American humorist Mark Twain once said: "The only two certainties in life are death and taxes" -- but then he never heard of the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue and search engine giant Google. Put those two entities together and apparently nothing is certain.
While Google makes billions of dollars per year in profits, the company -- for a few days anyway -- found itself among a list of local scofflaws hit with tax liens filed by the D.C. government.
Yet within hours of receiving questions from The Washington Times about a lien that city tax officials filed against the company just this month, the D.C. government backtracked, saying the six-figure lien was a mistake while promising to quickly erase it.
The lien, filed with the D.C. Office of the Recorder of the Deeds and obtained by The Times, shows the city tax collector's office reported that Google had failed to pay more than $300,000 in corporate franchise taxes in 2010. The filing came just a few months after Google Inc. reported more than $14 billion in revenues for the third quarter of 2012, up more than 40 percent compared to the same period in 2011. Then again, the company also came under scrutiny last month after reports that it avoided $2 billion in taxes by moving money to Bermuda.
But D.C. officials insist there's no reason for a lien against Google in Washington.
"The lien was filed in error and it is being removed," D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue spokeswoman Natalie Wilson wrote in an email Thursday.
Asked why and how such an error could have been made, Ms. Wilson replied that "there was a delay in applying payment to the account." But in a subsequent email, she wrote that there was a "misapplication of payment to the account, which resulted in a tax liability."
Google officials, who usually answer questions before you can finish writing them, declined to comment on the lien.
There's no doubt that the search engine has been spending lots of money in Washington in recent years. The company spent more than $14 million lobbying federal agencies and members of Congress last year, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That's up from $5 million in 2010 and $2 million in 2008.
The city's lien stated that Google owed corporate franchise taxes of more than $300,000 for the 2010 tax period, and it listed more than $140,000 in tax due plus penalties and interest. The lien was signed by a city tax official on Jan. 9.
"You can clear your public record and prevent seizure action by sending full payment today!" the city lien against the one of the world's richest companies stated.
While a six-figure tax bill would be sizable for most D.C. taxpayers and businesses owners, the lien against Google seemed unusual given the sorts of revenues the company announced just a few months earlier.
In October, Google denied that it had avoided paying millions of dollars in taxes overseas on worldwide revenues despite reports it did so by using Bermuda as a tax haven.
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