How These Ultra-Wealthy Politicians Avoided Paying Taxes

How These Ultra-Wealthy Politicians Avoided Paying Taxes

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As a member of Congress, Jared Polis was one of the loudest Democrats demanding President Donald Trump release his tax returns.

At a rally in Denver in 2017, he warned the crowd that Trump “might have something to hide." That same year, on the floor of the House, he introduced a resolution to force the president to release the records, calling them an “important baseline disclosure."

But during Polis' successful run for governor of Colorado in 2018, his calls for transparency faded. The dot-com tycoon turned investor broke with recent precedent and refused to disclose his returns, blaming his Republican opponent, who wasn't disclosing his.

Polis may have had other reasons for denying requests to release the records.

Despite a net worth estimated to be in the hundreds of millions, Polis paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2013, 2014 and 2015. From 2010 to 2018, his overall rate was just 8.2 percent — less than half of the 19 percent paid by a worker making $45,000 in 2018.

The revelations about Polis are contained in a trove of tax information obtained by ProPublica covering thousands of the nation's wealthiest people. The Colorado governor is one of several ultrarich politicians who, the data shows, have paid little or no federal income taxes in multiple years, exploited loopholes to dodge estate taxes or used their public offices to fight reforms that would increase their tax bills.

The records show that rich Democrats and Republicans alike have slashed their taxes using strategies unavailable to most of their constituents. Among them are governors, members of Congress and a cabinet secretary.

Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said the tax avoidance of these top politicians is “very, very worrisome" since both parties “spend like crazy" and depend on taxes to fund their priorities, from the military to Medicare to Social Security.

“They have the power to decide how much the rest of us pay and the power to spend the money, and then they're not paying their fair share?" Painter said. “That should be troubling to voters, both conservative and liberal. It should be troubling for everyone."

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, for example, is a Republican coal magnate who has made the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. Yet he's paid very little or no federal income taxes for almost every year since 2000.

California Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the richest people in Congress, was one of the few Republicans to break with his party during the 2017 tax overhaul to fight for a deduction that — unbeknownst to the public — helped him avoid millions in taxes.

And the tax records of Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, showed that both employed a loophole, which was accidentally created by Congress, to escape estate and gift taxes.

As ProPublica has revealed in a series of articles this year, these tactics, if sometimes aggressive, are completely legal. And they're not universal among wealthy politicians. ProPublica reviewed tax data for a couple dozen wealthy current and former government officials. Their data shows that many of them paid relatively high tax rates while employing more modest use of the fairly standard deductions of the rich.

The politicians who paid little or exploited loopholes either defended their practices as completely proper or declined to comment.

“The Governor has paid every cent of taxes he owes, he has championed tax reform and tax fairness to fix this broken system for everybody, to report otherwise would be inaccurate," Polis' spokesperson wrote in an email.

During the late 1990s dot-com era, Polis earned a reputation as a boy wonder. He turned his parents' small greeting card company into a website,, which was among the first to enable users to send free virtual cards. He and his family sold the site in 1999 for $780 million.

With the windfall from the sale, Polis continued to start new ventures and invest, but he also began laying the groundwork for a career in politics. He landed in the governor's office in 2019 when he was just 43.

One of his tools for raising his profile was philanthropy. His generous donations to charity became a theme of both his 2008 run for Congress and his 2018 run for Colorado's highest office.

Philanthropy also helped keep his tax rate enviably low. In many years, the deductions he claimed for his charitable giving were large enough to wipe out half the income he would have owed taxes on. His giving allowed him, in essence, to take some of the money he would have paid into the public coffers and donate it instead to causes of his choosing.

But an examination of Polis' philanthropy shows that while he has given to a wide variety of causes, some of his donations served to promote him, blurring the lines between charity and campaigning.

According to the tax filings of his charity, the Jared Polis Foundation, the organization spent more than $2 million from 2001 to 2008 on a semiannual mailer sent to “hundreds of thousands of households throughout Colorado" that was intended to build “on a foundation of familiarity with Jared Polis' name and his support of public education." It was one of the charity's largest expenditures.

A 2005 edition of the mailer reviewed by ProPublica had the feel of a campaign ad. It was emblazoned with the title “Jared Polis Education Report," included his name six times on the cover and featured photos of Polis, a former state board of education member, surrounded by smiling school children.

The newsletters were discontinued just as he was elected. Because the mailers did not explicitly advocate for his election, they would have been legally allowed as a charitable expenditure.

A decade later, when he ran for governor in a race that he personally poured more than $20 million into, Polis featured his philanthropy in his campaign. In one ad, he used testimonials from an employee and a graduate of a business training charity he founded for military veterans.

Polis' spokesperson, Victoria Graham, defended the mailers, saying they were intended “to promote innovations and successful models in public education and to raise awareness for the challenges facing public education." She also pointed to a range of other philanthropy Polis was involved in, from founding charter schools, which she noted were not named after him, to distributing computers to organizations in need.

“His philanthropy is not and has never been motivated by receiving a tax write-off, and to state otherwise is not only inaccurate but fabricating motives and intent and cynical in its view of charity," Graham said.

While Polis' charitable giving has helped keep the percentage of his income he pays in taxes low, he has also been able to keep his total taxable income relatively small by using another strategy common among the wealthy: investing in businesses that grow in value but produce minimal income.

It sounds counterintuitive, but it's a basic principle of the U.S. tax system — one that typically benefits wealthy people who can afford not to take income. Investments only trigger income taxes when they produce “realized" gains, such as dividends from a stock holding, the sale of an asset or profits from a company. But an investment's growth in value, while it makes its owner richer, is not taxable.

Polis acknowledged his use of the strategy in 2008 after he released tax information during his first run for Congress and faced criticism for paying so little in taxes. “I founded several high-growth companies, and we would manage those for growth rather than for profit," he said. “When I make money, I pay taxes. When I don't make money, I don't."

In one of the recent years Polis paid no income taxes, his losses were larger than his income. In two of the years, it was about a million dollars. From 2010 to 2018, when he paid an overall rate of just 8.2 percent, including payroll taxes, his income averaged $1.5 million.

During that period of low taxes and relatively low income, Polis' estimated net worth rose sharply. Members of Congress only have to report the value of each of their assets in ranges, so assigning a precise number is impossible. But the nonprofit data site OpenSecrets, which makes estimates by taking the midpoint of the ranges, shows Polis' wealth growing from $143 million in 2010 to $306 million in 2017, making him the third richest-member of the House at the time. (Graham said congressional disclosure forms are confusingly formatted, potentially causing certain assets to be counted more than once, “so these numbers are likely wildly off." She did not provide alternative net worth figures.)

One of Polis' primary vehicles for building his fortune, while avoiding taxable income, appears to have been a family office, Jovian Holdings. The board of directors included his father, sister and a rather surprising outsider: Arthur Laffer. The famed conservative economist's Laffer Curve provided the Reagan administration with the intellectual basis for arguing that cutting taxes would increase tax revenue. (Polis' sister is a ProPublica donor.)

The term family office has a mom-and-pop feel, but it is actually part of the infrastructure of protecting the fortunes of the ultrawealthy, from crafting investment and tax strategy to succession and estate planning to concierge services. Depending on how they're organized, for instance as a business, their costs — the salaries of the staff, rent — can be deductible.

One of the executives at Polis' family office, according to her LinkedIn profile, is a seasoned tax expert who specializes in “maximizing cost savings both operationally and with all taxing authorities." She removed that detail around the time ProPublica approached Polis about his taxes.

Unlike ordinary investors, Polis was able to claim millions in deductions for some of the costs of his money management, specifically his family office, which contributed to lowering his tax burden. Ironically, the investment apparatus that helped Polis avoid taxable income became a tax break.

ProPublica discussed the scenario, without naming Polis, with Bob Lord, tax counsel for the advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness. He said the public appears to be essentially subsidizing Polis' investing while getting little in return. With a typical business, he said, you get the tax break but also relatively quickly make taxable income.

The costs of a family office are “being taken even though the income may be way out in the future. It's just a giveaway," Lord said. “What is the public getting from it? This really, really rich politician gets to shelter his income while his investments grow and doesn't pay tax on it until he sells."

Deferring paying taxes is a valuable perk. But the strategy, Lord said, may allow Polis an even more lucrative outcome. Now that Polis has made his fortune, he may be able to largely dodge the tax system forever. Should he die before selling his investments, his heirs would never owe income taxes on the growth.

Graham acknowledged that the tax system unfairly benefits the wealthy but said Polis is not purposely avoiding income that would result in taxes.

“The Governor has long championed tax reforms precisely because the income tax is inadequate and a mismatched way to tax most wealthy people who do not have a regular income but who make money in other ways and should be taxed," she said. “Since 2006, Governor Polis has paid over $20 million in taxes on the money he earned on his gains and he has championed tax reforms that would lower the tax burden on middle-income earners and eliminate loopholes to ensure higher earners pay their share."

ProPublica's data shows that at least two federal officials have already taken steps to preserve their family fortunes for their heirs, exploiting loopholes that divert revenue from the federal government.

Scott, the Florida senator who ran one of the world's largest health care companies, and DeVos, Trump's education secretary and believed to be the richest member of his cabinet, have both stored assets in grantor retained annuity trusts — a form of trust used to avoid gift and estate taxes.

GRATs, as they're commonly known, were accidentally created by Congress in 1990. Lawmakers were trying to close another estate tax loophole and in doing so unintentionally paved the way for another one. The lawyer who pioneered the trusts estimated in 2013 that they had cost the federal government about $100 billion over the prior 13 years.

To use this tax-avoidance technique, you put an asset, like stocks or real estate, into a trust assigned to your heirs. The trust pays you back the starting value of the asset (plus some interest). If the original asset rises in value, the gains can go to your heirs tax-free.

GRATs have become widely used among the superrich. A ProPublica investigation found that more than half of the nation's richest individuals have employed them and other trusts to avoid estate taxes.

It's unclear from ProPublica's data how much DeVos, 63, and Scott, 68, were able to transfer tax-free.

DeVos and her husband employed a GRAT from at least 2000 to 2003. DeVos' father was a wealthy industrialist. Her husband was the president of Amway, a multilevel marketing company that focuses on health, beauty and home products. Her family is believed to be worth billions.

Her causes both before and during her time in government depended on tax dollars. As a donor and fundraiser for Republican causes, she pushed for charter schools and government subsidies to allow parents to send their kids to private schools. As education secretary, she pushed to send millions of federal dollars intended for public schools to private and religious schools instead.

Scott, one of the wealthiest senators, with a net worth likely in the hundreds of millions, used a GRAT for much longer, from at least 2001 through 2009. His tax data shows the assets in the trust — stakes of a private investment fund and family partnership he and his wife created — receiving millions in income.

When he was in the private sector, Scott benefited from federal programs like Medicare, which are funded by taxes. He built and ran Columbia/HCA, a massive chain of for-profit hospitals. After a fraud investigation became public, he resigned and the company paid $1.7 billion to settle allegations it overbilled government health programs. Scott has previously emphasized that he was never charged, though he acknowledged the company made mistakes.

Scott declined to comment. Nick Wasmiller, a spokesman for DeVos, said she “pays her taxes in full as required by law. Your 'reporting' is not only factually wrong but also doubles-down on the criminal actions that underpin ProPublica's political campaign to prop up the Biden Administration's failing agenda."

California Congressman Darrell Issa was one of a handful of Republicans who bucked his party in 2017 and voted against Trump's tax overhaul.

Issa said he opposed the legislation because it all but eliminated the deduction taxpayers could take on their federal returns for state and local taxes. That provision was particularly contentious in high tax blue states like California, but most Republicans from his state still fell in line. The other GOP congressman in the San Diego area, for example, voted yes.

Limiting the write-off, known as the SALT deduction, was one of the few progressive changes in the Trump tax law. The deduction had long disproportionately benefited the wealthiest because they pay the most in state and local taxes. According to one projection, if the cap were removed from the deduction, households with income in the top 1 percent would reap the most benefit, paying $31,000 less a year on average — amounting to more than half of the total taxes avoided through the write-off. The top 25 percent of households would average less than $3,000 in savings a year, and the savings drop precipitously from there, with most households deriving no benefit.

In interviews and public statements, Issa said in fighting to preserve the deduction, he was defending the interests of middle-class taxpayers. “I didn't come to Washington to raise taxes on my constituents," he said at the time, “and I do not plan to start today."

It's true that more than 40 percent of taxpayers in Issa's former district, a relatively affluent swath of Southern California, were able to make at least some use of the deduction.

But the 68-year-old congressman, who made a fortune in the car alarm business, was in the top echelon of its beneficiaries. Between 2003 and 2017, his tax data shows, Issa generally paid a relatively high tax rate but was able to claim more than $51 million in write-offs thanks to the SALT deduction, an average of more than $3 million a year.

By contrast, households in his district that made between $100,000 and $200,000 and took the SALT deduction claimed an average of $14,843 in 2017.

Issa's spokesman, Jonathan Wilcox, declined to say if the SALT deduction's impact on the congressman's taxes factored into his decision to advocate for it.

“So much stupid," Wilcox said. “Be sure to write back if you ever do better than trolling for garbage."

Gov. Jim Justice is believed to be the richest person in West Virginia, controlling vast reserves of valuable steelmaking coal and owning The Greenbrier luxury resort. He made an appearance in 2014 on the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans. Estimates of his net worth have ranged from the hundreds of millions to well over a billion.

Nonetheless, he's paid little or no federal income taxes for almost every year between 2000 and 2018, ProPublica's trove of tax records shows. In 12 of those years he paid nothing, and in all but two of those years, his rate didn't exceed four percent.

His largest tax payment came in 2009, when his family sold off much of its mining holdings to a Russian company for more than half a billion dollars. That year, after deductions, his tax rate rose to a modest 13.4 percent.

In more recent years, Justice, 70, has reported tens of millions in losses each year. That not only helped him to minimize his federal income taxes, it also allowed him to apply those losses to his profits from previous years — and get refunds for the taxes he initially paid in those years.

Justice's income was low enough in 2018 for his family to qualify for and receive a $2,400 coronavirus stimulus check, aid meant for low- and middle-income Americans.

The recent years of large losses reported on Justice's tax returns have coincided with real signs of financial problems. The coal industry's fortunes have rapidly declined. He's been hounded for unpaid bills and loans. The Russian company that bought much of his coal empire sued him and got him to buy back the assets — at a much discounted price but attached to significant debt. Forbes knocked him off its wealth ranking, citing escalating battles with two major lenders over unpaid debt. Justice's representatives have said he pays what he owes, and his business empire is in good shape.

But even before his empire began showing significant cracks, Justice was reporting losses or little income for a man so wealthy. From 1996 to 2008, Justice, who received a coal and farming fortune from his father, who died in 1993, either reported losses to the IRS or just a few hundred thousand dollars in income.

The disconnect could be explained by the generous deductions afforded to coal business owners.

For example, owners are allowed a depletion deduction, which allows them to take 10 percent of the revenue from coal they extract and write it off against their profit. This spin on depreciation can have outsized benefits because unlike normal depreciation — in which the write-offs are based on how much you paid for an asset — the write-off amount here faces no such limit, and can therefore exceed the initial investment. The deduction has been criticized by environmentalists and congressional Democrats as an overly generous giveaway.

Another benefit coal owners get is the ability to immediately expense much of their mine development costs on their taxes instead of being forced to stretch such deductions over a longer period of time. Justice has said that in the 15 years after his father's death, he oversaw “a massive expansion of multiple businesses which included significant coal reserve expansion" — development that could have provided him with a significant stockpile of such write-offs. (ProPublica has previously reported on other generous write-offs. Sports team owners, for example, are allowed to deduct the value of their intangible assets — such as media deals and franchise rights — as wasting assets, even as they rise in value.)

Experts said this could explain how Justice could have reported negative income of $15 million in 2008, a year in which Mechel, the Russian company that subsequently bought much of his family's coal empire, said that business alone produced about $94 million in EBITDA — a common measure of a business' profitability before taxes and some other expenses.

Justice declined to answer a list of specific questions about his taxes. In a statement, his lawyer, Steve Ruby, said Justice “has paid millions upon millions of dollars in state and federal income taxes and has always followed the law. In many years, his businesses have suffered losses as the result of weak coal prices combined with substantial outlays to save jobs at local businesses that other companies were abandoning.

“When many other coal producers were filing for bankruptcy, the Justice companies persevered and refused to take the easy way out through a bankruptcy proceeding, a decision that contributed to those losses. Like any other taxpayer, Gov. Justice does not owe income taxes in years in which his income is negative," the statement read.

Ruby confirmed that Justice received coronavirus stimulus checks but said he did not cash them.

Like Scott and DeVos, Justice has used GRATs to sidestep estate and gift taxes, his returns and court records suggest.

In 2008, the year before he sold much of his coal empire to the Russian company, two GRATs appeared on his returns for the first time. And when the Russian company sued Justice, it also sued him in his capacity as the trustee for those GRATs. Justice had placed at least some of the coal assets into the trusts before the sale, according to the lawsuit.

Ruby's statement did not address Justice's use of GRATs.

Bombshell Records Show Alleged Insider Trading By GOP Senator

Bombshell Records Show Alleged Insider Trading By GOP Senator

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

After Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina dumped more than $1.6 million in stocks in February 2020 a week before the coronavirus market crash, he called his brother-in-law, according to a new Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

They talked for 50 seconds.

Burr, according to the SEC, had material nonpublic information regarding the incoming economic impact of coronavirus.

The very next minute, Burr's brother-in-law, Gerald Fauth, called his broker.

Fact-based, independent journalism is needed now more than ever.

The revelations come as part of an effort by the SEC to force Fauth to comply with a subpoena that the agency said he has stonewalled for more than a year, and which was filed not long after ProPublica's story.

ProPublicapreviously reported that Fauth, a member of the National Mediation Board, had dumped stock the same day Burr did. But it was previously unknown that Burr and Fauth spoke that day, and that their contact came just before Fauth began the process of dumping stock himself.In the filings, the SEC also revealed that there is an ongoing insider trading investigation into both Burr and Fauth's trades.

It had previously been reported that federal prosecutors had decided not to charge Burr.

Burr's spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions. Fauth's lawyer and the SEC did not respond to questions. Fauth hung up on a ProPublica reporter.

According to the SEC, Fauth has cited a medical condition for why he cannot comply with the subpoena, even as he has been healthy enough to continue his duties at the National Mediation Board. In its filings, the SEC accuses Fauth of engaging in "a relentless battle" to dodge the subpoena.

In 2017, President Donald Trump appointed Fauth to the three-person board, a federal agency that facilitates labor-management relations within the nation's railroad and airline industries. President Joe Biden reappointed him to the board.

On the day he received the call from Burr, Fauth sold between $97,000 and $280,000 worth of shares in six companies — including several that were hit particularly hard in the market swoon and economic downturn. According to the SEC, the first broker he called after hearing from Burr was out of the office, so he immediately called another broker to execute the trades.

In its filings, the SEC also alleges, for the first time, that Burr had material nonpublic information about the economic impact of the coming coronavirus crisis, based on his role at the time as chairman of the intelligence committee, as a member of the health committee and through former staffers who were directing key aspects of the government response to the virus.

The week after the trades, the market began its crash, falling by more than 30 percent in the subsequent month.

Burr came under scrutiny after ProPublicareported that he sold off a significant percentage of his stocks shortly before the market tanked, unloading between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on February 13 in 33 separate transactions. The precise amount of his stock sales, more than $1.6 million, is also a new detail from this week's SEC filings. In his roles on the intelligence and health committees, Burr had access to the government's most highly classified information about threats to America's security and public health concerns.

Before his sell-off, Burr had assured the public that the federal government was well prepared to handle the virus. In a February 7 op-ed that he co-authored with another senator, he said "the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus."

That month, however, according to a recording obtained by NPR, Burr had given a VIP group at an exclusive social club a much more dire preview of the economic impact of the coronavirus, warning it could curtail business travel, cause schools to be closed and result in the military mobilizing to compensate for overwhelmed hospitals.

Burr defended his actions, saying he relied solely on public information, including CNBC reports, to inform his trades and did not rely on information he obtained as a senator.

Alice Fisher, Burr's attorney, told ProPublica at the time that "Sen. Burr participated in the stock market based on public information and he did not coordinate his decision to trade on February 13 with Mr. Fauth."

Secret IRS Files Show How Trump Tax Cut Greased The Super-Rich

Secret IRS Files Show How Trump Tax Cut Greased The Super-Rich

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In November 2017, with the administration of President Donald Trump rushing to get a massive tax overhaul through Congress, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) stunned his colleagues by announcing he would vote "no."

Making the rounds on cable TV, the Wisconsin Republican became the first GOP senator to declare his opposition, spooking Senate leaders who were pushing to quickly pass the tax bill with their thin majority. "If they can pass it without me, let them," Johnson declared.

Johnson's demand was simple: In exchange for his vote, the bill must sweeten the tax break for a class of companies that are known as pass-throughs, since profits pass through to their owners. Johnson praised such companies as "engines of innovation." Behind the scenes, the senator pressed top Treasury Department officials on the issue, emails and the officials' calendars show.

Within two weeks, Johnson's ultimatum produced results. Trump personally called the senator to beg for his support, and the bill's authors fattened the tax cut for these businesses. Johnson flipped to a "yes" and claimed credit for the change. The bill passed.

The Trump administration championed the pass-through provision as tax relief for "small businesses."

Confidential tax records, however, reveal that Johnson's last-minute maneuver benefited two families more than almost any others in the country — both worth billions and both among the senator's biggest donors.

Dick and Liz Uihlein of packaging giant Uline, along with roofing magnate Diane Hendricks, together had contributed around $20 million to groups backing Johnson's 2016 reelection campaign.

The expanded tax break Johnson muscled through netted them $215 million in deductions in 2018 alone, drastically reducing the income they owed taxes on. At that rate, the cut could deliver more than half a billion in tax savings for Hendricks and the Uihleins over its eight-year life.

But the tax break did more than just give a lucrative, and legal, perk to Johnson's donors. In the first year after Trump signed the legislation, just 82 ultrawealthy households collectively walked away with more than $1 billion in total savings, an analysis of confidential tax records shows. Republican and Democratic tycoons alike saw their tax bills chopped by tens of millions, among them: media magnate and former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg; the Bechtel family, owners of the engineering firm that bears their name; and the heirs of the late Houston pipeline billionaire Dan Duncan.

Usually the scale of the riches doled out by opaque tax legislation — and the beneficiaries — remain shielded from the public. But ProPublica has obtained a trove of IRS records covering thousands of the wealthiest Americans. The records have enabled reporters this year to explore the diverse menu of options the tax code affords the ultra-wealthy to avoid paying taxes.

The drafting of the Trump law offers a unique opportunity to examine how the billionaire class is able to shape the code to its advantage, building in new ways to sidestep taxes.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was the biggest rewrite of the code in decades and arguably the most consequential legislative achievement of the one-term president. Crafted largely in secret by a handful of Trump administration officials and members of Congress, the bill was rushed through the legislative process.

As draft language of the bill made its way through Congress, lawmakers friendly to billionaires and their lobbyists were able to nip and tuck and stretch the bill to accommodate a variety of special groups. The flurry of midnight deals and last-minute insertions of language resulted in a vast redistribution of wealth into the pockets of a select set of families, siphoning away billions in tax revenue from the nation's coffers. This story is based on lobbying and campaign finance disclosures, Treasury Department emails and calendars obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, and confidential tax records.

For those who benefited from the bill's modifications, the collective millions spent on campaign donations and lobbying were minuscule compared with locking in years of enormous tax savings.

A spokesperson for the Uihleins declined to comment. Representatives for Hendricks didn't respond to questions. In response to emailed questions, Johnson did not address whether he had discussed the expanded tax break with Hendricks or the Uihleins. Instead, he wrote in a statement that his advocacy was driven by his belief that the tax code "needs to be simplified and rationalized."

"My support for 'pass-through' entities — that represent over 90% of all businesses — was guided by the necessity to keep them competitive with C-corporations and had nothing to do with any donor or discussions with them," he wrote.

Trump Tax Overhaul Showered Millions on Handful of Americans

Source: ProPublica analysis of IRS data

By the summer of 2017, it was clear that Trump's first major legislative initiative, to "repeal and replace" Obamacare, had gone up in flames, taking a marquee campaign promise with it. Looking for a win, the administration turned to tax reform.

"Getting closer and closer on the Tax Cut Bill. Shaping up even better than projected," Trump tweeted. "House and Senate working very hard and smart. End result will be not only important, but SPECIAL!"

At the top of the Republican wishlist was a deep tax cut for corporations. There was little doubt that such a cut would make it into the final legislation. But because of the complexity of the tax code, slashing the corporate tax rate doesn't actually affect most U.S. businesses.

Corporate taxes are paid by what are known in tax lingo as C corporations, which include large publicly traded firms like AT&T or Coca-Cola. Most businesses in the United States aren't C corporations, they're pass-throughs. The name comes from the fact that when one of these businesses makes money, the profits are not subject to corporate taxes. Instead, they "pass through" directly to the owners, who pay taxes on the profits on their personal returns. Unlike major shareholders in companies like Amazon, who can avoid taking income by not selling their stock, owners of successful pass-throughs typically can't avoid it.

Pass-throughs include the full gamut of American business, from small barbershops to law firms to, in the case of Uline, a packaging distributor with thousands of employees.

So alongside the corporate rate cut for the AT&Ts of the world, the Trump tax bill included a separate tax break for pass-through companies. For budgetary reasons, the tax break is not permanent, sunsetting after eight years.

Proponents touted it as boosting "small business" and "Main Street," and it's true that many small businesses got a modest tax break. But a recent study by Treasury economists found that the top one percent of Americans by income have reaped nearly 60% of the billions in tax savings created by the provision. And most of that amount went to the top 0.1%. That's because even though there are many small pass-through businesses, most of the pass-through profits in the country flow to the wealthy owners of a limited group of large companies.

Tax records show that in 2018, Bloomberg, whom Forbes ranks as the 20th wealthiest person in the world, got the largest known deduction from the new provision, slashing his tax bill by nearly $68 million. (When he briefly ran for president in 2020, Bloomberg's tax plan proposed ending the deduction, though his plan was generally friendlier to the wealthy than those of his rivals.) A spokesperson for Bloomberg declined to comment.

Americans With the Highest Income Reaped Most of the Pass-through Tax Break Benefits in 2018

Source: National Bureau of Economic Research studyCredit: Lucas Waldron/ProPublica

Johnson's intervention in November 2017 was designed to boost the bill's already generous tax break for pass-through companies. The bill had allowed for business owners to deduct up to 17.4 percent of their profits. Thanks to Johnson holding out, that figure was ultimately boosted to 20 percent.

That might seem like a small increase, but even a few extra percentage points can translate into tens of millions of dollars in extra deductions in one year alone for an ultra-wealthy family.

The mechanics are complicated but, for the rich, it generally means that a business owner gets to keep an extra seven cents on every dollar of profit. To understand the windfall, take the case of the Uihlein family.

Dick, the great-grandson of a beer magnate, and his wife, Liz, own and operate packaging giant Uline. The logo of the Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, firm is stamped on the bottom of countless paper bags. Uline produced nearly $1 billion in profits in 2018, according to ProPublica's analysis of tax records. Dick and Liz Uihlein, who own a majority of the company, reported more than $700 million in income that year. But they were able to slash what they owed the IRS with a $118 million deduction generated by the new tax break.

Liz Uihlein, who serves as president of Uline, has criticized high taxes in her company newsletter. The year before the tax overhaul, the couple gave generously to support Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. That same year, when Johnson faced long odds in his reelection bid against former Sen. Russ Feingold, the Uihleins gave more than $8 million to a series of political committees that blanketed the state with pro-Johnson and anti-Feingold ads. That blitz led the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to dub the Uihleins "the Koch brothers of Wisconsin politics."

Johnson's campaign also got a boost from Hendricks, Wisconsin's richest woman and owner of roofing wholesaler ABC Supply Co. The Beloit-based billionaire has publicly pushed for tax breaks and said she wants to stop the U.S. from becoming "a socialistic ideological nation."

Hendricks has said Johnson won her over after she grilled him at a brunch meeting six years earlier. She gave about $12 million to a pair of political committees, the Reform America Fund and the Freedom Partners Action Fund, that bought ads attacking Feingold.

In the first year of the pass-through tax break, Hendricks got a $97 million deduction on income of $502 million. By reducing the income she owed taxes on, that deduction saved her around $36 million.

Even after Johnson won the expansion of the pass-through break in late 2017, the final text of the tax overhaul wasn't settled. A congressional conference committee had to iron out the differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill.

Sometime during this process, eight words that had been in neither the House nor the Senate bill were inserted: "applied without regard to the words 'engineering, architecture.'"

With that wonky bit of legalese, Congress smiled on the Bechtel clan.

The Bechtels' engineering and construction company is one of the largest and most politically connected private firms in the country. With surgical precision, the new language guaranteed the Bechtels a massive tax cut. In previous versions of the bill, construction would have been given a tax break, but engineering was one of the industries excluded from the pass-through deduction for reasons that remain murky.

When the bill, with its eight added words, took effect in 2018, three great-great-grandchildren of the company's founder, CEO Brendan Bechtel and his siblings Darren and Katherine, together netted deductions of $111 million on $679 million in income, tax records show.

And that's just one generation of Bechtels. The heirs' father, Riley, also holds a piece of the firm, as does a group of nonfamily executives and board members. In all, Bechtel Corporation produced around $2.3 billion of profit in 2018 alone — the vast majority of which appears to be eligible for the 20% deduction.

Who wrote the phrase — and which lawmaker inserted it — has been a much-discussed mystery in the tax policy world. ProPublica found that a lobbyist who worked for both Bechtel and an industry trade group has claimed credit for the alteration.

In the months leading up to the bill's passage in 2017, Bechtel had executed a full-court press in Washington, meeting with Trump administration officials and spending more than $1 million lobbying on tax issues.

Bechtel met with the Treasury's point man on the tax bill, Justin Muzinich, on pass-through issues in July 2017.

Bechtel also retained a top Washington firm to lobby specifically on pass-through business issues in the tax bill.

Bechtel hired another lobbying firm in the same period.

The chief lobbyist was Marc Gerson, a former top tax lawyer on Capitol Hill.

Amid intense industry lobbying pressure, this phrase was inserted into the bill that extended the lucrative tax break to engineering firms.

Gerson, the lobbyist, later took credit in his law firm bio for winning the tax break for engineering companies.

Thanks to the last-minute insertion into the law, Brendan Bechtel, the company CEO, netted $64 million in write-offs from the tax break in 2018 alone. (A Bechtel spokesperson didn't respond to questions.)

Marc Gerson, of the Washington law firm Miller & Chevalier, was paid to lobby on the tax bill by both Bechtel and the American Council of Engineering Companies, of which Bechtel is a member. At a presentation for the trade group's members a few weeks after Trump signed the bill into law, Gerson credited his efforts for the pass-through tax break, calling it a "major legislative victory for the engineering industry." Gerson did not respond to a request for comment.

Bechtel's push was part of a long history of lobbying for tax breaks by the company. Two decades ago, it even hired a former IRS commissioner as part of a successful bid to get "engineering and architectural services" included in one of President George W. Bush's tax cuts.

The company's lobbying on the Trump tax bill, and the tax break it received, highlight a paradox at the core of Bechtel: The family has for years showered money on anti-tax candidates even though, as The New Yorker's Jane Mayer has written, Bechtel "owed almost its entire existence to government patronage." Most famous for being one of the companies that built the Hoover Dam, in recent years it has bid on and won marquee federal projects. Among them: a healthy share of the billions spent by American taxpayers to rebuild Iraq after the war. The firm recently moved its longtime headquarters from San Francisco to Reston, Virginia, a hub for federal contractors just outside the Beltway.

A spokesperson for Bechtel Corporation didn't respond to questions about the company's lobbying. The spokesperson, as well as a representative of the family's investment office, didn't respond to requests to accept questions about the family's tax records.

Brendan Bechtel has emerged this year as a vocal critic of President Joe Biden's proposal to pay for new infrastructure with tax hikes.

"It's unfair to ask business to shoulder or cover all the additional costs of this public infrastructure investment," he said on a recent CNBC appearance.

As the landmark tax overhaul sped through the legislative process, other prosperous groups of business owners worried they would be left out. With the help of lobbyists, and sometimes after direct contact with lawmakers, they, too, were invited into what Trump dubbed his "big, beautiful tax cut."

Among the biggest winners during the final push were real estate developers.

The Senate bill included a formula that restricted the size of the new deduction based on how much a pass-through business paid in wages. Congressional Republicans framed the provision as rewarding businesses that create jobs. In effect, it meant a highly profitable business with few employees — like a real estate developer — wouldn't be able to benefit much from the break.

Developers weren't happy. Several marshaled lobbyists and prodded friendly lawmakers to turn things around.

At least two of them turned to Johnson.

"Dear Ron," Ted Kellner, a Wisconsin developer, and a colleague wrote in a letter to Johnson. "I'm concerned that the goal of a fair, efficient and growth oriented tax overhaul will not be achieved, especially for private real estate pass-through entities."

Johnson forwarded the letter from Kellner, a political donor of his, to top Republicans in the House and Senate: "All, Yesterday, I received this letter from very smart and successful businessmen in Milwaukee," adding that the legislation as it stood gave pass-throughs "widely disparate, grossly unfair" treatment.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, responded with a promise to do more: "Senator — I strongly agree we should continue to improve the pass-through provisions at every step. You are a great champion for this." Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but Treasury officials were copied on the email exchange. ProPublica obtained the exchange after suing the Treasury Department.

Kellner got his wish. In the final days of the legislative process, real estate investors were given a side door to access the full deduction. Language was added to the final legislation that allowed them to qualify if they had a large portfolio of buildings, even if they had small payrolls.

With that, some of the richest real estate developers in the country were welcomed into the fold.

The tax records obtained by ProPublica show that one of the top real estate industry winners was Donald Bren, sole owner of the Southern California-based Irvine Company and one of the wealthiest developers in the United States.

In 2018 alone, Bren personally enjoyed a deduction of $22 million because of the tax break. Bren's representatives did not respond to emails and calls from ProPublica.

His company had hired Wes Coulam, a prominent Washington lobbyist with Ernst & Young, to advocate for its interests as the bill was being hammered out. Before Coulam became a lobbyist, he worked on Capitol Hill as a tax policy adviser for Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Hatch, then the Republican chair of the Senate Finance Committee, publicly took credit for the final draft of the new deduction, amid questions about the real estate carveout. Hatch's representatives did not respond to questions from ProPublica about how the carveout was added.

ProPublica's records show that other big real estate winners include Adam Portnoy, head of commercial real estate giant the RMR Group, who got a $14 million deduction in 2018. Donald Sterling, the real estate developer and disgraced former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, won an $11 million deduction. Representatives for Portnoy and Sterling did not respond to questions from ProPublica.

Another gift to the real estate industry in the bill was a tax deduction of up to 20% on dividends from real estate investment trusts, more commonly known as REITs. These companies are essentially bundles of various real estate assets, which investors can buy chunks of. REITs make money by collecting rent from tenants and interest from loans used to finance real estate deals.

The tax cut for these investment vehicles was pushed by both the Real Estate Roundtable, a trade group for the entire industry, and the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts. The latter, a trade group specifically for REITs, spent more than $5 million lobbying in Washington the year the tax bill was drafted, more than it had in any year in its history.

Steven Roth, the founder of Vornado Realty Trust, a prominent REIT, is a regular donor to both groups' political committees.

Roth had close ties to the Trump administration, including advising on infrastructure and doing business with Jared Kushner's family. He became one of the biggest winners from the REIT provision in the Trump tax law.

Roth earned more than $27 million in REIT dividends in the two years after the bill passed, potentially allowing him a tax deduction of about $5 million, tax records show. Roth did not respond to requests for comment, and his representatives did not accept questions from ProPublica on his behalf.

Another carveout benefited investors of publicly traded pipeline businesses. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, added an amendment for them to the Senate version of the bill just before it was voted on.

Without his amendment, investors who made under a certain income would have received the deduction anyway, experts told ProPublica. But for higher-income investors, a slate of restrictions kicked in. In order to qualify, they would have needed the businesses they're invested in to pay out significant wages, and these oil and gas businesses, like real estate developers, typically do not.

Cornyn's amendment cleared the way.

The trade group for these companies and one of its top members, Enterprise Products Partners, a Houston-based natural gas and crude oil pipeline company, had both lobbied on the bill. Enterprise was founded by Dan Duncan, who died in 2010.

The Trump tax bill delivered a win to Duncan's heirs. ProPublica's data shows his four children, who own stakes in the company, together claimed more than $150 million in deductions in 2018 alone. The tax provision for "small businesses" had delivered a windfall to the family Forbes ranked as the 11th richest in the country.

In a statement, an Enterprise spokesperson wrote: "The Duncan family abides by all applicable tax laws and will not comment on individual tax returns, which are a private matter." Cornyn's office did not respond to questions about the senator's amendment.

The tax break is due to expire after 2025, and a gulf has opened in Congress about the future of the provision.

In July, Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-OR)., proposed legislation that would end the tax cut early for the ultra-wealthy. In fact, anyone making over $500,000 per year would no longer get the deduction. But it would be extended to the business owners below that threshold who are currently excluded because of their industry. The bill would "make the policy more fair and less complex for middle-class business owners, while also raising billions for priorities like child care, education, and health care," Wyden said in a statement.

Meanwhile, dozens of trade groups, including the Chamber of Commerce, are pushing to make the pass-through tax cut permanent. This year, a bipartisan bill called the Main Street Tax Certainty Act was introduced in both houses of Congress to do just that.

One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) pitched the legislation this way: "I am committed to delivering critical relief for our nation's small businesses and the communities they serve."

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ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., sold his Washington, D.C., home last year to a brokerage industry official whose organization is under the purview of a committee Perdue sits on.

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FBI Probing Sen. Burr Over Pandemic Stock Sales

FBI Probing Sen. Burr Over Pandemic Stock Sales

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Federal authorities are scrutinizing Sen. Richard Burr's stock sell-off before the market crash triggered by the coronavirus outbreak, CNN reported on Sunday.

The news comes less than two weeks after ProPublica and the Center for Responsive Politics reported that Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, unloaded between $628,000 and $1.72 million of his holdings on Feb. 13 in 33 separate transactions, a significant portion of his total portfolio. The sales came soon after he offered public assurances that the government was ready to battle the coronavirus.

According to CNN, the FBI has reached out to Burr seeking information about the trades. The inquiry is in its early stages and is being done in coordination with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Alice Fisher, an attorney advising Burr, declined to confirm the investigation, but she said in a statement to ProPublica that "Senator Burr welcomes a thorough review of the facts in this matter, which will establish that his actions were appropriate."

"The law is clear that any American — including a Senator — may participate in the stock market based on public information, as Senator Burr did," she said. "When this issue arose, Senator Burr immediately asked the Senate Ethics Committee to conduct a complete review, and he will cooperate with that review as well as any other appropriate inquiry."

The FBI and SEC declined comment.

The CNN report suggested that the Justice Department was scrutinizing stock trades made by multiple lawmakers. After the ProPublica story on Burr, various media outlets reported on other senators who also sold stock before the downturn, including a Daily Beast story on GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and her husband selling between $1.27 million and $3.1 million of stock. They also purchased shares of Citrix, a work-from-home software company.

Loeffler has said the trades were made without her knowledge by a third-party financial adviser. A Loeffler spokesperson told CNN that Loeffler has not been contacted by the FBI.

Burr has defended his sell-off, saying he relied solely on public information to inform his trades, including CNBC reports, and did not rely on information he obtained as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

His stock sales drew widespread outrage, resulting in calls for his resignation from prominent Republicans and Democrats. Three House Democrats have introduced legislation to bar lawmakers from trading individual stocks.