Taking page from Trump, Pennsylvania candidates withhold tax returns

President Trump broke 40 years of tradition when he refused to release his tax returns during his presidential campaign. Now, all three Republican gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania are following suit, in what transparency advocates say could be a growing trend.

Chris Knight/AP
Paul Mango, a former health-care systems consultant and a first-time Republican candidate for governor, speaks at a primary debate on March 1, 2018 in Harrisburg, Pa. Mr. Mango has stated he will only comply with what is required of him as a candidate.

The three Republicans running for the party's nomination for Pennsylvania governor say they will not release copies of their tax returns, documents that can shed important light on a candidate's personal priorities and financial standing.

The man they want to beat, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, will release the first two pages of his 2017 tax return and open the rest of it to inspection by reporters, his campaign said.

Most candidates for governor of Pennsylvania have, when asked, released part or all of their federal tax returns, going back at least six campaigns to the 1990s. The Republicans' refusal this year comes after President Trump became the first major party nominee for president in 40 years to refuse to release his.

Scott Wagner, a state senator who is prominent in south-central Pennsylvania's waste-hauling industry, declined to say through his campaign why he will not release a tax return.

The campaign for Paul Mango, a former health-care systems consultant, said he would only comply with what is required of him.

Laura Ellsworth, a longtime commercial litigation lawyer, feels it is "unreasonably intrusive" to be expected to disclose a tax return and that it "creates a disincentive" to run for office, a campaign spokeswoman said.

Pennsylvania state law does not require a gubernatorial candidate to disclose a tax return.

Rather, candidates are required to file what are called "statements of financial interest" with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission. Those documents require candidates to list sources of income, as well as enterprises in which they have a financial stake or to which they owe money.

But, a statement of financial interest is not nearly as revealing.

"When you talk about the eyes being a window into someone's soul, the tax return is the window into someone's financial decisions and choices," said Laurie Siebert, a Bethlehem-based certified public accountant.

A tax return reveals how much income a person reports to the government and pays in taxes, and how much income they receive from each source. It also reveals the effective tax rate a person pays, or whether they avoided paying taxes.

It also reveals how much someone writes off, and how much they give to charities from their pocket.

Ethics in government organizations, including The Campaign Legal Center in Washington, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, and the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy, support gubernatorial candidates releasing their tax returns as a gesture toward transparency.

"Tax returns give voters important information about a candidate's potential conflicts of interest and, if elected, whether they would personally benefit from the policies they promote," said Brendan Fischer, a lawyer for The Campaign Legal Center.

Patrick Christmas, the Committee of Seventy's policy program manager, said the more powerful an office, the more scrutiny a candidate should expect.

Such transparency is essential to an informed electorate, said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"Voters should and do want to know where their officials' money comes from, what debts they hold and who they've done business with," Libowitz said.

On his statement of financial interest, Mr. Mango reported his sole source of income in 2017 was McKinsey and Co., the worldwide consultancy he left early in the year before declaring his candidacy.

On her statement, Ellsworth reported receiving income from the law firm where she is a partner, Jones Day, as well as from several financial institutions, including two where she is a board member.

Wagner reported more than 30 sources of income. He is most prominently the president of the York-based waste hauler Penn Waste Inc., which reported $75 million in revenue last year. His statement of financial interest also hints at holdings in hotels, freight hauling, property, and a diesel engine dealership, as well as dozens of debts.

Since 1976, every major party nominee for president had released tax returns, until Mr. Trump. Even Trump's running mate, then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, released 10 years of his tax returns.

Mr. Fischer, of The Campaign Legal Center, said it is "incredibly unfortunate" that Trump broke with decades of tradition and refused to release his tax returns.

"It would be even more unfortunate," Fischer said, "if President Trump's disregard for well-established norms of ethics and transparency were replicated at the state level."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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