Senators voted 93-2 to increase from the current $10,000 to $50,000 the maximum civil penalty that can be imposed for willful misrepresentations on the forms that broadly detail a public official's sources of income, assets and debts.
The amendment, offered by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., to a lobbying and ethics reform bill the Senate is now considering, would also allow the U.S. attorney general to file criminal charges, with penalties of up to one year in prison, against those who fail to comply with the financial disclosure law.
Among those required by law to file financial disclosure forms are the president and vice president, members of Congress, high-level executive branch officials, employees of the executive office of the president appointed by the president and certain officers of Congress and the judicial branch.
"If average American citizens falsify tax documents, they are in a heap of trouble with the IRS and the federal government," Vitter said. "Public officials shouldn't be treated any differently when they falsify their financial information."
Last year former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who pleaded guilty in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation and faces prison time, acknowledged making false statements on his financial disclosure forms by concealing that Abramoff and a foreign businessman who were the true source of gifts.
Much earlier, in 1984, former Rep. George V. Hansen, R-Idaho, was censured by the House for failing to include transactions on federal disclosure forms. He was later convicted of failing to file full disclosure forms and spent 15 months in prison. The conviction was overturned in 1995.
More common, lawmakers amend their disclosure forms after acknowledging that they unwittingly made errors or omitted information. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and his predecessor, former Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., have amended forms after questions arose over them.
The Senate is expected to vote on the ethics and lobbying bill next week, and the House may take up similar legislation next month.