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From the May 3, 2004 issue: Why won't Teresa Heinz Kerry release her tax returns?

May 3, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 32 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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THE DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE'S spouse refuses to disclose tax returns. Republicans seize the issue, asking what the spouse is hiding. The New York Times calls for full disclosure. Distracted by the controversy, the candidate is on the defensive. The spouse eventually relents and agrees to release five years' worth of tax returns, but only after the candidate's campaign has been damaged.

Sound familiar? Yes, John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has refused to make her tax returns public, and her decision has caused some controversy. But she's not the spouse in the example above. That would be John A. Zaccaro, husband of then-New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984. And if the Kerry campaign doesn't learn from the historical record, it risks its own John Zaccaro problem.

Twenty years ago Ferraro was bedeviled by her inconsistency. In July '84, she said she would release both her and her husband's tax returns. Yet a month later she backtracked and said she would release only her returns. Then she backtracked again, saying her husband would release "a financial--a tax statement" on August 20. But she must not have consulted her husband, because Zaccaro initially refused. Finally he agreed to make public his tax returns from 1979 to 1984, after Republican attacks detracted from his wife's campaign.

When John Kerry talks about his wife's returns, he isn't inconsistent. He's inaccurate. He said on Meet the Press last week that presidential candidates are required by law to release their income tax returns. In fact, no such law exists. Releasing tax information has been customary since 1976. Also on Meet the Press, after host Tim Russert mentioned the Ferraro example, Kerry suggested his wife's decision not to release her returns wasn't a problem, because American politicians "have far more intrusive ethics forms today" than in 1984. "If you want to see what my wife's holdings are," Kerry said, "you can go to our Senate ethics forms. It shows you exactly what we have. It's very, very, very intrusive."

Kerry is dead wrong, for a couple of reasons. First, House and Senate members have been filling out financial disclosure forms for their respective ethics committees since 1978. In fact, Geraldine Ferraro had trouble with these forms, too. As a congresswoman, she regularly claimed to be exempt from disclosing her husband's finances, which would have been legal, provided she had no knowledge of her spouse's financial activities and had not profited from them. The problem was that Ferraro claimed the exemption even though she was an officer of her husband's real estate firm, P. Zaccaro & Company.

And congressional disclosure forms aren't as intrusive as Kerry says. It's true the forms contain a detailed list of a congressional couple's financial assets. But there's little specificity when it comes to the value of those assets. For example, poring through Kerry's most recent Senate disclosure form, which covers the 2002 calendar year, one finds that the senator and his wife have a stake in the Flying Squirrel charter airplane company in Delaware. But the form tells you only that the stake is "over $1,000,000," and that the investment provided somewhere between $50,001 and $100,000 in income in 2002.

What the congressional disclosure forms omit is also important. A tax return reveals someone's charitable contributions, for example, as well as an individual's mortgage deductions. Also, a tax return includes contributions to nonprofit organizations, including political ones. No such information is contained in the forms legislators submit to the House and Senate ethics committees.

Yet Heinz is adamant. She won't disclose her tax returns, she said through a spokesman, because she isn't a candidate for office. Why should she be subjected to the same scrutiny as her husband? Heinz has a point. She isn't breaking any law. She enjoys the same privacy rights as others. But she's now the first wife of a presidential candidate to refuse disclosure since the practice became customary. What would be in her tax returns that's worth keeping secret?