Television commentator David Brinkley, who has reported many a bureaucratic bungle, yesterday recounted his own miseries with red tape. The District government threatened to charge Brinkley $2,137.32 if he did not immediately pay back taxes from 1985.
The amount city officials said Brinkley owed? Ten cents.
"Over the years, I have chronicled more than a few outrages by those on our various public payrolls . . . and they have ranged from the ridiculous to the hilarious to the stupid," said Brinkley on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." "This one is all three. And it happened to me."
Brinkley said he recently received a "brisk and officious" notice from District tax officials that he owed back taxes of 10 cents and that if he did not immediately pay by certified check, the fines and penalties would climb to $2,137.32.
"I just thought it was kind of crazy," Brinkley said from his home yesterday. "It cost them 22 cents to send me the notice."
Garland F. Pinkston Jr., the District's deputy director of intergovernmental relations, said yesterday that he was unaware of the incident, "but it sounds like a mixup along the line."
"How could anybody owe $2,000 on back taxes of ten cents?" asked Pinkston. "I assume it was a paper work error."
Brinkley's tax tale, which ABC officials estimate was heard by about 4.5 million viewers nationwide, is the latest embarrassing poke made at the District by a national figure.
In February, Mayor Marion Barry was personally embarrassed and chagrined, his aides said, by an extraordinary outpouring of national media criticism about the city's inept snow removal efforts.
Last month, House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) became ensnarled in the District bureaucracy over his car garage.
A District government official sent a letter telling him to get proper permits for a two-car garage behind his Capitol Hill town house or to tear it down within five days. Michel had gotten the permits last year after several months of effort. The error was quashed quickly by the District's liaison to Capitol Hill.
Although Brinkley said his run-in with the District was a mistake and he did not owe any back taxes, he said he paid the dime anyway "to avoid the hassle of arguing with them."
With charges for the certified check, postage and the return receipt, the bill totaled about $4.
"A $2,000 fine for claimed back taxes of ten cents?" asked Brinkley incredulously during the closing of his broadcast. " 'That's the law,' they said. And that concludes today's lesson in democracy in action."