While calling on candidates to release their tax returns is standard in presidential elections — Republican Mitt Romney partially gave in to such demands and released two years of returns last year — gubernatorial candidates traditionally have not released theirs.
In Virginia, the tax return issue arises after Republicans have spent weeks hitting McAuliffe over several issues related to GreenTech Automotive, the electric car company he founded, including his quiet resignation as its chairman and questions about the company’s decision to put a factory in Mississippi rather than Virginia.
While Cuccinelli is letting the media see his returns, news organizations may send only one reporter each, and the reporters must view the documents at Cuccinelli campaign headquarters Thursday or Friday. They will be allowed to take copies of the summaries — not the full documents — when they leave. For now, Cuccinelli’s campaign has said he will not publish the returns online, as Romney and President Obama did in their race.
While designed to put McAuliffe on the defensive, Cuccinelli’s strategy also carries some risk, because it draws attention to the Republican’s personal finances just as he and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) face scrutiny over their relationships with Star Scientific and the dietary supplement company’s chief executive, Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
Cuccinelli has had his own problems with disclosure. The attorney general failed to disclose for nearly a year that he owned substantial stock in Star Scientific, even as his office was defending Virginia in a tax lawsuit filed by the company. Cuccinelli’s campaign has said he was unaware that his stock holdings had exceeded $10,000, the threshold triggering the disclosure requirement.
An hour after Cuccinelli’s announcement, the Virginia Republican Party called on McAuliffe to release his returns while suggesting that recent revelations about GreenTech have damaged McAuliffe’s reputation.
McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin would not say whether McAuliffe planned to release his tax returns. But he said the issue showed “Cuccinelli is intent on distracting from his ongoing scandal.”
“Instead of trying to distract from legitimate questions about his personal financial conflict of interest with a company he was supposed to be pursuing for unpaid taxes,” Schwerin said, “Cuccinelli should tell Virginians about his contact with Jonnie Williams, his involvement in the tax dispute and the reasons for purchasing stock in the company after he was supposed to be representing Virginia in a lawsuit involving the company.”
Last year, Romney was attacked repeatedly by Obama’s campaign for declining to follow the example of other recent presidential candidates by releasing several years of tax returns. Democrats used Romney’s decision to sow speculation that the Republican nominee might have paid unusually low tax rates, or was stashing money in previously undisclosed offshore accounts. Romney eventually released returns covering two years.
McAuliffe, Republicans now note, joined the Democratic chorus at the time.
Romney “was legally entitled not to do it, but by not putting it out there, you’re letting everybody’s imagination run wild. . . . I would lance it,” McAuliffe said of the GOP nominee’s tax returns at a July 2012 event.
While gubernatorial candidates in Virginia don’t typically release their returns, they are required to file financial disclosure forms showing their investments. McAuliffe has filed his latest such report, while Cuccinelli’s is due in June.
As Republicans have with McAuliffe, Democrats also sought last year to undermine one of Romney’s core strengths — his profile as a successful businessman — by criticizing his record at the investment firm Bain Capital. Romney accused Obama of “attacking success.”
David Winston, a Republican pollster, said broadsides against McAuliffe over his taxes or his business record won’t have a big impact on the race.
“It’s how you translate it [into] what McAuliffe would do if he were elected,” Winston said. “Here are these interesting points. Now why does this matter in terms of policies?”