Three candidates in the May 5 Republican primary election for Knox County court system positions say their campaigns do not appear harmed by recent public disclosures of pending tax liens or debt judgments filed against them.
The ultimate extent to which such public disclosures can affect a candidate's chances depends heavily on how and why the debts came about and on how the candidate explains it to voters, according to two political science professors.
The candidates -- all lawyers -- are Charles "Eddie" Pridemore, seeking the judge's chair in Division II of Chancery Court; Steve Williams, hopeful for the clerkship of criminal and sessions courts; and Patti Jane Lay, running for the judgeship of 4th Circuit Court, which primarily handles divorce and domestic cases.
Williams' and Lay's opponents say they have not and will not make the liens an issue. Pridemore, who has a judgment for an old credit card debt, is running unopposed in the primary but will face incumbent Daryl Fansler in the general election.
Williams voluntarily disclosed liens against him and answered questions about them when he met with the News Sentinel editorial board.
Lay said IRS tax liens against her were filed in error and that she has contacted the IRS to get the liens lifted.
"When things like these come out in the course of a campaign, it can make the average voter think, 'Gee, I pay my taxes, and this person running for a position of trust does not pay,' " said Charles Bullock III, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. "If the candidate indeed owes it, they would want to pay it as quickly as possible. If they are contesting (the validity of) it, they need to offer a good reason or explanation (why it has not been paid)."
Experts said honesty tends to be the best policy.
"The more information about it that (the candidates themselves) put out there, the better off they will be," said David Briley, professor of political science at East Tennessee State University. "That is, unless they try something tricky, because that could boomerang on them."
Bullock said a popular incumbent is less likely to be damaged by such a disclosure than a challenger or a seeker of an open seat. Briley said in any case, voter apathy and low turnout can reduce the impact of such disclosures.
Williams is in a three-way primary race with Knox County Commissioner Mike Hammond and Assistant District Attorney General Jason Hunnicut. Since there are no Democratic candidates, the winner is virtually certain to become clerk of that court.
Williams and Lay say they have not been questioned about the liens by prospective voters.
"But I have had some people come up to me and say, 'Let me tell you my IRS horror story,' " Lay said.
Williams said he'll answer questions if asked.
"It's all been in the newspaper, on TV and Facebook, but nobody has asked me about it," he said. "If anybody does, I am ready, willing and able to respond."
Lay's primary opponent is Greg McMillan. The winner will face the winner of the Democrat primary race between Daniel Kidd and David L. Valone.
In May 2011, a judgment was filed against Pridemore for a $3,278 credit card debt and attorneys' fees. He said it is for medical bills dating to 2007 or 2008, when he had two throat surgeries while still in law school. He said a lump-sum payment was demanded of him, but he had no money and no insurance to cover it.
"I've not heard anything from them since the lien was filed," Pridemore said. "I will contact them and attempt to make some kind of arrangement. I don't see why this would have any impact on my ability to be impartial and fair on the bench and to correctly interpret the law."
Filed in 2008 and 2011, the liens against Williams total more than $24,500 for unpaid unemployment taxes for his business and personal income taxes.
Williams said his debts arose out of his wife's 2001 diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and from "terribly expensive" care and medical costs that drained all their resources.
"We are paying that off every month, slowly and surely," he said. "We've got it down to about $16,000."
Two IRS liens against Lay were filed in 2010 for taxes the agency says are owed from 2000 and 2003. Lay disputes the claims.
One claim is for $46,700, filed jointly against her and her husband. The other claim, against her alone, is for $11,312.
Lay said the liens relate to an error that occurred when all the income from a dissolving partnership was initially reported as her income and not divided among the partners. She showed the News Sentinel correspondence with the IRS confirming such a dispute was continuing through 2010.
She said corrected returns had already been filed and that she believed the claim was settled and that she does not owe the back taxes.
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