SECOND UPDATE: Four days after my column below about Bernie Sanders refusing to release his full tax returns and his spokesman making a false statement and then ignoring my follow-up questions, Sanders just received the worst rating you can earn from the Washington Post’s Fact Checker — four Pinocchios — “for his false claim that he has released his full federal tax returns.”
UPDATE: Two days after the column below went up — provoking extensive commentary on Twitter and Facebook as well as here and on other websites — CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Senator Bernie Sanders whether he would match Hillary Clinton, who has posted eight years of complete tax returns on her campaign website (and full returns back to1992 at taxhistory.org). The full interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” program can be found here — Tapper asks the tax question at around 5:20.
Tapper said he is “kind of surprised you haven’t gone further in transparency” and asked “will you match her?” by disclosing returns before the April 19 New York primary.
Sanders replied that there was nothing interesting in his tax returns, which his wife prepares, and then said, “We will get out as much information as we can…we will get it out as soon as we can.” That dodges the issue that all candidates should release full returns and doesn’t explain why he has failed to post any full returns, which he said are in the possession of his wife Jane.
Tapper then gently challenged Sanders on issuing only Form 1040, a summary, but not his full tax returns. Sanders said, “No that’s not true. That is not true, we have released them in the past.”
But the Sanders campaign has not provided me with any returns after I repeatedly requested them. My web searches have not turned up any Sanders tax returns, save the 2014 Form 1040. But if someone has located complete Sanders tax returns, please email me via email@example.com.
If there are no full returns available, then the Senator has offered a deceptive response. If his campaign clarifies his remarks (or releases his tax returns back to 2007, when he became a senator), I’ll update again.
Bernie Sanders holds himself out to huge and adoring crowds as a model of personal, political and financial integrity. But when it comes to revealing his income tax returns, Sanders is as tricky a politician as Republicans Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
In this bizarre political year, Donald Trump has shown more candor than Sanders when it comes to his tax returns. That is an amazing and disturbing feat, given Trump’s penchant for exaggeration and just making stuff up, as I have been documenting since 1988. Understand that while Trump has fabricated an excuse for not disclosing any of his income tax returns, he was being more forthright than Sanders, who tries to pretend that he has disclosed his taxes.
What may surprise some is that of the five remaining Presidential candidates, only Hillary Clinton has been completely candid and forthright about her and her husband’s income tax returns, a policy of theirs that dates at least to 1992. Despite her singular transparency, news organizations routinely write, without citing any verifiable supporting facts, about Clinton’s perceived mendacity.
So what’s the issue? The Sanders, Cruz and Kasich campaigns have all distributed what they claim are tax returns; Kasich for seven years, Cruz for four, and Sanders for just one year, 2014.
But those proclaimed disclosures were neither accurate nor honest. None of those candidates has released even a single tax return.
What they made public instead was merely a summary known as IRS Form 1040. That form is no more a tax return than the Preamble is the Constitution.
No, a tax return is the entire document filed with the IRS – the forms, schedules, and statements that reveal the numbers and calculations about income, deductions, and tax liabilities behind the summary information on Form 1040. Without the full tax return, the public cannot know sources of income, justifications for deductions, or how aggressively tax law was applied to reduce the income tax due.
History tells us that disclosing complete tax returns, not just a summary form, is vital to determining a president’s trustworthiness. It was only 45 years ago that (freshly “resigned”) Vice President Spiro Agnew plead guilty to one count of tax evasion, making him a felon. Without the action of an IRS employee who illegally leaked President Nixon‘s 1969 through 1972 tax returns, we would never have known about the tax crimes in which the president was an unindicted co-conspirator, and for which one of his advisors plead guilty. If all we had were Nixon’s and Agnew’s Form 1040s, their tax crimes would have remained unknown.
On disclosing tax returns Trump scores better than Sanders, because while Trump will not release his returns, citing a bogus excuse, he has not tried to pretend that he did disclose. But that is exactly what Sanders, Cruz and Kasich did. (Trump says he can’t disclose because he is under IRS audit, even though revealing his returns would have no impact on the audit of a tax return, which is signed under penalty of perjury.)
Contrast their conduct with Hillary Clinton, whose every tax return signed by her and husband Bill has been disclosed since at least 1992. That’s how we know they are far more charitable than the self-described “ardent philanthropist” Donald Trump or any other of the various presidents back to FDR (and some presidential wannabes like Newt Gingrich) who have made public their tax returns. Those returns, and in some cases only Form 1040s, are posted at taxhistory.org, a website maintained by the nonprofit Tax Analysts, for which I write critiques of tax policy.
As for Sanders, the single Form 1040 he released raises more questions than it answers, especially since the junior senator from Vermont has a history of making incomplete and misleading financial disclosures.
In 2014, he reported an adjusted gross income of $205,271, most of it from his Senate salary.
What appears unusual are his itemized deductions, totaling $56,377, a whopping 27.4 percent of his income. People in his income class of $200,000 to $500,000 on average take 15.6 percent of their income as deductions, while those in the $100,000 to $200,000 range averaged 18.8 percent. Both averages are far below the Sanders itemization rate.
Sanders and his wife paid $27,653 in federal income tax, or 13.4 percent of their adjusted gross income.
When I tried to look more closely at Sanders’ taxes, Michael Briggs, the chief spokesman for his campaign, sent a statement that is simply not true, although he may not have understood why at first. In an email, Briggs wrote that Sanders and his wife Jane “made public his federal and state income tax returns last year when he became a candidate for president and intends to do so again this year.”
I wrote back to Briggs repeatedly, explaining that a Form 1040 is not a tax return. Perhaps that was unnecessary, since Briggs has more than two decades of experience as a political reporter and publicist for various U.S. senators. More than two decades ago on C-SPAN, he displayed a nuanced understanding of legal issues.
That background raises difficult questions about Briggs’ responses, which i tried to explore despite his failure to answer follow-up questions. The Cruz and Kasich campaigns also ignored emails asking for their complete tax returns or an explanation of why only Form 1040s were released
To readers who think this sounds too harsh, I’d say that when Sanders holds himself out as a paragon — running a campaign built on the idea that he remains untainted by money from the rich and powerful — he should be expected to walk the talk.
Sanders set the standard here. I am holding him to the same measure of integrity that I have used to assess Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Steve Forbes, and numerous other politicians at the federal, state and local levels going back almost 50 years to my first investigative story.
Last fall, Sanders revised his 2012 and 2014 financial disclosures twice. His 2013 disclosure was revised three times. Sanders failed to disclose four mortgages, all of them at market interest rates, which raises a question about his judgment, since nothing appears improper except the failure to fully disclose.
Mark Lippman of Daily Kos was evidently the first to report the Vermont senator’s incomplete disclosures. He also noted that the value of Jane Sanders’ “retirement accounts appreciated in value from $285,000 in 2011 to $481,000 in 2014.” Nothing wrong there, by the way, though readers may find the 68.8 percent increase puzzling because Lippman failed to give context. The broad stock market rose 64 percent during that period, indicating the big gain was basically owed to stock market returns, plus about $400 a month in additional deposits to Ms. Sanders’ retirement portfolio.
Why Sanders would play games with his income taxes is a mystery. While he is much better off than most Americans, he is a man of modest means compared to Clinton, Cruz, and Trump. But his conduct raises a question politically. Is he hiding something? Certainly Trump is, since the boastful billionaire probably pays close to zero in income taxes, as I have explained here, here and here.
The question to ask Sanders – as well as Cruz, Kasich, and Trump – is why they are hiding the information they supplied under penalty of perjury to the IRS as a true, complete, and accurate description of their income, deductions, and taxes.
And whatever you may think of Hillary Clinton, she deserves real props for more than two decades of being forthright and complete in disclosing her tax returns.
Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders holds a rally at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington March 25, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder – RTSCAI8