The House Ethics Committee says that Rep. Geraldine Ferraro's violations of the financial disclosure law were technical. By that it means that the evidence points to "error, oversight and misinterpretation as the reasons for the incomplete disclosures." In other words, Rep. Ferraro was wrong not to include her husband's assets and income in the forms that a member of Congress files every year, and wrong to argue that the law doesn't require it. But, the committee decided, it was an innocent mistake, and there are no grounds for further penalties.
Well, okay. But the law itself is not obscure. It says that a member of Congress has to disclose a spouse's financial interests unless the member is entirely separated from them and draws no benefit from them. Rep. Ferraro was an officer and stockholder in her husband's real estate firm, and drew benefit from his income in the rather substantial sense that he provided most of the family's support. The committee apparently feels that the important thing here is to reaffirm the law's meaning for inattentive readers. Beyond that, particularly since the candidate subsequently went through a full and excruciating process of disclosure and then, in the end, lost the election, the committee concludes that there is no point in pursuing her further. Fair enough. With that, the affair will probably be relegated to the large category of misadventure that high school teachers describe, usually with a sigh, as a learning experience.
What's been learned? First, that candidates fudge these requirements at their peril. The long quarrel over disclosure became a real burden to the Mondale-Ferraro campaign. If she had been elected, it would have provided a target for repeated attacks and probably litigation.
The circumstances in this case illustrated two of the most perennially difficult issues in any disclosure process. Rep. Ferraro's husband, John Zaccaro, has a complex business of his own. And he is a principal in it, meaning that there's no real line between the company and his own personal affairs. Disclosure would have been easier for someone whose income was a weekly paycheck. For Mr. Zaccaro, it was damaging in competitive terms as well as embarrassing.
Disclosure can be hard on spouses. But if the candidate's husband or wife wants to avoid it, the Ferraro case says that there's got to be a genuine segregation of funds right down to splitting the monthly utility bills. It's inconvenient, but not impossible. And it's not optional. The Ethics Committee's report is going to make it much harder for candidates in the future to claim that the law is ambiguous -- or that their misunderstanding of the requirement was innocent.