WE PRINT today a letter from D.C. Democratic State Committee chairman Joslyn Williams taking us to task for a "drumbeat" of four editorials in the past month on the circumstances surrounding the failure of Eleanor Holmes Norton and her husband to file D.C. tax returns and to pay all their D.C. taxes for most of the 1980s. Mr. Williams suggests that, lacking evidence for charges that we could never quite bring ourselves explicitly to make, we relied instead on "innuendo" to question Mrs. Norton's veracity, "impugned her integrity" and tried to "undermine her candidacy" in a vendetta, the reasons for which seemed to be as mysterious to him as they are to us, but which has "served no journalistic purpose." The "burden," he says is on us, "on those who raise rhetorical questions to explain the nature of their charges."
Well, we agree with Mr. Williams on one thing. The central questions in the Norton case just now do indeed have to do with evidence and the burden of explanation. But the burden is surely Mrs. Norton's. Mr. Williams speaks at one point in the letter of "The Post's problem," as if the issue would go away if only we did. He deludes himself. Mrs. Norton and Mr. Williams's party are asking the voters of this city to make an enormously difficult judgment -- whether to send to Congress as the city's emissary, and its advocate on such matters as the insufficient federal payment, a candidate who, for all her distinguished past public service in other respects now acknowledges that she and her husband failed to make their own full payments for eight years.
Her record of accomplishment is not being ignored; a lesser candidate would have been hooted out of the race long ago. But to earn the extraordinary vote of confidence for which she asks, it is she who owes a complete and compelling explanation, and so far she has not given one. She says only that her husband had an unexplained "dispute" with the D.C. revenue department in 1982; that thereafter he "procrastinated" in filing their D.C. taxes; that she never knew about it and therefore in one sense cannot be held responsible even though she accepts full responsibility; and that she has now filed all the back returns and made all the back payments (some $88,000 counting penalties and interest), so it's over.
But it's not. Think about it: who would accept such a summary explanation and no more from, say, a business partner who had acknowledged a comparable offense? Mrs. Norton herself presumably -- or at least so we hope -- refused to accept so vague an outline and no more from either her husband or her new tax accountant. She has told members of this editorial staff that she is now trying to find out the rest; so are we. What's missing? For openers:
1. The Nortons' explanation implies that the D.C. returns from 1982 through 1989 were an aberration that at every other opportunity -- all D.C. taxes prior to 1982, all federal taxes throughout -- they filed and paid precisely as they should have. For people of their standing -- Mr. Norton, too, is a lawyer with a record of public service; for much of this period he was chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics -- that represents a strange break in behavior. Two questions occur, both fair: How do we know they paid all the other taxes fully and on time, and if they did, what happened in 1982?
On the first, Mrs. Norton says that her husband doesn't want to make their tax returns available, but that her accountant has assured her they face no further problems. It would help a lot if she would produce the accountant and let him answer questions: How does he know? What has he seen? Returns? Canceled checks? Back-up data? He at least would be a surrogate for the returns and perhaps would reassure the city as much as she says he has reassured her.
As to the second point: A dispute in 1982 about what? A footnote in a text summary Mrs. Norton issued last month suggests her accountant agrees the city over-assessed the Norton's for that year and that they didn't owe what was charged. If that's all there was to it, why not just send in a letter and the necessary documentation to settle the matter? Why let a mistake in your favor balloon into a $25,000 lien on your house for the taxes, penalties and interest? Please, what happened?
2. We also asked in one of the four beats on our drum for the enforcement record in the case. Mr. Williams suggests that this has to do only with how the city government performed and not the Nortons. "Does it really matter how many notices she never saw?" he asks. Yes. Mrs. Norton can't be asked to prove a negative. But four missed notices from the D.C. government in plain brown envelopes over eight years would be one thing; 40 might call for a different judgment about her. Once again, what is wanted is not her summary but the record: What happened?
Mr. Williams suggests it is only overblown "media interest" that is driving this issue. Again, he deludes himself. There is in the city widespread uneasiness about Mrs. Norton's candidacy. It is felt not simply by detractors but by onetime admirers and admirers who are trying with little help from her to hang on -- people who supported her in the primary and even people prepared to continue to support her. The head of her ticket, Democratic mayoral candidate Sharon Pratt Dixon, said of Mrs. Norton last Tuesday: "I think that, again, it would make life easier for everybody if all the facts were before the public and everyone had a sense there was nothing more to scrutinize and this matter were behind us."
Mrs. Norton is asking that a large blot in her copybook be overlooked and that she be entrusted instead with a major responsibility. We and plenty of other people across the city would first like to know a little more about the blot. It is five weeks since these questions were raised by the revelations, and there are only four weeks left for Mrs. Norton to spell out the answers, if she will. She owes at least this much to the city she wants to represent.