WASHINGTON >> Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, offered this year's hopefuls advice about a hard-learned lesson: Release your tax returns before the primaries and avoid tough scrutiny later. But the top three Republicans leading in national polls don't appear to be listening.
Even as other candidates — most notably Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush — have already disclosed years' worth of private tax returns to dispel questions about their personal finances, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have failed to do the same despite promises to do so, sometimes after events that have now come and gone. None of the campaigns will say why they've delayed or when the candidates will release their returns.
The best explanation: It's postponing an unpleasant moment, said Joseph Thorndike, a contributing editor for Tax Notes who maintains the organization's tax history project.
"If you say you're going to do it, you've got to do it," Thorndike said. "I don't like the disingenuousness of 'we're working on it."' He said the candidates' tax returns for 2014 were long ago filed with the government.
The three Republican candidates have unequivocally said they will disclose their returns. Trump, who broke a promise in 2012 to disclose his returns if Obama produced his long-form birth certificate, said in January that he was preparing to release his "big returns." The Cruz campaign told the Dallas Morning News in April that Cruz would release his returns soon after they were filed, but he still hasn't. Shortly before Rubio filed his 2014 taxes last year, he told the Tampa Tribune that he would make them public.
The Republican candidates have company on the Democratic side: Bernie Sanders released only excerpts from his 2014 tax returns. The documents — along with separate financial reports filed with the Federal Election Commission— showed little in the way of assets and an income mostly limited to his $174,000 Senate salary and a $5,000 annual pension from being mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981 to 1989.
The most interesting of the returns will likely be Trump's, said Thorndike. Trump posted a photograph of himself on Twitter in October next to a stack of documents several feet tall.
"If Donald Trump's tax returns really are that big as the stack he had next to him, there's a lot going on in there," Thorndike said. Interpreting Trump's wealth likely won't be easy without access to the tax returns filed by his corporate entities, which Trump is unlikely to provide. But Trump's personal returns should shed light on how lucrative his business empire truly is.
It's impossible to definitively say what trouble the returns could cause each candidate, but a key interest for Trump and Cruz will be how much they gave to charity.
When Trump declared his candidacy last June, his campaign said he had given $100 million to charity over the previous five years. A review of the Donald J. Trump Foundation's finances by the AP, however, found that none of the money the foundation had given away over that period came from Trump. Trump could have channeled his philanthropy through some other means than the foundation, though the campaign declined to provide any information to the AP.
Charitable deductions could be revealing, too. Last January, Trump said he was permanently dedicating the driving range of his Rancho Palos Verdes, California, golf course to open space. Trump said that gift was worth $25 million. The AP's review, however, found that Trump had never indicated an intention to build on the land and couldn't have because of zoning laws.
Cruz's charitable donations could be as interesting. The Texas senator released five years of tax returns in January of 2012, revealing that the conservative Christian candidate and his wife had donated less than 1 percent of their $5 million income to charity. Cruz's stinginess was especially notable since he says that private charity — not government programs — is the best source of aid to the poor. The San Antonio Express News reported that Cruz and his wife had given no money to their church.
"All of us are on a faith journey, and I will readily admit that I have not been as faithful in this aspect of my walk as I should have been," Cruz told the Christian Broadcasting Network in January, noting that the previous disclosures didn't cover more recent contributions.
Tax returns also will offer a better understanding of income from the candidates' spouses. Cruz's wife, Heidi, was a former managing director at Goldman Sachs. Rubio's wife, Janet, worked at an events company that performed work for the family foundation of a major Rubio donor.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama was criticized for miserly charitable contributions in 2008, and Clinton's tax returns drew attention to her and Bill Clinton's accumulation of wealth from speaking fees. Romney's tax returns raised unpleasant questions about preferential tax policies for the rich and his use of offshore investment vehicles — as well as a protracted debate over whether he should release more information.
There is no legal requirement to share tax returns with the public, but every major party nominee since 1976 has done so — often well-before winning the nomination.
"Four years ago, we were freaking out at Romney about his tax returns," Thorndike said.