“Why are you asking about him?”
The clerk in the State Department of Revenue was puzzled at my request about whether an individual had paid Wisconsin income tax in a previous year.
His answer was “zero,” but regardless he collected the $1 fee for the information. Translated, the “zero” meant the person had filed a state income tax return but had not paid any money. If he didn’t file a return, there would be no fee to pay.
Usually similar requests from reporters focus on elected officials or candidates who want to be elected officials. This name was unfamiliar to the clerk.
The man had served as a guard at an infamous Nazi concentration camp, I explained. The group seeking to locate Nazi war criminals felt he was in America, but the trail had gone cold more than three decades after World War II ended.
Rumors in Chicago ethnic communities suggested he ended up somewhere in Wisconsin. A reporter for the Chicago Daily News asked my help with Wisconsin government databases.
Just knowing he had been in Wisconsin would help the Nazi hunters. Tax law prevents the Department of Revenue form providing addresses or phone numbers – things that would be available from tax returns.
I mentioned the guard’s alleged conduct at the concentration camp. The clerk listened and excused himself. He returned with a receipt for the fee and causally talked about Clark County.
I told the Daily News reporter that the sought-after guard may be in Clark County. The Nazi hunters went to the Clark County sheriff who easily identified his location. The days of him just being an anonymous citizen were gone.
State law requires the individual be notified about the tax information request.
There often are surprises in checking whether individuals had filed their tax returns. One of those came when I asked for four years of information about congressman and later U.S. Senator Robert Kasten.
The clerk had three years of tax-paid numbers, asking for $3 in fees. I said I wanted four years of information. He replied only that the fee I owed was just $3.
When the news stories about the lack of a tax return for a year surfaced, Kasten said he had done nothing wrong. Later Kasten would blame his tax woes on a staff member whom he said had failed to mail in the return.
The state tax folks were unmoved by Kasten’s explanation or by his apparent suggestions he didn’t have to pay the interest penalties spelled out in the law. Wisconsin eventually was the winner in this tax matter.
Grumbling about the income tax is a popular pastime as the April filing deadlines approach. In Wisconsin, the income tax system is used to provide property tax relief. It’s a way to get state aid to individuals while bypassing commercial and corporate interests.
Critics also may want to remember that it was the income tax system that allowed the federal government to send Al Capone to prison.
This year the state tax folks are also after the bad guys and girls who want to use stolen private information to get your tax refunds.
That may slow tax refunds, but in order to fight the crooks it’s a small matter.
Pommer, known as the “dean” of State Capitol correspondents, has covered government action in Madison for 36 years, including the actions of nine governors. The content in this column does not reflect the views or opinions of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association or its member newspapers.