Schaefer asks wider tax-arrest authority

Bill would add to power of comptroller's officials

February 12, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Watch out, tax cheats. William Donald Schaefer wants you in handcuffs - which worries some legislators.

The comptroller is pushing a measure in the General Assembly that would give his investigative agents the authority to arrest anyone in Maryland who fails to pay taxes.

The legislation under consideration today by the House of Delegates would expand the authority of the comptroller's 15-member police force well beyond its current jurisdiction, which primarily includes the power to arrest cigarette and alcohol smugglers.

The bill would increase the unusually powerful status that Maryland already gives to its comptroller - an office that's far stronger than similar ones in almost every other state.

Michael Golden, a spokesman for Schaefer, said the comptroller does not intend to arrest people who are behind on their income taxes. Schaefer wants to go after such offenders as corporate tax scofflaws who owe big money to the state.

"What we're mainly interested in is people who are committing fraud," Golden said. "The bill is basically to go after those tax cases that represent the willful disregard for paying taxes, the egregious cases.

"The bill is not designed to arrest people for not paying their taxes," he said. "We're not talking about Gestapo here."

But some lawmakers and political observers question why the comptroller needs the broad, sweeping language in the bill if he does not intend to use the power it would give him.

"The majority of the testimony that was given was in the light of corporate taxes, yet in the body of the text it specifically states income tax," said Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican who opposes the bill.

Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, the House minority whip, asked to have the bill removed from yesterday's House calendar to review the wording. He said he is troubled that it would give the comptroller authority to arrest virtually any Marylander for not paying income taxes.

"The bill is overly broad," said the Eastern Shore Republican. "Personal income taxes, that's a concern of mine. There already is authority to go after tax cheats. This is different. It lacks the inherent checks and balances on the comptroller that other law enforcement has."

Vetoed by governor

The legislation almost became law last year after clearing both the House and Senate. But Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed it on the grounds that the expansion of police powers is "overly broad and unwarranted," according to a background report on the bill by the Department of Legislative Services.

Schaefer has long had a penchant for expanding or establishing new law enforcement powers around his offices.

In 1981, for example, Schaefer - then Baltimore's mayor - attempted to launch Baltimore's Best Security, a quasi-public firm that would handle security at city buildings. Schaefer wanted the corporation because of security problems at city buildings.

He later backed off from that plan after widespread criticism from City Council members and others.

In 1994, Schaefer, as Maryland's governor, established an agreement with then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to conduct an investigation of the strip clubs on The Block. The result of the investigation was an ill-fated raid in Baltimore with 500 state troopers.

A review after the raid raised allegations that during the investigation, two troopers had sex with a prostitute and a third shared a hotel room with a potential subject of the investigation. Schaefer said at the time that he was targeting drugs and prostitution, although the results raised eyebrows and questions about the whole investigation.

`Written a blank check'

In his latest role as comptroller, Schaefer has sought the expanded powers for his police force since 2000. But the bill was rejected by the House Judiciary Committee in 2000 and 2001.

The bill amends the state's tax law by deleting the six specific areas of enforcement authority and replacing them with the statement: "have all the powers, duties and responsibilities of a peace officer for the purpose of enforcing the laws pertaining to matters within the authority and jurisdiction of the comptroller."

"It sounds like they've written themselves a blank check," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonprofit, political watchdog organization. "That's a dangerous precedent."

Maryland already has the most powerful comptroller in the nation, according to the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers (NASACT). The added arrest powers would move the state into a league all its own.

"It's very rare," said Pat O'Connor, a program manager for NASACT. "Most state comptrollers do not even collect taxes."

O'Connor said Maryland and Iowa are the only two states where the comptrollers are responsible for collecting taxes. And Iowa is currently restructuring its comptroller's office, she said.

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