In describing a suspicious character who had visited his home, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Average Americans today might need to be counting their spoons, because President Obama and the Congress have visited Timothy Geithner upon us. He’s the new treasury secretary, our nation’s top financial official, whose duties include handling the ongoing Wall Street debacle.

Not only has Geithner felt it necessary to talk insistently about his honor, but Obama and assorted members of Congress have also felt compelled to assure us that Tim really is an honest guy. It’s a bit like hanging a sign on the Treasury building declaring, “Honest Tim’s Used Bailouts.”

What forced this rash of testimonials to Geithner’s integrity is that, in a 2006 audit, the IRS found that he had failed to pay his Social Security and Medicare taxes for 2003 and 2004. Oops, my bad, said Geithner at the time, ponying up $16,732 for back taxes and interest.

But — oops, again — when he was being vetted for the Treasury job last November, it turns out he’d also dodged these same payroll taxes in 2001 and 2002. He conveniently failed to volunteer these earlier violations to the auditors in 2006. Nailed by the presidential vetters, Geithner sheepishly rushed out another belated payment to the IRS, this one totaling $25,970.

“It was an innocent mistake,” Obama quickly asserted when the transgression became public: “Careless and avoidable, but unintentional,” insisted the perpetrator himself. “A lot to do about nothing,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, dismissively.

Well, plenty of people do make mistakes on their tax forms, or even occasionally try to scoot by Uncle Sam without paying the full due bill. But none of these folks was nominated to run the agency that includes the IRS! And none of them has worked in key positions at the Treasury under three presidents, been a major official at the International Monetary Fund or headed the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for the past five years, as has Geithner.

What we have here is a treasury secretary with what The New York Times called “a cavalier attitude” toward paying his own taxes, thus tainting his ability to command respect from us hoi polloi.

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