendar year 2009,— the report continues. “Maryland issues its tax bills on a fiscal basis, which runs in Maryland from July 1 to the following June 30. Therefore, bill year 2009 in the document relied upon by OCE corresponded to fiscal year 2009, which began on July 1, 2008. In other words, the bill was issued to Representative Stark on July 1, 2008, before MDAT even mailed an application.—Stark, who has owned the Maryland home since 1987, had previously received the homestead tax credit — in three tax cycles, between July 1, 2006, and June 30, 2009, including a $3,700 credit in early 2009 — although he had not applied for it.The Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation at one time automatically granted properties a homestead deduction if the homeowners received a tax bill at the same address as the property, but lawmakers implemented more stringent requirements for the homestead tax break in 2007.Those rules included requiring all homeowners to submit a questionnaire to continue receiving the tax break, which is designed for permanent residents. The state began issuing the questionnaires over a three-year period beginning in 2007. Stark received his form in late 2008.In its report, OCE investigators highlight the fact that when Stark submitted his form online — which asks residents five questions, including whether the property is their principal residence, as well as the address used for their income tax returns, voter registration and driver’s license — state records indicate he was registered to vote at the Maryland address.In addition, the OCE report stated that Maryland records show Stark subsequently contacted the tax office in March 2009 to amend his survey to show that he is not registered to vote at that address shortly after news reports disclosed Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) had received the Maryland homestead tax break.Stark denied contacting the tax office in an interview with OCE investigators. “The Congressman also said he could not think of anyone who would have called SDAT on his behalf,— the report states.But the ethics committee dismissed the discrepancy as unremarkable, stating in its report: “The record demonstrates that Representative Stark provided overall truthful answers, and, at most, made an inadvertent mistake regarding his voter registration response, which was soon corrected.—The apparent friction between the ethics panels Thursday echoes an earlier dispute over an inquiry of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.). Similarly, in that instance, the OCE recommended a review of Graves’ actions in inviting a witness with business ties to his spouse to testify at a hearing, but the ethics committee declared Graves had not violated House rules.