Zurik: State tax commissioner owes $140K in property taxes

Zurik: State tax commissioner owes $140K in property taxes
Published: Nov. 10, 2016 at 3:10 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 10, 2016 at 7:52 AM CST
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Thorns' property at N. Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans
Thorns' property at N. Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - What would happen to you if you didn't pay your property taxes for 30 years? For one New Orleans resident, the answer seems to be absolutely nothing.  In fact, his delinquency didn't stop him from getting a plum appointment to a state board.

We've drawn upon the expertise of Tulane law professor Joel Friedman for many of our investigative stories. He says our new one may top the list.

"This is one of the most egregious situations I've ever seen," Friedman says. "To me it is absolutely shocking... It certainly smells less than good."

We found longtime New Orleans businessman Jimmie Thorns, on several early mornings, at his property on N. Claiborne Avenue. City records show Thorns' business owns it - Jim Thorns Inc.  And since his business acquired it in the late 1980's, the company hasn't paid a penny in property taxes.

City records show he owes $140,000.

When we caught up with Thorns outside the Louisiana Tax Commission in Baton Rouge last week, we tried to ask him why he hadn't paid property taxes on the N. Claiborne house in 30 years. Thorns ignored our questions.

You see, Thorns actually sits on the Louisiana Tax Commission. The commission "ensures fair, accurate, and uniform property taxation," according to its mission statement.  Essentially it has the final say on how much you pay in property taxes.

"And how that person gets appointed to the Tax Commission," Friedman asks, "whose job it is to ensure the integrity of the real estate appraisal process, which is used for real estate property tax collection purposes… You tell me, is that the kind of person that should get appointed?"

The appointment by Gov. John Bel Edwards came in February. Here's the disclosure form Thorns filled out with the state - right above the name of the board, his address, he used the N. Claiborne Avenue address, the same property that has nearly 30 years of unpaid taxes.

Friedman says it's not unlawful for him to be on such a commission. "But is it good government for the governor to choose someone like this?" he asks. "If you go on the website, it says, 'to preserve and protect and promote the integrity of the appraisal process. ' Is this person qualified to do that, when they have flouted the tax laws?"

The Tax Commission isn't one of those volunteer boards. It comes with a paycheck: $56,000 a year.

"This is a serious entity that has a very big responsibility for all of us, all of us who are property owners," Friedman says. "He should also be like Caesar's wife; if he's going to oversee the appraisal, he ought to be somebody who pays his taxes."

Thorns is a longtime real estate appraiser in New Orleans.  In 1996, Thorns shuttered Jim Thorns Inc. and started a new company, Thorns Consulting. It has a long list of clients, including many public agencies such as the Orleans Parish School Board, the Sewerage and Water Board and the airport. We found a 2013 contract with the Housing Authority of New Orleans.

"At the time he did the work for the city and the parish and other entities in the state, he was delinquent… not delinquent, he was 'unpaying' his taxes, property taxes," Friedman observes. "Why is this kind of aura of invincibility, the shield, surrounding this man?"

It's unclear whether Thorns has any active contracts at this time.

As for our effort to get an explanation from Thorns, Friedman remarks, "You confronted him and he refused to answer. What does that tell you? Tells me, he doesn't want to answer. It's not because he can't. He just chooses not to answer."

Records from the mid 1990's show Jim Thorns Inc. filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy; Thorns planned to liquidate the company's assets. That business had $200,000 in unpaid employment taxes to the state and the IRS.

Friedman says, under Chapter 7, it would be possible for the company to own the property in the future.  But, he warns, "It isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card that says, 'and by the way, you don't have to pay taxes in the future.'  You still have to pay taxes."

The city says the property has been adjudicated, meaning it's been turned over to the city. Once the adjudication certificate is verified, it will be offered for auction.

"If the government took the property and sold it, it would get a very small amount of what is owed," Friedman tells us, "because not only does he owe taxes, he owes a whole bunch of money on the mortgage."

There's more. Thorns pulled up to that Louisiana Tax Commission meeting in a Mercedes-Benz SUV.  Records we obtained show he bought it in December 2015.  And he registered the car to the same property where he has that $140,000 tax bill. The MSRP on that Mercedes is $51,000 - a bit less than Thorns gets from the state each year as a tax commissioner.

Before his appointment, Thorns hosted a fundraiser for the governor. He also donated $2,500 to his campaign.

It doesn't sit well with our law professor. "I would like somebody in the governor's office to explain why this person has been appointed to this commission and, if we are right, do something about it," Friedman says.

We asked Governor Edwards' office for a comment; we're still waiting for a response.

Friedman says that in itself is frustrating. "The governor's office - let's not say the governor, the governor's office - they didn't do any diligence at all on an important appointment," he says. "This is not, you know, the State Board of Overseeing the Color of Flowers, right? This is a serious thing.  Either they did no due diligence, which is bad, or they did it and they don't care, which maybe is even worse.  Either way it slices, it's not good."

You may still be wondering why it's taken so long for the city to get its hands on the property. Of all the properties that have been sold in this administration's adjudicated auction process, the average property has been adjudicated for well over a decade.

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