Lawmakers still late paying taxes

As Georgians face Tuesday’s tax deadline, state legislators continue to have problems paying on time.

Seven months ago, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the government had filed liens for overdue taxes against one in five state legislators at some time in their past. Most had paid them off, but nearly a third of those representatives and senators had outstanding tax bills at the time.

Nine of them appear to still owe on those liens, according to court records.

In addition, the AJC has determined that new liens have been filed against 14 legislators, their businesses or their spouses since the newspaper’s report in September. They owe a total of $92,289 in past-due taxes, penalties and fees.

“I am not surprised, but that’s the problem. I should be shocked, I should be running up and down my driveway screaming,” said Barbara Payne, executive director of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation. “It kind of sickens me that this behavior continues.”

Legislators’ tax problems ranged from federal and state income taxes to local property taxes. And like the last time the AJC investigated, there were excuses. Some claimed ignorance of the lien, some blamed the economy, and some had nothing to say.

“This lien has been satisfied. I have no further comment,” Rep. Virgil Fludd, D-Tyrone, said in an email when asked about a lien filed against him in December by the Georgia Department of Revenue.

The lien asserts Fludd failed to pay $898 in state income taxes from 2010. Fludd had a similar lien placed against him in 2007, which he paid off in 2009, records show.

He is a five-term member of the House and sits on the Ways and Means Committee, which deals with tax legislation.

While Fludd said he has paid off the new lien, court records show the lien as active. Fludd’s name is not on a Revenue Department list of late payers. Tax officials will not comment on the status of individual taxpayers’ filings.

Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, also declined to comment on his latest federal tax liens. The IRS filed a lien in September for $5,715 on back taxes for 2006 and 2009. On the federal liens, he told the AJC last fall that he has an “arrangement with the federal government,” but he wouldn’t describe the terms of the arrangement or say whether he had paid on his bill.

Fort, who serves on the Senate Appropriations and Judiciary committees, has had more than $50,000 in state and federal liens in recent years, although records show he paid off his state liens.

‘This is a basic obligation’

House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, said negative publicity has helped cut down on the number of lawmakers not paying their taxes on time. For instance, only a few years ago, almost one in 10 lawmakers owed state income taxes.

“We should be held to a higher standard,” Wilkinson said. “But this isn’t even a higher standard. This is a basic obligation of every citizen.”

Many of the legislators contacted by the AJC vowed to clear the debt.

Chatham County filed a $2,689 lien against Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, for 2011 property taxes in February. Jackson said, “When we found out about it, we paid it.”

A copy of the tax receipt showed Jackson, a dentist, paid off the lien Tuesday afternoon after being told that the AJC wanted to talk to him about it. Jackson has had liens on that same property for each of the past five tax years, according to court records. He has paid off each lien.

The largest lien on the House side was filed against Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, for $29,795 in federal income tax for 2010. Abrams and her accountant both said the lien was filed in error.

“It was a mistake on the IRS’ part, and they have acknowledged that,” Abrams said. She is a tax attorney.

The lien was filed Feb. 7, and Abrams paid it off March 1, records show.

She said she has filed revisions to several federal tax returns to claim her parents as dependents.

Abrams’ parents are ministers on the Gulf coast and were financially wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and then medically disabled in separate incidents. Abrams said she has been supporting them for several years but not claiming the deduction on her taxes.

John Briggs, an Atlanta accountant Abrams hired to help her file the amended returns, said Abrams’ tax files were supposed to be frozen while the returns were being processed. A paperwork processing error caused the lien to be filed, he said.

On the Senate side

A DeKalb County private school and child care center operated by the wife of Sen. Ronald Ramsey attracted $33,426 in property tax and federal income tax liens in the past six months — a continuation of tax problems that have bedeviled the business for years.

Ramsey, D-Lithonia, lists himself as general counsel for the company, known as the Kingdom Group, although his wife, Doris V. Carrington-Ramsey, said he has not played an active role in the business since he took office in 2007. State records show the group has received more than $1 million in state and federal funding since 2006.

The Kingdom Group has been making installment payments to the IRS to pay off previous liens totaling $173,000, and Ramsey’s wife said last fall that the downturn in the economy hurt enrollment at the school.

She said the latest IRS liens are being paid off as part of her agreement with the federal government. She said her DeKalb County property assessment has been revised, and she is making payments on that debt as well. She said the balance currently owed the county is $14,536.13.

“I am solely responsible for all tax matters, and I plan to completely resolve them in the near future,” she said.

Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, blamed an ongoing legal struggle for a $1,311 lien filed against him by the city of St. Marys on property he owns with former state Rep. Cecily Hill of Kingsland.

His lawyer, Steven Scheer of Savannah, said the land is involved in a lawsuit. Scheer said he has instructed Carter not to pay the taxes until it can be determined how much the senator owes. According to the lien document, the property owners owe the city $4,688 in unpaid taxes, penalties, interest and court costs over the past three years.

‘Having hard times’

Several legislators pointed to the sour economy for their troubles.

Rep. Wayne Howard, D-Augusta, said his family’s upholstery business is struggling, but he is taking care of the overdue property tax bill.

“It will be paid out the next month or so,” he said. “We have to make ends meet.”

Howard said the original $1,904 bill has been paid down to $837.

When it comes to paying taxes, he said legislators should be held to the same standard as anyone else “and sometimes higher.” But sometimes there is no option, he said.

“That’s the pill you have to swallow when you want to keep your doors open,” he said. “We’ve been around for 50 years or so, and it will be paid.”

Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, likewise pointed to tough economic times as a reason for his tax liens.

Talton was among the worst offenders when the AJC last looked at liens placed on state lawmakers, with dozens of outstanding liens on rental houses he owned in Houston County.

Since the original story ran, court records show, Talton paid $17,149 in back taxes, penalties and interest, satisfying 35 of the liens. He had no new liens.

“I’m just trying to take care of my obligations,” he said, adding that he was having trouble collecting rent from his tenants. “They are having hard times. They are not paying.”

‘We took care of it’

Here is a selection of other legislators with liens and their comments:

-- Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany. A $1,278 property tax bill was mailed to the wrong address, he said. Dukes discovered the lien, on a piece of investment property he bought in Atlanta, last month while preparing his income taxes and paid it off.

-- Rep. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, blamed user error in filing her 2009 taxes using a tax preparation program. She said she was unaware of a $1,448 state tax lien until the AJC informed her. “I’m on it and getting this matter resolved,” she said. “Whether I was an elected official or not, this is something that is important and should be taken care of.”

-- Rep. Alisha Morgan, D-Austell. She said the $3,412 in unpaid state income taxes owed by her husband, Cobb County school board member David Morgan, was news to both of them. David Morgan provided documents Friday showing he had paid the taxes and satisfied the lien.

“We were not aware of that lien,” she said. “As soon as we were aware of it, we took care of it. We take our positions in public service seriously.”

-- Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur. DeKalb County filed a lien for $3,113 in past-due property taxes against Benfield’s husband, attorney Robert Benfield, for a house he owns. Benfield said she has nothing to do with the property, which her husband acquired before they met. Robert Benfield said he successfully appealed the county’s valuation of the property and was billed a lesser amount. He was unaware of the lien and unsure why the county filed it.

“My wife is pretty squeaky clean. I am, too. You’re talking to an Eagle Scout,” he said. “I plan to take care of it.”

He provided a receipt showing payment made Thursday of $2,859 in taxes on the property.

Payne, of the taxpayers group, said legislators have a heightened responsibility to make sure taxes get paid.

“If you are an elected official, you shouldn’t be given any leeway,” Payne said. “If I was the governor, I would be slapping the wrist of elected officials who are not paying their taxes.”

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