D.C. delegate candidate Eleanor Holmes Norton said yesterday that about $49,000 was withheld from her salary and paid in D.C. taxes between 1982 and 1989, despite the failure of her and her husband to file District tax returns during that period.
Norton said her accountant conducted a preliminary review of her records and told her that the payments were probably enough to cover Norton's entire individual tax liability to the District government.
She said she is planning to separate her finances from her husband's and to meet any requirements as soon as the accountant completes an ongoing review of the family's tax records.
Norton also said that over the weekend she sent two checks to the District government totaling more than $28,000 to cover delinquent taxes and penalties owed by the Nortons from tax year 1982.
Norton, a Georgetown University law professor and former Carter administration official, has been the front-runner in the campaign for the critical Democratic nomination to succeed Walter E. Fauntroy, who is seeking the party's nomination for mayor in tomorrow's primary.
Since late Friday, however, her campaign has been thrown into turmoil by disclosures that she and her husband, Edward, also a lawyer and the former head of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, failed to file D.C. income tax returns for the past seven years, and were delinquent on taxes for 1982.
Yesterday, D.C. Council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3), who had previously expressed no preference in the race, called on Norton to withdraw and endorsed council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) for the delegate's post. Norton has said she will not withdraw.
In this morning's editions, The Washington Post also endorsed Kane, saying Norton's failure to file D.C. income tax returns is "not just disabling, it is disqualifying."
Norton campaign officials said they are particularly worried that the tax disclosures could undercut her support in Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, and in other predominantly white sections.
However, they also hope that Norton will win sympathy. Donna Brazile, Norton's campaign manager, said the candidate has received flowers and calls of support from women Brazile said could empathize with Norton's situation. "These are problems that a lot of women can identify with," Brazile said.
In an interview yesterday with The Post, Norton attributed the failure to file to "procrastination" by her husband and said she was kept completely unaware of the missed filings.
She said Edward Norton always handled the family's finances and repeatedly assured her that the taxes had been paid. "I always asked whether the taxes had been filed," Norton said. "He always said yes."
She said that by habit she would turn over any tax notice from the District government without looking at it. "I never opened any tax notice," Norton said. "That mail is left on the sideboard until he gets home. That's his responsibility."
Norton said yesterday she still believes she has a good chance of winning the party's nomination in tomorrow's balloting.
"My credibility and integrity is intact because I had no idea of any personal tax liability," said Norton.
"I have a lifetime record of integrity that I think can withstand the storm," she added. "I also think people believe I'm intelligent, and nobody with intelligence would ever run for public office without taking care of an outstanding tax liability."
Norton said, "Of the candidates in the field . . . I still believe I can do the most for the people of the District."
Norton appeared visibily weary during the hourlong interview, in which she revealed a few more details about her family's tax situation but was unable to answer several major questions. Norton said her accountant is continuing to review the family's records in search of some of the answers.
Edward Norton, who had been reviewing the records Saturday, went to New York yesterday on business and was unavailable for comment, the campaign said.
On Saturday, Eleanor Norton had said the family did not file a tax return in 1982, but now the accountant believes one was filed because the city filed a certificate of delinquency with the D.C. Recorder of Deeds.
After the return was filed for 1982, the candidate said, Edward Norton received a tax assessment indicating that about $10,000 was due, but he believed that the family owed only $3,700. "What he did was put it aside," Norton said. "He didn't pay it because he said that was ridiculous."
During the interview, Norton showed copies of two checks she said she had mailed Saturday: one for $25,381.80 to cover the tax due for 1982, as well as interest and penalties that accrued to January 1989; the other for $3,172.73 to cover any subsequent interest and penalties.
Norton said she could not offer a cogent explanation for why her husband did not subsequently pay the bill, or file returns in the ensuing years.
"We're dealing with complicated human psychology," Norton said. "Part of the problem is that not everything that human beings do is rational."
Norton, who has received the endorsement of the National Organization for Women and other national women's rights groups, disputed the suggestion that her explanation for the failure to file taxes contradicted her avowed commitment to feminism.
She said her husband did the family taxes not because he is a man, but because "he's mathematically oriented, and I'm not."
"It is a division of labor based on function, not sex," she said. "He does what he is good at, I do what I am good at."
Among her responsibilities, she said, is taking care of their daughter, who has Down's syndrome, and preparing breakfast and lunch. Her husband prepares dinner for the family, she said.
Norton said that as of late yesterday, her accountant had not discovered any other unpaid taxes, including federal income taxes and D.C. property taxes. She said they had filed all the family's federal returns.
She also said the accountant was still unable to ascertain the total tax liability of Edward Norton for the period in question.
"My husband is absolutely devastated," Norton said. "The only person more devastated than I is he. I hurt for him more than for me."
According to the D.C. Code, failure to file a tax return is a misdemeanor. If willful, it is subject to a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of up to a year. If not willful, penalties are lighter.
Former D.C. corporation counsel Frederick D. Cooke Jr. said the city typically does not prosecute failure to file without ample evidence of criminal intent. He said the Department of Finance and Revenue, which has the power to attach liens to bank accounts and property, typically tries to handle cases of tax avoidance through administrative means.
Cooke and Richard H. Lee, a private accountant who has tax clients in the District, said it is not inconceivable for a failure to file for several years to go unnoticed. They said this is partly because of the transient nature of the population, with frequent moves into and out of the city.
"I'm not sure that the District of Columbia is all that careful about following up if you haven't filed a return," Lee said.
Robert Pohlman, the city's deputy mayor for finance, who oversees the city's tax collection, declined to comment yesterday.
The weekend disclosures continued yesterday to prompt strong criticism by Norton's opponents and to dampen what had previously been expected to be triumphal closing days in a campaign in which recent polls had shown Norton leading her closest rival by 12 points.
Former D.C. Council chairman Sterling Tucker, also running for D.C. delegate, accused Norton of showing a "lack of respect for District residents," and sought to distinguish her problems from the income tax problems he experienced in the 1950s.
Tucker pleaded no contest in 1959 in federal court in Cleveland to failure to pay $1,661 in taxes between 1951 and 1954, when he was executive director of the Urban League in Canton, Ohio. President Johnson pardoned Tucker of his conviction on charges of income tax evasion on Christmas Eve 1966.
Tucker said yesterday that his conviction is "a scar that I bear," but attributed it to "an effort to intimidate me because of my civil rights activities in Ohio."
Curtis Pree, campaign manager for candidate Donald M. Temple, called on Norton to withdraw from the race.
Candidate Joseph P. Yeldell, former director of the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness, said that any decision to withdraw was Norton's alone, but that she had not shown "the basic tenets of good citizenship" by not filing the returns.
Last night, Norton told a group of neighborhood activists from the Wisconsin Avenue corridor that she had considered withdrawing from the race, but decided that she owed it to her constituents to remain a candidate, according to Joel Odum, the host at the private meeting.
Norton also said that while black voters appeared to be staying with her, white voters, such as those in Ward 3, were "leaving her in droves," according to Odum.
Participants said the mood in the meeting was solemn and very personal, as Norton at one point lowered her voice to a whisper. At another point in the hourlong meeting, Norton told the group how she lay in bed with her husband in their darkened bedroom Saturday night and discussed the political crisis.
"People were on the edge of their seats," Odum said. "I think she got converts because she spoke about it as a personal tragedy."
Odum and others said several in the group posed probing questions to Norton, such as "How could you be so unaware?" Norton told the group she had been to a bank no more than five times in her recent years in Washington.
Norton said as she left Odum's house that there had been a "wonderfully open" discussion.
"Almost to the last person they said you've answered our questions and you need to get your story out," Norton said. "I was encouraged by what they said."
Staff writers R.H. Melton and Carlos Sanchez contributed to this report.