08/03/2012 11:06 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

Lawrence O'Donnell Raises the Most Critical Question About Romney's Taxes: Amnesty

President Andrew Shepherd: This is not the business of the American people!
A. J. MacInerney: With all due respect, sir, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business. (The American President, 1995).

Lawrence O'Donnell scored a TV-journalist coup last night by raising the issue of amnesty with regard to former Governor Mitt Romney's (R-MA) refusal to reveal his tax returns prior to 2010.

Amnesty is, for many reasons, the most critical and potentially damaging issue in the entire Romney tax shenanigans saga.

If it is revealed, for example, that Romney indeed paid little or no taxes in the last 10 years, as alleged by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), that is largely baked into the cake by now, so that the surprise would be if he actually paid more on his income for a number of those years.

Romney's lying about it all these weeks might be a small problem, but that too is generally assumed -- Romney has demonstrated his willingness to say anything to anybody to get what he wants. Absent from the Romney's life is anytime he risked anything or sacrificed for anyone.

Consider this: if Romney did hide income at his Swiss UBS account and did not pay his required taxes on it until 2009 when he could get amnesty, he could correctly say, now, that he has paid 100 percent of the taxes he owed. Moreover, should he release his returns, the years since 2003 will have been amended to show the taxes he owed and paid, along with a 25 percent penalty for the year with the largest illegally hidden income.

Thus, O'Donnell takes the question to the real heart of the matter: did Romney receive amnesty? If he did, he had previously committed a felony. Perhaps, Romney might try the Seamus-ate-my-homework excuse -- he told his accountant about the income and golly-gee, gosh-darnit, that accountant just neglected to declare it. Sure, he did -- just like Romney really wanted to fight alongside his contemporaries in Vietnam during the time he was a Mormon missionary, but just somehow did not volunteer when his mission was completed.

Romney is in real trouble over his taxes. It is evident in his refusal to release prior returns. It is evident from the insipid laugh he fakes when he is confronted on it. It is evident in some of the bizarre statements he makes about it, such as that paying more than one can get away with would disqualify him from the presidency.

Romney's taxes are, moreover, very relevant to the American people who need to know whether the way he made his money is really germane to building our economy (the calling card he espouses) or actually injurious to it, sucking resources out of economy so that he can amass a fortune: "A Cayman Islands account in every pot, a Swiss tax shelter in every garage car elevator"?

And, it goes to his patriotism, as Sarah Palin might put it: Is this a man who thinks America is so imperfect that he sends his money to pal around with Swiss bankers?

But, all this determines whether the American people (a.k.a., "you people" to Ann Romney) feel comfortable that this is a man to entrust with maintaining the benefits of Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, whether in this time of economic crisis he would close the offshore loopholes that cost us $100 billion/year in revenue, and whether he would use the presidency to prove his manhood by itching for an excuse to send other peoples' children to fight more wars.

If Romney received amnesty, however, it strikes even deeper because it would mean that he committed a major crime for which he should have gone to jail, but did not because we decided to give him amnesty. And, it would show the lengths to which he was willing to go to amass his own fortune while "you people" had to make up for the taxes he was not paying. Sound a bit like his tax proposal?

Because Romney is a strong supporter of Arizona's "papers-please" law, the same words have been used to ask Romney for his returns.

If he received amnesty, however, one of Romney's own words on immigration would become more relevant: "self-deportation" out of the presidential race.