Tax liens totaling more than $300,000 were placed since 1990 on property belonging to Richard Harriman, a candidate for the Modesto Irrigation District board, according to public records.
The records show that liens for close to $25,000 in tax obligations remain, but Harriman said this week that he is not aware of any outstanding debt.
He said the liens stemmed from the breakup of his former law firm in 1980. The Modesto firm's senior partner filed for bankruptcy, leaving him to deal with unpaid bills, he said.
Harriman said he managed to pay many of them over the next decade, but still owed state and federal income taxes well into the 1990s.
"That's why it took 20 years, but I didn't file for bankruptcy and I didn't stiff my creditors," he said.
Harriman is challenging 12-year incumbent Tom Van Groningen in the Nov. 3 election. They are running in Division 3, mainly northeast Modesto.
The majority of the liens were placed by the federal Internal Revenue Service and state Franchise Tax Board. Property cannot be sold while liens remain on it.
Documents at county recorder offices show 24 liens totaling $322,241 on Harriman's properties. Most were filed in Stanislaus, Fresno or Kings counties, where he has had law offices at various times.
The state placed a $10,409 lien on Harriman in Fresno and Merced counties in December, and it is still in place, according to records reviewed by The Bee.
Harriman said Wednesday that he had not known about that lien but would try to get information from his tax consultant. As of Friday evening, he said, that information was not available.
The records also indicate that a $14,282 federal lien from 1993 is still in place. Harriman said he is certain he paid all the debts from that time but has not found the document, known as a release, that shows this.
Harriman, 64, has spent most of his career working in environmental law in the Central Valley. He said he does not make as much money as a typical attorney, and his financial trouble was compounded by the severe recession of the early 1980s.
His one-time partner, James Joseph Rose, filed for bankruptcy in 1980 and pleaded no contest in 1984 to charges of writing four bad checks for a total of $61,750, according to Bee archives. Rose also lost his right to practice law.
Harriman said he did not want to go the bankruptcy route.
"Anybody who knows me knows that I'm a stand-up guy," he said. "I do what I say I'm going to do."
Robert Benedetti, a political science professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, said a candidate's money problems might or might not turn off voters.
"Many people who have run for office have had economic reverses, and many of the voters have, too," he said. "The important thing is responsibility — that they are responsible for these things."
Van Groningen said he was surprised to hear about liens involving someone who hopes to help govern a large agency.
"I am concerned about it, personally, and I think voters would be concerned about that as well," he said.
Harriman said he knew the liens could be publicized during the campaign, but he accepted the scrutiny because of his desire to serve the public.
He said his long effort to make good with the tax agencies is a sign of how hard he works.
"The one thing this tells you is that I am very tenacious," he said.
Bee librarian Karen Aiello contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.