Today in Washington
Doubtful Income Tax Cases To Be Turned Over to Grand Jury--Fear of Public Criticism Forces Administration To Act
Anew system of justice--or injustice depending on the point of view, has been set up by the Roosevelt Administration.
It turns out that the determination to hand over to the grand juries the question of whether an individual has cheated on his income tax return is part of a general policy provoked by the fear of administrative officers here that Congress or the accusations of critics will bear down on them if they happen to exonerate some wealthy individual for whose scalp said critics have been clamoring. The situation has been frankly confessed by the administration as being due entirely to the criticism that arises whenever a "big fellow" escapes jail on his income tax return.
This means as a practical matter that the Federal government could, if it chose, make public the names of the taxpayers whose returns are being scrutinized and the community in which such a taxpayers lives would not know whether the taxpayer had or had not done something irregular until the grand jury returned an indictment or refused to indict.
Meanwhile the family of a taxpayer and he himself would be subject to all the humiliation that comes with an indictment in the court of public opinion. If the grand jury subsequently refused to indict, the injustice would not be erased. There would always be the innuendo derived from the publicity given originally that somehow the taxpayer wasn't exactly on the level with his government.
Even an indictment is of course no evidence of guilt but in actual practice it takes a long time to erase by an acquittal the stigma of the indictment. To this would now be added an indictment in the press in the first instance.
There is a curious commentary on the causes of this new twist in public policy. Fear of the critics has made administrative officers feel that they should not take the responsibility of approving large tax returns. If the case involves a difference of opinion as to the meaning of the law, there has been provided a board of tax appeals, which is a quasi-judicial body. No longer does the administrative officer take the full responsibility when in doubt in civil cases. He prefers to let the board pass on them.
But there is no appeals board to which criminal questions can be taken. The simplest way to deal with the problem is to create a national board of review to which doubtful income taxes can be taken. Such a board of eminent jurists could decide whether an indictment should be sought. But if publicity isn't given then, how will the public be appeased?
Just how the administration is to be spared criticism for not prosecuting the wealthy, however, whether they are guilty or not, is hard to figure out. It is something now to have government officials concede that they must try cases in response to public passion and that, notwithstanding the law and the facts, every man is presumably guilty unless he can prove himself innocent.
The present administration is anxious to give the impression that it plays no favorites, that the little fellow and the big fellow are treated alike. But the rule of justice which hitherto has permitted an administrative official to decide whether a case ought or ought not to be criminally prosecuted now has been weakened and the grand juries will be asked to decide. If the presumption of doubt is raised because what have been believed to be lawful deductions are taken by the taxpayer, then the time may come when income tax cases will fill up the federal court dockets just as the eighteenth amendment did in years gone by, but perhaps with an even lower percentage of convictions due to the difficulty of juries in understanding technical tax questions.