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Editorial: Financial Fracas

A curious turnabout occurred last week when House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) criticized the House ethics committee and the complexity of financial disclosure forms — and then retracted what he said the same day.

Boehner initially was defending Rep. John Carter (Texas), point man in the GOP effort to oust Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) from the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, after Roll Call revealed that Carter had failed to report $300,000 in stock sale profits.

Boehner told Roll Call: “Those forms are very confusing. The mistake is similar to one made by then-Sen. [Barack] Obama [D-Ill.]. The ethics committee gives advice to Members, and frankly … their advice appeared to [be] a mistake.—

Hours later, Boehner’s spokesman, Michael Steel, issued a statement saying that “Mr. Boehner got some bad information. He had no intention of disparaging the important work that the ethics committee is doing.—

The fact is, Boehner had it right the first time. Roll Call routinely reviews Members’ financial disclosure forms to detect possible conflicts of interest or failure to report sizable income — and we’ve found dozens of cases of simple error along the way.

In almost every case, including Obama’s, the mistake has involved a failure to disclose profits made on investments. In most cases, the Member’s office has thanked us for alerting it to the error, filed an amended report — and said the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct never raised the issue.

Carter’s office’s initial reaction to Roll Call’s inquiry was to accuse us of “political retaliation— for his Rangel role — but then to file amended disclosure forms listing profits of $296,000 from 2006 and 2007 sales of Exxon Mobil stock.

Carter’s forms — as is the case over and over with other Members — did list his stock holdings, dividends they produced and the fact that they were sold, but not the profit. Carter’s office demonstrated that he paid taxes on the profit.

That’s in stark contrast to Rangel, who has admitted making myriad errors on his disclosure forms over the years, failing to report hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of assets and income — and has also failed to pay taxes on some income.

We’ve called for the ethics committee to act on the Rangel allegations. In the past, we’ve also called on the committee to issue better instructions to Members on filling out the forms and to more systematically review them. The committee hasn’t done so.

So Boehner had it right. His retraction was triggered by advice his staff provided regarding a 2004 letter published by then-chairman and ranking member of the ethics committee advising that “it is highly improper and a basis for the initiation of disciplinary action for any House Member or staff person to attack the integrity of this Committee or any of its members.—

We don’t think Boehner or anyone else has attacked the committee’s integrity — but surely it can do its work better.