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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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On one hand, the 2004 mess is tiny compared to Daschle's current woes. Far from an attempt to pocket $130,000 owed to the feds, Daschle's D.C. homestead deduction saved him just under $300 (roughly the value of one-third of one square foot of his Foxhall mansion) in 2003. On the other hand, the 2004 episode suggests tax avoidance more determined and unscrupulous than his recent trip-up. Hardly an understandable error of omission, applying for the homestead deduction required Daschle to sign and affirm--under penalty of a $1,000 fine or 100 days' imprisonment for knowingly swearing to false information--that he was eligible for a tax break which, it turns out, he was not.

Those of us who have overpaid local levies fearing the wrath of the tax man curse the Daschle double-standard. Yet in a twist, it's a double-standard that may ultimately have served Daschle his just deserts. As his nomination sank, understandable questions were raised about the White House vetting process. A simple Google or Nexis search--usually a must for anyone being considered for mention in a presidential speech, let alone a Cabinet post--would have turned up the 2004 property-tax matter. (It would have been a useful clue, perhaps, for the people who are now so surprised by Daschle's "mistake.") If the Obama team had followed the Bush administration's practice of asking all nominees to undergo IRS background checks, anything as small as a late payment would have been flagged. And if the Obama people had just given Daschle their own vaunted seven-page questionnaire for prospective staff, it's unlikely Daschle's back taxes would have escaped notice.

Did Obama's vetters fail to subject Daschle to the same scrutiny they would apply to little people because of his Democratic star power and friends in high places? Or did they know Daschle had tax problems and figured he'd get away with it because of his Democratic star power and friends in high places? In either case, they forgot the perils of Cabinet nominees who come only with star power and friends in high places (see Kerik, Bernard).

President Obama promised to govern competently and transparently, and to be a 21st-century leader prepared to harness the power of the information age. The failure to uncover Daschle's years'-long record of tax avoidance begins to suggest otherwise. In light of Obama's two other tax-dodging nominees, his critics are starting to grow a little louder and little bolder. And unless the new president begins learning from these hard lessons, he may soon find himself quite unhappy in his own District of Columbia property--the 11-bedroom, 35-bathroom, 28-fireplace, $308 million mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Meghan Clyne is writer in Washington, D.C.