Capitol Assets: Congress’s wealthiest mostly shielded in deep recession

If you could peer deeply into how the 535 members of Congress handle their money, what would you find?

You would see a diversity of investment strategies and results, from those who put their money into riskier, high-growth funds to those who own safe municipal bonds. The legislators range from the super-rich to the deep-in-debt, from inherited wealth to married wealth to no wealth at all. They are entrepreneurs and farmers, oilmen and ranchers, lawyers and real estate developers.

You would find that, contrary to many popular perceptions, lawmakers don’t get rich by merely being in Congress. Rich people who go to Congress, though, keep getting richer while they’re there.

The wealthiest one-third of lawmakers were largely immune from the Great Recession, taking the fewest financial hits and watching their investments quickly recover and rise to new heights. But more than 20 percent of the members of the current Congress — 121 lawmakers — appeared to be worse off in 2010 than they had been six years earlier, and 24 saw their reported wealth slide into negative territory.

Those findings emerge from an ongoing examination of congressional finances by The Washington Post, which analyzed thousands of financial disclosure forms and public records for all members of Congress.

Most members weathered the financial crisis better than the average American, who saw median household net worth drop 39 percent from 2007 to 2010. The median estimated wealth of members of the current Congress rose 5 percent during the same period, according to their reported assets and liabilities. The wealthiest one-third of Congress gained 14 percent.

Because lawmakers are allowed to report their holdings and debts in broad ranges, it is impossible for the public to determine their precise net worth. They also are not required to reveal the value of their homes, the salaries of their spouses or money kept in non-
interest-bearing bank accounts and their congressional retirement plan.

For its analysis, The Post used the midpoint of the range of each reported holding and tracked the figures over time to determine whether the relative wealth of lawmakers had increased or declined between 2004 and 2010. Previous studies of congressional wealth have looked at Congress as a whole, rather than tracking the financial trend for each individual lawmaker. The Post created an in-depth financial portrait of each member of Congress.

Among the findings:

●The estimated wealth of Republicans was 44 percent higher than Democrats in 2004, but that disparity has virtually disappeared.

●The number of millionaires in Congress dropped after the Great Recession; the 253 who have served during the current session are the smallest group since 2004. The numbers are likely to be underestimated because lawmakers are not required to list their homes among their assets.

●Between 2004 and 2010, 72 lawmakers appeared to have doubled their estimated wealth.

●At least 150 lawmakers reported receiving more income from outside jobs and investments than from their congressional salaries of $174,000 for rank-and-file members.

●Representatives in 2010 had a median estimated wealth of $746,000; senators had $2.6 million.

●Since 2004, lawmakers reported more than 3,500 outside jobs paying their spouses more than $1,000 a year. The lawmakers are not required to report how much the spouses are paid or what they did for the money.

●Lawmakers’ wealth is held in a variety of ways: 127 primarily in real estate, 117 in institutional funds, 75 in their spouses’ names, 51 in essentially cash, 36 in specific stocks and bonds, 32 in high-turnover trading, 30 in business ownership and 20 in agriculture. More than 40 had reported assets of $25,000 or less.

The Post also found that some congressional financial interests intersected with public actions taken by legislators: 73 lawmakers sponsored or co-sponsored legislation that could have benefitted businesses or industries in which either they or their families were involved or invested. The Post will report on several of those cases Monday.

Because of the imprecise financial disclosure system, estimations of wealth can be off by millions. For example, reports for Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) between 2004 and 2010 show that her wealth most likely increased by as little as $1 million or as much as $20 million, as framed by the changes to the lowest and highest possible totals of her reported assets. The Post analysis, which takes the midpoint of the ranges, estimated the increase at $11 million.

That figure is inaccurate, said her spokesman, Matt Dennis.

“The Loweys’ net worth did not increase by anywhere near $11m from 2004-2010 — the metric you’re using presents a hugely distorted picture,” Dennis said in an e-mail.

He declined to provide more accurate values for the assets of Lowey, a 12-term congresswoman, who is married to a partner in a White Plains, N.Y., law firm.

“They’re entitled to a certain level of privacy with their finances,” Dennis said in an interview. “That’s why the system is the way it is. They want a certain standard of disclosure without sacrificing their personal privacy.”

Rebound after recession

The analysis shows that lawmakers who were well-off before the financial crisis of 2008 saw portions of their portfolios level off during the darkest days. But most of these lawmakers managed to maintain their financial footing and emerge far wealthier than they had been earlier in the decade.

Some of the richest members of Congress watched their portfolios soar between 2004 and 2010. Of the 72 lawmakers whose estimated wealth doubled during that time, it appears that 11 increased their portfolios by at least $10 million, based on the midpoint of their reported ranges.

Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Tex.) posted an estimated $22 million gain. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saw an estimated $60 million increase in her reported wealth as the value of her husband’s commercial real estate holdings in San Francisco climbed dramatically during the first decade of the century.

“This is really driven by real estate that he has held, some of it inherited, for a number of years,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. “San Francisco is one of the places where the market has skyrocketed in terms of price per square foot and has been fairly insulated in terms of the 2008 financial crisis.”

Another Californian has consistently ranked in the top five of the richest House members: Rep. Darrell Issa (R). He has also been one of the most successful investors on Capitol Hill, with estimated wealth of $448 million in 2010, according to The Post’s analysis.

Issa came to Congress in 2000 with a fortune he made from the sale of an electronics company that specialized in car alarms. One of his alarm systems carried a recording of his voice warning, “Please step away from the car,” if anyone got too close.

Now most of Issa’s investments are in mutual funds, bonds and securities. Issa’s chief of staff said the securities have provided an annual rate of return of between 6 and 7 percent. He also has significant investments in commercial real estate.

“He isn’t speculating on individual stocks. He isn’t a property speculator,” said Dale Neugebauer, the congressman’s chief of staff. “The properties are usually mature real estate with established renters and a predictable rate of return.”

Issa appeared to lose about $90 million in 2008, but his portfolio regained an estimated $197 million within two years of the financial meltdown. The rises were fueled by his commercial real estate ventures in San Diego and successful investments in mutual funds, bonds and other securities.

For Issa, staying patient and holding assets during the downturn paid off.

“Mr. Issa was fortunate enough to be very successful before he was elected to Congress,” Neugebauer said.

Among his real estate ventures, Greene Properties Inc. has gained the most. Issa valued the property holding company at $25 million to $50 million in 2004, a figure that would eventually exceed $50 million.

Issa presents a particular challenge of analysis. In the system Congress set up for itself, the disclosure form’s highest category of value is “more than $50 million,” with no upper limit. As with the other richest legislators who report assets in that category, there is no way for the public to tell how much Issa is worth.

The same is true of Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.). The Post analysis using the midpoints of his reported ranges shows that his estimated wealth rose from $6 million in 2004 to $34 million in 2010, boosted by stock in Trinity Petroleum and holdings in Providence Trust.

He reported the value of each of those assets as between $5 million to $25 million in 2010, up from $1 million to $5 million the year before. But such ranges obscure the real value of his assets, which could have risen just enough to switch categories or by many millions of dollars.

A spokesman for Franks did not respond to requests for comment.

Losing money

Not all members of Congress were immune from the financial meltdown. Some who were enjoying modest gains and a semblance of wealth in the early years of the decade experienced the brunt of the crisis. Twenty lawmakers lost at least 50 percent of their portfolios between 2004 and 2010. Two dozen had their assets wiped out, the analysis found.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) rose to political heights in the middle of the decade — he became House majority leader in 2007 — but his finances failed to follow suit. His reported wealth declined by an estimated 90 percent between 2004 and 2010.

Hoyer, currently Democratic whip, had holdings estimated at $600,000 in 2004, not including a home in St. Mary’s County on the banks of the Patuxent River. As the markets tumbled, Hoyer’s holdings went along for the ride. Between 2007 and 2008, he lost about $249,000 in his mutual funds, joining legions of investors who watched their savings wither away as the housing and financial markets teetered.

Hoyer, the longest serving representative in Maryland history, regained some of his financial footing in 2009, with his estimated wealth bouncing back by nearly $200,000. But the next year, it dropped by $441,000 — 89 percent — apparently because of market fluctuations.

A spokeswoman for Hoyer said that his portfolio took a hit during the recession.

“Like a number of people, Mr. Hoyer’s assets experienced the effects of the financial crisis and saw a steep decline,” spokeswoman Katie Grant said.

Hoyer had plenty of company in Congress.

The estimated wealth of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) dropped from $2 million in 2004 to $1 million in 2010. Nearly half of those losses were tied to holdings in OneUnited Bank, where Waters’s husband served on the board.

Waters was the subject of a two-year House Ethics Committee investigation relating to bailout money OneUnited received under the Troubled Assets Relief Program. The bank received $12 million from TARP but is still struggling. In 2010, her husband’s stock and deposits at the bank had dropped from a range of $500,000 to $1 million to between $101,000 and $265,000.

The committee cleared her of any wrong­doing last month.

Waters declined to discuss her family’s finances.

The estimated holdings of Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) dropped from $3 million in 2004 to $848,000 in 2010. Much of the loss was due to the declining value of the music catalogues she inherited from her late husband, onetime congressman and singer-songwriter Sonny Bono. In the 1960s, Bono wrote a string of hit records that included “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On,” recording them with his pop-star partner and then-wife, Cher.

In 2004, the catalogues were worth $765,000 to $1.8 million and generated at least $385,000 in royalties, records show. By 2010, their value had fallen to between $250,000 and $500,000, and royalties fell to at least $106,000.

From bad to worse

The economic meltdown was particularly tough on members of Congress who were already struggling with their personal finances.

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.) is the only member of Congress known to have filed for personal bankruptcy after the financial crisis. In 2007, his family’s longtime food processing plant in Mercedes fell on hard times. As the economy shrank, the plant was unable to secure credit. “It took a turn for the worse during the financial crisis,” he said in an interview.

Hinojosa had not been active in the business operations for many years, but he had guaranteed a company loan. In 2010, his family closed the business and he was held liable for millions of dollars in losses. His estimated wealth fell dramatically between 2004 and 2010, the year he filed for bankruptcy, citing debts that range between $1.4 million and $5.9 million, the largest owed to Wells Fargo.

For years, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) has been one of the most financially distressed members of Congress. He reported debts of between $2 million and $7 million in 2010. The debt is due to legal fees he incurred in the 1980s when he was a federal judge and accused of accepting bribes. A jury acquitted Hastings, but Congress impeached him.

“I paid some of them along the way,” Hastings said of the legal fees in a recent interview. “I wish I could just hit the lottery so I could pay them all.”

He said the lawyers would give him affidavits forgiving the debt if he requested it, but “what the accountants say to me is that then I would have a tax consequence.”

“Because of the liabilities, I wind up looking as if I am the poorest person” in Congress, he said.

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) had estimated family wealth of $184,000 in 2004. His mutual funds lost money during the recession. The biggest apparent drop in assets he reported came during 2009, from $335,000 to $9,000 in debt. By 2010, he reported holdings that were an estimated $159,000 in debt.

Bishop reported liabilities that included mortgages ranging from $250,000 to $500,000 and a debt in the same range to Greenberg Traurig, a high-powered law firm that had been representing him in an ethics case. Bishop was accused of sending federal funds to a Georgia youth program that employed his stepdaughter and her husband.

While the Office of Congressional Ethics eventually recommended that the allegations not be pursued, Bishop still owed Greenberg Traurig between $100,000 and $250,000, according to his most recent disclosure form.

Bishop declined to comment.

Wedding windfalls

Many members of Congress have impressive financial backgrounds, and some of those trace their wealth back to their spouses.

The net worth of Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) rose by more than 1,000 percent between 2004 and 2010. McCaul is married to Linda McCaul, the daughter of the chief executive and founder of Clear Channel Communications, which generates nearly $6 billion in annual revenue from its network of radio stations and outdoor advertising business.

While many portfolios suffered painful ­losses during the economic meltdown, McCaul’s finances emerged stronger than ever because of money coming from his wife’s family. His estimated wealth skyrocketed, from $70 million in 2008 to $380 million in 2010, broadly invested in numerous companies.

After Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) married a Washington lobbyist in 2003, his financial picture vastly improved. The year before, while he was separated from his first wife, Blunt had an estimated reported wealth of $164,000. By 2010, that figure had risen to nearly $4 million.

The senator’s wife, Abigail Blunt, was a lobbyist for tobacco giant Altria at the time of their wedding. When Altria sold its Kraft Foods division in 2007, she remained with Kraft as a lobbyist.

Abigail Blunt has brought numerous investments to the marriage, including a retirement account from Altria worth between $250,000 and $500,000, stock in Altria and Kraft Foods worth between $100,000 to $250,000, and a piece of Washington real estate valued at between $1 million and $5 million.

The fortunes of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) can also be traced to his wife’s success in the corporate world. The senator’s estimated wealth jumped by more than 500 percent between 2004 and 2010, from $3 million to $17 million, The Post analysis found.

Tom and Ruth Harkin were married in 1968, but the couple didn’t begin to amass wealth until the early 2000s. Ruth Harkin worked as a prosecutor and as a lawyer for the Department of Agriculture before joining the law firm Akin Gump, where she represented companies involved in international business deals. She left to head the Overseas Private Investment Corp. before joining United Technologies as a senior vice president for international affairs and government relations.

In the early 2000s, Tom and Ruth Harkin opened mutual funds and began investing heavily in the financial markets. In disclosure forms filed with the Senate, Tom Harkin attributed much of his wealth to his wife, including her holdings in United Technologies and ­ConocoPhillips, where she served as a board member until recently.

Ruth Harkin also holds an unpaid position on the Iowa Board of Regents and the couple own a vacation home in the Bahamas, which is valued at between $500,000 and $1 million.

The biggest jump in the couple’s wealth occurred in 2007, a time when the stock market was reaching historic heights. The couple doubled their estimated wealth, from $8 million in 2006 to $16 million in 2007. The Great Recession shaved off about $3 million in 2008, but the Harkins rebounded in 2009, rising to an estimated $17 million.

A spokeswoman for the senator said Harkin is proud of his wife’s financial success.

“Most of the assets reported by the Harkins have been made possible by Ruth’s private-
sector work,” spokeswoman Kate Frischmann said in a statement. “He views their life partnership as crucial to his own career, but his policy and political views are his own, as are hers.

“His policy views have not been guided by personal financial interests. Nor have his actions as a Senator, or information gained as a Senator, guided business dealings.”

Bobbye Pratt contributed to this article.

Dan Keating analyzes data for projects, stories, graphics and interactives. He was part of a team that won a Pulitzer at The Miami Herald for exposing vote fraud, and a team that was a Pulitzer finalist the year before for uncovering police fraud.
Scott Higham is a member of the investigations unit of The Washington Post.
Kimberly Kindy is a government accountability reporter at The Washington Post.
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