Stevens and Disclosure

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So, the indictment is in and the charges against Sen. Ted Stevens include seven counts of making false statements on his personal financial disclosure forms from 1999-2006. Many of these false statement counts revolve around work done on Stevens’ Girdwood, AK home courtesy of the VECO oil company. Sunlight’s Bill Allison makes the case at Real Time Investigations that if the money spent on equipment, parts, and labor did not constitute a gift, but rather a loan, then Stevens would be allowed to omit them from his disclosure forms, thereby acquitting him of several false statement charges:

[F]rom my quick read of the indictment, it appears that the government is suggesting that when Stevens says he has no liabilities of more than $10,000, that means the hundreds of thousands of dollars Stevens is alleged to have received as benefits from VECO couldn’t possibly have been loans. But if (and for the record, I doubt this is likely), if Stevens was borrowing money, labor and materials to renovate a residence from VECO rather than accepting it as a gift, I’m not sure Stevens would have to report it under current personal financial disclosure rules, which say,

property which is held or maintained solely for recreational or personal purposes does not have to be reported…. (p. 131)

and

Mortgages secured by a personal residence (including secondary residences) that are not used for rental purposes do not have to be disclosed. (p. 136)

Suppose there was some understanding Stevens would repay Veco or its CEO, Bill Allen, for the home repairs, the car swap, the furniture and so on — shouldn’t the public know of those potential conflicts of interest? The indictment reminds us,

The primary purpose of the yearly Financial Disclosure Forms is to disclose, monitor and deter conflicts of interest, thereby maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the United States Senate and its Members. Because the yearly Financial Disclosure Forms require public disclosure of financial information by each Member of the United States Senate, such as income, assets, gifts, financial interests, and liabilities, the Forms provide the public at large, including the voters of a particular state, with the information necessary to allow the public to evaluate and consider official conduct by a Member of the United States Senate in light of that Member’s private finances.

Do the current disclosure requirements adequately “deter conflicts of interest, thereby maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the United States Senate and its Members,” if they exempt personal residences, mortgages, car loans and so on from public view?

As Bill says, it is highly unlikely that these were loans and not gifts. One would have to assume that the cooperating witness identified in the indictment, VECO CEO Bill Allen, provided enough information to prove that there was no intention of repayment. Also, as I previously noted in the previous blog post, paragraph 17 of the indictment suggests (although the DOJ insistently declared that it does not allege) a possibility of quid pro quo:

17. It was a part of the scheme that STEVENS, while during that same time period that he was concealing his continuing receipt of things of value from ALLEN and VECO from 1999 to 2006, received and accepted solicitations for multiple official actions from ALLEN and other VECO employees, and knowing that STEVENS could and did use his official position and his office on behalf of VECO during that same time period. These solicitations for official action, some of which were made directly to STEVENS, included the following topics: (a) funding requests and other assistance with certain international VECO projects and partnerships, including those in Pakistan and Russia; (b) requests for multiple federal grants and contracts to benefit VECO, its subsidiaries, and its business partners, including grants from the National Science Foundation to a VECO subsidiary; and (c) assistance on both federal and state issues in connection with the effort to construct a natural gas pipeline from Alaska’s North Slope Region.

There is likely more information yet to be revealed, as the DOJ stated the investigation is ongoing, that would prove that these gifts and not loans.

Returning to Bill’s chief point, there is a clear loop hole exposed in the system of conflict of interest disclosure. The personal financial disclosure documents are important in the revelation of conflicts of interest and ought to reveal all conflicts that lawmakers hold. In recent months and weeks, the number of stories highlighting conflicts that arise from the ownership of personal homes is putting a spotlight on the need for greater disclosure.

Sens. Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad received favorable mortgages on homes from Countrywide. Only Conrad disclosed his mortgage and home on his personal financial disclosure form. Rep. Laura Richardson defaulted on numerous mortgages which should have been disclosed but were not. And today it was reported that Rep. Joe Knollenberg undervalued his D.C. residence on more than one financial disclosure.

After considering these cases, most egregiously the case of Sen. Stevens, I’ll let you comment on Bill’s final question:

Do the current disclosure requirements adequately “deter conflicts of interest, thereby maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the United States Senate and its Members,” if they exempt personal residences, mortgages, car loans and so on from public view?

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