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Romney vs. Romano

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Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

Mitt Romney is mighty lucky that his name is not Mitt Romano. Mitt Romney can have Swiss bank accounts and even sack away some cash in the Grand Caymans and Bermuda. Calling them tax shelters, he can explain that it is simply wise financial planning and declare that he has nothing to hide.

A guy named Mitt Romano could never get away with that. If Mitt Romano were running for president and it was discovered that he had shipped money overseas, he would face the same firestorm that engulfed Geraldine Ferraro and her husband John Zaccaro when she was running for vice president in 1984.

Zaccaro ran a real estate business and the couple filed separate tax returns. When demands were made that both release their returns, Ferraro announced that Zaccaro would not release his for fear of giving his business competitors an unfair advantage.

Then, Ferraro ran straight into an ethnic-stereotype buzz saw when she quipped, “You people who are married to Italian men, you know what it's like.”

After a week of media hounding akin to waterboarding, Zaccaro retreated and made his returns public. As it turned out, there was not much to hide, with a great deal of the couple's $4 million net worth tied up in real estate.

But the damage was done from the initial attempt at secret-keeping and the whole affair fueled those pesky intimations of Mafia connections that successful U.S. Italians have come to expect. Worse, any campaign momentum was lost forever.

Maybe Swiss bank accounts have taken a bad rap. But a quick Internet search provides a long list of dictators and swindlers who have used them, with nary an example of how they have been good for America. Generally, offshore investments take a hit in the popular media.

The public perception problem arises because smart investors and gangsters both use these accounts for the same purpose — to hide money and avoid taxes. But CEOs and investment bankers get a pass, invoking the mysterious labyrinth of high finance.

Mitt Romney might pull it off. He could stonewall on his tax returns and keep secret the balances in his secret bank accounts, wrapping himself in the legitimacy of big business. That is his right. But his taxes will remain the target of serious inquiry and popular ridicule unless he shares more.

In a close election, allowing suspicion to grow about tax returns and foreign banking is high-stakes gambling. Even the few votes you might lose can make the difference.

As Newt Gingrich said during the Republican primary, “I don't know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account.”

That might not change.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill. Email him at:

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