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Rangel Case Shows Holes in Disclosure

An ethics subcommittee’s public chastising of Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) last week for a decade’s worth of errors and omissions on his financial disclosure reports might prompt some lawmakers to double-check their own fiscal forms, but Congressional observers said Friday that it’s unlikely the House ethics panel will undertake a mass audit.

“I’m sure there’s a flurry of activity to refocus people’s attention on what they filed; that’s what always happens in these cases,” said attorney Stan Brand, a former House general counsel who often represents Members before the ethics panel.

“I don’t think the committee is going to go out and start auditing people’s financial disclosure forms and bring stand-alone cases based on inaccuracies or untimely filings,” he added.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct released a report from one of its investigative subcommittees Thursday detailing 13 allegations against Rangel, including the complaints over his financial disclosure forms.

The New York lawmaker is also accused of misusing his office to solicit funding for a City College of New York center named in his honor, accepting a rent-stabilized apartment for his campaign office and failing to pay taxes or report income from a Dominican Republic vacation home.

Rangel, who has denied wrongdoing although he has paid back taxes on the vacation home, is set to face a public ethics trial in September.

In its 40-page report, the investigative subcommittee describes how Rangel failed to report or misreported numerous assets or income on his financial forms for calendar years 1998 through 2008.

Although the senior Democrat filed amendments to his forms in 2009, revealing $600,000 in assets that he had previously failed to report, the investigative panel asserted that Rangel “failed to establish that the amendments … were submitted in good faith.”

Citing a 1986 policy on financial disclosures, the investigative panel wrote that amendments should be submitted within the same year that the original report is filed and must pass a “circumstance” test, typically a statement explaining the reason for the amendment.

[IMGCAP(1)]In a written response to the report, the lawmaker’s legal team, led by Zuckerman Spaeder attorney Leslie Kiernan, rejected the committee’s interpretation of the events.

“Nearly two years ago, Congressman Rangel acknowledged mistakes in his Financial Disclosures Statements. … Having become aware of these errors, he publicly committed to undertake a review of prior Financial Disclosure Statements, to identify and correct any other, unrelated errors, for the sole purpose of ensuring compliance with House ethics standards,” Rangel’s attorneys wrote.

“Thus, it was Congressman Rangel who alerted the Standards Committee to the very mistakes with which he is now charged, and which he corrected nearly one year ago in comprehensive amendments,” the response stated.

But Rangel is not alone in filing repeated or multiyear amendments.

An informal survey of financial disclosure forms maintained by the House Clerk’s Office reveals numerous Members who filed multiple amendments, often more than a year after their original report.

But Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said it is unlikely the ethics panel will begin to open investigations based solely on such amendments.

“When the ethics committee starts doing an investigation, they start pulling out things people should be aware of in Congress and should avoid … but it’s not exercised until there is some greater, more specific grand scandal that becomes the center of attention,” he said.

But Holman, a government reform advocate, added that he would like see increased oversight of the reports: “They should make it clear this could have ramifications for the rest of the House.”

Members who filed such amendments — several of whom said they corrected their reports without prompting from the ethics panel — indicated Friday that the Rangel investigation has not raised concerns over their own disclosure reports.

Rep. Ed Pastor, who filed an amendment in May to correct reports spanning from 1992 to 2008, said his motivation was simply to obey the rules.

“I know that you’re required to do it every year, and every year I’ve tried to comply 100 percent,” said the Arizona Democrat, a former ethics committee member. “I knew when I saw this particular item I had not complied 100 percent … so right away I sought how to rectify it.”

Pastor’s amendment added a life insurance policy owned by his spouse to his form, which he said he discovered when he and his wife were reviewing their finances in preparation for his calendar year 2009 report filed in May.

“My wife brought it to my attention,” Pastor said, referring to the policy valued at $15,000 to $50,000. “We said, ‘Uh-oh.’ I called ethics and said this is the situation. … They didn’t go ballistic. They said, ‘What happened?'”

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