When ‘paid in full’ really means ‘paid in part’

I guess it all depends on what the meaning of “paid in full” is.

Danny Tarkanian, a Republican candidate for Congressional District 3, says in a recent mailer that “when I failed [in business] I didn’t walk away — I paid my debts in full and then I bounced right back.”

That phrase struck me as odd, because Tarkanian actually did walk away and didn’t pay his debts “in full.” Instead, he filed for bankruptcy protection and paid just 3 percent of what he owed.

The back story is that Tarkanian and his family were forced into bankruptcy after a California bank from which they’d borrowed money to pay for a land deal failed and was taken over by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Although he owed the FDIC $17 million, he ended up settling the bankruptcy case last year for just $525,000.

I expressed my skepticism on Twitter, writing: “I always thought [bankruptcy] was a legal way to stiff creditors when you lack the money to repay overwhelming debt. Am I wrong about that somehow?”

But then I realized that, perhaps, Tarkanian was trying to pull a fast one. Perhaps he was trying to say that he had paid the fraction of his debts he was ordered to repay at the conclusion of the bankruptcy proceedings “in full,” not the original amount of his debt. It’s not exactly the same thing — in fact, it’s not the same thing at all — but it might be something that a lawyer-turned-would-be politician could justify putting into a mailer.

Turns out, that was it.

After some random person on Twitter enjoined me to “quit being an idiot — the final court order is what is owed, if anything. Did Danny pay off the order in full?” Tarkanian jumped in to confirm.

“Of course that is what I was talking about,” he tweeted. “Yes I paid it off in full. Sebelius is shill for Roberson #LiberalBFF.”

And by “it,” of course, Tarkanian means “the fraction of his debts that he was ordered to repay at the conclusion of the bankruptcy proceedings,” but not “my debts in full,” as the mailer says.

Let’s leave aside the issue of whether I’m a shill for Tarkanian’s Republican primary opponent, state Sen. Michael Roberson, R-Henderson. Because if I’m a shill for him, I must also be a shill for Dr. Annette Teijeiro, another Republican competing in the 3rd District primary who has repeatedly criticized Tarkanian’s business practices. #ConservativeBFF?

Besides, if I’m shilling for anybody, it’s Noah Webster, whose big book of words defines “full” as “having in it all there is space for; holding or containing as much as possible.” And if nothing else, one thing is true: There was a lot of space left between what Tarkanian owed and what he actually paid.

And here’s the ironic thing: There was no need to shade, stretch or strain the truth at all. The sentence in Tarkanian’s flier would have had virtually the same impact had he simply written this: “When I failed, like so many others, I was forced to declare bankruptcy. I paid the court’s judgment in full and bounced right back.”

If he’d said that, nobody would have raised an eyebrow, or the issue of whether he was making false claims to try to inoculate himself from a likely campaign attack over his business dealings.

This proves once again that it’s hardly ever the original crime that gets you; rather, it’s whether you explain yourself by telling the truth — what’s the phrase? — in full.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

A previous version of this column stated an incorrect funding source for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s insurance program and incorrectly identified the author of Webster’s Dictionary.

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