A Question Of Ethics: Aren't False Financial Disclosure Forms Illegal?

Author:Mr C. Simon Davidson
Profession:McGuireWoods LLP

Reprinted from Roll Call (July 17, 2012)

Q: I work for a Member of the House, and one of my responsibilities is to help her gather information for her annual financial disclosure statement. I have been doing this for years, and we have always been as careful as possible to ensure that the statements are free of errors. She has insisted on this approach. Then, last week, I saw that the House Ethics Committee dismissed charges that a Member had filed false financial disclosure statements. Apparently, the committee explained that errors on statements are common. Is it really legal to file false financial disclosure statements?

A: Is it legal to file a false financial disclosure statement? In a word, no. If this were not a family-friendly publication, I might have included a word before "no" for emphasis. But, this does not mean all types of errors on financial disclosure statements warrant sanctions. Given your role in helping your Member with the statements, I suspect you have a keen interest in this distinction.

Federal law requires all Members to file annual financial disclosure statements containing information about income, gifts, assets, liabilities and outside positions held. The requirement originates with the Ethics in Government Act and, according to the House Ethics Manual, provides a means of monitoring and deterring potential conflicts of interest.

Last week the House Ethics Committee released a report regarding its investigation of alleged false financial disclosure statements by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.). In November 2011, the Office of Congressional Ethics referred the matter to the Ethics Committee, finding that there was "substantial reason to believe" that Buchanan failed to disclose reportable positions and income on his disclosure statements. The OCE stated that it was referring the matter for the committee to determine whether Buchanan's subsequent amendments to his statements to remedy the omissions "were filed with a presumption of good faith."

In last week's report, the Ethics Committee stated that Buchanan's actions did not warrant sanctions. The committee acknowledged in its report that the evidence showed that Buchanan's statements for the years 2007-2010 contained errors. Specifically, the report stated that in those years Buchanan "did not accurately report certain income" and "did not report, in complete and accurate detail, all of the positions or ownership interests he held with several entities."


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