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Congressman Tom Marino, R-Pa., has not wavered in his support of Donald Trump over the past few months, even in the midst of Trump’s current tax return controversy.
"I have had to fill out FEC reports for the past six years now, and they’re much more detailed than a tax return..." Marino said in an effort to defend Trump in a recent interview on MSNBC.
Federal Election Commission reports and tax filings can puzzle even the wonkiest of political observers. So out of these two tedious documents, which one is more detailed? And are they even worth comparing?
Asked about why the congressman considers FEC filings to be more detailed, Marino’s communications director, Ainsley Holyfield, did not provide a clear answer. She described the length of Trump’s FEC filing -- 92 pages -- and added that there was no law requiring candidates to file tax returns.
"We do believe these are comparable as they are both gathering in-depth financial information related to a person or entity," she said. "If the intent is to understand a person’s financial status, the same information can be gathered from both documents."
Assets versus income
Presidential candidates are required to disclose all of their assets with the FEC. In July 2015, Trump released a 92-page personal financial disclosure report, or FEC report, that listed all of his assets. Although the PFD contains details about all of Trump’s assets, it does not necessarily contain accurate information about the value of each asset. For example, the report lists the value of the Philadelphia branch of Trump National Golf Club as somewhere between "$5,000,001 - $25,000,000." Furthermore, a PFD is not audited. There is no government agency that validates the accuracy of presidential PFDs, so it is up to the candidate to accurately assess the value and income earned from each asset.
A tax return, experts say, serves a different purpose. A tax return, which is audited, requires precise numbers for each income-earning asset. It does not include assets that do not earn an income, but contains numbers for the assets that it does list, not broad ranges like "$5,000,001 - $25,000,000." Brett Kappel, a partner with Akerman LLP and an election lawyer with over 25 years of experience, argues that the two documents are different by design.
"The personal financial disclosure report is designed to disclose potential financial conflicts of interest, so it requires much greater disclosure of assets than a tax return." said Kappel. "A tax return is designed to capture income, so it contains much more information about income derived from assets."
In other words, a tax return reflects how much income a person makes from their assets, and an FEC filing contains how many assets a person has.
But which is more detailed?
To begin answering this question, we asked Kappel if any significant information could be found in Donald Trump’s tax returns that is not present in his FEC report. In recent news, Trump has refused to release his tax returns, arguing that "there’s nothing to learn from them."
Kappel said at least three things could be learned from a tax return: "actual income, charitable contributions and use of offshore accounts to hold and/or shelter income."
A tax return will not reveal information like Trump’s net worth, but it will show his annual income and his charitable contributions. Much of Trump’s campaign is built around his image as a successful and generous businessman. A tax return would contain information that could either validate or discredit this image.
On Feb. 25, Trump tweeted a picture of him signing what he called a recent tax return. The stack of tax return papers rises far above Trump’s head while he is sitting at his desk. In a recent interview with Fox News, Trump said the picture he gave had "about 2 1/2 feet of tax returns standing in front of [him]." On the other hand, Trump’s PFD on the Federal Election Commission’s website spans 92 pages.
David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning tax expert, believes that a tax return is more detailed than the form the FEC requires presidential candidates to fill out.
"Look at the online photo of Trump next to what he says is his tax return" said Johnston. "Then get the FEC form, which runs far less than one ream of paper."
Trump’s recent tax return seems to span significantly more pages than his PFD, but according to Johnston that’s not the biggest problem with Marino’s comparison.
"The point," he said, "is that Rep. Marino is mixing oranges with horse apples."
Tom Marino said that a presidential FEC report is much more detailed than a tax return.
The primary purpose of an FEC report is to list assets. A tax return provides detailed information about each income-earning asset. It may not list all of the filer’s assets -- as an FEC report would -- but it requires accurate income calculations for the assets that actually produce income. Also, an FEC report is not audited.
Given the differences in the two types of forms, a comparison between the two is irrelevant, and experts say a tax return requires more exact measures of how much a person makes.
We rate this claim False.
Youtube, "Rep. Marino joins Steve Kornacki to discuss Trump meetings on the Hill," May 13, 2016
Donald Trump, Personal Financial Disclosure Report, July 15, 2015
The Associated Press, "AP Interview: Trump down to 5 or 6 choices for VP," May 11, 2016
Donald Trump, tweet, Feb. 25, 2016
Fox News, "Donald Trump and Marco Rubio react to South Carolina primary results," Feb. 21, 2016
Taxanalysts, "Why Should Trump Get Special Treatment for His Tax Returns?" May 12, 2016
Email interview, Brett Kappel, election lawyer, Akerman LLP, May 15, 2016
Email interview, David Cay Johnston, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer, Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management, May 16, 2016
Email interview, Ainsley Holyfield, Tom Marino communications director, May 16, 2016.
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