Dec. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire who is by far the wealthiest of the Republican presidential candidates, said he has no plans to release his income tax returns if he wins his party’s nomination, setting himself apart from past nominees in both parties who have routinely done so.
Romney, whose most recent disclosure in August estimated his personal wealth at as much as $250 million, said Dec. 22 he had already released extensive financial information and had no “current plans” to make his tax returns public.
If the former Massachusetts governor wins the nomination and sticks to his plan, he would be one of the only presidential nominees in the last three decades to withhold his income tax return. While income tax information is private and there is no legal obligation to disclose it, presidents and nominees for the office have regularly done so since the 1970s.
“We follow the tax laws, and if there’s an opportunity to save taxes, we -- like everybody else in this country -- will follow that opportunity,” Romney told reporters in Lancaster, New Hampshire, according to a partial transcript of his remarks provided by his campaign.
“Down the road, we’ll see what happens if I’m the nominee,” he added, saying that while he had no “immediate plans” to release tax returns, “that may change in the future.”
The day before, he had been more definitive in an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, saying “I doubt it,” when asked about releasing his tax return, and adding, according to a transcript: “I don’t intend to release the tax returns.”
‘Different Set of Rules’
President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign swiftly criticized Romney on the issue.
“Why does Governor Romney feel like he can play by a different set of rules?” Ben LaBolt, Obama’s campaign spokesman, said in a statement. “What is it that he doesn’t want the American people to see? Previous candidates have disclosed their returns so Americans could be aware of potential conflicts of interest and gauge whether a candidate had gamed the tax system to their advantage.”
Then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, were exceptions in 2000, both releasing only partial returns. In 2003, before their re-election bid, they released their full returns.
Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent in 2004, also released part of his wife’s tax return after his campaign came under pressure to disclose details of her personal fortune, which was helping to fund his bid. Kerry, who had released his own full return, released portions of the tax return of Teresa Heinz Kerry -- heiress to a fortune estimated at $500 million -- three weeks before the election.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee whose wife, Cindy, is also an heiress, released a portion of her tax return a few weeks before that year’s election.
Paul Caron, a tax law professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, said a refusal by Romney as a presidential nominee to make his income tax return public likely would “become a narrative that sets him up really badly” in the campaign and he’d have to back down eventually.
“It’s sort of unsustainable -- it flies in the face of an awful lot of history,” said Caron, who edits the TaxProf Blog. “As one of the wealthier folks to ever run, there’s probably a heck of a lot there that he’s not excited about having analysts be able to comb over, so it makes a lot of sense that he’s wary of doing it.”
A $10,000 Bet
Romney has drawn criticism for appearing out of touch with ordinary Americans because of his affluence, particularly after a rhetorical flourish he used in a Dec. 10 televised debate in which he offered Texas Governor Rick Perry a $10,000 wager while defending his health-care record.
Obama’s campaign and Romney’s Republican primary opponents ridiculed him for the bet. He has also come under scrutiny for the way he earned his fortune -- as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital LLC, where he bought and sold companies to make money for investors and sometimes eliminated jobs in the process. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia suggested last week that Romney might return the money he made “bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain.”
Romney said on Dec. 18 that if he wins the nomination, he knows that a photo in which he appears grinning with other Bain executives posing with cash spilling out of their hands, jackets and mouths will come back to haunt him. Some Democrats call the 1980s-era image the “Gordon Gekko” photo, referring to the antihero in the 1987 film “Wall Street” whose character is the personification of greed run amok.
Romney said on “Fox News Sunday” that if he is the nominee, he expects that free enterprise will be “on trial” in his contest with Obama.
The Democratic National Committee this week started a website, www.whatmittpays.com, that calls attention to the 15 percent tax rate -- far less than the top 35 percent rate the wealthiest Americans owe on some of their income -- that executives at private-equity companies like Bain pay on their investment profits, known as “carried interest.” Obama has proposed closing what critics call the “carried interest loophole,” which also benefits hedge-fund managers.
“Want to know why Mitt Romney won’t release his tax returns?,” the Democrats’ site says. “Well, one of the reasons is that he probably pays less taxes than you do.”
After Romney made his latest comments, R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for Gingrich, contacted reporters unprompted to declare that if the former House speaker became the nominee, he planned to release his income tax returns.
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