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Candidates and Tax Returns

April 17, 2002

One thing wealthy people often fail to understand when they run for high public office is that they forfeit a share of their personal privacy. That seems to be the case with Bill Simon Jr., the Republican nominee for governor. A Simon spokesman says the candidate does not intend to make his income tax return public because "we just feel he deserves some privacy."

It's hard to dispute such a bland statement, but Simon's income is a matter of public concern. Is there a potential conflict of interest in a candidate's financial holdings? How would he or she deal with that if elected?

The public has a right to judge for itself whether the candidate paid a fair share of income taxes or took advantage of legal but sleazy shelters and deductions.

Simon aides say they met the law by filing a statement of economic interest with the Fair Political Practices Commission. That's true. But the information required is so vague as to be virtually meaningless. The candidate must note only whether the investment fell in one of three brackets: $1,000 to $10,000, $10,001 to $100,000 or more than $100,000.

In fact, Simon did not file his tax return Monday but requested a 90-day delay because of the complexity of his finances. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat seeking reelection, did file and sought to make some political hay of the fact that Simon did not. But the joint return filed by Davis and his wife, Sharon, provided some cautionary information on Davis too.

Their return shows that Sharon Davis earned $37,000 last year as a director and consultant for Golden State Food, a company owned by billionaire Ron Burkle, a major Davis patron. Although there was no secret about Sharon Davis' work, that knowledge puts civic watchdogs on alert for any Davis action that might be seen as favoring Burkle.

If the state demanded more detailed information on its disclosure form, it might not be so urgent that the public examine tax returns. Such strengthening is not likely soon, so Simon should prepare to release his tax return when he does file for 2001.

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