WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Edwards got through last Thursday night's debate in Los Angeles, as he has his entire presidential campaign, without being asked an embarrassing question. How can he explain setting up a dummy corporation to avoid paying an estimated $290,000 in Medicare taxes in the two years before he ran for the Senate? It would be an embarrassing question for a self-described populist inveighing against privileges for the rich and powerful.
There were plenty of opportunities for Sen. John Kerry to bring this up during the debate's extended discussion of health care. Some of Kerry's key advisers worked on the 1998 North Carolina Senate campaign won by Edwards, when this issue was raised. But with Kerry on the brink of collecting a majority of delegates to guarantee the Democratic presidential nomination, he does not want to risk trouble with negative campaigning against his sole remaining serious opponent.
However, it is inconceivable that President Bush's crack researchers are not aware of the massive tax loophole utilized by Edwards, who is the clear consensus choice to be Kerry's vice-presidential running mate. Democrats, relishing thoughts of the attractive and charismatic Edwards face to face against Dick Cheney in debate, must ponder a better answer to the Medicare tax question than the senator gave six years ago.
At 9 a.m. on June 28, 1995, articles of incorporation were filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State for John R. Edwards, P.A. (professional association), of Raleigh, N.C. The new corporation was authorized to issue 100,000 shares of common stock -- all owned by Edwards, who is its only employee. This is a classic Subchapter "S" corporation devised to shelter income, mainly for professionals such as lawyers (and also syndicated columnists, but not me). It is one of the last loopholes left in the Internal Revenue Code, and it is a big one.
Edwards put his own little corporation to good use in his last two years as a multi-millionaire personal accident lawyer before becoming a full-time politician. He paid himself salaries of $600,000 in 1996 and $540,000 in 1997, on which he paid Medicare taxes. As the sole stockholder, Edwards received dividends of $5 million for each of those years -- all of it free from Medicare taxes. That saved the future senator around $290,000.