Orange County Commission candidate Betsy VanderLey responded Friday to reports that she had been hit by multiple liens for unpaid taxes in the mid-1990s, by saying they liens were the results of mistakes made by the state at that time.

State records do not back up that defense, though little is available from the tax claims filed against her and her family’s company Environmental Site Services in 1994 and lifted in 1996.

VanderLey, an Oakland Republican, is a candidate for the open District 1 seat, which covers much of western Orange County.

She responded this week to tax liens and other financial records that recently have been circulating in political and media circles.

She is in a tough election fight with Republican Winter Garden Commissioner Robert Olszewski, who maintained he had not seen the financial records, but had heard about them. He said he was shocked if his opponent had failed to pay taxes.

The race is officially nonpartisan.

Five tax liens, filed by the Florida Department of Revenue in the summer of 1994, showed the state claiming her company had failed to pay more than $10,000 in sales taxes on environmental equipment installed for customers. With penalties, fees and interest, the state filed liens for more than $30,000 in claims.

VanderLey said she and her company had disputed the claims, contending that the equipment was leased, not sold, and therefore the sales tax should not have been imposed.

“Twenty years ago I owned a construction company which installed mobile pollution cleanup equipment.  The Department of Revenue decided that we owed sales tax on the equipment since it was mobile and, while I was arguing my case, filed liens on my property,” she said.

The state lifted the liens in 1996, stating that its warrants had “been satisfied in full,” meaning that payments had been made. A DoR representative, after checking with the department’s general counsel, said that if someone wins a challenge on a lien rather than pays it, that “satisfied” statement would not appear on the document.

VanderLey said her memories, and those of her mother Kay VanderLey, her partner in that company, were vague today because it was something they had not thought about in a long time, and she could not find their records from the cases. Neither she nor could find any additional records on the cases through the state or Orange County. But she said both she and her mother recalled they had won their challenge.

Still, she allowed that it is possible they may have agreed to pay the principal, or perhaps more, on the state’s claims.

“Even if we paid it with penalties, 22 years ago, done,” VanderLey said.

“I don’t even understand why it’s a story, even if I paid,” she said.

Said Olszewski: “Betsy is a very nice lady and I’m shocked that she didn’t pay her taxes.”

The circulating records, apparently culled from the Orange County Comptroller’s records, also spell out three legal judgments in lawsuits brought in the mid-1990s against Environmental Site Services alleging unpaid bills, though she is not named individually in the suits. Her company lost two of the judgments and was ordered to pay $26,606 in one case and $1,804 in the other. Her company won the third case.

VanderLey said that company went broke in 1994 after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection stopped letting contracts for gas station environmental cleanups, the company’s principal source of business. She said that put her behind on paying the company’s bills, but eventually all were paid.

She said the 20-plus year old matters do not reflect on what she is like as a businesswoman or candidate today. She said she learned a lot of hard lessons.

“As I point out to my grandson, some of the best lessons I learned are from the point of a stick,” she said.

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