Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Do dog catchers have to release their tax returns?

Sen. Harry Reid says even dog catchers have to release their tax returns to get a government job. We check the facts.
Sen. Harry Reid says even dog catchers have to release their tax returns to get a government job. We check the facts.

Democrats say Mitt Romney's refusal to release more tax records would disqualify him from many government jobs -- maybe even dog catcher.

"He not only couldn’t be confirmed as a Cabinet secretary, he couldn’t be confirmed as a dog catcher, because a dog catcher — you’re at least going to want to look at his income tax returns," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid in a July 12, 2012, press conference in Washington.

We recognize Reid was using hyperbole, so we won't put his claim to the Truth-O-Meter. But we thought it was worthwhile to examine if many government officials and candidates have to file their tax returns to qualify for their jobs.

Our conclusion: Reid was barking up the wrong tree.

Dog catchers and democracy

First, let’s answer an obvious question: Do we still elect dog catchers?

The online magazine Slate responded to that very question from a reader in 2010:

"While the unofficial job of dog catcher has existed for centuries -- towns would often hire someone to round up stray dogs and shoot them -- it was only incorporated into state and local government operations as 'animal control' in the 19th century. Since then, the job has almost always been filled by appointment."

Our PolitiFact partners in Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Wisconsin told us that tax returns are usually not required for government jobs, but that many officials have to file financial disclosure forms.

We also checked with John Malley, Animal Services director in Pasco County, Fla., a community of nearly half a million residents just north of Tampa. He worked for the county for four years before becoming department head a year ago.

No one, he said, has ever asked for his tax returns.

He said, "At our level, nobody really cares."

Tax returns aren't typically required

The federal government and the states we surveyed require many government officials and candidates for public office to make disclosures about their personal finances. In nearly all cases, they have to file reports about their assets and liabilities, but not tax returns.

"At the federal level, state level and in many cases the local level, public officials are required to file incredibly detailed disclosures of their financial holdings. It really amounts to a very intrusive, proctological examination of your holdings," said Rob Kelner, chair of the political law practice at Covington and Burling LLP in Washington and a government ethics expert.

Take New Jersey, where almost all elected officials, from school board members to legislators, must file annual financial disclosure statements, a spokesman for the Department of Labor and Workforce Development said. But they do not have to publicize income tax records.

Some New Jersey employees who are appointed also must file annual disclosure financial disclosure forms, though most government workers don’t have to disclose anything.

Candidates for federal office are required to file a form with the Office on Government Ethics. (Romney’s is here.)

Stanley Brand, an attorney with the Brand Law Group in Washington, said candidates sometimes file tax returns as a matter of voluntary disclosure, but there is no requirement to do so.

Kelner, who represents some members of Congress and the Republican National Committee, agreed: "Presidential candidates do release either their tax returns or a summary of their tax returns, though not every presidential candidate does that and it’s not required by law."

The purpose of ethics rules is to alert the public to potential conflicts of interest. Brand called the rules "post-Watergate reforms designed to increase accountability."

But Kelner sees a downside in what he calls "ethics-sclerosis."

"Any one ethics law might look attractive on its own, but you reach a point where the entire political system begins to grind to a halt," he said. "Candidates have to spend so much time and energy that it becomes difficult for them to focus on their jobs and file accurate forms. Or they might just decide that it’s not worth running for office. You can have too much of a good thing."

Senate committees ask for tax forms

One exception to the rule that financial disclosure forms will suffice: political jobs confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Reid's office noted that appointees for the Cabinet and other political positions confirmed by the Senate typically require nominees to file tax returns.

Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said the Senate Finance Committee requires nominees to release an itemized list of "the identity and value of all assets" valued at $1,000 or more, as well as three years of tax returns.

"As you know Romney, has only released one," Jentleson said.

"It is literally true that based on his current level of disclosure (or lack thereof) Romney could not get confirmed for any appointment under the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee," he said.

Still, Romney has filed the necessary disclosures for running for president.