In this business, one story often begets another. So it is with my story today on the failure of Common Council Members Damone Smith and Bonnie Russell to pay their state income taxes.
As you may recall, I did a story on the liens filed against six of the nine candidates seeking the vacant Ellicott District seat, which was prompted by an anonymous source mailing me a copy of a tax lien filed against one of them. It prompted me to background all nine candidates.
No sooner was the ink dry on that story than someone else sent me a tax lien filed against one of the current Council members. I again cast a wider net, looking at all nine members.
My research showed that only two had had liens filed against them -- Smith, who represents the Masten District, and Russell, who represents University. In both instances, the liens included tax warrants filed for failure to pay personal state income taxes. That's pretty serious, given that Council members have taxing and budgeting powers.
I've found in my years of reporting that when you find a lien, you often find other issues, so I dug a little deeper, and sure enough, there was more there.
Not all that much on Russell -- three instances where the state suspended her car registration for lapsed insurance.
Smith was another matter.
I learned his campaign habitually fails to file his financial disclosure reports on time with the state Board of Elections. The board has obtained three judgments against him totaling $1,282, none of which he has paid.
This is bad. Not just just because of the pattern, but because Smith is president of Grassroots, the largest political club on the East Side, the one aligned with Mayor Byron Brown.
How can you head a major political organization and be so lax about following election laws?
What does that say about Smith's judgment? Or that of Grassroots, for putting him in charge?
The reaction each Council member had to my inquiry was interesting.
Russell was very open with me, much more than the typical politician. And she didn't dispute that people have a right to be upset with her. All very atypical.
The primary thing I wanted to know was just how much the state determined he owed in unpaid taxes once his protests were adjudicated. The figure was presumably less than the $6,012 stated in the original lien. State officials told me they couldn't disclose what his adjusted tax liability was because of confidentiality laws, which meant I had to get it from Smith. I called his office and cell phone Thursday and Friday, and e-mailed him as well, seeking that number, but did not get a response. Smith had told me in an earlier interview that his protests had resulted in a determination that he had a refund coming, which was presumably applied against the lien. So, just how much he ended up owing the state, beyond the $89 he paid, only Smith is in a position to disclose, and he's yet to say.
Smith has a reputation of being a loose cannon on the Council, quick to turn combative, such as when he called his colleagues "tyrants and despots" when they passed over his favored candidate, the Rev. Darius Pridgen, in favor Curtis Haynes Jr. to fill the Ellicott District seat vacated by Brian Davis.
Smith was civil and mostly cooperative with me -- and I can't say that about everyone in the Bryon Brown crowd -- but I come away from my dealings with him thinking he doesn't have his act together.
There are the big things, like failing to file a tax return for nine years and habitually submitting campaign disclosures late. And, of course, the outbursts in Council chambers.
There are little signs, too.
He's the only Council member who doesn't make his home phone available to the public, and if you can get hold of his cell number, you find out there no way of getting message to him -- his voice mail box is full and not taking messages.
Not a big deal, but telling in its own small way. Kind of unprofessional.