When Leona Helmsley stiffed contractors working on her home in the 1980s, authorities investigated and ended up prosecuting her for tax evasion. At trial, a former housekeeper testified she heard the billionaire say, “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.”
Helmsley served 19 months in prison.
Billionaires these days are more skilled at stiffing “little people” and avoiding taxes. Instead of sending them to prison, we elect them governor of West Virginia — and president of the United States.
The Herald-Leader reported this week that coal companies controlled by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family still owe $2.9 million in delinquent property taxes in five Eastern Kentucky counties: Knott, Pike, Floyd, Magoffin and Harlan.
The “still owe” is significant. Herald-Leader reporter Bill Estep and other journalists have been chronicling Justice’s deadbeat ways for years and explaining how they hurt struggling school systems in poor counties.
For years Justice’s companies have gamed the system and failed to pay vendors, taxes, fines and mine reclamation costs despite lawsuits and court orders. It’s a business strategy. Forbes magazine estimates Justice’s net worth at $1.7 billion.
Did Gov. Matt Bevin or former Gov. Steve Beshear pick up the phone to ask Justice to pay up? Did any members of Congress from Kentucky mention it earlier this month when they attended a Republican retreat at Justice’s 11,000-acre Greenbrier Resort?
You or I couldn’t get away with this; our property would be seized and sold to pay our debts. But billionaires can afford better lawyers than we can.
You would think that a good prosecutor could have built enough of a case by now to at least force Justice to pay. But he has always been adept at working both sides of the political aisle. He was a Democrat until he was elected West Virginia’s governor in 2016, then he switched sides once Republicans gained control of government.
Maybe we should send a posse of newly armed Pike County teachers to Charleston to see if they can convince Justice to pay their school system and others what his companies owe. But that could be hard, because those teachers would have to get past all of the striking West Virginia teachers picketing the state Capitol.
West Virginians knew Justice’s history when they elected him, but it didn’t seem to matter. It also doesn’t seem to matter that an unrepentant Don Blankenship, who served a year in prison for conspiracy to violate safety laws at a coal mine where 29 miners were killed in 2010 explosion, is running for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. He is likely to get support from a lot of miners. Go figure.
But before we start feeling superior and making West Virginia jokes, Kentuckians should remember that this state voted heavily for President Donald Trump. That despite widespread reporting on his history of stiffing contractors and his refusal to release his tax returns, as every other candidate has for decades.
When an old Trump tax return was leaked, it showed how he benefits from tax breaks rich people lobby Congress to create. Thanks to the new GOP tax law he just signed, Trump and his fellow millionaires and billionaires and their companies will get huge windfalls while the rest of us get peanuts and our grandchildren get at least another $1 trillion of debt.
Paying taxes used to be considered a patriotic act. It was the debt we owe our country to help pay for defense and public safety, educate children, build infrastructure and a provide a safety net for the poor and unfortunate.
Now, the ethical bar is so low that wealthy people and politicians, especially conservative ones, can get away with almost anything. Trump even bragged that avoiding taxes “makes me smart.”
There’s an old saying: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
You could argue that wealthy people, even wealthy public officials, earned their riches and have every right to be selfish at the public’s expense. But before you do, remember this: That quote is not from a liberal politician or the Federal Tax Code. It’s from Jesus Christ, in the Bible.