New York state could be the vehicle for Congress to get ahold of President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
A smattering of bills from Democratic state lawmakers—the latest of which was introduced April 8—would allow for the release of his state filings, providing a window into the president’s personal, corporate, and real estate dealings while efforts to obtain his federal tax returns continue.
With his businesses based in New York, the state tax return would provide a “basic understanding of the structure of his empire,” Richard D. Pomp, the Alva P. Loiselle Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said in an April 8 interview.
“How much revenue is coming in, from what sources, what are this expenses, what are the salaries, there could be information on foreign activities,” Pomp said. “It depends on how detailed the New York state tax return is.”
The returns “may prove to be disappointing or they may prove to be a loadstar of information. But we won’t know that until we get them,” he said.
The most recent bill (S. 5072), introduced by state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D), would create an exemption to the state’s current tax law, which prohibits the sharing of tax return information, except under certain circumstances. Under the exemption, the state would be authorized to share state tax returns upon request from a congressional committee, if the information is for a specified and legitimate legislative purpose.
The push comes after acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, speaking April 7 on “Fox News Sunday,” vowed that Democrats will never see Trump’s tax returns. “That’s an issue that was already litigated during the election. Voters knew the president could have given his tax returns. They knew that he didn’t and they elected him anyway,” he said.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D) last week requested copies of Trump’s tax returns, which he is authorized to do under federal law. Neal asked Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig to turn over the returns by April 10.
The White House on April 8 declined to comment on the bills introduced in New York state. William Consovoy, Trump’s personal attorney, has said that it is Trump’s right as a citizen to keep his returns private.
The New York state bill is the latest of three proposals from Hoylman in an effort to obtain Trump’s filings, one of which has backing from some lawmakers in both houses.
The bill (A. 1390/S. 2271), sponsored by Assemblyman David Buchwald (D), directs the state Department of Taxation and Finance to release the state income tax returns for the last five years of statewide elected officials, which would include Trump.
Hoylman’s third bill (S. 32A), would require the disclosure of tax returns by candidates for president and vice president in order to appear on a New York ballot. Similar legislation has been passed in several states and is currently making its way through the legislative process in New Jersey and California.
“They’re three different approaches that I think accomplish more or less the same goal, which is to make certain that presidential candidates and holders of the highest office in the land subscribe to tax transparency,” Hoylman said.
Hoylman, Buchwald, and several other members of the New York Senate and Assembly held a news conference April 8 at the state Capitol in Albany, to emphasize the importance of releasing the information.
“We’re not seeking the president’s cooperation. We’re not looking to the IRS to turn over a copy of returns,” Buchwald said. “There’s a copy of President Trump’s New York state tax returns right here in New York state in an office somewhere, and the only thing that prevents that state income tax return from being made public is a state statute that we, the state legislature, have the power to amend.”
Buchwald said the “NY TRUTH Act” has support from 93 of the 150 members in the Democrat-controlled Assembly and from 32 of the 63 members in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Buchwald said he was looking at Hoylman’s newest bill and would decide whether to be its sponsor in the Assembly.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who has been an outspoken critic of Trump, hasn’t publicly weighed in on the proposals.
“Transparency and disclosure is vital, but tax return privacy is also important and we should not politicize the process—however Governor Cuomo believes elected officials on all levels should be prepared to release their taxes if they enter public service and he would include state and local, as well as federal officials, in any legal revision,” Rich Azzopardi, senior advisor to the governor, said in an April 8 statement.
Edward Cox, chairman of the New York State Republican Party, described Hoylman’s bill as “a carefully disguised bill of attainder directed at one man but they are desperately trying to draft a bill that doesn’t look like it’s focused just on the president.”
Any congressional committee that gets ahold of Trump’s tax returns can’t be trusted to keep it confidential, Cox said. “I don’t care what the confidentiality agreements are of any committee, they would leak them out or at least selectively leak them out because they are afflicted with ‘Trump Derangement Syndrome,’” he said.
Cox said Trump is a businessman and has a right to keep his tax returns confidential.
Hoylman and Buchwald said the matter goes above political party lines and the importance of transparency.
The approach taken by the lawmakers in changing laws to address all elected officials is “safer,” Pomp said. “That way you’re getting a larger group of people and politically it just looks better than we’re trying to nail the president.”
Along with calls for the release of Trump’s state tax returns, the New York state tax department in October opened an investigation into his past filings following publication of a New York Times investigation into his financial history. The department April 8 didn’t immediately return a request for comment on whether the investigation is ongoing.
State Attorney General Letitia James in March opened a civil investigation into Trump’s business dealings.
“Attorney General James supports the goals of this legislation and efforts for greater transparency and accountability,” according to an April 8 statement from her office. “She has personally abided by this principle, voluntarily releasing years of her own tax returns.”
The office didn’t comment on whether she’s prepared to defend it should the matter end up in court.
Pomp said the matter will certainly be challenged.
“We’re in for a battle and it’s not going to happen overnight,” Pomp said. “Will it happen before the 2020 election is the question, and then how many minds will be changed if there are tax evasion charges brought by New York state?”
—With assistance from Henry Goldman (Bloomberg).