In 1932, the federal courts affirmed gangster Al Capone's 11-year prison sentence and heavy fine for income tax evasion. He was sent to Alcatraz and then the Atlanta pen before he was given his freedom to die of advanced syphilis.
How times change. Seven decades later, the feds determined that Wall Street whiz Tim Geithner owed more than $34,000 in back taxes. Geithner said his tax problems were "an embarrassment," but President Barack Obama appointed him just the same to a Cabinet post. He was easily confirmed by the Senate to be Treasury secretary, of all things, and told to overhaul the country's ailing financial system.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was not so lucky. The president tapped him for secretary of health and human services. He would guide the administration's universal health-care package to passage. During a perusal of Daschle's background, however, a nosy government guy discovered that the former Democratic leader owed a bundle in long-overdue taxes. Daschle withdrew his Cabinet nomination.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was on his way to becoming commerce secretary, then pow! A corruption investigation shot him down. Superstar government wonk Nancy Killifer withdrew her name as nominee for the new and powerful performance officer's post. The reason? Unspecified tax problems.
Just as we started to wonder how many more geniuses would be disqualified from federal service in Washington, look what happened in Atlanta.
State auditors discovered that 10 percent of the members of the Georgia General Assembly were state tax evaders.
Of course, Georgia's grand troika - Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Romeo Richardson - decided that Georgia's tax-evasion list of 22 state senators and representatives should be kept secret. The Georgia public had no right to know the names of its tax-cheating public officials. "Redacted" was the word of the day in the state revenue department.
You and I might not be shown the same courtesy of having our deadbeat tax records sealed. You and I are not "special people." We are not privileged legislators or connected insiders. We are not eligible for protective treatment from the tax collector.
Ethics doesn't have much meaning in Washington or Atlanta or several other capital cities. Corruption in government has become so commonplace that we hardly notice news accounts of $50 billion investment frauds or multimillion-dollar bonuses paid to executives with lousy performance records - or the tax-evasion habits of career government types who ought to know better.
No wonder so few of us wince when we read that our government has decided to suspend half of our constitutional rights or that the General Assembly is eager to approve public payment for Georgia Power generators that haven't even been built. Or that wiretaps, searches without warrants and arrests without due process are just part of the way we do business nowadays. Call it the Desensitization of America.
· Stories of Georgia's tax-evading public officials are not without their irony. Just as we calculate that a high percentage of our population are habitual tax-law violators, other official charts show that Georgia has one of the highest imprisonment rates for all offenses in the country.
· More Georgia residents are sentenced to probation than in any other state. That's what happens when the prisons are full and you don't have any more room to house the guilty parties.
Perhaps no connection exists between the public official-tax offenders and street-level drug dealers or cat burglars. However, one cannot help but wonder if a state that winks at criminality among its public-servant class does not also encourage lawbreaking at lower levels.
In other words, your state legislator ducks out on paying his share of taxes, and hardly anyone says "boo." If you or I are caught stealing gas and credit cards, shouldn't we just be able to go in and plead "embarrassed"?
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 2520, Kennesaw, GA 30156, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or Web address: billshipponline.com.