Except Mushrooms, Little Good Occurs in Darkness

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Donald Trump’s tax returns, his refusal to release them, and the publication last weekend of pages from his 1995 returns, have become a key campaign issue — as they should. The pages leaked to the New York Times indicate he took an $891 million loss that year, which could have erased 18 years’ worth of tax liability. The operative phrase here is “could have.” We voters do not know because Trump uses an ongoing audit as an excuse not to release his returns — the first candidate in four decades to not do so.

This is patently absurd. If you are running for any federal or state position, the law ought to require you to release your tax returns. If that bothers a potential candidate, then don’t run. These jobs pay decent money and will have no dearth of candidates. I would cut slack to civic-volunteer positions, such as school boards and city councils, maybe even county commissioners, who don’t make a lot of money. But not much slack. If a big city chooses to pay its council members a decent salary, the same rules should apply.

You have to follow the money. And if you cannot follow it, then we as voters, and us journalists, likely are missing key pieces of information.

I have battled my entire professional career in journalism for transparency in government. It started in the summer of 1982, when in my first week as managing editor of the San Augustine Rambler, I wrote an editorial castigating the city council and its attorney for illegally going into closed session. First, I stood up in chambers — 26 years old and filled with righteous indignation — and challenged the legality of the council meeting in secret. When the mayor — who was my landlord and next-door neighbor — and the city attorney, later a good friend, ignored me, I wrote an editorial that began with a line from the old Charlie Rich song: Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors. A bit hokey, admittedly. But the council, to my knowledge, never again met illegally. Both the mayor and attorney got it. We remained friends.

I still devote time as I can spare to fighting for transparency. I have served on the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas for nearly five years and am gearing up to contribute what time I can during the upcoming legislative session. There are some real heroes in this battle, who devote many hours and expertise to the cause, far more than me. Every legislative session brings new battles over adding loopholes to the Texas Public Information Act, giving public officials greater ability to keep records secret, to meet in secret, operate away from the sunlight. Nothing good grows in the dark except mushrooms, a line I cadged from somewhere.

This is not an ideological issue. Politicians of all leanings fall into the trap of believing they know better than the public, that there is no need to allow unfettered access to records. Happily, in Texas there are some strong champions for the public’s right to know, on both sides of the aisle. I am grateful to them for performing what is largely a thankless job, bucking the rising tide of secrecy.

A New York Times article last weekend noted that the Department of Justice has charged more than 7,000 state and local officials with corruption over the past few decades. That is partly because of human nature and in large part, I think, because most states have ridiculously lax financial disclosure laws. Some, as the Times article pointed out, held “only the loosest of definitions for financial interests.”

So, from the state house to the White House, we vote for candidates who largely release what they wish to in terms of financial disclosure, fulfilling the bare minimum at times, such as Mr. Trump. He did fill out a required disclosure form last year that showed he earned at least $615 million, according to the Times. But that form tells you nothing about how much he paid in taxes. He claimed in the first debate that a tax return will not tell you all that much. Like many of his statements, this is divorced from reality. The forms we fill out tell the government how much we made and what we owe, how much we donated to charities, and the deductions we took. They tell voters more than any other type of financial disclosure. If you are running for president, giving up that information should be part of the price you pay. The same holds for governor, senator, and any other job that holds great power and pays six figures.

Even if you don’t apparently need the money, as Mr. Trump claims.

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