Ferraro financial charges - blip or blot for campaign?
Washington — ''I think it will be a dead issue in a few days,'' says Rep. Bill Alexander of Arkansas, chief deputy whip for House Democrats. He shrugs off charges that his party's vice-presidential nominee, US Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro of New York, filed improper financial reports as predictable political jabs from Republicans.
But a political strategist who is a Democrat confides privately: ''I think people wonder if it will linger and every week there will be some new accusation'' regarding the substantial real estate business of Ms. Ferraro's husband, John A. Zaccaro.
The two moods alternate on Capitol Hill, where a conservative legal foundation has filed a formal complaint that the New York congresswoman failed to disclose all of her family's holdings, as required by House ethics rules.
Some Democrats, including Ferraro, say all questions will be answered next week when she makes public both her own finance and tax records and those of her husband. Others express confidence that Walter F. Mondale's cautious campaign team, which has already checked the finances, would have spotted any problems.
Despite such optimism, the questions surrounding the Ferraro finances constitute the first difficult test for her candidacy. ''This is an attempt to politically embarrass me,'' she told reporters this week at a brief press conference in which she again promised to disclose all records but declined to answer specific charges. ''I am not embarrassed,'' she said.
In the complaint filed by the Washington Legal Foundation, the chief allegation is that she improperly claimed she was exempt from disclosing her husband's business dealings. According to House rules, every member must disclose a spouse's financial activities unless the member had no knowledge of those finances, had no involvement in them, and expected to derive no economic benefit from them.
Ferraro said this week that she continues to feel she qualified for the exemption, although she is preparing a full disclosure. As for the exemption from her past six years of reports, she said, ''I will not be changing that.''
The Washington Legal Foundation argues that she was ineligible because she reported that she was an officer of her husband's company, P. Zacarro & Son Inc. , as well as a stockholder. Moreover, the complaint adds, she and her husband shared a joint bank account to which both contributed.
The issue of nondisclosure is particularly touchy in Congress in light of the recent conviction of Rep. George Hansen (R) of Idaho for failure to list his wife's financial dealings on his congressional form. In that case, the congressman claimed no exemption but failed to make the disclosure. He was found to be criminally guilty of falsifying a government document.
About 20 of Ferraro's colleagues have also claimed the exemption.
The House Ethics Committee, which oversees the filings, has not raised any question about her exemption in the past. However, a committee worker explains that the small staff is not capable of auditing reports, and the committee deals chiefly with charges brought to its attention in other ways.
Paul D. Kamenar, legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation, charges there are other ''errors'' and ''misrepresentations'' in Ferraro's reports. His group holds that she underreported capital gains from selling property in 1978 to finance her first congressional campaign and that she reported unrealistically large income from bonds she bought in 1983.
Mr. Kamenar said he will also file complaints with the US Department of Justice and Federal Election Commission.
Under House rules the charges brought by the legal foundation touch off a preliminary inquiry that could lead to a statement of alleged violation, giving Ferraro 21 days to answer before the ethics committee makes a recommendation. The committee could also decide that the charges are unfounded.
A House GOP aide says his party's leadership ''has not been enthusiastic about pursuing'' the case, since it would then become a partisan issue. The Ethics Committee might drag its heels, he says, but he adds that for the committee ''it would be difficult to say nothing prior to the election.''