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Erie County Legislator Ted Morton fined $500 by ethics board over debt-disclosure error

The Erie County Board of Ethics has fined Legislator Ted Morton $500 for filing false information on his 2013 financial disclosure form and understating his personal debts by tens of thousands of dollars.

But Morton, R-Cheektowaga, doesn’t want to pay the fine. The former financial planner recently sent a letter to the ethics board stating that paying the fine would suggest he knowingly tried to deceive the ethics board when, in fact, he simply made a mistake.

“I cannot accept the board’s finding that I violated Erie County’s Code of Ethics and I respectfully request your reconsideration,” he said in a letter to the board last month.

Erie County Democrats raised questions about Morton’s financial disclosure forms this past fall when he was running for re-election in a hotly contested 8th District race. They also resurrected past ethics violations related to his prior work as a financial planner.

In response, Morton acknowledged that on his 2013 Erie County financial disclosure form, he mistakenly said he owed no more than $25,000 in outstanding debts to a single creditor when, in fact, he owed about $90,000 in total debts to three different creditors.

“After reviewing all of the relevant documentation and after carefully reviewing the Ethics Law, we have determined that a violation of the Ethics Code has occurred to the extent that you should have known that the statements made on the form were erroneous,” said Steven Schwartz, chairman of the Board of Ethics, in the board’s letter of findings.

The 2013 disclosure form includes brief instructions telling all filers to submit information for the period from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2013. But when Morton turned in his 2013 disclosure form in May 2014, he said he misunderstood the instructions and wrote down the single debt he had remaining at the time he filled out the paperwork instead of all the debts he had in the 2013 calendar year.

When the issue came up last fall, he said he realized his mistake and submitted a corrected disclosure form. He also said he subsequently paid off all debts with interest to creditors associated with his failed financial planning practice.

In Morton’s response letter to the Board of Ethics, he said any determination that he violated the law requires the board to find he “knowingly and willingly” made a false statement “with intent to deceive.”

The county’s ethics code states that county officials can be assessed financial disclosure penalties under three scenarios: that they knowingly fail to file their annual disclosure form, that they make a false statement on their forms with the intent to deceive, or they provide information they know to be false or should know to be false.

The Board of Ethics determined Morton violated the ethics code based on the last premise. Though the ethics board may assess fines of up to $10,000, the board determined that a $500 fine was an “appropriate” and “measured” response in this case.

Morton responded with a request for reconsideration. Chairman Schwartz said the board is considering his appeal and will make a final decision at its April meeting. Morton said he is waiting for the board’s response and said any further comment on the matter would be premature.