U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon went into her last debate with Chris Shays on Wednesday with a distinction guaranteed to come up: The frontrunner for the GOP nomination is the only candidate yet to release her tax returns for 2011.

Connecticut Democrats launched a web site earlier in the day asking the questions, “What doesn’t she want Connecticut voters to know? Does she have offshore bank accounts? Lower tax rates than her employees?”

McMahon, an independently wealthy co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, got through her 2010 race with Democrat Richard Blumenthal without sharing her tax returns – or having them become a major issue.

Tax ad

From the Democratic attack on McMahon.

But tax returns are a hot issue this cycle, in large measure because of controversy over the refusal of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, to release his returns prior to 2010.

And even the Republican state chairman, Jerry Labriola, said he believes candidates should release the data.

“On balance I think the bias for someone seekinghigh pubic office should always be in favor of disclosure,” he said. “It is a matter of degree. What is the relevant time period that should be focused on?”

The last time tax returns were a major issue in a Connecticut race, the target was a Democrat, Ned Lamont. Like McMahon, Lamont was another wealthy Greenwich resident largely self-funding a campaign for U.S. Senate.

“Well, politically I found out the hard way it is vital,” Lamont recalled Wednesday. “For 10 straight days, I had Imus in the Morning say, ‘What do they have to hide?’ I heard about a lot. It went on for a long time, even four days after I released them.”

McMahon’s spokesman, Tim Murtaugh, said the only reason the candidate has not produced the state and federal returns she will file jointly with her husband, Vince McMahon, the chief executive of WWE, is that they are not ready.

“The accountants are working on it. She, like 10 million other Americans, got an extension,” Murtaugh said. McMahon’s extension runs to October 15.

Will she file before her primary contest with Shays on Aug. 14?

“I don’t know. I hope so,” Murtaugh replied.

Of course, there is another option: McMahon could release her long finished tax returns for the previous year.

Murtaugh declined that option. He said she would match the other candidates: Shays and Democrats Chris Murphy and Susan Bysiewicz. All three released returns for the 2011 tax year.

Ben Marter, a spokesman for Murphy, said his candidate would be happy to join McMahon in releasing a return for 2010.

Of course, not all tax returns generate the same interest.

As a congressman since January 2007, Murphy is a wage earner whose income is a matter of public record. A financial disclosure form required of federal candidates shows no major investments or sources of significant outside income.

It often is politically easier for such public officials to share their tax returns. In Wisconsin, U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin recently released returns for 10 years, a period when she was a member of Congress.

Lamont said interest is greater in wealthy business people who enter politics later in life, some with complex finances.

Jon Corzine, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, did not initially release his taxes when he ran for U.S. Senate, but he did after his election to the Senate and later as governor of New Jersey.

“I think when you are running for high public office, people want to now who you are. Those are just the rules of the road,” Lamont said.

Lamont said he has some sympathy for business people reluctant to lay bare their finances. In Lamont’s case, he filed separately in 2006 from his wife, who is a venture capitalist, to shield her finances and those of her partners.

“That said, how could Romney be so dumb? I had never done it before. I know why I was so dumb,” Lamont said.

Romney previously ran for U.S. Senate, governor and president.

Lamont speculated that Romney suffered capital losses in the market down turn of 2008, providing write-offs that depressed his effective tax rate to a degree that might be politically embarrassing.

In 2006, Lamont was trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who made Lamont’s wealth an issue. Lieberman released five years of returns and pressed Lamont to do the same.

“I paid high rates, so our tax returns came and went with barely a ripple,” Lamont said. It also helped that, unlike Romney, Lamont was not running on a platform that included a tax cut for the rich, he said.

There are no hard and fast rules for the release of tax returns.

Legally, candidates are under no obligation to provide them, though federal candidates must make certain financial disclosures that show sources of income, though not amounts or taxes paid.

The release of returns have become standard fare in presidential races, less so in races for lesser offices. Whether the returns become an issue can depend on the other candidates.

In his 2010 race for governor, his opponent in the Democratic primary, Dannel P. Malloy, made Lamont’s wealth an issue, but he did not press him on tax returns.

In the GOP primary for U.S. Senate, Shays is demanding that McMahon release a single year.

“One year is more than adequate,” said his spokeswoman, Amanda Bergen.

But McMahon needs to deliver that one year, she said. And then she picked up the talking point raised in the new Democratic web site.

“She said she’d do it. Why hasn’t she released it yet?” Bergen said. “What is she hiding?”

McMahon and Shays debate from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on NBC Connecticut.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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