Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has a message for Maryland's largest tax delinquents: Pay now or be listed as a deadbeat on a state World Wide Web site.
"It does get results," Schaefer said at a news conference yesterday as he unveiled the Internet list of the state's 50 top tax debtors.
But the No. 1 debtor on the list has a message for the comptroller. "You've got to have it in order to pay it."
Francis X. Gaegler, who is listed as owing $829,487 in back taxes, said his debt is the result of a land deal that went sour in 1994, plus years of accumulated interest and penalties.
"Why should I be ostracized for something like this? Why should I be held out in the newspaper? I'm not public enemy No. 1," said the former Prince George's County developer.
Schaefer said Maryland is following the lead of five other states and two major cities in listing the names of its largest delinquent taxpayers on the Internet. The list of the top 50 tax delinquents, representing $9.7 million in unpaid taxes, can be found at www.marylandtaxes.com.
"We're going to keep after them," Schaefer said.
The list includes businesses and individuals. Most of the listings are for personal income tax debts, but some are for sales, withholding and corporate income taxes.
Schaefer said he has no sympathy for the businesses and corporate officers who collected sales taxes or withheld payroll taxes and didn't send the money to the state.
"That's not their money," he said. "That's our money."
One of the better-known names among the personal income tax delinquents is Wallace O. Stephens, a politically well-connected Prince George's County businessman. Stephens' efforts to secure a $1.5 million state loan to bail out his engineering company generated criticism during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's first term. The list says Stephens owes $166,883.
Listed as owing $235,177 is Melvin J. Ford, a motivational speaker whose International Loan Network has been charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with bilking investors out of millions of dollars in an elaborate pyramid scheme. Neither Stephens nor Ford could be reached to comment.
Linda Tanton, chief of the Compliance Division of the comptroller's office, said all the taxpayers on the list were notified that their names would be posted if they did not pay up or work out a payment plan.
She said the threat of the listing had already produced about $150,000 in payments toward $600,000 in tax liabilities.
Tanton said the taxpayers are being listed only after all other collection methods have failed. She said those on the list do not face criminal prosecution because they filed returns acknowledging that they owe the money.
The comptroller's initiative is modeled after a program that was first used in Connecticut. Tanton said that state has collected $64 million in back taxes as a result of the effort, adding that she hopes the Web listings will help Maryland collect $10 million that otherwise would remain unpaid.
Gaegler said he is upset about being listed on the Web site but not bitter. He said his tax liability was the result of a wrinkle in the tax law that failed to give him credit for approximately $5 million in losses he bore before selling a property in Bowie for $2.4 million to repay creditors.
The Riverdale lawyer said he has offered to meet with tax officials to try to resolve their claim. If the comptroller's office persists, Gaegler said, he might have to file for bankruptcy.
"What are they going to do, blackball me any further? I took my beating," Gaegler said.