Denver school-board candidate Wazir-Ali Muhammad, who told the Denver Post last week that the school district's $14 million budget deficit "almost boggles the mind," apparently knows what he's talking about when it comes to educational funding shortfalls.
Two years ago Muhammad defaulted on more than $20,000 in taxpayer-backed student loans from the State of Colorado, according to court records. He also owed the federal government, which finances a number of Denver Public Schools programs, more than $7,000 in unpaid taxes last year. A government lien filed against him is still in place.
Muhammad, one of six candidates running for the school board's at-large seat, could not be reached regarding his student-loan default in the summer of 1992. Questioned last week about the tax lien, however, he said he wasn't sure whether his tax problems would affect his popularity with voters.
"I think it's one of those things that's in the eye of the beholder," said the 48-year-old Muhammad, an attorney who worked as the city of Denver's co-director of affirmative action under former mayor Federico Pena.
According to records in Denver District Court, Muhammad borrowed at least $12,500 through the Colorado Guaranteed Student Loan Program between 1985 and 1987. The loans themselves came from the United Bank of Denver, but they were guaranteed by the loan program, which is a division of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
It's not clear from the loan records exactly where Muhammad incurred the debt. But he has said that, after a career as an Islamic minister, he earned a master's degree and a law degree from the University of Denver in 1988.
By May 1992, records show, Muhammad owed the state more than $21,000 in principal and interest. Barry Meinster, a collection attorney hired by the state, sued Muhammad in Denver District Court in an effort to force him to pay back the money.
"Despite requests by the plaintiff, the defendant has not made payments as agreed," Meinster alleged in court pleadings.
According to court records, Muhammad failed to answer the complaint. A judge eventually granted the state a default judgment against him, ordering him to pay the full amount due plus $500 in attorney's fees.
Less than two years later, Muhammad ran afoul of the Internal Revenue Service.
Last April the IRS filed a lien against Muhammad for $7,241.12. Most of that amount is for unpaid income taxes in 1987, 1988 and 1992, according to the lien. Muhammad, it appears, also was fined $1,000 in 1992 under "Section 6682" of the Internal Revenue Code, which has to do with "false information with respect to withholding."
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Muhammad says the debt stems from an IRS audit back in the late 1980s. He's not sure of the reason for the $1,000 penalty. "That, I don't have any idea about," he says.
Muhammad told the Post that, if elected, he would build on the success of the city's "magnet school" program to improve student performance throughout the school system.
Five other candidates are running for the at-large seat: Eric Elkins, Paul Knueven, Laura Lefkowits, Leroy Romero and Lee White.