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February 11, 2009

Diogenes shrugged

I might just stop paying my taxes.

Yeah, yeah, as a citizen it’s what I am bound to do. But really, why should I? Other people don’t. As we’ve just witnessed, something as trivial as tax delinquency doesn’t even cut into a person’s chances to be a presidential pick for a cabinet post. It might even be a prerequisite. 

These are not your grandfather’s tax cheats. Today, if you’re in arrears you don’t have to lie low. These megalomaniacs run rampant, parading around completely incredulous of their obligations. They truly believe, in the words of Leona Helmsley, “only the little people pay taxes.” (That would be you and me.)

I think it was high school when I first learned about Diogenes. Diogenes was the Greek philosopher who traversed the streets of Athens carrying a lamp, claiming to be looking for an honest man. Granted, he was a little crazy. He carried his lamp during the day and refused to live in a house, choosing instead to sleep in a bathtub. History books note he also shunned modern conveniences, at least as modern as they could be in 412 B.C.

These days, anyone, with or without a lamp, would have to be a little touched to set out in search of an honest man — especially if his tub was anywhere near Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration certainly had trouble finding one.

The husband of President Obama’s nominee for labor secretary ignored tax liens on his business for nearly 16 years. Yet the White House said the indiscretions of Hilda Solis’s husband shouldn’t taint her image. Thing is, the way the IRS sees it, married couples usually share responsibility for pesky things like tax evasion. (By the way, Hubs settled the liens one week before the missus was set to appear before a Senate confirmation committee. He’s appealing the debt, however.)

Our embarrassment of a treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, signed annual statements acknowledging he knew he was personally obligated to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes while working for the International Monetary Fund. He didn’t pay them. Even after an IRS audit he only paid a portion of the back taxes. Not until he got the nomination did he did pony up the rest. 

Nancy Killefer, the president’s pick for chief performance officer, withdrew from consideration after her tax debt became public. Here is a woman whose career was so white-hot, her expertise in such constant demand, that she employed two nannies and a personal assistant. It was those helpers who tripped her up. According to the government of the District of Columbia, Killefer failed to pay unemployment taxes on her home workers. And D.C. didn’t just slap fines and penalties on the measly $300 Killefer owed. Exercising what is usually an action of last resort, the District put an appointment-scuttling lien on her home. Nancy must have irritated somebody.

Then there’s Tom Daschle, the mack daddy of Obama’s tax drama.

While vetting Daschle to be the president’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, transition team members flagged oddities in Daschle’s charitable contributions. As it turns out, they were nothing; the former senator had far bigger problems. Once he got the president’s nod he admitted to owing the IRS more than $120,000.

Initially Daschle called the matter an “unintentional oversight.” Unintentional? Even if Daschle truly didn’t realize he owed Uncle Sam a small fortune, his intent became clear once he learned of the debt and didn’t make even the slightest attempt to clear it. Nevertheless, even after the decidedly liberal New York Times called for Tax Dodger Tom to withdraw, President Obama went on record pledging his “absolute support.”

The next day Daschle withdrew his name from consideration. Obama went on national television.

While refreshing, I’m not sure if the president’s admission that he “screwed up” referred to mistakes made during vetting, or the fact he defended his tax cheat. I hope it’s the latter, because Obama dismissively minimized Geithner’s tax troubles, too. That’s not a great precedent to set since our entire tax system is based on voluntary compliance.

In my lifetime the IRS has sent me two letters stating I owed the government money.  Both times I scribbled out checks right away. I thought I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t want trouble.

I realize now I should have let the debt hang until I faced Senate confirmation. Think of all the lamps I could have bought. 

Tagged: Francene |