In an 80-minute news conference today, a spirited Geraldine A. Ferraro stood her ground on the issue of her controversial finances and declared that she has disclosed more about her family's financial circumstances than any "candidate for any office in this country."
Appearing before 38 television cameras and more than 150 reporters, Ferraro acknowledged that she and her accountants had been "sloppy" in handling the paper work for some of her financial transactions. "But I never, ever had any authority to sign checks or any authority as far as the corporation is concerned," she said.
She promised to remove herself as an officer and stockholder in her husband's real estate company.
Yet in what has become a central issue in her 1984 campaign, the three-term House member from Queens continued to insist that she had not violated House rules by failing to disclose her husband's business interests in her annual financial disclosure statements.
She said she had tried to keep her finances entirely separate from those of her husband to avoid conflicts of interest and was entitled to an exemption from the disclosure provisions. "I did not want to know his business then and I don't want to know it now.
"At no time did I violate any trust placed in me by my constituents," Ferraro said. "I have never participated in the workings of that business."
Accountants and campaign attorneys briefed reporters before Ferraro's appearance, disclosing that she and her husband, John A. Zaccaro, owe an additional $17,000 in state and city taxes and interest because of an accountant's error on their 1978 tax return. That figure comes on top of a payment, made Monday, for $53,459 in back taxes and interest owed the federal government.
Furthermore, because the 1978 error had an effect on the way their taxes were calculated in subsequent years, Ferraro and Zaccaro probably owe the federal Treasury up to another $1,000 for 1979 and 1980 combined, according to Irwin R. Ettinger, a partner in the Arthur Young & Co. accounting firm retained by the couple earlier this month.
Accountants are still reviewing Ferraro's and Zaccaro's more recent returns, but Ettinger said he does not expect to find any errors as costly as the one made in 1978.
Ferraro on several occasions alluded to the sting of having to ante up for back taxes, which she did by selling $70,000 worth of bonds on an hour's notice Monday.
"I painfully sent out a check yesterday for $53,000," she said dryly. "It's hard to write a check for that amount."
Much of the questioning was targeted at a 1978 transaction in which Ferraro sold her interests in two New York properties to repay illegal campaign loans from her family during her first congressional race.
When she learned that the Federal Election Commission was challenging the family loans, Ferraro said, she decided to sell the two properties and said to Zaccaro, "We've got to sell them fast . . . .Get whatever you can get."
On Monday, however, the campaign disclosed that Zaccaro had secretly arranged to buy back one of the properties a few months later, which meant in effect that he was still financing her campaign. Ferraro said she learned of that deal only recently.
"When I found out, I said, 'Why'd you do that?' . . . . He said, 'It's legal.' I said, 'Sure it was, but it doesn't look so hot.' "
Ferraro admitted that by twice reversing herself in recent weeks on whether Zaccaro's tax returns would be released, she had aggravated the furor.
"You're right, I probably did bring it on myself in promising more than I could deliver," she said. "I finally delivered it, didn't I?"
Asked what caused Zaccaro to change his mind about making his tax returns public after first saying disclosure would hurt his business, she said he told her, "Gerry, I don't want to hurt you. Here they are."
She described her husband as "a very private man, but one of integrity."
By fulfilling a promise to answer questions on the financial issues until reporters had run out of steam, Ferraro said she hopes to put the matter behind her by her 49th birthday on Sunday and begin campaigning in earnest.
Asked if she had considered resigning, Ferraro replied, "That's wishful thinking by the Republicans. I consider myself an asset. I consider us a winning team, and I'll invite you to the White House in January."
On Monday, Ferraro and her husband released their tax returns since 1978, showing they paid about 40 percent of their income in taxes. Other documents placed the couple's net worth at $3.8 million.
"We paid more than our fair share of taxes," she said. "The supposition was we had something to hide and obviously we don't."
In what will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable episodes in the 1984 presidential campaign, Ferraro faced the press phalanx while sitting alone at a table in a hotel meeting room, occasionally summoning advisers from the wings to field technical questions.
Although periodically chiding hostile questioners -- "Now you know better than that," she told one -- more frequently she displayed the characteristic whimsy that has become a trademark of her stump speeches.
"I met the accounting experts from Arthur Young a week ago Saturday. They hold themselves out as the experts. I sure hope they are. Just kidding, guys," she said with a grin.
At one point in the news conference, reporters booed one colleague and hooted down another whose questions struck his colleagues as obstreperous. At the end, some television cameramen applauded.
Ferraro's campaign attorneys said no further documents on Zaccaro's livelihood would be forthcoming, such as the corporate returns for his real estate brokerage. Such disclosures would offer a clearer picture of Zaccaro's financial status than the individual returns released Monday.
"Where does the spouse of the candidate draw the line?" asked Michael H. Cardozo, an adviser to the Mondale-Ferraro campaign. "Mr. Zaccaro is going to be the first one to draw the line someplace."
Anthony Essaye, another campaign adviser, added, "This has been the broadest disclosure ever made. There's no need to keep going on."
Ferraro dismissed criticism by Republicans that Mondale failed to prepare her for the intense interest in her finances and failed to investigate her financial background.
"This is a very unusual situation. . . , " she said, noting that a woman has never before been nominated for vice president. "There is no way you can anticipate what would be expected of that woman's spouse and just how much that spouse's involvement in a small business would get involved in all of this. There is no way. None of us could have."
Ferraro repeatedly stressed that she knew virtually nothing about the family real estate business, although she owns one of the three stock shares and has variously listed herself as vice president, secretary and treasurer of the firm.
"What I have done since I've been in Congress is chosen to keep our finances totally separate," she said, noting that she and Zaccaro had filed separate tax returns, which she said cost them an extra $6,000 or more.
But "if you go to the extreme" of segregating the finances absolutely, as some have interpreted the rules for claiming an exemption for spouses on congressional disclosure forms, then "you should have separate refrigerators, separate phone bills, and the exemption means nothing," she added.
"I did not want to know his business then and I do not want to know it now," she said, noting that she had only become a shareholder as a safeguard in case Zaccaro died.
Zaccaro's father died of cancer in 1971; his brother had died three years earlier, also of cancer. She said Zaccaro asked her to become a director so that in case something happened to him, she would be able to come in and keep the license alive.
"I will not take a more active interest in his business affairs," she said, in response to a question. "It is his business. . . . I am doing my job. I have two of them. I do my job as a member of Congress. I do my job as a wife and mother. Those are my two jobs. I can't do a third. So I will remove myself as an officer so that I'm not in this position anymore."
She said she hoped her eldest daughter, Donna, would attend school to obtain a broker's license so she could assume her mother's position in the business.
On the strength of several pledges of financial support during her first congressional race, Ferraro said she had assumed that she wouldn't have to worry about paying the election costs from her pocket.
However, when those promises fell through, she continued, "I could give you a speech on how hard it is for a woman to raise money to run for office."
"Well," she said, "if you go back to 1978, for my first election, when it came time for me to run, I borrowed money . . . . And I had to pay it back. When I went to pay it back, any time I went to try to get a loan, or if I tried to sell my property, whatever I tried to do, it was always, well, you know, 'What interest does your husband have?'
"When I went out to get bank loans, they said to me, 'You must have your husband's signature'. . . By now between September and November, I knew that to have my husband's signature on a loan would be in violation of the law and said, 'He can't do it; he can't sign it. It will violate the law.' " And they would say to me, 'you can't have a loan without his signature.' "
"So I determined then that if I was ever going to have problems in '80 or '82 or '84 or '86 in runnning for Congress . . . . I wanted to have everything separate so that I would be able to use my money and never have to worry again about using my money separately. So it was kept deliberately apart."
While fencing with reporters over the financial issues, Ferraro also inserted other tacit political messages appealing to what she views as her natural constituencies.
For example, asked whether her millionaire status precluded her from winning the blue-collar vote in November, Ferraro said, "Absolutely not . . . . I can go out and speak to blue-collar workers because my mother was one."
Furthermore, she cited her rise to affluence and the escalation in value of the family property as proof of the American dream in action, the just desserts of hard work "and that's what this country's all about."
She added, "We're not flashy."
And in a reference perhaps intended to appeal to other family-run businesses, she said some of the paper work problems of her husband's firm were attributable to the fact that "it is a small business. He doesn't have a battery of attorneys or accountants."
During the technical briefing, Ferraro's accountants said they were satisfied that her financial disclosure statement submitted to the FEC Monday contained "everything that is required." Other points made by the accountants and lawyers included:
*She is listed as lending $18,000 to a corporation owned by Zaccaro and his mother only because he didn't have his checkbook during a trip to the Virgin Islands last year when he discovered an investment property he wanted to buy. Ferraro paid for the property as a loan.
*Although Ferraro is listed on some tax returns as receiving income from the Zaccaro family firm, because of an accounting mechanism the earnings were essentially a paper transaction.
*Zaccaro's frequent practice of not recording his ownership interests in some New York properties reflects his "informal manner."
*The Ferraro-Zaccaro family acccountant, Jack Selger, was blamed for a number of errors, including the $53,000 mistake on the 1978 joint return. "We've all met him. He's a good, solid guy and he made a couple of mistakes," said Essaye, one of the campaign's legal advisers.
*When asked about a $100,000 loan Zaccaro made to himself while serving as conservator of the funds of an elderly woman, the attorneys demurred on grounds that the issue is scheduled for a hearing in New York on Thursday.
*When Ferraro was asked whether she resents the press for the intense and uncomfortable spotlight that has been fixed on her for the past two weeks, she replied. "No, I don't. You have to remember that I'm a bit of a phenomenon in that I'm the first woman running for national office. We may, during the course of the next couple of terms that we're in the White House, figure out how to deal with women national candidates . . . . This goes with the turf, and hopefully Gerry will be off the grill."