Undercurrents: Why I Didn’t Write About Dellums’ Tax Troubles

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 08:55:00 AM

Someone identifying himself as Javier Melendez took me to task in last week’s letters column for my failing to take Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums to task for the mayor’s recently reported tax difficulties. I quote the relevant parts in whole: 

“It’s clear to all that [the Berkeley Daily Planet is] not getting anywhere near the support from contributions that you think you should have,” Mr. Melendez writes. “Your handling of the Dellums tax issue is a great reason why. Your paper has no fairness or integrity. There has been absolutely no mention from your staff about the ridiculous situation that the mayor of Oakland is a tax cheat. And J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, who has been such a Dellums apologist, who immediately challenges the Chron’s Chip Johnson anytime he writes negatively about Dellums, has been so silent on this issue. One has to wonder if Allen-Taylor is on Dellum’s payroll.” 

While the Daily Planet is well capable of defending its own actions, I will only say that news coverage of the City of Oakland pretty much ceased in the paper’s news columns following October’s severe reduction in reporting staff. As for what I do in my column, it is true that I have not commented on Mr. Dellums’ personal tax situation, nor do I intend to do so now. If you’d like, I’ll explain why. 

American journalism took two distinct turns for the worst in our lifetime: the first following the Watergate article series by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and the second following the rash of media reports that exposed the extramarital affair of then-Democratic Party presidential primary favorite Sen. Gary Hart. Though legitimate stories in their own right, these two series of stories had an unfortunate spinoff. They ushered in an era in which too many reporters and too many media outlets focused almost entirely on “gotcha journalism” or “bedroom window journalism” or “garbage can journalism” or “smoking gun journalism,” in which they try to bring down a politician or administration—or make their journalistic reputations—by uncovering some personal impropriety. 

I decided very long ago that this is not the type of journalist I wanted to be, or the type of journalism I wanted to practice. And so I set two personal standards for my columns and my reporting. First, I write about personal transgressions—that is, actions that are entirely outside the realm of an officeholder’s official responsibilities—only when those transgressions have some clear and definable effect upon official duties. And while I enjoy speculating about political motives and moves, which is often what political commentary consists of, I don’t write about personal matters or motivations—even those that actually bear upon official duties—unless it’s based upon verifiable facts. That’s how I wrote about Oakland under Jerry Brown. That’s how I write about Oakland under Ron Dellums. 

That framework having been set, let’s move to the allegations of Mr. Dellums’ tax improprieties that have gotten Mr. Melendez in such an uproar. 

As far as I can determine, the story on the Dellums tax problems was first revealed on Nov. 2 by East Bay Express investigative reporter Bob Gammon, who wrote: 

“Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and his wife Cynthia Dellums owe at least $239,000 in back income taxes, according to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. ... The IRS says the Dellumses failed to pay enough personal income taxes in 2005, 2006 and 2007. On Oct. 14, the IRS placed an official lien for failure to pay adequate taxes in each of those years, according to records filed with the Alameda County Recorder’s Office. Typically such liens remain in place until the back taxes are paid off.” 

In a statement made through his spokesman Paul Rose, Dellums disputed that he and his wife owe as much money as the IRS contends, although he acknowledged that they have not paid as much taxes as they should have. ‘There are previous disagreements with the IRS, regarding the amount owed,’ Dellums said. ‘The issue is being addressed and the matter will be resolved in short order.’ [A] spokesman for the Bay Area office of the IRS declined to comment on the Dellumses’ case, citing the agency’s rules on taxpayer confidentiality.” 

Mr. Gammon’s piece was certainly a legitimate story, as were the follow-up stories in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune. 

As I could determine from the small amount of information actually released in the three stories, however, there is no issue of public funds or public administration involved, only the matter of a dispute and non-payment of personal taxes. 

Had this matter come to the surface in 2005 or 2006, during the “Draft Dellums” movement or the Oakland mayoral election, it certainly would have had some relevance and weight in the choice for Oakland’s next mayor, in my mind. Before that time, though he had served in public office from 1967 through 1997, Mr. Dellums had never held sole administrative authority over a governmental budget. In 2006, therefore, it would have been a legitimate question to ask if a man who was having difficulties—whatever the nature of those difficulties—with the management of his personal budget could handle the responsibility of the City of Oakland’s budget. 

Since that time, however, we have an ample record of the handling of Oakland’s budget by Mr. Dellums. He has submitted three separate city budgets—in 2007, 2008, and 2009—and overseen the management of Oakland’s budget and finances during those years, as well as introduced proposals for severe mid-year budget deficits in 2008 and 2009. In addition, the Dellums administration put through the controversial Measure Y financial swap—since ruled illegal by a district judge—that led to the full staffing of the Oakland Police Department. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Dellums’ three-year record of budgeting and administration—good or bad—there is a record of the managing of Oakland’s public finances upon which the mayor can be judged upon, well, how he manages Oakland’s public finances. 

It is for these reasons that—rather than commenting on the limited facts presently available about Mr. Dellums’ personal tax problems—I spent the last two weeks writing columns concerning the Dellums administration’s proposals to close Oakland’s current $18.8 million budget gap, a portion of those columns which were decidedly critical of those proposals. 

That is why I pay little attention when I am called a “Dellums apologist,” as Mr. Melendez does in his letter. What these folks appear to be looking for is not reasoned criticism but loud and frequent denunciation of favored targets. In their world, consistency is only honored if it involves the consistency of continually attacking the favorite object of attack. 

And so I am not going to accede to Mr. Melendez’ wishes and write about the Dellums’ personal tax problems. 

If I were to write about that subject, I would say that Mr. Melendez is completely off base in concluding that “the mayor of Oakland is a tax cheat.” My definition of a “tax cheat” is one who willfully hides income or inflates deductions for the express purpose of knowingly avoiding the payment of taxes that are legally due. There is no evidence—based upon the three stories released in the Express, the Chronicle, and the Tribune—that this was the case. Where our friends at the IRS believe that someone is knowingly cheating on their taxes, the tools of rectification in their box are far less benevolent, and include garnishment of wages, the actual seizing of assets, and imprisonment. A lien upon personal or real property—as occurred in the Dellums case—appears to be the method the IRS uses to make sure the funds in dispute are secured and available to be paid if the IRS prevails in a dispute over taxes. I suspect these types of disputes and this type of securing-of-eventual-payment methods are far more widespread than the public believes, and are routinely handled and settled one way or the other and moved on, and this particular case has become something of an issue of public concern only because Mr. Dellums is a public figure, and not necessarily because there is any intrinsic public policy issue involved. 

I don’t know the nature of the tax dispute between Mr. and Ms. Dellums and the IRS, just as I don’t know the details concerning a similar IRS lien recently placed on the property of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over a $79,000 tax dispute. But since neither the Dellums nor the Schwarzenegger tax disputes or liens have so far involved allegations of fraud, and since both appear to involve personal rather than public funds, they only become relevant to an assessment of the Dellums or Schwarzenegger administrations if we choose to make it so. 

Respectfully, I don’t so choose. You, of course, are free to make your own choice, and I won’t accuse you of being on somebody or other’s payroll, whichever choice you make. As I said, that’s not the type of journalism I choose to practice.