WASHINGTON — There may be no better way to determine whether a politician’s personal interests could pose a conflict than seeing his or her tax return. Yet, as is the case in many congressional campaigns, none of New Hampshire’s Senate candidates have agreed to release their returns.
The Globe and New Hampshire television station WMUR made separate requests to review six years of returns, the length of a Senate term, this month. The candidates have not shut the door completely — offering caveats designed to put their opponents on the spot in their initial refusals. But as of Thursday morning, none had said yes.
Certain presidential appointees are routinely asked to share their tax returns as part of the confirmation process, and public disclosure has become a standard ritual in presidential campaigns. Though congressional candidates often deflect such requests, specialists and open government advocates say the case for personal financial transparency is growing stronger as the economy and tax system become more complex. The Center for Responsive Politics reported in January that, for the first time in history, the majority in Congress — at least 268 of 534 members then in office — were millionaires, according to 2012 financial disclosure forms.
“There’s so much money flowing around,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “It’s time for voters to ask for more information as to where they get their money from.”
The Globe reported this month that former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, now running for the Republican Senate nomination in New Hampshire, had received stock options once valued at $1.3 million for serving as an adviser to an obscure Florida company that had scant assets and no permanent office space. Brown has since resigned from the firm’s advisory board and relinquished his stock options, whose value had declined by about half in recent months.
Brown’s opponents have attacked him for failing to file a public financial disclosure with the Senate. Brown received an extension allowing him to wait until Aug. 9, one month before the Republican primary.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the Democratic incumbent, said in a statement from her campaign that “she will consider going above and beyond what’s required by law” once Brown files his financial disclosure. She later went a step further in a television interview.
“If they agree to release their tax returns, then that’s certainly something that we would do,” she told WMUR.
Brown’s Republican rivals, former state senator Jim Rubens and former US senator Bob Smith, also declined to release their returns, referring instead to their personal disclosure forms.
But those forms, though informative, have their limits. They do not reveal candidates’ tax rates. And candidates need only supply the range of their assets, mortgages, and investments, leaving lots of room for interpretation. Tax returns would show how income is managed and provide more specifics about investments.
For example, Shaheen and her husband reported assets last year worth between $3.7 million and $7.9 million. They reported liabilities of between $2 million and $4.2 million. In other words, they may be multimillionaires. Or they may be in debt by as much as $500,000.
Though Brown has taken most of the political hits on this issue, he is the only candidate to have revealed any of his prior tax returns. Brown allowed reporters to review six years’ worth of returns in 2012, when he was still in the Senate and facing a challenge from Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who unseated him. Warren would show four years of returns.
For Brown to comply with the more recent request, he would need to supply only two more years of returns, for tax years 2012 and 2013.
“We’ll take your further request for the last two years under advisement,” Brown’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Guyton, said in a recent e-mail. “By contrast, Senator Shaheen has never released any tax return information for any year at any time.”
The question of tax returns often gets caught up in such skirmishes, as candidates consider whether potential embarrassment from their own disclosure would outweigh their opponent’s embarrassment. In the 1994 Senate election, Republican Mitt Romney demanded that Edward M. Kennedy release his returns. When the Democratic incumbent refused, Romney decided to refrain from releasing his own returns.
“He was probably pretty confident when he challenged Kennedy, that Kennedy wouldn’t” release his returns, said Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University.
Fieldler said the issue came up repeatedly during more than his more than three decades as a political reporter and editor at the Miami Herald. Seldom, he said, do politicians willingly agree to give up their returns out of an earnest conviction. More often, they see a strategic advantage, he said.
Romney took more heat on the issue when he ran for president in 2012, agreeing under pressure to release two years’ worth of returns. Members of Congress, some of whom criticized Romney, fared much worse in the transparency test: In a survey that year, only 17 0f 535 members of Congress would agree to provide their own records to McClatchy Newspapers.