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Disclosures may detect, deter conflicts of interest

Like many Americans, members of Congress base their net worth on a range of assets, from savings accounts to personal property, stocks, bonds and retirement plans.

But for many lawmakers, the amount of assets within their portfolios approaches a level the majority of their constituents could only dream of.

According to the nonpartisan watchdog Center for Responsive Politics, the median net worth for members of Congress in 2012 was $1,008,767, far above the $77,300 median net worth of American families in 2010 (according to a Federal Reserve study).

Each year, members of both chambers are required by law to disclose the details of their assets and liabilities in an effort to deter perceptions of any conflict of interest.

Determining the exact wealth of a lawmaker can be tricky. Members are only required to report assets and liabilities in broad ranges, some of which can span over millions of dollars. Ranges allow citizens to have an idea of the ballpark of their lawmaker’s net worth but prevent them from knowing the specific details of information that for most Americans is considered to be deeply private.
Still, voters have a right to know what their representatives are worth, along with assets they own.

Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, said citizens were entitled to know the financial standings of their respective member of Congress, especially when that person is voting on legislation which could have drastic implications for companies he or she also holds stock in.

“People need to know if their member of Congress has a monetary connection to a particular company; it’s a major reason why this is important,” Bryner said. “Also, it’s valuable for our citizens to know that members of Congress have financial backgrounds that look very different from the typical American. What that means — and what someone makes of it — is largely up to the voter. But from a policy perspective, it’s important to know.”

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Figures for 2013 were filed and released in May. While independent groups are still calculating figures for the entirety of House and Senate members, an analysis by Carolina Public Press offers a look at the assets of Western North Carolina U.S. House members Rep. Virginia Foxx, Rep. Patrick McHenry and Rep. Mark Meadows.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) represents the 5th District

Foxx, a Republican who represents North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District (a region which includes Watauga County) reported dozens of assets ranging from $2,737,046 to $9,256,001 in 2013, giving her an average net worth of $5,996,523.50. The numbers are consistent with Foxx’s filing from 2012, which earned her a spot as the 68th-richest member of the 435-member House of Representatives.

Foxx reported multiple assets in excess of six figures, with nearly half-a-dozen rental properties in the Banner Elk area along with annuities and stocks. The congresswoman holds stakes in companies including Altria Group, AT&T, FedEx, Ford Motor Company and Six Flags. Unlike many of her House colleagues, Foxx reported zero liabilities to her name.

The totals for Foxx, along with McHenry and Meadows, don’t include any income (such as capital gains or dividends) generated by assets, nor do they include any dollars earned from their $174,000 congressional salary.

U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) represents the 10th District

McHenry, a Republican who represents the 10th District (an area which includes much of Asheville), reported holding 14 assets totaling between $372,014 and $1,031,000 in 2013. Most of McHenry’s assets are in real estate, retirement accounts and money market funds.

The congressman also reported two mortgages as liabilities, ranging from $100,002 to $200,000, leaving him with an average net worth of $551,506. Like Foxx, McHenry’s report is consistent with his 2012 disclosure, which earned him a ranking as the 265th-richest member in the House.

Along with two mortgages on properties in Gastonia and Cherryville, McHenry reported two additional mortgages on personal homes in Denver, N.C. and Washington, D.C. But because personal residences are not counted as assets in the federal filing, the liabilities were not included in the calculation of his overall net worth.

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U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) represents the 11th District

The 2013 filing was different for Meadows, a Republican who represents the 11th District (an area which includes the majority of counties in the westernmost part of North Carolina). Unlike Foxx and McHenry, Meadows opted against filing his disclosure electronically, instead submitting a scanned, handwritten copy. The result is a difficult-to-read document, making the task of calculating specific amounts of Meadows’ assets and liabilities almost guaranteed to yield fuzzy results

When asked why the congressman eschewed more modern forms of submitting information, Meadows’ press secretary Alyssa Farah said Meadows had opted for the hand-written format due to being “a bit tech-challenged.”

While its difficult to see the values on Meadows’ filing, it’s easy to tell he holds assets in multiple checking and savings accounts, money market accounts, retirement planning accounts and stocks in a handful of companies.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the congressman’s net worth in 2012 ranged between $323,021 and $1,677,999, making him the 207th-richest House member (the 2012 disclosure is available for viewing here.

James Harrison

James Harrison is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Reach him at jharrison@carolinapublicpress.org.

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