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Tax mistakes common, especially for privileged

February 08, 2009

The late Art Hoppe once wrote a satirical column about Richard Nixon's search for an honest Southern justice whom he could nominate to the Supreme Court.

He found one, eventually, and placed his name before the Senate. A couple of days later, an excited clerk burst into the judge's office with a letter. "Read this," he said, "Time Magazine wants you to write an article about your life's story."

The judge looked at the clerk blankly and said: "Read? Write?"

The implication, of course, is that the only honest people are the ones who are too simple to commit some skullduggery.

President Obama knows the feeling. He must be wondering if there are any folks out there who are both honest and competent, or if those two traits are the oil and vinegar of public life.

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Tom Daschle is the latest victim, if that is the word, of himself. He was accused of failure to pay his taxes and for accepting money from drug companies to speak on medical/government issues, which is legal, but smelly.

He was, at least, the fourth Obama nominee to come under fire for some shenanigans or another. Bill Richardson bowed out over alleged business misdeeds. Timothy Geithner made it through, despite a tax problem. Nancy Killefer had one of those nanny problems.

And then there was presumptive Senator Carolyn Kennedy, who skipped out of the limelight rather than risk questions about her personal finances. And Rep. Charles Rangel, Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is under investigation for another one of those tax misunderstandings.

Democrats have talked a lot about two things of late: Ethics in government and excesses on Wall Street. Turns out, the folks who are to be guarding the chicken coop have foxy fangs of their own.

Ask yourself this: If you had tax issues nudging through six figures, is there any doubt the IRS would be bursting down your door? If you are struggling with this, the answer is no.

Yet the powerful and famous can apparently slide through the cracks so long as they are not up for a cabinet post. This could be an answer to the national debt. Nominate everyone in government for something or other and they will all scramble to make overdue payments.

It's the old "the rules don't apply to me" mantra that seems to infect anyone who comes within spitting distance of power. We're in the odd position of being asked to praise people who "voluntarily remember" that they may have skipped out on a tax or two.

You can believe in innocent mistakes. You can believe that the tax law are unfair. But as long as common citizens have to play by the rules, men and women of power should have to play by them as well.

A lot is made of the vetting process, by which lawyers are asked to perform background checks on nominees to ensure that a public servant's record is clean. That says a lot in itself. Basically, the vetting process presumes guilt. There are bound to be skeletons in the closet, but are these skeletons legally defensible?

But it's somewhat embarrassing that we need a vetting process in the first place. Schools teach that character counts. Government teaches that character counts, sometimes.

The problem isn't one of a few thousand dollars in taxes, the problem in one of honesty and accountability. How can one be counted on to write fair health care law if he can't be counted on to fill out proper tax forms? Any national health care program would be expensive - and would require a lot of our tax dollars. In Daschle's case, someone else's tax dollars, it would seem. Democrats like to spend, it's said. So they should be scrupulous about footing their fair share of the bill.

The shame of it is that all of the above mentioned men and women are widely regarded as talented individuals, people who could be counted on to lead our country in difficult times. By cheating the system, they are ultimately cheating us of the ability to reap the benefit of their talents.

No one out there - save for Ned Flanders, the Simpson's character who wants to know the cash value of sporting tickets he's just won so he can report them on his 1040 - errs on the side of paying more tax. But the fact than nominees see the light the second they are up for a national post points to the notion that they just may have known they were dodging taxes all along.

Were it an isolated incident, it might be explained away through oversight, careless error or an accounting glitch. But it is happening all too often. That's sad, but it might also offer a lesson for life: Live each day as if you expect, sometime in your life, to be nominated for a cabinet post.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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