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Democrats, seeking Whitman’s tax returns, use her political mentor Pete Wilson’s words against her [Updated]

February 22, 2010 |  5:30 am

Throughout his political career, former Gov. Pete Wilson drew again and again on the same tactic in attacking candidates who opposed him in elections. Wilson would demand that they release their tax returns and then lambaste them for trying to hide something from voters if they did not immediately do so.

Now a group of Democrats is using Wilson's words against him – and against Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor for whom he is serving as campaign chairman. The Democrats, members of Level the Playing Field 2010, a newly-formed campaign committee trying to support the candidacy of Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, told Wilson in a letter Sunday that, "to avoid any appearance of hypocrisy, we call on you to immediately oversee the release of Whitman's tax returns" or resign as her campaign chairman.

The letter, tinged with sarcasm, praises Wilson effusively, calling him "a longstanding champion of tax return transparency," and saying he'd shown "admirable integrity" in his "unwavering insistence that candidates release their tax returns." The letter was signed with only the group's name and sent to Wilson through his law office.

It went on, "You forcefully and consistently demanded that your opponents release their tax returns because you understand that tax records allow the public to determine if a candidate hid cash in offshore tax shelters, contributed to charity, properly paid taxes for servants, paid taxes for the personal use of a corporate jet, or earned exorbitant income while laying off California workers."

These are all charges that the group has made against Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive of EBay, in the last week. Since the Democrats first demanded that she release her tax returns on Wednesday, Whitman's campaign has not indicated that she has any intention of doing so. For the Democrats, there is little downside in making the demand – if Whitman concedes, they and the media can dig into what is likely to be a treasure trove of material regarding her investments, assets and the like. And if she doesn't, they can keep attacking her.

Whitman's spokeswoman, Sarah Pompei, declined to address the issue directly in commenting on the letter to Wilson. In a statement Sunday, she said, "Our campaign is more than happy to make the financial disclosures required by the state. But we surely aren't responding to Team Brown, when they haven't even disclosed yet which union interests are propping them up." The state requires officeholders to disclose certain information about their income and investments, but not until they are elected, and in much more general ways than on a tax return.

[Updated at 12:35 p.m.: In addition to the disclosure rules for officeholders, candidates for governor will be required to file a statement about their economic interests in March.]

Pompei declined when asked by The Times to address the apparent inconsistency between Wilson's past statements and Whitman's refusal up to now to say whether she will release her returns.

Wilson demanded that his opponents make public their tax returns in a series of races over time, and used the issue in political advertisements, according to news articles. He attacked then Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, who ran against him for the U.S. Senate in 1988; former San Francisco mayor and current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) in the 1990 race for governor; and Kathleen Brown, Jerry Brown's sister, who challenged Wilson for governor in 1994. Wilson won all those races.

The Democratic group seems to have gotten under the skin of the Whitman campaign since it began launching broadsides against the candidate, who had been relatively undamaged to date from attacks leveled by her Republican primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Last week, a lawyer for Whitman filed a complaint against the Democratic group with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, accusing it of several violations of state elections law. The group's leaders called the complaint "frivolous."

--Michael Rothfeld in Sacramento

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