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Disappointed by Daschle 'tax problems'

South Dakotans have a right to feel terribly let down by Tom Daschle. The people who live in the other 49 states do, too.

Daschle seemed like a solid pick when President-elect Obama nominated him to be secretary of health and human services. The former South Dakota senator and Senate majority leader had won a reputation for earnestness and centrism during his time in office. He's still likely to be confirmed and may wind up being a fine Cabinet member.

But the news about Daschle's tax problems tarnish not only his reputation, but also the Obama administration's promise of integrity and change.

The words "tax problems" really don't do the issue justice. Start with the fact that Daschle accepted a Cadillac and driver for years without, he claims, thinking about the tax consequences. Those consequences include the failure to pay more than $100,000 in taxes on the service, based on the estimate that the value of the car and driver topped $225,000.

That's not a small mistake. If what Daschle says about the circumstances is true, it represents a kind of willful oversight and/or a sense of entitlement on the former senator's part, neither of which is an attractive trait.

Then there's the fact that Daschle was a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is the Senate committee charged with writing tax legislation. The committee routinely deals with the taxation of fringe benefits such as company cars and the like.

How is it that Daschle didn't know about an important tax law that his own committee had a hand in writing? Companies across America have groaned for years under the bureaucratic weight of these laws. For Daschle to help write such laws and then disregard them fulfills too many stereotypes of Washington insiders, insiders who blithely impose new rules but then see to it that the regs apply only to everyone else.

Then there's the fact that Daschle's tax problems go beyond his failure to report the car and driver -- pretty far beyond, in fact.

Daschle apparently failed to report $83,333 in consulting services income. He overstated his charitable deductions by some $15,000.

Moreover, "Daschle also may have been instrumental in the abuse of a charity," writes Jack Siegel, a lawyer, accountant and charity-governance consultant, on his blog,

Daschle traveled aboard a charity's corporate jet to speak to members of that charity's board. "One trip was to the Bahamas and the other one was to the Middle East.

"We are a bit troubled by a U.S. charity holding meetings outside the U.S. at desirable vacation locations. ...Travel on corporate jets and similar perks are perceived by the IRS to pose potential for abuse of charitable assets, thereby warranting special questions in Part I of Schedule J of the redesigned Form 990."

Last year, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa and the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, "investigated evangelical groups for what might be described as similar transgressions; the investigation highlighted the use of corporate airplanes," Siegel wrote.

"Can he ignore this conduct now that one of his former Senate colleagues is apparently feeding at the trough?"

Daschle has apologized for his transgressions, and that's all to the good. But if Daschle is confirmed, then it won't help the cause of serious health-care reform to know that its architect was so careless about his private financial life. -- Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald