Mitt Romney and his tax returns: Deja vu?

Don’t worry, everything is hunky-dory with his taxes, says Mitt Romney, who has brushed off requests to release any returns prior to 2010, despite the questions Vanity Fair and other media outlets have raised about his various investments.

I’m of mixed mind on this. On the one hand, I very much doubt this election will turn on anything we’ll learn if Romney releases more tax returns. That said, my view is that candidates for prominent offices should routinely release, say, five years of tax returns to give voters a thorough look at their finances. And you can learn some interesting things from tax returns. Like, say, that the Clintons claimed a deduction for donating Bill’s old underwear. (Yikes!)

On the state level, however, Ted Kennedy never released his tax returns, and neither has Deval Patrick. Truth be told, I don’t recall that ever having bothered their supporters very much.


But for long-time Romney-watchers, there’s another reason this issue is intriguing: As we in Massachusetts found out a decade ago, mysterious mistakes, misunderstandings, and misapprehensions — and even some mendacious misdirection — sometimes plague the Mittster when it comes to taxes and tax returns.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Let’s enter the political time machine for a trip back to 2002. Having won a gold managerial medal for his stewardship of the winter Olympics, Romney came back to Massachusetts raring to run for governor. He had the makings of a formidable candidate, and local Democrats knew as much. They began raising questions about whether, after his out-of-state stint readying the Winter Games, he met the residency requirement to run for governor.

How Romney had filed his Massachusetts income taxes — as a resident or non-resident — during his years in Utah could have had some bearing on the issue. Since he had also been contemplating a run for office in Utah, some suspected he might have filed as resident there to establish more permanent roots in the Beehive State.

Romney initially refused to make a copy of his Massachusetts tax returns public, even a copy with the income information redacted. Suspicions only grew more intense after the Globe’s Frank Phillips reported that Romney had paid property taxes on his Park City, Utah, home as his primary residence for 1999, 2000, and 2001. Campaign aide Eric Fehrnstrom said that had happened because of a “clerical mistake” by the relevant county assessor’s office in Utah, an account that office pretty much backed up, though no one could say quite how the unusual error had occurred.

At the time of the property tax brouhaha, Romney told reporters he had filed his state income taxes “both as a resident of Utah and a resident of Massachusetts.” Pressed by Phillips, Fehrnstrom also insisted Romney had filed as a Massachusetts resident, adding that “you are just going to have to take my word for it.”


And how accurate were Romney and Fehrnstrom’s assertions? Well, though technically true, they stopped several fathoms short of being straightforward. We know that because, with state Democrats posed to push forward with a residency challenge, Romney suddenly reversed course. He called reporters to his campaign headquarters, where he acknowledged that he had initially filed his Massachusetts taxes as part-time resident for 1999 and a nonresident for 2000.

He had only amended those returns to “resident” in April of 2002, after deciding to run for governor here. Claiming he had always intended to return to Massachusetts, Romney said he had come to realize he should have filed as a resident when discussing the state’s election laws with his attorneys.

Now, my view was and is that the State Ballot Commission made the right decision in rejecting the Democratic Party challenge. In a state that needs two-party competition, Romney was easily the best Republican candidate on the horizon.

Still, the episode was an eye-opener. It showed that trying to pin Romney down on a nettlesome issue could be like trying to pin a drop of mercury to a sheet of waxed paper. And it presented a revealing look at the less-than-candid way Romney and team would sometimes operate.

So do I believe Romney’s reassurance that there’s nothing amiss with his federal tax returns? I’d like to, but on this one, I’ll take my cue from the Gipper: I’ll trust that assertion when I can verify it.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globescotlehigh.