Finding yourself in the vortex of a media firestorm has never been fun. Every White House intern is a sloppy encounter away from triggering a horde of reporters determined to unearth your elementary school report card, your driver’s license photo and the real reason Tori Spelling didn’t invite you to her party.
The Internet is making it even worse.
Ask Donald Sterling.
Sterling has plenty on his plate. Exposed as a racist of the troglodyte variety we assumed went extinct with the John Birch Society (as opposed to the new, improved Obama-is-Kenyan genus), the disgraced NBA owner has been summoned to a June 3rd hearing whose highlights will include a vote to determine whether to strip him of his-but-maybe-not-for-long Los Angeles Clippers. The 80-year-old Sterling’s 31-year-old ex-girlfriend V. Stiviano is due on Dr. Phil Wednesday. (Adding to the weirdness, someone tried to break into Stiviano’s house last night.)
Due to vast keyword-searchable archives of public data, however, sleazy (and relatively trivial) deeds that never would have seen the light of day are emerging as fast as eager journalists can summon up Boolean search phrases — and items that would have elicited yawns from old-school editors are breaking big. Which is why Sterling is watching reputation-scorching fires burst out faster than dry tinder in drought-stricken San Diego County.
From its grandiose title and presentation, “Divorce, death and Donald Sterling’s boyhood home: A USA TODAY Sports investigation finds a 30-year secret in a Los Angeles neighborhood” promises ginormous, must-read dish — in all honesty, I was hoping/fearing that the Gannett-owned hotel paper had found dead babies in the Golden State’s currently most notorious bigot’s manse.
What this bait-and-switch offers instead is something highly amusing — if you stop to think about it, but that would interfere with the witch-burning fun — though not particularly scandalous: a man worth $1.9 billion cheats on his property taxes.
To the tune of roughly 11 grand a year.
USA Today’s Josh Peter explains:
“California law requires the death of a homeowner to be reported to the county assessor — a step that triggers a reassessment of the property at market value and typically a property tax increase. The responsibility to report the death falls upon the surviving spouse or partner, executor of the will, administrator of the estate or the successor trustee of the trust. The report must be made within 150 days of the death to avoid penalties, according to the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office.”
To avoid a reassessment that would result in a higher tax rate, Sterling, it appears, issues annual money orders to Los Angeles County Treasurer and Tax Collector’s office for two modest houses he inherited from his mother and grandmother, both of whom died decades ago, under the dead women’s names. As far as Peter can tell, their estates never went to probate.
“In 2013, the property tax for Sterling’s boyhood home was $603.66; the tax for the property listed in his mother’s name was $1,545.11. Based on their current market value, the combined annual taxes would be at least $13,000.”
Net annual savings: “at least” $10851.23.
The issue here is moral: Sterling’s alleged property tax fraud costs hurts other, law-abiding, Angelenos — the poorest of whom pay the highest rates. California is just coming out of nearly a decade of serious budget problems; billionaires who don’t pay their (tiny) fair share aren’t helping.
“This is just the first wave.” Nancy Armour writes, also in USA Today. “Reporters across the country have been combing through Sterling’s life and business since NBA Commissioner Adam Silver banned the Clippers owner for life April 29 for the derogatory and racially insensitive comments he made to a girlfriend, V. Stiviano. What else might they find? And who else could be caught up in it?” She answers her own question: “His sister, perhaps. Or one of his children. Or the wife he claims to be so sorry for hurting.”
Is it a big deal? To be spectacularly wealthy is almost always to have skeletons in your fiscal closet — and often to dazzle and amaze with your cheapness. Even in the context of the sordid racist and sexual revelations about Donald Sterling, skipping out on property taxes is more of a footnote to an endnote than a scandal.
But it sure is easy to find out about. Not to mention, fun to read.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]