Edward Norton, lawyer whose tax flouting nearly cost wife a career in Congress, dies


Edward W. Norton, with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, addresses the media in 1990 about his income tax flap. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)
August 28, 2014

Edward W. Norton, a lawyer and former government official whose failure to file local taxes for seven years nearly upended the political career of his then-wife, Eleanor Holmes Norton, in her first race for D.C. delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, died Aug. 28 at a hospice center in Washington. He was 76.

The cause was colon cancer, said a son, John H. Norton.

Mr. Norton was an Ivy League-educated lawyer whose profile grew in tandem with his wife’s. They wed in 1965 when he was a Navy officer stationed in Philadelphia, and the former Eleanor Holmes was a clerk for a federal judge in that city.

They later went to New York, where Mr. Norton worked at a prestigious law firm and became general counsel for the city’s housing authority. Eleanor Norton made a national reputation as a fiery lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and later chaired the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

In 1977, she was named by President Jimmy Carter to head the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. By that time, Mr. Norton had already started working as deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He became general counsel at the Small Business Administration in 1979.

He joined a private legal practice in Washington after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. Starting in 1983, Mr. Norton served six years under Mayor Marion Barry as chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, gaining a reputation as a reformist who expunged inactive voters from the rolls.

In 1990, Eleanor Holmes Norton, then a Georgetown University law professor, entered the race for D.C. delegate after incumbent Walter E. Fauntroy decided to vacate the job to run for mayor. She was the front runner for much of the election, winning important endorsements against challenger and City Council member Betty Ann Kane.

Within days of the Democratic primary, news organizations, including The Washington Post, received an anonymous fax documenting the failure of the Nortons to pay $10,755 in D.C. income tax in 1982. The amount had climbed to more than $25,000 over seven years of penalties and interest.

Eleanor Norton quickly acknowledged the problem, which she blamed on her husband as the family’s steward on financial issues. Both Nortons had signed the tax forms, but Mr. Norton reportedly had not mailed them in.

The disclosure threatened to ruin Eleanor Norton’s election bid as Kane surged in the polls.

Mr. Norton went on the hustings to tell voters not to blame his wife. “I am the one who’s the villain in this,” he said at the time. “I delayed, and then it became a matter of, well, ‘I’ll get to it tomorrow.’ ”

In the ensuing days, the Nortons gave differing accounts about how the tax issue arose. They initially claimed it was because of a disagreement with the city over how much they owed. They subsequently said Mr. Norton ceased to file because he assumed he and his wife were due for a refund.

Nevertheless, Eleanor Norton pulled out an election victory of 40 percent to Kane’s 33 percent. She then trounced Republican Harry M. Singleton in the general election and also began proceedings for a legal separation from her husband. He said he was surprised.

“I have not had any conversation with Eleanor about our marriage since before the election,” he told The Washington Post in March 1991 when the news broke of their ruptured marriage. “It was a total surprise to me when she served me with papers seeking a legal separation.”

The Nortons reportedly paid more than $80,000 in back taxes and penalties to the District.

Edward Worthington Norton was born on April 10, 1938, in New York City. His father was worked at the registry window in the Postal Service’s Wall Street station and pushed his two sons to excel academically. Edward Norton was a 1959 graduate of Yale University and, after Navy service, graduated from Columbia University law school in 1966.

At the time of his death, Mr. Norton was chief legal adviser for Mason Tillman Associates, a social marketing and public-policy research firm focused on minority business development.

A District resident, he was a past president of Leadership Greater Washington, which connects leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, and board president of the Northwest Settlement House, an early learning program for infants and toddlers. He was a past president of the Hale Foundation, an organization that supports undergraduate and alumni activities at Yale.

Besides his son, survivors include a daughter, Katherine F. Norton, both of Washington; a brother; and a grandson. Eleanor Holmes Norton is now in her 12th term as D.C. delegate.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story, based on information in a 1990 Washington Post profile of Mr. Norton, incorrectly referred to Mr. Norton’s father as a letter carrier.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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