Coburn urges transparency about lawmakers' personal tax debts

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.
By T.W. Farnam
Friday, September 17, 2010; 11:45 PM

As Congress prepares to debate income tax rates affecting nearly all Americans, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), thinks lawmakers have an obligation to be more transparent about their own tax debts to federal, state and local governments.

"You have to lead by example," Coburn said. "Taxpayers are fed up with those in Washington living under a different set of rules than the rest of America."

It's unclear whether congressional tax scofflaws are really a problem. But Coburn was alarmed by the amount of debt owed by workers on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reported last week that House and Senate employees owed $9.3 million last year to the federal government, an amount that has climbed 37 percent in two years.

The data compiled by the Internal Revenue Service does not identify scofflaws by name or indicate whether any of the delinquent taxpayers are lawmakers. But Coburn says disclosure should fall to lawmakers themselves. He introduced legislation last week that would require lawmakers to list tax debts on their annual financial disclosures - and face an ethics inquiry.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Coburn's idea of an automatic ethics inquiry is over the top. "There can be many reasons for tax liens and some of them just have to do with being under financial stress at a difficult time. And yes, members of Congress have pretty good jobs, but there are lots of reasons that people can have financial stress."

Politicians have long known that voters view tax debt unfavorably. In Delaware, for example, many Republicans have cited a recent $11,000 federal tax lien as a reason that the party's Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell cannot win the general election. O'Donnell paid the lien, and it was released by the IRS in June. Her tax debt, which was much written about in the campaign, proved not to be an impediment in her GOP primary victory.

Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) faced similar issues in his 2006 campaign when a $4,148 state tax lien against him surfaced. He paid off the lien, but it still became an issue.

The Post ran the names of all lawmakers through a tax lien database, and found several current lawmakers who have had tax problems in the past. Most were state or local debts, many dating back years. A lien, the first public step to secure payment, is a legal claim to property which is made to secure tax payments. The IRS typically uses liens only when the debt is more than $10,000.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was one of the only lawmakers identified by the Post who had a federal tax lien against himself personally, $18,301 from 2002. He also faced state tax liens, but both were well before his 2006 election. He paid off the liens shortly after they were filed.

Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) has had more than $23,000 in county tax liens placed against his Atlanta home. A spokesman for Scott said that all the debt has been paid.

An advertising company owned by Scott's wife, Alfredia Scott, still has an open $153,000 IRS lien originally filed in 2006. The state and county have filed 14 liens against the company in ten years. Scott's spokesman said the company is working to resolve the debt.

"The company is satisfying all agreements with the IRS to settle the disputed tax claims," said Michael Andel, a spokesman for Scott. Scott owes no personal taxes and is not a company officer, Andel said.

Some debts listed in the data are small amounts but were not resolved before governments took action. Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), for example, faced a tax warrant from New York State in May for nonpayment of $616 in back taxes. Her spokeswoman, Judith Kargbo, said the matter has been resolved.

Clarke had attracted news media attention for previous tax debts. She faced a $12,710 warrant from 2007 and an $827 debt in 1993. She also faced a 1996 state judgment for $17,119 for unpaid student loans. Kargbo said the debts have been paid.

The Post found one Republican with an old tax lien. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who owned a batting cage, failed to pay $134 in county taxes on it in 1993, 14 years before he got to Congress. A spokeswoman for McCarthy said that the bill had been sent to the wrong address and he paid the lien as soon as he was notified about it.

Coburn also introduced a Senate companion bill to House legislation that would fire federal employees who owe on their taxes and haven't entered payment plans. That legislation has nine GOP co-sponsors in the House.

Federal workers are required by law to stay in good graces with the IRS. About 99,000 of them owe back taxes.

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