Harold Ford has defended himself against carpetbagging by saying "I pay taxes there, and once you pay taxes there, you feel like a New Yorker." So why won't he say whether he's ever filed a New York tax return?
Could it be because, despite his protestations to be a real New Yorker, he filed in Tennessee — which has no income tax — right up until he decided to run for Senate in New York?
Ford, who is loudly and hamfistedly considering a Senate run despite the fact that he hasn't even lived here for a full year, claimed as recently as one month ago on his web site that he resided in Tennessee. In early 2007, he took a job at Merrill Lynch, and announced that he would keep offices in New York and Nashville. And just last month, in an interview with the New York Times, he claimed that he "moved" to New York shortly after losing his Tennessee Senate bid in November 2006. But he then immediately backtracked:
[M]oved is such a legal term. I was not a resident here yet until just last year, because I did not spend the requisite number of days here — being that the majority of time I still spent commuting between here and Nashville, and spending time in Tennessee.
Who knows where anybody lives these days with all these new legalisms like "moved"? If Ford wasn't a legal resident of New York until just last year — which means he wouldn't have to file a state tax return until April 15 of this year — then what's he talking about when he says he pays taxes "there"?
There are two possible answers:
1. You only have to pay full income tax in New York if you lived there for 184 or more days out of the year. If you split your time between two states, and spent 183 or fewer days in New York, you only have to pay New York income tax on "income you received from New York sources" for "services performed in New York state" [pdf]. This is almost certainly what Ford was talking about when he told the Times that he didn't spend "the requisite number of days" in New York to qualify as a resident until 2009 (which would mean, by the way, that the earliest Ford could have acquired legal residency would have been June 29, the 184th day of 2009—just eight months ago) . So if we assume that Ford didn't hit the magic number in 2007 and 2008, that means he was only required to pay New York taxes on his Merrill Lynch income for the days he worked in New York. The days he worked out of his Nashville office would have been tax-free, but he would have still had to file a New York tax return for part of his income. Unless! He could have arranged to have been paid by Merrill Lynch's Nashville office, and simply accounted for his New York days as business trips, thereby avoiding New York taxes altogether. Moreover, if he earned the majority of his compensation as a bonus, as is customary among banksters, it's unclear whether any portion of the bonus would have to be accounted for as New York income, especially if it were being paid by Merrill Lynch out of Tennessee.
2. Ford could have begun paying taxes on a quarterly basis as soon as he established residency last year. While he's been on salary at Merrill Lynch, Ford also earned a substantial freelance income as an MSNBC talking head. If MSNBC didn't withhold, taxes on that non-salary income would have to be paid on a quarterly basis, so—if Ford was able to shield his earnings from New York tax collectors until he actually moved here—he would have started making quarterly payments as soon as he established residency. Which would mean he actually has paid taxes as a New Yorker. It wouldn't, however, mean that he has filed a New York tax return—quarterly payments are like advances, and are paid before the actual annual return is filed in April. So he could have begun making quarterly estimated payments last year and still not have filed a return.
Ford could have spared us all this speculation if he had simply answered our very simple question: Has he ever filed a New York state tax return? We posed it to his publicist on Tuesday morning, and — though our question was acknowledged, and we reiterated it on Tuesday afternoon and Tuesday evening — we still don't have an answer.
Given Tennessee's generous tax laws, Ford would have been under substantial pressure to find a way to allocate as much of his income as possible to time spent there—in fact, his home state's lack of an income tax could explain the whole long-distance arrangement with Merrill. That's certainly how we'd try to do it. Then again, we're not running for Senate in New York.
UPDATE: A Ford spokeswoman has finally responded to our question: "He has paid New York taxes and if he becomes a candidate for Senate, he will file all necessary personal disclosure and tax forms that candidates are required to file." Which is another way of saying what Ford has already said—"I pay taxes there"—and doesn't at all answer the question we posed, which was "Has Harold Ford ever filed a tax return to the state of New York?" We've asked for clarification.