Politics & Government

Why won't Clinton, McCain make tax returns public?

Sen. John McCain campaigns in Pennsylvania
Sen. John McCain campaigns in Pennsylvania David Swanson / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

WASHINGTON — During Hillary's Clinton's New York race for the Senate in 2000, a man in an Uncle Sam suit calling himself "Tax Man" followed Republican candidate Rick Lazio around, demanding to know why Lazio was so slow in making his income tax returns public.

"The people of New York have a right to know what he's hiding," said Howard Wolfson, then a top Clinton aide who often trailed behind "Tax Man" feeding reporters campaign spin. "Rick Lazio's 15 minutes are up — he should stop making excuses and come clean with New Yorkers."

Eight years later, Clinton and her presidential campaign aren't making her income tax returns public. She's promised to release her income tax information on or around April 15.

Wolfson, now the Clinton campaign's communications director, won't say why Clinton wouldn't release her tax information earlier. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, released his 2006 tax return _ though only his 2006 return _ last April.

Clinton isn't the only presidential candidate who hasn't made tax records public. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, hasn't either. His campaign says that he'll make his records public in the next month or so.

McCain has never made his tax returns public, but Clinton has. In 1994, under political pressure over the Whitewater land deal controversy, the Clintons made public all their tax returns since 1977. The couple also disclosed their tax returns during Bill Clinton's eight years in the White House, but not since.

The delays by Clinton and McCain perplex some government watchdog groups, which note that past presidential candidates had no trouble producing their tax returns in a timely fashion. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, released his tax information in December 2003, for example.

"This is a part of the public record that voters have come to expect. Concern grows when anything is withheld," said Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that examines money and politics. "If it means waiting until April 15, we wait until April 15. We just don't know why."

Both McCain and Clinton are wealthy. McCain was listed as the ninth-richest member of Congress last year by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. It pegged McCain's net worth at more than $44 million, with most of the money coming from his wife, Cindy Hensley McCain, who is chairwoman of the nation's third-largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship. The family also has extensive real estate holdings.

Clinton was listed as the 21st richest lawmaker, with a net worth estimated at $12 million, but she could be worth up to $50 million based on her 2006 financial disclosure form for Congress. It's much less detailed than tax records.

Obama didn't crack the Congress Top 50, listing a net worth of $456,000 to $1.14 million.

Though McCain may be wealthier, Clinton has garnered more attention for not releasing her tax information, according to Colby College government professor Anthony J. Corrado, because she loaned her campaign $5 million from personal funds and because of the secrecy surrounding the Clintons' finances since Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001.

"Delaying the tax forms helps divert attention on how the Clintons make their money, which could be a campaign distraction," said Corrado, who specializes in studying money in politics. "You won't see that much of a clamor for McCain's forms that you will for the Clintons. There's much more that's unknown. With McCain, there will be much more of a clamor for his medical and health records than his financial records."

Thus far, the public has had a limited look into the Clintons' finances through her congressional financial disclosures. Since 1999, the Clintons' net worth has grown from $1.2 million to $5.7 million then, to $10 million to $50 million now.

Bill Clinton alone made $10 million in 2006, mostly from giving speeches for which he was paid $75,000 to $450,000 a talk.

Since Clinton launched her presidential campaign, the Clintons have refused to disclose all the names of donors to Bill Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., and to the former president's foundation.

Clinton, responding to an open-government questionnaire in connection with the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Sunshine Week initiative, vowed Sunday to disclose the names of the Clinton library and foundation donors if she's elected president.

"I believe in an open, transparent government that is accountable to the people," Clinton wrote. "Excessive government secrecy harms democratic governance and can weaken our system of checks and balances by shielding officials from oversight and inviting misconduct or error. ...To me, openness and accountability are not platitudes — they are essential elements of our democracy."

The Obama campaign has made an issue of the Clintons' financial secrecy, hinting that it could haunt Democrats in November if she's the party's nominee.

Robert Gibbs, the communications director for the Obama campaign, on Sunday called on Clinton to release her and her husband's full tax returns, all congressional earmark requests and the names of all donors to Bill Clinton's foundation and presidential library.

"What is Senator Clinton hiding, and what is lurking in those documents?" Gibbs asked during a conference call with reporters.

Mary Boyle, the vice president for communications for Common Cause, a self-styled "citizens lobby," said that the longer Clinton and McCain delay releasing their tax information, the greater the disadvantage voters will have in trying to make an informed choice.

"They (tax returns) are a window for the American people into their financial matters, which we consider an important disclosure — sort of part of the job interview," Boyle said. "Does it tell you everything? No, but it can give you some clues."

(Matt Stearns contributed.)