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Democrats hope voters won't be swayed by House probe of Ferraro finances

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are voicing optimism that the American public is already so satisfied with the financial disclosures of vice-presidential nominee Geraldine A. Ferraro that voters will pay little heed to the congressional probe announced this week.

The vote by the House ethics committee to investigate whether Ms. Ferraro violated financial disclosure rules brought a show of support for her.

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House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts said the New York congresswoman confronted the issue last month, when she answered questions about her finances for two hours on national television. "She handled herself so beautifully." said Mr. O'Neill, that "she won the hearts of the American people."

"There's never been a person in the history of Congress who's given a better detailed outlay" of her personal finances, O'Neill said yesterday. But, he added, "it's hard to make a judgment" on the effects of the ethics committee action on the Democratic presidential campaign.

Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia also harked back to Ferraro's "ability to act under fire" at the lengthy news conference. "She continues to address the matter," he said of the financial disclosure controversy. "I have no reason to not believe her."

The mood of the people is, "Let's get on with the issues," said Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D) of Ohio.

But a Democratic member who asked not to be identified bemoaned the fact that on a day when presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale had performed "well" in Peoria, he had been ignored. Instead, on the front page was a story about Ferraro and the ethics committee vote, he said, adding that it's one more factor that "delays the campaign takeoff."

The ethics probe was triggered when a conservative group, the Washington Legal Foundation, filed a complaint Aug. 7 with the House committee against Ferraro. The group said, among other charges, that she improperly claimed exemption from disclosing the financial holdings of her husband, John Zaccaro, a real estate broker.

House members are required to disclose their own finances plus those of immediate family members, unless they have no knowledge of those holdings or do not benefit from them. The Washington Legal Foundation holds that Ferraro knew and to some extent participated in her husband's realty company. The vice-presidential candidate has steadfastly maintained that she was entitled to the exemption and that she and her husband have kept their finances separate since she first ran for Congress in 1978.

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Democrats say the charges are purely political, pointing to the Washington Legal Foundation's GOP connections. Three Republican House members helped the group comply with the procedures required for an outsider to file a complaint.

Once the charges were made, the House ethics committee was forced to deal with the issue. Although half the committee is Democratic, the vote to investigate the allegations was unanimous.

The committee had to act to defend its credibility, according to both GOP and Democratic aides. Once the complaint was in hand, the committee had "absolutely no choice," says Kirk O'Donnell, a legal adviser to O'Neill.

The completion of the probe, however, is still in doubt, since Congress is scheduled to be in session only two more weeks this year, and the probe could take several weeks. Unless the issue is resolved this year, it may become moot, since Ferraro's congressional term ends at the beginning of 1985, and she will no longer be accountable to House rules.

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