For the first time in history, over half of members of Congress are millionaires, according to a new report from the Center for Responsive Politics, better known as OpenSecrets.org. Insert bitter joke about the War on Poverty here. But almost as striking as the many public servants who are raking in the big bucks is the fact that the 24 members at the bottom of the list are all deep in the red (and members 505-507 have a net worth of $0). How could these men and women with their hands on the nation’s purse strings be doing such a dismal job with their own? Meet the five poorest members of Congress.
5. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn), average net worth -$472,502
The representative from Tennessee’s 8th congressional district has had his finances dragged under the spotlight before. During his 2010 campaign, he took out a $250,000 bank loan from the Gates Banking and Trust Company, of which his father was on the board, and made the proceeds available to his campaign. After Fincher won the seat, his opponents raised questions about whether the loan had been fully collateralized as election law requires. The inquiry helped win Fincher the designation of “Most Corrupt” from the D.C. watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Though Fincher appears to have straightened out his ledger, his morals remain crooked. A seventh generation cotton farmer, Fincher has been a strident proponent of slashing billions from the food stamp program—even though he and his family accepted nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies between 1999 and 2012. OpenSecrets found last winter that he owed between $795,000 and $1.65 million on loans for crops, equipment, and other farm expenses. Without the federal government’s generosity, Fincher might be even further in the red.
4. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), -$510,000
Velázquez, whose district encompasses parts of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, has been in Congress in 1993, and was the first Puerto Rican woman to join its ranks. The daughter of a sugarcane harvester who became the first member of her family to go to college, Velázquez is considered a reliable advocate for social welfare policies; she is the ranking member of the House Small Business Committee and a senior member of the Financial Services Committee.
But her personal finances are not in model shape. In 2011, The New York Post reported that Velázquez had up to $5 million in assets, including a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn—but that her debts approached $5.2 million, and she owed $15,000 on her credit card. She is up for reelection in 2014, and OpenSecrets finds that she finished the 2013-2014 fundraising cycle with $7,737 in debt.
3. Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas), -$2,303,473
Hinojosa, who has represented his district since 1997, became the rare member of Congress forced to declare personal bankruptcy in 2010. Prior to his election, Hinojosa ran the food processing company he inherited from his father and uncle, H&H Meat Products, for 20 years. When the company declared bankruptcy in 2008, it pulled his finances down, too.
“My filing for bankruptcy was the result of the business loan I personally guaranteed for my family business…when it was doing well financially,” Hinojosa said in a statement at the time. “Although over the last 14 years, I had no managerial responsibility or oversight of H&H, I remained financially obligated on a bank line of credit of H&H when it was forced into bankruptcy due to the recent economic downturn and financial market meltdown.”
OpenSecrets found that Hinojosa was in the hole for up to $80,000 in local and county taxes in 2011, though a spokeswoman said in 2013 that those debts had been paid. Hinojosa’s financial misfortunes didn’t exclude him from all the luxuries his millionaire colleagues in Congress enjoy, at least prior to the bankruptcy filing: Politico reported at the time that Hinojosa had a 401(k) valued at more than $610,000, and that he and his wife declared “three watches” valued at $1,000.
2. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla), -$4,732,002
First elected in 1992, Hastings is an outspoken member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a current Senior Democratic Whip. He has also earned the distinction of poorest member of Congress on many a prior list. The drag on his finances, which is generally estimated to fall between $2.1 million and $7.3 million, is a set of legal bills for defense hired during a scandal that preceded his time in the House.
Hastings was a District Court judge in Florida when he was accused of soliciting a bribe in a criminal case in 1981. Though he was acquitted by a jury, he was ultimately impeached in 1989. And debt isn’t the only part of the incident that has dogged him ever since: The blight on his record torpedoed his candidacy for House Intelligence Committee chairman in 2006.
Hastings’ wallet has come under scrutiny for other reasons, too: A CREW report rated him the top U.S. Representative for nepotism in 2012 after finding that he had paid his girlfriend a $622,574 salary. (Hastings defended himself against the nepotism charge by pointing out that he was not married to his girlfriend, and therefore the accusation that he was diverting money to his "family" was false.)
1. David Valadao (R-Calif), -$12,167,002
Valadao bumped Hastings from the post of poorest Congressman when he assumed office in 2013. Like Fincher, he is a farmer—in the dairy industry—and his family’s farm is the source of his debts, which may be as large as $24,498,997 according to an upper estimate. In 2013, an aide told OpenSecrets that “Valadao’s net worth calculation is misleading, because while it accounts for all of the farm's debts, it only includes Valadao's personal assets—not those of the farm.”
In his short tenure, Valadao has been accused of letting his personal business interfere with his politics: After he opposed California’s high-speed railroad, it came out that he owns land along its route. But his poverty didn’t mar his integrity during the government shutdown, when he cosponsored a bill to prevent members of Congress from receiving pay while other federal employees were sitting at home.