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Tax debt is not a crime, but it’s not a good look. The Mosbys should pay up and spare Baltimore more humiliation. | COMMENTARY

State's attorney Marilyn Mosby and Del. Nick Mosby at the 2019 Preakness.
State's attorney Marilyn Mosby and Del. Nick Mosby at the 2019 Preakness. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

After the Sheila Dixon scandal and the Gun Trace Task Force scandal and the Cathy Pugh Healthy Holly scandal and the police commissioner tax evasion scandal, Baltimoreans were relieved the other day when the word “indicted” did not appear in The Sun’s news report about the Mosbys.

Marilyn and Nick owe back taxes to the U.S. government. Oh.

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The Internal Revenue Service is looking for $45,000 from the Baltimore power couple. Oh.

The IRS put a lien on their properties. Oh.

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So it’s not a criminal thing like the tax evasion charges that sent former Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa to federal prison. The Baltimore state’s attorney and her husband, a state delegate and most likely the next Baltimore City Council president, merely owe federal taxes going back five years.

And isn’t that a relief?

I realize the bar is set pretty low, but let’s be thankful the Mosbys have merely been exposed as tax debtors and not tax cheats.

Hey, that’s something!

Years ago, on a hot summer night outside a bar on Belair Road, a woman was heard to unwittingly speak an enduring and amusing truth about Baltimore: “It’s not the heat, it’s the humility.”

By now, we have endured a long run of humiliations, and it’s kinda not funny anymore. Prideful residents and business owners are sick of it, sick of their city being held back or dragged down by corruption and stupidity, making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Just as the nation suffers from Trump fatigue, after nearly four years of chaos and incompetence, Baltimoreans have had their fill of public scandals.

Key word there: public.

The only reason we know about the Mosbys' tax problems is because the IRS filed notice of the lien in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The IRS took that step because it hasn’t been paid.

If not for reporter Justin Fenton’s story, we would probably never know about the Mosbys' debt. Plenty of Americans work out payment plans with the IRS, and there’s a whole industry built around that. (Recently, while painting a room in my house and listening to CNN on Sirius radio, I heard commercials for Optima Tax Relief almost as often as I heard the one for the little blue pill.)

So, the Mosbys owe the IRS $45,000. That’s not a scandal.

Is it a disgrace? Some people have used that word in social media comments, and, like a lot of what you read on Facebook or Twitter, it’s hyperbole.

Debt is not a disgrace. In America, it’s a way of life.

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The Mosbys are hardly unique. According to the IRS, more than 13 million Americans owed more than $125 billion in back taxes, penalties, and interest in 2019.

There are many reasons for that. A lot of people can’t be bothered. They get busy. They don’t take the IRS seriously and assume the agency won’t ever audit them. Some people don’t file their tax returns on time or at all, or they fail to give their accountants the documents they need to get the returns completed. Some people don’t pay their tax estimates, which means they face big bills in April. Some people incur financial hardship and can’t manage the debt.

I’m not making excuses for the Mosbys, who have a combined annual income from their government jobs of about $300,000.

Most people pay their taxes on time. They make lifestyle adjustments when they face a big owe. Withdrawing money early from a retirement account, as Nick Mosby says he did, means you have to be prepared to pay the penalties for doing that. If you don’t and fall behind, that tells me you’re not a good planner or maybe just sloppy. Or maybe you think you can slide by.

After more than 45 years in the news biz, I’m still amazed at what people think they can get away with, starting with not paying taxes. They must think the IRS is so overworked and understaffed that its agents won’t ever get to them.

Totally unrelated to the Mosbys, but to my point: Just this week, in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, a judge sentenced a 64-year-old St. Mary’s County man named Victor Demattia to prison for stealing more than $400,000 from the Social Security Administration and the Civil Service Retirement System. Demattia never reported his mother’s death and received and spent her monthly retirement benefits for nine years before federal inspectors caught him. Now he’s facing 18 months in prison and owes the government $409,421.

Back to the Mosbys: Debt is not a crime. Nick Mosby says he hopes to soon resolve the matter with the IRS. His wife, meanwhile, says she was unaware of the lien, which strikes me as unbelievable. The couple owed thousands of dollars for three different tax years, and she didn’t know the debt was still outstanding?

Which gets us to the only reason why this matters. When you’re in public life, when you seek and gain elected office, more is expected of you. Honesty is expected. Integrity is expected. If you want to be a leader, you’re expected to set good examples of citizenship.

I realize that sounds precious, but it needs to be said. Nobody enjoys paying taxes and everybody incurs debt, but most people understand those things as obligations, and taxes are an obligation of citizenship.

Oh, and one more thing: Public officials in battered Baltimore have another special obligation — to spare us further humiliation.

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