New Jersey U.S. Senator Cory Booker this week offered reporters a look at his latest tax return, but, as they say on TV, for a limited time only.
It’s become a standard of disclosure in campaigns for candidates to make their tax returns public. Booker, a Democrat, is a heavy favorite in his re-election bid against Republican Jeff Bell.
Reporters were notified late Sunday they could come to a hotel conference room Monday to spend exactly two hours with what turned out to be just the first three pages of Booker’s 2013 tax return. No copies were provided, and no photocopying or photos were allowed.
The Booker campaign said it had met “the gold standard of disclosure” because he had released not just this year’s return, but 15 previous years when he was running in a special election last year. But that was done the same way — a time-limited look, with no copying allowed.
“It’s a fraud,” said Booker’s opponent Bell, who noted that he made all pages of his 2013 tax return publicly available.
“You can go to my website and look at the entire return,” Bell said, “every source of income, every charitable deduction. That is what I made available.”
Walter Luers, President of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, almost laughed when I asked him about the Booker campaign’s statement about having met the gold standard for disclosure.
“Of course it’s not the gold standard for transparency,” Luers said.”It’s a little fake and it’s a little disingenuous. If you’re going to be transparent, you shouldn’t take half measures.”
Luers said if Booker is going to make his taxes available, this isn’t the way to do it.
“You know, a two-hour review, no photos, really all it does is maintain his plausible deniability and it doesn’t help us do a real analysis what the potential conflicts of interest might be,” he said.
When I asked Bell why he released only one year’s return rather than the 16 Booker had, he said it was because he hadn’t “been in public life until now.” It would be more accurate to say he returned to public life. In 1978 he was the New Jersey Republican Senate candidate after defeating incumbent Clifford Case in a primary.
What’s in the returns?
According to Matt Friedman of NJ.Com, Booker earned $540,000 last year, most of it from speaking engagements, and gave most of his income to charity. He claimed $241,000 in charitable deductions, and Booker spokeswoman Beth DeFalco said he gave more than $200,000 more in charitable contributions which he didn’t claim (there are limits on the amount of charitable deductions you can take).
Friedman’s account referred to a three-page summary of Booker’s 2013 taxes which were made available for inspection, but when I asked for that, DeFalco said it wasn’t available, that it had been provided to reporters who showed Monday to view Booker’s returns. DeFalco said she was available to answer any questions I have, and confirmed that the numbers in Friedman’s account were accurate. You can read it here.
I’ve covered a lot of elections and seen a lot of candidates’ tax returns. Most have simply provided copies to reporters who asked, so they could look at them once and return to them as needed for further study. Some candidates even handed returns over with their social security numbers on them, and I’ve had to black them out before posting them online.
The Booker method of showing a partial return with a time clock on reporters arguably withholds more than it discloses. Someone who’s finances are at all complex files long tax returns with many supporting schedules, and it can take time, study, and consultation with experts for reporters to make sense of it all. And when further information about a candidate’s past emerges in the course of a campaign or in the candidate’s time in public office, continuing access to tax returns can provide valuable information.
All that raw information can also be valuable to a candidate’s opponents, and I understand why a candidate would be reluctant to just release it to the public. But disclosure is disclosure.
When I asked why Booker didn’t simply provide copies of his full returns if he wanted to meet a gold standard of disclosure, I was provided this statement from campaign spokeswoman Sylvia Alvarez:
“Sen. Booker has made 16 years worth of his tax returns — spanning his entire career in public office — available to the media. That’s more years than most statewide candidates have done in New Jersey. Jeff Bell has released one year’s worth of taxes which show he was paid to oppose marriage equality and failed economic policies from the past.”
The marriage equality phrase refers to the fact that Bell earned $39,000 consulting with the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage. You can read more about Bell’s return here, or see the whole thing at his website.