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Jim Kenyon: Vermont Law School Professor’s Tweet Helped Start ‘Tax March’

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 4/23/2017 12:26:43 AM
Modified: 4/24/2017 11:18:57 AM

“Follow the money” is the credo that investigative reporters live by. If you know where the dollars are flowing, it can tell you a lot about what’s driving the decision-makers.

That holds true for everyone from local selectboard members to the president.

Which brings me to Vermont Law School professor Jennifer Taub. She’s written two books and testified before Congress on the importance of following the money. “That’s what I care about,” she said when we talked by phone Thursday. “I’ve always considered myself a journalist with a law degree.”

In recent weeks, Taub’s follow-the-money instincts have earned her national recognition for hatching the grass-roots “Tax March” on April 15. What started as an impulsive tweet led to thousands of protesters in more than 150 communities taking to the streets to pressure President Donald Trump into releasing his personal tax returns.

“It wasn’t just me,” said Taub, who has spent a great deal of time researching and writing about the financial crisis of the last decade. “My tweet was apparently first, but it wasn’t the most influential.”

She’s being modest, which is her nature (a trait I don’t usually associate with graduates of Yale and Harvard Law School).

The idea of protesting Trump’s refusal to release his taxes on the traditional tax deadline day came to Taub after she attended the Women’s March in Boston with her 10-year-old daughter in January.

The next day, she heard presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway had reiterated on TV that Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns. Americans didn’t care, Conway added.

“I found that really arrogant and tone-deaf,” Taub said.

Since last November’s election, Taub has regularly tweeted out that her biggest concern about Trump’s presidency was corruption. At VLS, Taub teaches courses in business law that deal with white collar shenanigans.

In other words, Trump is right in her wheelhouse.

On the Sunday following the Women’s March, she posted a message on Twitter: “Let’s plan a nationwide #DivestDonald and #showusyourtaxes protest for Saturday, April 15.”

She woke up the next morning to learn that overnight The Huffington Post had referred to her tweet and another along the same lines by Frank Lesser, a comedy writer who got his start with The Colbert Report.

During a break in classes at VLS that day, Taub contacted Lesser, with whom she’d never talked. She’d already had 1,000 retweets, and Lesser was getting a similar reaction to his post.

Both agreed that they had tapped into something, but were unsure what came next. “I’m a law professor,” she told Lesser. “I organize academic conferences.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Taub said, “I had a choice: I could just walk away, turn off my phone and get back to academia, or I could help this thing come to life. I didn’t want to let go — it was too exciting!”

Taub and Lesser quickly found out that plenty of people wanted to pitch in. A website was set up. An executive committee, which Taub joined, was established.

She helped organize the rally in Washington that attracted an estimated 25,000 people. The march in New York drew 45,000. Across the country, including in Burlington and Brattleboro, people came together to demand more transparency from the president.

For the past 40 years, nearly every presidential candidate has released his or her tax returns before Election Day. But even after his election, Trump has insisted that he won’t release his tax information because he’s under a routine federal audit.

Taub, 50, never considered herself much of a rabble-rouser. In a Q&A with the National Law Journal that appeared online last week, Taub said, “I’m someone who spends more time inside reading and admiring activists from afar. I’ve always been an armchair kind of policy person.”

The daughter of a physician and county commissioner (her mother is a Republican) who grew up in suburban Detroit, Taub lives in Northampton, Mass., with her husband and two daughters.

She spent a few years as a corporate lawyer at a big firm in New York and later worked for Fidelity Investments in Boston before finding her way to VLS in 2011. Three days a week, she makes the two-hour drive to South Royalton.

In 2014, Yale University Press published her first book, Other People’s Houses: How Decades of Bailouts, Captive Regulators, and Toxic Bankers Made Home Mortgages a Thrilling Business.

“I traffic in ideas that people usually ignore,” she quipped in The Guardian article.

Not everyone. Twice last year she testified before Congress, including the Senate Banking Committee.

The topic? Bank capital and liquidity.

“You can see why people don’t listen to me,” she joked.

The Tax March, however, resonated with people. It was more than just a one-day “show-us-your-taxes” publicity stunt to keep the anti-Trump movement in the news. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised a massive overhaul of the federal tax code.

With Congress gearing up to debate huge tax cuts for wealthy Americans and companies, it’s more important than ever for the billionaire president to come clean.

“I’m very concerned about Trump using the presidency to line his own pockets,” Taub said.

The tax returns could serve as a window into Trump’s business dealings, particularly with Russian banks. There’s a real fear that Trump is promoting changes in the tax code that are “just going to make him richer,” Taub said. “That’s something people have a right to know.”

With the current occupant of the White House, Taub’s passion for following the money becomes more critical than ever.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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