It's time to salute by name one of my confidential sources, a good and gentle man who had a minor, unwitting role in a scandalous act by the Internal Revenue Service. His honorable attempt 12 years ago to correct past dirty deeds of others can now be related.During my years as a reporter, I have only granted until-death-do-us-part confidentiality to a half dozen or so such individuals, three of them in one story alone. I did not do so lightly. There simply was no other way to obtain stories that had to be told.
In 1974 I exposed the campaign finance problems and illegalities of former Congressman George Hansen, who, off and on until 1984, had represented southern Idaho most of his adult life. Little did I know at the time he had also failed to file federal income tax returns for much of that same period.
He was returned to Congress in November 1974 by voters who apparently didn't care if their representative played by the rules and I returned to Boise to cover something equally perplexing: the Idaho Legislature. It was sometime during that 1975 session that I got my first anonymous phone call concerning Hansen's taxes.
Did I know that Congressman Hansen had tax problems? Like what? Like not filing IRS returns for a number of years and then being allowed to write a check for back taxes and interest. Who can I talk to about this? Click.
I received two more such calls during that year, cryptically citing vague tax transgressions by the controversial congressman. I poked around in the following months, but assembled little in the way of hard facts.
By late summer of 1976 I was determined to flush out the story before he was re-elected in November. I needed just one source to pop with inside details. Armed with that, I could pry more out of others.
My first contact was Calvin Wright, a former Moscow businessman, state auditor, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and, in the 1960s when the position was still a political appointment, Idaho director of the IRS.
Wright was living in retirement in Boise with his wife. I asked if we might talk. He invited me to his home and, while his wife observed, I asked if he could shed any light on possible tax irregularities by Hansen. He said it wouldn't surprise him if Hansen had been a fourflusher on taxes, but he had no facts of anything in particular. We small-talked about politics for an hour and I left, giving him my number should anything come to mind.
I had no more arrived at my motel when Wright called to say he wanted to meet in the parking area of his townhouse in 15 minutes. Absolute confidentiality and no notebook. Agreed.
In the dim light, he said he didn't want to upset his ailing wife but that he indeed had knowledge of what I spoke.
He related that in 1968 Republican Hansen left the House to run for the Senate against incumbent Democrat Frank Church. Hansen was roundly defeated and incoming President Richard Nixon nominated the jobless Hansen as an assistant secretary of Agriculture.
In a routine background security check prior to a pro-forma Senate confirmation hearing in early 1969, the FBI discovered the good congressman had not filed income tax returns for the previous three years. Then-Attorney General John Mitchell, wishing to avoid a public embarrassment for his boss, ordered the FBI and IRS to let Hansen file back returns, pay what was owed, and forget about any legal action against the new mid-level member of Nixon's team.
On a Saturday shortly thereafter, Hansen secretly flew to Boise, where Wright's normally closed IRS office was opened by higher ups to receive truant returns and a check.
Wright, who almost seemed relieved of a great burden, said that was all he knew but he was sure there was a lot more if I continued to dig. It was the breakthrough. The information was enough to prompt two other sources, who also were given absolute anonymity, to provide me with data showing Hansen hadn't filed within the legal time frame in a dozen different years.
The story rocked the state. But southern Idaho voters apparently didn't care their congressman was a tax evader (although they eventually became concerned when he went to prison).
Cal and I chuckled about Hansen's nine political lives over the intervening years during infrequent phone chats. In increasingly poor health, he recently told me I could tell the full story someday when it no longer mattered.
Calvin Wright died last week. But I want all my readers to know, Good Citizen Wright, that it will always matter.