NPR Reporter Finds 'Tax Professionals' to Paint Romney As a Tax Evader

On Thursday's Morning Edition, NPR reporter Scott Horsley sought out "tax professionals" to underline the notion that Romney's not releasing more tax returns because it would reveal he's manipulating his retirement account in sketchy ways to evade taxes.

"Tax professionals" would imply these designated expert guessers were nonpartisan -- but that isn't how NPR constructs its Romney narrative.

The experts included Lee Sheppard of Tax Notes. In a positive profile, The New York Times let a colleague describe her usual take: "Her analyses are very controversial...A lot of people would tell you that they are skewed toward the government's way of looking at things and that she frequently does not give the taxpayer's side."

NPR also consulted Ed Kleinbard, a Huffington Post contributor who recently wrote an editorial for CNN.com titled "Why Won't Romney Release More Tax Returns?" He asserted "Given Romney's financial sophistication, it has been assumed by some that there cannot be any tax skeletons in his closet. His reluctance to disclose past returns, however, undermines that assumption."

Kleinbard was also an expert witness against Herman Cain's 9-9-9 proposal. In the last decade, he donated at least $5,000 to Democrats, including $2,000 to John Kerry for President.

With these analysts, Horsley's story aggressively painted a picture of Romney as a tax evader:

SCOTT HORSLEY: But tax professionals still have plenty of questions. For example, Lee Sheppard, who's a contributing editor at the journal Tax Notes, wants to know how Romney amassed so much money in his tax-deferred retirement account.

LEE SHEPPARD: All we know is that it's a big number, and we're a little bit baffled as to how it got so big.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Romney's retirement account is worth somewhere between 21 million and $102 million. Law professor Ed Kleinbard of USC says that's a lot of money, considering the most Romney could ever contribute to the account was $30,000 a year.

ED KLEINBARD: Either Governor Romney is sort of the modern-day equivalent of Jack and his magic beans, who somehow created a mighty beanstalk, or he took very aggressive positions with respect to valuing insider stock.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Kleinbard means Romney might have loaded up his retirement account with assets from his private equity firm, Bain Capital, and assigned artificially low values to those assets in order to get around the contribution limits. If so, Romney would still have to pay taxes on the real value of the assets, when they're withdrawn from the account. But in the meantime, the money can grow, tax-free. Tax Notes' Sheppard says that's an advantage most taxpayers don't have.

LEE SHEPPARD: If you happen to work for a partnership and your compensation is arranged this way, you get this very beneficial treatment.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Romney's campaign did not respond to NPR's questions about his retirement account. But his taxes have been dogging the candidate since the GOP primary. At an NBC debate in January, Romney argued there's nothing wrong with minimizing taxes.

MITT ROMNEY: I pay all the taxes that are legally required, and not a dollar more. I don't think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Romney was equally aggressive towards taxes in the business world. For years, he was the director of Marriott International, the hotel company founded by his namesake, Willard Marriott. Kleinbard, who worked on Wall Street and served as chief of staff for Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation, says Marriott had a reputation.

ED KLEINBARD: Marriott was always a tax shelter promoter's first call. Marriott was one of those companies that just loved to buy tax shelters.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Bloomberg reported this year on one Marriott tax shelter known as Son of BOSS. It involved creating paper losses to offset taxes on real income. The IRS challenged the shelter, and Marriott lost in court. The company was forced to pay $29 million. Kleinbard notes when the shelter was adopted, Romney was the chair of Marriott's audit committee.

ED KLEINBARD: It's the job of the chair of the audit committee of Marriott to say, wait a minute, just because we have an opinion from Wynken, Blynken & Nod saying that this is a terribly clever idea, I need to apply some common sense.

SCOTT HORSLEY: A statement from Marriott says the company only engages in tax deals it believes are lawful.

If the subject of this story were a leftist, NPR would call this tying Romney to Marriott "guilt by association," not only business association, but Mormon association.

Don't hold your breath for the NPR story evaluating Obama's tax returns. These experts would probably salute it as the work of a model citizen.

 

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis