When a craven of buffoons and bigots disguised in the bodies of Birthers figured that anyone with dark skin and a foreign name had to be born outside the U.S., Barack Obama provided a birth certificate. Not just the usual “short form,” but a state-certified copy of the “long form” that detailed he was born in Hawaii, which some birthers apparently think is a foreign territory, to a mother who was a natural-born U.S. citizen.
That, of course, was not enough for the whackadoodles who claimed, among other things, that the President’s birth certificate was altered or forged. All of their claims have been debunked by scientific evidence. Of course, they produced their own poorly-forged birth certificate that they said “proved” President Obama was born in Kenya.
In February, billionaire Donald (Look-at-How-Wonderful I-Am) Trump, an unabashed Birther, stood next to multi-millionaire Mitt Romney in a Las Vegas casino and endorsed him for the Republican nomination. A few months earlier, Trump had gotten significant face-time in the media while flirting with the idea of running for the presidency while whining about Romney. “He’d buy companies. He’d close companies. He’d get rid of jobs,” Trump crowed. But now, with Romney running well ahead in the primary contests, Trump was trying to be relevant and stay in the political spotlight. Romney, for his part, smiled and said nothing to suggest that Trump could be wrong about pursuing the birther argument. Trying to have everyone like him, one of the most unlikable presidential candidates refused to repudiate Trump’s birther views.
Unlike Barack Obama, Mitt Romney does have a secret. This one is buried within what he either did or did not report to the IRS.
It’s traditional, but not required, that presidential nominees release copies of their tax returns. Most people have no idea how to read a tax return, especially one with dozens of amendments, filings, and schedules. But, the posting of the returns is a form of trust.
Barack Obama has released his returns. Romney’s father, George, former governor of Michigan and presidential candidate in 1968, released 12 years, thus setting a standard for future presidential candidates.
At first the flip-flopping Romney said he didn’t plan to release the returns. Then he said, “Maybe.” Then he declared he’d release only the previous two years’ returns. Then he said that because of the complexity of the return, he filed for an extension from the IRS so he could file after the April 15 deadline for the 2011 return. Then this past week before a fundraiser he said he “never paid less than 13 percent. . . . So I paid taxes every single year.” He expected us just to believe him. He never defined whether that was just income taxes, or included all taxes paid, including social security, local, and state taxes, thus making the federal income tax even lower.
Let’s pretend he meant income taxes. Even at 13 percent, it’s one of the lowest tax rates. In 2011, Romney had a gross income of about $21 million, according to a partial return Romney finally allowed to be posted. The effective tax rate for persons with incomes over $1 million, according to the Tax Foundation, averages about 25 percent.
But, most of Ann and Mitt Romney’s reported income in 2011 was based on capital gains. In 2003, the Bush–Cheney administration had lowered capital gains taxes to only 15 percent, primarily benefitting the wealthy. If the Romneys did not take most of their money from investment capital, their tax bracket would be 35 percent.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered.
The first questions are about that extension for the 2011 taxes. With a fleet of lawyers and accountants, why did the Romneys need at least a five month extension to file a return? Was it to massage the data for public consumption? Equally important, if he needed this extension to file a personal income tax return, what does that say about his ability to govern a nation with a $2.3 trillion budget?
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints tithe to the church. The Romneys acknowledge donating $2.5 million in cash to the church in 2011. Were they overly generous? Or, does that contribution reflect that the Romneys’ income may have been about $25 million. If that is the case, where did the rest go? Ann Romney told NBC News, “We also give 10% of our income to charity.” According to a partial return in 2011, the Romneys claim they donated about $4 million to charity. If Ann Romney is a accurate, that would be a $40 million income, twice what is claimed.
Why Romney won’t release tax returns prior to 2010 may be because secrets are buried in 2009. According to BuzzFlash’s Mark Karlin, citing Lawrence O’Donnell’s pointed queries, “Romney may have taken advantage of a 2009 IRS amnesty period to disclose hidden income in offshore accounts but subject to US taxation. The amnesty offer allowed such persons to escape potential criminal prosecution for tax evasion.” It would be nice to know how much income was diverted to off-shore accounts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland, and into various tax-shelters the average American has no idea even exist.
That leads to an obvious question. How much of the Romneys’ income over the past decade, not just the two years when he was planning to run for president, had deductions that might be questionable to the average person who doesn’t have lawyers and accountants on retainer? Certainly, taking a $77,000 write-off in 2010 for a show horse isn’t something the average American can do. Working with an onerous tax code, loaded with myriad special interest loopholes, the Romneys know how to take everything wealthy Americans are entitled to receive. It may be legal, but is it ethical?
Frankly, it doesn’t make much difference how much Romney earned, how he earned it, what he did with it, or how he and some extremely bright tax advisors took advantage of the system created by lobbyists and Congress. What does matter is that by stonewalling, obfuscating, and refusing to give full disclosure, he appears to have something to hide. And upon that—and that alone—the people and the media need to pursue why Romney is reluctant to release financial data. It’s a matter not of how rich he is, but a matter of trust and a window into his soul.
[Walter Brasch has been covering local, state, and presidential political races for almost four decades. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed journalistic novel, Before the First Snow, which looks at the American counter-culture and media of the ’60s as a base to understand today’s social issues.]