One in five Georgia lawmakers late to pay taxes

One in five Georgia lawmakers late to pay taxes

September 18th, 2011 by By Chris Joyner and James Salzer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution in News

David Ralston, Georgia's House Speaker.

David Ralston, Georgia's House Speaker.

Photo by Andy Johns /Times Free Press.

One out of five Georgia legislators has failed to pay taxes on time - or in a few cases not paid them at all, a review of court records shows.

Federal, state or local tax collectors filed liens against 16 state senators and 32 representatives, the investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. The liens - past and present - total $1.4 million in taxes, interest, penalties and fees.

A tax lien is a court filing in which the government serves notice on a taxpayer that it may seize his or her property to cover unpaid taxes.

The liens against the legislators range from less than a hundred dollars to thousands, even hundreds of thousands, in taxes either on lawmakers' personal accounts or on the businesses they or their spouses own.

Legislators contacted by the newspaper had plenty of excuses for why tax officials had to go to court to extract payment from them. The poor economy, bad business decisions and notices lost in the mail were common explanations.

But Larry Kahn, a retired tax lawyer from Dunwoody, said he thinks the legislators should have a better record of paying their taxes on time.

"It seems a bit hypocritical that they are out there making the laws and they are not abiding by them," he said.

Some legislators have pushed for a constitutional amendment to ban tax debtors from holding office.

"Any elected official should be held to a higher standard," said House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs. "Any official who is voting on taxing citizens should be in compliance himself or herself. If you owe undisputed taxes, then you should be not allowed to serve."

Wilkinson said Friday that he would push to bar lawmakers who have outstanding taxes from serving on committees. He said exceptions could be made for candidates or for legislators who owe taxes but have entered into agreements to pay them.

Political activist Julianne Thompson said each case should be looked at individually.

"I don't think I would be comfortable saying anyone who hasn't paid their taxes or was late shouldn't run for office," said Thompson, an organizer for the Georgia Tea Party Patriots. "Mistakes happen, people are human."

Lawmakers and their tax problems have made big news in recent years, including House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

In 2007, before he was the speaker, Ralston paid $400,961 to the federal government for overdue taxes, interest and penalties, plus another $32,906 in unpaid withholding and Social Security taxes for employees of his law firm from 1996 through 2006. He blamed the problems on a crooked bookkeeper who pleaded guilty to embezzlement. This summer he and his wife had to pay about $1,300 in overdue property taxes on land his wife owns in what the speaker said was an oversight.

The Journal-Constitution researched tax liens filed against members of the General Assembly, their spouses and businesses where they had operational control or held a key position, such as chairman or president. The search included both past and present debts, including liens imposed before the member took office.

The newspaper emailed, talked in person or made telephone calls to every member of the General Assembly who had a tax lien on his or her record. Many responded quickly, and some of the liens were clear errors. Those liens are not included in the total compiled by the newspaper.

Those that were left are a broad cross-section of the Legislature with Republicans and Democrats well represented. The group includes party leaders and back-benchers, white and black, male and female, urban and rural. And most have a story behind why they were late.

The poor economy was a common reason offered up for late payment.

The IRS has a lien against Rep. Paulette Rakestraw-Braddock, R-Hiram, for $36,343 in unpaid income taxes for 2006 and 2007. She said she got behind on her taxes when her direct marketing business fell victim to the Great Recession.

"It's kind of hard to climb out of that hole when you are behind," she said.

Rakestraw-Braddock, a freshman who sits on both the Small Business Development and Economic Development committees in the House, said she is negotiating a settlement with the IRS and sees no conflict with serving in the Legislature while paying off her late taxes.

Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, had a similar story to tell about $50,175 in state income taxes for Epps Brothers, a family-owned paving company. Epps, a member of the House Budget Committee, said the business got behind on taxes when several of its customers went bankrupt "owing our company a significant amount of money."

"This money that was not collected - and still has not been - made a huge impact on our cash flow at Epps Brothers Inc. and resulted in us having to pay these taxes on an installment [plan]," he said in an e-mail. He said those past-due taxes have been paid.

Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, was the target of a $200 lien filed by the Toombs County tax commissioner for unpaid property taxes on one of his properties. He said the bill was mailed to the wrong address and he paid the debt as soon as he realized it was past due.

Other explanations were more cryptic. Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has liens of about $40,000 for unpaid federal taxes. All he would say is, "I have an arrangement with the federal government."

While most of the liens were filed because lawmakers did not pay their taxes on time, sometimes it was the tax collector who made the mistake. The Georgia Department of Revenue filed a lien in 2008 against Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, for $1,604 in income taxes but withdrew it about six weeks later and sent Coomer, then a private citizen, a letter admitting the error.

Coomer said he might have been more judgmental about people with tax liens before he became a target.

"I'm much more cautious now," he said. "You have to give a person an opportunity to explain."

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