Calif. Congress hopefuls pay late taxes after questions raised

McClatchy NewspapersApril 18, 2012 

— Former astronaut Jose Hernandez and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Calif., differ politically, but until Wednesday they shared a need to catch up on some taxes.

Now competing as polar opposites in the newly redrawn 10th Congressional District of California’s Northern San Joaquin Valley, Hernandez and Denham both were shadowed by tax bills owed local counties, public records show.

Denham owed Merced County $6,051in unpaid taxes, including penalties, as of last week, county records show. The taxes cover property at Longview Avenue in Atwater, Calif.

Hernandez, meanwhile, owed $484 in Harris County, Texas, for past taxes on a family restaurant that has since closed. The restaurant, located near the Johnson Space Center, Tierra Luna Mexican Grill, was run by Hernandez’s wife, Adela, while Hernandez was working for NASA.

Both men paid the late taxes Wednesday shortly after being contacted by a McClatchy reporter.

“Apparently the bill fell through the cracks, but it has been paid online as of a few minutes ago,” Denham’s campaign manager Dave Gilliard said in an e-mail response Wednesday morning.

Almost simultaneously, Hernandez’s campaign manager Dan Krupnick was explaining by telephone that Hernandez had never received the final Harris County bill. The Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s website showed that the bill was marked “returned undeliverable.”

“As soon as Jose became aware that this was an issue, he paid the bill,” Krupnick said, adding that the bill was paid Wednesday.

Hernandez and Denham top the marquee in the race to represent a district that includes all of Stanislaus County and a swath of southern San Joaquin County in California. Denham, a former state senator and potent fundraiser, now is in the middle of his freshman House term. Hernandez, a political neophyte, has attracted national attention and the blessings of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Their properties have some political resonance.

Although he began renting a residency in Turlock last year following redistricting, Denham’s Atwater property remains the basis for his campaign self-description as a Valley farmer. Denham’s campaign team has cited Hernandez’s long Houston-area residency, reflected in the Tierra Lune grill, in suggesting that the Democrat is out of touch with the Valley.

The tax bills for the two Valley candidates are far smaller than some other tax wrinkles that have popped up elsewhere on the campaign trail. Former California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, for instance, has seen his $470,000 dispute with the Internal Revenue Service in U.S. Tax Court become at least a passing issue in his race against Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara.

Every candidate, though, knows the potential for tax issues to roil a race.

In a close state Senate campaign in 2002, for instance, Denham ran an ad attacking Democratic opponent Rusty Areias for racking up an unpaid $144,000 property tax bill on his Los Banos, Calif., property. The unpaid bill resulted in tax liens, which were satisfied once the bill was paid. Areias at the time called the tax issue “a sideshow” and attributed the problem at the time to an overlooked rental property payment.

Records do not show any liens being placed on either Denham’s Merced County property or Hernandez’s former Harris County business.

Email: mdoyle(at)mcclatchydc.com

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