Mrs. Kerry's secrecy

Robert Novak
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Posted: Apr 22, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry, having escaped intact a one-hour grilling by NBC's Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" Sunday, slipped in the closing minutes. When asked why his multi-millionaire wife was not making public her tax returns, he misinterpreted the law and the facts. He can only hope voters regard this as arcane trivia.

 Three days before her husband's first full-length televised interview since he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, Teresa Heinz Kerry became the first would-be first lady to refuse disclosure since the practice became common. Kerry told Russert the law required him but not his wife to reveal tax returns, when in fact there is no such law. He is voluntarily disclosing the information, and Mrs. Kerry is not.

 This becomes politically critical, because no previous presidential candidate relied so much on his spouse's wealth. Without backing from Heinz ketchup money, it is fair to say John Kerry would not be his party's presidential standard-bearer and probably would not even be a U.S. senator today. Thus, refusal to release his wife's tax returns inevitably raises suspicions, however ill-founded, that the Kerrys have something to hide.

 John Kerry, after more than 10 years in the Senate, was nearly broke in May 1995, facing a daunting 1996 election test against popular Republican Gov. William Weld when he married the widow of the richest U.S. senator. The late Republican Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania left his wife, Teresa, $600 million. Kerry's net worth, according to his official disclosure submitted in 1995, ranged from a plus-$34,995 down to a minus-$130,000.

 In January 1995, Mrs. Heinz paid $1.7 million cash for the shell of a town house on Boston's tony Beacon Hill, and restoration brought its value to nearly $3 million (though that figure is much higher today). She then transferred ownership of half the house to her new husband, and the mansion became the engine financing Kerry's campaigns.

 Running behind Weld in 1996, Kerry loaned his campaign $900,000 by mortgaging the house. By Election Day, he had loaned it $1.7 million and was $2.1 million personally in debt. That began a laborious process of paying off his debt, including the 1996 mortgage, which was completed in 1999. Kerry was then positioned to dip into the Beacon Hill mansion for a future attempt to be president.

 In December of last year, Kerry's campaign treasury was empty and his candidacy going nowhere. He then loaned his campaign $6.4 million by mortgaging his one-half share of the Boston home. Without that, Kerry's presidential bid probably could not have been revived.

 At the end of the "Meet the Press" interview, Russert noted that 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro's husband first refused to release his tax returns -- adding to the furor over his alleged ethical problems -- before he succumbed to pressure and made public the information. Russert asked: Would Teresa Heinz Kerry finally release her tax returns?

  "Well," said Kerry, "my wife is doing exactly what the law requires, I mean, we have laws in America, and the law requires that the candidate release their tax returns." He then launched into Senate-speak about "intrusive ethics forums." In fact, while the Federal Election Commission requires candidates to disclose their financial data, there is no mandate for tax returns.

 Kerry had been thoroughly briefed by his staff for the Russert interview, but he went off on his own in addressing his wife's reluctance. Just why she is so reticent is a mystery, though it hardly could be concern about privacy considering the flood of personal publicity welcomed by the Kerrys. That excites curiosity about her charitable contributions (which are not reflected in official U.S. Senate financial disclosures). Release of Vice President Al Gore's tax returns in 1998 revealed an embarrassingly small charitable contribution of $353 on an income of $197,699.

 Kerry aides shrug off as unimportant his incorrect statement that he was required to disclose tax returns but his wife was not. However, making up things in response to an unpleasant question can signal trouble ahead. Kerry's interview may have been smoother and more articulate than George W. Bush's press conference, but it planted seeds for the same credibility problems that trouble the president.

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 President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted a purge of anti-New Deal members of Congress in 1938, not 1936 as stated in my last column.