- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On a warm and sunny Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his hutch and saw his little rodent shadow - which, as any Washington weather watcher knows, means six more weeks of Obama Cabinet nominees traipsing across Capitol Hill to beg forgiveness for not paying their taxes.

Like the movie, it’s Groundhog Day all over again, and Democrats keep waking up in Gobbler’s Knob, confused and snowed under.

This time, the offender is former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who says he simply didn’t know that the luxury chauffeured limousine he was riding around town in - paid for by a party donor, the same one who happened to be paying him $83,333 a month for his services - was taxable (or as he now calls it, “imputed income”).

Hard on the heels of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s back-tax problems, Mr. Daschle snoozed on his taxes from 2005 through 2007, forgetting to pay $128,203 in taxes. Nearly a month after his nomination by President Obama to head the Health and Human Services Department, he wrote a check to the IRS for the cash, plus $11,964 in interest (along with some repayment for what were deemed “faulty charitable contributions”).

Monday brought a wave of words, from a contrite apology by Mr. Daschle to stern rebukes from miffed Republicans.

“My failure to realize that the use of a car was income and not a gift of a good friend was a mistake,” the diminutive and soft-spoken South Dakotan with the red-rimmed glasses said outside a hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where he had just answered Finance Committee members questions for an hour.

Looking on the verge of committing hara-kiri to cleanse his deep shame, the D.C. power player continued: “It was completely inadvertent. But that’s no excuse, and I deeply apologize to President Obama, my colleagues and the American people.”

Reporters and TV crews had packed into the Dirksen hallway nearly two hours before the 5 p.m. meeting with the Obama nominee, which was closed to the press, despite a pledge from the president that his administration would be the most transparent in history. (But then again, he vowed to end the revolving door of Washington players becoming lobbyists and vice versa, so maybe all bets are off.)

Mr. Daschle is, even if he’s not a registered lobbyist, a big-time Washington mover-and-shaker. He has made millions ($5.3 million in two years, according to his financial-disclosure forms) as he’s traveled the country, delivering speeches, holding seminars and offering private - and apparently expensive - advice, to insurance companies, health care operations, real estate agencies and other large corporations.

The three-term senator, who lost his re-election bid in 2004, also hauled in $40,000 for two speeches before another organization, America’s Health Insurance Plans, in February 2007. And $16,000 from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. And $12,000 to talk to GE Healthcare in August. And $20,000 in January to speak to Premier Inc., a health care consulting firm.

Still, the president said Monday that he “absolutely” supports Mr. Daschle. (Yes, he said just that one word when asked whether he backs his HHS nominee, and then reporters were ushered out of the Oval Office without another word allowed.)

The former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Daschle also found strong support among his one-time colleagues - at least those from his party.

“His company made a mistake on his 1099 [tax form]. They’ve acknowledged that they made a mistake,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, Democrat from the other Dakota. “And on the car, the only reason we know about it is because of the honesty of Tom Daschle. I think many people would be surprised that if somebody loans you a car, that becomes a taxable event.”

Imputed income, indeed.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said he’s already decided to vote to approve the nomination - which doesn’t even come up until next week - calling Mr. Daschle’s mistakes “not purposeful.” He, too, along with committee member Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, of West Virginia, blamed Mr. Daschle’s company for not providing that darn 1099 form. Mr. Conrad blasted “the charitable organizations he contributed to” for mistakes, while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said there was a “completely understandable, absolutely acceptable and rational explanation for what happened here.”

No Republican members came to the microphones outside the hearing room, but Arizona Sen. John McCain didn’t mince words about the matter. “I’d like to see what he has to say and how this all happened,” he said. “It’s a bit mystifying how all this could happen. … But this isn’t exactly the ethics and lobbying reform that the president announced a short time ago.”

Mr. Daschle, who arrived a few minutes late for the meeting (prompting one reporter to joke that he got lost coming to the place he worked for 18 years because he no longer has a chauffeured limo), looked grim as he wrapped up his statement before reporters.

“I would hope that my mistake would be viewed in the context of 30 years of public service,” he said, then he walked off without taking questions.

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