The fine line between tax raid and media event got a little blurrier last Friday night when state agents cleared out 400 patrons of Antone's Night Club and collected $8,221 in delinquent mixed beverage taxes. Not only were local news outlets tipped off to the raid by publicists for the state comptroller's office, but Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander even put in a personal appearance -- telling local news crews that tax cheats won't be tolerated and that "when one business doesn't pay its taxes, all businesses, cities, counties, and schoolchildren are punished."
Although the Antone's bust coincided with seven other bar raids across the state, only Antone's was singled out in a Monday morning press release by name. And only Antone's got a visit from Rylander.
Was the raid geared more toward media exposure than collection of back taxes? Rylander's spokesman Mark Sanders acknowledges the raid was orchestrated for media exposure. "We wanted to send a message that we're serious about tax collection, and when you have a place as well-known as Antone's holding the largest mixed drink delinquency of any business in Austin, then calling in the media is a way to let other businesses know we're serious."
Both Susan Antone, the club's managing owner, and Rylander's office agree that before the raid, Antone's owed $22,000 in mixed beverage taxes for May and June. In addition, Rylander's office says July receipts had not been filed, a claim which Antone's disputes. Either way, Rylander maintains that the only communication her office had with Antone's in the last three months came in the form of a bounced check. When the club missed a 5pm deadline last Friday, Rylander approved an 11:30pm raid, much to the surprise of Antone's management. "We owed the taxes and they had the right to come and get them however they wanted," Susan Antone says. "But we'd made phone calls down there and talked to them. ... We thought we had an agreement and expected to have a meeting at the end of last week or early this week. Obviously, there was some miscommunication."
"We're at fault for not paying earlier," says Clifford Antone, whose name adorns the club but hasn't been included in the ownership or tax paperwork since 1985. "But I think they could have simply come in with a couple of guys, stood by the registers and took the money at the end of the night. ... Unfortunately, it seemed more about politics than money."
Rylander has a long history of playing politics with her position. Since 1983, the comptroller has held no fewer than four political jobs, including an aborted third term as mayor of Austin, a brief stint on the state Insurance Board, and a single year of her six-year term as Railroad Commissioner, which she abandoned to run for comptroller in 1998. Rumor is that Rylander may now have her eye on the lieutenant governor's seat, which will be up for grabs if Gov. George W. Bush moves on to the presidency, making Rick Perry governor and forcing an election for Perry's seat.
But if it was popularity that Rylander was seeking, she didn't win many converts with the ill-timed Antone's raid; in fact, her office reportedly received a string of angry phone calls after the raid. And while the raid did land Rylander a photo on the front page of Sunday's Austin American-Statesman, several detractors have noted that it ran inches away from a quote comparing her office to the Gestapo. "We're going to get criticism," acknowledges Sanders, who says past nightclub raids have encouraged other businesses to call the comptroller's office and settle past debts. "Either we get criticism for doing our job or for not doing our job. We'll take the criticism for doing our job."
Susan Antone says her main concern about the comptroller's media campaign is that Austin clubgoers could wind up thinking Antone's deliberately shirked their tax obligation. "We don't want to owe anybody money, particularly the comptroller. But we all know Antone's has longevity, not money. ... This isn't a glamorous job." But sometimes it's a job that, with a little help from the state, leads to media exposure money couldn't buy.