D.C. delegate candidate Eleanor Holmes Norton said yesterday that she and her husband were late in filing their federal income tax return this year, the first indication of a tax problem beyond her D.C. returns.
Norton acknowledged that she signed a federal tax return for 1989 on Sept. 5. She said her husband, Edward, told her that they had obtained an extension until Oct. 15, but that she later learned from her accountants that the extension was only through Aug. 15.
"I was not aware that I was late or that we were late," Norton said.
Meanwhile, the controversy over Norton's failure to file local tax returns for the past seven years continued to bubble yesterday. The leadership of the Ward 3 Democratic Party last night rebuked Norton, voting to contribute campaign money to other Democratic nominees -- including mayoral nominee Sharon Pratt Dixon -- but not to Norton, the party's nominee for the District's nonvoting delegate to Congress.
But the Ward 3 Democratic Committee stopped short of recommending that Norton withdraw from the race, as the group's executive committee initially recommended Sunday night. The executive committee reversed that recommendation after a breakfast meeting with Norton yesterday.
Some people who attended the breakfast meeting said they were troubled when Norton told them that she had signed a 1989 return -- apparently referring to the federal form for 1989 -- on Sept. 5 or 6. That was shortly before the date on which Norton has steadfastly insisted she learned about her family's unpaid taxes.
On Sept. 7, news organizations received facsimiles of a copy of a D.C. form indicating that Norton and her husband owed more than $25,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest dating to 1982.
Since that disclosure, Norton has acknowledged that she and her husband did not file local income tax returns in 1983 to 1989, saying that she was unaware of the failure to file and explaining that her husband traditionally has handled the family finances. On Friday, she announced that they had paid nearly $90,000 to the city in back taxes, penalties and interest.
Norton also has maintained since the initial disclosure -- four days before her decisive victory in the Democratic primary -- that she has no tax problem with the federal government.
In an interview yesterday, Norton said there is no inconsistency in her statements because her husband told her, when he gave her the federal form to sign, that he had obtained an extension.
"I really did think that," Norton said. "I thought that '89 was not a problem . . . . I was not avoiding or evading the truth here."
Norton, a former chief of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, canceled an out-of-town appearance yesterday to attend the endorsement meeting of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee in an effort to try to head off any adverse action.
Ward 3, the predominantly white part of the city west of Rock Creek Park, overwhelmingly rejected Norton's candidacy in the primary, and there has been widespread unhappiness there over her tax problems, community leaders say.
Norton was peppered with questions about the tax affair, and several members of the committee said they were concerned because they believed she was injecting race into her defense of her actions. Norton rejected that assertion, saying, "My life has been about racial coalitions."
The group then considered two motions -- one to endorse all the Democratic nominees and one to endorse most of the nominees, except Norton. Several top city Democrats, including the ward's D.C. Council member, Jim Nathanson, and party chief Joslyn N. Williams, urged the group to back Norton as the party's nominee.
"The Democratic people of the city have spoken" in the primary, Nathanson said. "There is no sense in being vindictive and walking out of the party, in effect."
Veteran civil rights attorney Joseph Rauh delivered an impassioned plea on Norton's behalf. "To sacrifice Eleanor, the apostle of cooperation between the races, would be a tragedy," he said. "Please don't do that."
But several speakers said they were concerned about Norton's conduct and said they wanted to reserve the endorsement until she released all her tax returns and answered more questions about her failure to file.
The group voted 34 to 10 to table the resolutions. Action on the disbursement of money came on a separate voice vote.