Graham tax fight generates plenty of ink
The Vineyard Gazette broke the story of the complex and expensive
civil tax case against West Tisbury by William Graham with a report
headlined, "Town defends tax challenge," published on Feb.
11. The newspaper expanded its coverage in earnest with the start
of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board hearing on May 3.
Since the start of hearings in May, the Edgartown weekly, which publishes
twice a week, on Tuesday and Friday, during the summer months, has
sent a reporter to Boston on a regular basis to report on the legal
arguments, which have yet to conclude. Mr. Graham's side rested
Tuesday when the hearing convened on the Vineyard for the first time,
to hear testimony from two West Tisbury assessors. The town will begin
its presentation when the hearing resumes today in Boston.
Since May 6, when the case first began, the Gazette has published
13 news stories about it, 11 of which began on the front page. The
paper has also published two editorials.
On July 1, the Gazette also published a three-page, 12 photograph
spread describing the deconstruction of Mohu, what it called the "storied"
estate built on the property at the heart of the tax case, where Mr.
Graham's mother, Katherine Graham, former publisher of the Washington
Post, once lived and entertained.
The Gazette's decision to devote considerable space and resources
to it recalls the close personal relationship that has existed between
the Reston and Graham families.
James "Scotty" Reston, famed New York Times columnist and
longtime Washington bureau chief and the father of Gazette publisher
Richard Reston, and his wife Sally were close friends of Katharine
Graham and her husband Phillip, former editor and publisher of the
Washington Post, a position filled by Mrs. Graham upon her husband's
In her autobiography, "Personal History," Ms. Graham wrote
that she and her husband chose the Restons as guardians for their
children in the event the Grahams died in a plane crash.
She wrote, "We believed Scotty and Sally would most nearly approximate
our values and our love; in addition, they knew the children and the
children knew them. The Restons performed the ultimate act of friendship
by agreeing to this arrangement."
In addition, according to one well-placed source, Julia Wells, current
editor of the Vineyard Gazette, has been living in a cottage on Mr.
Graham's property, known as Mohu, for the summer.
Ms. Wells did not return telephone messages left Tuesday and Wednesday
by The Times.
The tax case has not been the subject of detailed coverage by The
Martha's Vineyard Times, which has described the case in broad
terms only. The story was first reported on in the context of a story
published on March 9, "West Tisbury property re-val explained,"
about the revaluation process. The case was reported on again on July
7, in a news brief and again on July 13. The Times' limited coverage
has been shaped in part by the unwillingness of town assessors to
speak about the case on the advice of the town's attorney, according
to a Times editor.
The Times lack of reporting was the target of criticism at a meeting
of the West Tisbury selectmen on July 20 by Jonathan Revere, a resident
of Seven Gates in West Tisbury and self-appointed good government
Mr. Revere said his remarks were prompted by the selectmen's
criticism at their meeting of the Edgartown newspaper for a story,
"West Tisbury principal assessor stayed in luxury Boston Hotels,"
published on July 15 that selectmen said lacked context and was unfair
to principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes.
The Graham tax fight story has also attracted the attention of Boston
Globe columnist Alex Beam. In a column published on July 14, "Ouch!
My taxes are killing me," he wrote, "What is said to be
one of the longest-running tax assessment cases in Commonwealth history
has culminated in a series of downtown Boston hearings, pitting William
Graham - the son of the late Washington Post Co. chairwoman Katharine
Graham - against the Martha's Vineyard town of West Tisbury,
"Graham inherited his mother's 225-acre, latter-day Xanadu
after her death in 2001, but the taxes are killing him. Since 2003,
he has been arguing that the property is worth $20 million -
not $58 million, as it is assessed - and that his $262,000 annual
tax bill should be reduced accordingly. In a nutshell, Graham says
the town's assessors have unfairly compared his sprawling oceanside
estate - the front driveway is a half-mile long - with smaller,
pricier, waterfront parcels that have recently changed hands."
Mr. Beam relied on a Gazette story describing an exchange in which
Mr. Graham contended his assessment should not be linked to that of
his neighbor, Dirk Ziff.
He wrote, "The Tax Board hearings, which began in mid-May, have
produced plenty of confrontation, and some unintentional hilarity.
The Vineyard Gazette reported on an unusual instance of Graham crying
poor - at least compared to publishers who make real money:
"[Graham] said that three of the recent waterfront purchases
- a 12-acre parcel for $10.4 million, an eight-acre parcel for
$15.25 million and a seven-acre parcel for $11.8 million - are
linked to the family of publishing company heir Dirk Ziff, and therefore
are not representative of the true real estate market.
" 'I know from published sources that Mr. Ziff and
his brothers are among the richest people in the country and can clearly
pay what they want to pay,' Mr. Graham testified. 'I don't
pretend I'm not a wealthy man - I am - but it's
a different league.' "