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Daschle's Duplicity

Be the tax dodges large or small, Thomas Daschle has loved them all.

11:35 AM, Feb 4, 2009 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
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At least Tom Daschle still has his friends. Hardly had the would-be Health and Human Services secretary exited stage left before his Washington defenders got to work. A former HHS secretary went on TV lauding Daschle as "honorable." Members of the Senate praised their former colleague as "a great leader" and "a class act." The president himself showed empathy and forgiveness, describing Daschle's failure to pay more than $130,000 in federal taxes as an "honest" and "unintentional mistake."

Really? Had these Daschle stalwarts paid attention to widely available press reports and public information dating back five years, they might have seen how these recent transgressions fit into a larger pattern of behavior. And they would have discovered a sad truth: Be the tax dodges large or small, Thomas Daschle has loved them all.

Rewind to autumn 2004, when Daschle's Senate re-election campaign was in full swing. I and others reported on an eyebrow-raising property-tax break Daschle and his wife, Linda, had been receiving on their Washington home. Located at 2830 Foxhall Road NW, the brick mansion has seven bedrooms, six-and-a-half bathrooms, four fireplaces, and a current assessed value of nearly $2.9 million.

When the Daschles bought the home for $1.9 million in April 2003, they filed for the District of Columbia's "homestead deduction" on their property taxes. To receive the break, Daschle had to affirm that the house met the eligibility standards under D.C. code--namely, that it was "the principal place of residence within the District of an individual, shareholder, or member, who is domiciled in the District."

In Washington the word "domiciled" has a particular meaning, defined by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Murphy. According to the 1941 decision, "persons are domiciled here who live here and have no fixed and definite intent to return and make their homes where they were formerly domiciled."

Try to reconcile that with the laws of South Dakota, where Daschle was a resident, voter, and Senator. State code spells out clearly the criteria for determining voter residence: "For the purposes of this title, the term, residence, means the place in which a person has fixed his or her habitation and to which the person, whenever absent, intends to return. If a person moves to another state, or to any of the other territories, with the intention of making it his or her permanent home, the person thereby loses residence in this state."

Hardly the best situation to be in if you're trying to get re-elected to the Senate--especially given those pesky residency requirements in the Constitution: "No Person shall be a Senator who . . . shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen."

Despite the contradictions, for months Daschle had his tax break and ate it too. For nearly a year and a half, he received the homestead deduction as a Washingtonian--and during that time, according to records on file with the Brown County Auditor, voted as a South Dakotan.

By fall 2004, however, something had changed--and Daschle stopped receiving the Washington property-tax break. Two employees of the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue independently confirm that the homestead deduction was "retroactively reversed" to April 2003, the date the Daschles bought their home. According to the tax office, this means the home was never eligible to receive the deduction--and files show that the Daschles have, in their subsequent assessments, paid the back taxes.

The result of the "retroactive reversal" is that the Daschles' D.C. records show them as having, in effect, never taken a property-tax deduction to which they were not entitled. And they are now in the good graces of the District of Columbia Office of Tax and Revenue. Strangely enough, files show that the "retroactive reversal" that made this magic possible took place on September 29, 2004. It was the same day the tax office received a Freedom of Information Act request from a reporter sniffing around the story in the heat of Daschle's Senate campaign.

So five years ago, Tom Daschle conveniently avoided taxes until the non-payment put his career ambitions in danger. Then he took steps to make amends, pay the back taxes, and move on. Sound familiar?