By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

For Democrats, a couple of taxing situations

When the word came down Tuesday night that Patrice Tierney, wife of U.S. Rep. John Tierney, would plead guilty to federal tax-fraud charges, many of us political junkies were dumbstruck. With exotic elements like $7 million in illicit foreign gambling profits and a ne’er-do-well brother holed up in Antigua, it was not your typical political scandal.

Today’s news that Suzanne Bump, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, has tax problems of her own may prove to be more important come Election Day. More about that in a moment. First, back to the Tierneys.

Republicans and the media are both calling on Tierney, a Salem Democrat, to reveal what he knew and when he knew it with regard to his wife’s tax woes. They’re absolutely right. As soon as possible, Tierney should sit down for a wide-ranging news conference and answer any and all questions. And woe be to him if any of those answers turn out to fall short of full disclosure.

But the media have an independent role here, too, and I hope they are working on it even as I write this. For me, the big question is whether the Tierney scandal resulted in any taxes being unpaid. It would appear that it did not.

Based on the stories I’ve seen, it seems that Patrice Tierney’s crime consisted of accurately reporting her brother’s income, but labeling it as legal commissions rather than as ill-gotten gains. Congressman Tierney said in a statement that “there are not any allegations of any income-tax loss to the government.” Nor are federal prosecutors seeking any sort of restitution. Along with the question of the congressman’s involvement, that is the big issue the media should be investigating.

Will this endanger Tierney’s re-election prospects? Put it this way: North Shore Republicans are eating their collective heart out that their candidate isn’t Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins or former congressman Peter Torkildsen, whom Tierney defeated in 1996.

Instead, Tierney is facing William Hudak, an extremist who has compared President Obama to Osama bin Laden and who has flirted with the birther movement, which believes Obama is not a natural-born citizen of the United States and is thus ineligible to serve as president. For good measure, Hudak’s campaign wrongly claimed last winter that U.S. Sen. Scott Brown had endorsed him.

Unless there are more Tierney-related bombshells, it is still difficult to imagine a Hudak victory.

The Bump matter, though it does not involve anything as spectacular as federal charges and foreign intrigue, is likely to have a more deleterious effect on her campaign for state auditor. A veteran political figure who most recently served in Gov. Deval Patrick’s cabinet, she was caught claiming both Great Barrington and Boston as her principal residence, saving more than $6,000 in Boston property taxes.

The story, which appears on the front page of today’s Globe, was reported by my Northeastern colleague Walter Robinson’s students. Bump insists she did nothing wrong, but the state Department of Revenue says otherwise.

The difference between Bump and Tierney is that Bump’s actions, whether legal or not, definitely cost taxpayers. They raise serious questions about her ability to act as a watchdog over how state agencies spend our money.

What’s more, the Republican candidate, Mary Z. Connaughton, is credible and visible. As a former member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, she was an outspoken advocate for cracking down on runaway spending at the Big Dig. Moreover, if it looks like Democrats are going to do well on Nov. 2 (no sure thing), a lot of voters — even Democrats — may want to elect a Republican to keep an eye on the books.

The paradox of the Tierney and Bump stories is that the more serious matter is less likely to have an effect on the election. More broadly, though, both stories put Democrats on the defensive at a time when they can least afford it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Dan –

    Nice posting and summary of the latest political mis-steps. I’m stunned at how clueless candidates can be. Don’t they ever ask themselves, “How will this look to the public?”

  2. C.E. Stead

    DK – I also question Bump’s claim that she merely misunderustimated the law.

    Her declaration of ‘primary’ Boston residence saved her that property tax, but the fact that she registered her car at the ‘principal’residence in Great Barrington may have saved her even more on her auto insurance, as the rating territory for insurance there costs a fraction of registering a car in Boston. Her unawareness certainly seemed to break the right way for her financially.

    Her sound bite on WBZ that she was not in violation of the law “as I understand it” certainly makes you wonder how her varied understanding would factor into auditing the books of the Commonwealth.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Just got this e-mailed to me from the Bump campaign:

      Follow-up Statement of Suzanne Bump Regarding Today’s Boston Globe Story Concerning Property Taxes

      For Immediate Release:

      QUINCY, MA (October 7) – The following is a statement from Suzanne Bump, Democratic Nominee for State Auditor, regarding today’s Boston Globe Story concerning property taxes:

      “I have received verbal confirmation from the Assessors of both the City of Boston and the Town of Great Barrington that my property tax status is appropriate.

      However, in an abundance of caution, I have decided to submit to the city of Boston a payment of $5875.05, which is the difference between the property taxes that my husband and I have paid since we were approved for the residential tax exemption in 2007, and the amount we would have owed were we not entitled to that exemption.

      At the same time I have made a written request to the city of Boston that they conduct a final review of our property tax status and, in advance of that review, accept the payment submitted today and make a refund to us if it is determined that it is indeed not actually owed.”

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