Candidate Won’t Release Taxes

  • Keith Stern, of North Springfield, Vt., stocks lettuce at his store, Stern's Quality Produce, in White River Junction, Vt., Friday, July 20, 2019. Stern is a candidate in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Keith Stern, of North Springfield, Vt., is a candidate in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary. Stern ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 and ran twice for U.S. House in 2006 and 2010. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2018

White River Junction — Republican gubernatorial candidate Keith Stern is drawing criticism for refusing to release his federal income tax return, despite a requirement that state candidates in Vermont do so, but is telling voters that he isn’t beholden to any special interests.

“There’s not going to be any conflict of interest,” Stern said on Friday afternoon. “Of any kind.”

Stern, a North Springfield resident who has run statewide before, spoke while leaning against the shaded back wall of his store, Stern’s Quality Produce, on Pine Street. Occasionally, he broke off to stomp down a prickly burdock plant, or answer questions from the staff about the right price for a half-bushel of summer squash ($14).

Stern raised eyebrows earlier this year when he announced that he did not intend to comply with changes to Vermont election laws, which now require candidates for the top office in the state to make a series of financial disclosure, including a federal tax return.

Stern, who also says he will not enforce new gun control methods in the state, is being called lawless by his detractors.

With an upcoming Republican primary debate against Gov. Phil Scott approaching next week, Stern maintained his positions in a series of recent media interviews.

Stern gave two reasons for his choice to be a scofflaw on the financial disclosure requirement.

“My wife isn’t running for office. She wants to remain private,” he said. “I respect that.”

And second, “if I don’t win the election and keep running the business, I don’t want potential competitors to know how much we’re making,” he said.

Paul Burns is the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which helped craft the legislation that in 2016 began requiring gubernatorial candidates to release their tax returns.

“Vermonters deserve to know about the large financial interests and possible entanglements of their top elected leaders,” Burns said. “Mr. Stern’s disregard for this law and for Vermont voters is not a good sign, if he wants a future as a public servant.”

But Stern said that, if he were to disclose the information and lose the race, he would then be faced with an increased chance that a competitor could see opportunity in his income. A high income might seem like a goldmine for others to plunder, and a low income might seem like an inability to fend off competitors.

“If I was governor, everybody will know what I’m making,” he said. “We won’t keep running (the business) when I’m elected.”

Stern also noted that the law does not assess a penalty to candidates that refuse to disclose.

“It’s an unenforced law. ... These people don’t put any effort into writing good legislation,” Stern said.

But Burns said the lack of a statutory penalty is not meant to create options for candidates.

“This isn’t advisory. It’s not a request. It’s a state law that is a requirement of candidates running for this office,” Burns said.

Burns said that, when discussing penalties, legislators felt that the electorate would punish candidates who flouted the disclosure law, but that he thinks this early bucking of the rule could lead to stronger enforcement measures.

“There will be a strong argument to make in the next session for adding penalties,” he said.

National Debate

Though Stern’s stance wasn’t popular with analysts, it comes in the midst of a national debate about disclosure requirements that was sparked in 2016, when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a shifting set of reasons for his own refusal to disclose his tax returns.

Stern said he’s not bothered by Trump’s refusal, and there is no legal requirement that presidential candidates release their returns.

“If he knew he was going to run, would it show up anyways? He would hide it,” he said. “Come on.”

The Center for Responsive Politics found that 116 of 304 federal candidates in the June 5 primaries did not file public financial disclosure forms that were required, though some may have sought extensions.

But Stern, who said his only income is from the produce company’s legitimate business dealings, said he didn’t think the issue would matter to voters.

On his website, Stern said that he and his wife make “a comfortable living,” but he also told Vermont Public Radio during an interview on Thursday that an employer requirement for paid family leave or a $15 minimum wage would probably put him out of business.

Gun Laws

Stern also has staked out another position that puts him at odds with the law of the land in Vermont: he says that, if elected, he will tell state police not to enforce the background check requirements and other new rules in a trio of gun control laws signed by Scott in April. “A lot of police, I’ve heard, are not enforcing this anyway, on the local level,” Stern said.

Stern said he felt the new gun control measures are unnecessary, and he also has argued that they are unconstitutional, including a new provision that prevents Vermonters under age 21 from buying a gun.

“...We don’t have an issue with gun violence in this state,” he said.

Stern, whose slogan urges voters to “get Stern with your government,” called Scott’s signature on the gun control bills a broken promise, and said it could give him an opening. “A lot of people are upset about that,” he said.

Brittney Wilson, a spokeswoman for Scott’s campaign, faulted Stern.

“I mean, we live in a democracy. Not a dictatorship,” Wilson said. “It’s a really bad precedent. ... I have questions as to what other laws he would choose not to enforce.”

At the same time, Wilson acknowledged the uproar that Scott’s signature created among segments of his base.

“The governor understands that he’s upset many people on this issue,” Wilson said. “For the last 18 years, he’s been in public office, he always believed Vermont was insulated, and we didn’t need to change our laws. But after (the recent mass shootings in) Parkland (Fla.) and Fair Haven (Vt.), he realized Vermont was going to go from the safest state in the nation to the least safe state. So he did what he felt was right for Vermonters. Public safety is very important.”

Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury professor and Vermont political analyst, predicted that Scott’s gun control stance wouldn’t move the dial much on his electoral support.

“There are obviously a fair number of people who care very strongly about Second Amendment issues,” he said, “but they make up a minority of the state as a whole, and even in the Republican Party.”

He said that if Stern pulls 30 percent or more, he would see it as a sign of trouble for Scott within the Republican base.

Davis said the more potent threat to Scott is in a general election, when disaffected conservatives might not turn out in force to support him against a Democratic opponent.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.