WASHINGTON -- Aides to Mitt Romney stressed earlier this week that the controversy surrounding his tax filings was now firmly behind the campaign. A report breaking Thursday evening -- just hours before the last debate preceding the Florida primary -- underscores how difficult it will be to sweep financial questions under the rug.
The Los Angeles Times was first to report that funds held by Mitt and Ann Romney in a now-closed Swiss bank account, in addition to other investments overseas, were not listed on the former Massachusetts governor's personal financial disclosure forms:
A review by the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau found that at least 23 funds and partnerships listed in the couple's 2010 tax returns did not show up or were not listed in the same fashion on Romney's most recent financial disclosure, including 11 based in low-tax foreign countries such as Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg.
The campaign has stressed that Romney has paid all required U.S. taxes on his foreign funds.
Many of the funds are affiliated with Bain Capital, the Boston-based private equity firm Romney ran for 15 years. Several others are apparently unrelated offshore entities with mysterious names such as Babson 2006-1, which is based in the Cayman Islands, and Barracuda Investments, which has an address in Dublin, Ireland, but appears to be solely owned by Golden Gate Capital, a private equity firm based in San Francisco.
Following the report, ABC News quoted several government ethics watchdogs calling Romney's failure to make the disclosures "distressing."
Bill Allison, editorial director of the non-profit watchdog group the Sunlight Foundation, said the whole purpose of the disclosure reports is for candidates to provide an honest look at their finances to voters.
"Obviously, if you don't give them the information before the vote, it defeats the whole purpose of disclosure," Allison said.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the non-partisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she, too, was dismayed -- noting that while in Congress, Gingrich had been called out for failing to include information on his disclosure reports.
The dual reports hardly provide the type of headlines that Romney or his aides want heading into Thursday night's debate. Questions about Romney's tax filings were a major burden on his campaign during the South Carolina primary. And the whole point of revealing the 2010 tax return this past Tuesday was to create as much distance between that story and the actual vote.
But is what Romney did with his financial disclosures actually illegal? The 1978 Ethics in Government Act states, "The Attorney General may bring a civil action in any appropriate United States district court against any individual who knowingly and willfully falsifies or who knowingly and willfully fails to file or report any information that such individual is required to report pursuant to section 102."
Section 102 says that each personal financial disclosure form shall include a full and complete statement with respect to:
The source, type, and amount or value of income (other than income referred to in subparagraph (B)) from any source (other than from current employment by the United States Government), and the source, date, and amount of honoraria from any source, received during the preceding calendar year, aggregating $200 or more in value and, effective January 1, 1991, the source, date, and amount of payments made to charitable organizations in lieu of honoraria, and the reporting individual shall simultaneously file with the applicable supervising ethics office, on a confidential basis, a corresponding list of recipients of all such payments, together with the dates and amounts of such payments.
A strict reading of that language suggests that Romney did not adhere to the law. And in a statement to reporters, the Democratic National Committee accused the former governor of illegality.
"The fact that Mitt Romney did not include these accounts and investments on his personal financial disclosure, on which he is required by law to report such assets, is troubling," said spokeswoman Melanie Roussell. "Remember, this is the form he used as an excuse not to release his tax returns in the first place -- he said everything the public needed to know was already on these forms, and now we know that isn't true. Everything wasn't included."
But like many legal issues, there is ample room for interpretation. The question becomes whether Romney "knowingly and willfully" left out information in his personal financial disclosure. Proving that is nearly impossible. Even if it could be proved, the notion that the attorney general would bring a civil suit against him is absurdly unlikely: Politicians are allowed to amend financial disclosures and do so regularly.
"The inescapable fact is that by releasing over 600 pages of information regarding his finances, Mitt Romney is clearly coming down on the side of disclosure," said Andrea Saul, a Romney spokesperson. "Any document with this level of complexity and detail is bound to have a few trivial inadvertent issues. We are in the process of putting together some minor technical amendments, which will not alter the overall picture of Gov. and Mrs. Romney's finances as disclosed in August."
Some investments listed in Mitt and Ann Romney's 2010 tax returns--including a now-closed Swiss bank account and other funds located overseas--were not explicitly disclosed in the personal financial statement the GOP presidential hopeful filed in August as part of his White House bid.