WHAT IS the status of the issue of Eleanor Norton's failure to pay her District taxes for several years? Mrs. Norton, the Democratic candidate for D.C. delegate to Congress, says she has dealt fully with the question and it's time to move on to the other issues in the campaign. We think she's wrong on both counts: she hasn't disposed of the taxes issue, and until she does, for an apparently growing number of people it won't be possible to move on.
There's much that, for one reason or another, has yet to be disclosed about how the Nortons' local income taxes came not to be paid. The missing details bear directly on the difficult judgment Mrs. Norton is now asking the city to make as to her fitness for office. In a matter as important as this, it is not fair for the voters to be asked to guess what happened or to forget about it when the information can be so readily supplied.
The enforcement record in the case is a prime example. Mrs. Norton says her husband did the family taxes and she had no idea that a) he had let a disputed city claim for $10,755 in 1982 taxes balloon to more than $25,000 with penalties and interest, or b) that he had then failed to file returns and pay in full in 1983 through 1989.
She herself has acknowledged "the inevitable questions of credibility" to which such an explanation leads. Mrs. Norton says many voters also actually found her story hard to disbelieve, found it hard to imagine that she would be "so unintelligent or foolish in this day and age as to run for public office while knowing of tax liability and doing nothing about it." The question on the other side is, how could she not know? Could there really be, over eight years of accumulating obligations, not just no mention by her husband, but no clue from the District government in the form of enforcement actions?
This missing record matters. What's known is that, as part of an effort to recover the disputed 1982 taxes, the city filed a certificate of delinquency, or lien, against the Nortons' property in the recorder of deeds' office in January 1989. Such action is normally taken only toward the end of a lengthy collection process. First the city has to discover in one of several ways that a taxpayer has failed to file or apparently underpaid; then it sends a letter of inquiry; then at least one and possibly two notices of assessment. Only if all this fails over many months would it normally turn to the taxpayer's property.
A footnote to the "tax summary" Mrs. Norton issued on paying her back taxes two weeks ago indicates that Mr. Norton received and failed to respond to at least one notice of assessment for 1982. But presumably there was other correspondence; among other things, D.C. tax practitioners say that if the city finds a taxpayer has failed to file or pay in one year, its habit is to look to other years as well, and by 1989 it would have had several other years of failure to file on the Nortons' part to look into.
So what went on? How many (or few) inquiries, notices, second notices and all the rest were sent? City officials say that individual tax returns are confidential and they can't discuss the Norton case, but the Nortons can, or can authorize the city to do so. The questions are more than fair. Mrs. Norton needs to tell the entire story. So far she has only offered part.