Measure to give Ga. Senate more power over members who fall behind on taxes fails

ATLANTA — A push to give the Georgia Senate more power over members who fall behind on paying their taxes failed Thursday after a very personal speech from state Sen. Robert Brown of Macon.

Brown, also the Senate’s Democratic minority leader, said he was near death and in the hospital for months in 2007. His business ran aground and tax problems followed, he said. Brown said earlier in the week that he hasn’t filed state or federal income taxes in at least the past two years.

Every tax case is different, and legislators shouldn’t be subject to extra rules that ordinary taxpayers aren’t, Brown said Thursday. Other senators against the bill said the Georgia Department of Revenue makes too many mistakes to be relied on when trying to remove someone from office.

Brown also chastised state Sen. Eric Johnson during his speech, calling the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor a “bloodsucker” pandering to voters. It was Johnson who proposed stronger punishments — to be meted out by the Senate itself — for senators who owe back taxes.

“This is nothing but a political move by somebody who is desperately running (for office),” Brown said from the well of the Georgia Senate. “He doesn’t care who he runs over.”

“This is not a witch hunt,” Johnson said as he explained his legislation.

“Ha! Ha! Ha!” Brown burst out from the back of the normally reserved Senate chamber.

Johnson, R-Savannah, is chairman of the Senate’s Ethics Committee. He made his proposal after news broke that 19 state legislators failed to file for their taxes in at least one year going back to 2002. He sought to clarify Senate rules on misconduct, and a similar discussion is under way in the House of Representatives.

Johnson’s measure was approved by most senators Thursday afternoon but did not achieve the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

The list of legislators with tax issues has now risen to 22, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue. Only three of them have been named because of privacy laws, and few details have been given about their specific tax issues. It hasn’t been confirmed that Brown is on the list, but he volunteered some information to argue against Johnson’s proposal Thursday.

Also Thursday, The Associated Press named three of the legislators with tax problems. All three are House Democrats, and their names are public record because a garnishment or lien has been filed against them. The other names are not public because their cases haven’t gotten that far.

That can take months, even years, as various legal arguments are exhausted.

“That’s what happened with some of the legislators,” Georgia Department of Revenue spokesman Charles Willey said. “They have used the system. They know how to use the system.”

The Associated Press named state Reps. Al Williams, Winfred Dukes and Roberta Abdul-Salaam, as owing back taxes. Williams, D-Midway, told the AP that the department had made a mistake. Dukes, D-Albany, said there was a misunderstanding and that he sent the state a check for his taxes Thursday morning. Abdul-Salaam was not at the Legislature on Thursday and was not reached for comment, the AP reported.

Several legislators have complained about the department’s record keeping. State Sen. Doug Stoner, D-Smyrna, said his father has been battling with “our illustrious Department of Revenue that never makes a mistake.”

He said the department has “the worst record-keeping system in the state,” and a “commissioner who obviously can’t run his own department.” An attempt to reach a department spokesman or Commissioner Bart Graham after Stoner’s late afternoon remarks was not successful.

During most of his speech, Brown attacked Johnson on several fronts. He spoke of the senator’s push in 2007 to have the General Assembly apologize for slavery. He said that, if Johnson was interested in slavery, he should take a bunch of American gang members to Africa “and tell them to free those slaves that are digging the gold that they have in our mouths.”

On the Senate video boards, Brown put up a picture of Johnson smiling and holding the former Georgia flag with both hands above his head. That flag prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem and the picture was apparently taken during a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah.

“I wanted you to see what he wears when he goes to parades,” Brown said after his speech.

Said Johnson: “I don’t know what that had to do with anything. It was the official flag of the state of Georgia in a parade.”

“This is about paying taxes,” Johnson said of his measure. “It’s not about personalities. It’s not about politics.”

Brown gave only a few details about his tax situation and refused after his speech to clarify various details, such as how much money he may owe, what years he failed to file tax returns and for what years he received extensions.

But from the well, he was forthcoming about the health problems that in 2007 kept him from running for mayor of Macon. He did not identify his sickness but said a routine checkup ended when a nurse told him he needed “to go to the hospital right now.”

After he arrived, hospital workers were asking him who to contact as next of kin, he said.

“I gave them that information, and two weeks later was when I realized that I was still in the world,” Brown said.

Brown said he spent more than three months in the hospital, that his weight got down to about 100 pounds and that he had to learn how to walk and talk again in rehabilitation.

He said “100 percent” of his core employees left his business, that “funds absconded” and documents disappeared. His accountant had nothing left to prepare tax returns with, so an extension was requested, Brown said.

“Even your kin folks will steal from you if they think you’re dead and dying,” Brown told the Senate.

“How many people may not be deliberately avoiding taxes?” he asked. “So I simply held myself out as an example.”

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.