Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why won't Romney release more tax returns?

By Edward D. Kleinbard and Peter C. Canellos, Special to CNN
July 18, 2012 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Mitt Romney has released only one full tax return so far.
Mitt Romney has released only one full tax return so far.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney has only released one complete tax return for 2010
  • Edward Kleinbard, Peter Canellos: Romney needs to be transparent about his finances
  • Romney's 2010 tax return reveals red flags about tax compliance issues, they say
  • Kleinbard, Canellos: Electorate deserves a thorough vetting of presidential candidates

Editor's note: Edward D. Kleinbard is a professor at Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California. He is the former chief of staff of Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation. Peter C. Canellos, a lawyer, is former chair of the New York State Bar Association Tax Section.

(CNN) -- By announcing that he will release no further tax returns beyond his 2010 and 2011 returns, Mitt Romney appears to have exempted himself from the proud bipartisan tradition of presidential nominees displaying genuine financial candor with the electorate.

What is more, his disclosure to date is in the wrong direction: It is the release of Romney's past returns, not his current ones, that matters.

Since George Romney inaugurated the practice more than 40 years ago by releasing 12 years of tax returns in his bid for the Republican Party nomination, presidential nominees have been transparent with voters about their personal finances. For this reason, we have not suffered a significant tax scandal involving a nominee or sitting president since President Richard Nixon's abuse of the tax code.

Either Romney has an unresolved father figure issue, or he has some special reason not to follow a tradition established by his father.

News: Romney campaign expected to launch multipronged effort to rebut attacks

Edward D. Kleinbard
Edward D. Kleinbard

Given Romney's financial sophistication, it has been assumed by some that there cannot be any tax skeletons in his closet. His reluctance to disclose past returns, however, undermines that assumption. We are left with the difficult task of plausibly reconstructing his financial record based on the one full return that he has released. The result is troubling.

Mitt Romney is extraordinarily wealthy, but that is not a justification for nondisclosure. He has made no secret of his wealth, and required campaign disclosures already hint at its magnitude. While Romney may have dissembled about when he actually left Bain Capital, he has been disassociated with the firm long enough that he cannot argue that his tax returns will reveal proprietary secrets.

Nor is this just an exercise in financial titillation or gossip. Disclosure goes to the heart of the truthfulness with which a nominee engages the American people, and it assures us that he in fact has comported himself before the election with the high moral character we associate with a future president.

Romney's 2010 tax return, when combined with his FEC disclosure, reveals red flags that raise serious tax compliance questions with respect to his possible tax minimization strategies in earlier years. The release in October of his 2011 return will at best act as a distraction from these questions.

So, what are the issues?

The first is Romney's Swiss bank account. Most presidential candidates don't think it appropriate to bet that the U.S. dollar will lose value by speculating in Swiss Francs, which is basically the rationale offered by the trustee of Romney's "blind" trust for opening this account. What's more, if you really want just to speculate on foreign currencies, you don't need a Swiss bank account to do so.

The Swiss bank account raises tax compliance questions, too.

News: Americans view Romney's campaign more unfavorably than Obama's

The account seems to have been closed early in 2010, but was the income in fact reported on earlier tax returns? Did the Romneys timely file the required disclosure forms to the Treasury Department (so-called FBAR reports)?

The IRS announced in 2009 a partial tax amnesty for unreported foreign bank accounts, in light of the Justice Department's criminal investigations involving several Swiss banks. To date, some 34,500 Americans have taken advantage of such amnesty programs. Did the Romneys avail themselves of any of these amnesty programs? One hopes that such a suggestion is preposterous, but that is what disclosure is for -- to replace speculation with truth-telling to the American people.

Second, Romney's $100 million IRA is remarkable in its size. Even under the most generous assumptions, Romney would have been restricted to annual contributions of $30,000 while he worked at Bain. How does this grow to $100 million?

One possibility is that a truly mighty oak sprang up virtually overnight from relatively tiny annual acorns because of the unprecedented prescience of every one of Romney's investment choices.

Another, which on its face is quite plausible, is that Romney stuffed far more into his retirement plans each year than the maximum allowed by law by claiming that the stock of the Bain company deals that the retirement plan acquired had only a nominal value. He presumably would have done so by relying on a special IRS "safe harbor" rule relating to the taxation of a service partner's receipt of such interests, but that rule emphatically does not apply to an interest when sold to a retirement plan, which is supposed to be measured by its true fair market value.

Third, the vast amounts in Romney's family trusts raise a parallel question: Did Romney report and pay gift tax on the funding of these trusts or did he claim similarly unreasonable valuations, which likewise would have exposed him to serious penalties if all the facts were known?

Fourth, the complexity of Romney's one publicly released tax return, with all its foreign accounts, trusts, corporations and partnerships, leaves even experts (including us) scratching their heads. Disclosure of multiple years' tax returns is part of the answer here, but in this case it isn't sufficient. Romney's financial affairs are so arcane, so opaque and so tied up in his continuing income from Bain Capital that more is needed, including an explanation of the $100 million IRA.

Finally, there's the puzzle of the Romneys' extraordinarily low effective tax rate.

For 2010, the Romneys enjoyed a federal tax rate of only 13.9% on their adjusted gross income of roughly $22 million, which gave them a lower federal tax burden (including payroll, income and excise taxes) than the average American wage-earning family in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. The principal reason for this munificently low tax rate is that much of Romney's income, even today, comes from "carried interest," which is just the jargon used by the private equity industry for compensation received for managing other people's money.

The vast majority of tax scholars and policy experts agree that awarding a super-low tax rate to this one form of labor income is completely unjustified as a policy matter. Romney has not explained how, as president, he can bring objectivity to bear on this tax loophole that is estimated as costing all of us billions of dollars every year.

News: Romney cites incident of helping campaign contributor

The U.S. presidency is a position of immense magnitude and requires a thorough vetting. What the American people deserve is a complete and honest presentation by Romney of how his wealth was accumulated, where it is now invested, what purpose is served by all the various offshore vehicles in which he has an interest and what his financial relationship with Bain Capital has been since his retirement from the company. These are all factors that go to the heart of his character and values.

For a nominee to America's highest office, a clear and transparent reporting of his finances should be nothing more than routine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward D. Kleinbard and Peter C. Canellos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT