That's the big question everyone keeps asking about Tom Burcham.
Why is he filing all these lawsuits?
Why was he suddenly motivated to do this?
When we interviewed Burcham about his campaign to overturn sales tax ordinances in several small Missouri towns, we asked the same question. Before we get to the answer, here's a brief racap of the issue.
About a year or so ago, Burcham began filing public records requests with about 200 cities. In those requests, he asked for all city records pertaining to municipal sales tax ordinances.
After obtaining those records, Burcham would pour over them, looking for possible violations of Missouri state law in the introduction, approval or application of the taxes. When he found what he considered a violation, Burcham filed suit seeking to have what he calls an "illegal" tax overturned.
Furthermore, he sought class action status for his lawsuits, so anyone who paid the sales tax at any time since it was implemented would be entitled to a refund. In some cases, those taxes go back to the mid-70's, and the amounts owed could total one or two million dollars.
The effect on communities like Ellington and Arcadia could be tragic. Losing these lawsuits could render the towns bankrupt.
Even if he wins the class action lawsuits and secures refunds for taxpayers, Burcham admits refunding the money to individuals would be almost impossible.
But he would certainly be able to receive his fee, which customarily is about 33 percent of the court-ordered judgement.
So, back to the big question... why?
Why is Burcham doing this?
Why is he targeting tiny towns in the most rural parts of Missouri... towns with little or no legal counsel and barely any staff to deal with such matters?
During our 50 minute interview, Burcham insisted his unprecedented action is the result of a mounting discussion among Missouri citizens about a possibly illegal tactic which Burcham calls "tax stacking" taking place in cities around the state. In fact, the very first comment he made in our interview was this:
"Some folks in Missouri began noticing that cities were stacking their sales taxes."
Thirty seconds later, he said again:
"I think the general feeling of the folks that I have talked to is there's enough legal taxation in Missouri and that something needs to be done about the illegal taxing."
He went on to paint himself as a champion for citizens who do not have the means or ability to make things right.
"There's no way for these people to know these sales taxes are illegal. It takes an attorney to know these taxes are illegal."
But Burcham's contention he was fighting the gallant fight for "the little man" doesn't fit the facts.
As we showed in our report, none of the plaintiffs in Burcham's lawsuits are residents of the targeted cities. The plaintiff in most of the suits is a woman named Tonya Sheets... Burcham's law office secretary. The other plaintiff named in the suit is a woman named Andrea Penberthy. Burcham would only describe Penberthy as "an acquaintance."
In our discussions with the Missouri Municipal League and city leaders in several of the towns named in the lawsuits, we kept hearing the same thing -- the people who actually live in the targeted towns weren't complaining about the sales taxes!
All of these taxes had been placed on the ballot and approved by a vote of the people.
So we continued to press Burcham for answers. Where did the idea for these suits come from? Finally... 36 minutes into our intervew, the truth came out.
Steve Chamraz: "Who are these 'folks'?"
Tom Burcham: "These would be lawyers, city adminstrators and people who are generally concerned with city municipal matters... mainly table talk at seminars and conferences and over the telephone."
So there's your answer.
There is no grassroots movement out there started by small town residents outraged over "illegal" taxes. As Burcham put it, this all started with "table talk" among "lawyers."
But Burcham pointed out -- regardless of who started all this -- he is now hearing from residents in each city he has sued, and those residents are cheering him on. We'll cite this quote from our interview:
"Folks from each one of those municipalities have contacted me and encouraged me because they didn't know those sales taxes were illegal."
He made this point repeatedly and with great emphasis. And so we asked him to provide us with the name of one of those "folks" so we could talk to him or her, in an effort to better understand their concerns over the municipal sales tax.
Our interview with Tom Burcham was on Monday, February 18.
We have yet to receive the name of one such concerned citizen.
Steve Perron produced this report and contributed to this edition of the Daily Briefing.