BALTIMORE — once again, Comptroller Peter Franchot’s office is getting tough on tax evaders. Not by running them down and putting them behind bars; instead the Maryland COmptroller’s office is using the age-old tool of public shaming to get its point across.
“We announced today the 25 top individual and business scofflaws,” Mr. Franchot told us, in a telephone conversation. “These are people who have money, but they’ve refused over several years to pay back to the state the taxes they owe. So we have a system where we put them up in our “Caught in the Web” web site. People can go and take a look at it if they’re interested, it totals about 15 million dollars.”
The list can be found, along with an explanatory press release, by Googling “Peter Franchot Caught in the Web.” At the site, Mr. Franchot’s office has two lists, one list of the top 20 individuals, and one of the top 20 businesses.
“We do it not to harass people,” Mr. Franchot told us, “these people have been in arrears the last couple of years, and they know very well what they owe us. They have the resources to pay us, they’ve just chosen not to. But we find this public shaming a very effective way to get, more or less, half of this $15 million paid back. The rest will have to be collected through litigation.”
We asked if the program, which is the modern-day equivalent of being put on the pillory, has gotten the attention of the tax delinquents.
“Absolutely,” said the comptroller. “No one likes to be described as a tax cheat or tax scofflaw in front of their family, or publicly. It’s a pretty powerful incentive to get them to pay. I’m sorry we have to do it — but it’s not a surprise to anyone who appears on that list. We’ve been in litigation with them and we’ve taken every other alternative — garnishing wages, withholding business licenses, putting liens on property. These are folks who tend to have quite a bit of money, but they’re just clever enough and stubborn enough not to pay what they should.”
Mr. Franchot explained that nobody likes to pay taxes, but a certain class of potential taxpayers seem to think it’s a good idea to hold onto their cash as long as they can.
“I don’t think it does them any good, in the long run,” said Mr. Franchot. “Obviously it hurts the state, because the state needs the money, and also it hurts ordinary taxpayers who do the right thing, even if they don’t like it. Most people pay their taxes on time, and that’s who I represent. That’s the only reason we put this list up — ordinary taxpayers who get behind on their taxes we’re very, very lenient with. And we are because we know these are tough economic times and people get into difficulties that are beyond their control.”
Comptroller Franchot urges taxpayers who are having trouble to contact his office, and he promises his staff will work with them and offer whatever help they can. But taxpayer who deliberately won’t may find themselves on the online list.
“We’ve done this now (for the tax scofflaws) for 17 years, and about half of it gets paid every year,” said the comptroller.
We asked if the names come off the list immediately if the tax offender pays.
“Absolutely. If they pay, or get onto a payment plan, their name comes off immediately. But for the next six months, if they don’t take their names down by doing the right thing and paying us what they owe us, their name stays up there. And a lot of people see it.”
The comptroller’s office maintains a web site at www.marylandtaxes.com, and they can be reached at 1-800-MD-TAXES.
Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.