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The cover of the spring/summer 2004 Issue of SFSU Magazine


SFSU Magazine Online, Spring/Summer  2004, Volume 4, Number 1.

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  Alumni & FriendsAlumnus David Cay Johnston, author of 'Perfectly Legal'. Photo by Bonk Johnston


Taking Taxes to Task

When SFSU Magazine phoned the author of the much talked about "Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- And Cheat Everybody Else" (Penguin USA, 2003), there was a brief hold period. Alumnus David Cay Johnston excused himself to field a call from his daughter's Girl Scout leader.

Such is the New York Times reporter's life. While raising eight children, Johnston has managed to write two books, win both a Pulitzer Prize and an Investigative Reporters and Editors award, and continue churning out exclusives for the Times' business desk.

He launched his career during his undergrad days. In 1972, at the age of 19, while taking a full course load at SFSU, the economics and journalism major convinced the San Jose Mercury News to hire him as its San Mateo County reporter. He later landed a job as an investigative reporter with the Detroit Free Press. Plum gigs with the Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times followed.

In 1995, the New York Times recruited Johnston to cover taxes, a beat which prompted many of his friends and family to offer condolences rather than congratulations. But his new position fascinated him.

During the past nine years, Johnston has managed to make sense of the arcane rules, regulations, and loopholes that make up the U.S. Tax Code. In "Perfectly Legal," he paints a picture of a system that's fundamentally rigged to benefit the ultra-rich. He asserts that laws introduced and passed by Republicans and Democrats alike have gutted the enforcement capability of the IRS and allowed a wealthy minority to hire experts to hide their money in ingenious new ways.

Capitol Hill movers and shakers are taking notice of the controversial book, but Johnston hopes his message also reverberates outside of the Beltway with working Americans. Today, he's working on a third book about taxes and keeping his sights set on a lofty goal.

"We can have any kind of tax system we want in America -- the Constitution says that," he says. "I wrote this book thinking that if enough people read it, there would be a movement to reform the system."


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