Mrs. Helmsley’s Dictum

leona_helmsley1-226x300From my History in Politics series:

Leona Mindy Roberts Helmsley died in 2007, enormously rich but still burdened by her status as an ex-convict who had served time in Federal prison for tax evasion. Even more of a weight on her persona was a remark she supposedly made to one of her housekeepers. “We don’t pay taxes,” she had boasted, speaking of herself and her billionaire husband, Harry Helmsley, New York City real estate mogul and luxury hotel owner. “Only the little people pay taxes,” she continued, a statement that to paraphrase FDR, has lived in infamy, Harry Helmsley and has never been more pertinent than in America’s current economic and political climate.

Leona Helmsley had become famous for the ads she ran promoting the Helmsley Hotels, playing the part of the “Queen,” who with royal hauteur pursued every avenue of producing perfection for her guests. But as stories of her chintzy penny pinching, abuse of employees, ultra-selfishness, etc., began to be bruited about, her title changed to the “Queen of Mean,” under attack for stiffing vendors upon their presenting bills for work they’d done or what seemed an attack of unfathomable spite when she had her daughter-in-law evicted from a family property right after her son died of an unexpected heart attack.

It also turned out that “Her Majesty” Leona was not above committing a criminal act. In 1988, Federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani indicted Leona Helmsley and two associates for tax evasion and extortion. She hadn’t been kidding when she said she and her husband didn’t pay taxes. Harry Helmsley, whom she had married at an advanced age after getting him to divorce his wife of 33 years, was found to be in such poor physical and mental shape that he escaped being tried. But Leona was found guilty of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, three counts of tax evasion and ten counts of mail fraud. Luckily for her, she was acquitted of the charge of extortion, for that would have landed a much more serious sentence. As it was, her original sentence of 16 years was reduced to nine months plus an extra two months of house arrest.

No doubt deliberately, there was a touch of gallows humor to her sentencing. She was ordered to appear for incarceration on April 15, 1992 – April 15, which everyone knows, is the deadline for paying your taxes in America.

When Harry died in 1997, he left Leona a $5 billion estate. She had been out of prison for six years by then, but as a convicted felon she was not allowed to own property. Her final years were spent in the luxurious penthouse at the Park Lane Hotel on 59th Street, which had been part of the Helmsley kingdom.

On occasion, Leona could be charitable – witness her gift of $5 million to the New York City firefighters after 9/11. But the mean streak never entirely faded. Example: she disinherited her grandchildren, allegedly because they hadn’t named any of their children after Harry. [later, the probate court allowed them $6 million]. However, another of her gestures left behind almost as much outrage as her scorn for “little people” taxpayers. Her will created a $12 million trust fund for her dog, a White Maltese named “Trouble,” The Probate Judge reduced this grant to $2 million. On the other hand, one of her ex-employees who claimed she fired him for being gay, saw his settlement of $11.7 million reduced to $554, 000. Apparently, Leona’s homeophobia extended to her public charge that her hated rival Donald Trump was gay.

A Hollywood movie was actually made about Leona, called – fittingly enough – the Queen of Mean.

Leona had always denied having made “the little people” statement. It was her word against that of one of her housekeepers, Elizabeth Baum. But her reputation had left such a sour taste that it lent immediate credibility to the snotty dictum said to have come from her lips. At least, she was being honest about her dishonesty.

Not so those who have carried on in the tradition of letting the “little people” and particularly the middle class – carry the brunt of paying for government services and shelling out far more than their fair share.

Thus we have stories that are hitting the media with increasing frequency. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently went after America’s largest company, Exxon Mobil, for the fact that in 2009, the oil giant made a profit of $19 billion and yet paid not a penny to the U.S. Treasury. In fact, the petroleum outfit even received a rebate from Washington of $156 million.

Another offender in the same regard was almost equally big, a true titan of American industry, the Bank of America, with statistics like having $2.2 trillion in assets and last year, also paying zero dollars in taxes to Uncle Sam, after utilizing 115 offshore tax havens. In 2009, it should be pointed out, our Federal government gave the Bank of America $2.3 billion, a year in which their corporate profit was $4.4 billion.

Doubtlessly, the companies involved are prepared to trot out high-paid tax consultants and other legal experts who will testify that all of these actions are entirely legal under present-day tax codes.

The “little people,” however, don’t have access to these same resources and the operation of the game now played increasingly leaves them with the dubious honor – elucidated by Mrs. Helmsley – of being the only ones who pay.

Even some “little people” have preyed on other “little people,” trying to dump the responsibility for funding government on other folks and even trying to do away with most of such funding of services that help everyone. One of the loudest bellyachers in the State of Maine about taxes was a transplant from New Jersey named Carol Palesky. She went to Federal prison in 1987 after embezzling from a local law firm when she was its bookkeeper. Then, almost a decade later, she was in trouble with the law again over signatures on an official petition that she was deemed to have forged. The Maine Attorney General’s Office actually alleged that she used some of the stolen money to finance a campaign she headed to force a stultifying tax cap on all Maine communities. Three times, Mrs. Palesky initiated referenda that would have had the effect of fiscally hogtying local officials and three times she lost.

Yes, Leona Helmsley also ended up in jail, one of the few times someone of her wealth was punished for tax cheating. Yes, she was disgraced, as was Carol Palesky. But the Queen of Mean’s words have become immortal, still resonating as mantra for those who find no embarrassment in the roles of deadbeats, free-loaders and leaches.

“Of course, we pay no taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

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