Monday, June 15, 2015
Yet another legislator files apparently questionable financial disclosure form and gets away with it
by Larry Geller
It’s amazing to me that Ian Lind can scan such an incredible volume of data in his pursuit of investigative reporting. It seems that each day he combs through veritable haystacks to collect the needles.
One of those needles seems to be House Speaker Joseph Souki’s apparent falsification of his financial report dated 1/27/2014 as posted on the Ethics Commission website. You can download a copy of it from here if you want to read along.
Ian’s article is at: A legislator’s failure to disclose doesn’t appear to violate ethics law (ilind.net, 6/14/2015).
I’m a bit mystified, though, at Ian’s conclusion that by checking “none” instead of reporting true and correct data, that Souki would not be violating the law. Look, here’s the bottom of his form:
Souki certified that the information he submitted was true, correct and complete, and that he understands that there are statutory penalties for failing to report as required by law.
Income? Souki answered “None.” Ownership or beneficial interest in businesses? None. Creditors? None.
Real estate? None.
All of these answers were not true.
As regular readers may remember, I pounded the Ethics Commission for not enforcing this same law against legislators incessantly, hoping they would notice and do something about it. If they did not, then others would realize there is no pressure to accurately report their financial data. So is this to be one more in a long series?
I assume that if there are statutory penalties, then one cannot say a law has not been broken in these cases.
The ethics law provides penalties for late reports, but it doesn’t not appear to have meaningful penalties for false reports, whether intentional or due to negligence.
The ethics commission may investigate and issue a finding. That appears to be the extent of its powers in the case of false reporting, unless I’m missing something.
If there are no penalties, it is because the legislature simply protected itself. They write the laws that the Ethics Commission can enforce.
[ Incidentally, speaking of the Speaker, what do you think the chances are that Souki would ever pass a bill that would impose stronger penalties on himself? The legislature just refuses to pass new ethics legislation. ]
As I suggested in my articles, if the Ethics Commission lets these violations go, then more legislators will fail to report as required by law. This example of Joe Souki’s report seems to validate that.
Ian writes (with reference to lobbyists’ failure to disclose):
Those penalties can only be assessed if a full administration hearing is held and the commission makes a decision on the case.
Ok, it’s hard, but they probably only need to do one. Yes, one. It could be Souki, if they find probably cause and really want to send a message.
Let’s assume the law really is weak. Still, I submit that if the Ethics Commission went after a legislator and found that he or she violated the law, it would put a damper on the others. If they went back and did the same for one of the legislators I highlighted earlier (picked only as a sample, there were no doubt more than those), the rest would scramble to correct their false reports.
So it’s up to the Ethics Commission. If they remain silent, in effect the whole reporting process collapses. There is no pressure on legislators to file true and correct reports. Their reports can no longer be trusted. The data is polluted and untrustworthy.
Penalty or no penalty, if a legislator can check off “None” when “None” is not correct, it simply reflects an observation on his part that there are no consequences.
In my mind, this situation is not much different from HPD failing to enforce the stop-before-right-turn-on-red law. Drivers know there is zero chance of being caught, so they break the law routinely.
In my view, if the Ethics Commission remains silent on filing false financial disclosure forms, they are enabling legislators to file anything they like, truthful or not, and that’s an abrogation of the public interest and the Commission’s responsibility.