THE POSTURE that Eleanor Holmes Norton has now adopted toward her tax troubles with the D.C. government is much to be preferred to the one into which she slipped too easily in the final days of the campaign. Before her victory in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary for D.C. delegate, the candidate was suggesting that, while she and her husband had failed to file D.C. tax returns for 1983 through 1989, the actual taxes had been paid. She put it about that hastily hired accountants had told her that enough had been withheld that she might even be owed a refund.
Her statement was implausible: the fragmentary evidence even then suggested otherwise. Now Mrs. Norton has put out a more complete accounting indicating that they failed to pay the city $33,638 in that period. With penalties and interest that had risen to $59,991, which she paid last week. She had, after the original pre-election disclosure, paid $28,555 in disputed taxes, penalties and interest for 1982. That's $88,546 the couple owed in all, not the trifling case she implied.
In those final days of the primary, Mrs. Norton also participated actively in a campaign designed to suggest that she was being victimized in all this on racial grounds, and that the charges against her -- which subsequently seem to have proved out -- were lies and smears. It was not exactly her finest hour. Now Mrs. Norton is steering carefully away from such suggestions. "It is understandable that some fell away from my candidacy because of last-minute disclosures that left little time for debate and explanation," she said in a statement accompanying the tax report. "There was no unfairness in the disclosure, which was fully justified," but it "should have been offered forthrightly in a timely manner and . . . appropriate forum, where the public's clear right to know could have been . . . satisfied." That's better, but it's not an eraser.
Mrs. Norton's basic position continues to be that her husband did the family taxes, that he assured her each year that they had been paid and that she had no inkling that they had not nor reason to doubt him. He says the same. We continue to want to know more, and not just from the Nortons. How many notices of delinquency did the city government send out? How did the Nortons -- he was chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics -- respond? What happened then? How can a household go seven years without filing a return or paying in full and no action be taken against it?
The difference this time around is that there's time both to ask the questions and to get the answers. The general election is six weeks away.